Not quite what you might think, this post, but a response to one of the ideas circulating in the German-language academic webspace at the moment.
It has been suggested (e.g. here, and here) that the historical ‘Grundwissenschaften’ (meaning fields such as palaeography, numismatics, heraldry, and the like) should defend themselves by articulating their ‘sex appeal’. Although I’m not, at least not primarily, a historian, it seems to me that the underlying questions are the same as those faced by the Humanities in general these days when it comes to advocating what we do. But is describing ourselves as ‘sexy’ really the best way to achieve that?
One might, before anything else, ask how we have got this far in the first place. One explanation is that it is simply the logical next step in the inflationary hyperbole of social media. Judging by the amount of ‘fab’, ‘fantastic’, ‘brilliant’—and yes I’ve used such words myself on occasion—material that appears in my twitter feed, we must be living in a world so close to perfection that there is no special place, no words left for truly exceptional research. And so, as descriptions like those become jumbles of senseless characters, new, still more extravagant ones need to be found to take their place—and in that sense, why not ‘sexy’?
Why not? indeed. As so often, the discourse appears to be framed by a question that seems already, silently, to have been answered. All the more important to ask it, therefore, as at least one response on twitter has done. Do we really need to adopt this kind of language?
I do not believe that we do, not least because it is something of a red herring. There is a clue to that in one of the German blogs I mentioned earlier, which contains a string of references to ‘den Wert, die Attraktivität, den “Sexappeal’” of the field. Is it not really the first two with which we should be concerned, rather than with embracing the discourse of sexiness that slips in innocently at the end of the enumeration? Sexy academia. Eye-catching, perhaps … at least until everyone else starts doing it too. But it is too easy. Simply ataching ‘sexy’ to whatever it is we want to ‘sell’ merely sidesteps the problem at stake, and the exorbitance runs the risk of becoming a surrogate for thinking hard about how to reach out and explain what we do.
Postscript. That was all a bit polemic, so a few words about the positives that I’ve taken away from this discussion are also in order. Context, yet again, is everything in this respect. The germ of the idea I’ve been critiquing seems to lie in a comment in which the terms ‘sexy’ and ‘sex appeal’ are used to stimulate reflection, as alternatives to what is felt to be a ‘dusty’ image of the ‘Grundwissenschaften’. To my mind, at least, this is a more interesting context—a thought-experiment that makes one pause and see things a bit differently, which is precisely what doesn’t happen when the terms lose their edge by being repeated across twitter posts. I guess everyone will see things a little bit differently, and that is no bad thing.