The Precarity of Knowledge

I have a ton of books, many of them unread. (Admit it, you do, too.) A lot of them are heavy with knowledge and highfalutin writing, having something important to say, to contribute.

None of the academic books I have were written more than 50 years ago, with perhaps one exception (Kenneth Burke’s oeuvre). I wonder how they will fare 50 years from now. 100. 300? I know, I know, we can’t think that far ahead.

I look at my meager academic output–a couple of books, some chapters, some articles. How many of them will be read, or be important in some way, in 50, 100, 300 years? One, if I’m very very lucky. Zero, if I’m being realistic.

The truth is that we are awash in precarious knowledge–not that its foundations are shaky, but that its shelf life is, in the grand scheme of things, extremely short. Not all of us can be Plato, Aristotle, Descartes. The percentage of cultural critics that endure/have stood the test of time is fairly low (that’s partly because it’s sort of a newer profession, perhaps).

I guess our consolation prize is that we add something now without which future scholarship would not be possible, in overt or covert ways. In the grand scheme of things, other things will have enduring power, rather than my analyses of asylum archives. But perhaps the future understanding of those archives (and of life in the asylum) will be slightly so ever influenced by my efforts, today. Maybe, just maybe, someone out there, now or in the near future, finds what I write useful. I don’t think we are entitled to hope for more than this.

I don’t have a proper ending for this. I keep seeing libraries of a dystopian future burned for heat by climate crisis refugees. Or if we can somehow prevent that, a dusty corner on a shelf somewhere.

Also, the climate crisis makes every bit of knowledge precarious, together with our entire race. Something to think about in the very near future.

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