What is ‘the literature’?

My experience of watching the literature on asexuality spiral from a handful of papers ever through to new ones each month has left me fascinated by how quickly ‘the literature’ can become unmanageable. Within a relatively small and nascent field, it’s possible to grasp ‘the literature’ as a totality. But past a certain point, circumscribing it becomes an inevitability for purely practical reasons: focusing on this, ignoring that, excluding material from different disciplines.

At what point does it become impossible to represent ‘the literature’ as a totality? The impulse to do this doesn’t cease but with its growth these depictions are increasingly performative rather than representational. Demonstrating mastery of ‘the literature’ entails authoritatively circumscribing large chunks of the total knowledge stock within the field, naturalising these occlusion in a way liable to influence others.

Furthermore, ‘the literature’ as a totality necessarily eludes depictions of it because each of these claimed attempts to represent the object in fact contribute  to that object’s spiralling complexity.

The way we talk and think about ‘the literature’ is unsuited to the realities of publishing in the accelerated academy.


Categories: Higher Education

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  1. An important question, and one which will only become more salient. Perhaps there needs to be research stream that focuses only what is currently published to produce ironically one more paper. A systematic review and synthesis? It would be a hard task. We also have the issue of quality given multiple platforms for knowledge dissemination. Some of us may have to stop writing new papers and instead garner resources to sift the current, if a reference to ‘the literature’ is going to have validity. Or we accept the claim of ‘the literature’ is flawed from the outset. In my own field of interest, health illness and nursing the ‘literature’ is so vast that it would probably take a research team to revisit and review.

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