The current argument about whether scholars should cite the work of nasty people — here is the argument against citing them, and here is a rebuttal — is interesting primarily as a reminder of how citation actually functions in many academic fields, including my own. It is not, typically, an acknowledgment of genuine intellectual indebtedness, but rather a signaling mechanism, a way to mark tribal affiliation.

Pick any recent article in a humanities journal and you’re likely to see several citations that don’t acknowledge the source for a specific idea, or an argument to which the author is responding (positively or negatively), but rather what one might call affiliational suggestion. Here’s an example from a recent article, chosen at random:

My language of counts and miscounts obviously owes a debt to Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis, 1999).

But what debt, specifically, is owed? This the footnote does not say, nor is is meant to say. The message is: “I have read and approved of appropriate critical texts.”

Note that in the essay that promoted this conversation Nikki Usher concludes, “We need to start asking questions about whether there are ways to have frank discussions with editors and even reviewers about why we might not want to keep reinforcing the academic fame and reputation of someone who would not do the same were the situation reversed.” And Usher is exactly right that this is how much academic citation works. By citing someone you pay them in the currency of reputation, because reputation itself is largely a function of simplistic metrics. I have seen departmental websites that list, alongside the name of faculty members, sparklines showing the history of their numbers of citations. Basically, academic citation works, nowadays, like a social media platform. To cite someone in your article or books is, effectively, a retweet. Except that you don’t get to say, and no one would believe you if you did say, “Retweets are not endorsements.”

I am tempted to formulate a new Law: Over time all cultural work asymptotically approaches the condition of Twitter.