OPEN REFLECTIONS

New Visions for the Book III: Liquid Books

Part 3 – Fluidity deconstructed

As Hall has shown, the use of wikis to experiment with new ways of writing and collaborating offers a lot of potential for collaborative and distributive research and publishing practices. However, I feel they are only one possible step towards liquid publications and cannot as yet be perceived as real liquid publications. Wikis are envisaged and structured in such a way that authorship and clear attribution/responsibility as well as version control remain an essential part of their functioning. The structure behind a wiki is still based on an identifiable author and on a version history (another archive), which lets you check all changes and modifications, if needed. In reality, the authority of the author is thus not challenged, nor does it really come to terms with the element of continual updating that wikis evoke.

A good visual and material example of the problems this creates is a work published by James Bridle, affiliated with the Institute for the Future of The book. Bridle published the complete history of (every edit to) the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War, which came down to a 12-volume publication. What this ‘conceptual art project’ shows is on the one hand the incredible potential we now have in the digital age to indeed archive almost everything, on the other hand it shows the futility and the impossibility of trying to preserve in a static form (both material and digital) the flows of information generated on the Internet.[1] Another problem evoked by wikis as potential liquid publications, is that they mostly work with moderators. As the Iraq entry shows, not all entries are allowed to stay, although they are archived. Although in principle wikis have the potential to work in a distributed way, in practice hierarchies of moderators with different levels of authorities structure many of them.[2]

The impossibility of fluidity and stability

The critique of the different theoretical and practical explorations of fluid publications and of more process-oriented research offered here, serves to show the strength, the reach and the impact notions of stability, authorship, and authority (echoing the rhetoric of printed publications) still have within the digital environment. The critique of these notions thus does not serve as a condemnation of these experiments. On the contrary, I encourage these explorations of questioning the above mentioned strongly for all the reasons I have also exposed here. It serves to show how even in our explorations of the new medium, it is very hard to let go of the kind of essentialist notions that we have inherited from the rhetoric of print publications. On the other hand my interest in these experiments and in the concept of fluidity—which, as I shall explain next, I believe to be an impossibility—serves another goal: to deconstruct the idea that stability is actually possible (or has ever been possible in the past).

Alicia Martin

In the same way as true liquidity is a (practical) utopia, it is just as much a construct or an ideal type as stability is. However, I would argue for a wider acknowledgment of the fact that our creation of stability and of stable knowledge objects (as printed books are often perceived) is a construct brought about by the needs of (established) power structures and by customary ways of doing things, in other words, of ‘knowledge practices’ we have adopted and grown accustomed to (such as authorship, stability and authority). The construction of what we perceive as stable knowledge objects serves certain goals, mostly having to do with establishing authority, preservation (archiving), reputation building (stability as threshold) and commercialization (the stable object as a (reproducible) product). As Bryant argues, “all texts are fluid. They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.”[3] Any stability we create where it concerns texts can thus be seen as a (historical and contextual) consensus. Digital and online media offer the potential to increasingly critique notions based on a print knowledge system—such as stability, authorship and authority—where thinking a knowledge system beyond these notions increasingly seems to become a practical reality. The Internet and digital media have created a situation where there is no longer a certain (writing) technology that favors stability over liquidity. In Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2001), Jay David Bolter calls stability (as well as authority) a value. As he argues, it is a consensus, or a value, as well as the product of a certain writing technology: “(…) it is important to remember, however, that the values of stability, monumentality and authority, are themselves not entirely stable: they have always been interpreted in terms of the contemporary technology of handwriting or printing.[4] Jean-Claude Guédon argues in his article ‘What Can Technology Teach Us About Texts? (and Texts About Technology?)’, that developments like Wikipedia serve to deconstruct the idea of a final document, where the validity of a document is now marked by only a temporal stability. As he states, “the Wikipedia phenomenon displays this widened range of possibilities in spectacular fashion. It also means that the notion of a final document loses much of its meaning because its finality can only be the result of a consensus, and not the product of a technology that fixes the text.”[5]

Roman Ondak

This acknowledgment of the constructivist nature of stability urges us to conduct a closer analysis of the structures underlying our knowledge and communication system and how they are presently set-up. Just like stability, fluidity is an ideal type, just like openness, it is a rhetorical stance. Within an information environment it can be seen as a paradox; although information might flow, knowledge inherently needs some form of objectification or stability to be called knowledge. True liquidity is thus an impossibility, fluid knowledge is an impossibility, and, at least in my definition of the term, fluid texts are an impossibility. We can only ever achieve quasi-liquidity. This impossibility to achieve real liquidity should however not be seen as a failure, as it still has rhetorical power. As rhetoric it helps us deconstruct the structures of our object-oriented knowledge systems and it enables us to experiment with a way of thinking and practicing that (performatively) challenges these preconceptions and helps us to think and create them differently.

Open Books and Fluid Humanities

The scholarly monograph is in the process of being reinvented. Experiments with the format, structure and content of the book-length treatise are currently being undertaken in a variety of guises from liquid books to wiki-monographs and blog-anthologies.[6] In the humanities the scholarly book plays a substantial role in an intricate web of knowledge communication, quality control and reputation management. It traverses power structures and ideological struggles and still comes out as the preferred means of communication amongst humanities scholars. Increasingly however the monograph has become a tool in a specific battle for a new knowledge and communication system within academia.  The concept of the traditional ‘printed book’ is increasingly being used as a strategic weapon in maintaining a status quo in knowledge production and communication based on values as stability, authority and quality. On the other hand the concept of what I will call ‘the open book’ is used to urge for a knowledge system that is based on sharing, connectedness and liquidity.

Alicia Martin

What do these experiments and their critique mean for the idea of the book, openness and the humanities? Remix and fluidity can be seen as new ways to critically think the potentiality of the book, as a way to think beyond the book as a stable object (which it has never been), as a strategy to explore its multiplicities, to challenge established notions like stability, identity and materiality that are all bound up with (printed) books and at the same time with our current conception and practice of knowledge. It will enable us to argue for and pay more attention to otherness, difference and another knowledge system based more upon fluidity. Experiments with new way of conducting and publishing monographs in an open manner, like for instance via liquid books or wiki monographs, might be a first step away from an object-oriented approach focused on a finalized product, towards a publishing system based more on constant, collaborative and simultaneous knowledge production.


[1] See: http://booktwo.org/notebook/wikipedia-historiography/

[2] On a related note, the perceived openness of wikis is further challenged by the fact that it does not include those things that are automatically excluded, such as for instance spam. However, the question remains, who decides what is categorized as spam?

[3] John Bryant, The Fluid Text, 111

[4] Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2001), 16.

[5] Jean-Claude Guédon, ‘What Can Technology Teach Us About Texts? (and Texts About Technology?)’, in: Putting Knowledge to Work and Letting Information Play: The Center for Digital Discourse and Culture (2009), 62.

[6] For an example of the last see Anthologize: http://anthologize.org/

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