Forget the Book

Yesterday I attended the excellent event Forget the Book: Writing in the Age of Digital Publishing, at Goldsmiths, University of London. The event was organised by Sarah Kember and Benjamin Pester as part of the CREATe consortium work package ‘Whose Book is it Anyway’. It featured Sean Cubitt (Goldsmiths) in discussion with Doug Sery (MIT Press) and Gary Hall (Coventry University).

Sarah Kember introduced the discussion by asking some questions about the politics of the book and whether it has been depoliticised by the digital. For her the emphasis here does not lie on envisioning the digital as for instance a sort of apocalyptic route, where she is more interested in the specific digital affordances of digital publishing without falling back into amongst others revolutionary, utopian or humanist narratives on the uses of books. Now that we are experiencing changes in academic writing and digital publishing, the question is what gets lost in the digital? Should academic output be free at the point of access? Kember warns that we should be wary in these discussions to create false dichotomies, for instance between open and closed. She is more interested in notions of process, processes of writing and publishing and the relationships between publishers and academic institutions. Are we stuck with certain formats, such as the print monograph for instance? Can we start to loosen the distinction between academic and non-academic writing? Can we create multimodal publications? What is at stake in these changes? How can we promote invention and experimentation? How does this relate to entrepreneurialism and the politics of information inside and outside of academia? How can we start shifting what is at the moment a rather skewed debate?

Where are we in publishing?

The first part of the debate focused on getting an overview or snapshot of the present situation. Where are we in publishing? What are the highlights and what is on the horizon? Examples mentioned were experiments by for instance Palgrave Pivot with non-standard length book publications, the work done by Open Humanities Press, the Scalar platform, the journal Vectors etc. Doug Sery for one is quite certain that the book is going to change. He is adamant to emphasise, from an academic publishing perspective, that people will still need publishers however to fulfill a certain curatorial role to filter out the noise in the sea of ever-growing information. Publishers ensure that you will get well-referenced, well-copyedited and qualitative books, he states. Here it doesn’t matter which format these books are in. The problem here does not lie with publishers, Sery states, but, referring to an article by new media scholar Jon Ippolito in Leonardo journal, the problem lies with university administration. Much work is already done online digitally, but the university does not recognise it as part of the promotion and tenure criteria. There is also still a very big problem related to the business model for digital publishing. Gary Hall states on the other hand that one of the main problems is that so many media theorists are actually still publishing (printed) books. Referring to Stiegler and the idea that there are three media ages (print, photographic and digital), the question is, how can we really understand the digital age if we are still operating in the world of print? Can we still use books for instance to talk about new media? Especially since the book comes with all sorts of associations. These narrow our possibilities and encourage us to act in a certain way. We as scholars are also commodified via the book, where we need to perform a long-form argument, and we need to be an original author, with original ideas. In this sense we still perform like we are romantic authors in the age of print. What will happen when we as academics stop performing like that and we start behaving like we are in a digital media space? Sean Cubitt replied to this by arguing that the idea of 3 ages is madly simplistic. Print is not about words on a page but about printmaking. Cubitt is interested in how text and image still function via a hierarchical relation: text describes images and not the other way around; it is thus not a democratic relationship. The affordances of the digital are not that very different in this respect. The only exception is the graphic novel, which begins to emerge with the Sunday Funnies around the 1900s. A historical perspective is badly needed here: we can still only add motion and supplement text pages with sound. The idea of an interwoven mutually democratic structure is really hard to accomplish, even digitally.

Picture by Mercedes Bunz

Picture by Mercedes Bunz

The digital as an opportunity?

Sarah Kember wonders however whether the digital should not be seen as an opportunity to come into, as a crisis, a break or a transition that creates an opportunity to contest how things have been and where things are going. Now is a time where we can at least ask what is and has been going on. We need a historical frame to make our desires for change more realistic. Doug Sery replied that that opportunity has been around since the birth of the Internet, in other words, for ages. MIT already put journals online a long time ago, but they were just not cited. The problem with PDFs of books online, with iPad apps, ebook series etc. is that academic books are just not being read online. We need to look at history, how can we approach this new publishing perspective in the age of new media? Sery says that he would love to do more experiments. Gary Hall responds to this by asking whether this means that we should just wait for change to happen? Do we need to create an audience for digital or new experimental book forms, or do we wait for it to come about? Do we need to publish only if there is an audience for it? Should we only publish research that is academically sustainable? Should we only publish books as part of our job as academics? If so, are we not letting business decisions decide the future of our fields? Like with Open Access publishing, we can operate on different models. We can use this moment to create different criteria for publishing that are not only based on economic criteria. Doug Sery replies from a publishing perspective that his decisions to publish are not only based on economics. He is comfortable both with slow sellers and big sellers. The criteria to publish something is quality, something needs to have a sense of immortality. Sery mentions Alexandra Juhasz YouTube experiments with creating a video-book, which for instance has only been used by about 40 people. The idea of the distribution of knowledge is really important, so we need to think of a way to get stuff out there. Just putting something on the web is not going to do it. Gary Hall remarks that one of the things Open Humanities Press is trying to do is not too quantify everything, not to make everything measurable and focused on business models. Academic practices and habits are a limitating factor here. We need to experiment to start making new things possible.

Photomediations-e1368550115990Publishing as curating?

Questions from the audience focus on how publishers are not necessarily the ones that need to do this experimenting. But we do need someone to filter out the noise, to say what counts as an academic publication. The question is however, should this be the publisher when the publisher is restrained by economic considerations? And is a notion of curating really helpful here, as it is such an overused word? Here for instance we are talking about the curator as someone giving some sort of insight, as doing a form of peer-reviewing. But setting up academic criteria to filter becomes very hard in a situation where people are for instance doing practice-based PhDs. This has been a complicated development, as they still need to abide to certain set academic qualities (which are mostly still text-based). Sean Cubitt makes clear that we can’t leave our filtering to the market. Look for instance what this has done to fiction, where books have completely turned into mass commodities (where the 20 top-sellers dominate the market). We see this a bit in academic publishing too, where for instance everyone in media studies has read Manovich. How to manage quantity is a very difficult question. Too many books of a mediocre quality are being published. The kind of meta refereeing that Open Humanities Press is doing with journals is very helpful in this respect. This gives these publications esteem and also helps with attracting better authors. But in the end all publishing is about money and what money can buy: better design, better peer-reviewing etc. And we shouldn’t forget the invisible work of publishing that is being done. A lot of the labour is actually being done for free. Doug Sery responds by saying that we should put more emphasis on the importance of doing peer review. He encourages reviewers of MIT to put that on their CV. We are all overloaded with work right now and these things need to be acknowledged. Gary Hall remarks that one of the things that we can do in this respect, as scholars, is to stop giving our free labour to publishers that for instance don’t publish in Open Access. Hall continues by arguing that one of the things that we need to do to change this system is that we need to encourage a diversity of people to start experimenting. This might also mean a change in how we operate as scholars. People need to change their attitudes, and institutions need to change their attitudes about who to give promotion and tenure. Libraries need to change their role from simply buying books to supporting people to make their work available. Joanna Zylinska argues, in addition to this, that, as curating is a way of framing, in this respect it is not an either/or model, but an experimenting and a supporting both at the same time. Open Humanities Press is a curator, just as Culture Machine and the recently launched Photomediations Machine, which functions both as an online gallery, and as a curated space, experimenting with shorter forms of scholarship and image-driven research.


New models?

Sarah Kember asks how much this all is about creating models that will just bring us back to earlier models? What we need to do, she states, is create different ways of working with each other, which includes devising different approaches towards working. We need different working models with respect to publishing and scholarly communication. Sean Cubitt remarks in response to this, that for instance peer review, as a model, is highly normative. A curatorial model can be opposed to a peer review model in this respect. But Joanna Zylinska argues that they can also always be complementary. It can both be enabling and disabling. In this respect there is nothing radical about curating at all. In other words, we need to reinvent the idea of curating too. Gary Hall argues that this is a moment in which we can make some decisions. But for now we still operate on an old model prescribing what a library is, what an archive is. Referring to Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing, Hall argues that ‘the net is the photography moment for writing’. We have a chance to make some different decisions. Sarah Kember agrees, where she sates that if we keep declaring the digital as being ephemeral or a site for repurposing or copying, then we get very much stuck. Kathleen Fitzpatrick for instance is too much inclined to push us towards a specific vision of the digital. But if we abide to that kind of discourse, we just keep on bouncing. We need to talk about interventions and decisions. However, Sean Cubitt emphasises the temporal nature of digital media: they are scanned onto a screen. Unlike the book it is integral to the digital medium that it is temporal. Ben Pester follows up on this by asking what the temporality of the digital medium would mean for the book and the idea of an open or unfinished book. A finished book now does not have to exist anymore. After peer review we can now change it and make for instance an amendment to the book. We can have various editions that are completely fluent. How would that influence things like citations, how do we work with references in such a situation? Sean Cubitt replies that books have always already been fluid. Mallarme said that ‘a poem is never finished it is only abandoned.’ Similarly Pound talked about ‘a poem that will contain history’. The fluidity of text is thus something that has been coming for a long while already. Gary Hall adds to this that texts have always already been fluid (like for instance the Bible) but their temporality just becomes more apparent now. There is no original version of the Bible, it is in process, continuously. It has been put together collaboratively, and has changed over time. With the coming of modernity and mass reproduction these processes have increasingly gotten closed down, pretending this kind of fluidity is not there. Now some people are arguing we are going back to that fluidity. Joanna Zylinska remarks however that things do need to be finished at some point. Things are finished when someone says it is, look for instance at a dissertation. The broader understanding is then that the process will go on. We make a cut because we have a certain responsibility. It needs to be finished for a variety of reasons. Sean Cubitt adds to this that the reasoning behind intangible art mostly was to escape the problem of commodification. This is where the problem of copyright also comes into. Gary Hall responds that copyright has never been a model that works for authors. For instance only 5% of British authors can live of their work. Sarah Kember states that here we run into the problem of discourse again: the idea that copyright is broken and that we need to fix it. We are slipping into either/ors here again. Gary Hall responds that that is why he likes piracy. If we are going to start moving society and experimenting, the pirate is an interesting figure to look at. The pirate originally was an experimental; he ventured and explored, put things to the test. He caused trouble. If we now look at for instance the case of Aaron Swartz or at Napster, these are not romantic narratives of reinforcing copyright, but they are putting things to he test, without knowing the outcome beforehand. But at the same time piracy is being used as another emerging business model. This is why, Joanna Zylinska argues, we need to also rethink piracy and go beyond whether it is good or bad. We need to take the concept of piracy and run with it and see what happens.

Picture by Mercedes Bunz

Picture by Mercedes Bunz

Strategic alliances?

Sarah Kember asks whether it is possible to go beyond the idea of the neoliberal subject vs. the romantic subject. Can we find a role that is not only either/or, but that enables hybrid subjectivities? In our desire to shift our roles, might we perhaps find an alternative to the alternatives? How do we force forms of hybridities into the institutions that we work in? What can we do, strategically? Who can afford to lead the way? Can we be ambassadors? What is the role of an academic publisher in this respect? Does the academic publisher need to be able to take risks on behalf of the junior scholar? Do we need to create a community, or make links between different communities? And is this the role of publishers or do our institutions need to take responsibility for this too? We need to enroll publishers into a much wider conversation to create open models of what we can produce across disciplines. Which includes giving us the chance to be non-academics sometimes, to experiment with different forms. Doug Sery imagines a university-academy-press consortium to do experiments. He feels that experiments are needed to make any kind of change. We have senior, tenured people who are ready to take a risk but we just need money to explore new publishing models. But we also need a sign in from academics. Can’t we stretch the genre conventions of an academic monograph? Can’t we create transmedia books, like Anne Balsamo’s transmedia project Designing Culture? Here the print book functions as an avatar for the digital book, it is a pointer to other media and other cultural forms. Gary Hall responds that here again we risk running into the trap of the neoliberal author. There is increasing pressure (on academics) to market your work, to get your work out in the attention economy, to tweet about it etc. It forces you back in this neoliberal subjectivity of promoting yourself, of becoming an entrepreneur for yourself. How do we get our work out there without falling into this trap? Joanna Zylinska asks whether the publisher can take away some of this pressure, enabling a different model than constant self-promotion? Related to this is the question whether the digital is in any way more or less a commodity than print. And Gary Hall wonders where the book ends in the context of the digital. With the open access publishing of books in open notebooks or blogs, the question is whether you can put things that go into an article, blogposts, tweets and other information in a broken down form, and still publish that material in a certain kind of bound form. Will a press be open to that? How bound does it need to be before it becomes legally, morally a book? Ben Pester responds to this by asking what kinds of models this would promote. In what respect are models still relevant in these contexts even? When the model changes and transforms all the time? And how do we avoid the problem of free creative labour that always seems to lie at the basis of these kinds of models. Providing free content to the likes of Flickr, Google, Tumblr etc. Gary Hall argues that as a response to this we should promote different models that are not interested in attention and impact. This is very hard for academics to do of course. Sean Cubitts replies that we have the beginnings of change but we need to go to the community of scholars etc. to push it further. The question remains whether this change will actually happen under capitalism, or whether, we need a new economics first based open source and P2P communities? We have the capability to change, but as Sarah Kember concludes, there is not an universal ‘we’. There needs to be a different idea of what ‘we’ is, as part of contingent working relations or ‘collaborations’.

For more reflections on this event, see Mercedes Bunz’ blogpost for the Hybrid Publishing Lab Notepad, here. A recording of the event should be available soon too.

One comment on “Forget the Book

  1. Pingback: Plain Text “.Xsy” Files For Big Scientists | ALIEN FICTION

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