Last June, I gave a position paper on feminism, writing and academic publishing as part of a panel on Feminist Publishing, which was convened as part of a larger conference on Feminist Writing by Sarah Kember and Sarah Ahmed for Goldsmiths’ Centre for Feminist Research. The panel also included wonderful papers by Carol Stabile, Joe Deville, Andrea Francke, Eva Weinmayr, and Pauline van Mourik Broekman. You can find a description of the panel, as well as the full paper I delivered as part of it underneath. All the conference papers presented during the day have now also been made available as podcasts on iTunesU, and you can freely download them here.
This strand on writing, publishing and the politics of communication operates within the remit of the CREATe project Whose Book Is It Anyway to open out debates on copyright, open access and emergent busi- ness models in order to address the wider ethics and politics of communication inside and outside of the academy. This politics is oriented not just toward a contest over, say, the future of the book as an analogue/digital object, but also toward questions of publishing ethics, care, relations and process. How might we respond, intellectually and practically, to the observation that academic publishing at least, has become a relatively closed circuit? Readers of academic books are also predominantly (or potentially) authors of academic books and, with a widespread interest in digital first academic publishing, may well, in due course, become the publishers of academic books. What are the opportunities here for redirecting our free labour (increasingly demanded from mainstream publishers, and increasingly differentiated according to gender, career stage development and so on) away from economies of innovation and toward those of experimentalism, invention and intervention?
Panel: Speaker Carol Stabile (University of Oregan), followed by position papers from Joe Deville (Goldsmiths, University of London), editor, Mattering Press, Andrea Francke and Eva Weinmayr, AND Publishing, Janneke Adema (Coventry University), Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Mute.
I want to start with focusing on how in academia writing, publishing and the politics of communication are entangled. With publishing I refer to the making public, sharing, and communication of research with as little barriers to access and re-use as possible, to the wider public. Publishing in this sense should be seen as an essential aspect of knowledge production. Current developments in scholarly publishing however, are directly related to both the commercialisation and globalisation of the publishing business; but more importantly, they are connected and integral to the neoliberal marketisation and managerialisation of the university. As a result of the internal contradictions that structure neoliberal marketisation, both the publishers’ need to be more selective in what to publish according to market needs, and the demand on scholars to publish more for research impact, are based on principles of market competition. This has led to a situation in which it is increasingly becoming harder, especially for early career researchers, to publish experimental, radical or specialised work, let alone for them to be involved in setting up their own presses or alternative publishing projects. Nonetheless, to intervene in the processes in and through which knowledges are produced and legitimised, for me necessarily involves a thorough rethinking of our institutions of academic publishing. This should include an exploration of how we can publish our work differently, to start to change the cultures and the systems of material and technological production surrounding scholarly communication in such a way as to potentially allow for alternative, more ethical, critical and responsible forms of research.
One of the main problems I want to focus on here however is that in academia writing and publishing are also closely connected to career development. For many, especially early career scholars, at the moment this very much poses an either-or dilemma. For example, one of the narratives that comes to the fore quite often when it comes to PhD theses, is that it is recommendable to follow the safe route outlined by the rules and regulations related to the thesis format, content and appearance. More experimental forms of research and publication should then be explored after the degree has been awarded. This narrative can be extended to argue that experimental work can be done after one’s REF submissions are in place or after the much-coveted permanent or tenured academic position has been achieved. Although I don’t want to paint too bleak an either-or position concerning whether to opt for experimentation or pragmatism and conformism in this respect, for many early career researchers this is a challenging question indeed. Especially with the ever-growing student debt, and with more and more numbers of PhD students being produced for increasingly less academic positions—often fixed-term and insecure—the pressure to conform is constantly there.
English scholar Helena Gurfinkel wrote an inspiring blogpost on Open Humanities Press’s blogging network Feedback, in which she focuses on her experience with editing a scholar-led open access journal, which is open for more experimental work. She writes, and I quote:
I have come to realize that, despite our talk about the changing landscape of academic publishing and the future of the book, and despite the principled stance many scholars have taken on open access, online open-access publications are still considered less prestigious, less desirable venues. In many cases, they are less prized by search committees and promotion and tenure reviewers. They have the reputation of publications that have extremely short shelf-lives and are run by enthusiastic but overcommitted graduate students and untenured and non-tenure-track faculty. The same students and faculty often hear that it is not wise to publish in these journals or to spend valuable pre-tenure and job-market time on editing them.
Within the open access movement, the reaction to this problem has mostly been to argue that open access journals and publications are just as qualitative and authorative as closed-access print publications. They more often than not emphasise this by using traditional forms of peer review and by connecting established senior researchers to their projects as part of editorial boards, for example. Connected to what Gurfinkel writes in her blogpost however, I want to argue two things. First of all I want to argue that it is important for early-career researchers (as well as for senior-researchers of course) to—the narratives and pressures of conformity notwithstanding—not comply and to experiment with non-traditional and experimental work. My other argument relates to the need to think about how we can introduce more of a focus on experimentation, on process, and I would even say, on failure into our academic communication and publishing structures and institutions. For instance instead of seeing open access journals and publications as entities, which—although operating via a different business and publishing model—are ready to adapt to the established notions of quality and career-development, we can see them as non-conformist potentialities that try to rethink these notions upon which our publishing systems are build. In this respect, based on what Gurfinkel argues, we need to think about how failure, how failing to conform, can be both part of our practices and our institutions.
But to return to the issue of changing our own practices first, I want to make a plea to students and early-career researchers to consider now rather then later, how they can be involved in experimental forms of research and publication. For I want to emphasise how during the course of our PhDs and in our development as early career-researchers, in the processes of creating a thesis or a first book, we are very much structured to produce a certain kind of knowledge and with that to take on a certain kind of social identity. Discourses relating to knowledge production during the PhD process have certain subjectification effects. In this respect the PhD thesis is not only about finishing a static text but also about finishing as a person and as a discoursing ‘subject’. Conforming to our established practices in this way means that the PhD student as a discoursing subject is constantly being (re) produced in and by these dominant discourses; and with that, a certain kind of academic scholar, and a certain kind of scholarly communication system are also reproduced. To enable us to remain critical of the power structures and relations that shape knowledge, it is thus important to experiment with different forms of knowledge production as part of our research process. For I belief that the practices we develop and embrace in the beginning of our ‘careers’ have the capacity to transform the way we conduct scholarly communication later on.
But as said before it is not only our own practices that need to change, it is also our institutions. In this respect, I want to return to some of the arguments Gurfinkel makes in her blogpost, where she discusses Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure, to make a plea for creating structures that allow for more experimental work. For Gurfinkel argues, again based on Halberstam’s work, that open access journals potentially could be spaces in which the conventional success stories of hierarchical career progression can be challenged and where the normative scenarios of success and failure are critically assessed. As Gurfinkel writes:
Instead, we should think about open-access journals as venues in which the conventional career trajectories are questioned by playing with hierarchies and binaries.
Critiquing this kind of teleology and linearity connected to career progression is something we need to be questioning when we talk about our academic research and publishing more in general too. For instance this would involve critically reassessing the notion of the fixed text, this completed and published object and commodity, be it a journal article or book, which is supposed to be the final result of one’s research. Instead, we could focus on the messy processes of research and the alternative cuts, boundaries and fixations they might embody. But this also involves replacing narratives of innovation with experimentation. Where, as I will argue, opposed to narratives of innovation—where the focus is on creating outcomes or results that are an improvement to the previous situation, meaning that they should serve dynamic economic growth—it will be helpful to look at experimentation as an alternative discourse to critique this notion of perpetual innovation that is increasingly structuring and underlying our knowledge domains. For experimentation can be understood as a heterogeneous, unpredictable, singular and uncontained process or experience, open for ambivalence, open for failure. Experimenting in this respect means to welcome the possibility of new thinking, to explore the conditions where ideas and phenomena that escape the formulations of previous conceptual paradigms emerge. To create and think new forms of knowledge, experimentation is reconciled with experience, to include speculative forms of knowledge, and difference in repetition, providing room for ambivalence, for the ephemeral and for that which does not fit. Experimentation here has the potential to become part of knowledge production more in general, where it can be used to explore what new forms scholarship will take, and how it will continue to transform itself, ourselves, and our understanding of the world.
Practically this might involve experimenting with formats, with the way we produce, disseminate and consume our research, with authorship, with copyright, with collaboration, with originality etc. But for me this also involves breaking down barriers between formal and informal publications, reperforming our writing styles, experimenting with multimodal forms of publishing and with the formats of our scholarship, breaking down disciplinary and institutional barriers, and collaborating with practitioners outside of academia to develop our writing further in a collaborative manner. But a focus on failure and experimentation for me also involves paying more attention to the processes of doing research. We need to open these up, getting away from the model in which we basically lock ourselves up for a few years as scholars (occasionally going out to give a talk on our research in progress, or to publish snippets of it) until we have produced what is supposed to be a finalised scholarly object; to focus not predominantly on the success story of the finalised product but on our collaborative processes of failure along the way. This not only to make research less lonely in a way but to emphasise how collaborative it already is and always has been. Experimentation in this respect is about reimagining what we see as fixed and closed down institutions; it is about intervening in these institutions and practices to potentially start to generate new knowledges; and it is about not being afraid of emphasising our failures as part of the processes of doing research in a collaborative setting, instead of merely showing our own individual success stories.