On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part I)

Chapter 6 of my thesis explores both the discursive-material practices that have promoted the idea and use of the book as a fixed object of communication, as well as more fluid, flowing visions of information transmission that are commonly attached to digital forms of communication. It focuses on why it is that we cut and bind processual research together, analysing the cuts or boundaries that we as academics enact, and the bindings that are made for us by the book’s changing materiality and the institutions, discourses and power struggles that have grown up around it. The question then becomes: how can we rethink the way we cut and paste our processual research together? You can find a draft of the first part of this chapter underneath. As always, any feedback is more than welcome.

Chapter 6, part II can be found here and part III can be found here.

For chapter 2 of my thesis, see here and here. For Chapter 3 see here, here and here. For chapter 4 see here and here. And for chapter 5, see here,  here and here.

Section 3. Fixity

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets. So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity. (Updike 2006)

Fixity, or the idea of a stable, standardised, and reliable text, ready to endure the ages, is a quality that often gets attributed to printed, codex books. So much so that it has come to signify one of the essential defining elements of what we perceive a book to be today: a collection of bound pages. Fixity here relates to the bound nature of the printed codex book in a spatial sense, but it also refers to the book’s stability, continuity and durability as a means of communication over time. This is because the combination of bound and easily duplicated printed editions of texts, has offered an excellent preservation strategy (Eisenstein 1979; Cramer 2011). Fixity, however, not only emerged in connection to the medial, technological, and material affordances of the printed book, exemplified by developments in design and by typographic elements—look, for instance, at cover pages, titles, chapters, standardised fonts, indices and concordances, all of which were incremental in turning the book into a fixed object that is easy to navigate. Fixity also advanced as part of the practices, institutions and discourses that surround the printed book, as we briefly touched upon in the previous chapters. Here, concepts and practices such as authorship, the ownership of a work, and copyright, were incremental in fixing, legally and morally, the contents of a book (Hall 2011). Moreover, and as discussed in chapters 4 and 5, books have also been sold and disseminated as finalised and bound commodities by scholarly publishers, as well as being preserved and indexed by our libraries and archives as permanent, stable and solid artefacts.

The concept of ‘gathering’ plays an important role in creating fixity, as emphasised in commentaries on Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés[1] by both Blanchot (2003) and Derrida (2005). Binding takes place here in the sense of ‘gathering together from dispersion’, something that, as Derrida has argued, is essential to the idea of the library too. Readers also bind and gather a book together through their reading practices, both conceptually—cutting it down in their interpretation or meaning giving—and practically. For instance, when it comes to hypertexts, it is specific readings that serve to bind disparate routes and texts together. In an online environment readers-as-writers cut, paste and gather dispersed networked nodes together in fluid digital scrapbooks and book collections. However, alongside these practices and institutions, there have also been strong cultural discourses that have stimulated the bound nature of the book, promoting its perception as a finished and completed object, the culmination of a writer’s work. This discourse is strongly embedded in academia, where the final published book is most often perceived as the end-point of the research process, in certain areas of the humanities especially. Similarly, it is common practice in many humanities disciplines that an academic only becomes an author or a researcher in the true sense, viable for employment, tenure and promotion and so forth, once their first book has been published. Here the book fixes or determines the author in a similar way too.

In this section I will analyse the discursive-material practices that have promoted the idea and use of the book as a fixed object of communication. The printed codex book has come to exemplify durability, authority and responsibility, as opposed to the more fluid, flowing visions of information transmission that are commonly attached to oral cultures and exchanges, and, more recently, to digital forms of communication. This alternative fluid or liquid vision of communication carries important consequences with it for scholarly research, which one could argue has based its modern existence on the reliable transmission of research results. Under the influence of digital technology what is seen as the essential fixed and bound nature of the book has, however, increasingly given way to visions of the rhizomatic, the fluid, the wikified, the networked and the liquid book—as well as to other, similar entities that explore the book’s potential unbinding. What do these more fluent forms entail for the idea of ‘the limits’ or ‘the edges’ of the book? Can a collection of texts, pages, or websites still be called a book without some form of enduring stability? What would a potential unbinding entail for academic research? For bound and stable texts have been of fundamental importance to our ideas of science and scholarship: to ensure that experiments can be repeated according to the same conditions in which they were originally conducted; as a preservation mechanism to make sure academics have access to the research materials needed; but also as a means to assure that authors can take responsibility for certain fixed and relatively unchangeable sequences of text, guaranteeing a work’s integrity. Will we be able to imagine new forms of scholarship and preservation of research that no longer rely so strongly on the idea of a fixed and stable text? Will we be able to allow for more fluidity in our age of virtually unlimited digital dissemination and storage capabilities?

When considering these questions it might be beneficial to look at them from a different angle. For it can also be argued that books have never been fixed, stable and linear, and that print as a medium and technology is not and has never been able to guarantee fixity—not the least because fixity is embedded in social structures (Johns 1998). Similarly, the digital medium, in the way it has been taken up in academic publishing—its potential for unbinding the book notwithstanding—mostly mirrors the practices of fixing and stabilising that were introduced and further developed as part of the print medium. It can even be argued that, with its potential for unlimited storage, the digital is much better suited to create forms of fixity than print ever was. This becomes obvious if we look at Wikipedia. Its MediaWiki software has made it much easier to preserve changes to a text and therefore to detect and track these changes. All alterations to, and revisions of, a text can now conceivably be saved.[2] Therefore, the preservation capacities of the net have the possibility to offer texts far more durability, and in that sense stability, than print could potentially ever have.

In this respect it might be more useful to start thinking beyond such dialectical oppositions as bound/unbound and fixed/fluid, and to explore the idea of research being processual (although it also necessarily needs to be bound and cut at some point for us to make sense of it). If we then conceive the book as a potential form of binding or gathering this processual research together, we may be able to start to shift our focus towards questions of why it is that we cut and bind.

It is these questions that I will explore in the next chapter, where I will analyse the cuts or boundaries that we as academics enact. But I also want to examine the bindings that are made for us by the book’s changing materiality and the institutions, discourses and power struggles that have grown up around it. The question then becomes: how can we rethink the way we cut and paste our processual research together? Also, how can we emphasise that these boundaries that are enacted (including forms of print fixity) are actually unstable, and that we iteratively produce research and books through our incisions and boundary-making practices? How can we start to rework these forms of binding? What role can the book continue to play in these processes of gathering and collecting? It is important to emphasise here that books are not determinate objects-in-themselves that are bound or unbound or that have inherent properties and boundaries. Books emerge from specific intra-actions or phenomena which, in Barad’s words, ‘do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of observer and observed, or the results of measurements; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies’’ (2007: 139). In this sense, and as I have argued previously, it is through our book-binding and unbinding practices, cutting our research together and apart, that both the book as we know it and we ourselves as scholars arise.

Rethinking how we bind research therefore includes asking questions as to who and what binds, and about the ways in which we currently gather our research together. What are the particular medial factors in the book’s material becoming that force forms of binding on us in their intra-actions with our institutions and practices? In which specific ways do these material structures currently tie our research and our books together, and what new forms of (digital) gathering do they propose? Chapter 6 will begin with a focus on how, historically, the printed book, in its materiality and through its institutions and practices, developed the forms of book fixity and trust that we are now accustomed to today. I will then explore a number of current digital experiments that are focused on the unbinding of scholarly research, most notably in the form of fluid, remixed, and modular books, and projects that are focused on remixed authorship and digital archives. I will argue that these unbound book alternatives are not so much examples of unbinding, as proposals for alternative ways of gathering research together. This section will thus focus on some of the critiques these experiments have formulated concerning some of the ways we bind and are being bound, along with analysing some of the different forms of cutting and pasting that are currently being put forward. The fact that these alternative projects and practices do not so much unbind as propose new forms of gathering—forms that still seem to mirror in the main our codex-based forms of closure (i.e. via authorship, copyright, design and interface)—shows how difficult it is to let go of the methods of gathering developed as part of the print-paradigm.

Adele Outteridge

Nonetheless, as I have argued in previous chapters of this thesis, it is important to challenge, critique and rethink some of the major practices and institutions of gathering and fixity we currently adhere to, from copyright to authorship, to the book as a published object and commodity. It is important to do so, not only to challenge the humanist focus on essentialised notions such as the unity of the work and the individual author, but also to counter the problems created by the book-bound commodity fetish within academic publishing, which I discussed in chapters 4 and 5. This includes investigating the power structures and interests that are invested in maintaining stable texts and that determine when a text is fixed and finalised, and for what reasons. For instance, commercial interests promote the creation of heavily copyrighted or DRM-ed academic works, which it can be argued are standing in the way of the more widespread sharing and dissemination of scholarly research online. The current communication model is based on codex-shaped journals and books with stable and static content, a situation that protects the integrity of an author’s work. In this context experiments with alternative hypertextual and multimodal forms of publishing, or with re-use, updating and versioning, are hard to sustain. And this is the case even though these experiments with the form and shape of publications could offer us ways to rethink and re-perform scholarly communication in a different and potentially more ethical way, along with offering us the possibility to explore what Tara McPherson has referred to as ‘emergent genres’ for multimodal scholarship (2010). What could be the potential in these alternative ‘unbound book’ projects to re-envision the way we perceive the book and do research; to explore different forms of cutting and binding; and to promote forms of processual research? Are there other ways of binding that do not necessarily close down research and the book by means of strict forms of authorship and copyright, for example?

We need to emphasise—and this is something scholars of bibliography and critical editing are already intensely familiar with—that print has always been an unstable medium and only offers, as Drucker has emphasised, ‘the illusion of fixity’ (2012: 6). As she continues: ‘a book is a snapshot of a continuous stream of intellectual activity. Texts are fluid. They change from edition to edition, from copy to copy, and only temporarily fix the state of a conversation among many individuals and works across time (…) A book is a temporary intervention in that living field’ (Drucker 2012: 6). In the second part of chapter 6 I will explore these issues in more depth by looking at the concept of the cut as theorised in new materialism, continental philosophy and remix studies. Again, this analysis is not an attempt on my part to explore the problem of the fixity and stability of the book from a perspective of bound or unbound—where both print and digital media have the potential to bind and unbind—but rather from that of cutting and iterative boundary-making. I want to focus on how we can shape and bind our work in such a way that we don’t foreclose its open-endedness. In this respect chapter 6 asks, if we see research as an ongoing process that needs to be gathered together at some point, that needs to be cut, how can we do it differently and potentially better? Here the focus is not on the book object unbinding, but on the processes of research and how we can imagine different cuts to stabilise it: how can we give meaning to its fluidity by making the right incisions?

[1] Un Coup de Dés is a modernist poem by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, using experimental forms of typography and typographical lay out and free verse.

[2] This kind of temporal fixity can become very problematic where it concerns personal data, which the current European Court ruling on ‘the right to be forgotten’ responds to. See:

6. On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities

6.1 From Orality to Fixity?

In line with the general discourse surrounding the history of the book I discussed previously, the main debate concerning the development of fixity focuses on whether a book can ever be defined as a stable text; and, if so, whether this quality of stability and fixity is an intrinsic element of print—or in a lesser extent of manuscripts—or whether it is something that has been imposed on the printed object by historical actors.

As I established earlier, Eisenstein is a proponent of the former view. She sees standardisation and uniformity as properties of print culture, properties that were usually absent in a predominantly scribal environment (1979: 16). Where Eisenstein emphasises the fixity brought about by printing in comparison to the scribal culture that preceded it, Ong meanwhile focuses more on the relationship between orality and literacy, specifically on the differences in mentality between oral and writing cultures. The shift from orality to writing, he argues, is essentially a shift from sound to visual space, where print mostly had effects on the use of the latter. Writing locks words into a visual field—as opposed to orality where language is much more flexible (Ong 1982: 11). In oral culture, language is fluid and stories are adapted according to the situation and the specific audience, knowledge being stored in mnemonic formulas of repetition and cliché (Ong 1982: 59). With writing these elaborate techniques were no longer necessary, freeing the mind for more abstract and original thinking (Ong 1982: 24). For Ong, it is thus writing and literacy that are inherently connected to fixity and stability: he argues that scientific thinking is also a result of writing, for instance.

Eisenstein, however, emphasises that fixity could only really come about with the development of print. Hand copying of manuscripts was based on luck or chance as the survival of a book or text depended on the shifting demand for copies by local elites, on copies being made by interested scholars, and on the availability and skills of scribes. Copies were also not always ‘identical’ or identically multiplied, as hand-copying often led to variants in the text copied (Eisenstein 1979: 46). No manuscript at that time could thus be preserved without undergoing corruption by copyists. Long-term preservation of these unique objects also left a lot to be desired, as the use of manuscripts lead to wear and tear, while moisture, vermin, theft and fire all meant that ‘their ultimate dispersal and loss was inevitable’ (Eisenstein 1979: 114). Although printing required the use of paper, which is much less durable than either parchment or vellum, the preservative powers of print lay mainly in its strategy of conservation by duplication and making public: printing a lot of books and spreading them widely proved a viable preservation strategy.

Roman Ondak

Roman Ondak

In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein analyses how print influenced many aspects of scholarship and science. Print influenced the dissemination, standardisation, and organisation of research results, but it also impacted upon data collection and the preservation, amplification and reinforcement of science (Eisenstein 1979: 71). Books became much cheaper and a more varied selection of books was available, to the benefit of scholars. It encouraged the transition from the wandering to the sedentary scholar and stimulated the cross-referencing of books. Increasingly printers also began standardising the design of books. They started by experimenting with the readability and classification of data in books, introducing title pages, indexes, running heads, footnotes, and cross-references (Eisenstein 1979: 52, Ong 1982: 121–123). Nonetheless, as McLuhan, Eisenstein and Ong among others have made clear, scholars benefitted most from the standardisation of printed images, maps, charts, and diagrams, which had previously proven very difficult to multiply identically by hand. This was essential for the development of modern science (McLuhan 1962: 78, Ong 1982: 124). As McLuhan argues, print enhanced visuality over audile-tactile culture, creating a predominantly visual-based world, promoting homogeneity, uniformity and repeatability (1962: 24).

McLuhan speaks in this respect of the frontier of two cultures and of conflicting technologies, which have led to the typographic and electronic revolutions, as he calls them. Eisenstein similarly points out that printing, through its powers of precise reproduction, helped spread a number of cultural revolutions (i.e. the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution); revolutions that were, as Eisenstein claims, essential in the shaping of the modern mind (1979: 170–172). Febvre and Martin also explore the influence of the book on the Renaissance and the Reformation, analysing print’s causes and effects as part of a socio-economic history of book production and consumption over a long period of time. Being slightly more cautious, they wonder how successful the book has been as an agent for the propagation of new ideas (Febvre and Martin 1997: 9). They see preservation through duplication and (typographic) fixity as basic prerequisites for the advancement of learning, agreeing that it was print that gave the book a permanent and unchanging text (Febvre and Martin 1997: 320). However, printing for them is just part of a set of innovations. The printing press is only one of a number of actors in the general social and political history they try to reconstruct.

Although Eisenstein acknowledges this plurality of actors, in her view print was the main agent of change impacting on the revolutionary developments detailed above. Of course it builds on previous achievements, however, the preservative powers of print were more permanent than previous movements. As Eisenstein emphasises, print revolutionised these previous systems. Even though the early modern hand press did not of course meet modern standards of duplication, its development still meant that early print books were more fixed and standardised than hand-copied manuscripts (Eisenstein 1979: 345–346). Where scribal copying ultimately led to more mistakes and corruption of the text, successive print editions allowed for corrections and improvements to be made, so with fixity came ‘cumulative cognitive advance’ (Eisenstein 1979: 432). Even if the printing press also multiplied and accelerated errors and variants—and many errata had to be issued—the fact was that errata could now be issued. Print thus made corruption more visible at the same time (Eisenstein 1979: 80). Texts were now sufficiently alike for scholars in different regions to correspond with each other about what was, to all intents and purposes, a uniform text. Networks of correspondents were created which in turn lead to new forms of feedback that had not been possible in the age of scribes. This again was an influence on the scientific method, and on the modern idea of scientific cooperation. Print, however, went further than just encouraging popularisation and propaganda and the mere spreading of new ideas (Eisenstein 1979: 454). It was the availability and access to diverse materials that was really revolutionary.

Alicia Martin

Alicia Martin

Permanence was also able to bring out progressive change where ‘the preservation of the old (…) launched a tradition of the new’ (Eisenstein 1979: 124). From valuing the ancients the emphasis increasingly came to be placed on admiring the new. Classical texts were recovered through print, offering adequate equipment to systematically explore and classify antiquity. According to Eisenstein, the communications revolution created a ‘fixed distance in time’, influencing the development of a modern historical consciousness. McLuhan similarly claims that with print a fixed point of view became possible where print fosters the separation of functions and a specialist outlook (1962: 175). Eisenstein confesses that it is hard to establish how exactly printed materials affected human behaviour; nonetheless, we have to understand how greater access to a greater abundance of records and a standardisation brought about by printing influenced the literate elite (1979: 8). Printing standardised vernacular languages and led to the nationalisation of politics (where increasingly political documents were written in the vernacular) and the fragmentation of Latin. Drawing further on McLuhan, Eisenstein also shows how the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are arranged and presented. Basic changes in book format thus lead to changes in thought patterns. Standardisation helped to reorder the thought of all readers and a new ‘esprit de système’ was developed (including systematic cataloguing and indexing) which proved of the utmost importance for the commercial book-trade. Bookseller’s lists were created to promote works and attract customers, for instance. Eisenstein also makes a clear claim for the importance of print on the development of the Reformation. The press was the ultimate propaganda machine. However, Eisenstein points out that print not only diffused Reformation views but also shaped them. Where print stabilised ‘the bible’ (and scholars were being provided with Greek and Hebrew texts), its availability in vernacular languages changed who read the bible and how they read it (Eisenstein 1979: 326).

As we have established previously, in opposition to Eisenstein’s arguments for the agency of print, Adrian Johns emphasises that it is not printing per se that possesses preservative power, but the way printing is put to use in particular ways. He states that knowledge such as we understand it today has come to depend on stability; however, such a situation of stability has not always been prevalent. It is not easy for us to imagine a realm in which printed records were not necessarily authorised or faithful, Johns remarks. What could one know in such a realm, and how could one know it? (Johns 1998: 5). If we were to reassess the way print has been ‘constructed’, we can contribute to our historical understanding of the conditions of knowledge itself and how knowledge emerged (Johns 1998: 6). Printed books themselves do not contain attributes of credibility and fixity, which are features that take much work to maintain. According to Johns, it was the social system then in place, not the technology, which needed to change first in order for the printing revolution or print culture to gain ground.

Johns brings the cultural and the social to the centre of our attention through his interest in the roles of historical figures (i.e. readers, authors and publishers) in bringing about fixity (1998: 19–20). He argues that Eisenstein neglects the labours through which fixity was achieved, to the extent that she describes what Johns sees as being the results of those labours, as being powers or agency intrinsic to texts instead (Johns 1998: 19). For Johns, then, fixity is not an inherent quality but a transitive one; fixity exists only inasmuch as it is recognized and acted upon by people—and not otherwise. In this sense, fixity is the result of manifold representations, practices and, most importantly, conflicts and struggles that arise out of the establishment of different print cultures.

Liquid book

Chartier similarly argues against the direct influence of print on readers’ consciousness. Chartier is interested in the effects of meaning that books as material forms produce, forms that in his view do not impose, but command uses and appropriations (1994: viii–ix). This means that works have no stable, universal, or fixed meaning as they are invested with plural and mobile significations that are constructed in the encounter between a proposal and a reception. Chartier sees it as part of his work as a historian to reconstruct the variations in what he calls the ‘espaces lisibles’, the texts in their discursive and material forms, and the variations that govern their effectuation. According to Chartier, books aim at installing an order during their whole production process: there is the order of the author’s intentions, of the institution or authority which sponsored or allowed the book, and there is the order that is imposed by the materiality or the physical form of the book, via its diverse modalities. Chartier’s route map to a history of reading is based on the paradox of the freedom of the reader versus the order of the book. How is the order of the book constructed and how is it subverted through reading? Reception and decipherment of material forms again take place according to the mental and affective schemes that make up the culture of communities of readers. In this respect Chartier is interested in the relationship between the text, the book, and the reader (1994: 10).

Although Johns acknowledges that print to some extent led to the stabilisation of texts, he questions ‘the character of the link between the two’ (1998: 36). For him, printed texts were not intrinsically trustworthy, nor were they seen as self-evidently creditable in early modern times, where piracy and plagiarism and other forms of ‘impropriety’ were widespread. This meant that the focus was not so much on ‘assumptions of fixity’, as Johns calls it, but on ‘questions of credit’ and on the importance of trust in the making of knowledge (1998: 31). Print culture came about through changes in the conventions of civility and in the practice of investing credit in materials (i.e. by the historical labours of publishers, authors and readers) as much as through changes in technology (Johns 1998: 35–36). Johns is therefore interested in how knowledge was made (where knowledge is seen as contingent). How did readers decide what to believe?

Reading practices were very important to cope with the appraisal of books. Especially with respect to the issue of piracy, the credibility of print became a significant issue, one with both economic and epistemic implications (Johns 1998: 32). Charges of piracy could lead to allegations of plagiarism (as Johns notes, ‘they were seldom just claims of piracy’), which meant that such charges had direct implications for the reputation of authors as well as threatening the credibility attributed to their ideas. Piracy was always in a way accompanied by accusations of appropriation, and (textual) corruption, meaning the violation of virtues and propriety, which would put at risk a scholar’s authorship, knowledge, and livelihood, as well as those of a publisher or bookseller (Johns 1998: 460). Piracy thus affected both ‘the structure and content of knowledge’ (Johns 1998: 33).


Roman Ondak

As discussed in previous chapters, the character of a printer or Stationer was very influential in the establishment of trust or credit. This trust was related to a respect of the principle of copy, meaning the recognition of another (printer’s) prior claim to the printing of a work, based on a repudiation of piracy. As Johns shows, the name of the Stationer on a book’s title page could tell a prospective reader as much about the contents as could that of the author (1998: 147). The character of booksellers mattered, too, as they determined what appeared in print and what could be bought, sold, borrowed, and read. Readers thus assessed printed books according to the places, personnel, and practices of their production and distribution. To contemporaries, the link between print and stable or fixed knowledge seemed far less secure, not least because a certain amount of creativity (i.e. textual adaptation) was essential to the Stationer’s craft. Piracy was also not unfamiliar: it was far more common than was certainty and uniform editions. Furthermore, pirates were not a distinguishable social group, existing as they did at all ranks of the Stationers’ community, and at times they were among its most prominent and ‘proper’ members, Johns explains (1998: 167). It is important in this respect to realise that piracy was not attached to an object; it was used as a category or a label to cope with print, as a tactic to construct and maintain truth-claims.

The reliability of printed books thus depended in large part on representations of the larger Stationers’ community as proper and well ordered (Johns 1998: 624). This clashed with the characteristic feature of the Stationers’ Commonwealth, namely uncertainty, where print culture was characterized by endemic distrust, conspiracies and ‘counterfeits’. The concept of piracy was used as a representation of these cultural conditions and practices as they were prevailing in the domain of print. With this uncertainty it became clear that the achievement of print-based knowledge as well as authorship was transient (Johns 1998: 187). Yet readers did come to trust and use print, as books were of course produced, sold, read, and put to use, meaning that the epistemological problems of reading them were, in practice, overcome. Trust could become possible, Johns argues, because of a disciplining regime—including elaborate mechanisms to deal with all the problems of piracy—brought about by publishers, booksellers, authors and the wider realm of institutions and governments, as is exemplified for Johns by the Stationers’ Company. Licensing, patenting and copyright were similarly machineries for producing credit. But the register set up by the Royal Society—which became one of the defining symbols of experimental propriety in the Society itself—and the Philosophical Transactions, which came to function as its brand abroad, were similarly achievements that required strenuous efforts to discipline the processes of printing and reading (Johns 1998: 623). With this regime in place, Johns claims that trust in printed books could become a routine possibility (1998: 188). As he explains, however, struggles over power arose regarding who gets to decide on or govern these social mechanisms for generating and protecting credit in printed books, displaying the complex interactions of piracy, propriety, political power, and knowledge. Conflicts arose over the implementation of patents and/or copyright and on the different consequences a print culture governed by a specific entity (e.g. Stationers or the crown, for Johns) would face. These conflicts held, according to Johns, ‘the potential for a fundamental reconsideration of the nature, order, and consequences of printing in early modern society’ (1998: 258–259).

6.2 Fluid Publishing

As becomes clear from the discourse sketched above, a combination of technological, formal, and cultural factors (as well as discursive, practical and institutional ones) has brought about a certain semblance of fixity, trust and endurance, together with a number of conventions related to the preservation of the printed book. It is these conventions, or the disciplining regime Johns talks about, that have privileged certain cuts in intra-action with the book’s material becoming. With the growing use and importance of the digital medium in scholarship, one could argue that the book’s material becoming has altered. However, it is in the interaction with the established disciplining regime that its development has been structured. An increasing interest in the communication and publishing of humanities research in what can be seen as a less fixed and more open way, has nonetheless challenged the integrity of the book, something that the system surrounding it has tried so hard to develop and maintain.

Why is this disciplining regime, and the specific print-based stabilisations it promotes, being interrogated at this particular point in time? First of all, and as was made clear by the history provided above, in order to answer this question we need to keep in mind that this regime has seen a continuing power struggle over its upkeep and constituency, and as such has always been disputed. Nonetheless, changes in technology, and in particular the development of digital media, have acted as a disruptive force, especially since much of the discourse surrounding digital media, culture and technology tends to promote a narrative of openness, fluidity and change. Therefore this specific moment of disruption and remediation brings with it an increased awareness of how the semblances of fixity that were created and upheld in, and by, the printed medium, are a construct, upheld to maintain certain established institutional, economical and political structures (Johns 1998). This has lead to a growing awareness of the fact that these structures are formations we can rethink and perform otherwise. All of which may explain why there is currently a heightened interest in how we can intra-act with the digital medium in such a way as to explore potential alternative forms of fixity and fluidity, from blogs to multimodal publications.

The construction of what we perceive as stable knowledge objects serves certain goals, mostly to do with the establishment of authority, preservation (archiving), reputation building (stability as threshold) and commercialisation (the stable object as a reproducible product). In Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2001), Bolter conceptualises stability (as well as authority) as a value under negotiation, 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’ (2001: 16). This acknowledgment of the relative and constructed nature of stability and of the way we presently cut with and through media, encourages us to conduct a closer analysis of the structures underlying our knowledge and communication system and how they are set-up at present: who is involved in creating a consensus on fixity and stability, and what is valued and what is not in this process?

Ragnhildur Jóhanns

Ragnhildur Jóhanns

It could therefore be argued that it is the specific cuts or forms of fixing and cutting down of scholarship that are being critiqued at the moment, while the potential of more processual research is being explored at the same time: for example, via the publication of work in progress on blogs or personal websites. The ease with which continual updates can be made has brought into question not only the stability of documents but also the need for such stable objects. Wikipedia is one of the most frequently cited examples of how the speed of improving factual errors and the efficiency of real-time updating in a collaborative setting can win out over the perceived benefits of stable material knowledge objects. There has perhaps been a shift away from the need for fixity in scholarly research and communication towards the importance of other values such as collaboration, quality, speed and efficiency, combined with a desire for more autonomous forms of publishing. Scholars are using digital media to explore the possibilities for publishing research in more direct ways, often cutting out the traditional middlemen (publishers and libraries) that have become part of the print disciplining regime they aim to critique. Accordingly, they are raising the question: do these middlemen still serve the needs of its users, of scholars as authors and readers? For example, the desire for flexibility, speed, autonomy etc. has caused new genres of formal and informal scholarly communication to arise; a focus on openness and fluidity is seen as having the potential to expand academic scholarship to new audiences; digital forms of publishing have the potential to include informal and multi-modal scholarship that hasn’t been communicated particularly extensively before; and new experimental publishing practices are assisting scholars in sharing research results and forms of publication that cannot exist in print, because of their scale, their multimodality, or even their genre. Making the processual aspect of scholarship more visible—which includes the way we collaborate, informally communicate, review, and publish our research—and highlighting not only the successes but also the failures that come with that, has the potential to demystify the way scholarship is produced.

From blogging software and social media, to mailing lists and institutional repositories, scholars have thus increasingly moved to digital media and the Internet to publish both their informal and formal research in what they perceive as a more straightforward, direct and open way. This includes the mechanisms developed for the more formal publication of research I discussed in the previous chapter, via either green (archiving) or gold (journal publishing) open access. Nonetheless, the question remains whether these specific open forms of publishing have really produced a fundamental shift away from fixity. In this section I therefore would like to draw attention to a specific feature of openness—a feature that can in many ways be seen as one of its most contested aspects (Adema 2010: 60)—namely, the possibility to reuse, adapt, modify and remix material.[1] It is this part of the ethos or definition of openness (libre more than gratis)[2] that can be said to most actively challenge the concepts of stability, fixity, trust and authority that have accompanied the rhetoric of printed publications for so long (Johns 1998). Where more stripped-down versions of openness focus on achieving access, and on doing so in a way that the stability of a text or product need not be threatened (indeed, the open and online distribution of books might even promote its fixity and durability due to the enlarged availability of digital copies in multiple places), libre openness directly challenges the integrity of a work by enabling different versions of a work to exist simultaneously. At the same time libre forms of openness also problematise such integrity by offering readers the opportunity to remix and re-use (parts of) the content in different settings and contexts, from publications and learning materials, to translations and data mining. Within academia this creates not only practical problems (which version to cite and preserve, who is the original author, who is responsible for the text), it creates theoretical problems too (what is an author, in what ways are texts ever stable, where does the authority of a text lie?). Fitzpatrick discusses the ‘repurposing’ of academic content in this regard:

What digital publishing facilitates, however, is a kind of repurposing of published material that extends beyond mere reprinting. The ability of an author to return to previously published work, to rework it, to think through it anew, is one of the gifts of digital text’s malleability—but our ability to accept and make good use of such a gift will require us to shake many of the preconceptions that we carry over from print. (2011: 2)

The ability to expand and build upon, to make modifications and create derivative works, to appropriate, change and update content within a digital environment, also has the potential to shift the focus in scholarly communication away from the product of our publishing and on to the process of researching. It is a shift that, as I discussed previously in this section, may have the ability to make us more aware of the contingency of our research and the cuts and boundaries we enact and that are enacted for us when we communicate and disseminate our findings. It is this shift away from models of print stability and towards process and fluidity (including the necessary cuts) that I want to focus on here, in order to explore some of the ways in which both the practical and theoretical problems that are posed within this development are being dealt with at this moment in time, and whether these should or can be approached differently.

To investigate these potential features of openness, the following section on Remixing Knowledge will analyse a variety of theoretical and practical explorations of fluidity, liquidity and remix, focusing specifically on scholarly research in a digital context. The aim is to examine some of the ways in which scholars within the humanities are dealing with these issues of fluidity and versioning, especially where they concern the scholarly book. This section therefore looks at theories and performative practices that have tried to problematise ideas such as authorship and stability by exploring critically concepts of the archive, selection and agency. At the same time it will offer a critique of these theories and practices and the way they still mostly adhere to fixtures and boundaries—such as authorship and copyright—that have been created within the print paradigm, thus maintaining established institutions and practices. My aim in offering such a critique is to push forward our thinking on the different kind of cuts and stabilisations that are possible within humanities research, its institutions and practices; interruptions that are perhaps both more ethical and open to difference, and which are critical of both the print paradigm and of the promises of the digital.[3] How might these alternative and affirmative cuts enable us to conceive a concept of the book built upon openness, and with that, a concept of the humanities built upon fluidity?

6.2.1 Remixing Knowledge

The ability to reuse and remix data and research to create derivative works is a practice that challenges the stability of a text, and puts into question its perceived boundaries.[4] Within a scholarly context the concept of derivative works also offers the potential to challenge the idea of authorship or, again, the authority of a certain text. The founding act of a work, that specific function of authorship described by Foucault in his seminal article ‘What is an Author?’, can be seen as becoming less important for both the interpretation and the development of a text, once it goes through the processes of adaptation and reinterpretation and the meaning given as part of the author function becomes dispersed (1977). In this section I therefore want to focus on three alternatives to authorship, authority and stability as put forward in discussions on remix; alternatives I will argue are important for knowledge production in the humanities. I will shortly discuss the concept of modularity; before proceeding to the concept of the fluid text and, related to that, the agency of the selector or moderator; and finally, to the concept of the (networked) archive, by looking at the work of remix theorists Lev Manovich and Eduardo Navas, among others, as well as the writing of the textual critic John Bryant. Modularity

Media theorist Lev Manovich discusses the concept of modularity extensively in his research on remix. He explores how, with the coming of software, a shift in the nature of what constitutes a cultural object has taken place, where cultural content no longer has finite boundaries. Content is no longer received by the user, in Manovich’s vision, but is traversed, constructed and managed. With the shift away from stable environments in a digital online environment, he argues that there are no longer senders and receivers of information in the classical sense. There are only temporary reception points in information’s path through remix. Therefore, culture for Manovich is a product that is constructed, both by the maker as well as the consumer, where it is actively being modularised by users to make it more adaptive (2005). In other words, culture is not modular; it is (increasingly) made modular in digital environments. However, the real remix revolution lies not in this kind of agency provoked by the possession of production tools. According to Manovich it lies in the possibility this generates to exchange information between media; what in Software Takes Command he calls the concept of ‘deep remixability’. Here, Manovich talks about a situation in which modularity is increasingly being extended to media themselves. The remixing of various media has now become possible in a common software-based environment, along with a remixing of the methodologies of these media, offering the possibility of mash-ups of text with audio and visual content, expanding the range of cultural and scholarly communication (Manovich 2008).

In his writings on remix, Manovich thus sketches a rather utopian future (one that does not take into account present copyright regimes, for instance) in which cultural forms will be deliberately made from Lego-like modular building blocks, designed to be easily copied and pasted into new objects and projects. For Manovich, these forms of standardisation function as a strategy to make culture freer and more shareable, with the aim of creating an ecology in which remix and modularity are a reality. In this respect ‘helping bits move around more easily’ is a method for Manovich to devise a new way with which we can perform cultural analysis (2005). These concepts of modularisation and of recombinable data-sets offer a way of looking beyond static knowledge objects, presenting an alternative view on how we structure and control culture and data, as well as how we can analyse our ever-expanding information flows. With the help of his software-based concepts, he thus examines how remix can be an active stance by which people will be able to shape culture in the future and deal with knowledge objects in a digital context.

Within scholarly communication the concept of modularity has already proved popular when it comes to making research more efficient and coping with information overload: from triplets[5] and nano-publications[6], to forms of modular publishing, these kind of software-inspired concepts have mostly found their way into scientific publishing. Instead of structuring scholarly research according to linear articles, for instance, Joost Kirzc argues that we should have a coherent set of ‘well-defined, cognitive, textual modules’ (1998). Similarly, Jan Velterop and Barend Mons suggest moving towards nano-publications to deal with information overload, which can be seen as a move in the direction of both more modularity and the standardisation of research outcomes (Groth et al. 2010).


There are, however, problems with applying this modular database logic to cultural objects. Of course, when culture is already structured and modular this makes reuse and repurposing much easier. However, cultural objects differ, and it is not necessarily possible or appropriate to modularise or cut-up a scholarly or fictional work. Not all cultural objects are translatable into digital media objects either. Hence, too strict a focus on modularity might be detrimental to our ideas of cultural difference. Tara McPherson formulates an important critique of modularity to this end. She is mostly interested in how the digital, privileging as it does a logic of modularity and seriality, became such a dominant paradigm in contemporary culture.[7] How did these discourses from coding culture translate into the wider social world? What is the specific relationship between context and code in this historical context? How have code and culture become so intermingled? As McPherson argues, in the mid-20th century modular thinking took hold in a period that also saw the rise of identity politics and racial formations in the US, hyper-specialisation and niched production of knowledge in the university, and forms of Fordist capitalism in economic systems—all of which represent a move toward modular knowledges. However, modular thinking, she points out, tends to obscure the political, cultural and social context from which it emerged. McPherson emphasises that we need to understand the discourses and peculiar histories that have created these forms of the digital and of digital culture, which encourage forms of partitioning. We also need to be more aware that cultural and computational operating systems mutually infect one another. In this respect, McPherson wonders ‘how has computation pushed modularity in new directions, directions in dialogue with other cultural shifts and ruptures? Why does modularity emerge in our systems with such a vengeance across the 1960s?’ (2012). She argues that these forms of modular thinking, which function via a lenticular logic, offer ‘a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context. As such, the lenticular also manages and controls complexity’ (McPherson 2012: 25). We therefore need to be wary of this ‘bracketing of identity’ in computational culture, McPherson warns, where it holds back complexity and difference. She favours the application of Barad’s concept of the agential cut in these contexts, using this to replace bracketing strategies (which bring modularity back). For, as McPherson states, the cut as a methodological paradigm is more fluid and mobile (2014).

The concept of modularity, as described by Manovich (where culture is made modular), does not seem able to guarantee these more fluid movements of culture and knowledge. The kind of modularity he is suggesting does not offer so much of a challenge to object and commodity-thinking, as apply the same logic of stability and standardised cultural objects or works, only on another scale. Indeed, Manovich defines his modular Lego-blocks as ‘any well-defined part of any finished cultural object’ (2005). There is thus still the idea of a finished and bound entity (the module) at work here, only it is smaller, compartmentalised.

[1] I am here invoking what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a Read/Write (RW) culture, as opposed to a Read/Only (RO) culture (2008: 28–29).

[2] Where open access (in its weak version) can be seen to focus mainly on accessibility (and in many cases wants to preserve the integrity of the work), open content includes the right to modify specifically. The problem is that where it comes to open access definitions and providers, some permit derivative works and some do not. The open knowledge definition encompasses both, as does the BBB definition of open access.

[3] More ethical interventions in scholarly communication might start with—but are not limited to—a critical involvement with the various relationships in academic publishing by, for example: exercising an ethics of care with respect to the various (human and non-human) agencies involved in the publication process; a focus on free labour and a concern with power and difference in academic life; experimenting with alternatives, such as new economic models and fair pricing policies, to counter exploitative forms of publishing; exploring how we can open up the conventions of scholarly research (from formats to editing, reviewing, and revising); critically reflecting on the new potential closures we enact (McHardy et al. 2013, Danyi 2014, Kember, 2014a).

[4] In the United States, the Copyright Act defines “derivative work” in 17 U.S.C. § 101:

a “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”. See: – 101

[5] A triplet or assertion is the shortest meaningful sentence or statement: a combination of subject, predicate and object. See:

[6] A nano-publication is the smallest unit of publishable information: an assertion about anything that can be uniquely identified and attributed to its author. See:

[7] McPherson argues that we can see this focus on the discreet in, among other things, digital technologies, in UNIX and in languages like c and c++.


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2 comments on “On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part I)

  1. Pingback: On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part II) | OPEN REFLECTIONS

  2. Pingback: On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part III) | OPEN REFLECTIONS

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