On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part II)

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 I 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. Fluid Environments and Liquid Publications

Where Manovich’s concept of modularity mostly focuses on criticising stability and fixity from a spatial perspective (dividing objects into smaller re-combinable blocks), within a web environment forms of temporal instability—where over time cultural objects change, adapt, get added to, re-envisioned, enhanced etc.—are also being increasingly introduced. In this respect, experiments with liquid texts and with fluid books not only stress the benefits and potential of processual scholarship, of capturing research developments over time and so forth, they also challenge the essentialist notions that underlie the perceived stability of scholarly works.

Textual scholar John Bryant theorises the concept of fluidity extensively in his book The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (2002). Bryant’s main argument is that stability is a myth and that all works are fluid texts. As he explains, this is because fluidity is an inherent phenomenon of writing itself, where we keep on revising our words to approach our thoughts more closely, with our thoughts changing again in this process of revision. In The Fluid Text, Bryant displays (and puts into practice) a way of editing and doing textual scholarship that is based not on a final authoritative text, but on revisions. He argues that for many readers, critics and scholars, the idea of textual scholarship is designed to do away with the otherness that surrounds a work and to establish an authoritative or definitive text. This urge for stability is part of a desire for what Bryant calls ‘authenticity, authority, exactitude, singularity, fixity in the midst of the inherent indeterminacy of language’ (2002: 2). By contrast, Bryant calls for the recognition of a multiplicity of texts, or rather ‘the fluid text’. Texts are fluid in his view because the versions flow from one to another. For this he uses the metaphor of a work as energy that flows from version to version.

In Bryant’s vision this idea of a multiplicity of texts extends from different material manifestations (drafts, proofs, editions) of a certain work to an extension of the social text (translations and adaptations). Logically this also leads to a vision of multiple authorship, where Bryant wants to give a place to what he calls ‘the collaborators’ of or on a text, to include those readers who also materially alter texts. For Bryant, with his emphasis on the revisions of a text and the differences between versions, it is essential to focus on the different intentionalities of both authors and collaborators. The digital medium offers the perfect possibility to achieve this and to create a fluid text edition. Bryant established such an edition—both in a print and an online edition—for Melville’s Typee, showing how a combination of book format and screen can be used to effectively present a fluid textual work.[1]

For Bryant, this specific choice of a textual presentation focusing on revision is at the same time a moral choice. This is because, for him, understanding the fluidity of language enables us to better understand social change. Furthermore, constructionist intentions to pin a text down fail to acknowledge that, as Bryant puts it, ‘the past, too, is a fluid text that we revise as we desire’ (2002: 174). Finally, he argues that the idea of a fluid text encourages a new kind of critical thinking, one that is based on difference, otherness, variation and change. This is where the fixation on the idea of having a stable text to achieve easy retrieval and unified reading experiences loses out to a discourse that focuses on the energies that drive text from version to version. In Bryant’s words, ‘by masking the energies of revision, it reduces our ability to historicize our reading, and, in turn, disempowers the citizen reader from gaining a fuller experience of the necessary elements of change that drive a democratic culture’ (2002: 113).

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

Alongside Bryant’s edition of Melville’s Typee, another example of a practical experiment focusing upon the benefits of fluidity specifically for scholarly communication is the Liquid Publications (or LiquidPub) project.[2] As described by Casati, Giunchiglia, and Marchese (2007), this is a project that tries to bring into practice the idea of modularity as described previously. Focusing mainly on textbooks in the sciences, the aim of the project is to enable teachers to compose a customised and evolving book out of modular pre-composed content. This book will then be a ‘multi-author’ collection of materials on a given topic that can include different types of documents.

The LiquidPub project tries to cope with issues of authority and authorship in a liquid environment by making a distinction between versions and editions. Editions are solidifications of the liquid book, with stable and fixed content, which can be referred to, preserved, and made commercially available. Furthermore the project creates different roles for authors, from editors to collaborators, accompanied by an elaborate rights structure, with the possibility for authors to give away certain rights to their modular pieces whilst holding on to others. As a result, the LiquidPub project is very pragmatic, catering to the needs and demands of authors (mainly for the recognition of their moral rights), while at the same time trying to benefit from, and create efficiencies and modularity within, a fluid environment. In this way it offers authors a choice of different ways to distribute content, from completely open, to partially open, to completely closed books.

Introducing graduations of authorship such as editors and collaborators, as proposed in the work of Bryant and in the LiquidPub project, is one way to deal with multiple authorship or authorship in collaborative research or writing environments. However, as I showed in chapter 3, it does not address the problem of how to establish authority in an environment where the contributions of a single author are difficult to trace back; or where content is created by anonymous users or by avatars; or in situations where there is no human author, but where the content is machine-generated. What becomes of the role of the editor or the selector as an authoritative figure when selections can be made redundant and choices altered and undone by mass-collaborative, multi-user remixes and mash-ups? The projects mentioned above are therefore not so much posing a challenge to authorship or questioning the authorship function as it is currently established, as they are merely applying this established function to smaller compartments of text and dividing them up accordingly.

Furthermore the concept of fluidity as described by Bryant, together with the notion of liquidity as used in the LiquidPub project, does not significantly disturb the idea of object-like thinking or stability within scholarly communication either. For Bryant, a fluid book edition is still made up of separate, different versions, while in the LiquidPub Project, which focuses mostly on an ethos of speed and efficiency, a liquid book is a customised combination of different recombinable documents. In this sense both projects adhere quite closely to the concept of modularity as described by Manovich (where culture is made modular), and therefore do not reach a fluid or liquid state in which the stability and fixity of a text is fundamentally reconsidered in a continual or processual manner. There is still the idea of the object (the module); however, it is smaller; compartmentalised. Witness the way both of these projects still hinge on the idea of extracted objects, of editions and versions, in the liquid project. For example, Bryant’s analysis is focused not so much on creating fluidity or a fluid text—however impossible this might be—but on creating a network between more or less stable versions, whilst showcasing their revision history. He thus still makes a distinction between works and versions, neither seeing them as part of one extended work, nor giving them the status of separate works. In this way he keeps a hierarchical thinking alive: ‘a version can never be revised into a different work because by its nature, revision begins with an original to which it cannot be unlinked unless through some form of amnesia we forget the continuities that link it to its parent. Put another way, a descendant is always a descendant, and no amount of material erasure can remove the chromosomal link’ (Bryant 2002: 85). Texts here are not fluid, at least not in the sense of their being process-oriented; they are networked at the most. McKenzie Wark’s terminology for his book Gamertheory—which Wark distinctively calls a ‘networked book’—might therefore be more fitting and applicable in such cases, where a networked book, at least in its wording, positions itself as being located more in between the ideal types of stability and fluidity.[3]

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

A final remark concerning the way in which these two projects theorise and bring into practice the fluid or liquid book: in both projects, texts are actively made modular or fluid by outside agents, by authors and editors. There is not a lot of consideration here of the inherent fluidity or liquidity that exists as part of the text or book’s emergent materiality, in intra-action with the elements of what theorists such as Jerome McGann and D.F. McKenzie have called ‘the social text’—which, in an extended version, is what underlies Bryant’s concept of the fluid text. In the social text, human agents create fluidity through the creation of various instantiations of a text post-production. As McKenzie has put it: ‘a book is never simply a remarkable object. Like every other technology, it is invariably the product of human agency in complex and highly volatile contexts’ (1999). McKenzie, in his exploration of the social text, sought to highlight the importance of a wide variety of actors in a text’s emergence and meaning giving, from printers to typesetters. He does so in order to argue against a narrow focus on a text’s materiality or an author’s intention. However, there is a lack of acknowledgement here of how the processual nature of the book comes about out of an interplay of agential processes of both a human and non-human nature.

Something similar can be seen in the work of Bryant, in that for him a fluid text is foremost fluid because it consists of various versions. Bryant wants to showcase material revision here, by authors, editors, or readers, among others. But this is a very specific—and humanist—understanding of the fluid text. For revision is, arguably, only one major source of textual variation or fluidity. In this sense, to provide some alternative examples, it is not the inherent emergent discursive-materiality of a text, nor the plurality of material (human or machinic) reading paths through a text, that make a text always already unstable, for Bryant. What does make a text fluid for him is the existence of multiple versions brought into play by human and authorial agents of some sort. This is related to his insistence on a hermeneutic context in which fluid texts are representations of extended and distributed forms of intentionality. As I will ask in what follows, would it not be more interesting to perceive of fluidity or the fluid text rather as a process that comes about out of the entanglement and performance of a plurality of agentic processes: material, discursive, technological, medial, human and non-human, intentional and non-intentional? From this position, a focus on how cuts and boundaries are being enacted within processual texts and books, in an inherently emergent and ongoing manner, might offer a more inclusive strategy to deal with the complexity of a book’s fluidity. This idea will be explored in more depth toward the end of this chapter when I take a closer look at Jerome McGann’s theories of textual criticism. The Archive

As discussed in chapter 3, remix as a practice has the potential to raise questions for the idea of authorship as well as for the related concepts of authority and legitimacy. For example, do moral and ownership rights of an author extend to derivative works? And who can be held responsible for the creation of a work when authorship is increasingly difficult to establish in music mash-ups or in data feeds, where users receive updated information from a large variety of sources? As I touched upon previously, one of the suggestions made in discussions of remix to cope with the problem of authorship in a digital context has involved shifting the focus from the author to the selector, moderator or curator. Similarly, in cases where authorship is hard to establish or even absent, the archive could potentially establish authority. Navas examined both of these notions as potential alternatives to established forms of authority in an environment that relies on continual updates and where process is preferred to product. Navas stresses, however, that keeping a critical distance from the text is necessary to make knowledge possible and to establish authority. As authorship has been replaced by sampling—and ’sampling allows for the death of the author’, according to Navas, as the origin of a tiny fragment of a musical composition becomes hard to trace—he argues that the critical position in remix is taken in by s/he who selects the sources to be remixed. However, in mashups, this critical distance increasingly becomes difficult to uphold. As Navas puts it, ‘this shift is beyond anyone’s control, because the flow of information demands that individuals embed themselves within the actual space of critique, and use constant updating as a critical tool’ (2010).

To deal with the constantly changing present, Navas turns to history as a source of authority: to give legitimacy to fluidity retrospectively by means of the archive. The ability to search the archive gives the remix both its reliability as well as its market value, Navas points out. By recording information it becomes meta-information, information that is static, available when needed and always in the same form. Retrospectively, this recorded state, this staticity of information, is what makes theory and philosophical thinking possible. As Navas claims, ‘the archive, then, legitimates constant updates allegorically. The database becomes a delivery device of authority in potentia: when needed, call upon it to verify the reliability of accessed material; but until that time, all that is needed is to know that such archives exist’ (2010).

At the same time Navas is ambivalent about the archive as a search engine. He argues that in many ways it is a truly egalitarian space—able to answer ‘all queries possible’—but one that is easily commercialised too. What does it mean when Google harvests the data we collect and our databases are predominantly built upon social media sites? In this respect we are also witnessing an increasing rise of information flow control (Navas 2010).

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

The importance of Navas’ theorising in this context lies in the possibilities his thinking offers for the book and the knowledge system we have created around it. First of all, he explores the archive as a way of both stabilising flow and of creating a form of authority out of fluidity and the continual updating of information. Additionally, he proposes the role of s/he who selects, curates or moderates as an alternative to that of the author. In a way one can argue that this model of agency is already quite akin to that found in scholarly communication, where selection of resources and referring to other sources, next to collection building, is part of the research and writing process of most academics. Manovich argues for a similar potential, namely the potential of knowledge producers to modularise data and make it adaptable within multiple media and various platforms, mirroring scientific achievements with standardised meta-data and the semantic web.

These are all interesting steps to think beyond the status quo of the book, challenging scholarly thinking to experiment with notions of process and sharing, and to let go of idealised ideas of authorship. Nonetheless, the archive as a tool poses some serious problems with respect to legitimating fluidity retrospectively and providing the necessary critical distance, as Navas positions it. For the archive as such does not provide any legitimation but is built upon the authority and the commands that constitute it. This is what Derrida calls ‘the politics of the archive’ (1996). What is kept and preserved is connected to power structures, to the interests of those who decide what to collect (and on what grounds) and the capacity to interpret the archive and its content when called upon for legitimation claims later on. The question of authority does not so much lie with the archive, but with who has access to the archive and with who gets to constitute it. At the same time, although it has no real power of its own to legitimize fluidity, the archive is used as an objectified extension of the power structures that control it. Furthermore, as Derrida shows, archiving is an act of externalisation, of trying to create stable abstracts (1996: 12). A still further critique of the archive is that, rather than functioning as a legitimising device, its focus is first and foremost on objectification, commercialisation and consummation. In the archive, knowledge streams are turned into knowledge objects when we order our research into consumable bits of data. As Navas has shown, the search engine, based on the growing digital archive we are collectively building, is Google’s bread and butter. By initiating large projects like Google Books, for instance, Google aims to make the world’s archive digitally available or to digitise the ‘world’s knowledge’—or at least, that part of it that Google finds appropriate to digitise (i.e. mostly works in American and British libraries, and thus mostly English language works). In Google’s terms, this means making the information they deem most relevant—based on the specific programming of their algorithms—freely searchable, and Google partners with many libraries worldwide to make this service available. However, most of the time only snippets of poorly digitised information are freely available, and for full-text functionality, or more contextualised information, books must be acquired via Google Play Books (formerly Google Editions) for instance, the company’s ebook store. This makes it clear how search is fully embedded within a commercial framework in this environment.

The interpretation of the archive is therefore a fluctuating one and the stability it seems to offer is, arguably, relatively selective and limited. As Derrida shows, the digital offers new and different ways of archiving, and thus also provides a different vision on what it constitutes and archives (both from a producer as well as from a consumer perspective) (1996: 17). Furthermore, the archiving possibilities also determine the structure of the content that will be archived as it is becoming. The archive thus produces just as much as it records the event. In this respect the archive is highly performative: it produces information, creates knowledge, and decides how we determine what knowledge will be. And the way the archive is constructed is very much a consideration under institutional and practical constraints. For example, what made the Library of Congress decide to preserve and archive all public Twitter feeds starting from its inception in 2006, and why only Twitter and not other similar social media platforms? The relationship of the archive to scholarship is a mutual one, as they determine one another. A new scholarly paradigm therefore also asks for and creates a new vision of the archive. This is why, as Derrida states, ‘the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future’ (1996: 45).[4] Therefore the archive does not stabilise or guarantee any concept.

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

Foucault acknowledges this fluidity of the archive, where he sees it as a general system of both the formation and transformation of statements. However, the archive also structures our way of perceiving the world, as we operate and see the world from within the archive. As Foucault states: ‘it is from within these rules that we speak’ (1969: 146). The archive can thus be seen as governing us, and this again directly opposes the idea of critical distance that Navas wants to achieve with his notion of the archive, as we can never be outside of it. Matthew Kirschenbaum argues along similar lines when he discusses the preservation of digital objects, pointing out that their preservation is ‘logically inseparable from the act of their creation (emphasis in the original)’ (2013). He explains this as follows:

The lag between creation and preservation collapses completely, since a digital object may only ever be said to be preserved if it is accessible, and each individual access creates the object anew. One can, in a very literal sense, never access the “same” electronic file twice, since each and every access constitutes a distinct instance of the file that will be addressed and stored in a unique location in computer memory. (Kirschenbaum 2013)

This means that every time we access a digital object, we duplicate it, we copy it. And this is exactly why, in our strategies of conservation, every time we access a file we also (re)create these objects anew over and over again. Critical distance here is impossible when we are actively involved in the archive’s functioning. As Kirschenbaum states, ‘the act of retrieval precipitates the temporary reassembling of 0’s and 1’s into a meaningful sequence that can be decoded by software and hardware’ (2013). Here the agency of the archive, of the software and hardware, also becomes apparent. Kirschenbaum refers to Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of archaeography, which denotes forms of machinic or medial writing, or as Ernst puts it, ‘expressions of the machines themselves, functions of their very mediatic logic’ (2011: 242). At this point archives become ‘active ‘‘archaeologists’’ of knowledge’ (Ernst 2011: 239), or as Kirschenbaum puts it, ‘the archive writes itself’ (2013).

Let me reiterate that the above critique is not focused on doing away with either the archive or the creation of (open access) archives: archives play an essential role in making scholarly research accessible, preserving it, adding metadata and making it harvestable. However, I do want scholars to be aware of the structures at play behind the archive, and I want to put question marks at both its perceived stability, as well as at its (objective) authority and legitimacy.

6.2.2 The Limits of Fluidity and Stability

The theories and experiments described above in relation to modularity, fluid and liquid publications, new forms of authorship and the archive, offer valuable insights into some of the important problems, as well as some of the possibilities, with knowledge production in a digital context. I will however argue that most of the solutions presented above when it comes to engaging with fluidity in online environments still rely on print-based answers (favouring established forms of fixity and stability). The concepts and projects I have described have not actively explored the potential of networked forms of communication to truly disrupt or rethink our conventional understandings of the autonomous human subject, the author, the text, and fixity in relation to the printed book. Although they take on the challenge of finding alternative ways of establishing authority and authorship in order to cope with an increasingly fluid environment, they still very much rely on the print-based concept of stability and on the knowledge and power systems built around it. In many ways they thus remain bound to the essentialisms of this object-oriented scholarly communication system. The concepts of the archive, of the idea of the selector or moderator, of modularity, and of fluidity and liquidity neither fundamentally challenge nor form a real critical alternative to our established notions of authorship, authority and stability in a digital context.

As I said before, my critique of these notions is not intended as a condemnation of their experimental potential. On the contrary, I support these explorations of fluidity strongly, for all the reasons I have outlined here. However, instead of focussing on reproducing print-based forms of fixture and stability in a digital context, as the concepts and projects mentioned above still end up doing, I want to examine these practices of stabilising, and the value systems on which they are based. Books are an emergent property. Instead of trying to cope with the fluidity offered by the digital medium by using the same disciplinary regime we are used to from a print context, to fix and cut down the digital medium, I want to argue that we should direct our attention more toward the cuts we make in, and as part of our research, and on the reasons why we make them (both in a print and digital context) as part of our intra-active becoming with the book.

As I made clear in my introduction to this section, instead of emphasising the dualities of fixity/fluidity, closed/open, bound/unbound, and print/digital, I want to shift attention to the issue of the cut; or better said, to the performative agential processes of cutting. How can we, through the cut, take responsibility for the boundaries we enact and that are being enacted? How can we do this whilst simultaneously enabling responsiveness by promoting forms and practices of cutting that allow the book to remain emergent and processual (i.e. that do not tie it down or bind it to fixed and determined meanings, practices and institutions), and that also examine and disturb the humanist and print-based notions that continue to accompany the book?

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

Rather than seeing the book as either a stable or a processual entity, a focus on the agential processes that bring about book objects, on the constructions and value systems we adhere to as part of our daily scholarly practices, might be key in understanding the performative nature of the book as an on-going effect of these agential cuts. In the next section I therefore want to return to remix theory, this time exploring it from the perspective of the cut. I want to analyse the potential of remix as part of a discourse of critical resistance against essentialism to question humanist notions such as quality, fixity and authorship/authority; notions which continue to structure humanities scholarship, and on which a great deal of the print-based academic institution continues to rest. I will argue that within a posthumanist performative framework remix can be a means to intervene in and rethink humanities knowledge production, specifically with respect to the political-economy of book publishing and the commodification of scholarship into knowledge objects. I will illustrate this at the end of the next section with an analysis of two book publishing projects that have experimented with remix and reuse.

6.3 Remix and the Cut: Cutting Scholarship Together/Apart

Cutting can be understood as an essential aspect of the way reality at large is structured and provided with meaning. I want to focus on how remix specifically, as a form of ‘differential cutting’, can be a means of intervening in and rethinking humanities knowledge production—in particular with respect to the political-economy of book publishing and the commodification of scholarship into knowledge objects—thus opening up and enabling a potential alternative open-ended politics of the book.

In this section I will provide an analysis of how there has been a tendency within remix studies to theorise the cut and the practice of cutting from a representationalist framework. At the same time, my analysis will be juxtaposed and entangled with a diffractive[5] reading of a selection of critical theory, feminist new materialist and media studies texts that specifically focus on the act of cutting from a performative perspective, to explore what forms a posthumanist vision of remix and the cut might take. I will then explore how the potential of the cut and, relating to that, how the politics inherent in the act of cutting, can be applied to scholarly book publishing in an affirmative way. How can we account for our own ethical entanglements as scholars in the becoming of the book?[6] Based on Foucault’s concept of ‘the apparatus’, as well as on Barad’s posthumanist expansion of this concept,[7] I will argue that the scholarly book currently functions as an apparatus that cuts the processes of scholarly creation and becoming into authors, scholarly objects and an observed world separate from these and us. Drawing attention to the processual and unstable nature of the book instead, I will focus on the book’s critical and political potential to question these cuts and to disturb these existing scholarly practices and institutions.

After analysing how the book functions as an apparatus, a material-discursive formation or assemblage which enacts cuts, I will explore two book publishing projects—Open Humanities Press’s Living Books about Life and Mark Amerika’s remixthebook—that have tried to re-think and re-perform this apparatus by specifically taking responsibility for the cuts they make in an effort to ‘cut-well’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012). I will end this chapter by exploring how these projects have established an alternative politics and ethics of the cut that is open to change, whilst simultaneously analysing what some of their potential shortcomings are.

6.3.1 The Material-Discursive Cut within a Performative Framework

As I have shown above, Navas has written extensively about cut/copy paste as a practice and concept within remixed music and art. For Navas, remix as a process is deeply embedded in a cultural and linguistic framework, where he sees it as a form of discourse at play across culture (2012: 3). This focus on remix as a cultural variable or as a form of cultural representation seems to be one of the dominant modes of analysis within remix studies as a field.[8] Based on his discursive framework of remix as representation and repetition (following Jacques Attali), Navas makes a distinction between copying and cutting. He sees cutting (into something physical) as materially altering the world, while copying, as a specific form of cutting, keeps the integrity of the original intact. Navas explores how the concept of sampling was altered under the influence of changes in mechanical reproduction, where sampling as a term started to take on the meaning of copying as the act of taking, not from the world, but from an archive of representations of the world. Sampling thus came to be understood culturally as a meta-activity (Navas 2012: 12). In this sense Navas distinguishes between material sampling from the world (which is disturbing) and sampling from representations (which is a form of meta-representation that keeps the original intact). The latter is a form of cultural citation—where one cites in terms of discourse—and this citation is strictly conceptual (Navas 2012: 11–16).

It can be beneficial here to apply the insights of new materialist theorists to explore what their ‘material-discursive’ and performative visions of cutting and the cut are able to contribute to the idea of remix as a critical affirmative doing. Here I want to extend remix beyond a cultural logic operating at the level of representations, by seeing it as an always already material practice that disturbs and intervenes in the world. As Barad states, for instance: ‘the move toward performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality (e.g. do they mirror nature or culture?) to matters of practices/doings/actions’ (2003: 802). Here remixes as representations are not just mirrors or allegories of the world, but direct interventions in the world. Therefore, both copying and cutting are performative, in the sense that they change the world; they alter and disturb it.[9] Following this reasoning, copying is not ontologically distinct from cutting, as there is no distinction between discourse and the real world: language and matter are entangled, where matter is always already discursive and vice versa.[10]

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

As was explored in more depth in my first chapter, Barad’s material-discursive vision of the cut focuses on the complex relationship between the social and the non-social, moving beyond the binary distinction between reality and representation by replacing representationalism with a theory of posthumanist performativity. Her form of realism is not about representing an independent reality outside of us, but about performatively intervening, intra-acting with and as part of the world (Barad 2007: 37). For Barad, intentions are attributable to complex networks of agencies, both human and non-human, functioning within a certain context of material conditions (2007: 23). Where in reality agencies and differences are entangled phenomena, what Barad calls agential cuts cleave things together and apart, creating subjects and objects by enacting determinate boundaries, properties, and meanings. These separations that we create also enact specific inclusions and exclusions, insides and outsides. Barad argues that it is important to take responsibility for the incisions that we make, where being accountable for the entanglements of self and other that we weave also means we need to take responsibility for the exclusions we create (2007: 393). Although not enacted directly by us, but rather by the larger material arrangement of which we are a part (cuts are made from the inside), we are still accountable to the cuts we help to enact: there are new possibilities and ethical obligations to act (cut) at every moment (Barad 2007: 178–179). In this sense, ‘cuts do violence but also open up and rework the agential conditions of possibility’ (Barad et al. 2012). It matters which incisions are enacted, where different cuts enact different materialised becomings. As Barad states: ‘It’s all a matter of where we place the cut. (…) what is at stake is accountability to marks on bodies in their specificity by attending to how different cuts produce differences that matter’ (2007: 348). Cutting Well

Kember and Zylinska explore the notion of the cut as an inevitable conceptual and material interruption in the process of mediation, focusing specifically on where to cut in so far as it relates to how to cut well. They point out that the cut is both a technique and an ethical imperative, in which cutting is an act necessary to create meaning, to be able to say something about things (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 27). On a more ontological level they argue that ‘cutting is fundamental to our emergence in the world, as well as our differentiation from it’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 168). Here they see a similarity with Derrida’s notion of ‘différance’, a term that functions as an incision, where it stabilises the flow of mediation into things, objects, and subjects (Kember and Zylinska 2012: xvi).[11] Through the act of cutting we shape our temporally stabilised selves (we become individuated), as well as actively forming the world we are part of and the matter surrounding us (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 168). Kember and Zylinska are specifically interested in the ethics of the cut. If we inevitably have to intervene in the process of becoming (to shape it and give it meaning), how is it that we can cut well? How can we engage with a process of differential cutting, as they call it, enabling space for the vitality of becoming? To enable a ‘productive engagement with the cut’, Kember and Zylinska are interested in performative and affirmative acts of cutting. They use the example of photography to explore ‘this imperative [which] entails a call to make cuts where necessary, while not forgoing the duration of things’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 81). Cutting becomes a technique, not of rendering or representing the world, but of managing it, of ordering and creating it, of giving it meaning. The act of cutting is crucial, as Kember and Zylinska put it, to our ‘becoming-with and becoming-different from the world’, by shaping the universe and shaping ourselves in it (2012: 75). Through cutting we enact both separation and relationality where an ‘incision’ becomes an ethical imperative, a ‘decision’, one which is not made by a humanist, liberal subject but by agentic processes. For Kember and Zylinska, a vitalist and affirmative way of ‘cutting well’ thus leaves space for duration, it does not close down creativity or ‘foreclose on the creative possibility of life’ (2012: 82).

6.3.2 The Affirmative Cut in Remix

To explore further the imperative to cut well, I want to return to remix theory and practice, where the potential of the cut and of remix as subversion and affirmative logic, and of appropriation as a political tool and a form of critical production, has been explored extensively. In particular, I want to examine what forms a more performative vision of remix might take to again examine how this might help us in reconstructing an alternative politics of the book. In what sense do remix theory and practice also function, in the words of Barad, as ‘specific agential practices/intra-actions/performances through which specific exclusionary boundaries are enacted’ (2008: 816)? Navas, for instance, conceptualises remix as a vitalism: as a formless force, capable of taking on any form and medium. In this vitalism lies the power of remix to create something new out of something already existing, by reconfiguring it. In this sense, as Navas states, ‘to remix is to compose’. However, remix, through these reconfiguring and juxtaposing gestures, also has the potential to question and critique, becoming an act that interrogates ‘authorship, creativity, originality, and the economics that supported the discourse behind these terms as stable cultural forms’ (Navas 2012: 61). However, Navas warns of the potential of remix to be both what he calls ‘regressive and reflexive’, where the openness of its politics means that it can also be easily co-opted, where ‘sampling and principles of Remix … have been turned into the preferred tools for consumer culture’ (2012: 160). A regressive remix, then, is a re-combination of something that is already familiar and has proved to be successful for the commercial market. A reflexive remix on the other hand is re-generative, as it allows for constant change (Navas 2012: 92–93). Here we can find the potential seeds of resistance in remix, where as a type of intervention, Navas states it has the potential to question conventions, ‘to rupture the norm in order to open spaces of expression for marginalized communities’, and, if implemented well, can become a tool of autonomy (2012: 109).

One of the realms of remix practice in which an affirmative position of critique and politics has been explored in depth, whilst taking clear responsibility for the material-discursive entanglements it enacts, is in feminist remix culture, most specifically in vidding and political remix video. Francesca Coppa defines vidding as ‘a grassroots art form in which fans re-edit television or film into music videos called “vids” or “fanvids”’ (2011: 123). By cutting and selecting certain bits of videos and juxtaposing them with others, the practice of vidding, beyond or as part of a celebratory fan work, has the potential to become a critical textual engagement as well as a re-cutting and recomposing (cutting-together) of the world differently. As Kristina Busse and Alexis Lothian state, vidding practically takes apart ‘the ideological frameworks of film and TV by unmaking those frameworks technologically’ (2011: 141). Coppa sees vidding as an act of both bringing together and taking apart: ‘what a vidder cuts out can be just as important as what she chooses to include’ (2011: 124). The act of cutting is empowering to vidders in Coppa’s vision, where ‘she who cuts’, is better than ‘she who is cut into pieces’ (2011: 128).

 Alexis Arnold

Alexis Arnold

Video artist Elisa Kreisinger, who makes queer video remixes of TV series such as Sex and the City and Mad Men, states that political remix videos harvest more of an element of critique in order to correct certain elements (such as gender norms) in media works, without necessarily having to be fan works. As Kreisinger argues, ‘I see remixing as the rebuilding and reclaiming of once-oppressive images into a positive vision of just society’ (2010). Africana studies scholar Renee Slajda is interested in how Kreisinger’s remix videos can be seen as part of a feminist move beyond criticism, where Slajda is interested in how remix artists turn critical consciousness into a creative practice aiming to ‘reshape the media—and the world—as they would like to see it’ (2013). For Kreisinger, too, political remix video is not only about creating ‘more diverse and affirming narratives of representation’ (2011). It also has the potential to effect actual change (although, like Navas, she is aware that remix is also often co-opted by corporations to reinforce stereotypes). Remix challenges dominant notions of ownership and copyright as well as the author/reader and owner/user binaries that support these notions. By challenging these notions and binaries, remix videos also challenge the production and political economy of media (Kreisinger 2011). As video artist Martin Leduc argues, ‘we may find that remix can offer a means not only of responding to the commercial media industry, but of replacing it’ (2011).

6.3.3 The Agentic Cut in Remix

Together with providing valuable affirmative contributions to the imperative to cut-well, and to reconfiguring boundaries, remix has also been important with regard to rethinking and re-performing agency and authorship in art and academia. In this context it critiques the liberal humanist subject that underpins most academic performances of the author, whilst exploring more posthumanist and entangled notions of agency in the form of agentic processes in which agency is more distributed. Paul Miller writes about flows and cuts in his artist’s book Rhythm Science. For Miller, sampling is a doing, a creating with found objects, but this also means that we need to take responsibility for its genealogy, for those ‘who speak through you’ (2004: 037). Miller’s practical and critical engagement with remix and the cut is especially interesting when it comes to his conceptualising of identity, where—as in the new materialist thinking of Barad—he does not presuppose a pre-given identity or self, but states that our identity comes about through our incisions, the act of cutting shaping and creating our selves. The collage becomes my identity, he states (Miller 2004: 024). For Miller, agency is thus not related to our identity as creators or artists, but to the flow or becoming, which always comes first. We are so immersed in and defined by the data that surrounds us on a daily basis that ‘we are entering an era of multiplex consciousness’, Miller argues (2004: 061).

Where Miller talks about creating different persona as shareware, Amerika is interested in the concept of performing theory and critiquing individuality and the self through notions such as ‘flux personae’, establishing the self as an ‘artist-medium’ and a ‘post-production medium’ (2011: 26). Amerika sees performing theory as a creative process, in which pluralities of conceptual personae are created that explore their becoming. Through these various personae, Amerika wants to challenge the ‘unity of the self’ (2011: 28). In this vision the artist becomes a medium through which language, in the form of prior inhabited data, flows. When artists write their words they don’t feel like their own words but like a ‘compilation of sampled artefacts’ from the artist’s co-creators and collaborators. By becoming an artist-medium, Amerika argues that ‘the self per se disappears in a sea of source material’ (2011: 47). By exploring this idea of the networked author concept or of the writer as an artist-medium, Amerika contemplates what could be a new (posthuman) author function for the digital age, with the artist as a post-production medium ‘becoming instrument’ and ‘becoming electronics’ (2011: 58).

[1] For the fluid text edition of Melvilles’s Typee, see:

[2] See:

[3] See: This refers mostly to GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1, which can be seen as, as stated on the website, a first stab at a new sort of “networked book,” a book that actually contains the conversation it engenders, and which, in turn, engenders it (Wark 2007).

[4] Derrida gives the example of Freud’s archive and how, with the coming of digital media, a new vision on what constitutes an archive comes into being, which in turn will create a new vision of psychoanalysis.

[5] See chapter 2 for a detailed discussion of diffraction as a methodology.

[6] By engaging in a diffractive reading, this is a performative text too. This means that it is not only a piece of writing on the topic of remix and on ‘cutting things together and apart’, but through its methodology it also affirmatively ‘remixes’ a variety of theories from seemingly disparate fields, locations, times and contexts. This might enable us to understand both the practice and concept of the cut and the entangled theories themselves better. This is akin to what the net artist Mark Amerika calls ‘performing theory’. As a ‘remixologist’, Amerika sees data as a renewable energy source where ideas, theories and samples become his source material. By creating and performing remixes of this source material, which is again based on a mash-up of other source material, a collaborative interweaving of different texts, thinkers and artists emerges, one that celebrates and highlights the communal aspect of creativity in both art and academia (Amerika 2011).

[7] In which apparatuses are conceptualised as specific material configurations that effect an agential cut between, and hence produce, subject and object (Barad 2007: 148).

[8] For example, Henry Jenkins and Owen Gallagher talk about remix cultures and Lessig refers to remix as a R/W (Read/Write) culture, although they all see these cultures as embedded in technology and encapsulated by powers of material economic production (Lessig 2008, Jenkins 2013, Jenkins and Gallagher 2008). An exception is Elisabeth Nesheim who in her talk Remixed Culture/Nature argues for a different conception of remix, one that goes beyond seeing it as a cultural concept and explores principles of remix in nature. Although still starting from a position of human agency, she talks about bio-engineering as a form of genetic remixing, and about bio-artists who remix nature/culture as a form of critique and reflection (Nesheim 2009).

[9] See also Matthew Kirschenbaum’s arguments on how digital copying = preservation = creation, as discussed in the previous section.

[10] I am talking here about the fact that there is no onto-epistemological distinction between cutting and copying. From an ethical perspective, however, one might argue, as Navas has done extensively, that making a distinction between referencing ideas in conceptual and material form, might help us in our aid towards copyright reform (2011).

[11] Akin to what the sociologist and feminist theorist Vicki Kirby calls ‘the cut of difference’ (2011: 101).


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3 comments on “On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part II)

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

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

  3. Pingback: Nuevas formas de producción y difusión del conocimiento en la academia | Daniel Jiménez

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