OPEN REFLECTIONS

On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part III)

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 II 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.

6.4 Re-Cutting the Scholarly Apparatus

What can we take away from this transversal reading of feminist new materialism, critical and media theory, and remix studies, with respect to cutting as an affirmative material-discursive practice—especially where this reading concerns how remix and the cut can performatively critique the established humanist notions such as authorship, authority, quality and fixity underlying scholarly book publishing? How can this reading trigger alternatives to the political economy of book publishing, with the latter’s current focus on ownership and copyright and the book as a consumer object? This (re-)reading of remix might pose potential problems for our idea of critique and ethics when notions of stability, objectivity and distance tend to disappear. The question is, then: how can we make ethical, critical cuts in our scholarship whilst at the same time promoting a politics of the book that is open and responsible to change, difference and the inevitable exclusions that result?

To explore this, we need to analyse the way the book functions as an apparatus. The concept of ‘dispositif’ or ‘apparatus’ originates from Foucault’s later work.[1] As a concept, it went beyond ‘discursive formation’ connecting discourse more closely with material practices (Foucault 1980: 194–195). The apparatus is the system of relations that can be established between these disparate elements. However, an apparatus for Foucault is not a stable and solid ‘thing’ but a shifting set of relations inscribed in a play of power, one that is strategic and responds to an ‘urgent need’, a need to control (1980: 196).[2] Deleuze’s more fluid outlook sees the apparatus as an assemblage capable of escaping attempts of subversion and control. He is interested in the variable creativity that arises out of dispositifs (in their actuality), or in the ability of the apparatus to transform itself, where we as human beings belong to dispositifs and act within them (Deleuze 1992). Barad, meanwhile, connects the notion of the cut to her posthuman Bohrian concept of the apparatus. As part of our intra-actions, apparatuses, in the form of certain material arrangements or practices, effect an agential cut between subject and object, which are not separate but come into being through these intra-actions (Barad 2007: 141–142). Apparatuses, for Barad, are therefore open-ended and dynamic material-discursive practices, articulating concepts and things (2007: 334).

In what way has the apparatus of the book—consisting of an entanglement of relationships between, among other things, authors, books, the outside world, readers, the material production and political economy of book publishing and the discursive formation of scholarship—executed its power relations through cutting in a certain way? In the present scholarly book publishing constellation, it has mostly operated via a logic of incision: one that favours neat separations between books, authors (as human creators) and readers; that cuts out fixed scholarly book objects of an established quality and originality; and that simultaneously pastes this system together via a system of strict ownership and copyright rules. The manner in which the apparatus of the book cuts at the present moment, does not take into full consideration the processual aspects of the book, research and authorship. Neither does the current print-based apparatus explore in depth the possibilities to re-cut our research results in such a way as to experiment with collaboration, updates, versionings and multimedia enhancements in a digital context. The dominant book-apparatus instead enforces a political economy that keeps books and scholarship closed-off from the majority of the world’s potential readers, functioning in an increasingly commercial environment (albeit one fuelled by public money), which makes it very difficult to publish specialised scholarship lacking marketable promise. The dominant book-apparatus thus does not take into consideration how the humanist discourse on authorship, quality and originality that continues to underlie the humanities, perpetuates this publishing system in a material sense. Nor does it analyse how the specific print based materiality of the book and the publishing institutions that have grown around it have likewise been incremental in shaping the discursive formation of the humanities and scholarship as a whole.

Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova

Following this chapter’s diffractively collected insights on remix and the cut, I want to again underscore the need to see and understand the book as a process of becoming, as an entanglement of plural (human and non-human) agencies. The separations or cuts that have been forced out of these entanglements by specific material-discursive practices have created inclusions and exclusions, book objects and author subjects, both controlling positions.[3] Books as apparatuses are thus performative, they are reality shaping. Not enough responsibility is taken—not by us as scholars, nor by publishers nor the academic system as a whole—for the cuts that are enacted with and through the book as an apparatus. We need to acknowledge the roles we all play and the responsibility we have in shaping the way we publish research, where now most humanities research ends up as a conventional, bound, printed (or increasingly hybrid) and single authored book, published by an established publisher and disseminated to mainly university libraries. However, we also need to take into consideration that our approved, dominant scholarly practices—which include the (printed) book—are simultaneously affecting us as scholars and the way we act in and describe the world and/or our object of study, including as Hayles has argued, the way we are ‘conceptualizing projects, implementing research programs, designing curricula, and educating students’ (2012: 1). It is important to acknowledge our entangled nature in all this, where scholars need to take more responsibility for the practices they enact and enforce and the cuts that they make, especially in their own book publishing practices.

6.4.1 Open-Ended Scholarly Re-Cutting

However, following the insights of Foucault, Deleuze and Barad as discussed above, the book-apparatus, of which we are a part, also offers new ‘lines of flight’ or opportunities to recut and (re)perform the book and scholarship, as well as ourselves, differently. Living Books about Life and remixthebook are two book-publishing projects that have explored the potential of the cut and remix for an affirmative politics of publishing, to challenge our object-oriented and modular systems. In the analysis of these projects that follows, I want to explore in what sense they have been able to promote, through their specific cuts, an open-ended politics of the book that enables duration and difference.[4]

6.4.1.1 Remixthebook

At the beginning of August 2011, Mark Amerika launched remixthebook.com, a website designed to serve as an online companion to his new print volume, remixthebook (2011). Amerika is a multi-disciplinary artist, theorist and writer, who’s various personas[5] offer him the possibility of experimenting with hypertext fiction and net.art as well as with more academic forms of theory and artist’s writings, and to do so from a plurality of perspectives.[6]

Remixthebook is a collection of multimedia writings that explore the remix as a cultural phenomenon by themselves referencing and mashing-up curated selections of earlier theory, avant-garde and art writings on remix, collage and sampling. It consists of a printed book and an accompanying website that functions as a platform for a collaboration between artists and theorists exploring practice-based research (Amerika 2011: xiv–xv). The platform features multimedia remixes from over 25 international artists and theorists who were invited to contribute a remix to the project site based on selected sample material of the printed book. Amerika questions the bound nature of the printed book and its fixity and authority, by bringing together this community of diverse practitioners, performing and discussing the theories and texts presented in the book via video, audio and text-based remixes published on the website—opening the book and its source material up for continuous multimedia re-cutting. Amerika also challenges dominant ideas of authorship by playing with personas and by drawing from a variety of remixed source material in his book, as well as by directly involving his remix community as collaborators on the project.

Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova

For Amerika, then, the remixthebook project is not a traditional form of scholarship. Indeed, it is not even a book in the first instance. As he states in the book’s introduction, it should rather be seen as ‘a hybridized publication and performance art project that appears in both print and digital forms’ (Amerika 2011: xi). Amerika applies a form of patch or collage writing[7] in the 12 essays that make up remixthebook. He also endeavours to develop a new form of new media writing, one that constitutes a crossover between the scholarly and the artistic, and between theory and poetry, mixing these different modalities. For all that, Amerika’s project has the potential to change scholarly communication in a manner that goes beyond merely promoting a more fluid form of new media writing. What is particularly interesting about his hybrid project, both from the print book side and from the platform network performance angle, is the explicit connections Amerika makes through the format of the remix to previous theories, and to those artists/theorists who are currently working in and theorising the realm of digital art, humanities and remix. At the same time, remixthebook the website functions as a powerful platform for collaboration between artists and theorists who are exploring the same realm, celebrating the kind of practice-based research Amerika applauds (Amerika 2011: xiv–xv). By creating and performing remixes of Amerika’s source material that is again based on a mash-up of other sources, 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.

However, a discrepancy remains visible between Amerika’s aim to create a commons of renewable source material along with a platform on which everyone (amateurs and experts alike) can remix his and others’ source material, and the specific choices Amerika makes and the outlets he chooses to fulfil this aim. For instance, remixthebook is published as a traditional printed book (in paperback and hardcover); more importantly, it is not published on an open access basis, a publishing model which would make it far easier to remix and reuse Amerika’s material by copying and pasting directly from the web or a PDF, for instance.

Amerika in many ways tries to evade the bounded nature of the printed edition by creating this community of people remixing the theories and texts presented in the book. He does so not only via the remixes that are published on the accompanying website, but also via the platform’s blog and the remixthebook Twitter feed to which new artists and thinkers are asked to contribute on a weekly basis. However, here again, the website is not openly available for everyone to contribute to. The remixes have been selected or curated by Amerika along with his fellow artist and co-curator Rick Silva, and the artists and theorists contributing to the blog and Twitter as an extension of the project have also been selected by Amerika’s editorial team. Even though people are invited to contribute to the project and platform, then, it is not openly accessible to everyone. Furthermore, although the remixes and blogposts are available and accessible on the website, they are themselves not available to remix, as they all fall under the website’s copyright regime, which is licensed under a traditional ‘all rights reserved’ copyright. Given all the possibilities such a digital platform could potentially offer, the question remains as to how much Amerika has really put the source material ‘out there’ to create a ‘commons of renewable source material’ for others to ‘remix the book’ (Amerika 2011: xv).

Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova

Notwithstanding the fact that remixthebook is based on selections of manipulated and mashed-up source material from all kinds of disparate backgrounds, and to that extent challenges the idea of individual creativity, originality and authorship, this project, for all its experimental potentiality, also draws on some quite conventional notions of authorship. Theoretically, Amerika challenges such ideas by playing with different personas and by drawing on a variety of source material, which he proceeds to remix in his book. Practically, however, Amerika is still acting very much as a traditional humanist author of his book, of his curated collection of material. Amerika takes responsibility for the project when he signs his name on the cover of the book.[8] He is the book’s originator in the sense that he has created an authentic product by selecting and re-writing the material. Moreover, he seeks attribution for this endeavour (where it is copyrighted all rights reserved © Mark Amerika), and wants to receive the necessary credit for this work—a monograph published by an established university press (University of Minnesota Press)—in the context of the artistic and scholarly reputation economies. Amerika and co-curator Rick Silva are also the authors or curators of the accompanying website of remixes—similarly copyrighted with a traditional license—as they commissioned the remixes. Furthermore, all the remixes, which are again based on a variety of remixed (and often unattributed) source material, are attributed to the participating remixers (thus performing the function of quite traditional authors), complete with their bios and artist’s statements. In spite of its experimental aims related to new forms of authorship, remix and openness, it seems that practically the cuts that have been enacted and performed as part of the remixthebook project still adhere for a large part to our established humanist and print-based scholarly practices and institutions.

6.4.1.2 Living Books about Life

In 2011 the media and cultural theorists Clare Birchall, Gary Hall and Joanna Zylinska initiated Living Books about Life, a series of open access books about life published by Open Humanities Press, and designed to provide a bridge between the humanities and sciences. All the books in this series repackage existing open access science-related research, supplementing this with an original editorial essay to tie the collection together. They also provide additional multimedia material, from videos to podcasts to whole books. The books have been published online on an open source wiki platform, meaning they are themselves ‘living’ or ‘open on a read/write basis for users to help compose, edit, annotate, translate and remix’ (Hall 2012). Interested potential contributors can also contact the series editors to contribute a new living book. These living books can then collectively or individually be used and/or adapted for scholarly and educational contexts as an interdisciplinary resource bridging the sciences and humanities.

As Hall has argued, this project is designed to, among other things, challenge the physical and conceptual limitations of the traditional codex by including multimedia material and even whole books in its living books, but also by emphasising its duration by publishing using a wiki platform and thus ‘rethinking ‘‘the book’’ itself as a living, collaborative endeavour’ (2012). However, the mediawiki software employed by the Living Books about Life project, in common with a lot of wiki software, keeps accurate track of which ‘user’ is making what changes. This offers the possibility that other users can monitor recent changes to pages, explore a page’s revision history, and examine all the contributions of a specific user. The software thus already has mechanisms written into it to ‘manage’ or fix the text and its authors, by keeping a track-record or archive of all the changes that are made. But the project also continues to enforce stability and fixity (both of the text and of its users) on the front-end side: by clearly mentioning the specific editor’s name underneath the title of each collection, as well as on the book’s title page; by adding a fixed and frozen version of the text in PDF format, preserving the collection as it was originally created by the editors; but also by binding the book together by adding a cover page, and following a rather conventional book structure (complete with an editorial introduction followed by thematic sections of curated materials). Mirroring the physical materiality of the book (in its design, layout, and structuring) in such a way also reproduces ‘the aura’ of the book, including the discourse of scholarship (as stable and fixed, with clear authority) this brings with it. This might explain why the user interaction with the books in the series has been limited in comparison to some other wikis, which are perhaps more clearly perceived as multi-authoring environments. Here the choice to re-cut the collected information as a book, with clear authors and editors, whilst and as part of re-thinking and re-performing the book as concept and form, might paradoxically have been responsible for both the success and the failure of the project.

Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova

What both the Living Books about Life and OHP’s earlier Liquid Books project share, however, is a continued theoretical reflection on issues of fixity, authorship and authority, both by its editors and by its contributors in various spaces connected to the project. This comes to the fore in the many presentations and papers the series editors and authors have delivered on these projects, engaging people with their practical and theoretical issues. These discussions have also taken place on the blog[9] that has accompanied the Living Books about Life series, and in Hall and Birchall’s multimodal text and video-based introduction to the Liquid Books series, to give just some examples. It is in these connected spaces that continued discussions are being had about copyright, ownership, authority, the book, editing, openness, fluidity and fixity, the benefits and drawbacks of wikis, quality and peer review, etc. I would like to argue that it is here, on this discursive level that the aliveness of these living books is perhaps most ensured. These books live on in continued discussion on where we should cut them, and when, and who should be making the incisions, taking into consideration the strategic compromises—which might indeed include a frozen version and a book cover, and clearly identifiable editors—we might have to make due to our current entanglements with certain practices, institutions and pieces of software, all with their own specific power structures and affordances.

In ‘Future books: a Wikipedia model?’ an introduction to one the books in the Liquid Books series—namely Technology and Cultural Form: A Liquid Reader that has been, collaboratively edited and written by Joanna Zylinska and her MA students (together forming a ‘liquid author’)—the various decisions and discussions we could make and have concerning liquid, living and wiki books are considered in depth: ‘It seems from the above that a completely open liquid book can never be achieved, and that some limitations, decisions, interventions and cuts have to be made to its “openness”. The following question then presents itself: how do we ensure that we do not foreclose on this openness too early and too quickly? Perhaps liquid editing is also a question of time, then; of managing time responsibly and prudently’ (2010). Looking at it from this angle, these discussions are triggering critical questions from a user (writer/reader) perspective, in their entanglements and negotiations with the institutions, practices and technologies of scholarly communication. Within a wiki setting, questions concerning what new kinds of boundaries are being set up are important: who moderates decisions over what is included or excluded (what about spam?) Is it the editors? The software? The press? Our notions of scholarly quality and authority? What is kept and preserved and what new forms of closure and inclusion are being created in this process? How is the book disturbed and at the same time re-cut? It is our continued critical engagement with these kinds of questions, both theoretically and practically, in an affirmative manner that will keep these books open and alive.

6.5 Conclusion

To conclude this chapter, I would like to briefly return to textual studies or textual criticism, which as a field has always actively engaged itself with issues concerning the fixity and fluidity of texts. This is embodied mainly in the search for the ideal text or archetype, but also in the continued confrontation with a text’s pluralities of meaning and intentionality, next to issues of interpretation and materiality. In this respect critical editing, as a means of stabilising a text, has always revolved around an awareness of the cuts that are made to a text in the creation of scholarly editions. It can therefore be stated that, as Bryant has argued, the task of a textual scholar is to ‘manage textual fluidity’ (2002: 26).

One of the other strengths of textual criticism is an awareness on the part of many of the scholars in the field that their own practical and theoretical decisions or cuts influence the interpretation of a text. They can therefore be seen to be mindful of their entanglement with its becoming. As Bryant has put it, ‘editors’ choices inevitably constitute yet another version of the fluid text they are editing. Thus critical editing perpetuates textual fluidity’ (Bryant 2002: 26). These specific cuts, or ‘historical write-ups’, that textual scholars create as part of their work with critical editions, don’t only construct the past from a vision of the present, they also say something about the future. As textual scholar Jerome McGann has pointed out:

All poems and cultural products are included in history—including the producers and the reproducers of such works, the poet and their readers and interpreters … To the historicist imagination, history is the past, or perhaps the past as seen in and through the present; and the historical task is to attempt a reconstruction of the past, including, perhaps, the present of that past. But the Cantos reminds us that history includes the future, and that the historical task involves as well the construction of what shall be possible. (1988)

It is this awareness that a critical edition is the product of editorial intervention (which creates a material-discursive framework that influences future texts’ becoming) that I am interested in here, especially in relation to McGann’s work on the performativity of texts. For McGann every text is a social text, created under specific socio-historical conditions, where he theorises texts not as things or objects, but as events. He argues therefore that texts are not representations of intentions, but they are processual events in themselves. Thus every version or reading of a text is a performative (as well as a deformative) act (McGann, J. 2004: 225). In this sense, McGann makes the move in textual criticism from a focus on authorial intention and hermeneutics or representation, to seeing a text as a performative event and critical editions as performative acts.

 McGann therefore argues for a different, dynamic engagement with texts, not focused on discovering what a text ‘is’, but on an ‘analysis [that] must be applied to the text as it is performative’ (2004: 206). This includes taking into consideration the specific material iteration of the text one is studying (and how this functions, as Hayles has argued, as a technotext, i.e. how its specific material apparatus produces the work as a physical artifact (Hayles 2002)), as well as an awareness of how the scholar’s textual analysis is itself part of the iteration and ‘othering’ of the text (McGann, J. 2004: 206). And connected to this, as Barad has argued, we have to be aware how the text’s performativity shapes us in our entanglement with it.

Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova

The question then is: why we can’t be more like critical textual editors (in the style of Jerome McGann) ourselves when it comes to our own scholarly works, taking into consideration the various cuts we make and that are made for us as part of the processes of knowledge production? Assuming responsibility for our own incisions as textual critics of our own work, exploring the poetics or poethics of scholarship in this respect should involve: taking responsibility for our entanglement in the production, dissemination and consumption of the book; engaging with the material-discursive institutional and cultural aspects of the book and book publishing; and experimenting with an open-ended and radical politics of the book (which includes exploring the processual nature of the book, whilst taking responsibility for the need to cut). This would also involve experimenting with alternative ways of cutting our bookish scholarship together-apart: with different forms of authorship, both-human and non-human; with the materialities and modalities of the book, exploring multimodal and emergent genres, whilst continuously rethinking and performing the fixity of the book itself; and with the publishing process, examining ways to disturb the current political economy of the book and the objectification of the book within publishing and research. From my perspective, this would mean we continue our experimentations with remixed and living books, with versionings, and with radical forms of openness, while at the same time remaining critical of the alternative incisions we make as part of these projects, of the new forms of binding they might weave. This also involves being aware of the potential strategic decisions we make to keep some iterative bindings intact (for reasons of authority and reputation, for instance) and why we choose to do so. We should therefore engage with this experimenting not from the angle of the fixed or fluid book, but from the perspective of the cut that cuts-together-apart the emergent book and, when done well, enables its ongoing becoming.

This text, just as the projects mentioned above, has attempted to start the process of rethinking (through its diffractive methodology) how we might start to cut differently where it comes to our research and publication practices. Cutting and stabilising still needs to be done, but it might be accomplished in different ways, at different stages of the research process, and for different reasons than we are doing now. What I want to emphasise here is that we can start to rethink and re-perform the way we publish our research if we start to pay closer attention to the specific cuts we make (and that are made for us) as part of our publishing practices. The politics of the book itself can be helpful in this respect where, as Gary Hall and I have argued elsewhere, ‘if it is to continue to be able to serve ‘new ends’ as a medium through which politics itself can be rethought (…) then the material and cultural constitution of the book needs to be continually reviewed, re-evaluated and reconceived’ (2013: 138). The book itself can thus be a medium with the critical and political potential to question specific cuts and to disturb existing scholarly practices and institutions. Books are always a process of becoming (albeit one that is continuously interrupted and disturbed). Books are entanglements of different agencies that cannot be discerned beforehand. In the cuts that we make to untangle them we create specific material book objects. In these incisions, the book has always already redeveloped, remixed. It has mutated and moved on. The book is thus a processual, ephemeral and contextualised entity, which we can use a means to critique our established practices and institutions, both through its forms (and the cuts we make to create these forms) and its metaphors, and through the practices that accompany it.


[1] First appearing as a concept in Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976).

[2] In Agamben’s vision the apparatus is an all-oppressive formation, one that human beings stand outside of. Agamben here creates new binaries between inside/outside and material/discursive that might not be helpful for the posthuman vision of the apparatus I want to explore here (2009: 14).

[3] See, for example, the way the PhD student as a discoursing subject is being (re)produced by the dissertation and by the dominant discourses and practices accompanying it (Adema 2013).

[4] I have contributed texts/books/remixes to both projects and my analysis underneath is thus partially written from a participant’s perspective.

[5] For instance, as remix artist and author, and as professor of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

[6] Amerika wrote the hypertext trilogy GRAMMATRON, PHON:E:ME and FILMTEXT and founded one of the oldest online net.art networks, Alt-X, in 1992.

[7] Patch or collage writing, consisting of disconnected bits of writing pasted together in one work or collage, is relatively common in works of remix and appropriation art and theory, and is explored in Jonathan Lethem’s essay ‘The ecstasy of influence’ (2007), David Shield’s Reality Hunger (2011), and Paul D. Miller’s Rhythm Science (2004) It is a practice that can be traced at least as far back as the cut-up methods applied by William Boroughs and the Dadaists.

[8] Derrida remarks in his discussion of the significance of the signature that, although we cannot perceive it as a literal stand-in for an authentic, and with that, authoritative source, it does however function as and implies both the presence and the non-presence of the signing subject. Derrida argues for a non-essentialist notion of the signature where the singularity of the event of signing is maintained (and with that the presence of the subject is maintained) in what Derrida calls a past and a future now. Through the signature as a performative act the singularity of the original signing event is thus forever maintained in the signature, and becomes iterative in every copy (Derrida 1985).

[9] See: http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/blog/

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4 comments on “On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities (part III)

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

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

  3. Pingback: Editors’ Choice: On Liquid Books and Fluid Humanities | Digital Humanities Now

  4. Menoccchio (@Menoccchio)
    April 5, 2015

    Thank you very much por sharing this. A Few hours of reading ahead🙂

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