Performing Versioned, Iterative, and Processual Scholarship
This blog has from its instantiation served as a platform to publish, among others, various iterations of my in-progress thesis in networked and multimodal ways in a (relatively) collaborative and interactive setting. It thus served as an experimental digital component to the print-on-paper version of my thesis, which I delivered to fulfill the requirements towards the PhD at Coventry University. The blog served as a platform to experiment with openness, remix and liquidity—and to explore their potential as forms and practices of critique and resistance to the object formation of the book—as part of the specific performance of this thesis. However, the blog format remained rather restricted when it comes to direct collaboration with, and reuse of, the research for my thesis. For this reason, a variety of other platforms and tools are and will be used to explore these more interactive functions. First of all, I have now made my thesis-in-process available using the CommentPress WordPress plugin, developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book. This plugin enables users to leave comments alongside the text, next to each paragraph, and has previously been used by McKenzie Wark for her book Gamer Theory (2007), and by Fitzpatrick for the open review of her book Planned Obsolescence (2011b). By placing the comments alongside the text (instead of at the bottom of the text which is more common in regular blogs and websites) an attempt is made to subvert the implied hierarchy of ‘text first, comments second’. As the CommentPress ‘About’ page states:
In the course of our tinkering, we achieved one small but important innovation. Placing the comments next to rather than below the text turned out to be a powerful subversion of the discussion hierarchy of blogs, transforming the page into a visual representation of dialog, and re-imagining the book itself as a conversation. Several readers remarked that it was no longer solely the author speaking, but the book as a whole (author and reader, in concert).
This CommentPress version of the thesis, which is available here, will in the future also be hyperlinked and will include images and (where possible) multimedia. The CommentPress plugin will be used to experiment with peer feedback and open review in a slightly different setting than a normal blog, one that is designed more directly for commentary and collaboration, emphasising the collaborative nature of the research once more. So please, if you are interested in the research I have been doing to explore and perform the future of the scholarly monograph, I invite you to comment, contribute, question, remark, annotate and make suggestions towards the text-in-progress here.
However, even when using the CommentPress plugin the hierarchy between the main text and the comments, between the author and the commenters, still remains intact—although perhaps in a less emphasised way. To explore the potential of providing direct read/write access to the text, wiki software has been used to publish yet another instantiation of the thesis. The wiki, which is available here, functions via a logic of open editing, serving as a space where the authorial ‘moderating function’ still at work in the blog and CommentPress plugin is further decentred. Wikis provide readers with an opportunity to become writers too, following the idea of open writing and editing upon which wiki software is based. Wikis thus enable the possibility to both write, edit, comment upon, update, remix, categorise, tag, reuse, translate, data-mine, annotate, copy and paste the material, in a collaborative manner. This means that the possibilities offered by this environment, in combination with the way it can be interacted with, might provide another opportunity to challenge and critique the authority of the text’s initial author (or set of authors). My intention is to use this wiki to explore what it means to no longer fully rely on authorship as the main form of authority. I say this, because it can be argued that in a wiki environment the author can no longer be (solely) held responsible for the text or the research, given that the text will have no final ‘authorial approved’ version in a wiki; that it can (in principle) be further commented upon, and can be updated, remixed and re-used indefinitely by the public at large. There is a specific problem related to publishing books in wikis, however. This is that the authority of the book form tends to overshadow the multi-authorial nature of wiki software. The more ‘definite’ or ‘final’ a text seems (which can be due to language, length, format, style of writing, genre, design, etc.), the harder it becomes for people to engage with it. This lack of interaction with ‘book-like’ wikis is one of the main challenges this aspect of my project aims to explore and will have to encounter. Nonetheless, I still invite you to contribute to the wiki version, and to feel free to directly add, insert, juxtapose, remix, re-order, appropriate and/or illustrate the material available here. Feel free to add images, or video and/or audio files too, anything you deem worthy of inclusion really.
This blogpost itself is a reworked version of material in this processual thesis. Other versions have appeared previously as blog posts, conference presentations, lectures, tweets, published articles in peer-reviewed journals, and as experimental digital works. In this respect this thesis falls within the category of what Marjorie Perloff has called differential texts, which she defines as ‘texts that exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one’ (2006). In this specific case the thesis-in-progress is also designed to draw attention to the processual and collaborative nature of research in its various settings and through its multiple institutions of informal and formal communication, from social media and conferences, to mailing lists and journals. These different versions also ask questions about the agency of software and platforms and about the different ways in which the various multimodal remixed iterations of the thesis will be received. This is where the concept of versioning plays an important role, which I will describe in more detail underneath. But first I want to note that there has been a growing interest in publishing research in a more processual way lately: witness today’s article in Times Higher Education on ‘evolving scholarship’ for example (note how in this article processual scholarship is still connected to what seems rather fixed notions of authorship though). The University of Minnesota Press (in collaboration with CUNY’s GC Digital Scholarship Lab) has also recently launched their new Manifold Scholarship publishing programme, where ‘Foreseeing an emerging hybrid environment for scholarship, Manifold will develop, alongside the print edition of a book, an alternate form of publication that is networked and iterative, served on an interactive, open-source platform.’ This initiative seems to be based on Douglas Armato’s ongoing commitment to ‘serial scholarship’ and his vision of research as ‘a process of endosmosis and exosmosis, from less concentrated scholarly forms to more concentrated ones such as the monograph and back again’. In a true ‘open source’ fashion there are even research and publishing experiments being conducted at the moment that make use of revision control systems such as Git to keep track of the processes of publishing and research, such as in the publishing experiments of Greyscale Press, and in James Somers experiments with prose versioning (culminating in Draftback, a chrome extension that lets you play back any Google Doc’s revision history).
There is a general trend here towards the iterative and dynamic publishing of open, distributed and versioned research, where in a sense the distinction (if ever there was such a thing) between doing research and publishing or communicating it, might be eroding (at least within the humanities). Where these forms of processual and collaborative research, as I will elaborate upon in what follows, have the potential to critique our current essentialised and object-based scholarship, I would argue that the importance of this move lies mainly in a thorough rethinking of what both scholarship and publishing are; to re-evaluate at what point and for what reasons we want, should or are required to cut down our ongoing research, and how we can guarantee that these closures do not bind down the further development of our scholarship. One aspect that I needs empasising here is the non-linearity of processual research, where different revisions, remixes, adaptations and readings of research do not flow into each other in a teleological way, but are rather remediations (Bolter) and deformations (McGann) of iterable publications.
Versioning, as it most commonly called within academic research and publishing, refers to the frequent updating, rewriting or modification of academic material that has been published in a formal or informal way. As a practice it has been adopted from software development, where it is used to distinguish the various instalments of a piece of software. The difference is of course that these are not separate editions of the software, but involve a constant rewriting of the same piece of code. Versioning is a common feature of many web-based publication forms, from blogs to wikis, based on the potential to quickly revise and save a piece of written material. With versioning comes version management and control, which can be seen as an important (inbuilt) aspect of versioning, where the various platforms and pieces of software that allow for updating most of the time also enable the tracking and archiving of the various modifications that are made to a work. This can be important in collaborative settings such as wikis, as it makes it easier to establish who is responsible for a specific edit and provides the possibility of comparing various versions with one another.
Although adopted from software development, versioning has been around for a long time and can even be seen as an essential aspect of scholarly communication. Discussions on mailing lists, working papers, conference presentations, preprints and postprints, online first versions, versions of record, corrected or updated versions, revised editions: all of these can be regarded as different renditions of an academic publication in progress; but there are many more. Media theorist Lev Manovich, for instance, published different iterations of his monograph Software Takes Command (2013) online on his website as the book developed. As he argues with respect to this practice: ‘One of the advantages of online distribution which I can control is that I don’t have to permanently fix the book’s contents. Like contemporary software and web services, the book can change as often as I like, with new “features” and “big fixes” added periodically. I plan to take advantage of these possibilities. From time to time, I will be adding new material and making changes and corrections to the text’ (Manovich 2008). Bringing out different versions of our research as it emerges also enables us to make material available for others to share much sooner, without the associated time-lags formal publishing brings with it, not to mention the pay-walls and copyright restrictions. However, although within the humanities it is fairly common for certain versions (i.e. the blog post, the conference presentation) to be clearly presented, communicated and published as such during different points in a research work’s development, only the so-perceived final version as published by a press or publisher is held to be the version of record, authored by a specific author or set of authors as an original piece of work (even though versions often emerge in and out of highly collaborative settings). Instead of primarily emphasising the end result as part of such an object-centered approach, could a focus on the various renditions of an academic work also involve a shift in our attention towards the collaborative and more processual nature of research? And might this lead us to start paying more attention to the performativity of our practices: that it matters where we bring out our various versions (what platforms we use, or which publishers), how we do so (open or closed, and with which license), and the different formats our versions appear in (print, html, video, PDF, podcast, epub). Will it help us to look more closely, for instance, at how different platforms and formats influence the way we produce a specific version and how it is further used and intra-acted with? Could versioning also involve more recognition being given to the various groups of people that are involved in research creation and dissemination, as well as to the various materialities, technologies and media that we use to represent and perform our research, from paper to software? Would a focus on the continuous evolving nature of research make us more aware of the various cuts we can and do (and need!) to make in our work, and for what reasons? And might this involve us making more informed and meaningful decisions about which cuts we want to make, what kind of version we would like to bring out and with what intention (to communicate, collaborate, share, gift, attribute, credit, improve, brand, etc.)?
We can thus see how versionings might better mirror the scholarly workflow research goes through. However, experimenting with different versions (including using different formats, platforms and media) also offers us an opportunity to reflect critically on the way this workflow is currently (teleologically and hierarchically) set up, institutionalised, and commercialised, and how we might generate and communicate our work differently. It encourages us to ask questions about the role of publishers and about what the publishing function exactly entails, as well as about the authority of a text and who does (and does not) get to have a role in establishing this authority. What currently counts as a formal version and for what reason? Collectively, as researchers, we have tried to organise our research and writing around fixed and authorative texts, consistent and stable from copy to copy, based on the technology of the printing press. Could we arrange our research differently around the processes of writing in a digital environment? As Fitzpatrick suggests: ‘What if we were freed—by a necessary change in the ways that we “credit” ongoing and in-process work—to shift our attention away from publication as the moment of singularity in which a text transforms from nothing into something, and instead focus on the many important stages in our work’s coming-into-being?’ (2011b: 70).
Rethinking this organisation will also have to involve taking a critical look at the way versioning is currently set up on web-based platforms and services (and is also increasingly being conceived in academic publishing). This involves an investigation of version management and control (including the archiving of previous versions and author edits), which can be seen as an essential aspect of versioning. In other words, not only will we need to think about what constitutes a version, at what point and for what reason, we also need to think about the way in which we deal with these versions and conceptualise versioning. For example, versioning mainly seems to refer to the continuous updating of one single text, post, page, or topic (i.e. it assumes an original and a final version). What happens, though, if the updates and changes are ongoing and content is brought in from elsewhere? Perhaps remix might be a more interesting trope to explore here. The question is, if these updates are ongoing and collaborative, is it really necessary to keep all the different versions, and for how long? What is the use of versioning (or better said version control) in highly collaborative environments and wikis? The way we keep insisting on version control might be perceived as another sign of our fear of letting go of stability and fixity. Furthermore, it could be argued that we are again reinstalling print-based and humanist mechanisms here, where each version becomes a clearly recognizable fixed and stable unit with a single author and clear authority. This might entail that versioning becomes a new way of objectifying scholarship as part of its processual becoming, similar to current publishing business models based on selling various book formats, from hardcover to paperback and epub. It might similarly provide an opportunity to market, brand and sell research in a continuous way, like we do with new editions of books. Can we in some way balance our need for both fixity and process? As I will argue, doing so will involve us in an in-depth exploration of when, and at what points, fixity is needed and for what reasons. In this respect it is important that we are ‘thinking about how ideas move and develop from one form of writing to the next, and about the ways that those stages are represented, connected, preserved, and “counted” within new digital modes of publishing’, as Fitzpatrick has argued (2011b: 70–71).
The reason I am focusing on a variety of versions as part of this thesis (the blog, the conference paper, the hypermedia version, the wiki version, the remixed version), all types of publishing which are currently being experimented with in scholarly communication, is to emphasise that different cuts are possible in the publishing process; cuts that perform various functions for the scholar, the research, and for the platforms that carry them. These different ways of versioning, re-cutting and remixing the material, thus provide us with an opportunity to examine different software and technologies and to shape them at the same time; to develop a form of critical praxis and to explore what other kinds of publishing are possible. However, they also enable us to extend our notions of the book, and of the way we can gather our research together and re-envision it in different ways.
My choices for the specific versions outlined above are based on exploring those platforms, technologies and pieces of software that favour interaction, experimentation, multimodality, openness and interdisciplinarity, as these are the features of scholarly communication that I would like to highlight and promote. I wish to do so because these features have the potential to help us to reimagine the bound nature of the monograph and to explore versionings as a spatial and temporal critique of the book as a bound object; to examine various different incisions that can be made in our scholarship as part of the informal and formal publishing and communication of our research that goes beyond the final research commodity. The practical part of the dissertation will thus constitute an experiment with collaboration, remix, versioning and the mixing of media, and with non-linear ways of writing and reading. It is designed to explore what the differences are between these various material incarnations of the thesis. These differences are shaped by the specific affordances of the software and platforms in intra-action with our scholarly practices. However, the discourses surrounding these technologies have similarly influenced the design, use and consumption of these technologies, as well as the shaping of us as scholars. What does all this mean for the way the research will be communicated, written and read? How will the different versions of this project be received and what possibilities and limitations does this offer to think and act beyond the printed book? How will this thesis eventually be published as a book, as a monograph, as an additional version of this thesis? (Or will the thesis become a version of the monograph?) If this monograph is formally published, how will it relate to the other nodes and versions, and will this lead to copyright problems and branding issues, for instance? Most probably the monograph will then become ‘the version of record’, the final object, as this is still the customary and approved cut in scholarly communication, having to do with matters of reputation and reward. The question remains, however, whether the thesis-project as a whole will be acknowledged as a ‘scholarly monograph’, within an institutional context. Will it be a book, or something else? (An archive?) As I will argue, it is our responsibility as scholars, as part of our critical praxis, to engage with these questions and to make responsible decisions as to how, where, when, and in what form we publish our research.
Fitzpatrick K (2011) Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. NYU Press.
Manovich L (2008) Software takes command. draft version.
Perloff M (2006) Digital Poetics and the Differential Text. In: Morris A and Swiss T (eds), New Media Poetics: Contexts, Tecnhotexts and Theories, Cambridge and London: MIT Press, pp. 143–164, Available from: http://marjorieperloff.com/stein-duchamp-picasso/digital-poetics-and-the-differential-text/#ixzz2egUdsV2z (accessed 6 January 2014).
Wark M (2007) Gamer theory. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.