I’m beginning the process of revising the manuscript today, and have (appropriately, I guess) begun with the beginning. It’s occurred to me that I might post bits and pieces of revisions-in-progress here, as a way of fostering more discussion where appropriate.
One of the most-commented paragraphs in the project is the zombie paragraph, which several people urged me to go a bit further with. Accordingly, I’ve moved the appropriate parts of the footnote into the main text, and have pressed a bit harder on the main point, such that the paragraph — now two — reads like this:
The suggestion that one particular type of book might be thought of as undead indicates that we need to rethink, in a broad sense, the relationship between old media and new, and ask what that relationship bodes for the academy. If the traditional model of academic publishing is not dead, but undead – again, not viable, but still required – how should we approach our work, and the publishing systems that bring it into being? There’s of course a real question to be asked about how far we want to carry this metaphor; the suggestion that contemporary academic publishing is governed by a kind of zombie logic, for instance, might be read as indicating that these old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent, wholly devoid of consciousness, eating the brains of the living and susceptible to nothing but decapitation – and this might seem a bit of an over-response. On the other hand, it’s worth considering the extensive scholarship in media studies on the figure of the zombie, which is often understood to act as a stand-in for the narcotized subject of capitalism, particularly at those moments when capitalism’s contradictions become most apparent. And, of course, there’s been a serious recent uptick in broad cultural interest in zombies, perhaps exemplified by the Spring 2009 release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If there is a relationship between the zombie and the subject of late capitalism, the cultural anxiety that figure marks is currently, with reason, off the charts – and not least within the academy, as we not only find our ways of communicating increasingly threatened with a sort of death-in-life, but also find our livelihoods themselves decreasingly lively, as the liberal arts are overtaken by the teaching of supposedly more pragmatic fields, as tenure-track faculty lines are rapidly being replaced with more contingent forms of labor, and as too many newly-minted PhDs find themselves without the job opportunities they need to survive. The relationship between the zombie status of the scholarly book and the perilous state of the profession isn’t, of course, causal, but nor is it unrelated, and until we develop the individual and institutional will to transform our ways of communicating, we’re unlikely to be able to transform our broader ways of working, either.
But just to be clear: I am not suggesting that the future survival of the academy requires us to put academic publishing safely in its grave. I’m not being wholly facetious either, though, as I do want to indicate that certain aspects of the academic publishing process are neither quite as alive as we’d like them to be, nor quite as dead as might be most convenient. It’s likely that we could get along fine, for the most part, with the undead of academic publishing, as studies of forms like radio and the vinyl LP indicate that obsolete media forms have always had curious afterlives. There are important differences between those cases and the case of academic publishing, however: we don’t yet have a good replacement for the scholarly monograph, nor do we seem particularly inclined to allow the book to become a “niche” technology within humanities discourse. It’s thus important for us to consider the work that the book is and isn’t doing for us, the ways that it remains vibrant and vital, and the ways that it has become undead, haunting the living from beyond the grave.
I’d love to know what you think!