Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 Despite the fact that The Anxiety of Obsolescence was finally published, my experience of the crisis in academic publishing led me to begin rethinking my argument about the book’s continued viability. Perhaps there is a particular form of book, the academic book – or more specifically (given that marketing departments prefer known quantities) the first academic book – that is indeed threatened with obsolescence. Even so, this is not to say that the first academic book is “dead.” First books are still published, after all, if not quite in the numbers they might need to be in order to satisfy all our hiring and tenure requirements, and they still sell, if not exactly in the numbers required to support the presses that put them out. The first academic book is, however, in a curious state, one that might usefully trouble our associations of obsolescence with the “death” of this or that cultural form, for while the first academic book is no longer viable, it is still required. If anything, the first academic book isn’t dead; it is undead.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 10 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? Too much can be made of this metaphor, of course, as 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 seems a bit of an over-response.[4] 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.[5] 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 scholarly 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.

  • One might usefully note here the extensive media scholarship on the figure of the zombie, particularly as a stand-in for the narcotized subject of capitalism, including Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s “A Zombie Manifesto,” Meghan Sutherland’s “Rigor/Mortis,” and Peter Dendle’s “The Zombie as Barometer of Cultural Anxiety,” to cite only a few recent titles. In that regard, it’s perhaps worth noting the 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.
  • 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 But a few distinctions are necessary. The obsolescence faced by the first academic book is not primarily material, any more than is the obsolescence of the novel; a radical shift to all-digital delivery would by itself do nothing to revive the form. However much I will insist in what follows that we in the humanities must move beyond our singular focus on ink-on-paper to understand and take advantage of pixels-on-screens, the form of print still functions perfectly well, and numerous studies have indicated that a simple move to electronic distribution within the current system of academic publishing will not be enough to bail the system out, as printing, storing, and distributing the material form of the book only represent a fraction of its current production costs.[6] And, in fact, as many have pointed out, the digital may be more prone to a material obsolescence than is print. Take, for instance, the obsolescence one encounters in attempting to read Michael Joyce’s Afternoon or Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden on a Mac these days: Apple has fully retired its support for “Classic” mode with the advent, on the hardware side, of Intel-based processors that can’t boot into OS 9, and on the software side, the release of OS 10.5, which eliminates Classic support for PowerPC machines as well. Couple this forward march of technology with the fact that Eastgate, the publisher of many of the most important first-generation hypertexts, has after seven years still failed to release those texts in OS X-native editions. Technologies move on, and technological formats degrade, posing a set of dangers to digital textual futures that the Electronic Literature Organization has been working to bring into public view, both through its “acid-free bits” campaign and through its more recent work with the Library of Congress to archive digital literary texts.[7] Without such active work to preserve electronic texts, and without the ongoing interest of and commitment by publishers, many digital texts face an obsolescence that is not at all theoretical, but instead very material.

    4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 But, as I’ll discuss in chapter 4, the apparent ephemerality of digital text in fact masks unexpected persistences. Let me point, by way of example, to my more than six year old blog, which I named Planned Obsolescence as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that I’d just finished what seemed to be a long-term, durable project, the book, and was left with the detritus of many smaller ideas that demanded a kind of immediacy and yet seemed destined to fade away into nothingness. The blog is the perfect vehicle for such ephemera, as each post scrolls down the front page and off into the archives – and yet, the apparent ephemerality of the blog post bears within it a surprising durability, thanks both to the technologies of searching, filtering, and archiving that have developed across the web, as well as to the network of blog conversations that keep the archives in play. Blogs do die, often when their authors stop posting, sometimes when they’re deleted. But even when apparently dead, a blog persists, in archives and caches, and accretes life around it, whether in the form of human visitors, drawn in by Google searches or links from other blogs, or spam bots, attracted like vermin to the apparently abandoned structure. A form of obsolescence may be engineered into a blog’s architecture, but this ephemerality is misleading; the ways that we interact with blogs within networked environments keeps them alive long after they’ve apparently died.

    5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 I want to hold up alongside the blog’s persistent ephemerality the state of the first academic book, which I’d argue faces an obsolescence that is primarily institutional, arising from the environment in which it is produced. If, after all, there’s something obsolete about the book, it’s not its content; despite my general agreement with calls to decenter the book as the “gold standard” for tenure, and to place greater value on the publication of articles, there’s a kind of large-scale synthetic work done in the form of the book that’s still important to the development of scholarly thought.[8] Nor is the problem the book’s form; the pages still turn just fine. What has ceased to function in the first academic book is the system surrounding its production and dissemination, the process through which the book comes into being, is distributed, and interacts with its readers. I mentioned earlier that the message I’d received from that press, declining my book on financial grounds, produced two immediate responses. The first was my mother’s bewildered disbelief; the second came from my colleague Matt Kirschenbaum, who left a comment on Planned Obsolescence saying that he did not understand why I couldn’t simply take the manuscript and the two positive readers’ reports and put the whole thing online – voilà: peer-reviewed publication – where it would likely garner a readership both wider and larger than the same manuscript in print would. “In fact I completely understand why that’s not realistic,” he went on to say, “and I’m not seriously advocating it. Nor am I suggesting that we all become our own online publishers, at least not unless that’s part of a continuum of different options. But the point is, the system’s broken and it’s time we got busy fixing it. What ought to count is peer review and scholarly merit, not the physical form in which the text is ultimately delivered” (Kirschenbaum).

  • On the afterlives of media, see Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines and Always Already New; Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge; Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media.
  • See, e.g., Crewe.
  • See Liu, et al, and Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin.
  • Calls for moving away from the scholarly monograph, given its apparent status as an artifact no one reads anymore, have been on the rise of late; see, for instance, Mark Bauerlein’s report for the American Enterprise Institute, “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own,” as well as Inside Higher Ed‘s story about the report, “Unread Monographs, Uninspired Undergrads.”
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/introduction/undead/