Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Three: Texts

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 …there are still many tricks that electronic technology is quite incapable of performing; still many structural, practical, and interpretative problems embedded in the new systems; still many radical and continuing limitations on the supposed electronic management of knowledge. — Ian Donaldson, “The Destruction of the Book”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Books, the centuries-old foundation of textuality, can now be seen as overshadowed by a metatextuality that extends progressively to the whole complex of modes of representing the world, to all the different media, while continuing, nevertheless, to function as a referent. It is for this reason that the difficulty of perfecting and framing the methods for leaving through ‘pages’ on screen witnesses both an effort to reconform the book as a nonbook, and at the same time the book’s permanence. — Patrick Bazin, “Toward Metareading”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 If, as I’ve argued in the previous chapters, peer review in a digitally networked environment might most productively become a process of peer-to-peer review, and if online authoring will require us to think differently about the relationships among individual authors, we might expect that moving the machinery of publishing online would similarly demand or result in some greater connectivity in the forms that our published texts assume. To some extent, this goes without saying: the very essence of the web lies in the hyperlink, and texts on the web seem destined to be connected to one another via links of one form or another. In this chapter, however, I want to press a bit harder on what that connection might mean, and how it might affect the kinds of texts we produce, the ways we distribute them, and the ways that they are, finally, read. In exploring those connections, I want to think less about the technology of the link per se and more about what D. F. McKenzie has called “the sociology of texts,” which is to say the ways that texts of all varieties interact, both with one another and with their readers. In thinking through the sociology of texts, we need to consider “the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption” (McKenzie 15). Because the dominant print-based forms of today’s scholarly communication have been with us for so long, many of those motives and interactions have become invisible to us; texts simply are the way they are, or, when we do consider them more deeply, they are the ways that print requires them to be.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In what follows I will explore the kinds of interactions fostered by the current forms of scholarship — which have developed in concert with print’s technologies of production, distribution, and use, but which aren’t in any inescapable sense determined by those technologies — and how network-based communication might inspire new kinds of interactivity in our scholarship. When I talk about “interactivity” in this sense, however, I don’t mean the kinds of interactivity often associated with computer-based texts, which imagines them to be a digital form of the “choose your own adventure” text. Lev Manovich has compellingly debunked what he refers to as “the myth of interactivity” in new media, pointing out that the term interactive used in this sense is tautological, “stating the most basic fact about computers” (55). Instead, I’m interested in a more communicative sense of interaction across texts, between texts and readers, and among readers. These forms of interaction exist even in what seems like the static, discrete textual forms made possible by print, but the affordances of network-based communication present the potential for heightening and highlighting them, in ways that could prove extremely powerful for the future of scholarship.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Though this chapter attempts to explore the new kinds of textual structures that network-based publishing might inspire, it doesn’t attempt to take on all such structures. Most notably, I’m not primarily focused on the kinds of multimodal scholarship that I discussed at the end of the previous chapter, though I think that such new forms, especially as they’re being pioneered in venues such as the online journals Kairos and Vectors, could have an enormous impact on the ways that we produce and support scholarly arguments. Multimodal texts, which make rich use of images, audio, video, and other forms of computer-processed data, enable authors to interact in new ways with their objects of study, and to create rich models of complex processes and ideas. In this chapter, however, I focus most of my attention on the kinds of scholarly texts that are primarily composed of text, in no small part because the new digital form that we’re seeking is the form that might continue the work that the book has done for us for the last five centuries. What I hope to explore in the pages that follow are the possibilities for a new digital form that’s as comfortable, engaging, information-rich, flexible, and inviting as the book itself has been — but that extends beyond the covers of the individual text, to take advantage of the interactive possibilities that the network presents.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In order to begin exploring that new textual structure, however, it would be useful first to think carefully about what exactly the book has been, how its affordances have affected the organization of knowledge, and how our interactions with it have shaped our assumptions about the relationships between author, text, and reader that it mediates. During the December 2006 MLA conference in Philadelphia, Peter Stallybrass presented a paper whose title indicated that it would focus on the relationship between textual studies – or the application of material culture approaches to the study of textual production – and the book.[3.1] At the very outset of his presentation, however, he made a somewhat startling claim; in asking who, exactly, it is that produces the thing we know as the book, Stallybrass overturned several basic assumptions about that form’s production often unconsciously held by both literary scholars and textual critics. Authors do not write books, he argued, suggesting that, actually, authors write sentences, or, on a larger scale, texts. But neither do printers produce books; printers, instead, produce pages. The primary argument that Stallybrass’s paper sought to make was about the need for textual studies scholars to think in terms of pages, both bound and unbound, in order to escape what he called “the tyranny of the book” (“Textual Studies”).[3.2] While any such escape from tyranny in criticism is undoubtedly a good thing, our attention in this project needs to remain on the book, as it is, to some extent, the endangered species we hope to save.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In setting up his argument about the need for textual scholars to focus on the page, however, Stallybrass suggested, almost as an aside, that the book is a production, finally, of the binder. This is a point I’d like to dwell on a bit, as it suggests that the bookness of the book derives less from its material composition — ink-on-paper — than from its organization, which in the case of print takes the form of sequenced, bound, and cut leaves. As the conventional wisdom holds, it is the development of that form — the shift from the scroll to the codex — that, as Stallybrass argues in “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” enabled “the capacity for random access” (42), allowing a reader to turn immediately to any particular point in a text, thus facilitating the reader’s active engagement in and manipulation of the textual object. Turning our material focus from print to binding as the source of bookness holds significant implications for scholars working on new, electronic modes of textuality, and in particular, on the future of the book. For if this is the case — that the formal properties of the book that have the greatest impact on our reading experience are derived not from print, but rather from the codex — one might suggest that researchers working on new ways of transforming ink-on-paper to pixels-on-screens may be working on the wrong problem, or at least the wrong aspect of a knottier problem than it has at moments appeared. As Johanna Drucker has suggested, it’s all too easy for the problem of the digital future of the book to get caught up in how the book looks rather than how the book works; in order to imagine a new digital form for the book, we need to focus on what, and how, it communicates.[3.3]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 The task, in other words, is on some level to forget about the arrangement of pixels on the screen and instead focus on our experience of larger-scale structural or organizational matters. This is not to say that interface design isn’t important; as scholars including Stan Ruecker and Alan Galey have recently argued, design is itself a hermeneutic process, always presenting an interpretation of the ways digital projects communicate.[3.4] It’s also evident that the absence of careful design can interfere with the reader’s ability to engage with digital text. Stallybrass notes the irony, for instance, in what appears to be the computer’s regression from the kinds of manipulation that the codex made possible, as many digital texts reimpose the limitations of the scroll on our reading practices. Despite having greater capacities for random access to texts via searching and other modes of linking, the web’s reliance on scrolling text too often fails to take account of the ways that cognitive practices of reading are spatially organized. See, for instance, Geoffrey Nunberg’s footnoted observation in “The Places of Books in the Age of Electronic Reproduction”: “One ancillary effect of this homogenization of the appearance of electronic documents is to blur the sense of provenance that we ordinarily register subconsciously when we are reading. As a colleague said to me not long ago, ‘Where did I see something about that the other day? I have a clear mental picture of a UNIX window’” (37, n31). Stallybrass similarly notes the dislocation that results from the inability to stick one’s finger between the pages of an electronic text to mark one’s place. None of this is to meant to imply that digital publishing ought to mimic the spatial arrangement of bound pages; if anything, too much current thinking about the design of digital texts is predicated on the structure of the book rather than any natively networked structure. Rather, I want to suggest that those of us working on the future of publishing online need to think in terms that are not just about page design, but rather about larger-scale textual structures, and about readers’ interactions with and through them.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In what follows, I will explore a few projects focused on stretching the boundaries of textual structures in digital scholarship, exploring the ways these projects conceive of the possibilities for a web-native replacement for the codex form. An early draft of a portion of this chapter was posted for comment and discussion using one of these technologies, CommentPress; I later revised the article based upon the comments I received and republished it in CommentPress on MediaCommons, as well as in a more traditionally linear format in the Journal of Electronic Publishing.[3.5] This experiment allowed me, in some sense, to practice what I am preaching, but it also permitted some insight into the limitations of current web-based publishing technologies, as well as into some of the issues that publishing organizations face in the deployment of these technologies. None of the projects I discuss in this chapter should thus be imagined as a conclusion to the issues I’m exploring, but instead as various modes of exploration, ways of approaching the issues involved in electronic publishing from a broader structural perspective. At stake is not the success or failure of any particular technology, but rather our ability to produce a reading experience that provides net-native principles of organization as compelling as those of the codex, but with the extraordinary flexibility and multiplicity of the digital. Only in significantly broadening our sense of the text beyond the structures that have developed in print, I argue, will we be able to develop a new form for scholarship that will allow it to thrive electronically.

  • This presentation was later published as “Little Jobs: Broadsides and the Printing Revolution,” in Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein.
  • In “Little Jobs,” Stallybrass’s rhetoric is somewhat toned down, while still making the same point: “The conceptual gluttony of ‘the book’ consumes all printing as if all paper was destined for its voracious mouth” (340).
  • See Drucker, “The Virtual Codex” 217.
  • See Ruecker and Galey.
  • Both the commentable draft and the republished version are available at http://docs.plannedobsolescence.net. Thanks are due to Bob Stein, Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur, and Eddie Tejeda, for making the technology available for my experiment, and to Bob, Ben, Dan Visel, K.G. Schneider, Mark Bernstein, Richard Pinneau, and Sebastian Mary for their helpful comments on the draft. Thanks are also due to Shana Kimball and Judith Turner of the Journal of Electronic Publishing for their willingness to participate in this experiment.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/three-texts/