Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

reading and the communications circuit

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Scholars working on areas of material culture studies such as the history of the book, as well as those literary critics focused on reader reception, have long included among their interests these social networks and their effects on both the dissemination and the reception of texts. On the one hand, as Leah Price notes in a review essay exploring the vast number of approaches to the study of reading as a cultural activity, some scholars trace an historical trajectory from “the open spaces of antiquity (gardens, porticoes, squares, streets) to the closed sites of the Middle Ages (churches, monks’ cells, refectories, courts),” while also noting that the act of reading itself in fact “carved out privacy within communal institutions such as the coffee shop, the public library, and the railway carriage” (309-10), both trends suggesting an increasing privatization of the act of reading. However, Price also notes that even at its most solitary, reading has always had communal aspects. These social aspects of reading have been explored by scholars ranging from Robert Darnton, who in his essay “What Is the History of Books” focuses on books’ circulation as a manifestation of a “communications circuit,” to Elizabeth Long, whose “Textual Interpretation as Collective Action” argues that, in Price’s words, “readers need others to set an example, to provide a sounding board for reactions to texts, to recommend and criticize and exchange books” (306), to, of course, Stanley Fish, who has argued most famously for the role of “interpretive communities” in shaping readers’ potential responses to texts.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 Texts have thus never operated in isolation from their readers, and readers have never been fully isolated from one another, but different kinds of textual structures have given rise to and interacted within different kinds of communications circuits. Newspapers and pamphlets, as most famously studied by Jurgen Habermas and Benedict Anderson, developed their influence in close concert with the rise of coffee house culture, in which the events and polemics of the day were discussed and debated, giving rise not simply to a Habermasian sense of the “public sphere,” but to a sense of the public inhabiting that sphere, the “imagined community” of the nation.[3.15] Books, similarly, moved within a set of social and communal structures that greatly affected their reception and comprehension, including libraries and reading groups, which not only assisted readers in the selection of texts but also provided space for their discussion. That said, the technology of the book, which fostered the notion of the text as the discrete, unique, authentic product of an individual author — what Joseph Esposito has referred to as “the myth of the primal book” — similarly fostered a sense of the discrete reader with whom it interacted, resulting in a general trend toward individualizing the reader, shifting the predominant mode of reading from a communal reading-aloud to a more isolated, silent mode of consumption.[3.16]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 It is this isolated mode of reading that overwhelmingly dominates our understanding of book-reading today, and particularly the form of reading done by scholars. The library model of textual circulation, once understood to be a communal enterprise, now comes to seem profoundly individualistic: books are checked out and read by one person at a time, in retreat from interaction with the world. Indeed, when we imagine scholarly interactions with the bulk of printed texts today, particularly within the humanities, the primary images that arise are of isolation: individual scholars hunched over separately bound texts, each working individually, whether in their separate offices or even collectively, in the silent reading rooms of the major research libraries. Scholars of course need to read and reflect in relative silence and retreat, in order to understand and process the texts with which they work, as well as to produce more texts from those understandings. But the isolated aspect of this mode of reading has come to dominate our sense of the practice of reading as a whole, and in so doing the scholar has come to partake of the myth of individual genius, in which the great man produces noble ideas wholly from his own intellectual resources.[3.17] As Walter Ong has suggested,

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Writing is a solipsistic operation. I am writing a book which I hope will be read by hundreds of thousands of people, so I must be isolated from everyone. While writing the present book, I have left word that I am ‘out’ for hours and days — so that no one, including persons who will presumably read the book, can interrupt my solitude. (100)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 What such an understanding of the operation of scholarship ignores, of course, is the ways that the communal lingers in the circuit, if only in submerged ways; the scholar alone in his or her office with a book is never wholly alone, but is always in conversation with that book’s author. Similarly, the products of this scholar’s readings are likewise intended to contribute to an ongoing conversation with the other thinkers in the field. This conversation takes place at an often glacial pace, as years elapse between thought and utterance, in the form of the book’s publication, and between utterance and response, in the form of reviews of or responses to that book, but it is a conversation nonetheless.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 This perspective on the practices of scholarly discourse is meant to suggest that, in attempting to reproduce the form of the book electronically, technologists have for too long focused their development on the isolated practices of reading — the individual reader, alone with a screen — rather than the communal engagement in discussion and debate to which those practices are, on some level at least, meant to give rise. Scholars operate in a range of conversations, from classroom conversations with students to conference conversations with colleagues; scholars need to have available to them not simply the library model of texts circulating amongst individual readers but also the coffee house model of public reading and debate. This interconnection of individual nodes into a collective fabric is, of course, the strength of the network, which not only physically binds individual machines but also has the ability to bring together the users of those machines, at their separate workstations, into one communal whole.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in this insight; “the network can create virtual connections amongst otherwise isolated individuals!” is little more than the kind of utopian thinking that’s colored internet studies since Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community was first published in 1993. My interest in thinking about the relationship between the social network and the structure of online texts should not be read as suggesting that such wired community will solve all of the problems of contemporary scholarly publishing, but I do want to argue that understanding the ways that texts circulate within and give rise to communities will be a necessary component of any successful electronic publishing venture. Given that the strength of the network with respect to the circulation of text is precisely its orientation toward the commons, that many can not only read a text individually but also interact with the same text at the same time, developers of textual technologies would do well to think about ways to situate those texts within a community, and to promote communal discussion and debate within those texts’ frames. Our new textual technologies and publishing systems must recognize that, on the one hand, simply publishing texts online, finding ways to reproduce the structures of the book in digital form, is insufficient, because the network cannot, and should not, replicate the codex; and that, on the other hand, simply moving toward a more internally-networked form of publishing will likewise not revolutionize the circulation of texts, as the emphasis remains on the individual text, the individual author, the individual mind. The processed book, as Esposito has argued, cannot remain isolated from other texts: “By being placed within a network, where it is pointed to and pointed from, where it is analyzed and measured and processed and redistributed, a book reveals its connections to all other books” (Esposito). And, as Richard Lanham noted in an early review essay on studies of electronic textuality, these connections have the potential to alter “the whole idea of scholarly originality, research, and production and publication” (“From Book to Screen” 203) — but such transformations can only succeed if the medium’s interactivity and nonauthoritative structures are fully mobilized in our new textual forms.[3.18] It’s no paradox that my students resist hypertext while embracing Facebook; the generation celebrated by Time magazine as the “person of the year” in late 2006 — “you” – expects that the reader will likewise be allowed to write.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 That scholars, and not just students, have a desire for such interaction might be seen in the speedy rise to popularity of academic blogging, and in particular in the success of a range of scholarly group blogs including The Valve in literary studies, Crooked Timber in political philosophy, Cliopatria in history, Language Log in linguistics, and so on. Many scholars feel themselves over-isolated, longing for new modes of collaboration and discussion, and such blogs have enabled a kind of conference-without-walls, in which new ideas and new texts can be discussed in something closer to real time. Moreover, contrary to the sense of some more curmudgeonly folks that the kinds of casual writing done on scholarly blogs can only detract from one’s ability to produce “serious” work, whether by stealing time or focus, or by encouraging speed at the cost of deliberativeness, in fact, many academic bloggers have argued that their blogging, and the discussions on various blogs, have been productive of more substantive work. By revitalizing discourse among peers, blogs have helped enable a revival of the coffee house model of textual circulation.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 But this coffee house model still largely revolves around the contemporary equivalent of newspaper and pamphlet publishing, rather than the longer, more deliberative form of the book. One question that remains is whether the library model of the circulation of single-author, long-form texts, meant to be consumed in relative isolation, over longer periods of time, might similarly benefit from the kinds of interaction that blogs produce, and if so, how. The library in such a model would become not simply a repository but instead fully part of a communications circuit, one that facilitates discourse rather than enforcing silence. Many libraries are already seeking ways to create more interaction within their walls; my institution’s library, for instance, hosts a number of lecture series and has a weekly “game night,” each designed to help some group of its users interact not simply with the library’s holdings, but with one another. Games may seem a frivolous example of the contemporary academy’s drive to cater to the younger generation’s relatively nonintellectual interests, but it is in fact hoped that patrons who use the library in such a fashion would not only be more likely to use it in traditional ways — more likely, for instance, to feel comfortable approaching a research librarian for help with a project — but also more empowered to collaborate with one another, breaking the library’s stereotypical hush.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Given that libraries are already interested in establishing themselves as part of a scholarly discursive network, putting the emphasis in the development of electronic publishing technologies on an individualist sense of the book’s circulation — on the retreat into isolation that accompanies our stereotypical imaginings of the library — threatens to miss the point entirely, ignoring the ways that the book itself has always served as an object of discussion, and thus overlooking the real benefit to be derived from liberating the book’s content from the form of the codex. Network interactions and connections of the types provided by blog engines can revitalize academic discourse not just in its pamphlet/coffee-house mode, but also in its book/library mode, by facilitating active reader engagement with texts, by promoting discussion within the text’s own frame, and by manifesting the ways that each individual text is, and has always been, in dialogue with numerous texts that have preceded it, and that are yet to come.

  • See Anderson and Habermas. There are certain obvious criticisms to be leveled at both theorists, most notably that the public sphere that they describe somewhat overstates its universality, given that only those admitted to the coffee houses – white men of a certain economic standing – were able to become part of that public. It is nonetheless key that the technologies of reading played a crucial role in developing that public’s sense, however faulty, of itself.
  • See Esposito; see also, in addition to Price as cited earlier, Darnton: “Reading itself has changed over time. It was often done aloud and in groups, or in secret and with an intensity we may not be able to imagine today” (78).
  • See Carla Hesse, who in “Books in Time” ties the individualism associated with the book and its author not to the technologies of print or the codex but rather to the philosophical and political debates of the Enlightenment, which were staked upon understanding the individual thinker as the origin of knowledge.
  • As we saw in the previous chapter, there of course remains a place for the individual author, even within such a dynamic networked environment, and so there remains a place for the individual text; as Sebastian Mary commented on the draft of this paper, “I’d argue that the net makes visible the activity that takes place prior to a text being enshrined in a form evoking the tradition of the book. Hence, dynamic community-based net activity doesn’t replace in-depth, fixed, authoritative scholarly work but rather facilitates those aspects of scholarship that are plainly more fluid and mutable, speeding up conversation and removing the shackles of Authority from kinds of print that chafe under its yoke. Or, to put it another way, I think there always comes a point where you want to write a book — but not everything works best when published that way.”
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/three-texts/reading-and-the-communications-circuit/