Working Paper, Wiki

Working Papers in Cultural Studies Project

Since 2011, Mark Hayward and I have been working to create online tools to help cultural studies scholars develop their research.  Our main project -- now in its initial testing stages -- is a website for working papers, or an incubator for scholarly writing.  Its purpose is to broaden the scope of community input on and involvement in one's work, while it's still in progress.  Instead of emphasizing products, as most traditional academic publications do, our site stresses the deliberate process of making research as rigorous as it can be.  And instead of hiding that process, our aim is to make it more accessible than it is conventionally.

We found inspiration for these tools by looking backward into the future.  Specifically, we studied the publication practices of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s.  What interested us about the Centre's publications was how many different types there were and, more importantly, how they ran the gamut from formality to informality.  The BCCCS thrived in part beacause of its willingness to take a process-oriented approach to scholarly research and writing, one that recognized the value of traditionally peer-reviewed material and so-called "gray literature."  It also thrived because it developed a sophisticated social and technical infrastructure by means of which to produce and distribute the work of Centre faculty, students, and affiliates.

You can read about how the Centre's publishing practices inspired Mark and me in our essay, "Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature." We drafted the document "out loud" and in public, here on this website, cutting and pasting from several different Word documents that we shared via Dropbox.  You can track the many iterations of "Working Papers" in the manner of Wikipedia.  You'll see that however polished the final draft may appear, there were numerous false starts, wrong turns, and detours along the way.

We've also included notes and other documents relevant to the "Working Papers" project, which we've linked to below.  The documents tell a story that sometimes intersects with, but that also runs parallel to, the one we tell in the essay.  Mostly, they show how the latter's direction changed the deeper we delved into the history of publications at Birmingham.  Mark and I had intended to write a piece as much about publishing at Birmingham as about the state of publishing in cultural studies today, technologically speaking.  Much of the present-day material either got cut or was condensed into the conclusion, however, a result of the rich trove of historical information we discovered in the Birmingham Centre's annual reports from 1964-1980.

The essay is set to appear in issue 78 of the journal New Formations.  You can download an uncorrected page proof here.  Again, the spirit of this project is collaboration and sharing.  We welcome your comments on "Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature" and on any other aspect of the WPCS project.

"The Visible College" Dossier

Welcome!  Here you'll find a dossier of materials related to my short essay, "The Visible College," which was published in October 2011 in The International Journal of Communication.  It's part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor, edited by Jonathan Sterne.

My piece essentially asks the question, "What if...?"  What if we developed better tools for sharing not only academic publications, but also the backstory, or hidden transcript, of the labor that goes into them?  This page offers the beginnings of an answer to that question by tracing the essay's evolution from barely an idea to a misfit manuscript draft, and eventually a finished product.  Follow the links below to see how both the framing and argument of "The Visible College" shifted as Jonathan and I dialogued about the piece.

You may be curious as to why I've made this dossier publicly available.  "The Visible College" should tell you pretty much all you need to know, but in any case here's a gloss on the argument.

I'm something of an intellectual historian, and so I'm cognizant of how important these types of materials are for understanding the development of someone's work, or even better, for undertanding how the work develops in relationship to whom or what.  Given the ease with which emails are deleted, digital manuscript drafts are over-written, and so forth, it's incumbent upon librarians, archivists, historians, and those similarly invested in preservation to create systems for holding on to our intellectual past beyond what appears in formal publications.

There's more, though.  The forms of academic publication we currently use are legacies of the 17th and 18th centuries.  This was a time when, because of scarce natural resources and a host of other factors, authors and editors needed to be stingy about which material found its way into print.  "Extraneous" matter, including the type of information that you'll find here, was consequently condensed and shunted off to the hinterlands of academic publications.  The result?  A narrow portrait of academic labor, particularly as it relates to authorship.

This page is, admittedly, a crude first effort to begin adressing these concerns.  As such, I'd welcome your feedback on "The Visible College," this dossier, or any of the items you'll find here.

THE DOSSIER

Email Correspondence Between Jonthan Sterne & Me, Organized by Thread:

Document Drafts, Including Jonathan's Margin Notes [PDF Downloads via Dropbox]

(Note: all email correspondence is reproduced here with Jonathan Sterne's kind permisison.)

Performing Scholarly Communication

Words are not tools, but we give children language, pens, and notebooks as we give workers shovels and pickaxes.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (76)

If you’re like me, then chances are you’ve opened up or otherwise accessed this issue of Text and Performance Quarterly to stay on top of the latest developments in Performance Studies.  That’s a sensible thing to do.  Academic communities depend significantly on our willingness to share our latest research with our colleagues and to share in theirs in return.  Journals are particularly well suited to this type of exchange, maybe even better than books.  Because of the frequency with which periodicals are published and the specialized audiences they usually address, they’re able to offer more regular opportunities for fields or disciplines to reaffirm or challenge their discursive bonds.   The question I want to pose is, should we expect even more from this type of exchange than we currently do?

The foregoing activities and a host of other ones fall under the rubric of “scholarly communication.”  In its conventional usage, the term refers to both process and product, drawing on the two dominant senses of the word “communication” James Carey identified more than 35 years ago: the ritual (e.g., the periodic avowal of disciplinary solidarity) and the transmissive (e.g., the instrumental dissemination of research) (12).  The claim I want to advance is that our expectations of academic publishing are linked to how we conceive of the “communication” part of “scholarly communication,”1 and that the conventional usage hardly accounts for the range of phenomena with which periodical publishing in particular can be associated.  I might even be tempted to say, paraphrasing Deleuze and Guattari, that words are not tools, but we give journals to academics as we give construction workers shovels and pickaxes.

Serials, indeed, are more than just obligatory tools of the academic trade.  This becomes apparent as soon as we emphasize the performative dimensions of scholarly communication.  By this I refer to the material transformations that result from a given communicative event and, relatedly, to the socially-inculcated habits that dispose us to engage repetitively—though too often unreflectively—in culturally charged activities (How to Do 6; Butler, Gender passim; Butler, Bodies 12-16; “Performing Writing”).2  I’ve addressed the first part of this definition elsewhere and at length, looking specifically at the political and economic consequences that result from our participation in a scholarly book and journal publishing industry that in recent years has come under increasing corporate control (Striphas, “Banality”; Striphas, “Acknowledged”).  In what remains of this brief essay I want to home in mainly on the second part of the definition.  Specifically, I want to explore the conditions under which some of our current journal publishing practices, or performances, first arose and to reflect on their pertinence today.  Then, drawing on one unconventional publishing experiment I’ve initiated, I’ll offer a few ideas about how we might perform scholarly communication differently—that is, without simply giving in, in Judith Butler’s words, to “the compulsion to repeat” (Gender 145).3

The emergence of a routine set of practices that would today be called “scholarly communication” is a fascinating, if understudied, aspect of intellectual history.  Despite the obvious topical overlap, communication scholars haven’t much chronicled, let alone theorized, the development of these activities other than informally.  (This is, I suspect, indicative of the degree to which the humanities generally, and the discipline of communication more specifically, have taken these activities for granted.)  The responsibility has instead fallen mainly to historians of science and sociologists, who’ve nonetheless painted a fascinating picture of how scientific exchange began to coalesce in the early modern period.  What intrigues me about this history is not so much the invention of modern science as the improvisations by which a burgeoning group of journal editors and contributors came to devise their communicative protocols.

Of the many works exploring the history of academic journal publishing, among the most compelling is Harriet Zuckerman and Robert K. Merton’s essay from 1971, “Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure, and Functions of the Referee System.”  The authors focus on the “social invention of the scientific journal,” or the diffuse ensemble of negotiations through which, starting in the late 17th century, scientific communications achieved a high degree of formalization (68).  Their account begins with the fundamental notion of making public one’s research.  Doing so was hardly self-evident to early modern scientists and their predecessors, let alone the acknowledged good that it is today.  Quite the contrary, they tended to shroud their experiments and discoveries in secrecy (69).  This was a compensatory move, intended to offset the prevailing lack of regard for the sanctity of another’s words and ideas.  It was also something of a carry-over from the guild system, which enforced strict norms of trade secrecy as a matter of civic, regional, or national pride (“Guilds”).4  An indeterminate amount of sharing did occur, of course, but it often transpired in isolation, and generally then in the form of private letters directed to one’s closest confidants.  Zuckerman and Merton label this correspondence “fugitive” because of the highly dispersed scientific record that resulted from it (71).  Indeed, with cutting-edge research tucked away in the odd corner of one’s desk drawer or perhaps stowed haphazardly in someone else’s personal library, it’s little wonder that many early academicians felt the need to be wandering scholars (c.f.: Printing Press 72, 579).

All that changed in due course, so much so that the figure of the wandering scholar was gradually displaced by that of another: the researcher “standing on the shoulders of giants,” in Isaac Newton’s words, or building deliberately on earlier and more readily accessible work (qtd. in Surowiecki 164).5

The shift from an ostensibly closed scientific paradigm to a considerably more open one occurred to some extent by design.  Yet, as Zuckerman and Merton observe, more often than not it occurred extemporaneously.  Peer-review, publication dates, even the formal academic paper—these and other routine features of scholarly communication began their days as “adaptive expedients” meant to address particular problems relating to the nascent system of journal publishing (69).  Dates, for example, arose as a means for certifying “priority of discovery” and thus as an incentive for scientists to begin sharing their work publicly.  The carefully-crafted research paper appears to have emerged even more organically, a result of peer and editorial pressure, both real and perceived: “Communications intended for publication would ordinarily be more carefully prepared than private scientific papers,” write Zuckerman and Merton, “and all the more so, presumably, in the knowledge that they would be scrutinized” by authorities within the growing scientific community (73).

All that to say, the norms of scholarly communication that we perform today were forged under historically specific circumstances.  This of course begs the question of the extent to which those circumstances continue to apply today—a question that I cannot hope to answer here.  Instead I’ll address it indirectly, by commenting briefly on how peer review has transformed over time.

Peer review serves the purpose of quality control, no doubt, yet it performs other, less obvious, functions as well.  It is way of constantly enacting the principle: there is a finite amount of pages in any given volume of any given journal, and so only the most worthy research ought to have the privilege of filling them. In other words, peer review is a speech act whose outcome is rarity, or scarcity.  The practice arose partly as a means of compensating for the material realities of the medium of print, which places determinate limits on how much content can find its way into the public realm (“Obsolescence” 721).6  But it hasn’t always been so—at least, not exactly.  In the early days of scientific periodicals, it wasn’t uncommon for those in charge to come up short on papers deemed “publishable” when it came time to send an issue to press.  They devised two main strategies to work around the problem: wait to publish until sufficient—and sufficiently suitable—matter presented itself; or fill the remaining space with work that hadn’t been properly vetted.  The latter, Zuckerman and Merton note, would appear absent the endorsement of the scholarly society under whose imprimatur a given journal was published.  Here a different standard prevailed: “sit penes authorem fides,” or “let the author take responsibility for it” (68-69, 73).  On those occasions when the quantity of pages ceased to be an overarching concern, that is to say, early journal editors recognized that they need not maintain the performance scarcity as a matter of course.

We have significantly lost touch with this adaptability today.  This is attributable in part to the exponential growth of scholarly research over the last 300 years or so, which has helped to make publishing in academic journals an increasingly competitive affair.  Yet it’s also attributable to the compulsion to engage in scholarly communication as if the material constraints of print still straightforwardly applied (assuming they ever did).  For example, the editors of the journal Shakespeare Quarterly recently conducted an “open peer review” experiment, in which contributors to a special issue on the Bard and new media were asked to post drafts of their papers online.  Anyone visiting the site was welcome to comment on the work.  The authors, for their part, were encouraged to revise their papers based on the wisdom of the “crowd” whose feedback, the editors hoped, would surpass that of the usual two or three editorial board members responsible for evaluating the work.  Here’s the rub, though: beyond the fact that the editors still ultimately determined which essays would be published, the majority of those providing commentary were “very established, senior scholars” whose presence reportedly silenced some their junior colleagues (“Humanities Journal” A11).  What, then, was actually different here, beyond the fact that even more than the normal number of superstars got to hold sway over the direction of their field?  Indeed it seems to me that, if anything, this was a heightened performance of scarcity in spite of the preponderance of digital space.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we simply dispense with peer review, editorial decision-making, or the like.  Instead, let’s try to think much more creatively—even expansively—than we currently do about how these and other fixtures of scholarly communication might work.  Our early modern predecessors knew enough to recognize the difference between “there we go again” (a performance of expedient adaptation) and “this is how these things are done” (a performance of compulsory routine), and in this regard we’d do well to abide by their example (Social Construction 57, 59).

For my part, I’ve been tinkering with the norms of scholarly communication off and on since at least 2007.  Early that year I’d committed to writing a paper for the National Communication Association’s annual convention in Chicago, explicating this enigmatic statement from Deleuze and Guattari: “We do not lack communication.  On the contrary, we have too much of it.  We lack creation.  We lack resistance to the present” (Philosophy 108). I pecked away at the essay that fall and managed produce a presentable draft about a week before NCA.  Yet, the piece still felt unfinished to me—as if there was more that I wanted to say, but couldn’t.  I considered posting the draft to my blog, Differences & Repetitions (http://www.diffandrep.org), with the hope that my readers would provide some feedback.7  It was then that I accepted the fact that I’d about reached the limit of my knowledge, and so I decided to take the project in a different direction.  I posted the essay to a wiki site and invited anyone interested enough work on it.  Thus was born the Differences & Repetitions Wiki: A Site for Open Source Writing (http://www.diffandrep.org/wiki), or D&RW, and its first-ever fully editable project, “We Do Not Lack Communication.”8  I built the site, incidentally, using free open source software.

I cannot honestly say the experiment has been a resounding success—at least, not yet, since it remains ongoing.  On the plus side, the project site has received hundreds of page views since it went live in late 2007.  Fewer contributors than I’d hoped have added prose, citations, and comments, although I’m encouraged that after four years additions and changes continue to occur (albeit sporadically).  Perhaps the most promising outcome is that the contributors have nudged the project in directions I never would have thought to take it, thereby encouraging me to reflect on my own disciplinary predilections.  More unsettling has been the gradual absorption of my writing into that of others, which has challenged me to let go of my sense of propriety over the work.  Indeed, at one point I had designs on publishing the piece in a conventional academic journal.  Now, out of respect for my fellow contributors, I only feel comfortable publishing about it.  The essay ceased belonging only to me once it became open source.

In any case, “We Do Not Lack Communication” has taught me a great deal about the types of questions we might ask about our performances of scholarly communication in general, and of academic journal publishing in particular.  Could the concept of peer review be expanded to encompass distributed forms of collaboration?  Should colleges and universities reward this type of participation, and if so, how?  What if people other than out “peers” could easily and routinely add input to our work?9  What exactly is a “peer,” anyway?  How might editors and scholarly societies better curate academic research so as to encourage more broad-ranging engagement with it?  Must published research only include monuments to the past, or can it include work of a more plastic nature?10

I’m not proposing D&RW as a model for the future of scholarly communication as much as a thing to think with.  There are many kinks that would need to be worked out before the site could even approach being a viable platform for regular scholarly exchange—and besides, a more “papercentric” type of journal publishing still has plenty of virtues (Digitize 20, 59-61).  The point of performing scholarly communication differently shouldn’t be simply to replace a one-size-fits-all approach with yet another one, or to use new technology for the sake of using new technology.  The point, rather, should be to expand our repertoire in ways that would enhance the quality of our research and our ability to share it—and by “share it” I mean not only among the constituencies we already know, but as important, among those we might not otherwise encounter.

References

Austin, J. L.  How to Do Things With Words.  2nd ed.  Ed. J. O. Rumson and Marina Sbisà.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Belfanti, Carlo Marco.  “Guilds, Patents, and the Circulation of Technical Knowledge: Northern Italy During the Early Modern Age.”  Technology and Culture 45.3 (2004): 569-589

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann.  The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge.  New York: Anchor Books, 1966.

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

-----.  Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.”  New York and London: Routledge, 1993.  12-16. 

Carey, James W.  “A Cultural Approach to Communication.”  Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society.  New York and London: Routledge, 1989, 13-36.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.  Trans. Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

-----.  What Is Philosophy?  Trans. Huigh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell.  New York and London: Columbia UP, 1994.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth.  The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen.  “On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements.”  The Valve.  Jan. 6, 2006.  Jan. 24, 2009 <http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/on_the_future_of_academic_publishing_peer_review_and_tenure_requirements_or/>.

-----.  “Obsolescence.”  PMLA 123.3 (2008): 718-722. 

-----.  Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.  N.d.  Aug. 31, 2010 <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/>.

Hall, Gary.  Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now.  Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Howard, Jennifer.  “Leading Humanities Journal Tries ‘Open’ Peer Review, Likes It.”  Chronicle of Higher Education.  Aug. 13, 2010: A11, 19.

Pollock, Della.  “Performing Writing.”  The Ends of Performance.  Ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane.  New York and London: New York UP, 1998, 73-103. 

Striphas, Ted.  “Banality, Book Publishing, and the Everyday Life of Cultural Studies.”  International  Journal of Cultural Studies 5.4 (2002): 438-460.

-----.  “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing.”  Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7.1 (2010): 3-25.

Surowiecki, James.  The Wisdom of Crowds: How the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations.  New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Zuckerman, Harriet, and Robert K. Merton.  “Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure, and Functions of the Referee System.”  Minerva 9.1 (1971): 66-100.


This is a preprint of an article published in the January 2012 issue of Text and Performance Quarterly. © 2010-2011 Ted Striphas; Text & Performance Quarterly is available online at: http://www.informaworld.com

  • 1. …and indeed to the “scholarly” part of “scholarly communication,” but that’s a different essay entirely.
  • 2. Note that I am parsing the ritual, transmissive, and performative aspects of communication for analytical purposes only, recognizing that there is significant overlap between and among them.
  • 3. The full quotation is: “All signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat.”
  • 4. Guilds, Belfanti notes, often worked to impede innovation through their enforcement of secrecy and tradition.
  • 5. Surowiecki conjectures that Newton may have intended the phrase to be “a cruel joke” directed toward his diminutive rival, Robert Hooke.
  • 6. Specifically, Fitzpatrick discusses “the scarce economics of print.”
  • 7. The site was hosted at http://striphas.blogspot.com until July 2010, whereupon I moved it to its current address. The original Differences and Repetitions remains online, albeit now as a legacy site
  • 8. The site was hosted at http://striphas.wikidot.com until July 2010, whereupon I moved it to its current address. The original Differences and Repetitions Wiki remains online, albeit now as a legacy site. The version of the essay that I presented at NCA in 2007 was exclusively my own.
  • 9. On the organizational dynamics and drawbacks of “groupthink,” particularly in more or less homogeneous communities, see Wisdom 23-39 and 173-191. Surowiecki stresses “cognitive diversity” as an antidote to groupthink.
  • 10. Among those leading the effort to address these and other questions about the future of scholarly communication are Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Gary Hall. See Fitzpatrick (2006; 2008; n.d.); and Hall (2008).

Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing

"Between the intellectual and his [or her] potential public stand technical, economic, and social structures which are owned and operated by others."
—C. Wright Mills, White Collar1

"Our textual products…overwhelmingly confirm a writing that does not exceed what is expected of it."
—Sande Cohen, Academia and the Luster of Capital2

"You, too, can become a broom of the system."
—Lindsay Waters, Enemies of Promise3

Cultural studies exists only within specific contexts of scholarly communication. There is, nevertheless, an odd habit of referring to the field as though it were a diffuse or free-floating intellectual formation. “It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but apparently it is: Cultural studies is a set of writing practices; it is a discursive, analytic, interpretive tradition,” Cary Nelson has argued.4 In his later work with Stephen Watt, Nelson has demonstrated a much keener sensitivity to cultural studies’ relationship to the book and journal publishing industry.5 Here, however, he abstracts the field and its writing practices from the material conditions by which they are produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed. It is as if cultural studies publications appeared magically, as “free economic inputs,” independent of an increasingly consolidated, profit-intensive wing of the culture industry.6

This type of thinking is symptomatic of the sense of alienation I suspect many people in cultural studies feel from the instruments of production, distribution, and propagation of both our work and our field.7 We access these instruments all the time. We depend on them significantly for our livelihoods. What would cultural studies be without its publications, and without the formidable network of social, economic, legal, and infrastructural linkages to the publishing industry that sustains them? Nevertheless, many of us are reluctant to pause long enough to take stock of the choices we make—or that are made for us—when publishing our work, much less to consider how those choices may reverberate well beyond the immediate confines of cultural studies.

This essay explores the changing context of academic journal publishing and cultural studies’ envelopment within it. It is a companion piece to an article I published some years ago on the field’s relationship to the book industry,8 which is a facet of academic publishing I will address here only insofar as it overlaps with journals. My specific interest in the field’s relationship to journal publishing is motivated by two primary concerns: first, by the sense of alienation I have just mentioned, in which cultural studies scholars either forget or ignore our interdependence on the academic journal publishing industry; and second, by a desire for better access not only to the instruments of production of cultural studies, but also to the strategic knowledge we, its practitioners, do our best to produce.

Apropos of the latter concern, I am reminded of a moment in Stuart Hall’s essay, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies.” Reflecting on the work of Antonio Gramsci, Hall asserts that the first task of the political intellectual is to know more than the other side. He adds that the equally important task is to communicate that knowledge widely and effectively. “[U]nless those two fronts are operating at the same time,” Hall concludes, “you can get enormous theoretical advance without any engagement at the level of the political project.”9 “Knowing more than the other side” surely is difficult business, and doing so is where cultural studies’ energies would seem to predominantly lie. But taking my cue from Hall, I want to spend some time reflecting on the conditions under which scholarship in cultural studies can—and increasingly cannot—circulate.

The scholarly journal publishing industry of today barely resembles what it was a generation ago. It is both larger—in terms of the sheer number of journals now being produced—and smaller—in terms of the total number of publishers now producing those journals. It is more profit-minded and business savvy than ever before, yet it is also facing unprecedented competition from alternative publishing models. It looks increasingly to electronic media as key sources of revenue, even while it obsesses about unwanted fallout from electronically distributed journal content. Most insiders seem to agree that scholarly journal publishing has been undergoing a seismic shift in recent years, and an increasingly vocal group of activist-critics contends that the whole apparatus of scholarly communication now finds itself on shaky ground. Given cultural studies’ longstanding interest in the politics of media, it is surprising how few of us have raised questions about these changes, much less added our voices to the conversations that have ensued.10 Instead, academic librarians, along with committed individuals and groups in economics, geography, mathematics, medical science, the natural sciences, and elsewhere, have led the effort to make sense of and respond critically to the journal publishing industry’s transformations.

Building on and extending their work, I want to explore five major trends affecting scholarly communication today: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. Each one comprises a subsection of this essay. My argument is that recent changes in the political economy of academic journal publishing have had the unfortunate effect of impinging on cultural studies’ capacity to transmit the knowledge it produces, thereby dampening the field’s political potential. I further contend that cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its own production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are, at times, rather at odds with its own political proclivities.

Alienation
Most of us probably have done it at one time or another. By “it” I mean signing a publication agreement for a recently accepted journal article without reading the document carefully, or without pausing to consider the meaning and consequences of all the warrants, indemnities, and clauses ending with those ominous sounding words, “in perpetuity and in any form.” Like me, you probably resigned yourself to committing to the agreement, since the publisher told you, perhaps through a low-level editorial contact at the journal, that publication of your piece was contingent on your doing so without delay. Signing on the dotted line is “policy” she or he probably told you, politely but firmly, and if you do not do so promptly you are liable to hold up production on the issue in which your work is scheduled to appear. Worse, if you hold out for too long, you risk having your essay dropped altogether. And so begrudgingly you sign, because keeping the process moving along would seem to outweigh whatever benefits might come from making an issue of it.

To me, this is among the most profound—and profoundly alienating—moments of academic labor. I mean this in both the Marxian sense of “alienation,” in which participation in the system of objectified wage labor existentially impoverishes of one’s species-being, as well as in the more strictly legal sense of the term, as defined by Margaret Jane Radin: “a separation of something—an entitlement, right, or attribute—from its holder.”11 Beyond these definitions, the ritual signing of journal publication contracts is alienating in at least three specific ways.

First, the extreme sense of urgency that tends to surround the whole process is incommensurate with the time it takes for most academic articles to appear in print. In my experience, this interval can last anywhere from six to eighteen months from the day I sign a publication agreement; in rare cases it has been shorter, and I know of myriad instances in which it has taken even longer. The atmosphere of last-minute-ism may help keep the publication process running smoothly. On the downside, it can preempt academic authors from reflecting critically on the legal documents we are charged with signing, which can in turn lead to the hasty forfeiture of key rights and entitlements—assuming we are even aware of them.

Second, the process cultivates a habitus in which we are perpetually disposed “to take one for the team.” Practically no one wants to be the curmudgeon responsible for delaying an entire journal issue while trying to negotiate terms of publication. Publishers recognize this. Consciously or not, they leverage this goodwill by persuading authors to sign away our rights in the name of a collective interest (i.e., timely publication). They do so by capitalizing on an incentive structure in which, ironically, a desire to be perceived as “collegial” and “professional” compels academic authors to deprive one another of the chance to question journal publishers, attorneys, or others about the legal ramifications of publishing our work.

Finally, the contractual moment alienates us scholars from the products of our labor. It customarily involves the transfer of key rights (e.g., ownership, duplication, derivation, etc.) from author to publisher, in whole or part, in exchange for a variety of value-added services (e.g., typesetting, copyediting, marketing, etc.) and indirect rewards (e.g., promotion, tenure, professional recognition, etc.). Those benefits notwithstanding, signing on the dotted line transforms our labor into economically valuable intellectual property and, down the line, capital—assets publishers use to compete with one another in the marketplace.12 Our signatures allow journal publishers to disavow liability in matters of copyright infringement, obscenity, and so forth, moreover, thereby endowing them with deep ownership rights over material for which they accept only shallow legal responsibilities. An added “bonus” is that academic authors typically must shoulder all of the costs related to reproducing copyrighted images, song lyrics, and related materials, even though it is the journal publisher who reaps any financial rewards. In these cases, we are not merely giving our labor away, essentially for free; we are effectively paying a third party for the “privilege” of doing so. Journal publication contracts thus are magical documents indeed. They transfigure good knowledge into saleable knowledge goods, in a series of moves that implicate us in, while keeping us at arm’s length from, the noisy sphere of industrial production.

Little wonder, then, how easy it has become for scholars in and beyond cultural studies to disregard “how academic practices are increasingly enmeshed with capitalist social relations through their links with, and dependency on, multinational publishing companies.”13 Our bibliographies betray this point. Chicago, Harvard, AAA, APA, MLA, and other reference styles common in cultural studies require authors to identify book publishers’ names and locations. None, however, has a comparable expectation in place when it comes to citing scholarly journal articles. Why, despite a litany of detailed publication information, are the names and headquarters of journal publishers excluded from most reference lists? The reasons may not be immediately apparent, but the effect of these omissions is fairly clear. They encourage scholars to overlook the fact that specific presses—increasingly, private, for-profit corporate entities—are responsible for packaging and delivering most academic journal articles.

In fact, many academic journals are owned by corporations whose interests far exceed intellectual pursuits. Consider this: shares of Taylor & Francis/Informa plc, which trade on the London Stock Exchange, closed at £239.75 GBP on Friday, January 30, 2009, up from a twelve-month low of £140. Its revenue topped £1.1 billion GBP in 2007, an increase of 9% over the preceding year. One of Informa’s subsidiaries, Adam Smith Conferences, which is indeed named for the patron saint of economic liberalism, specializes in organizing events designed to open the former Soviet republics to private investment. Other divisions of the company provide information, consulting, training, and strategic planning services to major international agricultural, banking, insurance, investment, pharmaceutical, and telecommunications corporations, in addition to government agencies. Take Robbins-Gioia, for instance. The United States Army recently tapped this Informa subsidiary during an overhaul of its command and control infrastructure. The firm was brought in to assess how well the Army had achieved its goal of “battlefield digitization.” The United States Air Force, meanwhile, tapped Robbins-Gioia when it needed help improving its fleet management systems for U-2 spy planes. Other aspects of Informa, such as the Monaco Yacht Show, are perhaps more benign.14 Nonetheless, Informa is a significant global player whose business ventures extend into some of the most important geo-political and economic realignments of our time.

Now, it also happens that Taylor & Francis/Informa publishes some of the most esteemed journals in (or that are at least sympathetic to) cultural studies. These include Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies; Continuum; Cultural Studies; Culture, Theory, and Critique; Feminist Media Studies; Inter-Asia Cultural Studies; and Rethinking Marxism. My purpose in drawing this connection is not to scandalize cultural studies’ embeddedness in an organization like Informa, some of whose interests would seem to be at cross-purposes with its own. (This statement should not preclude moral outrage, however, or a desire to see Informa divest itself of these interests.) Odd couples such as these have been a facet of scholarly publishing since before the middle of the 20th century. As Mills observed, in 1951: "The political intellectual is, increasingly, an employee living off the communication machineries which are based on the very opposite of what he [or she] would like to stand for."15 My purpose, rather, is to is to take stock of the cognitive dissonance that results when scholars are pressured or even compelled to operate within a professional context of "merchantable knowledge."16 In that fateful moment when pen slides across paper and rights slip away, whose thoughts have not drifted in the direction of, “Why am I not getting paid directly for this?” And who has not then experienced a modicum of regret upon suddenly feeling so…entrepreneurial?

Proliferation
Reliable data about the growth of academic journal publishing is difficult to come by, in part because of disagreements over what counts as an academic journal.17 Nonetheless, the available data are revealing. A conservative estimate places the total number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals now in existence at around 20,000.18 Over the last century, their total number has grown at an average rate of about 3.6% annually, which means that the number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals doubles just about every 20 years.19 The upsurge, however, can vary widely by discipline. Take economics, for example, where the total number of English-language journals increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000,20 and the doubling occurred on average around every 12.5 years.

A similar trend is apparent in cultural studies. Since the founding of New Left Review (1960), Working Papers in Cultural Studies (1972), and Social Text (1979), the field’s apparatus of scholarly communication has undergone significant expansion. The late 1980s saw an uptick in the number of professionally produced cultural studies journals, with the launch of titles such as Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies (1987), Cultural Studies (1987; née The Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, founded in 1983), New Formations (1987), Public Culture (1988) and Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (1989). Even more rapid expansion occurred in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, with at least nine new journals appearing within the span of a decade. These include The Cultural Studies Review (1995), Soundings (1995), Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies (1997), The European Journal of Cultural Studies (1998), The International Journal of Cultural Studies (1998), Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (2000), Cultural Studies←→Critical Methodologies (2001), Feminist Media Studies (2001), and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (2004). On the basis of this list alone, the number of cultural studies journals published by scholarly presses grew at an annual rate of 6.3% between 1960 and 2004. This means that the number of journals in the field has doubled about every 11.5 years, far outpacing the average.21

Growth such as this is, in part, a positive indicator of cultural studies’ diversity and wellbeing. It also coincides with a net expansion of the population of academic and non-academic researchers worldwide, who otherwise would have to vie for journal space diminishing in real terms.22 But while there are pragmatic reasons behind the sprawl in academic journal publishing, in cultural studies and beyond, they are only part of the story. Over the last two decades, academic journal publishing has followed the general pattern of other media industries in segmenting its audience and increasing its number of outlets. The change has been complemented on the university side by the fragmentation of academic departments and the rising tide of interdisciplinarity, which have helped to foster a more niche, or boutique, oriented approach to scholarly communication.23

However fractured scholarly communities may be becoming, it still seems reasonable to assume that more journals would translate more or less straightforwardly into new opportunities for scholarly engagement. Yet, the one does not necessarily follow from the other. The complicating factor is the structure of journal pricing, particularly as set forth by large, for-profit publishers. I will have more to say about this issue, below. The relevant point for now is this: “journal publishers have discovered that they can set their prices far above their average costs. These high prices reduce their number of subscribers but increase their profits, since the proportionate effect on quantity is less than the proportionate price increase.”24 On the positive side, new journals may help emergent or historically marginalized scholarly groups to gain public voice, and hence recognition. On the downside, the compulsion to maximize profits can also lead some publishers to restrict the audiences for both newer and older journals to an economic elite, thereby undercutting what would seem to be a prime motivation for expansion (from a scholarly standpoint, at least). Ironically, the recent proliferation of scholarly journals may be an indicator of “the industrial logic of market discrimination” at work.25

Lest proliferation sound like some sort of journal publishers' conspiracy, it is worth reflecting briefly on how the demands of contemporary university life complicate this phenomenon. In his 1918 polemic The Higher Learning in America, Thorstein Veblen bemoaned higher education's drive toward "accountancy" and disparaged the university for having assumed many of the trappings of "a business house."26 But the transformations that so disturbed Veblen nearly a century ago — the introduction of course credits, for example — seem almost quaint in comparison to those confronting universities and their employees today. These include deep cutbacks in state higher education subsidies; the casualization of the academic labor force; the creation of a vast, "disposable" graduate student population, particularly in the humanities; the privatization of facilities and services at public universities; and the licensing of intellectual properties. These and other changes evidence the explosive growth of "academic capitalism," which has beset universities in recent years.27 Broadly, the goal of present-day academic capitalism is not merely to apply business precepts piecemeal to the running of academic institutions, as seems to have been the case in Veblen's time. Instead, the goal is to make the latter over in the image of the former, fundamentally, by imposing new norms of efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness on university employees.

A principal way in which academic capitalism manifests itself is through what Les Levidow calls "qualification inflation."28 The phrase refers specifically (and unflatteringly) to the heightening of standards for scholarly promotion and tenure, and more generally to the diktat that universities maintain across-the-board "excellence" by upholding ever-increasing levels of institutional prestige.29 Qualification inflation is a function of the degree to which universities have become obsessed of late with promoting competition internally among academic units, engaging in it externally with peer (or better) institutions, and encouraging it cross-generationally by raising promotion and tenure requirements every few years.30

Thus, while the explosion of new scholarly journals evidences a desire among publishers to carve out new niches for themselves, it also — and relatedly — evidences a "crisis of overproduction" endemic to academic capitalism today.31 As Lindsay Waters, Executive Editor at Harvard University Press puts it: "Product is all that counts, not the reception, not the human use. This is production for its own sake and precious little else."32 While he may be faulted for overstating the level of inattention given to the reception of scholarly work, Waters nonetheless raises an important point. Under institutionally-mandated conditions of overproduction, the chances of any given academic journal article getting noticed by one's colleagues — let alone outside of academe — diminish. What results are "mountains of unloved and unread" studies33 whose formal designation as "published" obscures their actual existence as interred.

Consolidation
While the number of academic journals has risen substantially over the last 30 years or so, the number of academic journal publishers has shrunk appreciably over the same period of time. These crosscurrents have radically altered the political economy of the journal publishing industry and arguably have helped to produce “the industry” as such. The field of academic journal publishing used to be composed primarily of small, nonprofit presses, which historically maintained strong ties to, or in many cases were the organs of, specific scholarly societies.34 That is no longer the case. Today, academic journal publishing is dominated by a handful of large, for-profit corporations, who control the instruments of scholarly communication to an unprecedented degree.

Topping this list are Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, which publish about 6,000 journals between them.35 Collectively, these and other for-profit publishers have a stake in 62% of all peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Based on the conservative benchmark of 20,000 journals mentioned above, this means commercial entities as a whole control some 12,400 of them, two-thirds of which they own exclusively.36 Yet, even these figures paint a somewhat subdued portrait of today’s journal publishing industry, because they say little about the level of economic concentration among the topmost commercial publishers. According to Raym Crow, a consultant with the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a privileged few holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole. In 2006, a mere six companies “account[ed] for over 60% of the market’s total revenue,”37 giving them competitive economic advantage over both their commercial and nonprofit rivals.

Like many media industries, academic journal publishing today shows clear signs of becoming an oligopoly. Take Springer, for instance, which was born of a series of deals involving Bertelsmann, Candover & Cinven, and Kluwer, beginning in 1999. When the dust finally settled, in 2003, more than US$1.7 billion had changed hands.38 Similarly, Wiley-Blackwell was formed in 2007 after John Wiley & Sons acquired Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. (a regarded publisher of cultural studies books, albeit none of the field’s major journals) for more than US$1 billion.39 The economic magnitude of these deals is as important to underscore as the consolidations they are producing industry-wide. It may surprise some academic authors, who almost never receive direct monetary reward for the articles we publish, to discover that scholarly journal publishing is hardly the pecuniary backwater we have been led to believe it is!40

Even more significant than these high-stakes mergers and acquisitions is the cascade effect they have set in motion. Scholars have come to know this phenomenon for the most part indirectly, chiefly in the form of seemingly helpful, value-added services. These include online journal archives, full text search capabilities, electronic table of contents alerting, citation tracking, and more, which undoubtedly have made keeping up with the literature and monitoring one’s scholarly impact more expedient than ever before. The more scholars come to rely on these and other high-tech features, the less they seem like options or amenities—and herein lies a problem. These services are capital-intensive, so much so that few small-scale journal publishers can afford the investment. Nonprofit scholarly societies feel especially pinched, because most of those who do publish journals maintain modest lists.41 How can they and the smaller presses hope to keep the readers of their journals happy, when the marginal costs for setting up and maintaining high-tech infrastructure are prohibitively high?

Confronted with this dilemma, some scholarly societies have opted to make a devil’s bargain. They have begun outsourcing the business and production aspects of their journals to large, for-profit corporate publishers—often the very same companies whose business practices have pressured them to contemplate outsourcing in the first place. For example, Taylor & Francis/Informa assumed control of the National Communication Association’s journal operations in 2004, after the Association had run them independently for 90 years. Likewise, in September 2007, the American Anthropological Association inked a five year contract with Wiley-Blackwell to publish the organization’s 23 journals and newsletters.42 All told, roughly 20% of all peer-reviewed scholarly journals were produced under similar arrangements as of early 2006.43 This is the culmination of a trend whose beginnings Mills identified almost sixty years ago: "the means of effective communication are being expropriated from the intellectual worker."44 It is a vicious circle indeed: consolidation has helped to foster deep competitive asymmetries among academic journal publishers, which have in turn prompted further industry consolidation.

Pricing
The third major trend is perhaps better imagined as a constellation of issues, all of which coalesce around the vexed matter of journal pricing. The short version of the story is this: academic journal prices have risen steadily—indeed, alarmingly—over the past two decades. According to the Association of Research Libraries (U.S.), the cost of serials rose 180% between 1986 and 2006, or 5.3% per year on average.45 The U.S. consumer price index (CPI) rose 84% during the same period, which translates into an annual growth rate of just over 3%.46 Academic journal prices thus have far outpaced the U.S. CPI for 20 years. The pattern shows few if any signs of reversing.

With consolidation comes a winnowing of competition, giving the large journal publishers who remain ample room to flex their muscle in the marketplace. This may help to account for the bloated price of scholarly journals in general. Mark J. McCabe, an economist who studies the business and legal dimensions of academic journal publishing, has found that “for journals sold by commercial publishers … prices are indeed positively related to firm portfolio size, and that mergers result in significant price increases.”47 Economist Theodore C. Bergstrom and biologist Carl T. Bergstrom have reached a similar conclusion. Writing in the web forum of the journal Nature, which has been a key hub for discussions about the wellbeing of scholarly communication, the Bergstroms have noted that the per-page cost of commercially owned academic journals on average is between four and six times that of journals published under the aegis of not-for-profit scholarly societies.48

In fact, so serious are these pricing issues that a proposed US$9 billion merger of Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer (now Cinven), in 1997/1998, caught the attention of the European Commission and the antitrust division of United States Justice Department. The deal eventually collapsed, mainly because the EC had pressed both companies to divest themselves of key publications and services before it would grant regulatory approval. Had the merger proceeded as planned, the resulting mega-firm, Elsevier Wolters Kluwer, not only would have commanded extraordinary market share. Given the regulatory concerns raised by officials on either side of the Atlantic, it seems reasonable to surmise that it also would have created conditions ripe for anticompetitive behavior.49

To what extent do the aforementioned pricing trends hold true for cultural studies? Tables one and two survey the prices and publishers of leading journals in the field. Here is the good news: the cost of an institutional subscription to even the most expensive cultural studies journals, Continuum (US$910/year, or US$227.50/issue) and Media, Culture, and Society (US$1366/year, or US$227.67/issue), does not come close to the most notoriously priced scholarly publication I know of. The Journal of Applied Polymer Science, which is published twice-monthly by Wiley-Blackwell, in 2008 cost institutions US$19,935, or US$830.63/issue.50 The bad news is that, as with the rest of the journal publishing industry, subscription costs tend to increase relative to the size of the journal publisher. The average price of an institutional subscription to one of Taylor & Francis’ cultural studies periodicals, for instance, is more than three-and-a-half times that of Duke University Press, and more than seven times that of Wifrid Laurier University Press—publishers of the least expensive cultural studies journals by far. In the case of Sage Publications, institutional subscribers can expect to pay five times more on average than they would for a Duke title, and in excess of ten times more for Wilfrid Laurier’s sole cultural studies title. The gap closes somewhat when one compares New Left Review, which is an independent, “one-off” journal, to Taylor & Francis and Sage, with whom an institutional subscription costs on average one-and-a-half and two times more, respectively. Lawrence & Wishart, publisher of New Formations and Soundings, falls somewhere in between Duke and New Left Review in terms of journal pricing.

Several conclusions follow from this data. First, journals published by Taylor & Francis and Sage, who own the lion’s share of cultural studies titles, cost between 50% and 1000% more than those at the bottom end of the pricing scale. There is a striking imbalance in the price of cultural studies knowledge goods (i.e., journals and journal articles), which in turn begs some obvious yet rarely asked questions: is their cost commensurate with their value? Is an article published in, say, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, really worth four times more than one appearing in Social Text? Is New Left Review only half as good as Cultural Studies←→Critical Methodologies? And so on. Second, the price imbalance cannot be attributed solely to corporate ownership, since Sage is a privately owned, and therefore independent, press. Third, and relatedly, “independent” can mean quite different things, depending on a firm’s size and its total number of assets. Finally, as McCabe notes, the size of a press’ journal portfolio is probably the most consequential factor when it comes to determining journal prices.51 Larger portfolios generally correlate with higher priced journals, and vice-versa. The only possible exception here would be New Left Review, whose moderately high cost is most likely attributable to its “one-off” status and lack of other forms of subvention.

The implication, then, is fairly clear. Big publishers charge more for their journals because they can charge more. Now, one might respond by saying that the cost of paper, petroleum, and other natural resources has risen, driving up journal prices. One also might respond by saying that the journals themselves do not actually cost more. Rather, what drives up journal costs are the aforementioned value-added services we scholars have come to expect, which the larger publishers generally are better equipped to deliver. There is truth in each of these responses. Yet, the shift of focus to inputs and end-users obscures the techniques these publishers employ to regulate demand and inflate prices.

Their ability to do so begins with the relative inelasticity of the market for scholarly journals.52 In economics, the term “elasticity” refers to the degree to which a product or service is fungible, or how easily (or not) it can be substituted for others of its kind. So, for example, if I venture off to the supermarket in search of all purpose flour, and discover the brand I usually buy has sold out, no bother: I will just choose another one. To me, all purpose flour is basically all purpose flour; the variety makes little difference. As an easily fungible commodity, its market therefore is highly elastic. But the market for academic journals works differently than the one for all purpose flour. Most journals have fairly specific missions or identities; are associated with particular leaders in a field; and perhaps most important, have accrued a unique reputation or level of prestige within a given scholarly community. For marquee or "brand name" publications especially, reputational status both carries and confers a singular, if intangible, type of cachet.53 There may be alternatives to these serials, generally of inferior status, yet rarely are there bona fide substitutes for them. Indeed, Brown, Griffiths, and Rascoff claim that flagship journals often develop into “highly resilient niche ‘monopolies,’”54 given their propensity to become the publications of choice in their fields.

The inelasticity of the journal market is not a major problem in itself. It becomes one, however, owing to the clever strategy large publishing firms use to sell their journals to institutions. The technical name for this strategy is “bundling,” but research librarians and other critics of the journal publishing industry refer to it colloquially as the “big deal.” With big deals, companies like Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis/Informa, and others sell packages consisting of multiple journal titles, typically in both print and electronic form, to libraries. On the positive side, prices for bundled journals are often discounted from the standard institutional subscriber rates, potentially resulting in savings. Bundling also helps fledgling journals to find an all-important institutional subscriber base, since they usually come tied to more prestigious titles. In theory, then, the practice may help to broaden the scope of scholarly communication. There are numerous drawbacks to big deals, however, which can quickly undercut these benefits. Bargaining power depends chiefly on one’s ability to reject the terms of a deal and ultimately to walk away altogether. Yet, with scholarly journals, walking away is hardly an option. The inelasticity of the market demands that university librarians make unfavorable concessions to large journal publishers in order to ensure continued access to “must have” periodicals.

What is additionally worth noting is that although libraries purchase hardcopies of journals outright, and thus maintain ownership of them in perpetuity, typically they lease access to the journals’ online editions on a time-limited basis.55 Should a library choose not to renew a particular publishers’ lease, the corresponding portion of the library’s electronic journal archive does not simply leave off where/when the agreement expires. It vanishes into thin air, because leasing only entitles the library to access, and not ownership, rights online. Librarians and large journal publishers alike recognize that researchers have come to expect and even depend on electronic journal content. Losing e-access to past or current scholarly literature would be unacceptable to most. Consequently, librarians arrive at the table with significantly less leverage compared to the publishers with whom they are negotiating.

Cultural studies has barely registered all the uproar over journal pricing. Troubling though this may be, apathy alone is not to blame. The structure of scholarly communication in the humanities plays a significant role as well. Journals are the primary and sometimes sole vehicles of scholarly publication in the scientific, technical, and medical disciplines. The humanities uses a mix of journals and books, in contrast, with the latter widely recognized to be its publishing “gold standard.”56 The humanities’ enduring commitment to books thus has shielded its constituent disciplines and fields, cultural studies included, at least somewhat from the harshest effects of academic publishing’s recent transformations.

This is hardly a reason for cultural studies to stand idly by. The rising cost of serials has exerted downward pressure on other aspects of library budgets.57 Chief among them are the funds they use to purchase scholarly monographs. Between 1986 and 1998, the number of monographs purchased by members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) fell by 25%. Monograph acquisitions since then have been following a generally upward trend, though celebrating the turnaround would be premature. By 2006, ARL monograph purchases managed to eke out just a 1% increase over 1986 levels, compared to a 51% increase in the number of serials.58 The writing, therefore, is on the wall. One of the most important markets for cultural studies books is at best stagnant and at worst, drying up. Course adoptions have absorbed some of the shortfall but also have shifted publishers’ expectations of what constitutes a viable cultural studies title. Many now prefer anthologies and textbooks over more cutting-edge research — especially the commercial scholarly presses.59 Given these transformations, it seems reasonable to surmise that, in the near future, journals will come to occupy an even more prominent — and perhaps privileged — position within cultural studies' apparatus of communication.

Shifting the discursive locus of cultural studies squarely to journals would be undesirable for at least two reasons. The move would help to tighten (however minimally) the large journal publishers' hold over university research libraries and the institutions to which they belong. It would also have the unintended effect of subjecting cultural studies' critical-interventionist tides to an increasingly anti-political undertow. To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that large journal publishers have any intention of explicitly censoring the work of cultural studies scholars, either now or in the future. The political problem stems, rather, from the publishers' ability to take the library market — which is essentially a captive audience — for granted. Given the size, predictability, and relative stability of this market, journal publishers lack incentive to publicize their titles to individuals and groups outside of the academy. Their promotional materials almost always state, "recommend 'X' journal to your library"; almost never do they mention, say, a labor union, an environmental group, or some other type of advocacy organization — even in cases where the subject matter may be germane to the work these organizations do. These fliers, therefore, are not only advertising. They are harbingers of a future cultural studies, one dominated by journals and thus structurally predisposed not to connect.

Digitization
By “digitization” I refer broadly to the growing prevalence and import of electronic publishing, and more specifically to the electronic life and afterlife of academic journal articles online. The increasing availability of these digital materials, combined with sophisticated search engines and related tools for mining them, surely have been a boon. For publishers, digitization has opened up revenue streams above and beyond whatever returns the selling of printed journals and the licensing of reprints might yield for them. It thus has proven to be an incredible financial windfall, especially for larger firms that have invested heavily in proprietary digital journal infrastructures. For researchers in cultural studies and beyond, digitization has helped to make finding and keeping up with the “relevant scholarly literature” easier, or at least more manageable, even with the sprawl in journal content. It has also helped facilitate the distribution of one’s published research through email, peer-to-peer file sharing services, websites, courseware, public research repositories, and more.

In principle, anyway. Just as digitization has invested scholars with newfound capabilities for exchanging their published research, so too has it afforded large journal publishers fresh opportunities for managing the accessibility and circulation of journal content. E-embargoes represent the less pernicious side of this phenomenon. With these, authors are contractually barred from making certain iterations of their work publicly accessible in electronic form for designated periods of time. Taylor & Francis/Informa, for example, requires contributors to its social sciences and humanities journals to wait 18 months from the time of publication before making electronic copies of their essays accessible online. Even then, authors are prohibited from posting “the publisher-created…definitive, final version” (typically a PDF file) and instead must substitute a word processing document or similar “text version” of the final manuscript, which also must direct readers to the published article.60 Sage Publications has an almost identical policy in place for its journals, although the duration of the embargo period, 12 months, is shorter by a third.61 The purpose of e-embargoes such as these is to legally — and artificially — manufacture scarcity out of a “nonrivalrous” digital plentitude.62 Even so, they represent a not altogether unreasonable attempt to balance commercial and scholarly interests, given the important, if still somewhat limited, exceptions they include to foster the circulation of scholarly research.63 If there must be embargoes of any kind, that is to say, they should be leaky instead of air-tight.

Digital rights management (DRM) schemes, which rely on various forms of encryption to restrict the circulation of journal e-prints, represent the more pernicious side of digitization. Unlike their colleagues in the music and movie industries, journal publishers have yet to deploy DRM technologies widely. And for now, at least, they have not applied them directly to any major cultural studies periodicals that I know of. Experiments, however, are already underway. If successful, DRM is apt to seal up leaky e-embargoes, rollback authors’ rights, impede scholarly communication, and alienate us even more profoundly than we already are from the products of our labor. It is the technological counterpart to what Andrew Ross calls “the rush to propertize knowledge,” which he considers to be among the most dangerous constraints on academic freedom today.64

Evidence of DRM in action in the world of humanities journal publishing is spotty, but telling. As Jonathan Sterne reported in 2006 on his blog, Sage Publications sent him the offprint of an article he had just published in one of its journals, New Media and Society, neither in the customary hardcopy form nor in PDF. It came to him, rather, as a digitally-rights managed executable file. The proof essentially locked to his computer and restricted the number of times he could pass it on to colleagues to 25. Printing was unlimited, but to access the offprint Sterne and those with whom he shared it first had to download special proprietary software from Sage. The company made no promises about the program’s security and was vague about its operating system compatibility. Sterne noted that the publication agreement he signed “says nothing about 25 digital copies, proprietary formats, or anything else.”65 This is in keeping with a growing trend among large media organizations. Many now use DRM technologies to micromanage the circulation and use of copyrighted content to unprecedented degrees. In the process, the possibility of exercising one’s fair-use rights and related entitlements is slowly getting “coded” out of existence.66

Conclusion: What Does Cultural Studies Want from Journal Publishing?
The foregoing analysis may lend itself to a banal conclusion, namely, that academic journal publishing is "broken" and that the system consequently needs repair. But this conclusion is only half-right. In fact the system is functioning only too well these days — just not for the scholars it is intended to serve.67 The Association of American Publishers’ PR front, PRISM, only reinforces the point. Launched in early 2007, the organization's goal is to fight those seeking to preserve, and even to improve, the accessibility of scholarly journals.68 The changes I have explored above thus are not the result of abstract "market forces," much less of a broken journal publishing system; they are the outcome of a concerted political and economic project.

Sadly, many of these changes have occurred on cultural studies' watch, and further transformations lie ahead on the horizon. Given the unique theoretical and analytical resources the field has at its disposal for exploring the relations among media texts, institutions, apparatuses, and audiences, it would be a shame for its practitioners to remain on the sidelines. Should we choose to become more involved, though, it is important to bear in mind that studying how scholarly knowledge is represented, industrialized, and communicated is not the same as scrutinizing how those processes occur with objects perhaps more familiar to cultural studies (e.g., motion pictures, television shows, etc.). Scholars generally maintain much closer ties to publishing than they do to other media industries. Consequently, a certain pragmatism seems to be called for here. This pragmatism should consist of recognizing ourselves not as outsiders to the journal publishing industry (i.e., as a “mere” academic contributors or readers), but rather as no more and no less insiders compared those who work in, say, Taylor & Francis/Informa’s journal marketing department. It also should involve our taking a more hands-on approach to solving problems of scholarly communication, instead of critiquing matters from afar and leaving the task of fixing things up to others. A pragmatic disposition should compel us not to rail against some abstract system “over there,” but instead should focus our attention on making meaningful interventions “right here”—in our everyday labor practices, in the scholarly societies to which we belong, in our uses of technology, and more. This is a rare moment of opportunity indeed—a chance for cultural studies to ask fresh questions about academic journal publishing, to contemplate anew what we may want out of it, and as appropriate, to re-engineer it so as to better suit our needs.

First, we must read all publication agreements closely, ask questions, and, wherever possible, negotiate terms of access and circulation. Do not accept the path of least resistance. Some journal publishers will allow authors to retain copyright in our published pieces, for instance, provided we make a formal request in writing.69 The SPARC website also offers a downloadable “author addendum” and other resources to help academic authors to achieve more acceptable terms of publication.70 Of course, there is no guaranteeing that a publisher will grant our requests. Doing so repeatedly, however, and encouraging our colleagues to do the same, will show journal publishers (especially the larger ones) that they are dealing not with a fractured and quiescent population, but with a bona fide movement that demands respect.

Second, we must exercise the power conferred on us as cultural intermediaries.71 Although it is unsexy grudge-work, we may wish to consider serving on the publication boards of our respective scholarly or professional societies. These are key bureaucratic posts in which important decisions—too often ill-considered ones—about the future of scholarly communication are getting made. We may also wish to refuse to review manuscripts or otherwise work for what Theodore C. Bergstrom calls “rogue journals.”72 These are academic journals that fail to respect the rights of academic authors, the institutions for which we work, and the public responsibilities of research libraries.

Next, we should support open access. “Open access” is an umbrella term encompassing an array of approaches to academic journal publishing and other forms of scholarly communication. They vary widely, from the research authors may post to personal websites to highly accessible, peer-reviewed journals, and from repositories for working papers and published research to systems in which in which authors, their institutions, and/or third parties pay journal publishers for the right to disseminate published articles without restriction.73 All share in common a commitment to making research publicly available to readers, typically for free, in a manner akin to open source software.74 Many open access ventures already exist, such as the Social Science Research Network, the Public Library of Science, and, at my home institution, the recently launched Indiana University ScholarWorks site. For cultural studies, the most exciting open access developments are the new Open Humanities Press initiative, which brings together seven peer-reviewed online critical and cultural theory journals, and the Cultural Studies Electronic Archive, which is an online research repository. Both were co-founded by the field’s own publishing visionary, Gary Hall.75

Fourth, we should experiment with the form, content, and process of scholarly publication. At present, a preponderance of digital publications largely reproduces material otherwise available in printed journals. Yet, there seems to me no compelling reason why online journal content must, perforce, conform to longstanding "paper-centric" conventions.76 Early television took many of its cues from radio, for example, but did not remain an audio-only medium. Analogously, why not make better use of the web’s interactive features, such as commenting, instant messaging, linking, sharing, social networking, tagging, trackback, wiki-ing, and so forth, within the context of scholarly communication? Even more radically, we may wish to dare ourselves and our colleagues to reconsider what “peer review” means and how best to go about it. A well-architected digital journal platform, combined with a robust enough network of online readers, could open up opportunities for forms of quality control and endorsement far exceeding those available in the current print-based system.77 Any such technological fixes of course would demand significant institutional changes in terms of defining exactly what scholarly contributions are and how they should be assessed.

Fifth, we should scratch below the surface. As the preceding examples suggest, discovering just who the corporate parents and siblings of academic journal publishers are may surprise, and even alarm. Here is a final one worth mentioning: Reed Exhibitions, the event planning arm of journal giant Reed Elsevier. Until 2007, Reed Exhibitions staged the annual Defense Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) event in the London Docklands and similar events worldwide. The irony of a major publisher of medical and critical social science journals facilitating the global arms trade was hardly lost on the company’s critics.78 With Elsevier, Taylor & Francis/Informa, and other such publicly held companies, this type of information usually is hidden in plain sight, on their websites and financial disclosure statements. It is ignored at the cost of our compromising the integrity of the politics we espouse.

Finally, and relatedly, we must unite. I have already indicated that large academic journal publishers are unlikely to transform their practices if they perceive pressure coming from isolated individuals only. Change will come from well-organized campaigns involving authors, editors, reviewers, journal subscribers, professional societies, librarians, and others, from a range of communities. This type of activism is exactly what prompted Elsevier to divest itself of the arms trade. The decision followed a two-year mobilization, which was spearheaded by the activist organization Campaign Against Arms Trade, along with groups of scholars associated with The Lancet, Political Geography, and other Elsevier journals who publicly opposed the company’s involvement with the DSEi event.79 Now, I realize that it may be harder to muster the same level of moral engagement when issues such as journal pricing and intellectual property rights are at stake. Still, the gravitas of realpolitik should not lead us to dismiss the significance of these and other issues, much less to shrink from the responsibility of finding collective ways of bringing academic journal publishing back into a more sustainable equilibrium.

Almost two decades ago, Stuart Hall noted cultural studies’ frustrating lack of political effectivity—“its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we have been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything.”80 Given the scant attention the field’s practitioners have paid to its apparatus of scholarly communication, especially to journals, these feelings of ineffectiveness should hardly surprise. The instruments of production of cultural studies have transformed dramatically in recent years, yet the field as a whole has opted to ride rather than to resist this latest publishing wave. A strange and disturbing paradox results: more cultural studies, yes, but with diminished circulation and uptake. This is exactly the situation Hall warned about—a structural asymmetry in which cultural studies may “know more than the other side” but is barred from communicating that knowledge as freely and as accessibly as possible. Unless cultural studies takes major steps toward reinventing its journal publishing practices, I fear that it will only continue in a long, listless drift.


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For a much-truncated, early version of "Acknowledged Goods," including comments, please click here.

The full version of "Acknowledged Goods" was originally hosted here on the D&RW legacy site.  It is identical to the one you're now reading, with the exception of some minor textual cleanup.

The version appearing here is a preprint of an article submitted for consideration in the journal Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, © 2010 Ted Striphas;  Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies is available online at: http://www.informaworld.com.  The peer-reviewed and published version of "Acknowledged Goods" is available here.

  • 1. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 149-150.
  • 2. Sande Cohen, Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 25; emphasis in original.
  • 3. Lindsay Waters, Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004), 55.
  • 4. Cary Nelson, “Always Already Cultural Studies: Academic Conferences and a Manifesto,” What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey (London: Arnold, 1996), 278.
  • 5. Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education (New York and London: Routledge, 1999).
  • 6. Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson, “Academic Labor at the Crossroads? An Interview With Andrew Ross,” Social Text 25(1) (Spring 2007), 121.
  • 7. For a broader picture of the ways in which alienation pervades academic labor, see the recent special issue of Social Text (#90) on academic freedom. Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson (eds.) “The Perils of Academic Freedom,” Social Text 25(1) (Spring 2007); and Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 15-16.
  • 8. Ted Striphas, “Banality, Book Publishing, and the Everyday Life of Cultural Studies,” The International Journal of Cultural Studies 5(4) (November 2002), 438-460.
  • 9. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 281.
  • 10. A key exception is Gary Hall, Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  • 11. Karl Marx, “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1978), 70-81; Margaret Jane Radin, Contested Commodities: The Trouble With Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts, and Other Things (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), 16.
  • 12. John B. Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 31.
  • 13. Paul Chatterton and David Featherstone, “Intervention: Elsevier, Critical Geography, and the Arms Trade,” Editorial, Political Geography 26(1) (January 2007), 5.
  • 14. “Share Information,” Informa, http://www.informa.com/investors/share_information; “Financial Review,” Informa, http://ar2007.informa.com/financial-review; Adam Smith Conferences, http://www.asi-conferences.com/; “Clients: United States Army,” Robbins-Gioia, http://www.robbinsgioia.com/clients/army.aspx; “Clients: United States Air Force,” Robbins-Gioia, http://www.robbinsgioia.com/clients/air_force.aspx.
  • 15. Mills, White Collar, 159.
  • 16. Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1918; reprint, New York: Sagamore Press, 1957), 62.
  • 17. Michael Mabe, “The Growth and Number of Journals,” Serials 16(2) (July 2003), 191.
  • 18. Raym Crow, “Publishing Cooperatives: An Alternative for Society Publishers,” SPARC Publications (February 2006): 4, http://www.arl.org/sparc/; see also Michael Mabe, “Growth and Number of Journals,” 193. He estimates the number of active peer-reviewed journals at around 14,700, though his figure is three years older than Crow’s. C.f.: Richard Edwards and David Shulenburger, “The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What to Do About It),” Change (November/December 2003), 11-12. They place the number of journals at well over 100,000, though their figures likely are inflated due to their inclusion what some call “gray literature,” i.e., working papers, conference proceedings, and other such “informal” publications.
  • 19. Mabe, “Growth and Number of Journals,” 193.
  • 20. Theodore C. Bergstrom, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 15(3) (Summer 2001), 188.
  • 21. My calculations were made on the basis of excluding Working Papers from the final tally, since it folded in 1979. The growth in cultural studies journals seems to have plateaued for the time being.
  • 22. Mabe, “Growth and Number of Journals,” 195.
  • 23. Joseph Turow, Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press); Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996); Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths, and Matthew Rascoff, “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” Ithaka Report (July 2007): 9, http://www.ithaka.org/strategic-services/Ithaka%20University%20Publishing%20Report.pdf.
  • 24. Theodore C. Bergstrom, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?” 191. See also Richard Edwards and David Shulenburger, “High Cost of Scholarly Journals,”14.
  • 25. Turow, Niche Envy, 127.
  • 26. Veblen, Higher Learning, 75-76; 62.
  • 27. Slaughter and Rhoades, Academic Capitalism; see also Gary Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter, "Academic Capitalism, Managed Professionals, and Supply-Side Education," Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University, ed. Randy Martin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 33-66.
  • 28. Les Levidow, "Marketizing Higher Education: Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies," Cultural Logic 4(1) (Fall 2000), ¶13, http://eserver.org/clogic/4-1/levidow.html; see also Marc Bousquet, "The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible," Social Text 20(1) (Spring 2002), 96; Nelson and Watt, Academic Keywords, 294-296; Slaughter and Rhoades, Academic Capitalism, 183-184; Waters, Enemies of Promise, 7-8 50.
  • 29. Readings, The University in Ruins, 3. The most absurd example Readings offers? An award bestowed by Cornell University for "excellence in parking" (24).
  • 30. Waters, Enemies of Promise, 50; see also Bousquet, "Waste Product," 96.
  • 31. Randy Martin, "Introduction: Education as National Pedagogy," Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University, ed. Randy Martin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 11.
  • 32. Waters, Enemies of Promise, 36.
  • 33. Ibid., 7.
  • 34. See, e.g., Theodore C. Bergstrom, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?” 188, 192.
  • 35. David Glenn, “Planned Merger of Two Big Journal Publishers Worries Academic Librarians,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 15, 2006), A15.
  • 36. Crow, “Publishing Cooperatives,” 4. These companies produce the remaining third of these journals under contract with various learned societies.
  • 37. Ibid., 5. This number has since shrunk to five, after publisher John Wiley & Sons acquired Blackwell in February 2007.
  • 38. Mary H. Munroe, “The Publishing Industry: A Story of Merger and Acquisition” (March 13, 2007), n.p., http://www.ulib.niu.edu/publishers/index.htm.
  • 39. David Glenn, “Planned Merger of Two Big Journal Publishers Worries Academic Librarians,” A15.
  • 40. Or, consider this: a rough estimate places the average revenue for each published academic journal article at about US$4,000. This figure is skewed by scientific, technical, and medical (STM) publishing, where journal subscriptions tend to cost significantly more than those in the humanities and social sciences. Nonetheless, it should put the value of academic labor, whatever the discipline, into better perspective. Andrew Odlyzko, “Competition and Cooperation: Libraries and Publishers in the Transition to Electronic Scholarly Journals,” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 4(4) (June 1999), n.p., http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/04-04/odlyzko0404.html.
  • 41. The specific figure is three titles or less on average. Crow, “Publishing Cooperatives,” 5.
  • 42. I thank Jason Baird Jackson for sharing this information with me.
  • 43. I’ve extrapolated this figure from: Crow, “Publishing Cooperatives,” 4; and Mabe, “Growth and Number of Journals,” 193.
  • 44. Mills, White Collar, 152.
  • 45. This is down from the year 2000, when serial costs peaked at 226% over the 1986 benchmark. “Monograph and Serial Expenditures in ARL Libraries, 1986-2006,” Association of Research Libraries, n.p., http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/monser06.pdf.
  • 46. Consumer Price Index, U.S. Department of Labor, available: ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/cpi/cpiai.txt. Calculations appearing in text are my own.
  • 47. Mark J. McCabe, “The Impact of Publisher Mergers on Journal Prices: A Preliminary Report,” ARL Bi-Monthly Report 200 (October 1998), n.p., http://www.arl.org/resources/pubs/br/br200/br200mccabe.shtml. In a subsequent paper, McCabe qualifies his position slightly. He states: “this conclusion, that academic publishing mergers are generally associated with price increases, needs to be at least partially qualified… . [S]ome of the ‘merger effects’ may be related to other contemporaneous factors, such as a decline in firm-level demand elasticities or an increase in journal quality.” Mark J. McCabe, “Journal Pricing and Mergers: A Portfolio Approach,” The American Economic Review 92(1) (March 2002), 267.
  • 48. Theodore C. Bergstrom and Carl T. Bergstrom, “Can ‘Author Pays’ Compete With ‘Reader Pays,” Nature Web Focus (May 20, 2004), n.p., http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/22.html.
  • 49. Kenneth N. Gilpin, “Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant,” The New York Times (December 29, 1997), D2, Lexis-Nexis; Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Two European Publishing Giants Cancel Their Plans for Merger,” The New York Times (March 10, 1998), D3, Lexis-Nexis. See also McCabe, “Journal Pricing,” 268. On the legal and economic effects of academic journal publisher consolidation, see Aaron S. Edlin and Daniel L. Rubinfeld, “Exclusion or Efficient Pricing? The ‘Big Deal’ Bundling of Academic Journals,” Antitrust Law Journal 72(1) (2004), 128-159.
  • 50. “Journal of Applied Polymer Science Institutional Subscription Rates,” Wiley InterScience, http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/30035/home?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0.
  • 51. McCabe, “Impact of Publisher Mergers”; and McCabe, “Journal Pricing,” passim.
  • 52. Edwards and Schulenburger, “High Cost of Journals,” 11.
  • 53. "As throughout American society, what counts [in academic journal publishing] is the brand name, not whether the car will get you across town." Waters, Enemies of Promise, 21.
  • 54. Brown, Griffiths, and Rascoff, “University Publishing,” 9.
  • 55. Christine L. Borgman, Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2007), 112.
  • 56. Ibid., 181, 214.
  • 57. Edwards and Shulenburger, “High Cost of Journals,” 14. Another important factor is the rising price of scholarly monographs. See “Monograph and Serial Expenditures in ARL Libraries,” n.p.; Waters, Enemies of Promise, 29.
  • 58. “Monograph and Serial Expenditures in ARL Libraries,” n.p.
  • 59. Striphas, “Banality and Book Publishing,” 446-447; Hall, Digitize This Book, 42; Nelson and Watt, Academic Keywords, 226-232.
  • 60. Significantly, this stipulation does not preclude “the right to share with colleagues (but not on a commercial or systematic basis) copies of an article in its published form as supplied by Taylor & Francis as an electronic or printed offprint or reprint.” “Copyright Transfer FAQs,” Informaworld, http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/authors_journals_copyright_transfer~db=all.
  • 61. “Copyright and Permissions,” Sage, http://www.sagepub.com/authors/journal/permissions.sp#cpg0.
  • 62. “Nonrivalrous” resources are goods whose use by one does not preclude or lessen their use by another. Lawrence Lessig, Code Version 2.0 (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 181.
  • 63. Taylor & Francis/Informa and Sage Publications’ contracts do not preclude using a PDF or photocopy of an author’s own article in a course she/he is teaching, nor do they prohibit her/him from distributing it via regular or electronic mail to a small number of colleagues. Moreover, neither publisher restricts the posting of “pre-print” or pre-peer reviewed versions of the manuscript online.
  • 64. Schueller, Dawson, and Ross, “Academic Labor at the Crossroads?” 120.
  • 65. Jonathan Sterne, “But Wait, it Gets Better,” Superbon! Another American in Montreal (September 30, 2006), n.p., http://superbon.net/?p=449. See also: Jonathan Sterne, “Sage Update,” Superbon! Another American in Montreal (October 28, 2006), n.p., http://superbon.net/?p=461; and Jonathan Sterne, “New Text + Sage Update,” Superbon! Another American in Montreal (December 1, 2006), n.p., http://superbon.net/?p=487.
  • 66. Tarleton Gillsepie, Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2007), 63; Lessig, Code 2.0, 116; and Ted Striphas, “Disowning Commodities: Ebooks, Capitalism, and Intellectual Property Law,” Television and New Media 7(3) (August 2006), 231–260, esp. 249.
  • 67. I have adapted this argument from Bousquet, "Waste Product," 88, who develops it within the context of the academic labor market.
  • 68. PRISM stands for the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine. It was created by “PR pit bull” Eric Dezenhall, whose firm, Dezenhall Resources, has represented the likes of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and ExxonMobile. It’s worth underscoring that Cambridge, Columbia, and Rockefeller University Presses, all members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), did not condone the AAP’s moves to fight open access journal publishing. Jim Giles, “PR ‘Pit Bull’ Takes on Open Access,” Nature (January 25, 2007), 347; Rick Weiss, “Publishing Group Hires ‘Pit Bull of PR,’” Washington Post (January 26, 2007), A19; Susan Brown, “Publishers’ Group Reportedly Hires P.R. Firm to Counter Push for Free Access to Research Results,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 26, 2007), n.p., http://chronicle.com/daily/2007/01/2007012601n.htm; Jennifer Howard, “Publishers’ Group Revises Anti-Open-Access Campaign,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 28, 2007), A12.
  • 69. This is the case with Taylor & Francis/Informa, for example. “Copyright Transfer FAQs,” Informaworld, http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/authors_journals_copyright_transfer~db=all; see especially the section, “What if I want to retain copyright in my own name?” This also used to be the case over at Sage Publications, although the policy may have changed. At present, Sage’s website states: “Before we will publish any article, we require the rights holder to sign a contributor agreement transferring copyright to the publisher.” “Copyright and Permissions,” Sage, http://www.sagepub.com/authors/journal/permissions.sp#cpg0.
  • 70. “SPARC: The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition,” http://www.arl.org/sparc/.
  • 71. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 91.
  • 72. Bergstrom, “Free Labor for Costly Journals,” 194-195. Here, he refers to a “rogues gallery” of costly journals. Bergstrom uses the specific construction, “rogue journals,” on his website. “Ted Bergstrom’s Journal Pricing Page,” http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/jpricing.html.
  • 73. Borgman, Scholarship in the Digital Age, 100-101.
  • 74. A guiding assumption of open source is that more accessible, more circulable code is code that can be tested and improved upon more productively. Open access proceeds under basically the same assumption, except that “knowledge” substitutes for “code.”
  • 75. More information about these resources can be obtained online from: the Social Science Research Network (http://www.ssrn.com); Public Library of Science (http://www.plos.org); IU ScholarWorks (http://scholarworks.iu.edu); and the Open Humanities Press (http://openhumanitiespress.org); and the Cultural Studies Electronic Search Archive (http://scm-rime.tees.ac.uk/CSeARCH).
  • 76. Hall, Digitize This Book, 20.
  • 77. Borgman, Scholarship in the Digital Age, 61-62; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, "On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements," The Valve (January 6, 2006), n.p., http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/on_the_future_of_academic_publishing_peer_review_and_tenure_requirements_or.
  • 78. Gene Feder et al., “Reed Elsevier and the International Arms Trade,” The Lancet 366 (September 10, 2005), 889; Richard Smith, “Reed-Elsevier’s Hypocrisy in Selling Arms and Health,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 100(3) (March 2007), 114-115; Chatterton and Featherstone, “Elsevier, Critical Geography, and the Arms Trade,” 3-7.
  • 79. Feder et al., “Elsevier and the International Arms Trade,” 889; Chatterton and Featherstone, “Elsevier, Critical Geography, and the Arms Trade,” 3-7. See also: “Reed Elsevier to Exit the Defence Sector,” press release (June 1, 2007), n.p., http://www.reed-elsevier.com/mediacentre/pressreleases/2007/Pages/Defenceexhibitionssectorexit.aspx; “Reed Elsevier Completes Sale of Defence Exhibitions,” press release (May 29, 2008), n.p., http://www.reed-elsevier.com/mediacentre/pressreleases/2008/Pages/Saleofdefenceexhibitions.aspx.
  • 80. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” 285.

Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling

Today I’ll be talking about online retailer Amazon.com’s portable electronic reading device, Kindle, which went on sale beginning November 19, 2007 and immediately caused a stir. Kindle’s purpose, explained Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a Newsweek cover story, would be to bring books—what he called “the last bastion of analog”—into the digital realm.1  Later that week on The Charlie Rose Show, which devoted a full, hour-long program to Kindle, Bezos retrenched somewhat. There, he indicated that his company’s new e-reader wasn’t intended to “outbook the [printed] book." “Instead of trying to duplicate every last feature,” Bezos clarified, “we have to look for things that we can do with this technology that we could never do with a paper book.”2

Here, Bezos put his finger on what you might call the "paradox of the ebook.”3 By this I mean that Kindle and other e-reading devices are at once less and more capable of duplicating the form and function—call it the experience—of printed books. I’ll demonstrate in a moment how a great deal of public conversation about Kindle, and about the moral and intellectual worth of ebooks in general, operates within the narrow discursive confines of this paradox. For now, though, I want to argue that a fixation on Kindle’s paradoxically imitative qualities deflects attention from the ways in which Amazon aspires to transform the reading of digital texts into an economically lucrative, value-generating activity.

The Paradox of the Ebook
Kindle presents itself as clearly and undeniably book-like—by which I mean, printed book-like. Its box resembles a codex volume whose form suggests that it might be stored on a bookshelf alongside a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other substantial reference matter. Its carrying case could easily pass for a fine, leather-bound journal, or perhaps a daybook, not unlike those you might find in a book or stationery store. These are what the literary theorist Gerard Genette would call the “paratextual”—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “paratechnological”—elements whose purpose is to frame the perception and use of a given text or, in the case of Kindle, a given textual platform. They are, in Genette’s words, “thresholds of interpretation” through which one must pass en route to using Kindle (figure 1).4



Figure 1: Kindle and its paratexts. Photograph by Ted Striphas

Beyond these accompaniments, Kindle has been widely praised for mimicking the “immersive” experience said to characterize printed book reading, thanks to its use of high-tech electronic ink developed at MIT’s famed media lab. “The key feature of a [printed] book is that it disappears,” Bezos has claimed, and it is precisely this level of transparency that his Kindle is supposed to achieve.5

You probably can see where all this is headed—straight into the paradox of the ebook. This is especially so when you factor in all of Kindle’s ostensible improvements over printed books, which are often and widely touted. These include a built-in dictionary, the ability to change font sizes at the push of a button, wireless connectivity and content delivery, and more. I won’t adjudicate or try to reconcile this paradox. If anything, I believe that paradoxes result from poorly posed problems. And because I sort through this issue at length elsewhere, in the interest of time I won’t delve into too much detail here. I will note, however, that since at least the time of Plato, virtually every communication technology has been accused of diminishing the presence and authority of the Word, from the human voice to the human hand on down to the typewriter, the word processor, and beyond.6  So either we resign ourselves to living in a world in which technology leads to incrementally diminished capacities and to a spiraling loss of authenticity, or else we try to reframe the problem so that we might ask different questions about communication technologies—beyond, say, Kindle’s ability (or not) to “outbook the book.”

Audience Labor
Dallas W. Smythe’s path-breaking essay, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” published in 1977, is particularly helpful in this regard. There, Smythe set out to answer the seemingly straight-forward question, What do television and other advertising-supported media make? Or, as Smythe more eloquently put it, “What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertising-supported communications?”7 The most immediately apparent answer is programming content, of course, or the “stuff” we see on TV. Yet, Smythe rejected that commonsense view in no uncertain terms: “The bourgeois idealist view of the reality of the communication commodity is ‘messages,’ ‘information,’ ‘images,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘entertainment,’ ‘orientation,’ ‘education,’ and ‘manipulation.’ All of these concepts are subjective mental entities and all deal with superficial appearances.”8

Thus media content and its more manifest ideological dimensions were, to use the Marxist terminology, merely the “form of appearance” of something even more fundamental—the labor audiences perhaps unwittingly engaged in each time we turned on our TV sets. Consequently, Smythe referred in his work not to "audiences" but instead either to the “audience product” or the “audience commodity.” He did so in an effort to underscore how television networks packaged and sold viewers to advertisers, with the promise that some, and hopefully many, would go on to consume the products the latter were charged with promoting.9  For Smythe, then, TV watching was an instrument for commodifying (or in today’s industry parlance, “monetizing”) human labor power, albeit one that put a significant twist on an old Marxian theme. Rather than selling one’s labor power on the open market for oneself and being remunerated accordingly, TV executives and producers essentially alienated viewers’ labor power from them and reaped all of the financial rewards.

Now this is, admittedly, fairly old news as far as television and perhaps journalism studies are concerned. That said, it’s an issue to which book historians have largely, and perhaps understandably, been oblivious. Consequently, in what remains of this paper I want to stage the “problem” of Kindle by following a blueprint similar to the one drawn up by Smythe.

The Labor of Reading
Kindle has been generically described as a “mobile technology.” It certainly is a capacious device, able to store the equivalent of about 200 printed books in the factory-installed memory alone. Beyond offering users the allure of a carrying a well-stocked but still light weight library wherever they go, Kindle can be considered a mobile technology for another reason as well. Onboard mobile phone technology makes Kindle probably the first stand alone e-reading device to provide for instantaneous, two-way communications between bookseller (in this case Amazon.com) and consumer. It’s not merely a mobile technology, in other words, as much as it is a digital version of the book mobile in which you pay for, rather than borrow, whatever you may care to acquire. It’s little wonder, then, that Bezos describes Kindle not as a device but as a “service” and as “an extension of the Amazon store.”10 Kindle promises to usher in nothing less than an era of convenient, ubiquitous bookselling.

Much has been made about Kindle’s downstream capabilities—the fact that you can acquire the complete contents of any Kindle-formatted book in under a minute, provided you’re within range of a cell tower. But what about the data it transmits upstream, back to Amazon.com? The Kindle license agreement and terms of use are instructive in this regard. In the subsection entitled “Information Received,” the agreement states: “The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device).” Here’s the especially intriguing part: “Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make on your Device are backed up through the service and subject to the Amazon.com privacy notice.”11 And there, it’s worth mentioning, all of the data you generate while reading on your Kindle falls within the purview of “the information we [Amazon.com] collect and analyze” for marketing and related purposes.12

I’ll return to this point shortly, but first let me say a few words about the recent changes Amazon has made to its corporate identity and core mission. At the risk of over-generalizing, it probably would be fair to say that most people consider Amazon.com to be an online retailer. That’s a safe enough assumption, but it’s only partially accurate. Since 2002, the company has actively—and until the last year or two, quietly—been making itself over into a “web services” provider, or even more ambitiously into a “platform” upon which to construct on- and offline businesses. Kindle’s data collection efforts thus belong to a much broader corporate strategy in which, as Forbes magazine has put it, Amazon’s “behind-the-scenes data center services” are beginning to emerge center stage.13 These include Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, which provides paid-for, on-demand computing capabilities to third-party businesses, and Amazon Simple Storage Service, or S3, in which businesses pay Amazon to store their data on the company’s voluminous servers. Amazon’s goal with these and other efforts is to monetize any and all of the company’s excess capacity, and to transform idle assets into nonstop, value-producing ones.

The point here is that Amazon isn’t just the retailer most of us think we know. It is also and significantly becoming what Business Week has called “a kind of 21st century digital utility” not unlike Siva Vaidhyanathan’s old nemesis, Google.14  Of course, Amazon has been collecting, analyzing, and exploiting customer information since the company’s inception back in 1994. But in conjunction with its recent emphasis on data services, it seems to me that Kindle promises to intensify this process in at least three ways:

• first, by broadening the scope of data collection to encompass not only the retail sphere, which as long been mined for what Oscar Gandy calls “actionable customer intelligence," but also now the fine grain of everyday life itself;15

• second, and more specifically, by transforming people’s idiosyncratic and heretofore mysterious reading itineraries into data-generating activities;

• and finally, then, by implicating those acts in a larger system of productive relations whereby they become a form of instrumental, value-producing labor.

The result of these processes is a version of Michel de Certeau's readerly world as seen through the looking-glass. Readers, according to Certeau, surreptitiously raid texts as they meander through them, "insinuating … the ruses of pleasure and appropriation" as they render texts temporarily "habitable."16  In this way readers play a kind of joke on the gatekeepers of the "scriptural economy," whose power and authority they challenge through their small but significant acts of "textual poaching." Amazon, however, would seem to be playing an even bigger joke on Kindle readers. The technology effectively transforms the latter into the terminal nodes of a massively distributed, on-the-go focus group. Kindle readers may well still insinuate and appropriate, but all the while Amazon is recording, mining, and exploiting their everyday textual encounters for a profit.17

Conclusion/Implications
The debate about whether Kindle can or cannot “outbook the book” clearly is a smokescreen, one whose terms invite debate around an intractable issue. Like the magician’s art of misdirection, it draws attention to the artifact itself while deflecting it away from the broader productive relations of which the device and its content may be considered the “form of appearance," or their material concatenation. What’s really at stake with Kindle is Amazon’s desire to re-invent itself as a company where the buying and selling of retail goods is not an end in itself but also a means by which to obtain valuable client data. In a more abstract sense, Amazon.com is actively producing laboring subjects in and around an everyday practice—the reading of books and periodicals—which to my knowledge has never shared as direct a relationship to economically productive activity as it does with Kindle.

Of course, it's not enough simply to apply already existing theories of audience labor to emerging media contexts. The specificity of those contexts must be taken into account and our theories, refigured accordingly. Indeed the laboring subjects Amazon.com seems to be producing with Kindle differ in important respects from those Smythe discussed in relationship to television. As an astute commentator pointed out to me, Kindle reading is "a value-productive activity, but not itself a commodity."18  Television viewers (and their attention) may be effectively bought and sold. The same cannot be said for Kindle readers, however, for they are not immediate objects of economic exchange. As value producers they behave more like assets or fixed capital—you might even say "human resources," albeit in the grossest sense of the term. That is, they are legally and technologically obliged to labor but without any pretense of work as a socioeconomic ritual.

Beyond this, Kindle also raises the question of what exactly we mean when we invoke the phrase, “mobile technology.” The device certainly delivers on its promise as a portable library, but is that the only way in which to gauge mobility? Isn’t it significant that Kindle content is effectively immobilized by onboard digital rights management technology, which prohibits users from sharing e-reading materials with other Kindle owners? Conversely, what about all of the information that flows upstream from Kindle to Amazon.com, where it then becomes proprietary? If indeed Amazon aspires to transform itself into a kind of “utility,” one built significantly out of information provided to it by the public, shouldn’t it then begin taking on some of the public responsibilities of one? For starters this would require much greater transparency on Amazon’s part, a process that could begin by opening up its proprietary databases to those who would use the information to contribute to public knowledge. Imagine what public librarians might discover about people’s book reading habits, for example, were they given access to such unprecedented information. The point is, if Amazon.com or any other company is de facto going to put the reading public to work, then there ought to be a public benefit beyond a more personalized marketing campaign.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I acknowledge with gratitude and respect the contributions of the "wise crowd" whose feedback on an earlier version of this paper helped to strengthen this one: http://striphas.wikidot.com/kindle-the-labor-of-reading-worksite/comments/show#post-280559.

  • 1. Quoted in Steven Levy, “The Future of Reading,” Newsweek (November 26, 2007), 57.
  • 2. “Jeff Bezos Interview,” The Charlie Rose Show (November 19, 2007), n.p., Lexis-Nexis [transcript].
  • 3. This phrase is meant as an homage to James Carey, “The Paradox of the Book,” Library Trends 33(2) (Fall 1984), 103-113.
  • 4. Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. J. E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • 5. Qtd. in Levy, “The Future of Reading,” 60.
  • 6. Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 2009), 23-26; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 215-286.
  • 7. Dallas W. Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 1(3) (Fall 1977), 2.
  • 8. Ibid; emphasis in original.
  • 9. Ibid., 5.
  • 10. Qtd. in Levy, “The Future of Reading,” 58.
  • 11. “Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use,” http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200144520. [Accessed October 3, 2008.]
  • 12. “Amazon.com Privacy Notice,” http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=468496. [Accessed October 3, 2008.]
  • 13. “Amazon’s Hot New Item: Its Data Center,” Forbes (February 2, 2008), n.p., http://www.forbes.com/markets/feeds/afx/2008/02/02/afx4606529.html.
  • 14. Robert D. Hof, “Jeff Bezos’ Risky Bet,” Business Week (November 13, 2006), n.p., http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_46/b4009001.htm; Siva Vaidhyanathan, “The Googlization of Everything and the Future of Copyright,” UC Davis Law Review 40(3) (2007), http://lawreview.law.ucdavis.edu/articles/Vol40/Issue3/DavisVol40No3_Vaidhyanathan.pdf.
  • 15. Oscar Gandy, “It’s Discrimination, Stupid!” in Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, ed. James Brooks and Iain A. Boal (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995), 39.
  • 16. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Stephen Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xxi, 131-153.
  • 17. Mark Andrejevic, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007), 25, 137, 102, 139.
  • 18. I thank this anonymous interlocutor for her/his contribution to the Differences and Repetitions Wiki legacy site, where an early draft of this paper is hosted: http://striphas.wikidot.com/forum/t-96140/kindle-the-labor-of-reading-worksite#post-283003.

"We Do Not Lack Communication"

Walter Benjamin once mused about writing a book composed entirely of quotations. Today, I want to muse about writing an essay composed entirely of questions. Don’t worry—I’m only going to muse about it; I’m not actually going to do it. Who would want to bear witness to a litany like that?

We live in a world where the statement, punctuated by that most adamant sign of closure, the period, is the privileged form, and the question, the minoritarian other. We all know this, don’t we? It’s perfectly acceptable to compose an essay in which each and every sentence closes with a period. So why is it unacceptable to punctuate an essay with nothing but question marks? Could it be that the question is more powerful than the statement? Is that why we’re disciplined into using questions so sparingly—because they poke, perturb, and problematize?

Poetry, however, seems to be a literary medium that doesn't need to pose the problem at all. In the hands of America's most well-known "post-avant" poet Ron Silliman the question can be used as a rhetorical device intended to problematize the nature of communication itself. (See the excerpt from Marjorie Perloff's book "Wittgenstein's Ladder" posted at Modern American Poetry site.) "Sunset Debris" is a poem comprising entirely of three thousand questions, beginning and ending with "Can you feel it?"1

The question is my entrée into the passage about communication I’ll be addressing today, which is from Deleuze and Guattari’s final collaborative work, 1991’s What Is Philosophy? (English translation, 1994). It’s a book whose title takes the form of a question, indeed, the only one of Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborations to have done so. I’d venture to say that it’s not called What Philosophy Is for a reason. So my question is this: might the form of book’s title—the interrogative—tell us something about Deleuze and Guattari’s views on communication?

“We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present” (D&G 1994: 108; emphasis in original). This quotation appears almost exactly at the midpoint of What Is Philosophy? in the chapter on “Geophilosophy.” It’s pretext is a discussion of concept creation—what Deleuze and Guattari consider to be the point of philosophy—and the requisite conditions for doing so. It’s worth lingering on this observation for a moment: Deleuze and Guattari’s is a vital, productivist philosophy, and they see concept creation as what profoundly enlivens the becoming of the real.2

Philosophy has erred, Deleuze and Guattari claim, in cases where it’s hitched the cause of concept creation either to “the present form of the democratic state” or to “reflection” (108). The former they consider to be an anemic form of democracy, and thus insufficient in itself to provoke much more than new strategies for repression; the latter, reflection, they consider to be an effect, not a cause, and thus the deluded outcome of a certain genre of philosophizing preoccupied with exalting the thinking subject. But lowest in the hierarchy of false conditions of concept creation is communication, which, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, is “even more dubious than … reflection” (108). Why does the duo hold communication in such contempt?

Answers to this question lie scattered here and there throughout the pages of Deleuze and Guattari’s individual and collaborative writings. In the interest of time, let me summarize briefly the two principal objections they raise in What Is Philosophy?

  • First, they contend that deliberative or dialogic modes of philosophizing—the dialectic of classical Greek philosophy—arrive not at truths but rather adjudicate between competing opinions or truth claims. Thus the dialectic produces doxa, not concepts, resulting in a philosophy unable to imagine reality without reference to the “human, all too human” (Nietzsche).
  • Second, Deleuze and Guattari have grave misgivings about the cozy relationship communication has forged with capitalism, particularly in the last century. They worry that the work of concept creation has been significantly—and falsely—subsumed by what Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” These are ad agents, PR mavens, intellectuals, and others who make communication their business. Among them, Deleuze and Guattari insist, creativity largely becomes a matter of dressing up the already familiar more than a vital process of producing qualitative changes in the real. “Philosophy has not remained unaffected by the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion,” they wryly assert. “The simulacrum, the simulation of a packet of noodles, has become the true concept, and the one who packages the product, commodity, or work of art has become the philosopher, conceptual persona, or artist” (1994: 10). (Florida himself is guilty of having done this, incidentally, given how he trademarked the phrase “creative class” and thus transformed concept into commodity.)

Deleuze and Guattari thus have given us insight into why they claim, “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it.” In an age in which the news cycle has shrunk from 24 hours to real-time, the ability to stay “on message” has become a crucial marker of a politician’s electability (Kerry the "flip-flopper"), and losing one’s mobile phone has become tantamount to social death, how could communication be anything but superfluous, at least, in most instances? The statement “We lack creation” follows from this. Phenomenology is right, in a way, in that communication is a world-building activity. But we live in an age in which a disproportionate share of communicative activity is directed toward the production of capitalist value and value forms, resulting in a regime of “creativity” so narrowly circumscribed that it’s difficult to imagine how it could continue to be called “creativity” at all.

But what of that strange statement, “We lack resistance to the present?” How does it fit in here? The entire sentence is italicized, giving it the feeling of the crescendo to which Deleuze and Guattari’s arguments about communication, concepts, and creativity have all along been building. Here, though, these arguments are given a distinctly temporal inflection. What’s the nature of the connection here? Why, in the face of communication, should we muster resistance to the present? And what does that even mean? The answers to these questions, unfortunately, are not to be found in the pages of What Is Philosophy?

Bergsonism is Deleuze’s most profound statement on the philosophy of history, and it’s there that we might begin to glean what, exactly, “the present” means. In Bergsonism, Deleuze executes a profound reversal of a commonsense understanding of time—you might call it modern, rational time—in which past, present, and future refer respectively to what was, what is, and what will be. Such a conceptualization, Deleuze argues, mistakes a culturally and historically specific, i.e., learned, perception of time for its true being, a move that unsatisfactorily subordinates the ontological to the epistemological.

Despite what we may think we know, the present isn’t what “is.” The present is fleeting, ephemeral, neither here nor there, forever passing us by. The past, similarly, isn’t what “was.” If anything, it provides a ready stock of physical, experiential, and discursive resources we can summon and build on. For example, every time I go to write, I draw on the accumulated experience of my past as a writer; I do so in an effort not to repeat my mistakes (split infinitives, sentence fragments, noun-verb agreement, etc.); and in effect, by writing I render my past present. We therefore might say, with Deleuze, not that the past “was” and the present “is,” but rather, just the opposite: the past “is,” and the present “was” (1991: 55).

The whole point of the present is not to persist, therefore, but rather to pass, and it is precisely this movement that holds both past and present open to becoming—the creative process by which reality transforms and the future unfolds.

We know from What Is Philosophy? that communication is the enemy of creation. Could it be, then, that communication assumes this role by forestalling the passing of the present—by rendering the present present, as it were? In other words, does communication cause the present to protract rather than to contract, thereby slowing the becoming of the real, or perhaps even bringing it sometimes to a grinding halt? Communication, so conceived, would seem to short-circuit the being of time. What’s more, when the present is allowed to endure, the result can only be existential torpor.

So when Deluze and Guattari contend “we lack resistance to the present,” they mean we lack resistance to those communicative processes that would cause the present to persist despite itself and thereby impede the whole movement of becoming. This is depressing news for communication scholars, to put it mildly, given the redemptive power with which we have tended to endow communication as both idea and practice. How, then, might we resist “the present,” if not by communicative means?

Part of what’s at stake here, and what I suppose has been at stake all along, is how Deleuze and Guattari define communication. Can we imagine forms of communication—or maybe it would be safer here to say “discursive practice”—that would lend themselves to something other than “clichés” (1994: 204) “interminable discussion” (79), and ultimately, existential languor? In other words, is there any modality of communication that wouldn’t make history stop, but rather would make history go?

The answer, I believe, is the question, or to be less convoluted about it, the act of questioning itself. “What are you doing here?” “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” “Must you always drink so much?” “Isn’t torture acceptable when there’s a ticking time-bomb?” “Where do we site the landfill?” “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” “What could you possibly see in him?” “Isn’t collective security more important than individual liberty?” “Does this article deserve to be published?” “What is Enlightenment?” “Should we use protection?” Not all questions are profound, admittedly, but even so, the power of the interrogative lies in its capacity to provoke qualitative changes in reality. It does so, significantly, by providing a resource for posing problems (Deleuze, 1987: 1).

It’s a shame that “problem” is such a hackneyed word in ordinary usage. In Deleuze and Guattari’s oeuvre, it’s anything but that. Deleuze, specifically, borrows the term “problem” from Henri Bergson, for whom it holds a special place in relationship to creative process. So much of what gets labeled “creative” work, both Bergson and Deleuze contend, is preoccupied with finding the solutions to problems others have devised. In this way, so-called “creative” work habitually disposes itself to a reactive mode of operating, because it executes its labor within sets of parameters, terms, and conditions others already have dictated or imposed. True creativity, and thus real power, they claim, are to be found not in the solving problems, but in the posing them: “As if we would not remain slaves so long as we do not control the problems themselves, so long as we do not possess a right to the problems, to a participation in and management of the problems,” observes Deleuze (1994: 158; see also Bergson, 1992: 51). What makes problems powerful, assuming they’re well posed,3 is that they introduce wrinkles into the fabric of reality, causing it to start twisting and turning, bunching and tearing, unfolding, and refolding. In other words, problems are what spur on becoming; they’re what actuate history. “[T]he history of man [sic], from the theoretical as much as the practical point of view, is that of the construction of problems.” Deleuze states. “It is here that humanity makes its own history” (1991: 16).

Let us raise a question here: In what other context does Deleuze address the question of problem and problematizing? The ninth section of The Logic of Sense is entitled "Ninth Series of the Problematic." In this section, Deleuze (1990) is concerned with the concept of the event. His statement that "The mode of the event is the problematic" (p. 54) is worth pondering further. The relationship between pure event (a virtual structure resembling Plato's realm of Ideas) and actual events (historical and empirical actualizations of the pure event) is explained as the relationship between a problem and its solutions in that events are "problematic and problematizing" (p. 54). As Patton (1997) has pointed out, Deleuze's concept of the event is inspired by the Stoics. In fact, The Logic of Sense effectively starts with the Stoics: "Preface: From Lewis Carroll to the Stoics" (p. xiii). Might there be a productive line of questioning we can pursue if we problematize the notion of (mediated/mediatized) communication via "resistance to present" in relationship to the repetition (and difference) that is entailed in the notion of pure event and the variable repetition in instantiations of it, as they appear in mediatized forms?

Would it be fair to say, then, that problem solving lends itself to “too much communication,” that is, significantly, to incessant commentary, to talk about talk, or to what Henri Lefebvre disapprovingly calls “metalanguage” (1984: 127-136)? If so, would it then be fair to say that problem posing opens up opportunities for creation, becoming, and thus for “resistance to the present?” Could this be why, in Judith Butler’s work, we find interspersed throughout her narrative prose whole paragraphs consisting of questions, nothing but questions? Could this also be why Lawrence Grossberg has suggested that cultural studies “has to question its own questions,” and that “the most difficult part of any project in cultural studies is often to figure out what the question is” (1996: 3)? Why else would Raymond Williams insist that a truly democratic classroom is one in which students “have this more basic right to define the questions” (1996: 173)? In the end, isn’t it the responsibility of the question not to communicate, but instead to liberate critique from communication itself?


Project Background & Version Information:

  • 1. Recently Canadian poet Christian Bök has tried to reverse the radical asymmetricality of Silliman's language experiment by posing some of Silliman's questions to ALICE ("a natural language processing chatterbot" ): the ensuing answers formed the poem he entitled "Busted Sirens."
  • 2. Perhaps there is a parallel here to the arguments of Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker who, in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) argue, that what are often termed network accidents (worms, disease epidemics, etc.) are actually instances of networks working too well (p. 5-6) (i.e. too much communication).
  • 3. As Bergson notes, a problem well posed is, in essence (i.e., virtually), a problem solved (1992: 51).
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