Reflecting on an Ethics of Circulation

A number of my colleagues forwarded to me a manifesto (in tweets, no less) offered for discussion at a conference on the Academic Book of the Future (beep, boop, boop, boop, beep… this is the sound of the future, for those of you who don’t know). It’s titled Toward an Ethics of Circulation, and it’s smart. 

I’ll just link to it here, and you should go and read it now. 

Here are my thoughts on 5 of their 7 manifestlets as they relate to my recent efforts to become a little publisher with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and through my work on the editorial staff of North Dakota Quarterly.

2. Readers matter most!

I have to admit that I’m only now wrapping my head around the idea of readers. For example, we have a book set to be published in the next week. It’s an English translation of Norwegian book on the Dakota Wars. It’s a good book, well-translated and expanded from the original with some good, scholarly, introductory material. 

Like my books on archaeology, I’d planned to distribute and market this book via social and new media mostly as a digital book. My translates, true denizens of the Northern Plains (in the best possible way), have constantly reminded me that my readers might not all be in social and new media, and I might have to take the risk of circulating (gasp) paper, print books to get this work into their hands. Needless to say, I don’t have much of a budget for that, so I might have to rethink some of my strategy for distributing this particular work.

In the future, as I accept works for publication, I need to make sure that I have a stronger grasp of who will likely read what we publish.

3. Do not fetishize the digital. We need a mixed media ecology to disseminate our work smartly.

Whoa… me? Fetishize the digital? 

(The best, puckish comment on this was from Dimitri Nakassis who declared: “I will fetishize the digital and no one can stop me” and that “Danny Miller is not the boss of him.” Genius!) 

I’ve certainly done this, but my recent work with North Dakota Quarterly – an unapologetically paper operation – has forced me to think a bit more critically about what paper, digital, and other media mean to publications. First off, to be clear, I’m not talking about how a book feels in my hand or the “smell of books” or how portable and enduring paper is or anything like that. That’s just fetishizing the paper and does not approach the potential of media in a critical way. 

At the same time, I was utterly seduced by a project organized by student interns at North Dakota Quarterly last year. They produced a mobile-phone sized issue of NDQ in paper and filled it with social and new media length articles. I wish we could have coordinated a downloadable copy of this issue that would include pages that fit perfectly on a smart-phone sized screen. 

Richard Rothaus and I have begun to talk about Season 2 of our Caraheard Podcast. One of the great experiments in podcasting that I witnessed first hand was Brett Ommen and Joel Jonientz’s “Professor Footnote” podcast which combined narrative, academic commentary, and footnotes forcing us to engage with the potential of a hybridized media.

Paper is not just paper, digital is not just digital. The standards, conventions, and expectations of each media have reduced concepts like “the digital” to the verge of being meaningless (or being so generic to communicate nothing about the publication) … after all, almost all media these days spends time in the analogue and digital realm.

4/5. Slow Publishing and Dismantling the Academy’s fetish for single authorship. 

I love this, even though I find the concept of slow publishing a bit terrifying. In fact, my press was built on the idea of streamlining the interval from concept to page and from blog post to book, but the idea of slow publishing has lingered in the back of my head (as more than just a way to describe certain projects with certain collaborators). In fact, when the press started, Joel Jonientz and I discussed an imprint that would focus on reprinting public domain works with great attention to detail – layout, fonts, illustrations, paper, and binding. These works were more than just premium print products, but were aesthetic statements as well designed to evoke the “art of the book.” The content would be sourced from the public domain removing any urgency to move work to print. I’d like to revive this project with the right collaborators at some point, but for now slow publishing is something I admire, but don’t support.

In fact, the cooperative character of The Digital Press is antithetical to some of the core ideas of the larger slow movement. For example, slow movement has a clear relationship to craft production which emphasized the specialized skill of the craftperson. My press, in contrast, asks contributors to take an active role in the production of their books. The Press provides a template and a framework for publication and a bit of technical expertise, but operates with the understanding that the specialized skill of publishing and editing, which has preserved a division of labor that supports commercial interests as well as the need to profit from books. 

Beyond the Digital Press’s model, I can’t imagine really publishing anything as a single author again in my career. First, I don’t need to. I’m tenured, I’m productive, and if my university won’t promote me for only publishing co-authored works, then I don’t really care to be promoted (but I think they will promote me, so that’s not really an issue). Second, while I tend to write, a lot, I never write in a vacuum. Almost everything I do has a collaborative element, and (channeling my inner Latour) I can’t think of any idea that I’ve ever had that doesn’t represent simply a node in a more extensive network of conversations, concepts, and relationships. That these relationships are not represented in authorship standards is, a best, a bit dishonest, and at worst, exploitative. 

7. A publication is not simply a closed or bounded object or commodity. It lives on and proceeds into an uncertain world. 

Another great observation. As the Digital Press develops (or maybe within NDQ (?)), I’d love to create an environment that encourages our work to be remixed, expanded, developed, rejiggered, and demolished. I get that not every publication and every author will allow this kind of approach, but as I write this I’m listening to covers of Phosphorescent’sSong for Zula” (it’s a pop song… and I’ve loved Ryan Adams’ long standing practice of covering songs). This is common practice in music. Whatever you think of these songs, the covers give the original new life, they have a life of their own, and they make explicit the potential for a work of art or a publication to become something new and to develop a new network of relationships and meanings. By recognizing a publication as less of an act of freezing an object and more about setting an idea or a text free, we can create an environment where the object can move into new positions, develop new meanings, and continue to grow.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this really thoughtful and nice comment on our manifesto…and really interested to see how the Digital Press develops. I love how your colleague Dimitri managed to single out the only male author in something co-authored with 6 women – if Danny isn’t the boss of him.. I’m sure one of us could step in!

    Reply

    1. Haidy,

      Oh no! Don’t be too hard on Dimitri! I borrowed his remarks a bit out of context, but I will admit that he needs many, many bosses.

      Thank you for the kind words and check out The Digital Press’s website: http://thedigitalpress.org/ for updates on our progress.

      Bill

      Reply

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