Flow and the Digital Press

For the last few weeks, I’ve been slogging through a revision and expansion of a paper that I gave last spring at the annual IEMA conference at Buffalo. It’s due at the end of the month, and right now, I’m starting to feel deadline pressure. 

Here’s my revised introduction.

Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics

Over the last two decades, there has been the growing use of the phrase ”digital workflow.” As you might expect, the Google ngram plot for this term looks like the proverbial hockey stick. The term ”workflow” has its roots in the language of early 20th century scientific management, and the notion of “digital workflow” appears to have first emerged at the turn of the 21st century in the field of publishing. In this context, digital workflow spawned a series of “how to” style books that described both the role of computer technology in the production of print media and the new way of organizing practice. Among archaeologists, the concept of digital workflow has emerged in the early 21st century with the widespread use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the discipline, and, as a result, digital workflow has come to occupy a distinct place within archaeological methodology.

This paper considers the idea of a ”digital workflow” in the context of archaeological publishing. Recent work on archaeological writing and publishing has started to explore the reciprocal relationship between archaeological work and the publication process. Ian Hodder considered how the character and structure of archaeological description and narration shape the kinds of arguments possible in the field (Hodder 1989). This anticipated a growing emphasis on craft in archaeological knowledge production with work on illustration, for example, demonstrating the embodied nature of the processes of translating archaeological knowledge from the field to the published page (Morgan and Wright 2018). This finds ready parallels with recent critiques of archaeological photography that have recognized how media affordances shaped the kind of arguments that archaeologists make from their data (Gartski 2017). With the emergence of digital practices in archaeological field work, scholars have come to understand the data produced through a growing range of digital tools required thoughtful curation and, increasingly, publication under the terms of various federal grants. As a result, archaeologists have started to extend the notion of archaeological workflow from data collection in the field to the archiving and dissemination of data on platforms like Open Context, TiDAR, or the ADS.

This move among archaeologists will have, I propose, wide ranging impacts on the nature of archaeological publishing especially as academic publishing itself has entered a period of considerable change. Most large academic publishers now have digital publishing platforms of various descriptions and have supported various efforts at creating more dynamic and interactive ways to engage with archaeological description, interpretation, analysis and data. The best known and perhaps most innovative of these is the University of Michigan’s recent publication of the Mid-Republican House at Gabii. While this work received some significant criticism from reviewers for the limits of its functionality, the authors have been commendably reflexive in the motivations and processes surrounding its development (Optiz 2018). Publishers have also sought to embrace Open Access publishing models as pressure from authors, libraries, and institutions has sought to make publicly funded research more widely available, remove profit margins from the consideration of academic work, and pushed back against escalating prices for library resources. These initiatives often inform the development of new publishing platforms — like Luminos from the University of California Press, Fulcrum from the University of Michigan Press, and PubPub from MIT. In some cases, such as the Manifold platform from the University of Minnesota Press, these platforms are open to new compositional strategies for authors that expand the character of the academic books as living documents susceptible to revision and to accommodating responses within their fabric. These significant changes to publishing intersect with a growing reflexivity in archaeological workflow to create the potential for new ways of understanding archaeological knowledge making.

This chapter offers my modest contributions to these conversations based on two things. First, I have two slightly unusual points of departure. One is a passage from an article by Michael Given in which he applies Ivan Illich’s idea of conviviality to an understanding of the premodern agricultural landscape of Cyprus (Given 2017, 2018). Illich proposed his idea of conviviality as a way to describe the creativity that arose from the fluid interaction and interdependence between individuals in the premodern world, and he articulated it as a critique of an impoverished modern condition. Toward the end of the article, Given suggested that a convivial collaboration between archaeological specialists from soil scientists to ceramicists, bioarchaeologists, architectural historians, and field archaeologists would produce a deeper understanding of the convivial landscape in which premodern Cypriots lived (Given 2017, 140). My first reading of that passages was relatively uncharitable (Caraher 2019, 374-375). Illich’s notion of conviviality was anti-modern and attempting to reconcile this idea with the assembly line practice of archaeological work and specialization seemed as doomed to fail as the plantation style sugar works established by the Venetian colonizers on Cyprus’s south coast. If convivial relationships mapped the seamless sociability of premodern production, specialization and workflows created Frankenstein creatures which have the superficial appearance of reality, but are, in fact, mottled monsters of recombined fragments (in the vague sense of Freeman 2010).

At the same time that I was thinking about Illich and Given, I read Anna Tsing’s work, The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Deborah Cowen’s work on logistics, The Deadly Life of Logistics (2014). Both books, in their own ways, describe the fluid of movement of people, things, and capital around the world. They explore the tension between the local and the global, places and movement, and the Deluezian “dividual” and the Enlightenment individual (Deleuze 1992). While Cowen’s work is, as the title suggests, practical and pessimistic in tone, Tsing’s work offers the rhizomic world of the matsutake mushroom holding forth the “possibilities of life in capitalist ruins.” She draws freely (and playfully) upon Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of deterritorialization and flow adding a new conceptual layer to our concept of workflow (Deleuze and Guattari xxxx). While I dread bringing too much theory to this chapter, I do think that Deleuze and Guattari offers a way to understand Given’s use of conviviality as a rather radical way to conceptualize the reterritorialization (perhaps the recoding) of modern archaeological knowledge making. This chapter will swing back and forth between these two poles and offer both an angst-filled critique of archaeological practice as well as some more optimistic reflections on why maybe Michael Given was right (and maybe I knew that all along) and convivial social practices in archaeology are possible, even in our digital age.

The second pillar supporting my arguments in this chapter is my experience founding and operating a small university press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, which I co-founded about five years ago. At the risk of being solipsistic or self-referential, my experiences talking with authors, book makers, archaeologists, and other publishers has helped me to formulate ways of producing books that bring them closer to the convivial practices associated with archaeological work. To be clear: The Digital Press is small with no permanent staff; our budget is based exclusively on the generosity of donors and a slow drip of paper book sales; and we have no experience in the publishing industry at any level. These things are both features and bugs. On the one hand, we had no expectation for how a press should work other than those that we had acquired as publishing scholars. We have also developed a strong sense of common ownership over the books that we have published with our authors. This has emboldened us to think about the Digital Press as a model for other publishing projects in the digital era. On the other hand, we do rely more heavily on the experiences and energies of our authors than a conventional press and this has not only complicated certain features common to academic publishing, including peer review, but also created a greater professional burden for our authors (and, indeed, our publisher) in an environment already crowded with obligations. In short, this chapter is not offering The Digital Press as the model for the future of publishing, but rather offers our experiences as an example for how the landscape of academic production is changing.

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