Publishing and the Undercommons

If you’re around campus tomorrow afternoon at 4:30ish, I’m going to be hanging out with Political Science Professor Brian Urlacher and English Professor Patrick Henry at the World Famous Chester Fritz Library to participate in the Inaugural Randy Rasmussen lecture. This event will feature a reading from Brian’s novel The Library of Chester Fritz (which you can download for free here!) and a conversation between me and Patrick about the future of academic and literary publishing at the University of North Dakota. It should be a good time!

I am not really sure what Patrick and I will end up talking about and my hope is that it is a bit of a conversation between us. One of the concepts, though, that has regained my somewhat fractured attention lately is that of the undercommons. The main source for this idea is Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, which you can download here. The book is too complicated and poetic to try to summarize here. Instead, I’ve been thinking about the notion that universities serve not only to educate students and to promote certain kind of research but also to reproduce themselves (institutionally, intellectually, socially, economically, politically). The institutional effort, policies, and habits to do these things tends to create a more or less permanent underclass of individuals who are not fully part of the institution, but upon whom the institution relies for its success. This includes part-time students, contingent faculty, night and part-time staff and the other folks around a university campus who do not fit neatly in to the institutions main focus. The individuals in these groups constitute what Moten and Harney call an undercommons. They are drawn to campus by the excess energy that such large institutions produce and which they find ways to use for their own benefit and agendas (which may or may not represent goals of the institution).

A great example of this is the library. The library contains both physical resources (books, computers, and increasingly things like scanners, 3D printers, and the like) as well as intellectual resources (ideas!) that leaven the life of the undercommons (as well as the university community). Universities also include campus spaces — student unions, lobbies, unused classrooms, conference rooms — that can function as places where people can gather informally to exchange views, scheme, and work. Of course, recent efforts across the country to restrict what institutions teach formally mean that the undercommons might not only see an influx of individuals disaffected by state mandates, but also make the excess energy produced by institutions all the more important in creating alternative spaces and communities. 

This also got me thinking about my work with North Dakota Quarterly and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. I’ve done all I can to keep these two projects as separate from the university as possible while still availing themselves to university resources. To bring this around to conversations about publishing, I like to imagine that universities could serve as platforms of underground, unorthodox, and radical publishing. The technologies are certainly available and the undercommons has abundant expertise and creative energies. 

NDQ and The Digital Press might not qualify as subversive or even particularly radical (no good radical magazine can last for over a century and retains any of its subversive credentials!), but I do want these institutions which can dance along the fine line between the institution and the undercommons to provide opportunities to develop skills useful to amplifying the voices of the commons and the undercommons.   

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