The most intriguing author’s note I’ve seen in a while appears on the back cover of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press) by David Novak, an assistant professor of music at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Following those obligatory institutional coordinates, we read: “The fieldwork for this book involved attending all-night parties that were so loud, he sometimes lost his balance and had to have his hearing checked after a year.”
More remarkable, perhaps, is that he still has any hearing left. Novak became interested in the Japanese phenomenon of "Noizu" in the early 1990s, after a period of teaching English, and polishing his Japanese, in Kyoto. The term is a neologism in Japanglish (cf. Franglais) referring to the underground movement or milieu devoted to producing -- and enduring – squalls of atonal electronic sound blasted at incredibly high volume. Noizu stands in relation to hardcore punk or extreme heavy metal band something like the roar of a jet engine does to chamber music. Connoisseurs call the sound “harsh,” at least when they are praising a performance or recording. The "noisician" works with a set of electronic boxes that distort, echo, or clip the frequencies of a sound; they are sometimes connected to one another according to a plan, and sometimes by chance. “Outputs go back into inputs,” Novak writes, “effects are looped together, and circuits are turned in on themselves. Sounds are transformed, saturated with distortion, and overloaded to the point that any original source becomes unrecognizable.” By the end of the performance, “the circuit is overturned, the gear is wrecked, and the network is destroyed.”
The point is to create, in Novak’s words, “the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable” -- sometimes blasting the audience into “a state of hypnosis, dreaming sleep, or trance.” Enraptured or not, performers and listeners alike must get tinnitus.
Both the author’s teaching position and the book’s subtitle contain the word “music.” But the question of whether Noizu is a category of music is a question of taste and, even more, of definition – including self-definition, since there are people in the Noizu scene who insist that it is an experience utterly distinct from music. The ambiguity of its status is heightened by the existence of an enormous body of recorded Noizu, including the limited-edition boxed set in honor of Merzbow, perhaps the best known and certainly the most prolific of Noizu artists. It contains 50 CDs. He has issued several times that many over the past three decades, so presumably it is a greatest-hits collection.
Seeing Japanoise in Duke’s catalog reminded me of being in a Greenwich Village record shop with a seemingly exhaustive selection of arcane musical sub- and micro-genres from around the world. It had a bin marked “Japanese and other noise music” This was in the late 1990s, which Novak indicates was the peak period of media exposure for Noizu within Japan itself, after a couple of decades of existence deep underground. For a long time Japanese noisicans performed in tiny venues and distributed their recordings on cassette tapes which circulated by mail through an international network of avant-gardists.
By the time it established a niche at that specialty shop, Noizu was available on CD. Despite having never heard of the Japanese scene, I felt like I’d already heard plenty of “noise music” over the years. There was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a notorious double album of guitar feedback released in 1975, which was either an homage to experimental composers like Stockhausen or Reed’s way of fulfilling a recording project in the most hostile way possible. In the 1980s, bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubaten tested just how much ear-splitting mayhem could be incorporated into something still vaguely recognizable as a song. For that matter, Noizu sounds like something the Dadaists might have come up with the Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago, if they’d had the amplifiers and gadgets.
Novak knows all of that -- and plenty of other examples of aestheticized sonic chaos, besides -- but insists on the specific history and context of Noizu. He draws the distinctions a little too fine at times, but does so in the interest of creating a “thick description” of Noizu: an ethnographic treatment of it as the product of Japanese conditions, even (or especially) in regard to its international circulation.
No matter where you go in the world, the audience for extremely loud electronic noise is likely to remain pretty small. But the existence of “livehouses” – tiny performance spaces, scattered so randomly that nobody is likely to find one without very specific directions – meant that a gathering of twenty people might seem like a crowd. Combine that with an incredibly intense mode of listening fostered by clubs where jazz fans assembled after World War II to listen to new albums in reverent silence. Then add countless small, highly specialized record stores whose owners develop an exhaustive familiarity with the history of a given sub-niche.
The product, in the case of Noizu, was a scene far more lively and attentive than anything available to, say, the American creators and consumers of what the rock critic Lester Bangs celebrated as “hideous noise.” Novak describes a process through which the rumors of a vital Japanese subculture came to excite artists and musicians abroad (who had no idea of just how small that subculture was), while Noizu’s growing renown in the wider world consolidated its status as something both artistically credible and distinctly Japanese.
Feedback is generated when a sound system begins to amplify and intensify its own output, which makes it an apt term for both the noise of Noizu and the cultural process through which it transformed itself from a marginal variety of performance art into a recognized and distinctive aspect of Japanese culture.
Novak indicates that devotees can recognize the particular way a given noisician sets up the devices in his rig, and I have no reason to doubt it. Part of a cultural feedback circuit is the formation of very distinctive modes of subjectivity – in this case, one capable of experiencing sound so loud that it seems to knock the breath out of you as a manifestation of the sublime. In its penultimate chapter, Japanoise draws out the parallels between Noizu as a kind of extreme physical encounter with technological power and apocalyptic themes in postwar Japanese culture. Novak identifies the arc of a noise performance as one of “overload and collapse”: an aesthetic duplication of “how a mechanical society feeds human energy back into the machine and measure[s] just how deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded in this cycle.”
Japanoise draws on interviews with performers of and listeners to Noizu, both in Japan and abroad – and, of course, the author’s own extensive exposure to its harsh pleasures. The one thing conspicuously missing from the books is an analysis of the part played by music journalism in creating the cultural feedback. There really ought to have been a chapter on the fanzines, where the terms for understanding and discussing Noizu took shape. But Novak does emphasize the revival of the cassette tape as noisicians’ preferred means of distributing their work. It is unmistakably a reaction to the immateriality and hyper-availability of digital culture.
The phrase “overload and collapse” also suggests the experience of the “lost decade” (or decades, depending on who you ask) of unemployment and stagnation following the collapse of the Japanese stock market in 1989. That raises a question about what manner of unholy racket we can expect to well up elsewhere in the world, as artists come to terms with, as Novak puts it, "deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded" in the feedback systems all of us live in.
The Office of Scholarly Communication at Harvard University has issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the recent controversial push by the American Historical Association to allow new Ph.D.s to embargo their dissertations instead of making them available in university open access depositories. The AHA has said that making the dissertations available could hurt the chances of young scholars of landing book contracts, which they need to obtain tenure. But the Harvard statement said that the AHA has provided "no evidence" to support this view. Further, the Harvard statement noted a recent blog post by Harvard University Press suggesting that making dissertations available online may increase the odds of their authors finding a publisher.
Google is making a play for the student textbook market. At the Wednesday unveiling of its new tablet, the Nexus 7, the company announced it would be adding e-textbooks to its online store and allowing e-textbook rentals. The company said it is working with Cengage, Wiley, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Macmillan. Rumors of the company's entry into the textbook market had been floating in textbook industry circles ahead of the announcement.
The most memorable thing about the 2002 science-fiction movie Minority Report was its depiction of advertising in a few decades -- in particular the scene of Tom Cruise hurrying through a mall, besieged by holographic, interactive invitations to have a Guinness or use American Express, and asking him how he liked the tank tops he’d purchased at the Gap. The virtual shills address him by name (the character’s name, that is) thanks to retinal scanners, which are as ubiquitous in the 2050s as surveillance cameras had become in the century’s first decade.
They are pop-up ads from hell, swarming like hungry ghosts to devour everyone’s attention. (The people Tom Cruise rushes past are presumably getting their own biometrically personalized shopping advice.) The scene feels uncomfortably plausible; it’s the experience of being on the Internet, extended into public space and rendered inescapable.
How effective the film is as social criticism probably depends on what you make of the fact that a quarter of its budget came from product placement. Minority Report’s critique of advertising turns out to be, in part, critique as advertising.
Now, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that people have become so resistant to hard-sell advertisement (dodging TV commercials with their DVRs, ignoring or mocking how ad agencies target their desires or insecurities) that they have lost influence. By the 2050s, our psychic calluses should be really thick.
The bad news concerns what is taking the place of the hard sell: a range of techniques discussed at some length in Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Advertising (New York University Press) by Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University.
“Cool” advertising, as Serazio uses the expression, does not refer only to campaigns that make a product seem hip, hot, and happening -- so that you will be, too, by buying it. The adjective is instead a nod to the contrast between Marshall McLuhan’s famous if altogether dubious categorizations of “hot” media, such as film or print, and the “cool” sort, chiefly meaning television.
A hot medium, goes the theory, transmits its content in high resolution, so that the recipient easily absorbs it through a single sense. A cool medium, with its low resolution, demands greater involvement from the recipient in absorbing the message. Someone reading Aristotle or watching "Citizen Kane" is more or less passively taking in what the hot medium bombards the eye with, while the “Gilligan’s Island” audience finds its senses quickened (auditory and tactile in particular, according to McLuhan) by a need to compensate for the cool medium’s low level of visual stimulation.
That makes as much sense as any of the sage of Toronto’s other ideas, which is to say not a hell of a lot. Nonetheless, Serazio gets as much value out of the distinction as seems humanly possible by adapting it to the contrast between the old-school “hot” ad campaign – with its clear, strong message that you should buy Acme brand whatchamacallits, and here’s why – and a variety of newer, “cooler” approaches that are more seductive, self-effacing, or canny about dealing with widespread cynicism about corporate hype.
A cool ad campaign, when successful, does not simply persuade people to buy something but creates a kind of spontaneous, intimate involvement with the campaign itself. The consumer’s agency is always stressed. ("Agency" in the sense of capacity to act, rather than where "Mad Men" do their business.) The Dorito’s "Fight for the Flavor" campaign of the mid-‘00s empowered the chip-gobbling public to determine which of two new flavors, Smokin' Cheddar BBQ or Wild White Nacho, would remain on the shelves and which would be pulled. Bloggers and tweeters are encouraged to express their authentic, unscripted enthusiasm. “Buzz agents” are given free samples of a product, chat it up with their friends, then report back how the discussions went. (With word-of-mouth campaigns, the most important is authenticity. Fake that and you’ve got it made.)
And at perhaps its most sophisticated level, cool advertising will cultivate the (potential) consumer’s involvement almost as an end in itself – for example, by providing an opportunity to control the behavior of a man in a chicken suit known as Subservient Chicken.
Let us return to the horrible fascination of Subservient Chicken in due course. But first, theory.
Foucault plus Gramsci equals about a third of the stuff published in cultural studies -- of which “critical industry media studies,” the subspecialty into which Serazio’s book falls, is a part. The conceptual work in Your Ad Here is done with Foucault’s line of power tools, in particular his considerations on governance, while Gramsci seems along mostly to keep him company.
Advertising as governance sounds counterintuitive, given the connotation of state power it elicits, but in Foucault’s work “government” refers to processes of guidance and control that may be more or less distant from the state’s institutions. The teacher governs a class (or tries) and a boss governs the workplace.
Over all, “management” seems like a more suitable term for most non-state modes of governance, and it has the advantage of foregrounding what Serazio wants to stress: Foucault’s point is that governance doesn’t mean giving orders and enforcing obedience but rather “structuring the possible field of action of others” in order “to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such-and-such ends may be achieved.”
Governance (management) in this sense is a kind of effective persuasion of the governed party (the student, the fry cook, etc.) to exercise his or her agency to perform the necessary functions of the institution (school, fast-food place) without being subjected to constant external pressure. Insofar as governance is an art or a science, it is through recognizing and anticipating resistance, and preventing or containing disruption. (Some remarks by Gramsci on hegemony and resistance also apply here, but really just barely.)
“Cool sell” advertising counts as governance, in Serazio’s book, because it tries to neutralize public fatigue from advertisement overload -- so that we’re still incited to spend money and think well of a brand. That’s the common denominator of viral marketing, crowdsourced publicity campaigns, plebiscites on snack-food availability, and so on.
It occasionally sounds like Serazio is criticizing these methods as manipulative, but I suspect that’s actually high praise, like when one horror fan tells another that a torture scene in "Hostel" gave him nightmares.
Which brings us back, as promised, to Subservient Chicken, whose role in promoting the Burger King menu remains oblique at best. But he undeniably garnered an enormous amount of attention -- 20 million distinct viewers generating half a billion hits. “By filming hundreds of video clips of a man in a chicken suit,” the author says, “and writing code for a database of terms that would respond to keyword commands for the Chicken to perform those videotaped actions, [the advertising agency] concocted something that was, its own words, ‘so creepy, weird and well-executed that many people who visited… thought they were actually controlling this person in a chicken suit in real life.’ ” I can’t help feeling this calls for more extensive Foucauldian analysis, but I won’t be sticking around to see how that turns out.
Last week’s column began to preview the fall and winter offerings from university presses. The first batch included books on higher education, the digital and dead-tree humanities, and speculation regarding the mind and emotion.
Now we move on to race, class, gender, war, and sundry other topics of heated public interest. The very titles of certain volumes may outrage some people, which can’t be helped. I will opine a little, on the fly -- but the most interesting thing about the whole process has been looking for possible or implicit connections among the books. With luck, readers will come across a few titles of interest here they might not have noticed otherwise. Including the institutional affiliation of the authors and editors of this many books would have bogged things down too much, but for each volume there is a link to the publisher, which usually has a web page providing that information.
Democracy and its discontents are the focus of several new books on political theory and history. The most philosophical of them is by Étienne Balibar – one of Louis Althusser’s students and collaborators, as it’s impossible not to mention even after more than 40 years. Balibar sums up the deepest conflict at the heart of the constitutional nation-state by coining the neologism he uses as the title of Equaliberty: Political Essays (Duke University Press, Feb. 2014), originally published in France three years ago.
The eminent (and prolific) American political theorist William E. Connolly continues to think through the conditions and consequences of pluralism. His latest report, also from Duke, is The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Sept.). Connolly worries that making the marketplace the ultimate arbiter of institutional legitimacy leaves us with a brittle and empty polity. Nadia Urbinati reflects on the same condition in Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, Feb.), with its criticism of “technocrats wedded to procedure, demagogues who make glib appeals to ‘the people,’ and media operatives who, given their preference, would turn governance into a spectator sport and citizens into fans of opposing teams.” (As a resident of Washington, I’d say that about covers it.)
In The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, Oct.), David Runciman warns that liberal democracy -- hitherto capable of managing its economic and political troubles, and even emerging from them strengthened – remains vulnerable to unforeseen developments it has no guarantee of being able to fix. Pushing the discussion in another direction is Anti-Crisis (Duke, Nov.) by Janet Roitman, who questions the reliance on the concept of crisis in narrating our social, political, and economic ordeals.
It’s been said (by whom I can’t recall) that all really serious problems now are either too big or too small, too general or too specific, for the nation-state to handle them. Perhaps that explains why the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber -- whose Jihad vs. McWorld was one of the more prominent globalization books of the 1990s – now stresses the efficacy of municipal politics with If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press, Nov.).
Biographer of Isaiah Berlin, champion of human rights, and erstwhile standard-bearer for liberals who rallied to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Michael Ignatieff had at last report returned to Canada to serve as leader of the Liberal Party. Non-admirers south of the border may reasonably have assumed, with relief, that they would never hear from him again. Indeed, to judge by one recent book and Inside Higher Ed's reports, some Canadians were of a like mind. But now Ignatieff returns to print – presumably invigorated from leading his party to massive, history-making defeat in the 2011 elections, when he also managed to lose his own seat in Parliament – with Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Harvard, Nov.) From lemons to lemonade -- on the double!
Scholars and warriors alike contribute to How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War (Stanford University Press, Sept), edited by James Burk, and Jacob N. Shapiro’s new book analyzes The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, Aug.). Promising “a groundbreaking look ahead at what may happen after the war in Afghanistan ends” (which could be soon, reportedly) David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, Oct.) identifies “four megatrends” at work in shaping the future of political violence by non-state forces. His use of the term “urban guerilla” calls to mind the 1960s and ’70s, when most of the developments that Lindsey Churchill discusses in Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.) took place.
Zaid Al-Ali draws a balance sheet on The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, Feb.), while Christopher J. Fettweis offers his own diagnosis of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, Oct.). That is perhaps the most Noam Chomsky-like title ever attached to a book written by someone other than Noam Chomsky. The linguist’s political interventions come up for assessment in Anthony F. Greco’s Chomsky's Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader (Vanderbilt, Jan.).
A blurb for Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, Oct.) says that its editors, Randall Amster and Elavie Ndura, have assembled writings by “a modern-day who’s who of nonviolent thinkers, bring[ing] fresh new perspectives to the urgency and practicality of alternative recourses to violent conflict.” The catalog doesn’t indicate who is on that list. It can’t be a good sign for the state of the world that the only potential contributor who comes to mind is the Dalai Lama.
Blithe as its contemporary practitioners can often be, economics was once called “the dismal science” – a characterization that now seems at least as suitable for ecology. The fields converge in William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (Yale, Oct.).
But then they converge in life as well. Both economic and ecological issues are easy enough to infer from the subtitle of David Sedlak’s Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale, Jan.). Something else ecologists and economists share, evidently, is an itch to extrapolate. Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale, Sept.) looks at a famous wager between a free-market optimist and an environmentalist catastrophist.
It will be interesting to see if Walter A. Friedman reports any evidence of a hybrid species, the free-market catastrophist, in Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (Princeton, Nov.) Analyzing the history of policy misfires in WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them (Oxford, Nov.), Richard S. Grossman argues that terrible consequences follow when a particular ideology trumps attention to “cold, hard economic analysis.” Okay, but if you can find anyone on Wall Street who admits to ignoring cold, hard economic analysis in the interest of a particular ideology, I will trade your credit default swaps for a nice, newly foreclosed home.
Meanwhile, much further down the socioeconomic spectrum, we have a few assessments of the labor movement that seem like S.O.S. messages in book form. That’s definitely the case with Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review, distributed by New York University Press, Nov.) by Steve Early -- a freelance contributor to The Nation, Labor Notes, and In These Times, among other journals -- who is one of the two or three labor journalists whose byline I’m always glad to find. (For a while I also thought he was a great singer and songwriter, but that turned out to be Steve Earle.)
On the other hand, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard, Feb) sounds less like an S.O.S. than a toast at a wake. Organized labor in the middle of the 20th century "was the core institution fighting for economic and political equality in the United States," its publisher's description says. "Unions leveraged their bargaining power to deliver tangible benefits to workers while shaping cultural understandings of fairness in the workplace. The labor movement helped sustain an unprecedented period of prosperity among America’s expanding, increasingly multiethnic middle class." With the smallest percentage of workers in unions now in a century, Rosenfeld stresses the policy impact of labor’s decline: "curtailed advocacy for better working conditions, weakened support for immigrants’ economic assimilation, and ineffectiveness in addressing wage stagnation among African-Americans." In Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market (University of Minnesota Press, July), Marc Doussard describes jobs where employers routinely practice “denying safety equipment, fining workers for taking scheduled breaks, [and] requiring unpaid overtime.” It’s a fair bet that some of those workers are parents of the kids Walter J. Nicholl writes about in The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate (Stanford, Aug.).
Its publication next month timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates’s A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (MR/NYU, Aug.) revisits and updates A. Philip Randolph’s proposal for egalitarian reform. Ian Haney López proposes one explanation of the continuing and growing extremes of wealth and poverty in the U.S. in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, Jan.).
In Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (Rutgers University Press, Feb.), Clara S. Lewis suggests that federal anti-hate-crimes laws have backfired in perverse ways, while John D. Skrentny points to the even more convoluted side-effects of anti-discrimination legislation in After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace (Princeton, Jan.).
An interesting example of argument within the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia is Richard A. Posner’s Reflections on Judging (Harvard, Oct), which criticizes Justice Anthony Scalia’s judicial philosophy from Posner’s own perspective as both legal theorist and federal judge. Donald T. Critchlow revisits a largely forgotten chapter in the history of American conservatism in When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (Cambridge, Sept.).
Two more titles looking at the history of the U.S. right wing – focusing on activists in the trenches at least as much as the big-name strategists – are Joshua C. Wilson, The Street Politics of Abortion: Violence, and America's Culture Wars (Stanford, Aug.) and Isaac Martin’s Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford, Sept.) Taking a long-term perspective on the American right’s foreign policy is Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton, Sept.) by Henry R. Nau, who is implicitly in dialogue with Milan Babík’s Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology (Baylor, Aug.) whether either of the authors is aware of it or not.
Enough politics! Let’s talk about sex. Or about sexual politics, at least. (Sorry about the bait-and-switch.)
Actually, “asexual politics” seems closer to the mark in the case of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke, Nov.) by Benjamin Kahan. Decoupling celibacy (if that’s how to put it) from assumptions about religious inhibition or repressed gay identity, Kahan maintains that celibacy is “a distinct sexuality with its own practices and pleasures.” Well, to each his or her own. Perhaps the author will be celibacy’s heroic equivalent of the now almost legendary German sexologist whose life and work Ralf Dose recounts in Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (MR/NYU, Feb.).
That said, the celibate lifestyle seems unlikely to face the kind of legal and political issues portrayed in When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (Rutgers, Nov.) by Layane Parish Craig, or Katrina Kimport, Queering Marriage: Challenging Family Formation in the United States (Rutgers, Dec.).
The early stages of family formation typically include reading one of the pregnancy manuals that Marika Seigel studies in The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (University of Chicago Press, Dec.), teasing out the genre’s history and subtexts. Jocelyn Elise Crowley thinks about how to make parenthood and employment compatible, rather than a zero-sum trade off, in Mothers Unite: Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (Cornell University Press, May).
Sarah S. Richardson goes in quest of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, Nov.) -- where we also find the coding that produces death, which is even more persistent. (Mortality has no equivalent of the option for celibacy.) Billy G. Smith offers one view of the Grim Reaper’s unrelenting determination in Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (Yale, Nov.), his account of the yellow fever pandemic of the 1790s.
In The Thought of Death and the Memory of War (Minnesota, Oct.), Marc Crépon reflects on the desensitizing, depersonalizing effect of knowing about the mass slaughters of the 20th century. With Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, Oct.), originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures for 2012, Samuel Scheffler argues that we have a deep, even unconscious need to trust in the continuation of human life on earth long after we’ve returned to dust. He’s probably right, but I would still prefer not to think about it.
Cengage Learning, Inc., the second largest publisher of higher education course materials in America, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday. The move had been expected by financial analysts.
The company hopes to eliminate about $4 billion of its $5.8 billion in debt, the company said in a statement. The company's chief financial officer, Dean Durbin, blamed the company's woes on the move away from traditional printed textbooks to digital offerings, cuts in government spending since the recession, and piracy of its materials.
In a court filing, he said the company is working on a new business plan and pointed in particular to MindTap, a new cloud-based platform the company has elsewhere described as "more than an e-book and different than a learning management system." The company expects to continue to make timely payments to its vendors and offer the same wages and benefits to its employees, it said in a press release.
“The decisive actions we are taking today will reduce our debt and improve our capital structure to support our long-term business strategy of transitioning from traditional print models to digital educational and research materials," CEO Michael Hansen said in a statement. "Cengage Learning began an operational transformation six months ago under the leadership of our new senior management team, which is executing bold plans to enhance our customer relationships and introduce innovative digital and print products and solutions to meet our customers’ evolving needs."
Going through the offerings of more than 30 university presses for the fall and winter publishing, I kept an eye out for two things. The first was anything of possible interest to readers who don’t come across university press books very often, or ever. Or, to put it another way, the general reader.
From time to time it has pointed out that "the general reader" is a cultural fiction; no such species actually exists, except, perhaps, as a marketing category. And this is true, to a point. We are all, ultimately, specific readers, reading our specific books. Yet quite a few more readers, with a wider range of backgrounds, will be drawn to The Letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale University Press, Oct.) than to a monograph on West Side Story. (And yes, there is one.)
My other goal was to identify trends or patterns emerging from catalog to catalog. Most proved fairly obvious and come as no surprise – any topic making the front page of the newspaper long enough is taken on eventually. But in a couple of cases, interesting or odd connections among books occurred to me after a third or fourth tour of the listings.
So without further ado, here’s my selection of fall and winter books from American university presses -- compiled by means of hunchwork and caffeine. It won’t be exhaustive. It might get kaleidoscopic. But there’s something here for everyone.
Let’s start with a few forthcoming volumes on “the higher learning in America,” to borrow the title of a book by Thornstein Veblen that the author originally planned to subtitle “A Study in Total Depravity.” However critical he may be of the institution, former Harvard University president Derek Bok probably won’t be that stringent in Higher Education in America (Princeton University Press, Aug.) – a work almost 500 pages long and covering, the publisher says, “the entire system, public and private, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to great universities with their research programs and their medical, law, and business schools.”
Jerry Jacobs takes a cold, hard look at a boundary-erasing buzzword with In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press, Oct.). More in the nature of a career guide is Frank Furstenberg’s Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness With a Ph.D. (Chicago, Sept.). Please remember: that’s “with,” not “despite.” Postgraduate life would be less like Waiting for Godot if the institution follows the lead of a volume edited by Keith Hoeller called Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.)
Among the titles recalling the scholarly worlds of yesteryear -- erudition unplugged! -- are forthcoming translations of Jürgen Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language (Harvard University Press, Nov.) and Arlette Farge's The Allure of the Archives (Yale, Sept.) The Library: A World History (Chicago, Nov.) brings together James W. P. Campbell’s knowledge of the history of architecture and Will Pryce’s photography “to tell the story of library architecture around the world and through time in a single volume, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China and from the beginnings of the written word to the present day.”
Seeking to navigate the passage between dead-tree and new-media cultures we have Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, Jan.), a collection of papers edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, which argues "for seeing print as a medium along with the scroll, electronic literature, and computer games." A cluster of titles will consider the effect of digitality on personality, though possibly it's the other way around.
Anna Poletti and Julie Rak's edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (University of Wisconsin Press, Jan.) sounds as if it must overlap somewhat with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis's The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, Oct.) and Alice E. Marwick's Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale, Nov.) Beyond celebrity, publicity, and branding, we seemingly have sainthood in view with Brett T. Robinson's Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, Aug.).
Digital technology itself continues on course for apotheosis -- omnipresent and pretty nearly omniscient, it hasn't become omnipotent yet, but just you wait. In the meantime, The Intelligent Web: Search, Smart Algorithms, and Big Data (Oxford University Press, Jan.) by Gautam Shroff sounds fascinating and, frankly, scary: a treatment of algorithms that "operate on the vast and growing amount of data on the Web, sifting, selecting, comparing, aggregating, correcting; following simple but powerful rules to decide what matters." The days of thinking of the Internet as some kind of Wild West anarchist frontier have given way to The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale, Jan.), according to Laura DeNardis's study of "the inner power structure already in place within the architectures and institutions of Internet governance." I'm not sure if that argument confirms or undermines military science scholar Thomas Rid's assessment that Cyber War Will Not Take Place(Oxford, Sept.).
Whatever may happen in the quest for artificial intelligence, the human kind retains its mysteries. A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard, Feb.) by Michael Tomasello will pull together the evidence for his fairly well-known thesis that we made our evolutionary leap as a species thanks to the survival value of cooperation and empathy. In his Philosophy of Dreams (Yale, Oct.), Christoph Türcke advances the theory that "both civilization and mental processes are the results of a compulsion to repeat early traumas, one to which hallucination, imagination, mind, spirit, and God all developed in response."
Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini's edited collection Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference (Minnesota, Nov.) takes issue with the usual conception of autism as a disorder, "instead situating autism within an abilities framework that respects the complex personhood of individuals with autism." Anyone interested in that volume will also want to look for The Arachnean and Other Texts (Minnesota, Oct.), the first English translation of writings by the French psychiatrist and filmmaker Fernand Deligny, who worked with autistic children.
Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard, Oct.) is the latest in a series of works by the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum exploring how affect and public life interact. That question will also to be pursued, from their own disciplinary perspective, by the contributors to Doing Emotions History, edited by Susan Matt and Peter N. Stearns (University of Illinois, Jan.). A number of Nussbaum's recent studies have concerned negative affect -- emotions such as shame and disgust, which push or pull away from social contact -- so her readers may be relieved to think about love for a while. But for those who haven't had their fill of it, there's Valerie Curtis's The Science Behind Revulsion; Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat (Chicago, Oct.).
There's power and big money to be had from exploiting forms of negative affect, as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj will explore in The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (Oxford, Jan.) -- and on that note, let me invite you back next time, when we'll look ahead to some titles bound to incite as well as stimulate.
Clifford Lynch recently wrote a piece in which he describes the broken promises to libraries surrounding the introduction of e-books. Instead of a cornucopia of books that would be available at lower prices than print and with various new features enabled by digital technology, we have a peculiar situation where many publishers are refusing to sell books to libraries at all, and often when they do indeed sell them, the books are priced higher than their print counterparts and with various new usage restrictions imposed upon them. So the promises of e-books for libraries remain unfulfilled.
Putting aside the question of who made those promises and how they proposed to hold themselves accountable for their fulfillment, Lynch’s comments lead me to wonder if the advent of e-books has been a good or bad thing for university press publishing, a segment in which I have long had a special interest. On balance I would have to say that as dramatic as the introduction of e-books to the academic sector has been, by and large the fortunes of the press world are not appreciably better than they were four years ago -- or six years ago, to begin the count with the launch of the Amazon Kindle, with apologies to Ronald Reagan and his famous (if misleading) four-year formulation. Indeed, university presses seem to be operating under snugger strategic conditions than even a few years ago. E-books haven’t made all that much difference.
Before saying another word, I must make the qualifying remark that there is great diversity among university presses and that generalizations inevitably introduce distortions. The university presses at Cambridge and Oxford are as large as many commercial firms, possess a global footprint, and manage a broad product portfolio. American presses range from under $1 million in revenue to tens of millions; some publish journals while others do not; and some, despite their small size, are healthily profitable. My comments here put Oxford and Cambridge to the side and talk of the other presses in the aggregate -- that is, there may have been winners and losers among them, but what have their fortunes been as a whole?
University presses have a complex business model, unique in the university world as far as I know, that combines earned revenue with various forms of funding that is not derived from the market place. The earned revenue of these publishers is something of a three-legged stool: books, journals and services. Services can take many forms, but the largest service by far is in the distribution of physical goods on behalf of other, smaller presses. Let’s dig into the earned revenue one leg at a time, putting books last.
1. Services. A number of presses distribute books on behalf of other academic publishers, both domestic and international. Historically this has been a good business, as distribution is a game of scale and a small press has anything but scale. This service lowers the cost of distribution to the small-press client (that is, in comparison to having to provide this service for themselves) and provides a profit for the larger press providing the service.
Unfortunately, this activity is now under stress. Sales of printed books are not growing and in many instances are declining. This leads to excess capacity at warehouses and slow-moving inventory (partially offset by the introduction of digital SRP -- short-run printing). On top of this is the entrance into the sector of commercial players, who change the competitive landscape. It is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for this service.
Presses are also seeking to provide other services, especially digital services, but this will be a steep hill to climb. The problem here is that the competition is everywhere. Do you want to provide print-on-demand services for third parties? Well, you and a dozen other outfits. How about digital asset management, where the provider warehouses digital files that can be accessed and manipulated by clients? Well, you and two dozen other outfits. We needn’t get into file conversion, the creation of ebook apps, or pretty much anything digital. The competition is too keen.
Some presses attempt to provide publishing services to other departments within their institutions. This is a good idea (there is no point in having 20 different people trying to figure out how to convert a PDF to an EPUB file), but the scale is small. Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that income from third-party services will not be an ensured source of funding for presses in the future. And this problem has intensified over the past 4 years–or 6–as print books migrate to digital formats.
2. Journals. Journal publishing over all is a very good business for certain large publishers, and it is still a good business for many university presses. By my estimate, the American presses, taken together, publish about 200 journals; adding Oxford and Cambridge to the mix would add perhaps 600 more. This is out of a universe of approximately 25,000. There is a clear hierarchy in journals publishing. The commercial firms Elsevier, Springer, and John Wiley sit at the top, followed by such firms as Taylor & Francis, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage and the major not-for-profits (e.g., ACS) — and of course Oxford and Cambridge. Below that group are many university presses and professional societies (e.g., AIP, APS). Smaller still are many other professional societies, which may have a tiny portfolio of journals.
The problem for university presses is that the journals business is all about scale and the one thing the presses do not have is scale. Scale permits a publisher to establish a global footprint, to invest in technology, to pay large guarantees to attract professional societies to the roster, and to market the publications into every corner of the marketplace. The journals market is not growing as rapidly as it once did outside of a few notable Gold OA publishers (e.g., PLoS), which in turn has put even greater pressure on publishers to achieve a greater and greater scale, the better to dominate academic library budgets and squeeze out the publications of smaller firms (which are likely in turn to sell out to the larger publishers, thereby increasing the latter publishers’ scale still further, a cycle that is vicious or virtuous depending on which side of the table you sit on).
The race for scale has resulted in the larger publishers poaching the journals formerly handled by many university presses. Thus we have seen a collection of anthropology journals leave the Unviversity of California Press for John Wiley, and Elsevier come bidding for a journal formerly managed by Chicago. Even Oxford is big enough to act as a poacher, sometimes bidding for the publications handled by the smaller presses. Thus the journals segment for university presses (always excepting Oxford and Cambridge) is a less reliable source of income today than it was even a few years ago. Barring a bold new strategy for journals, it is difficult to make a case for growth for any but the largest publishers.
3. Books. What university presses mostly do is publish books. They publish outstanding books and they publish them well. While the book segment is still primarily a print business (about 90 percent), electronic revenue is growing rapidly. There are no presses to my knowledge that are not now publishing ebooks. This is a growth segment, and the presses are understandably proud of it.
Unfortunately, the book business, whether for print or digital works, is a tough one, especially in a segment where some titles may sell as few as 300 copies and a sale of 10,000 copies is a matter of astonishment. The fixed costs of book publishing are simply too high for the small market for scholarly books, and the introduction of ebooks does nothing to whittle away at those fixed costs. Many presses lose money on the sale of books, which in turn puts more pressure to find revenue in the already challenged segments of journals and services.
Another problem for the presses’ foray into ebooks is the dominance of Amazon, which exacts a significant toll from the presses for distribution. Amazon gets more powerful every day and the demands made on tiny scholarly publishers are becoming strident. A dollar taken from the operating margin of a university press is handed over to the shareholders of Amazon, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. While exceptional editorial talent always finds a way to punch its way through a hostile distribution environment, not all editorial work is exceptional and the energy behind every punch has a cost. Ebooks, in other words, are a good and necessary move for the university press world, but they are not likely by themselves to provide financial stability.
And so all three legs of the three-legged stool are rickety, making the prospects for university press publishing not particularly bright. On the other hand, the prospects are not bleak; the presses continue to earn the bulk of their income from the marketplace (over 90 percent of press budgets are covered by earned income). This contradicts the prevailing narrative, which suggests that university press publishing is doomed, that the presses are losing tons of money, and that only a radical overhaul of the business model can “save” university press publishing. This very point was made to me by a university librarian, who noted that her institution’s press had lost several hundred thousand dollars in the prior year. Good lord, what are we to do? But contrast this with the librarian’s own budget, which entailed a cost to the university of over $30 million. People, some perspective, please! This bringd us back to the point that presses are set up as subsidized profit centers, whereas most university functions are set up as cost centers. Which is the bigger burden to the parent institution, the small subsidy of a profit center or the large budget of a cost center?
Using a yardstick of 4 years -- or 6, or 10 -- we would have to say that the presses’ overall situation has gotten tighter; and we would conclude that the “promise” of e-books (though here again I have to ask who is making these promises) has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world. This is because electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy. If we want to meet Clifford Lynch’s challenge, let’s stand up in front of the whiteboard and do some serious thinking.