After a decade of reading papers and attending panels on the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing (it feels established and official enough now to deserve capital letters) I’m dubious about the prospect of ever writing another column on the topic. It starts to feel like Chevy Chase interrupting with a bulletin that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is, in fact, still dead.
Scholarly publishing isn’t dead, of course -- although at this stage, as with the Generalissimo, a major reversal of fortunes would appear unlikely. Ian Maclean’s Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560-1630 (Harvard University Press) evokes a publishing world so different from the 21st century’s that visiting it seems like a vacation from today’s too-familiar circumstances.
Maclean, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Oxford, identifies the period covered by his study (which started out as a series of lectures at Oxford) as the late Renaissance. Maybe so. Clearly publishers were catering to a much-expanded audience that had acquired a taste for humane letters. A stable of freelance philologists cranked out new editions of ancient works, as well as translations. The public able to parse a page of Attic text was much smaller than that reading Latin, there was still a demand for books in Greek -- if only as a kind of erudite furniture, or for use as an implied credential. You imagine someone going a doctor or lawyer for the first time and spying the volume of Aristotle open on his desk, then thinking, “Wow, this guy must be good.”
But the big money, it sounds like, was in controversy – in pamphlets and collections of documents from the combat between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and between Protestants and one another. Theological argument in the era of Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus sought to bring the reader to the one true faith, but the now the line between polemic and character assassination had been blurred beyond recognition. If, say, a Calvinist scholar went over to the Vatican’s side, it was fair game for ex-colleagues to embarrass the apostate by publishing a volume of letters he’d written mocking Catholicism.
And -- more to the point – such a book would sell. The fracturing of the public along religious lines divided the publishing world into distinct “confessionalized” sectors -- each demanding its own editions of scripture, of course, but also of patristic and writings, and of historically significant documents backing up its claims to be the one true faith. Technology rendered the mass-production of books possible, while theology made it urgent.
Learned books in this period “fell into two broad classes,” Maclean explains: “textbooks for schools and universities, on the one hand, and more specialized humanist editions, historical, legal, theological, and medical works on the other.” The publishers themselves didn’t fall into corresponding categories; most did some of each.
Nor was the connection between scholarly publishing and academe all that close – least of all geographically. “While it was recognized that printing shops were a sign of the health of a country’s scholarship as much as the institutions of higher learning,” says Maclean, “this does not seem to have weighed much in their location.” Most presses “were based in cities without universities, and a surprising number of university cities were without printers who could compose in ancient languages.” Proximity to a university counted far less than the availability of raw material and skilled labor, not to mention access to trade routes and a strong patron.
Place of publication was also metadata: it signaled what religion confession it reflected, depending on which faith the authorities there favored. But the city indicated on a title page might or might not tell you where it was actually printed. Someone in Geneva publishing an anti-Calvinist pamphlet would have good reason to claim it came from Venice.
Besides textbooks, there was another sort of publishing aimed at the student market: editions of notes taken during the lectures for certain courses. Maclean says that a reputable publisher would clear this with the professor. That suggests, by implication, that shadier operations didn’t. (As far as I know, this practice was still going strong through at least the 19th century. We have information about some of Kant’s lectures thanks to publishers serving the needs of undergraduates who couldn’t make it to class.)
The scholarly publisher of the early 16th century was likely to be something of a Renaissance humanist himself, playing a role of servant to “the new learning.” Drawing on publishers’ catalogues, reports of the Frankfurt book fair (where the number of titles more than doubled between 1593 and 1613) and the records of titles found in scholars’ libraries following their deaths, Maclean recreates something of the prevailing routines and difficulties of scholarly publishing in this era.
The correspondence between publishers and authors (and the grumbling of each to third parties about delayed manuscripts or shoddy workmanship) are a reminder of the micropolitics of intellectual reputation in the days when getting work into print was considerably more difficult than it would soon become. But scholarly publishing was not at all a matter of academic credentialing. “No one in the late Renaissance obtained professional validation in a university through publication with distinguished publishers or in reputed publications as is done now,” writes Maclean. “The pressure scholars felt to achieve publication, if it did not arise from their desire to promote themselves and their subject, was rhetorically attributed to their patron, whose prestige they enhanced….”
The nobility of scholarship, then, depended on the scholarship of the nobility. But over time the publishing field was overtaken by “a new breed of entrepreneurs who were not so much involved in the production of knowledge as its marketing.” Every book is, after all, something of a gamble: the investment in publishing it involves risk, and the skills required to identify a valuable work of scholarship are distinct from those of keeping the enterprise solvent. More and more publishers entered the field, publishing more and more material; and for a long time things continued more or less profitably, in spite of the wars and plagues and whatnot.
By the 1590s, a satirist was complaining about the flood of shoddy material: Publishers were more interested in best-sellers than in serious scholarship. Volumes went to market as the revised, expanded, corrected edition of some work, even though the only thing new about it was the title page. Hacks were turning out commentaries on commentaries, and worse, people were buying them, just to add them to their collections.
Things were not, in short, like the good old days. On the other hand, neither were they as stable as they appeared for quite a while. The capacity for mass producing books developed more rapidly than market of readers could absorb them (or at least buy them). The bubble started to deflate in various fields in the the early 17th century. In 1610 you’d be be turning out treatises as fast as they could be typeset, which only meant that by 1620 you had a warehouse full of stuff in neo-Latin that nobody wanted to read.
Not to say that the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing has been going on for 400 years. Things bounced back at some point. Maclean does not say when, or how. But whatever happened after 1630 had to be a mutation, rather than just a market correction: a huge restructuring of institutions and of fields knowledge, to say nothing of the changes in what and how people read, and why. The expansion of readership preferring work in the vernacular was undoubtedly a factor, but was it sufficient?
Perhaps Maclean will pursue the matter in another book. On the strength of Scholarship, Commerce, and Religion, I certainly hope so.
My intention here is to say something about the microwave burrito, considered in its socio-cultural aspect. All in due course. But first, a quick detour into Germany in the 1840s, when Ludwig Feuerbach was undoubtedly the hot philosopher of the hour. A disciple declared that intellectual life had to pass through the “fiery brook” of Feuerbach’s thinking -- a pun on his name, which also meant "fiery brook."
I’d guess the play on words also involved a mildly sacrilegious joke about baptism. In his best-known work, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach made the provocative and career-destroying argument that God was, in effect, humanity writ large. Religion was an alienated expression of our intellectual and emotional capacities, as stunted and deformed by existing social arrangements. We project our highest powers and aspirations into a higher being, then rationalize anything oppressive as the work of divine will. This was more subtle than just an argument about God's existence. It was, in effect, a statement that humanity didn't exist yet -- not fully, at least.
Feuerbach had been a student of Hegel, whose seemingly closed and orderly philosophical system proved such a comfort to the Prussian bureaucracy. You could make a pretty good career out of demonstrating just how tidy that system was, and how it meant that every institution that existed had its purpose. Feuerbach worked out his own ideas by pushing Hegel’s in a more radical direction, thereby effectively thinking himself out of a job. The academic blacklisting, combined with a certain literary flair, made Feuerbach the hero of young intellectuals in Germany, and The Essence of Christianity hit British bookstores in 1855 in a translation by one Marian Evans, later and much better known for the novels she published as George Eliot.
Even so, chances are that Feuerbach would be completely forgotten if not for a few pages jotted down in his notebook by Karl Marx under the title “Theses on Feuerbach.” (Marx had also made that "fiery brook" quip.) The eleventh and final thesis – “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it” – has been used by generations of young activists to try to get their professors to do more than pontificate about social problems. Feuerbach himself became active for a while, when the wave of revolutions sweeping through Europe in 1848 hit Germany. But he was a reclusive man by temperament and after a while largely withdrew from public life, let alone politics.
The microwave burrito, as you may have surmised, is only incidentally linked to German philosophy. Still, we're getting there. For it was in 1850 that Feuerbach’s former student Jacob Moleschott published a book called The Theory of Nutrition, which he sent to the philosopher in hopes of drumming up some publicity. (It’s always touching, the way friends will volunteer to let you review their books.)
The essay that Feuerbach wrote on Moleschott was strange, but it contained a turn of phrase that outlived both of them -- one that is, in fact, known to everyone. Here is the crucial passage:
"Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats."
You are what you eat. The motto that inspired a thousand infomercials was coined in an essay completely forgotten by everyone except Feuerbach scholars, who are not exactly thick on the ground. They have interpreted it in a surprising range of ways. It can be taken as a serious continuation of Feuerbach’s earlier work. Or as a satire, possibly inspired by reading the comedies of Aristophanes. Or as evidence that the poor man was losing it – philosophically, at least, if not mentally. He was depressed about the failure of the revolution, that much is clear. He suggested that it was a consequence of diet: Germans ate too much cabbage and potatoes, which provided insufficient protein for the brain. Progress demanded that they consume more beans.
Forget economic determinism; this is nutritional determinism. “Sustenance,” he writes in another passage, “is the beginning of consciousness. The first condition for bringing something to your head and your heart is bringing something to your stomach.” A fair point, no matter how seriously or jokingly Feuerbach meant it (a bit of both, I imagine). The recent abundance of interdisciplinary scholarship on food suggests that he was something of a prophet. If his work from the 1840s transformed theology into philosophical anthropology, the late phase of Feuerbach’s work might serve to ground the humanities in food studies.
He makes no appearance in Harvey Levenstein’s Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat (University of Chicago Press), where the endnotes tend to cite things like “Colonic Irrigation and the Theory of Autointoxication” from the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. But it raises Feuerbachian questions, even so. If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before?
Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario, writes in straightforward narrative prose about the waves of anxiety about food that have swept across the United States from the 1890s until the present day, from the menace posed by fresh fruit and vegetables (since flies landed on them in open-air markets) to lipophobia (with any consumption of high-fat foods regarded as a form of suicidal behavior). It's a well-researched but also very diverting book, with a large cast of public benefactors and corrupt operators. Not that you can always tell them apart.
In passing, the author mentions a chemically disinfected pulpy meat byproduct called “pink slime,” often incorporated into hamburger, among other comestibles. When Fear of Food arrived in galleys a few months ago, you didn't hear much about pink slime. In March, a scientist who once worked at the Department of Agriculture told an interviewer on network television that up to 70 percent of the ground beef in American supermarkets contained pink slime. Social media did the rest, forcing at least one company to shut down three plants and another to file for bankruptcy protection. A press release from the American Meat Institute has just announced “the addition of a new summit on Lean Finely Textured Beef” at a major food-marketing trade show next month. ("Lean Finely Textured Beef" is the term AMI would prefer everyone use instead of "pink slime." I will venture to guess that is not going to happen.)
The publication of Fear of Food had nothing whatever to do with the public gorge becoming suddenly buoyant. But neither is it purely a matter of synchronicity. “The agricultural revolution allowed humans to grow foods that they knew were safe,” writes Levinson, “but the market economy that accompanied it brought new worries: unscrupulous middlemen could increase their profits by adulterating food with dangerous substances. The new ways of producing, preserving, and transporting foods that arose in the nineteenth century heightened these fears by widening the gap between those who produced foods and those who consumed them.”
And that gap widened still more in the 20th century as doctors, scientists, corporations, regulatory agencies, and advertisers intervened, along with the occasional huckster or food-fadist. Public alarm over contamination or adulteration can be well-founded. (The recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a particularly vile feedlot a few years ago is a case in point.) But the waves of concern also manifest what, in an earlier book, Levinstein called “the paradox of plenty”: Americans are “a people surrounded by abundance who are unable to enjoy it.” That is something of an overstatement, though the portrait is recognizable. We must like to worry because we’re so good at it.
The incredible range of foodstuffs, and the conflicting health claims about what to eat and what to avoid, create “a kind of gastro-anomie,” writes Levenstein, “a condition in which people have no sense of dietary norms or rules.” That diagnosis seems to fit. The United States is a country where you can buy both soda with no calories and pizza with a crust stuffed with extra cheese. What’s more, you can buy them at the same place, at the same time. That's about as anomic as it gets. A public scare or dietary fad at least imposes a kind of temporary norm, thereby keeping the chaos at bay. And so, Levenstein implies, we’ll keep having them.
Which brings us, at long last, to the microwave burrito. If someone had to come up with a foodstuff to epitomize “gastro-anomie,” I'm pretty sure this one would do the trick. Certainly Levenstein’s point about the distance and disconnection between producer and consumer would apply. It seems entirely possible that the burrito remains untouched by human hands throughout the long journey from its creation to your grocer's freezer.
The packaging insists that it is healthy – the one I am looking at does, anyway. For one thing it has little or no cholesterol. Feuerbach recommended eating beans, as you may recall, so that's covered. He also quoted Moleschott as saying that there was no human thought without phosphorus. The nutritional information does not say just much of the minimum daily requirement of phosphorus is met. But it has lots of protein, despite being meatless. The primary selling point, of course, is that it's convenient. I often have one for lunch or dinner while writing this column, for precisely that reason. You throw it on a plate, nuke it, pay almost no attention while eating, then forget it.
“As is the food, so is the being," interrupts Feuerbach at this point. "As is the being, so is the food. Everyone eats only what is in accord with his individuality or nature, his age, his sex, his social position and profession, his worth. Every class is what it eats according to its essential uniqueness and vice versa.”
I find the remark troubling. Who wants to think of a burrito in the microwave as the deepest foundation, and fullest expression, of his innermost being? Plus, it tastes better salted. "As of this writing," Levenstein notes, "we are told that salt, historically regarded as absolutely essential to human existence, is swinging the grim reaper's scythe." A convenient meal is hurtling me towards nothingness! Then again, it contains no Lean Finely Textured Beef, which is a comfort.
An old rule of etiquette -- still endorsed by Miss Manners, at last report -- says not to talk about politics or religion while in mixed company, or among strangers. Civility demands keeping the passions in check, and nothing inflames them like those two topics. By extension, one should also avoid discussing Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. His paintings of lighthouses, cozy cottages, and nostalgia-tinged city streets inspire adoration or disgust, but very little in between.
Kinkade was the single best-known artist working in the United States over the past two decades, and almost certainly the best-paid. At the peak of his career in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he was earning more than $7 million per year. Besides paintings and prints, the Kinkade brand (he used the term himself) includes towels, mugs, clocks, calendars, and La-Z-Boy recliners. His claim that one American home in 20 contains some Kinkadean product or other seems inflated, though not altogether impossible.
Even stating these seemingly inoffensive facts will offend some readers -- either for calling Kinkade an artist (which makes people in the art world unhappy) or for failing to say that he dedicated his life to the Lord, not the dollar. I am in no position to judge that claim, but clearly it will be necessary to watch my step from this point on. Expressing a personal opinion of Kinkade in this column is of little interest to me (suffice it to say I’m more of a Gerhard Richter man), but the intensity of response to his work certainly is.
In a culture supersaturated with imagery, we tune much of it out just to get by. Kinkade’s images are exceptional. They elicit not just a verbal but a somatic response: a heartwarming feeling or visceral loathing. Why? How?
There’s no accounting for taste, as another old saw runs. But for a number of contributors to Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall -- edited by Alexis L. Boylan and published last year by Duke University Press -- accounting for the late artist’s appeal is not difficult at all. The Painter of Light (he trademarked the phrase) was, in the title of Micki McElya’s essay, “Painter of the Right.” The world Kinkade portrays is, if not prelapsarian, at least pre-1960s: “unmarked by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, or the Vietnam War,” writes McElya, “suggesting instead the mythical, simpler youths and ‘Good War’ of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”
Seth Ferman makes an overlapping argument in “God is in the Retails: Thomas Kinkade and Market Piety.” The paintings and the incredible array of products reproducing them express the desire for a world untouched by corrosive modernity -- but that’s just the half of it. They also serve a kind of sacramental purpose: communion via commodity.
“Kinkade fuses elements of Christian orthodoxy and capitalist ideology into a single faith,” Ferman writes, “what I call market piety, a veritable theology that believes free-market consumerism to be numinous…. Through Kinkade the consumption of art becomes a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life (which ironically includes consumerism), making his hybrid market piety into an inconspicuous yet pervasive cultural identity for many of his collectors.”
His bucolic landscapes, then, are so many battlefields: the sites of culture-war skirmishing between “red” and “blue” sensibilities, fought out in an especially fierce way. A painting called "Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rainy Sunday Evening," taunts the presumed cultural elite with its very title, and to reliable effect. In her essay “Purchasing Paradise: Nostalgic Longing and the Painter of Light,” Andrea Wolk Rager writes that "Hometown Memories" “does not make demands of the viewer,” as serious art presumably does. “Instead, it lures you, almost imperceptibly, into a world where memory, placid and pleasant, has been supplied for you. The warm glow, the feeling of comfortably enclosing space, and the sense of welcoming solace complete the process of soporific pacification.”
That description stops just short of using the word “pablum,” which reflects Wolk Rager’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia as a desire to return to the security and bliss of infantile fusion with the mother. The spaces depicted in Kinkade’s work “are often wet and warm, slick with spring rain and soft with diffused light. The images are dominated by curving lines and framing devices that seem to close in around a protected center. One is given the sense of being cushioned and cradled and lulled.”
A womb with a view, then. By this point, any Kinkade enthusiasts still reading will probably consider the book to be an assault, and not just on the painter but on themselves. Interpretation can be an aggressive act. But not all of the essays are interrogations, and I want to recommend one in particular as a counterstatement.
In “Thomas Kinkade’s Heaven on Earth,” the performance artist Jeffrey Vallance writes about curating “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade” in 2004, conducted simultaneously at the gallery of California State University at Fullerton and the Grand Central Arts Center at Santa Ana, nearby. If looking at Kinkade’s paintings through Freudo-Marxian goggles seems perverse to his admirers, showing them in a museum setting horrified the art world.
“Some people will never forgive me,” Vallance writes. “They fear his existence. He threatens everything they stand for, and he makes them nauseous.” There were pickets and black armbands. Someone threatened to slash the paintings. It cannot have helped that the exhibit included one artifact each from the extensive line of tie-in products, including the official Kinkade Visa card, “displayed in a vitrine resting on a velvet pillow.”
Sometimes art is provocative, and sometimes a provocation is an art. “Many erroneously thought that I would do the show in an ironic way,” the curator writes. “For me, irony is far too simplistic and expected. To do the show seriously was the challenge. As I often say, ‘The only irony is there is no irony.’ ”
Kinkade aficionados loved the exhibit, while the art critics were overwhelmed. “Many reviewers of the show followed a similar pattern,” Vallance recalls. “Most writers pretty much admitted that they loathed Kinkade and came expecting to hate the show – like gawkers at a train wreck. But then something happened. When they came to see the actual show, the kitsch was laid on so thick that something snapped in their brains. They experienced transcendence and ended up liking the show.”
And like it or not, any painter who can compel other artists to wear black armbands in protest of his work has already called dibs on posterity.
If textbook affordability is the Holy Grail, then those of us who work in higher education are careening Monty Python-like as we search for it, stirring up unnecessary obstacles for ourselves all along the way.
Consider the dual paths we are taking. First, there’s the all-encompassing push to “go digital,” as if somehow the output format of a book, whether it is electronic or print, is the sole determinant of cost.
That is the wrong way of thinking. Input – the price of content – is much more important to the total cost of course materials than output – the format in which those materials are ultimately consumed by the student.
Then, there’s the push to “go open.” In recent years, as concern over textbook affordability has grown, this idea has received much attention, with “open educational resources” -- or “OER” materials, as they are often called -- leading the charge.
This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.
In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.
If we are cognizant of ways of merging different types of content in order to get the biggest academic bang for the buck, we must also be mindful of methods to access this content; to break it apart, to “disaggregate” it from the traditional bounds of textbooks and to present it to students in an effective manner.
Indeed, the main benefit of new technologies in education should be to provide more choice to instructors, and ultimately to students. If a professor can mix open content with chapters from relevant textbooks, timely journal articles, and up-to-the-minute news reporting, then he or she can truly provide a unique “book” to students, untethered from the rigidity of the traditional offerings from academic publishers.
Textbook affordability has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but it has grown even hotter since the 2008 market meltdown, which greatly affected Americans’ spending power at the same time that the cost of college – already rising – began to skyrocket. Various Band-Aid solutions have emerged in response to textbook costs, with rentals the “in” solution for awhile and even the longstanding “gray market” of purchasing textbooks on international versions of websites, where the cost of some books in Europe can be materially lower than those in the U.S.
More and more students, at least anecdotally, are taking the route of “book sharing,” mixing and matching content among themselves rather than paying the significant freight asked of them by the colleges and universities they attend. That behavior is, in itself, a form of disaggregation, for it is breaking the traditional one-to-one relationship between student and assigned book.
But the disaggregated model I foresee is the one that we have been building for the past year at AcademicPub. It allows the professor to comb for the very best content in his or her discipline, mix and match that content into a consistently presented and compelling narrative or set of chapters, and to deliver the completed product to students in the format that the student prefers -– print or digital, whichever method leads to the best learning result for that student.
By all means let’s aspire to make the materials we assign our students more affordable, but we mustn’t fall victim to any “magic bullet” scenarios. Actions which fail to account for the cost of content will fall short. Failure to account for the value and ubiquity of existing texts from leading scholars through traditional publishers won’t cut it either. Going digital alone won’t lower the cost of textbooks, but disaggregating content just might work.
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook, Inc., which launched AcademicPub (TM), in April 2011.