The billboard shows a sleek new automobile, the price tag no doubt considerable, though nowhere in sight. Instead, the agency that created the ad has run a single line of text with the image. It isn’t just a catchphrase; it’s a grab at profundity. “A strong want,” the new Lexus motto proclaims, “is a justifiable need.”
The first time I saw the ad, my jaw dropped. Now it just clenches in disgust. (If absolute moral stupidity ever required a slogan, then “A strong want is a justifiable need” would do the trick.) And once the irritation is past, there is the realization that Philip Rieff was probably right when he speculated that a new character had arrived on the scene in Western culture: “psychological man.”
Rieff, who died on July 1, was for decades a somewhat legendary professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. To echo a point made elsewhere, I think the power of his influence greatly exceeded the reach of his reputation. Rieff didn’t want a large readership. He wrote in knotty apothegms -- developing a set of terms that resembled sociological jargon less than it does the private language of some brilliant but eccentric rabbi. With his later texts (including My Life Among the Deathworks, just published by the University of Virginia Press) you do not so much read Rieff as sit at his feet.
But in his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) -- his dissertation from the University of Chicago, as rewritten with the help of his first wife, Susan Sontag -- the knack for aphorisms had not yet hardened into a tic. He was still addressing a broad audience of educated readers, not disciples. And it was in the final pages of that volume that he sketched the concept of “psychological man.”
According to Rieff’s careful reading, the founder of psychoanalysis was no subversive champion of the id against bourgeois society. Rather, his Freud comes to resemble other Victorian sages who tried to create inner order as the established patterns of authority were dissolving. But along the way, Freud also helped foster a new system of values – one toward which Rieff would show deep and growing ambivalence.
The new “character ideal” that Rieff saw emerging in Freud’s wake was no longer inspired by religious faith, or a strong sense of civic responsibility. Psychological man would not even need to cultivate the sort of self-interested self control practiced by his immediate ancestor, homo economicus. (Think of Benjamin Franklin, making himself wealthy and wise by careful planning.) Psychological man need not fret over material security – being, after all, reasonably comfortable in an affluent society. His energies would turn inward, toward the care and maintenance of the self.
Rieff returned to the future of psychological man in his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Its final sentence verges on a prophetic statement, then carefully backs away:
“That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than the by-product of striving after some communal end,” wrote Rieff, “announces a fundamental change in the entire cast of our culture – toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of hope and despair.”
It can be strange to read some of the earliest discussions of Rieff’s work, for there was occasionally a tendency to regard him as cheerleading “the triumph of the therapeutic.” This was wide of the mark. Eventually Rieff did find things to say about this cultural transformation “in the old style of despair.”
He became a cultural reactionary. I mean that term as a description, rather than a denunciation. He saw culture as a system of restraints (what he termed “interdicts”) that prevented the individual from being swamped by the excessive range of potential human desires and behaviors. Thrown into “the abyss of possibility,” man “becomes not human but demonic.” So Rieff put it in reviewing Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
As the historian Christopher Lasch once put it, Rieff belonged to “the party of the superego.” (Lasch translated many of Rieff’s insights about psychological man into a neo-Marxist analysis of the “culture of narcissism” emerging in advanced capitalist society.) And it was the duty of any teacher worthy of the name to play the role of superego to the hilt. “Authority untaught,” Rieff declared in the early 1970s, “is the condition in which a culture commits suicide.”
His later writings are, in effect, a series of coroner’s reports. “We professionals of the reading discipline,” he stated in My Life Among the Deathworks, “we are the real police. As teaching agents of sacred order, and inescapably within it, the moral demands we must teach, if we are teachers, are those eternal truths by which all social orders endure.” And Rieff made it pretty clear that he did not think this was happening.
There are plenty of conservative publicists in America now. There are not many conservative thinkers, proper, worthy of the name. Rieff, for all his crotchety obliqueness, was one of them.(By the way, the ratio of philosophers to propagandists is hardly any better on the left.)
In scrutinizing the logic of contemporary culture, Rieff indirectly revealed some of the dark secrets of U.S. politics -- which has been dominated by the right wing for at least a quarter century now. The therapeutic has triumphed in the red states as well as the blue. Any reference to how Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush proved themselves as great leaders by “helping America feel good about itself” confirms that psychological man is often happy to vote Republican.
But more than that, Rieff is of lasting interest for upholding an exorbitant standard of seriousness. The Feeling Intellect, a collection of his essays published by the University of Chicago Press in 1990, is rather awe-inspiring in the range and intensity of its erudition – though you do have to look past the strangely cultish introduction by one of the author’s devotees, Jonathan B. Imber, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College.
And his early polemic in the culture wars, Fellow Teachers, is some kind of cranky masterpiece. (It is now out of print.) One passage in particular has left a strong impression, lingering in my mind like the voice of a testy grandfather telling me to get off the Internet.
“Our sacred world must remain the book,” he says. “No, not the book: the page.... To get inside a page of Haydn, of Freud, of Weber, of James: only so can our students be possessed by an idea of what it means to study.... Then, at least, they may acquire a becoming modesty about becoming ‘problem-solvers,’ dictating reality. Such disciplines would teach us, as teachers, that it would be better to spend three days imprisoned by a sentence than any length of time handing over ready-made ideas.”
Reading this again, I feel guilty of a thousand sins. Which is, of course, the intent. There are qualities and opinions in Rieff’s work it is difficult to admire. But studying him has at least one good effect. It teaches you to think about the difference between a strong want and a justifiable need -- and to keep a safe distance from anything tending to blur that distinction.
Digital publishing has been a hot topic for some time, but it’s received a good deal of attention as of late thanks to a series of recent developments. This year’s meeting of the Association of American University Presses, for example, devoted a panel to the subject. Meanwhile, Rice University has just announced plans to launch the first all digital university press. In a slightly different (though related) context, rumors abound that the next generation of Apple’s immensely popular iPod will possess the ability to download, store, and read book content.
Clearly, the movement toward digital content delivery is gaining steam. And, as such, it is not surprising to read that the technology’s more vocal enthusiasts are forecasting nothing short of a revolution in academic research, teaching, reading, writing, and publishing once it becomes ubiquitous.
Over at if:book, the collective blog of the "Institute for the Future of the Book," commentators have had a great deal to say about the immense transformations that digital delivery and online publishing will effect on the academy and academics.
Particularly instructive is the institute’s "MediaCommons," a "project-in-progress" aimed at "exploring the future of electronic scholarly publishing and its many implications, including the development of alternate modes of peer review and the possibilities for networked interaction amongst authors and texts." In support of this goal, the if:book collective spent a good deal of time this past spring meeting, brainstorming, and discussing the possibilities of a "new model of academic publishing.” They even "wrote a bunch of manifestos" (apparently, the irony of resorting to such a 19th-century device as the "manifesto" was lost on them). Still, when one filters out the soul-deadening jargon about "authentic learning opportunities," "self-reflexivity," "mediated environments," etc. that permeates their posts, it’s clear that the blog’s authors and readers are thinking creatively and earnestly (although rather pretentiously) about the prospects of the digital age in transforming academic writing.
To this end, if:book is making considerable noise about Mackenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY, a "monograph" (their scare quotes, not mine) hosted by the institute that goes beyond even the relatively newfangled notion of the e-book toward a new über-standard in digital publishing: the "networked book." Wark’s in-progress project (an “exploration” of whether computer games may “serve as allegories for the world we live in”) is being undertaken entirely online, enabling interested readers (and more than a few gamers) to post continuous live commentary as Wark uploads drafts to the Web. Such an approach, if:book contributor Kathleen Fitzpatrick has announced, creates an “openness and interconnection” that will "allow us to make the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product; readers will be able to follow the development of an idea from its germination in a blog, though its drafting as an article, to its revisions, and authors will be able to work in dialogue with those readers, generating discussion and obtaining feedback on work-in-progress at many different stages. Because such discussions will take place in the open, and because the enormous time lags of the current modes of academic publishing will be greatly lessened, this ongoing discourse among authors and readers will no doubt result in the generation of many new ideas, leading to more exciting new work."
In the end, transparency, interconnectedness, and immediacy will emerge strengthened by the new digital regime.
Then again, there are obvious downsides to such an approach. GAM3R 7H30R1S7 Wark has already received nearly 400 comments. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the time devoted to responding to those commentators (learned, not-so-learned, and dumb-as-a-post) is time not spent on other, profitable, scholarly pursuits. In any event, one suspects that this is not a model that would transfer well to, say, scholars writing about neoplatonic epistemology or the symbolic meanings of Malawi's Chongoni rock art.
Still, projects like MediaCommons and GAM3R 7H30RY raise an important question: Will digital content delivery and the emergence of e-books and “networked books” bring about a revolution in the way that scholars research, write, and communicate their ideas?
But, then again, perhaps not.
I’m not entirely sold on the claims being made by the most fervent advocates of digital delivery. As is often the case when a technology is still in its infancy, enthusiasts tend to exaggerate a technology’s ultimate impact in transforming culture and society. Frequently, proponents fail to contemplate (because it is often impossible to foresee) the obstacles and unintended consequences that inevitably surface as efforts are made to popularize a favored device among the masses (trans-oceanic dirigible tours or flying cars, anyone?). It strikes me that, at present, the transformative potential of digital publishing in academe is being oversold and, in many cases, misunderstood.
Just as digital publishing and new technological delivery systems will make possible the broader dissemination of academic writing, so too, will they make possible the broader dissemination of non-academic texts and visual content. Purveyors of the types of academic projects esteemed by if:book will continue to face stiff competition for attention and audiences should “iReaders” become as popular as iPods. If historians of science and technology have learned anything, it’s that new technologies have the capacity to change the world for good or for ill. Or, not at all. [I am prepared to bet a great deal of money that the development of an iReader, for example, will prove much less of a boon to academics than to purveyors of porn and self-help guides.]
Similarly, the emphasis that contributors to if:book seem to place on the “transparency” of scholarship and “immediacy” of publication made possible by digital delivery misses a very important point. There is much value to be found in not releasing one’s ideas to peers and public while those ideas are still half-baked. In many respects, the instantaneous delivery of “new media” writing is at odds with the solitude, meditation, and patience that are the hallmarks of traditional scholarship. Perhaps this is less true in if:book’s favored field (media studies), but it is manifestly not so for such disciplines as history, philosophy, and the like. Nor should it be. One can build a convincing case that, in the current age of instant analysis, self-absorbed “experts,” and ubiquitous 24/7 live blog feeds, the last thing that the academy needs is to embrace transparency and immediacy.
This is not to say that the effects of the digital revolution will not be profound, only that they are likely to be different from what enthusiasts currently believe. As yet, very few scholarly monographs have been "born digital." While it's clear that given the on-going economic pressures faced by academic publishers the movement toward digital delivery will continue (if for no other reason than it may cut costs for cash-strapped university presses), how this will all play out (for good, for ill, or for naught) is not currently clear. It will be clear eventually, but only after it has already taken place.
I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to the efforts of if:book enthusiasts to consider and to explore the potential benefits that digital content delivery may bring to academic research and writing. If:anything, I am in favor of the growth of electronic publishing. After all, my own monograph is being published as part of the History E-Book Project.
Still, digital disciples would do well to temper their exuberance. They should at least begin to consider the many ways in which a move to all digital content delivery will adversely affect the academy and academic researchers.
Besides, the “book book,” that old-fashioned delivery system consisting of wood pulp, ink, and glue has proven to be a remarkably resilient and rather useful technology itself. It is not going to disappear anytime soon (or, perhaps, ever). Moreover, its perceived “limitations” may, in fact, turn out to be real strengths when it comes to preserving the contemplative attitude, dispassionate study, and patient reflection that are essential to lasting scholarship.
Scott W. Palmer
Scott W. Palmer,Â a historian of Russian culture and technology, is an associate professor at Western Illinois University. He blogs in the Avia-Corner, at Dictatorship of the Air.
Working as an archival assistant at the Library of Congress about a dozen years ago, I had the memorable and never-to-be-repeated experience of discovering a letter by Thomas Pynchon. It was written early in his career, when his aversion to the public spotlight was known only to friends -- rather than being, as it is now, a somewhat paradoxical claim to fame.
Pynchon has never given an interview. The most widely used portrait of him is taken from a school yearbook. (He was a member of the Class of 1953 at Oyster Bay High, on Long Island.) The biographical note accompanying Against the Day -- his sixth novel, to be published next week by Penguin -- lists only the titles of his earlier books and the fact that one of them, Gravity's Rainbow, won the National Book Award in 1974.
The NEW novel itself is long (not quite 1,100 pages) and dense, sometimes brilliant and sometimes tiresome, and occasionally very silly (the cameo appearance, for example, by Elmer Fudd). It is also remarkably resistant to capsule summary. Oh, what the hell. Here goes anyway: Against the Day is a historical novel about the secret relationship among dynamite, photography, and multidimensional vector spaces that treats the emergence of the 20TH century Zeitgeist from a clash between revolutionary anarchism and the plutocratic Establishment. See?
To discuss the book adequately would demand a seminar lasting four months, which is also the ideal period required for reading the book -- instead of the four days it took one reviewer, who then promptly had a mild nervous breakdown. Something about Pynchon's work incites academic commentary. At least four scholarly books have already been devoted to his last novel, Mason & Dixon (1997). Even someone who enjoys him without feeling the itch to exegesis will probably feel driven, at some point, to do supplemental reading. Partway through “Against the Day,” for example, I found it urgent to go read an encyclopedia article on the history of theories regarding ether, the substance once thought to permeate even "empty" space.
Pynchon doesn't simply drop references to (now-discredited) scientific concepts. Rather, he builds them into the imaginative architecture of his work. While reading his novels, some part of one's attention is inevitably kept busy drawing up a list of remedial reading assignments.
With Pynchon, then, we have a unique combination. He writes maximalist fiction -- each page covered in the stuff of his supersaturated brain -- while maintaining a minimalist public profile. That is no small trick, given a culture industry constantly driven to manufacture celebrities out of practically nothing. (Pynchon himself has pushed the paradox a little further by lending his voice to "The Simpsons," in a bit available here.)
The situation has had some curious effects, even among academics interested in his work. Maybe especially among them.
In the early 1990s, the story began circulating that Pynchon had published a large number of letters in a small-town newspaper in northern California under the pseudonym of Wanda Tinasky, a homeless and perhaps mildly deranged old woman with a strange sense of humor. Learned people argued about Pynchon's possible authorship with great passion and total seriousness. Covering the debate for Lingua Franca, I spoke with one estimable literary scholar who did not so much answer my questions as deliver a formal and exactly worded declaration, as carefully prepared as an official diplomatic statement about nuclear testing in North Korea.
It was all plenty strange. The debate over authorship turned out to be a lot more interesting than the letters themselves, which were eventually published as a book. While there must be a few die-hard Tinasky-ites still around, the matter is now largely forgotten. (For an update, check out this interesting Wikipedia article.)
But one small detail from the debate, mentioned almost in passing by someone I interviewed, has stuck in mind over the years. It seems that Pynchon, while living in California in the 1980s, had a driver's license. Not such a big deal, in itself, of course. But researchers knew this because one of them had acquired a copy of it (through what sounded like rather dubious means) from the database of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
As one of the "Proverbs for Paranoids" in Gravity's Rainbow says, "You hide, they seek."
As it happens, I was not actually seeking Pynchon when I came across an actual letter by him, sometime around 1993. It seems to have gone undiscussed in the secondary literature in the meantime. Consider the following, then, a modest contribution to the collective enterprise of Pynchon scholarship and/or stalking.
The discovery occurred while I was processing a collection for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Archival processing is an activity often best described as sorting dead people's mail. In this case, that was quite literally true. The deceased was Stanley Edgar Hyman, a contributor to The New Yorker and a professor of English at Bennington College, who died in 1970.
He had been married to Shirley Jackson, of "The Lottery" fame. Chances are, the library accepted his papers mainly to get hers. A senior archivist concentrated on organizing Jackson's manuscripts and scrapbooks. But I was more than content to get the job of going through the boxes of her husband's literary remains.
While not particularly well-remembered now, Hyman occupied an interesting place in American cultural history. His book The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism (1948), provided one of the standard postwar surveys of critical theory. (Irving Howe once compared reading it to taking the elevator at Macy's department store: "First floor, symbols. Second floor, myths (rituals to the rear on your right). Third floor, ambiguities and paradoxes....")
Hyman had been a student of the sui generis cultural theorist Kenneth Burke. And both were, in turn, friends of Ralph Ellison, well before the novelist published Invisible Man in 1952. All of them had spent time at Bennington, drinking hard. Then they went home and wrote him fantastic letters. My job was to sort them, of course, not read them. But, well....
Then one day, in a mass of miscellaneous items, there turned up a short letter of two paragraphs, typed on a piece of graph paper. It was dated 8 December 1965, and was signed "yours truly, Thomas Pynchon." At that point, he had published a handful of short fiction and one novel, V., which Hyman had reviewed, favorably, when it appeared in 1963.
Eyes wide, I read as Pynchon turned down the "flattering and attractive" offer to come teach at Bennington. He did so, he said, "with much pain, don't ask where" -- explaining that he had resolved, two or three years earlier, to write three novels all at the same time. Pynchon hinted that it was not going well, and called the decision "a moment of temporary insanity." But he also said he was "too stubborn to let any of them go, let alone all of them," and thought that teaching would distract him, "given the personal limitations involved." He thanked Hyman for the invitation, and also praised Hyman's analysis of V. as "criticism at its best."
It was modest. It was polite. A few months later, he published The Crying of Lot 49 -- maybe one of the novels driving him to distraction, maybe not. Unfortunately there were no more letters from Pynchon in the collection -- nor did this one provide any indication where he was when he wrote it. (The return address he gave was that of his literary agent in New York.)
As a clue into the mystery of Thomas Pynchon, then, it seems like a pretty small thing. I hadn't thought about it at all in a long time, in fact -- until a stray reference in his new book brought it back to mind.
As readers will soon be able to see for themselves, Against the Day certainly feels like a man writing two or three novels at the same time. Whole dissertations will be written about how the different parts and layers create a consciousness-bending structure in four-dimensional spacetime. But it was the passing mention of a two-dimensional surface that gave me a slightly deja vu-like feeling. At one point, a character reaches for "a block of paper quadrilled into quarter-inch squares."
Graph paper, that is, exactly like the kind Pynchon used for his letter. More than a coincidence, but less than meaningful? Like Oedipa Maas at the end of Lot 49, I'm really not sure.
Last week, the Borders chain -- which in 30 years has grown from a single used bookshop largely serving students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to a global empire, with stores in the U.K. and Australia among other places -- announced that it would be undertaking a major restructuring. Its new strategic plan will (in the words of a press release) “revitalize, refocus, and ultimately reinvent the company to achieve its mission to be a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment.”
So much for the usual nourishing corporate baloney. When you see that many “re-“ formations in an official statement, it’s a pretty reliable sign that steep cuts are planned. And so they are, in the wake of losses of more than $73 million that Borders suffered in 2006. Over the next year or two, Borders will close nearly half of its remaining Waldenbooks outlets in shopping malls (having already shut down a fifth of them in 2006) and scale back its overseas operations. It will also end its relationship with Amazon – clearing the way for “the debut of a new proprietary e-commerce site in early 2008.”
One provision of the new strategic plan is a call for “increasing effectiveness of merchandise presentation.” The press release does not give details, but somehow it bring to mind an image of life-size animatronic displays of Ann Coulter and Al Gore waving copies of their books.
Perhaps things won’t go quite that far. But it’s clear that moving beyond the familiar, pre-digital model of book buying is on the Borders agenda. “A new technology-heavy concept store that has been in development since late 2006 will open in early 2008,” according to an article in The New York Times. “Borders also promised to introduce ‘digital centers’ in its stores that will allow customers to buy audio books, MP3 players, and electronic books.”
All of which goes into the file for an essay that might be called – with a nod to Anthony Trollope – “The Way We Read Now.” If you doubt that Borders has had a profound effect, not just on the book trade, but on how readers interact with one another and with texts, then keep an eye out for a remarkable new documentary called “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore.” It has been making the rounds of film festivals and been screened at libraries and bookshops, and a trailer for it is available online.
When a DVD copy of the film arrived a few weeks ago, it sat on my desk for a while before I found the will to pop it into the player. That hesitation reflected a suspicion that "Indies Under Fire" would prove to be an exercise in Michael Moore-style muckraking, with plenty of sardonic editorial commentary stomping all over the documentary format. (That sort of thing has its uses, of course, but a viewer really has to be in the mood.)
My misgivings were misplaced. Jacob Bricca, the director of “Indies,” has taken a far more subtle and balanced approach to showing the effect of Borders on small independent bookshops. Through interviews with the owners, staff, and patrons of five West Coast stores -- most of them eventually put out of business following the arrival of the chain in their neighborhoods -- “Indies Under Fire” makes a strong case that the explosive growth of Borders over the past two decades has undermined community institutions that can’t readily be replaced.
The shops that Bricca portrays in the “Indies Under Fire” are perfect examples of what Ray Oldenburg , a sociologist at the University of West Florida, has dubbed “the third place,” with home and work being the first and second. A life spent shuttling between those two poles is, in important respects, only half a life. Third places are genuinely social venues -- areas where friends and strangers can meet, mix, talk, argue, pair off, and otherwise create new connections. Oldenburg discusses the third-place concept in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon House, 1989).
The passionate attachment to their neighborhood bookstores expressed by patrons in “Indies Under Fire” makes evident why they qualify. The relationship with a store includes personal associations that mingle with public space. It is the place where one met certain people, first started reading a favorite book, or heard a local author talk about her new novel.
“People are saving two bucks on a book by buying at a chain store or on the internet,” says one person interviewed for the film, “but they’re going to lose this larger resource, this community resource they have. So the circle of reading gets smaller -- it’s just you and the book and your computer screen.”
But the documentary also gives employees of Borders a chance to make their case -- and it's perhaps a stronger case than anyone on the indie side would want to admit.
Protesters complain that Borders is imposing cultural uniformity across the United States by destroying small businesses. (Some anti-corporate activists, as we are told by one person hostile to the chain, will go into a newly opened branch and quite literally vomit.)
The representatives from Borders respond that the stores are competitive for the simple reason that they are attractive and well-stocked. And they have a point. As with most bookstores, Borders makes a great deal of its money by selling whatever the public is demanding at the moment. But even its least well-stocked stores tend to have a decent selection of work that will only appeal to small audiences. Unlike certain other chains one could mention, Borders has (for example) a philosophy section where you can find Judith Butler and W.V. Quine, rather than gallons of "Chicken Soup for the Soul."
An indie advocate who speaks in the opening of the documentary says that a great bookstore is one that doesn’t just have the title you are seeking. It also carries books you never knew existed, but that you discover you need.
Well, by that definition Borders may well qualify as a great bookstore -- painful as this is to say about an engine of soulless corporate monoculture.
What makes last week’s news of restructuring worrisome is that all the talk of “right-sizing” and “reinvention” might translate into reduced inventory, plus a heavier emphasis on sure-fire bestsellers. And the changes sure won't address one situation that the documentary doesn't mention: The Borders work force is almost completely non-unionized.
The DVD for “Indies Under Fire” is not listed in the Borders catalog. But you can purchase a copy here .
This week’s Intellectual Affairs is an open letter of sorts. It is directed in particular to university librarians and to people at academic presses. Even scholars who occasionally try reaching out to the non-academic public may want to read it.
Let’s forgo this column’s usual essayistic-shambolic approach and be very blunt. I am writing this as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), and am mainly addressing people who belong to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).
On behalf of my colleagues, I am making a plea to you for solidarity. We are in trouble. We need your help.
Over the past several years, the economics of daily newspapers have become much more complicated and many paper owners have felt that their profit margins weren't large enough. Coverage of books has been one of the easiest things to cut. And the cuts have tended to come early and often. They have taken the form of various measures, including shrinking the space available for reviews and interviews; reductions of freelance budgets; and the increased use of syndicated material. Most book pages have always had very small staffs. Now it is rare that more than one editor handles the reviews full-time, and in many cases the entire section has been closed down.
Such cuts are usually explained as a matter of economic necessity – the decisions framed in terms of meeting the perceived interests of the public. But the reduction or elimination of book coverage has occurred even in cities where readers clearly want and expect it.
Perhaps the most striking example (the case that, for many of us, revealed the shape of things to come) is that of The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2001, the editors decided to shut down its freestanding book supplement – shifting its diminished literary coverage to the back of the paper’s entertainment section. A strong protest went up from readers and bookstore owners in the Bay Area, with its large literary and academic communities.
And so the book section was saved, if on a smaller scale – at least for a while. Last year the section was cut by two pages, then cut again recently. “We used to run something like 15 reviews a week,” said its editor, Oscar Villalon, in August. “Now in a good week we run about 10, but we've had as few as six.”
More recent developments elsewhere are equally discouraging. The Los Angeles Times is now combining its book supplement with the opinion section. Last week The Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated the position of its book-review editor as part of a “staff reorganization.” It is worth mentioning that Atlanta, which recently hosted the conference of the Associated Writing Programs, is listed the country’s 15th most literate city (well ahead of New York, as it happens). Other examples abound.
Needless to say, there have always been severe limits on the depth and range of literary coverage at newspapers. (After 20 years of reviewing for them, I realize that as well as anyone.) But book pages have a modest but significant role in constituting regional literary communities. They are part of a local public sphere that often includes – don’t forget – scholars who review books as well as write them.
Perhaps online media will take up the slack? Let’s hope so. But the destruction of the remaining “reviewing infrastructure” at American newspapers is a bad thing for authors, for readers, for booksellers, and for publishers.
So I am addressing academic librarians and university-press folks, now, because they – because you, rather – seem well-situated to grasp an important point.
We have something in common: It is very easy for others to take what we do for granted. As far as most civilians are concerned, printed matter is generated by parthenogenesis, then distributed across the land like the spores of a ripe dandelion, transmitted by the wind.
We know better. We do what we can with our shrinking budgets – secure in the knowledge that the work itself is worthwhile, if not always secure in much else.
This week and throughout May, the National Book Critics Circle will be trying to raise some public recognition of where things now stand – and to create some pressure to reverse the trend towards downsizing and elimination. We have about 700 members. Not all of us are editors or reviewers for newspapers. But we do see the book pages at newspapers as part of the cultural ecology, so to speak. Halting their destruction seems like a necessary thing.
What can you do? I asked John Freeman, the outgoing president of NBCC, who responded by naming some very specific actions that would be helpful.
(1) Sign the petition to reinstate the book-section editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
(2) Write to your local newspaper’s publisher to express support for its book coverage. And if your paper doesn’t have such a section, ask why not. “It always baffles me,” as Freeman says, “why university towns like New Haven, Durham, Champaign-Urbana and Iowa City have virtually no book pages in their papers.”
(3) Talk to your local independent bookseller. Local literary scenes are often undercut by the power of superstores and the reliance of newspapers on “wire” copy about books (that is, material issued by syndication). Smaller bookshops are rallying points for opposition to these trends.
(4) Review books for your local paper. This requires developing a voice that may sound rather different from the one you might use when reviewing books for a professional journal. An easygoing style doesn't always come easily. But it can be enjoyable to acquire and to practice, and newspaper ink has addictive properties.(“The more the academy engages with the public through reviews,” Freeman told me, “the better chance we have of connecting tradition with culture, and judging new works of art accordingly.”) And if you already review, consider becoming a member of NBCC.
(5) Whether or not you join NBCC, please make its blog Critical Mass part of your Web-browsing routine. Over the past year, it has become the “blog of record” for literary and publishing news. And insofar as book-folk have a rallying point in dealing with the changes at newspapers, Critical Mass is it. Freeman says it will have updates on efforts to challenge cuts at The Raleigh News & Observer, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The L.A. Times.
At this point, the future of newspapers is very uncertain. It is all I can do to suppress the (admittedly cliched) thought that we are striving to preserve a claim to occupy a few deck chairs on the Titanic.
But uncertainty may also represent opportunity. Newspapers now often gear their cultural coverage at some “youth market” – quite vaguely and patronizingly conceived – that editors treat as having an attention span registering in milliseconds. So you get in-depth reports on "American Idol," perhaps. The wisdom of directing scarce resources in that direction is not unassailable. Other media can cover such things faster and, if this is the word to use, better.
Newspaper publishers may yet understand that they have readers who expect something else. And it is necessary to remind them, from time to time, that such readers exist. It seems important to do so before it’s too late. Things are now at a tipping point, also known as the point of no return.
It is the mark of a jaded appetite that its taste for excitement grows more demanding all the time. The thrill isn't gone. It's just harder to find. This is usually taken as a sign of decadence. There is a weariness to it -- the sense of having experienced and remembered too much.
But suppose a taste for sleaze is combined with an extremely short attention span, and no sense of the past at all. Could that be a sign of decadence, too?
I ask out of puzzlement at some cheap kicks on display, lately, involving the life and work of some prominent thinkers. Sure, controversy is the spice of conversation; and when the names are sufficiently well-known, the line between gossip and cultural critique may grow ambiguous. But in each case, people are expressing shock at "revelations" that aren't revelations at all.
Perhaps this is the result of naivete? Maybe, but it could just as well be a sign of extreme boredom.
My misgivings started last year, while various articles appeared during the centennial of Hannah Arendt's birth. Her work has had a long shadow. Arendt denied that she was a philosopher, preferring instead to call herself a political theorist -- one whose attention was turned to the public world of action rather than the vita contemplativa. Even that distinction is endlessly debatable, to say nothing of her analyses of Nazi terror, Marxist revolution, and American society. At the time of her death in 1975, it was not obvious that she would loom as one of the major figures in American intellectual history during the 20th century. That point, too, might have been controversial; and there are still arguments to be made about whether her influence is a good thing or a problem. But her importance (either way) would seem hard to deny. So far this year, we've had two new collections of her work, Reflections on Literature and Culture (Stanford University Press) and The Jewish Writings (Shocken Books).
But the impression one might well have taken away from the discussion last year was that the single really important thing to consider was the fact that Hannah Arendt had, in late adolescence, entered an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger.
Now, this was not news, to put it mildly. Ever since the publication of Elzbieta Ellinger's book Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995), it has been analyzed and quite thoroughly clucked-over by countless people, made into the subject of a novel, and even put on stage in a play called "Hannah and Martin" -- a title suggesting their romance now ranks with Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Iseult. (Either that, or Americans are comfortable calling even the most severely highbrow German mandarins by their first names.)
And in fact, Ellinger's breathless little book did not really break any new ground even when it appeared a dozen years ago. At the time, I scratched my head at the uproar -- having learned about the affair in the mid-1980s from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, which Yale had published in 1982.
But Young-Bruehl's biography was not at all sensationalistic. Nor did it treat the romance as the key to Arendt's entire life and thought. Evidently Young-Bruehl hasn't learned a thing over the past quarter century, because her most recent book, Why Arendt Matters, also insists that the ideas should be discussed on their own merits. That's no way to stir up a controversy.
Another combined experience of deja vu and "so what?" came in the wake of the recent appearance in English of the whole of Michel Foucault's History of Madness, published by Routledge. It was accepted as a doctoral thesis by the Sorbonne in 1960 and published in France the following year.
FoucaultÂ’s abridged version has long been available under the title Madness and Civilization,Â” translated by Richard Howard. His first major work, it is lyrical and sweeping even in the more compact version -- an account of the emergence of the "Age of Reason" through the psychiatric policing of public space. For Foucault, the insane asylum is one of the cornerstones of a new cultural order emerging between the 17th and 19th centuries. Locking away the mad, subjecting them to control and to study, bourgeois society sought to contain the irrational and reassure itself of its own perfect rationality.
An exciting book, and one that found its first audience in English among the "anti-psychiatry" movement of the late 1960s that challenged the authority of the mental-health establishment. That movement is often blamed for the release, a couple of decades later, of many thousands of psychotics to wander homeless in the streets. Well, maybe. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that legislators studied Foucault's work and found in it a perfect justification for cutting social-service budgets. Ideas have consequences! But I do tend to suspect that the barking men and dead-eyed women haunting my neighborhood are more the "consequences" of free-market economic doctrine than of Parisian structuralism.
Be that as it may, the resurfacing of Foucault's book in unabridged form has been an occasion for a closer look at its claims. In March, the Times Literary Supplement in London ran a very critical review pointing out that Foucault's command of the historical evidence concerning the treatment of the insane in the past is unreliable.
The critic, Andrew Scull, is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Some of his review is a bit over the top. The impulse to denounce the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s is, like the tendency to mock hippies, quite understandable; yet both are largely unnecessary and should for the most part be avoided.
But many of Scull's complaints hit their target. Foucault drew on out-of-date or otherwise questionable sources. Even then he sometimes cited them inaccurately, and in the case of medieval references to "ships of fools" (boats filled with madmen) he construed a literary allegory as literal social history. "What interested him, or shielded him," writes Scull, "was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong."
This critique set off rounds of defense and counterattack. One line of response is that Foucault was far more of a philosopher than a historian. (Which is, of course, just a familiar variation of that trusty move in scholarly shadowboxing, "the interdisciplinary shuffle." If questions come up about his interpretation of Descartes, one could respond that Foucault was really more historian than philosopher.) And then there is the special license available to genius qua genius. One blogger complained, for example, that it was unfair to judge History of Madness by the normal standards of historiography. Instead, it should be understood instead as a text through which Foucault engaged in an act of self-creation.
Well how nice for him.... Even so, the work takes the form of a work of historical scholarship, rather than of speculative fiction -- so there's a natural tendency to evaluate it by standards appropriate to the genre of the monograph. This shouldn't be controversial. But what makes the situation even stranger is that none of these complaints about Foucault's scholarship are new.
A quarter century has now passed since two American researchers, Winifred Barbara Maher and Brendan Maher, published an article in the journal American Psychologist showing that Foucault's insistence that there were literal "ships of fools" rested on a misreading of a couple of 16th century books. Other work testing Foucault's generalizations about a move toward "confinement" of the mad beginning in the 17th century against the historical record found that his claims don't hold up. The development of the asylum as a social institution was much slower than his account suggests, with no dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration accompanying the rise of bourgeois society.
Next week's column will take up a third case -- one that may be sadder than either of these, though the individual in question is not quite so well known as Arendt or Foucault. In the meantime, it's worth asking if the taste for scandal and indignation in intellectual affairs hasn't entered an awfully louche phase.
Even after two decades, I remember well the effect of the news about Paul de Man's collaborationist writings during World War II. He had been my professors' professor, and I had produced my share of papers sedulously mimicking his way of unpacking a literary text. The revelation, once it settled in, felt like a punch in the stomach. And it's been a dozen years since my editor at Lingua Franca mentioned an article in the pipeline by some guy named Alan Sokal who was going to reveal a hoax he had pulled at Social Text. That felt a little different; guffawing was involved.
In each case, it really was a matter of something unexpected happening. If the experience created a sensation (a literal sensation, physical and emotional) that was in part because it was a disruption of routines. But there's something far too pre-programmed about the half-hearted sensationalism regarding Arendt's love life or Foucault's imaginative way with historical data.
In the 19th century, Walter Pater declared that "all art aspires to the condition of music." Maybe now we should update that to "all reality aspires to the condition of reality TV." But even by that standard, it is hard to take some recent bits of controversy as anything but bored surfing through reruns.
It’s not always clear where the Zeitgeist ends and synchronicity kicks in, but Intellectual Affairs just got hit going and coming.
In last week’s column, we checked in on a professor who was struggling to clear his office of books. They had been piling up and possibly breeding at night. In particular, he said, he found that he seldom needed to read a monograph more than once. In a pinch, it would often be possible to relocate a given reference through a digital search – so why not pass the books along to graduate students? And so he did.
While getting ready to shoot that article into the Internet’s “series of tubes,” my editor also passed along a copy of “University Publishing in a Digital Age” – a report sponsored by Ithaka and JSTOR.
It was released late last week. On Thursday, IHE ran a detailed and informative article about the Ithaka Report, as I suppose it is bound to be known in due time. The groups that prepared the document propose the creation of “a powerful technology, service, and marketing platform that would serve as a catalyst for collaboration and shared capital investment in university-based publishing.”
Clearly this would be a vaster undertaking than JSTOR, even. The Ithaka Report may very well turn out to be a turning point in the recent history, not only of scholarly publishing, but of scholarship itself. And yet only a few people have commented on the proposal so far – a situation that appears, all things considered, very strange.
So, at the risk of being kind of pushy about it, let me put it this way: More or less everyone reading this column who has not already done so ought (as soon as humanly possible) to get up to speed on the Ithaka Report. I say that in spite of the fact that the authors of the report themselves don’t necessarily expect you to read it.
It’s natural to think of scholarship and publishing as separate enterprises. Each follows its own course – overlapping at some points but fundamentally distinct with respect to personnel and protocols. The preparation and intended audience for the Ithaka Report reflects that familiar division of things. It is based on surveys and interviews with (as it says) “press directors, librarians, provosts, and other university administrators.” But not – nota bene! -- with scholars. Which is no accident, because “this report,” says the report, “is not directed at them.”
The point bears stressing. But it’s not a failing, as such. Press directors and university librarians tend to have a macroscopic view of the scholarly public that academic specialists, for the most part do not. And it’s clear those preparing the report are informed about current discussions and developments within professional associations – e.g., those leading to the recent MLA statement on tenure and promotion.
But scholars can’t afford to ignore the Ithaka Report just because they were not consulted directly and are not directly addressed as part of its primary audience. On the contrary. It merits the widest possible attention among people doing academic research and writing.
The report calls for development of “shared electronic publishing infrastructure across universities to save costs, create scale, leverage expertise, innovate, extend the brand of US higher education, create an interlinked environment of information, and provide a robust alternative to commercial competitors.” (It sounds, in fact, something like AggAcad, except on steroids and with a billion dollars.)
The existence of such an infrastructure would condition not only the ability of scholars to publish their work, but how they do research. And in a way, it has already started to do so.
The professor interviewed for last week’s column decided to clear his shelves in part because he expected to be able to do digital searches to track down things he remembered reading. Without giving away too much of this professor’s identity away, I can state that he is not someone prone to fits of enthusiasm for every new gizmo that comes along. Nor does he work in a field of study where most of the secondary (let alone primary) literature is fully digitalized.
But he’s taking it as a given that for some aspects of his work, the existing digital infrastructure allows him to offload one of the costs of research. Office space being a limited resource, after all.
It’s not that online access creates a substitute for reading print-based publications. On my desk at the moment, for example, is a stack of pages printed out after a session of using Amazon’s Inside the Book feature. I’ll take them to the library and look some things up. The bookseller would of course prefer that we just hit the one-click, impulse-purchase button they have so thoughtfully provided; but so it goes. This kind of thing is normal now. It factors into how you do research, and so do a hundred other aspects of digital communication, large and small.
The implicit question now is whether such tools and trends will continue to develop in an environment overwhelmingly shaped by the needs and the initiatives of private companies. The report raises the possibility of an alternative: the creation of a publishing infrastructure designed specifically to meet the needs of the community of scholars.
Is this even possible? How public would it be? How accessible, for example, to professors and students at less richly endowed institutions? One of the striking things about the Ithaka Report is its explicit recognition that scholars increasingly have the ability to create their own networks of publication and distribution at appropriate scale. It notes the important "gray" zone of scholarly communication online -- the role now played by blogs, ad hoc document collections, and the pre-publication distribution of draft papers. What sorts of intellectual-property issues would be raised if such informal networks were assimilated to the proposed platform?
These seem like questions everyone should be discussing -- and will be, in due course. By all means have a look at IHE’s coverage of the Ithaka Report. But it’s also worth reading the text itself. Remember: you will be tested on this.
The ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts the American university. College campuses are widely supposed to be the bastions of shaggy liberalism, but the good people managing our higher education system have sometimes behaved as if they were possessed by the spirit of Reaganomics rather than the enlightened principles of humanism. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this vexation is their treatment of university presses.
As the gatekeepers of the peer review process in the humanities and many of the social sciences, university presses (along with equivalent journals in the biological and physical sciences) are supposed to ensure that only high-quality scholarship is published -- or at least that flawed research never sees the light of day. They are the foundation of the entire scholarly edifice. Yet, over the last three decades, American universities have frequently undermined their presses, displacing their dedication to scholarly values in favor of an incoherent amalgam of free-market ideas about competition and profit. Scholarly publishing in 2007 is a hollow shell of its former self. We now seem to be witnessing a merciful reversal of this trend at the 11th hour; but unless the reversal is made permanent, our system of scholarly communication will remain in terrible peril.
Those of us who work in books tend to see the early years of scholarly publishing as a kind of intellectual utopia. Universities subsidized not only the research and writing of books, but their publication, marketing, and -- through library budgets -- their purchase. Indeed, the viability of most university press books was largely assured on the basis of their library sales alone. It was an almost perfectly closed economic circle.
This benign socialist cycle functioned more or less unhindered from the creation of university presses around the turn of the 20th century until it was eroded by the flood of federal education dollars loosed by World War II. The influx of wartime cash accelerated the growth of existing fields and sparked the equally swift development of new ones. The cumulative result was the mega-university, with its sprawling campuses, big-budget research projects, and close ties to government agencies and corporate R&D units. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill fueled enormous increases in student enrollments.
This convergence of forces taxed the capacity of the higher-education system as a whole, and the publication system in particular: Although presses flourished during the 1950s and ‘60s, the effort required to accommodate such rapid growth was quietly taking its toll. The strain of publishing the system’s vastly-increased output was compounded by a variety of wider social stresses: campus integration; anti-war protests; the emergence of new constituencies and consequent calls for curricular relevance. The 1970s piled on rising oil prices, historic rates of inflation, and growing unemployment. By the mid-1970s, the edifice was collapsing under its own weight. The volume of published output had increased beyond the absorptive capacity of publishers’ scholarly readership; while at the same time the market itself was shrinking, the result of severe cuts to university library budgets -- historically a significant consumer of academic books.
And then there was Reagan. With his election to the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan -- who as governor of California had led the charge against his own state university system -- ushered in an ideology of tax cuts, reductions to government programs and private-sector gimmes that proved absolutely toxic to public universities. Some of the programmatic cuts came at the federal level: the research budgets of NOAA, NIST and the Department of Energy were slashed during his administration, for example, But these were hardly the main sources of government spending on higher education. The worse damage resulted from Reagan’s “federalist” devolution of spending burdens onto the states, the universities’ primary source of support. Program cuts and tuition increases became the norm -- and continue to be so to this day.
The erosion of public support was particularly devastating to the humanities and scholarly publishing, areas that did not benefit from Reagan’s increased defense spending and trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy. Arriving at a large state university in the early 1980s, as I did, was like showing up at a house party after the last guests had staggered home. The streets were littered with burnt-out hippies and faded dreams.
And yet, for all this change -- seven decades of sweeping, perhaps even revolutionary transformation in American higher education -- university publishing in 1984 was almost indistinguishable from what it had been in 1920. Research methodologies had changed; cover art had become a bit more modish; but technical monographs were still very much the rule. Times had changed; but time had not changed the university press. Instead, presses’ once-admirable dedication to scholarship now appeared, against this shifting economic and cultural background, as an almost fatal resistance to evolutionary pressures.
By 1980, those pressures were finally becoming irresistible. Press revenues were sinking, while expenses were increasing. Many universities, alarmed by the collapse, were perhaps too quick to see the problem as something that could be solved on the open market.
Ten years passed. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Like the now-stilled Soviet factories, university presses had once benefited from a system of public subsidies that allowed them to produce their goods without regard for demand. Once the subsidies were eliminated, the rate of production quickly became unsustainable. It was shock therapy time, not just in Moscow and Magnitogorsk, but in the People’s Republics of Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison. Reagan had triumphed at home, as he supposedly had abroad. But both may have been Pyrrhic victories, as we are only now discovering.
At first glance, the defunding of presses seemed like a legitimate market correction: After all, if consumer demand for university press books was insufficient to support their publication, why should the presses be allowed to continue producing them at the same rate? To the onlooker unfamiliar with the history and inner workings of academic publishing, a university press looked a great deal like a New York trade house in miniature. Therefore, logic dictated, they should be just as capable of surviving on the open market. If Alfred Knopf could make money selling his titles, why couldn’t university presses do the same? Campus administrators found it very hard to defend what appeared, in this light, to be underperforming revenue centers. Over time, they began urging their presses to attend more closely to the bottom line.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking incorporated two critical fallacies:
1. A book is not a book is not a book. University presses were established out of a recognition that academic monographs were never going to be profitable. They were too technical, their audiences too small to support mass-market publication. Instead, the closed cycle (scholar as author, university as publisher, library as consumer) was supposed to subsidize work that was of significant intellectual and scientific value to a small but influential cadre of experts. In other words, university presses were specifically designed to produce a public good, exempt from market forces. The decision to defund presses was made without sufficient attention to this history, or the effect that disregarding it would have on the scholarly production of knowledge.
2. Even if all other things were equal -- which they weren’t -- commercial publishing faced serious problems of its own. Sales of individual titles were declining, fueling intense competition for readers. New market-research techniques were defining ever-narrower audiences and creating a Balkan nightmare of microgenres, from historical romance to religious self-help. Corporate media conglomerates were buying up old-line brands like Random House, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster with an eye toward discarding their unprofitable divisions and extracting core value. High-prestige, low-revenue genres like literary fiction and serious non-fiction were often seconded in this process, or discarded altogether.
In short, university administrators were pushing their presses into the deep end of an empty pool. Monographs, once the pride of the industry, were now derided as money-losers (to this day university press editors disqualify commercially unpromising manuscripts on the grounds that they’re “too monographic”). Provosts and vice presidents for finance, dismayed by steadily shrinking revenues, imposed further cutbacks, slowly strangling their already-weakened charges. Embattled press directors were busy just trying to keep their organizations afloat.
Reagan had won a crucial battle in the culture wars, without ever firing a shot -- or even realizing that battle had been engaged. His unwitting campus allies had overlooked the relationship between the two basic contributions of university presses: their stewardship of peer review, which ensured the quality of new scholarly research; and their production of high-cost, low-sales technical monographs, which advanced the knowledge of small but influential fields of experts. These were public goods that no one could generate, absent a subsidy. But university leaders, instead of recognizing the inability of the market to properly value scholarly books, saddled their presses with a pair of contradictory missions: to produce the most advanced research for a small audience, while simultaneously earning their own way with at best a minimal subsidy. University administrators would be loath to admit as much, but somewhere the Gipper was probably smiling.
The market was, and still is, allowed to determine the relative publishability of many university press books. This has not worked out well, of course, and many host universities have quietly forgiven their presses’ debts over the years -- a tacit acknowledgment, perhaps, of the underlying paradox. But even this partial exposure to market forces has quietly, radically transformed the way the presses do business.
Press directors have, until recently, had relatively few options for resisting these pressures. Although they chafed at the suggestion that their presses should be self-sustaining, their arguments mostly fell on deaf ears. Many of them relented, embracing various plans to achieve financial independence. One of the most popular of these “solutions” was the generation of revenues from the publication of supposedly profitable genres (trade, regional, nature, cookbooks, fiction, or special-interest titles, such as the books about universities’ football and hockey teams that have done so well recently). These funds would then be used to subvene the publication of unprofitable monographs, thus reinstating some version of the closed cycle and allowing university presses to uphold their mission. But in a business where every new title, no matter how carefully crafted and market-tested, is an almost pure embodiment of risk, and where presses are still beholden to unrealistic financial expectations, university publishers have understandably continued to shun less-profitable scholarly texts.
The presses carry their share of the blame for this impasse. Few industry sectors in America are so antiquated in their practices, or so ill-informed about the market for their products, although this is now rapidly changing in the face of extreme pressure. Publishers are fond of reminding whoever will listen that books are not widgets: When you are rolling out 50 or 100 or 500 new titles a year, each appealing to a unique community of readers, it’s simply not possible, they claim, to conduct market research the way that Ford does for cars or Microsoft for software. Books are one of our most idiosyncratic goods: walk into a bookstore sometime, and try to figure out what makes you pick up one volume over another. Or log onto your favorite online bookseller’s site, and try to understand what makes you choose one of the almost 200,000 titles published every year. You will quickly appreciate that publishing books is like using the world’s largest shotgun to bag the world’s smallest songbird.
The presses are further hampered by chronic undercapitalization, and at least privately many directors blame their host institutions for their woes. I am fortunate, in that the University of Michigan (at whose press I was until recently employed) has been foresightful enough to invest in certain of its press’s key initiatives. But this is the exception that proves the rule. By subjecting presses to the whims of the market, while simultaneously insisting that they continue to publish their inherently unprofitable scholarly books, most American universities have forced their publishers into an untenable position. It is equally true that the directors of many of those presses have so far failed to creatively resist these expectations.
If the real value of university presses is their role as the stewards of peer review -- the rigorous scrutiny of research by qualified experts, and the publication of high-level scholarship for a specialized readership -- then profits, no matter what the preferred strategy to achieve them, should never be a presumptive goal. University presses are valuable when they make the very best research available to scholars and the world at large. Anything else they try to do will just leave them a pale imitation of the trade houses. HarperCollins will always outdo Cambridge in volume; Princeton can never match Random House in sales dollars; Norton’s social impact will inevitably transcend Chicago’s. Perhaps the simple answer is that we publish too much. But the stream of new books can’t stop as long as society and the tenure system demand new ideas and expertise. Reaganomics delivered a crippling blow to the socialist ideal of scholarly publishing, but the demand for human knowledge forces us to limp on.
Deus ex digita: The advent of digital technologies has made possible both process economies and more sophisticated and flexible publications, incorporating everything from blogs and wikis to streaming audio and video to user-driven GIS applications. But despite the enormous value that these new technologies offer to scholarly researchers, university presses have been exceptionally slow to adopt them. Although most presses now have reasonably functional, if not always terribly sophisticated, Web sites, very few offer their readers digital publications with capabilities much beyond the basic scrolling, search and print functions -- and this despite the fact that their host institutions are the acknowledged fonts of technological innovation. The recent Ithaka report laments this state of affairs, noting the rather haphazard nature of universities’ investments in their presses, and pressing for more aggressive -- and strategic investment in digital publication.
Why are we having this conversation now, so many years after the commercial media began moving into new-media ventures? Put simply, the presses’ struggle to survive on an open market to which their products were ill-adapted left them cash- and resource-poor. With the exception of a few of the wealthiest operations (e.g., Oxford), university presses have no venture capital, no institutionalized means for investing in next-generation media. This lack of resources is compounded by the current insufficiency of demand for digital publications. The presses have found themselves temporarily stranded: clinging with one hand to a raft of print books whose market value is steadily sinking, while grasping with the other hand for new technologies that bob, tantalizingly, just out of reach.
A number of savvy administrators and press directors have decided to reach for the digital lifeboat, despite the considerable risks involved. MIT Press is perhaps the best-known, but many others, including Michigan, are propounding coherent visions of the digital future. Sadly, even at the prototype stage some of these efforts have been hampered by the host institutions’ continued insistence on the presses’ self-sustenance. After all, a digital book is no more likely to make money than its print analog. Indeed, because of high opportunity costs and the difficulty of establishing the intellectual and professional legitimacy of digital publications, most early-stage efforts will be lucky to break even. The result is an odd paradox: despite the fact that everyone agrees in principle on the promise of digital media, university presses are not on the whole being equipped to move decisively into the digital domain. This was perhaps the main finding of the Ithaka report, and one of the reasons why press directors and university administrators have damned the report with faint praise, by lauding its clear assessment of the problem while, by implication, lamenting its failure to propose a practical solution.
If nothing is done, and soon, unrealistic financial requirements will distort our efforts to distribute scholarly information in digital media, much as they have long hampered our work in the ink-and-paper era. With intelligence and foresight, new technologies could enable university publishers to more effectively fulfill their core mission of vetting and publishing the best research. This effective use of new technologies requires an understanding that presses are not revenue centers, but an irreplaceable service to science and society. Conscientious university administrators are already recognizing this public good as being well worth the price. Hopefully their peers will follow suit. It’s time, in 2007, to lay Reagan’s ghost to rest.
James F. Reische
James F. Reische is a development writer at the University of Michigan; he was until recently senior executive editor at the University of Michigan Press.
Last month, a little bird told me that MIT Press was celebrating its 30th year with Roger Conover as executive editor. One day soon -- if we haven't reached that point already --the idea of anyone remaining at a single position for three decades (especially in the challenging field of academic publishing) will sound only slightly more credible than the mortality data recorded in the fifth chapter of Genesis.
But that wasn't what made me want to interview Conover on the occasion of this anniversary. In this reader's opinion, MIT Press produces some of the most interesting and visually appealing books to appear from an academic publisher each season. It stood to reason that the executive editor would have something to do with that.
Conover answered my questions by e-mail, assembled here into an interview. Given that the exchange took place amidst the usual chaos of holiday travel, we only had time for three rounds. But the discussion was plenty broad -- art, architecture, Cold War sensibility, Slovenian punk rock, and nuclear submarines, among other topics.
Q:Around the time you were joining MIT Press, I was a teenage science nerd. Whatever MIT books came my way then tended (if memory serves) to be titles on mathematics and computer science. Was that just a matter of being stuck in one part of the library? When did the emphasis on the visual arts begin? Were books in the arts and the humanities published by MIT Press before you started there?
A: MIT Press had a boutique list in architecture and design going back to the 1960s. This came about largely as a result of Muriel Cooper, the first art director of MIT Press and also the designer of our logo. Muriel was a pioneer in computational design and information graphics; she had already founded MIT's design services department, and would go on to found its Visible Language Workshop, a dynamic laboratory of interactive design within MIT's Media Lab. Some of the cornerstones of MIT's architecture list were in place before I got there.
I am convinced that Muriel's design had a lot to do with attracting authors like Robert Venturi, Herbert Muschamp, and Richard Saul Wurman to MIT Press in the first place. When you think of books like Hans Wingler's Bauhaus, Robert Venturi's and Denise Scott Brown's Learning from Las Vegas, Kevin Lynch's Image of the City and Site Planning, Paolo Portoghesi's Roma Barocca, and Steen Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture, you get a sense that there was something pretty special going on here in the 1960s and 70s.
These are the books that attracted me to MIT Press, and Muriel was the person I worked with most closely when I first got there. We were natural allies, as I had come to MIT Press from the Architects' Collaborative, the firm that Walter Gropius had founded when he left the Bauhaus to teach at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. MIT Press had already published several books by Bauhaus authors before I arrived -- Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers were all on the list. When the Bauhaus teachers left Germany and took up positions at places like Black Mountain, Yale, and Harvard, they needed a publisher, and MIT Press was the first one to pick up their work.
That was the part of MIT Press that I knew, and identified with, in the 1970s. So while my picture of the way things were at MIT Press in the 60s and 70s is not quite the same as yours, it's also true that those early architecture and design books were not part of any systematic acquisition program. I was the first editor MIT Press hired to develop a formal program in the visual arts, but I definitely was able to build on strengths that were already there, and to attract visual-minded authors because of the press's strong design department. In terms of my activities, architecture and design came first. Art and photography came later.
I think it's fair to say that MIT Press was the first university press to make a serious commitment to graphic design, as well as to architectural publishing. Thirty years later, there are more players, but the depth and longevity of MIT Press's commitment to design publishing and practice remains quite exceptional.
Q:Over the past few years, you've started publishing books by Slavoj ZIzek and his circle -- including a very interesting study of Neue Slowenische Kunst, the avant garde movement of which Zizek was, at one point, a kind of fellow traveler. (The rock band Laibach was also part of NSK.) I've heard that you had contact with this milieu for some time. How did that come about?
A: My response to that has more to do with ideas, politics, and place than people. My interest in the things you're asking about actually predates those references by quite a bit. I first went to East Berlin as a teenager -- on one of those "don't talk to anyone in the streets and be back in your hotel by dark" passes -- part of a 1960s cultural exchange program sponsored by a YMCA boys' camp, which I now understand was part of an American Cold War youth propaganda initiative.
Passing through Checkpoint Charlie and disappearing into the grey streets of Berlin was like stepping through a one-way mirror and looking back at your own world from the other side of paranoia. This was obviously long before I had ever heard of "hauntology," or read Derrida's Spectres of Marx, and it was also a long time before I would see the defensive bunkers that Enver Hoxha had erected all along the arid "Albanian Riviera"--the perfect reverse imaginary of our East-bearing submarines. But this experience was perhaps my first inkling of what theory was for, and of how writers like Andrei Codrescu and Slavoj Zizek, and artists like Mladen Stilinovic and the Irwin group, would later matter to me.
But I'd like to go back even further, to explain how Eastern Europe first insinuated itself as an idea and a desire. Growing up outside of New London, Connecticut, the home of the U.S. submarine base, the Millstone power plant, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Pfizer, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Underwater Sound Lab, I was raised on the fantasy that when the Russians attacked, we would be the first target after the Pentagon. This was always mentioned with a kind of pride, as a point of honor: New London County was of concern to the Kremlin.
I don't remember exactly when I figured out that the bomb was probably not going to be dropped on us, but I know that I registered that realization with mixed feelings. There was an element of letdown as well as relief in reprieve. So much thought and investment had gone into the preparation. The idea of that my best friend's basement, which had been made into a bomb shelter, was never going to be used -- it seemed a waste.
And all those class trips on the nuclear subs -- didn't the sailors have better things to do than show their missiles to us schoolkids? When the sirens blasted, did it always have to be just another air raid drill? And all those practical toys we had grown up with: ham radios, periscopes, gas masks, Atomic Disintegrator cap pistols -- weren't we ever going to be able to show the enemy we knew how to use them?
In a more serious sense, I think the long-deferred assault of post-Stalinist firepower on American space, the long-anticipated invasion, has finally begun to take place, and that the books you refer to are one of the manifestations. I guess you could say that my wish finally produced something; or, as Zizek would say, that I am finally enjoying my long-festering symptom.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I started traveling intensely through the countries that were fast on their way to becoming the former Communist bloc. I wanted to meet the artists, writers, and philosophers whose work had influenced the political changes that were taking place, and whose projects had had so much to do with critiquing a system that was now being replaced. Some of these individuals and groups were already beginning to look critically at another system, one that was still new to them, and that they had not had much experience with, but that their training and instincts equipped them to view with strategic distance -- the Western art market and global capital economy.
I was also interested in Collectivity -- how it functioned both as a social reality and as artistic practice. And yes, one of the art collectives I came in contact with early on was NSK. I first heard about them from Obrad Savic, a Serbian philosopher who was very active in anti-Milosevic, anti-Serbian nationalist circles, and one of the founders of the Belgrade Circle. I had met Savic on one of his lecture trips to the US, and when he heard I was going to former Yugoslavia, he hooked me up with some of his philosopher and artist friends in places like Sarajevo, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje, and Zagreb.
That's how I first met NSK, and first heard of Slavoj Zizek. You are right that Zizek came out of the same milieu. When he published his first book with MIT Press in 1991 ( Looking Awry), he was just another Slovenian philosopher. His biggest claim to fame in those days was that he had made a bid for (and lost) the presidency of Slovenia in 1990.
Q:Would you please discuss the MIT's history with October? For readers who aren't familiar with it, the best way to describe the journal would be to call it the switching center where cultural theory and the art world cross paths. But there's something rather severe about its design and inscruitible about its functioning. (If somebody published a memoir about how the inside of that particular Kremlin operated, I'd definitely want to read it.) How did it come to MIT Press? And how has it being there influenced your acquisitions?
A: The history has a history. If you look at the first four issues of October, you will see a largely forgotten detail. On the copyright page it says: "published by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and distributed by Jaap Rietman."
Jaap Rietman was a bookseller in NYC, and a friend of Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, two of the founding editors. (Trivia question: Who was the third founding editor, now an L.A. based artist and critic? Non-trivia question, for the memoir you want to read: who was Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and why did he leave after three issues?).
Anyway, "distribution by Jaap Reitman" meant Jaap sold the journal in his store in Soho, Manhattan. But "published by the IAUS" meant something else. The IAUS was the architectural discourse laboratory co-founded by Peter Eisenman, Kenneth Frampton, and Mario Gandelsonas in 1972; they were also the founding editors of its house organ, Oppositions, a journal of largely European neorationalist and modernist tendencies devoted to the theory and criticism of architecture. Oppositions was initially published by Wittenborn; in 1976, it moved over to MIT Press.
A few years later, we launched a series of books giving fuller play to the ideas and writers introduced in the journal. Oppositions Books was the model and the precedent for October Books, the series we later launched, and still co-publish, with October. The IAUS was one of the places I cut my editorial teeth; I was initially hired to acquire architecture books for MIT Press, and there no was better place to meet the players, hear the voices, and listen to architectural ideas being debated in those days than the IAUS.
I met many people there whom I would later publish, or work with, many of whom are still collaborators. Rosalind Krauss was one of them. I met her in 1977; at that time, the IAUS was still October's institutional host, but a year later, Oppositions and October were both being published by MIT Press. Krauss was already an MIT Press author at that time. Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith was published by MIT in 1971 (Krauss taught art history at MIT from 1967-1971).
In 1984, the IAUS, Oppositions, and Oppositions Books abruptly folded. But the intellectual force that Oppositions exerted soon led Michael Hays to launch a new journal, Assemblage; Assemblage ran for another 10 years; then it elegantly suicided, announcing its intention to do so, and giving its reasons in advance. Basically, Michael had accomplished what he set out to. It was time for a new generation to take over. Out of Assemblage's editorial ashes rose Grey Room.
Oppositions has been gone for almost 25 years now, but it still acts as an intergenerational force and intellectual spark in a way that many living journals do not. Oppositions went 26 issues. October is now up to 122. In their founding editorial, October's editors referred to "a number of isolated and archaic enterprises" that had "sustained a division between critical discourse and significant artistic practice" [and had] "encouraged the growth of a new philistinism within the intellectual community."
Citing Partisan Review as one of their negative examples, October's editors set their course: " October's strong theoretical emphasis will be mediated by its consideration of present artistic practice." Partisan Review, the journal that began by advocating the culturally revolutionary values of modernism and holding up Trotsky as a redemptive model for American proletariat culture, petered on for another 20 years. By the time it was officially put to rest in 2003, it had become the enemy it had once warned its readers against -- one more voice of neoconservatism defending "standards" in art and culture. It's necessary to think critically about duration, especially if you are a journal, the very idea of which is time-based. Journals, by definition, are about being replaced.
October's founding editors were breakaway editors from Artforum, and breakaway thinkers from their elders. I am glad that October is part of my professional history. I have learned a great deal from that project. The way I became aware of it -- through architecture -- is what first led me to start acquiring books in art -- through architecture. I wouldn't say, beyond that, that my list has much to do with their politic. Their editorial exercise is rigorous, and it is one of the things that challenges me to stay fit. I know I feel an obligation and desire to work some art muscles that they don't, especially because we are perceived to work out of the same gym, the MIT gym. It would not be good for the field if our games were the same, and if there was no tension in the relationship.
I am very aware that observations like yours -- putting Kremlin next to their name -- are becoming more frequent, and are meant to raise questions about power and practice. I can also imagine that it's flattering to be called the Kremlin when you are just the old administration. Personally, I hope I am knocked out of the ring by a young buck or have the sense to get out long before I am offered such compliments.
What will it take to make essays the standard of achievement once again in the scholarly world? This is not where we are: Books are the gold standard for tenure in most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, so much so that journal articles almost don’t even count. As august a figure as Helen Vendler assured me recently that essays could never replace books as a basis for tenuring junior colleagues. So, in departments of English as on Wall Street, counting is all that counts. “It’s the bottom line, stupid.” Countability is the thing whereby you’ll catch the conscience of the dean, as a friend of Hamlet might advise the young Danish assistant professor or the young Shakespeare scholar. Articles don’t make a thumping sound when you drop them on a table the way a body might in Six Feet Under.
I have claimed elsewhere (subscription required) that the book-for-tenure system is coming to an end, that it is unsustainable, that its growth has been an obscenity, because it was mindless, because it sought to make something automatic and machine-like play the role that should only be played by the soul. Please excuse my antiquated language: The “soul,” I remind you, is that faculty of the human body whose juices are made to flow by the exercise of judging myself whether something is of merit. In earlier publications I have charged that professors have been seeking to dodge the one activity that is most essential to their own development when they outsource tenure decisions to bureaucracies and counting replaces reading as the central job of tenure committees, because in that situation content goes by the by. Personally, for me as a publisher, the situation that has arisen is sad beyond endurance. I believe the contents of the books I publish matter. I am not selling milk, which does sustain life, but is homogenized by comparison to book. In fact, milk’s the very definition of homogenized. Each of the books I publish is different.
Books are the standard now, and for me to ask you to think that the future will feature the renaissance of journals and the replacement of the book by the essay might seem crazy. (You should know that it does not seem crazy to many of the leading university press publishers.) My suggestion is not crazy; it’s utopian. We don’t live in that world I am asking you to imagine, the world in which essays are the norm, but if we were to imagine that world could exist even for a second, how might seeing things that way cause us to change what we are doing?
We need to slow down, and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s “Abecedarium Culturae” or Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalog from Montaigne’s “De l’amitie” onwards. Some of the most important books are collections of essays, sometimes assembled with no pretence to forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. One could give many examples.
There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should. I am tempted to say -- in order to be maximally provocative -- that anyone who publishes a book within six years of earning a Ph.D. should be denied tenure. The chances a person at that stage can have published something worth chopping that many trees down is unlikely. I ask you: How are you preparing for the future that could be yours and mine? We -- I mean the world in general -- don’t need a lot of bad writing. We need some great writing. “Pump Up the Volume” has been the watchword in the scholarly world and in America long before that movie with Christian Slater came out. “Don’t Believe the Hype” somehow got twisted into “Believe the Hype” along the way, too. Totally.
The big problem that afflicts the humanities in the United States is not a problem of quantity. Yes, I know, some politicians ridicule university administrators who retain on their staff professors who produce so little by way of income, student-credit hours served, and publications. The newspapers said that U.S. troops could “walk tall again” after conquering Granada. Will professors be able to walk tall again if they produce tall heaps of publications on the scale of manufactured goods coming out of the factories in Suzhou? (If you don’t know where Suzhou is, look it up. It’ll do you good. You are going to want to know in fewer years than you can imagine.)
No, the productivity problem of professors in the U.S. is not one of quantity, but quality. (Same is actually the case in China, too.) I recently got a book proposal that I decided to look at closely rather than reject it summarily as I knew it deserved. It consisted of a welter of confusing sentences. It was contemporary, very up-to-date, located right where the profession is. And the scholar, though young, was very accomplished in the way the world judges achievement, a dozen or more fellowships, a book from a major press, tenure too at a respectable university. But the views in the proposal were those manufactured by others and the linking of them in the proposal had no coherence, and the problem was manifest in the clumsy writing. Who had ever read anything by this young scholar seriously before, I wondered?
Has social passing come to grad school? A friend teaches in a clinic to help people from 3 to thrice 20 to remedy problems of speaking and reading. I have been curious about the stories she tells me of people in their 50s confident enough about their personal success in life to address what used to be a source of deep embarrassment -- the fact that although they could talk like a college grad they could not read better than a second-grader. It takes great self-acceptance to go to the clinic at that age and confess you cannot read and to be taught the things little kids learn.
One of the chief explanations these learners give for how it was they got by for so long without learning the basics of reading is social passing, the decision of teachers to ignore what it is they think they cannot deal with. Imagine an air-traffic controller ignoring some slight intimation a plane is going off course? You cannot, but you know that Captain Delano in Benito Cereno stifled his worries that something was amiss on the San Dominick. Problem too big for me to solve. “I’m a mere fourth grade teacher. I cannot remedy such a huge problem. The system is so much bigger than me or this kid. The principal will be angry if classes get clotted up with the unfortunate. Pass.” So a person might say to themselves privately. Are professors in grad school saying such things to themselves now? I am sure most of them are not, but some must be. Otherwise how did this person get this far writing like this? This person is not alone.
In his Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly lambasted Joseph Addison, co-founder of the journal The Spectator because he was “an apologist for the New Bourgeoisie.” The problem: Addison wrote playfully and unapologetically about nothing, casting a smokescreen in front of his readers. Addison is like Zizek. If Zizek is a success -- and you know he is -- the consequences are worrisome. The kids who flock to see him might try to write like him. In fact, if the elders present Zizek as a star speaker, then what is a kid to think? If this stuff flies, my prose -- a young scholar might reasonably say -- can crawl and stumble and I can become a superstar of theory, too.
I believe sometime in the dark backward and abysm of time, when Zizek was closer to Hegel and Lacan, he must have been a good expositor of the thinking of Lacan, but he is not now. He’s an entertainer, an ersatz version of real explorers like Derrida and Umberto Eco. People used to complain bitterly about the way Derrida, DeMan, Deleuze wrote. Such people’s problem was that they did not pause to read what newly emergent scholars wrote. Derrida and the others wrote perfectly well. Their sentences were difficult to read, perhaps, but they parsed. It is different with Zizek. The torrent that flows from him is like (to go to a realm he’s visited to criticize someone else and very unfairly, too, I might add) a toilet overflowing.
As one critic of his writes, “He does not develop a clear-cut idea, nor does he structure a book around a definable topic. His proofs are mostly introduced with an ‘of course,’ or ‘it is clear why’. He delivers what his fans want -- razzamatazz.” Pascal wrote, “A maker of witticisms, a bad character” ( Pensees, p 12). Let me give a sentence of his to be concrete: The first sentence of the Preface of his new book For They Know Not What They Do is: “There are philosophical books, minor classics even, which are widely known and referred to, although practically no one has read them page by page (John Rawls's Theory of Justice, for example, or Robert Brandom's Making It Explicit) -- a nice example of interpassivity, where some figure of the Other is supposed to do the reading for us.” First of all, even if you accept the Lacan-lingo (“other”), what could the made-up word “interpassivity” mean? And why would I want to know when, second, the sentence in which it occurs is a lie, not a clever one, but a stupid one. Almost 300,000 people have bought the Rawls and the reading of it was so important to enough of them that they have kept their copies of the book, so the used book market is not swamped with copies. And Brandom has nowhere like the same sales, but his book is an international sales success. Remember the “blancmange” skit in Monty Python? Zizek’s writing is “blanc-et-noir mange.” It was a style. Eliot complained the West was but a heap of broken images. Zizek, in this still a Soviet sympathizer, wants like Kruschev to bury us in the heap of his verbiage. It’s not fun anymore, if it ever was. Beware, Mr Zizek, Connolly also says that “one can fool the public about a book but the public will store up resentment in proportion to its folly.” Words suffer under the whip of such a taskmaster.
If words lose out, so do we all: We are in danger of losing our souls, our backbones, our bearings. We are in danger of losing the civilization that was created in the West in the Renaissance. Until I’d read Ingrid Rowland’s book on 16th century Rome, the Rome of Raphael, I had not known about what I’ll call “the Renaissance of the sentence.” I’d lived in Florence when I decided to study the Italian Renaissance, and I’d gotten a very concrete sense of the how, what, when of the Renaissance of architecture at Santo Spirito. I knew about the Renaissance of narrative plotting from immersing myself in Ariosto and Milton and seeing the debate about plotting over Tasso. But the Renaissance of the Sentence -- it had never occurred to me. Hadn’t the monks kept the art of the sentence alive through the Dark Ages? Short answer: No.
Ingrid Rowland recounts how Angelo Colocci (aka “Serafino Aquilano”) pioneered the transformation of writing in vernacular Italian. No longer was it revolutionary to use the vernacular instead of Latin; no, revolutionary was using the vernacular with rhythm, with passion. The point of writing in such a way was because it unleashed a power one could have using word to “unlock the emotions through a combination of words and music.” To write in this way was to have style, what Colocci called “modo.” Sure, one could write about sexy topics in the vernacular, as shown by the author of Hypnerotomochia Poliphili, one of the most famous books of the Renaissance, but the results were not sexy, because the Italian was in a ponderously Latinate style. Sexy sentences got to have rhythm. As Rowland wonderfully describes what I, not she, call the Renaissance of the Sentence, (but my description owes all to her interpretation of the historical record), Castiglione wrote in a manner that “set standards for vernacular style: like the building blocks of a classical temple, the subordinate clauses interlock, one after another, to construct the sonorous bulk of Castiglione’s monumental run-on sentences.” Castiglione brings “epic muscularity” of Michelangelo’s sculpture into sentence construction. The writers of the Renaissance had figured out what made Ancient writing click, and they’d found a way to do it on their own.
What I’m saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes -- and here I’m going global -- a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand. The humanists of the Renaissance knew the Romans had the ability to put sentences that had concinnitas, but that their ancestors in what we call the Middle Ages had lost that ability. When the Ancients constructed the Arch of Constantine, it stayed together for centuries, even though neglected. Concinnity -- what a splendid word!
It seems to me that when bad styling of sentences became accepted, we got used to it. We compensated for the lack of quality and impact of the sentences that people wrote as evidence of their scholarly abilities by asking them for more of them in the hopes we could get the same buzz going that we used to get from fewer sentences. Last year I ran a panel at the Modern Language Association on “Slow Reading,” and today I’m advocating slow writing. Editors are in the position to make this change take place.
Now, I can hear you saying: Who am I to think I can turn the academic world around?
I suggest that what we in scholarly publishing -- books and journals -- need to do is to simultaneously go down-market and upscale. I am also an editor for a journal, a member of the editorial board of the Duke University Press journal boundary 2. We decided to change our policies to deal with a whole set of changes that have beset the academic world since 1989. Before I talk about the specifics of the changes in policy, I ask you to step back to take in the bigger picture. It’s important to see our moment in historical perspective from the Oil Crisis of 1973-4, which had a profound effect on university libraries, until 1989-2001. Because of the oil crisis of the early 70s, librarians cut back drastically on purchasing books but maintained journal subscriptions. As a result some publishers decided they could raise prices on serials with impunity. It was license to print money. The result radically distorted university library budgets.
After September 11th the universities finally decided they could reduce purchases of journals as much as they’d cut back on books. I’m talking about general trends. Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying. The development of electronic forms of publication provided the justification for the cutbacks. There was a sense that if a library switched its purchasing to electronic media, it was not really cutting back, because there were alternative avenues for publication. This was partly true, but in the meantime, there was a growing sense that educators needed to be policed better and given measuring sticks for productivity. Thus, the demand for books increased even at the time the budgets for purchasing books were slashed. And libraries were appropriately looking for opportunities to cut subscriptions to print journals that were perceived as unnecessary.
Journal editors felt the need to rethink what they were doing to make themselves seem more essential, less cuttable. In the meantime, the good intellectual and academic times that ran from the late 60s were over. The wonderful flowering of new theories in almost every field of academic endeavor had run their course. In literary studies, for example, the great excitement of theory had mutated into the police state tactics of the New Historicism that in fact often focussed on policing, setting rules, enforcing market conditions. So it was not a time for developing new journals and readers’ interests were waning. When people did not understand de Man and Foucault, there was interest in essays by scholars telling readers they’d finally come to understand these gurus of the postmodern, but this sort of thing gets stale. It got really stale. And we found our pages filling with careerists eager to add another line to the cv. Jonathan Arac, one of the lead editors of boundary 2, describes the new policy for acquisitions for the journal in these simple terms: We decided to serve our readers more than our contributors. Paul Bove summarizes the changes in the journal editorial policy as consisting of four criteria:
1. ordinary language, not jargon 2. essays first, scholarly articles second 3. application of the “cui bono?” test to all submissions 4. contents of journal must educate the readers and serve the audience, not the careers of the writers
We must, he said to me, appeal to the curiosity of the reader and recover the right to use the word “stupid” as a judgment call.
A journal, hopefully, stretches on and on. Editorial principles will change if the journal stays as flexible and fluid as the sentences that we hope will appear in it. It should be structured to make the needs of the readers primary, those needs as imagined by the editors in an act of empathy and political responsibility. How could one set up a journal or any publication where essays were being gathered in order to make them command respect. We have some work to do on this at boundary 2, but we are trying to demand more of ourselves in order to give more to readers.
I am involved in a project now where the essay is the monarch, where we have set up editorial procedures to push us, the editors, to publish the best essays, and that is my book, forthcoming in Fall 2009, called The New Literary History of the United States, whose chief editors are Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. In publishing it’s always about how to rig things for the best results, knowing there’s going to be a lot of resistance coming in from every which way.. The book depends on the chief editors and the members of the editorial board leaning on the best people they know to contribute. But having done that, how can you be demanding? Beggars can be choosers, I say!! We set up the editorial procedures to make sure the personal loyalty of the editors to contributors doesn’t interfere with the loyalty of the publication to its readers. I’ve been through this twice before with the French and German literary histories in 1989 and 2004, but I think we’ve improved things! Working with my chief editors who have each had a lot of experience editing the work of others, we set the editorial procedures up to fight the lazy writing habits that have entered the academic world over the last decades.
When Edward Said predicted the decline of writing by professors in the early 1980s, I did not believe him; but he was right and I was wrong. A lot of bad habits developed, and now they are protected by power by those who write poorly who have now risen in rank as a result of what I called “social passing” in educational levels above the primary and secondary schools. We had fights and had to have emergency meetings of the board for Hollier’s New History of French Literature because, although Hollier was demanding and so were we at Harvard University Press, some members of the board did not think we had the right to make professors revise to the degree that every page would be readable.
What an outrage! I remember the would-be contributor whom we were demanding more of who said “But I’ve written the perfect New Historicist, feminist, deconstructionist essay. You dare not tamper with my very self and voice. And we dared not tell Professor Polonius that he did not have any writing voice at all. You cannot be comical-pastoral-tragical (I am playing on what Polonius says at Hamlet 2.2.397.) and speak in any tongue in which humans have spoken. We nearly turned down an entry by one of the chief editors of that book. With the Marcus/Sollors I confess to having stacked things towards readability by making one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone be one of the two editors-in-chief of the volume. Guilty as charged. The way I have set up the Marcus/Sollors is all around the essay. The book is a collection of 220 essays that resonate in surprising ways so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, but each individual part is a free-standing essay.In the making of this book I have pursued the essay so strongly that I have made it function in a new way like an individual instrument in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
If we want change to happen so that essays become the norm of scholarly publication for tenure for junior people, then we will have to make it happen. It is in our power, but it will not happen unless we make a concerted effort. We need to make changes in our journals, as I described we did with boundary 2 and the Marcus/Sollors. . We need to do what we might fear will be dumbing down our publications by insisting upon clearer language set forth in rhythmical sentence. The reason for the persistence of gobbledy-gook is that it’s a lot easier to hide mediocre thinking under the cloak of gobbledy-gook. If we insist upon clarity, we will miss those moments of professional “stuplimity” (to use my dear author Sianne Ngai’s word) caused by the deep unclarity of the sort we get from Zizek. But we’ll win back readers. We want to publish writings people will talk about.
The real, dirty secret of academic publishing, as a daring author of a letter to the editor of Nature had the courage to say, is that it’s too easy to get published nowadays: “Let’s admit it . . . one can publish just about anything if one goes low enough down the list of impact factors,” wrote Vladimir Svetlov of the Department of Microbiogology at Ohio State University. There are procedures for refereeing and they make some difference in an international context (this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue in the years to come), but those procedures don’t in and of themselves guarantee anything. In fact, where I hear people talk the most about journals edited according to international standards for refereeing, it often attached to mediocre publications and is a reason for excluding from counting towards one’s record publication in essays it is almost impossible to get into because they have their own, very high standards, like Critical Inquiry.
A good journal has a direction, a mission and scholarly goals. The for-profit publishers know how to set up a journal that gets credibility in the most facile way possible. It has become harder to make money from journals since September 11th. The old tricks won’t work, but the authorities in the universities have not adjusted to them and in some way they feed into them, feed into the undermining of scholarly standards. The profit motive undermines true credibility of many scholarly journals. I have been clipping the articles from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers that document the assault on the authority of scholarly journals by a number of for-profit operations. It has become a lot more dangerous to edit a scholarly journal, especially in the medical sciences where there is big money to lose when the claims for a Big Pharma product are contested by a scientist. I have a big sheaf of such essays gathered over the last three years. All this would be bad enough were it not that papers like the Wall Street Journal also run essays by -- what is the right word for it? -- people like Professor Thomas P. Stossel of the Harvard Medical School saying that scholarly journals “are magazines,” no better than the magazines you find in the grocery store with no more authority than such publications. The pull-quote from the essay reads: “Why are scientific journals regarded with such reverence?” This shameful screed was meant to undermine scholarly journals. To say the least such talk is of no help in the effort I am encouraging to bring more authority back to the scholarly journal.
We live at a time when I can see that a whole series of great developments are emerging in philosophy, literary studies, and other fields. We are on the verge of great things, and they are apparent in a number of articles appearing in journals and some of the projects have developed far enough to merit publication in book form. But these are also desperate times for many, a time of uncertainty and false prophets. Now, Mr. Zizek is about to be shut up by a whole set of people who are tired of hearing him blab his mouth. About time! But, look, it’s America: There are still a lot of snake oil salemen ready to try to convince you that up is down. Beware! As we prepare for the next thirty years we need to refind our foundations, to re-establish learning on the best foundations, and the best one of all is the sentence that the Renaissance reinvigorated. A sentence is not like a laundry line on which we pin words so they can flap in the wind. No, a sentence “is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.”
Will the Internet, will Google destroy the scholarly journal? Will blogs spell the end of little magazines? I hope not. Look at N + 1. There’s no authority in being disseminated by the Internet in and of itself. As Benjamin wrote of technology, it is is a force for good and ill; all depends on humans subordinating the tool to human needs. The iron we smelt we can use to make railway tracks that bring us together and movie cameras we use to make art that brings us together. Or that metal can be made into bullets and bombers. It is up to us. The tools don’t determine our course. That’s why we have to go back to fundamentals, to the sentence, to judgment -- it’s no surprise those words can mean the same thing -- to reassure others, and more importantly,ourselves that what we do is essential. Against the bluster and braggadocio of a Zizek and so many other boastful denizens of the Roaring Nineties, let us affect the modesty that seems to be endemic to the essay!
Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at the Harvard University Press. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the meeting of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, held in December at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. His Enemies of Promise came out from Prickly Paradigm Press in 2004, and then from State University Press of Sao Paolo in 2006 and will come out from Editions Allia in Paris in 2008 and from Commercial Press in Beijing in 2009.