Aaron Swartz committed suicide last week at the age of 26. I would like to pay tribute to him by writing calm, elegiac prose conveying something of his intelligence, his passion, and the distinctive quality of puckishness that photographs of him managed to capture surprisingly well.
Unfortunately it does not look like that is going to be possible. Things would need to make more sense than they have, so far. Feelings of sadness and anger, which are perfectly appropriate responses, keep giving way to the paradoxical and incoherent state of mind in which I both grasp what has happened and simultaneously think that it can’t really be true. This reached its worst and most absurd expression in the passing thought that news of his suicide might be part of a scheme in which Aaron is alive and well, living under a new identity someplace where U.S. government prosecutors will never find him.
It’s possible! Well, no, of course it isn’t. This state of mind is what they call “being in denial,” and it’s embarrassing to recognize. But it hardly seems more irrational than the reality in question. For the government’s prosecution of Aaron for hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's system to download a few million articles from scholarly journals was not just a case of intellectual-property law being enforced with too much zeal. It seems more like an expression of vindictiveness.
Consider something just reported by the Associated Press: “Andrew Good, a Boston attorney who represented Swartz in the case last year, said he told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was a suicide risk. 'Their response was, put him in jail, he’ll be safe there,' Good said." It is too hard to think about that. Better to imagine him escaping, carrying on his work in silence, cunning, and exile.
He was already something of a legend when we met for lunch not quite five years ago, having already been in touch for a couple of years. At the time, he was known for his role in the creation of RSS and Infogami; his internet-freedom activism and legal troubles were to come. Among his projects had been the online archive he created for Lingua Franca magazine, then defunct though still widely admired. I had been a contributing writer for LF and heard about Aaron from a couple of friends, and was very glad to be able to interview him about the Open Library cataloging initiative he was helping to launch.
Not that long before we were able to meet face-to-face, Aaron had given a talk called “How to Get a Job Like Mine” which covered his career up through the age of 20. In person, he was modest about his teenage coding career, or at least disinclined to say much about it, and I never got the feeling that his later exploits in taking on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database and JSTOR involved anything like hacker vainglory.
In his activism (legal and otherwise) as in his early coding projects, the emphasis was always squarely on making access to information and tools more widely available, on the grounds that restricting the flow of knowledge served only to make already-powerful people still more powerful. Aaron seemed earnest without being dour or humorless, which struck me as giving him one leg up on his hero Noam Chomsky.
While trying to pull these impressions together, I had a moment of seeing something about Aaron that never crossed my mind while he was alive, although it seems, with hindsight, pretty obvious: He was as perfect an embodiment of the mythological being known as the trickster as anyone could possibly be. My copy of Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998) has gone missing, but the author’s website has a pertinent description.
Trickster figures in various cultures “are the consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through keyholes, breaching walls, subverting defense systems. Always out to satisfy their inordinate appetites, lying, cheating, and stealing, tricksters are a great bother to have around, but paradoxically they are also indispensable heroes of culture. In North America, Coyote taught the race how to catch salmon, sing, and shoot arrows. In West Africa, Eshu introduced the art of divination so that suffering humans might know the purposes of heaven. In Greece, Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself.”
The gods and worldly authorities alike think of the trickster as a criminal, or at least a bad apple. Furthermore, tricksters tend to be prodigies -- their genius for invention and disruption already evident in childhood, if not infancy. In the introduction to his book, Hyde writes that the trickster’s disregard for the rules “isn’t so much to get away with something or to get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.”
That names Aaron’s attitude beautifully, and my fleeting daydream that he might somehow be pulling a fast one on the authorities is like something out of a trickster narrative. The resemblance also goes some way towards explaining why, more than anyone I've ever met, he seems destined to be remembered as a hero for a long time to come. You don't get to make that many friends who are archetypes, but Aaron was an exceptional person no matter how you look at him.
After a successful pilot, JSTOR is launching its Register & Read program, which lets anyone read up to three articles from 1,200 of its journals every two weeks in exchange for demographic information.
There's a mean streak at the heart of a certain kind of American optimism -- a rugged, go-it-alone, dog-eat-dog strain of individualism that is callous at best, shading into the sociopathic. It values independence, or says it does, but only by regarding dependency as a totally abject condition. The reality that illness or old age threw even the hardiest pioneer into reliance on others hardly factors into this worldview; the notion that civilization implies interdependence is, for it, almost literally unthinkable.
As I say, this outlook can manifest itself as optimism (the future is one of unbounded possibility, etc.) not always distinct from wishful thinking or denial. And it’s just as likely to pour out in resentment that is keen, if not particularly consistent. “I am a victim,” the logic goes, “of all those people out there playing victim.” Absent a frontier, the frontier spirit starts wallowing in self-pity.
The absence of pity of any sort from Kim E. Nielsen’s new book A Disability History of the United States, published by Beacon Press, is hardly the most provocative thing about it. Nielsen, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo, indicates that it is the first book “to create a wide-ranging chronological American history narrative told through the lives of people with disabilities.” By displacing the able-bodied, self-subsisting individual citizen as the basic unit (and implied beneficiary) of the American experience, she compels the reader to reconsider how we understand personal dignity, public life, and the common good.
Take the “ugly laws,” for instance. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major American cities made it illegal for (in the words of the San Francisco ordinance from 1867) “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” to appear in “streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places.”
The laws were unequally enforced, with poor and indigent people with handicaps being the main targets. For one thing, the impact of the Civil War plus the incredible frequency of industrial accidents meant there were more unsightly beggars than ever. But while deformed and damaged bodies were being cleared from the streets, there was a pronounced public appetite for the exhibits at “freak” shows.
Now, the two phenomena in question have been studied in some depth over the years. A monograph on the ugly laws appeared not that long ago -- and while there have been more detailed studies of the world of “human oddities” than the late Leslie Fiedler’s cultural history Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978), I doubt many have been nearly as thought-provoking. Nielsen’s historical narrative is presumably meant for undergraduates and the general public, so it’s natural to lose nuance in the treatment of either topic. But the breadth of the survey also means there is a gain in perspective.
No direct link exists between the policing of disabled bodies and their exploitation as entertainment, yet there is a connection even so. “In contestations over who was fit to be present in the civic world and who was not,” Nielsen says, “people with disabilities often found themselves increasingly regulated. Those not considered fit for public life were variably shut away, gawked at, [or] exoticized.”
It was a far cry from the norm of a century earlier. “The general lack of discussion and institutional acknowledgement of physical disabilities” in 17th- and 18th-century America “suggests that they simply were not noteworthy among communities of European colonists in the period before the Revolution,” Nielsen writes. “Indeed, it suggests that such bodily variations were relatively routine and expected – and accommodations were made, or simply didn’t have to be made, to integrate individuals into community labor patterns.”
Over time, in other words, disability became abnormal. Or at least it quit seeming “normal” in the way that it once did: a hard fact of life, to be sure, but just in the nature of things. Consider the way severely wounded veterans of the Revolutionary War reintegrated into the life of the new Republic. Citing recent historical work, Nielsen indicates that they “labored, married, had children, and had households typical in size and structures, at rates nearly identical to their nondisabled counterparts." They “worked at the same types of jobs, in roughly the same proportions” as well, and as a group they experienced poverty at the same rates as others of their background. The wounded returning from later wars had a much harder time of it.
Not all handicaps are created equal, of course. Nor is it self-evident that they should be lumped together (war wounds and birth defects, blindness and retardation, mental illness and dwarfism) under the common heading of “disability.” Nielsen sketches the changing ways political and medical authorities responded to the afflicted -- by trying to help them, or hide them, or both. In any case, the trend was to define them not by what they could do, but by their handicap. At the same time, attitudes towards the disabled were becoming tangled together with other prejudices. If certain people weren’t allowed to vote or otherwise exercise much power, it was only because their race, gender, or foreign origin left them physically or mentally unfit for it. Stigma and inequality fed off one another.
The very idea of being profoundly, inescapably limited in some way makes for anxiety when the cultural norm is the expectation “to create successful and powerful selves” that are ready to “stand on our own two feet” and “speak for ourselves.” Nielsen points out that the last two figures of speech are part of the problem. There are people who literally can’t “stand on their own two feet” or “speak for themselves.” While my exposure to the kinds of disability activists Nielsen writes about in the final pages of her history has been limited, they do seem to have an ironic and sarcastic (rather than po-facedly indignant) response to such "able-ist" imagery -- regarding it less as an insult than as evidence that the speaker is a bit thick. Which is usually true. The "unchallenged," as we might be called euphemistically, tend to be somewhat lacking in imagination and insight about their struggle for greater equality and autonomy.
And yet they have won some battles – by demanding help. By demanding a redistribution of resources on the basis of their intrinsic right, as human beings, to the dignity they could not enjoy otherwise. Someone in a wheelchair can zip around the neighborhood just fine, getting to her job at the pharmacy on time, provided the curbs are made accessible. And no, the person in the wheelchair is not responsible for paying for that, any more than her customers are responsible for mixing their own medications. Interdependence is not a failure of independence; it is the condition for enjoying the sort of independence that means anything at all.
University presses are a reticent lot. We flourish offstage, delighted to shine the spotlight on our authors and their extraordinary works. We want them to get the glory; for ourselves, we hope only for enough reflected light to reveal our individual imprints as standards of excellence. Our books and journals speak not only for themselves, but for us.
Apparently, they don't speak loudly enough. Our modesty -- perhaps a virtue in other times -- has become a liability. Many university presses face serious budget cuts and other convulsive changes. In recent months the University of Missouri, having first announced the closing of its press, reversed course to declare the press would remain open, but operate under a drastically different model. Subsequent to that the university announced that the press will retain many of its original staff, features, and goals. After the highly publicized and contentious deliberations, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stated that "my goal is to develop a press that is vibrant and adaptive...."
If university presses spent more time beating our own drum, President Wolfe might have recognized before he first acted that there are few modern educational institutions as adaptive as university presses. In a rapidly changing publishing culture, that's precisely what we must do and have been doing to remain vibrant. Indeed, Wolfe’s stated goal for the University of Missouri Press helps to define the next chapter in our challenge to discharge our scholarly mission.
High-quality scholarship is now a necessary but insufficient benchmark for success. Economic scarcity has increased competition within the university for shrinking resources while digital technologies and the web have created the misperception that publishing is simple and cheap. It isn’t. Yet, we directly contribute to the university’s teaching and research missions in a way that results in the widest possible dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost.
Universities generally perceive their presses (if they have them — only about 90 North American universities do) as being relatively small units focused on the humanities and social sciences, areas that themselves have constituted smaller and smaller pieces of overall university allocation and focus. Our budgets are small, especially compared to those of academic divisions or of the university library. But our need for financial support when we already sell a product puzzles many administrators and creates the notion that we are not successful, critical acclaim for our products notwithstanding. Too many of our colleagues think we’re resisting the shift to digital scholarship, instead focusing on dull old print technologies. We aren’t hip and we don’t want to see that information wants to be free.
All too often university administrators don’t see their press as essential to the university’s core mission. With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong — but the failure to demonstrate our importance rests with us and we will begin to correct that failure now.
A revolution is taking place in scholarly communications. From something as broad as the development and evolution of the web to technology as narrow as digital print machines, changes in production, distribution, marketing (yes, even scholarship requires marketing to reach its broadest audience), and selling can and must follow. Such change requires new business models, and we’re developing them; if managed well, they could allow universities and their faculty more control over the information they create but too often cede to others.
University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity. Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.
From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication) to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.
It is self-evident that the books and journals we publish benefit faculty in their roles as authors, researchers, and teachers. Less evident is that our conduct of peer review and the luster of our imprints together support the tenure and promotion system that has characterized American higher education for generations. Sadly, this system has allowed colleges and universities without presses to "free ride" on the backs of those that have them; it costs them no more than the university press books and journals they choose to buy. Any solution to university press support might do well to address such freeloading.
Less recognized in the academic world is the degree to which university presses, through their publications, serve students. It is true that few presses publish core textbooks such as “Introduction to Economics” (though that’s an area where we are helping in the development of open-access texts), but a very large proportion of the books read either alongside or in lieu of a core text are university press publications. Indeed, our lifetime best-selling books are virtually always those read in undergraduate and graduate courses.
University presses have become the leading regional publishers in the country. State university presses in particular have played a major role in publishing books that help citizens recognize and celebrate what makes home, home. From histories to natural histories to cookbooks and sports books, we help give American citizens a better sense of who they are.
Finally, the dissemination and sale of university press products throughout the world has helped spread awareness of our individual universities more broadly than any other single product — including the football team. Scholars around the world are acutely aware of Temple University Press’s pioneering and prize-winning Asian American studies, while LSU Press’s four Pulitzer Prizes bring renown to its commitment to literature that matters. The University of Minnesota Press enjoys the same global accolades for its critical and social theory list and for bringing innovative European thought to North America through its well-known translation program. In all cases, the light shone on the press reflects the parent university’s commitment to serious, cutting-edge scholarship.
University presses have enriched American education and American intellectual life for over a century. These are tough times to be sure, and presses today need to share in the sacrifices being made by all parts of the university. But it will be a long-term mistake if the expertise and contributions of presses are sacrificed to resolve short-term budget problems.
Alex Holzman, Douglas Armato and MaryKatherine Callaway
Alex Holzman is director of Temple University Press, Douglas Armato is director of the University of Minnesota Press and MaryKatherine Callaway is director of LSU Press. All are former presidents of the Association of American University Presses.