New media and old institutions: 1

I attended a couple of events this week that set me thinking about the complex swirl of issues around digital identity and community, art and academia and their institutions, and how the possibilities online tools and cultures make available translate (and fail to translate) between different forms, different agendas.

First was The Future of Mediated Scholarship, part of a workshop series the Institute for Multimedia Literacy is running for USC graduate students. The talks included USC Associate Vice Provost Susan Metros presenting the Horizon report predicting technological futures (a very science-fictional experience), Mark Marino giving tips for online research tools, and Elizabeth Losh on online pedagogical spaces. Losh wrote a blog entry about the event which makes a grad student at USC sound like a wonderfully exciting thing to be, while also detailing the important questions she raised in her talk.

However, I mainly wanted to write about Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s talk on the future of scholarly publishing, which kept me frantically typing notes (and the occasional twitter update) throughout.

Fitzpatrick, who’s one of the founders of the ever fabulous Media Commons, talked about the obsolescence of the current scholarly publishing model and the range of things that “obsolescence” means. She summarized her first book‘s argument that frantic declarations about the death of the book tend to mean primarily that a literary elite is afraid its privileged form will no longer be the centre of cultural relevance, then moved on to the conditions of publication of that book to explore the ‘crisis in scholarly publishing’ that means scholars’ first tenure-securing books struggle to find publishers. The book as a form may continue to live, paper being rather more durable than outdated operating systems et cetera; but the academic monograph as a profitable entity is verifiably dead. However, as it is required by the institutional structures of academe, it lives on–it is undead.

Zombie metaphors make any academic talk better. Fitzpatrick moved on from hers to talk about how scholarly publishing has to change to become more alive than (un)dead. Quoting my notes:

Until scholars believe publishing on the web is as valuable as print and until they believe their institutions also believe it, few will risk their careers. Social, intellectual and institutional change are necessary. The ways we research, write, peer review, have to change. The system of peer review is part of what is broken in the current system of scholarly publishing. It is a disciplinary technology that creates the conditions of possibility for the academic institution: the disciplined are gradually given the technology to discipline others. In print, it serves primarily a gatekeeping role, excluding some realms of discourse from the realm of the thinkable. In the digital, scarcity is over: anyone can publish anything, we face an extraordinary plenitude. Digital humanities needs to develop not a means of applying peer review to create artificial scarcity but rather to find a means of coping with abundance, of working within a living system of scholarly publication.

I’ll resist reproducing the rest of the talk in order to think about what a “living system of scholarly publication” might mean, what it already means. In this talk, and in other conversations about new mediations for scholarly dissemination, there’s talk of how blind peer review could be replaced: metrics? Open public comments? Something else? Open source scholarship published publically online is, by definition, open to enter into different living economies of publication, to be read in unexpected ways, just as books are; but books (and peer reviewed journal publications) aren’t validated based on the status they hold in multiple intersecting subcultural publics. For practical institutional reasons, I’m sure no open peer review system would be either; yet in the living systems of publication I’ve been talking about for my last couple of posts, that’s exactly what happens.

In online fandom, as you can see if you follow the links I gave in my last two posts and their ever-multiplying counterparts, abundance is the rule. Every participant has a soapbox and if their contributions to public conversations are considered valuable they get cited and passed around, fans develop reputations for particular critical and political positions, paradigm shifts happen and are contested, personalities clash. I think of fast-changing landscapes like this and other blog-based communities when I think of a living system of publication, in large part because my own scholarly work (whether or not it is about those spaces) is shaped by them and by the networks I’ve built through them at least as much as, if not more than, it is by traditional academic contexts.

As one of the editors of Transformative Works and Cultures‘s Symposium section, I’m committed to bringing the online meta-sphere’s and academia’s institutional discourses into conversation, to the idea that academia and other subcultural presences can meet on something approaching even terms. Media Commons shares the same commitment, as far as I can tell. It still seems clear to me that institutional professionalism and the nonprofessional, community-oriented (even when conflict-driven) spaces of living, open publication must always sit uncomfortably together. Yet I can’t think of them as wholly separate. I’m not sure if that’s just because I personally occupy the borders between them or if there’s something more significant to be said there.

Maybe I’ll get to figuring that out in the second part of this post, about this exhibition, which I will put up in the next day or two. I wish I were a speedier blogger.