The Digital Potential: Leaving Open the Future of Scholarship and the University

The Digital Potential: Leaving Open the Future of Scholarship and the University

2009-09-01
Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now
Gary Hall
Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Taking seriously author Gary Hall’s ground-up rethinking of the
university, David Parry raises an issue not addressed in Digitize This
Book
, namely - what if Hall’s own field of Cultural Studies has no
future as a discipline in the university’s digital future?

Judging from the title, one could assume Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book to be another argument for open-access digital scholarship. To be sure, Hall’s book does mount a clear case for why open-access digital scholarship is crucial for the future of academia; however it does so in unconventional ways, often critiquing the traditional lines along which the pro/anti-digitization scholars have drawn their respective cases. More importantly, and this is why you should read this book, Hall is fundamentally concerned with the future of scholarship and academia in general, offering a careful analysis of what it means to be political in the age of new media. As he asserts, “it is imperative to address issues of knowledge and its authority and legitimacy in the context of digitization” (12). This text is much more than the typical book pleading for digital scholarship-indeed I am not sure Digitize This Book even is a book; at the very least, at times it wants to be something else.

Although the introduction to this book begins by situating this critique within the context of cultural studies and the future of knowledge production within the university (more on this later), the largest percentage of the work is dedicated to addressing questions about the future of the book, specifically in relation to academic publishing. For the real issue here, at least in the first half Hall’s analysis, is an ethical call to treat the digital as something new, and not confine it to the terms of prior modes of scholarship and discourse, because open access raises questions for “academic and institutional authority and legitimacy and the way it promises to transform and redefine our relationship to knowledge” (54).

Hall sets out to understand this future through mixing cultural studies, analysis of academia, Derrida and Levinas, and a criticism on the future of the book. Accordingly Digitize This is divided into two sections. The first is a detailed case for making books open access, done by utilizing a specific example, the CSearch of which Hall is a part.CSearch is an attempt to build an open access pre-print archive for cultural studies research and scholarship, similar to arXiv.org, an existing and influential physics oriented online open access archive. Scholars would submit pre-print versions of their works, making them available to a wide audience free of charge. By submitting pre-print versions authors are able to circumvent copyright concerns that might arise from submitting work once it has been published. The second constitutes a broader discussion of the political implications of digital knowledge production and archivization. In addition to these two sections the book contains a series of “chapters” titled “Metadata” dispersed in between chapters of both sections.

The first section is dedicated to making the strong case that academics need to publish in open-access archives, and do so starting now. By setting aside the issue of journal publications and instead focusing on book length works, Hall attempts to shift the debate on open access. For Hall the current commitment to open access, often focused on making the vast stores of journal articles available freely on demand, makes up only a small part of the move to open access. He wants everything to go open access, especially books, and especially in the humanities where the most valued publications are still in codex form.

At times Digitize This can be a bit heavy on the theory in mounting its case for open access. Not that I am complaining - in fact, anything but, as Hall often leverages theorists and works for which I have a particular affinity, Derrida and Weber for instance. But for those expecting a practical nuts and bolts approach to digital publication, these sections can come as a bit of a shock. Indeed, this is one of the criticisms others have expressed. See for instance Christine Borgman’s review in Technology and Culture where she suggests that the theory “speaks to the converted,” and “narrows the audience for the book.” Borgman seems to be critiquing the use of “polarizing figures” in the academe, without addressing the substance of the arguments being made, as if they should be discounted solely based on a name attached to them. But rather than being a shortcoming, I find Hall’s approach to be a particular strength, for as I indicated, Hall is not solely interested in defending digital publication. The book is after something larger, more important, at least in Hall’s eyes. So, rather than make all the practical arguments about open access, Hall takes an alternative approach, thinking about the larger issues of knowledge production.

While Hall raises the traditional advantages of open access, increased audience, wider availability, greater transparency, his position is that the real gains lie elsewhere. In what? Hall is clear that he does not quite know, and that is the advantage, that we do not yet know what is to come. Drawing from Levinas and Derrida whose ethical treatment of “otherness” requires an “infinite and aporetic responsibility to an ‘unconditional hospitality’ to the other” (14), Hall wants to extend this hospitality towards the other of digital scholarship. If the analog codex based system is the known, the familiar ground from which we begin our understanding, the digital is the unknown, the quantity yet to be determined, the other of scholarship that we ought not hastily confine and predetermine. The Internet, and by extension digital knowledge production, requires that we recognize its singularity as an object “which cannot be known or calculated in advance” (140). For if we do not do this, we will continue to treat digital scholarship as a prosthetic extension of the current paper and ink based archives (68). And equally as important, according to Hall we need to take the opportunity of this moment, recognize it as transitional, the “now” of “Why We Need Open Access Now,” for it might not be available to us once customs, rules, and regulations are adopted by the various political, social, and legal institutions (153).

Accordingly Hall is able to chart significant new ground in the digital versus analog publication debate, critiquing both those who praise the digital and those who resist it. One of the strongest claims Hall makes in this regard is that the contemporary debate around open access often misses the mark, falling into a predictable debate about the new economy and the rise of the “prosumer.” Much of the scholarship surrounding production in the age of the digital, as Hall points out, focuses on how these new technologies blur the line between those who produce and those who consume, giving rise to a newly empowered citizenry (whether one sees this as a good thing, Clay Shirky, or a bad thing, Andrew Keene, depends on one’s view of cultural production and consumption). Hall proposes something more radical though, realizing how the new medium of distribution might enable us to rethink-ought to force us to rethink-the very conservative and neo-liberal principles of production and consumption. Debates about the rise of a newly empowered citizenry who move from “passivity to activity,” “rest on certain notions of production and consumption that a lot of new media may actually be involved in challenging” (21). Instead of arguing for or against the prosumer revolution Hall claims, “it will not take place” (21). As with the rest of the book Hall does not supply his readers with what this other way is, what might operate in distinction from the neo-liberal principles of production and consumption, instead Hall merely points out how the current frame of discussion is pre-dispossed to a certain narrow set of answers that might not apply as we shift towards the digital.

A significant part of this first section is dedicated to addressing the future of the University, and more specifically cultural studies’s role in the future (even if one is not that interested in thinking about academic knowledge production within the context of book publishing, this section of the book warrants consideration for most academics-especially those concerned about cultural studies). Part of the claim in Digitize This seems to be that at this crucial juncture the digital affords us the unique opportunity to rethink the very nature of the academy, to avoid a romantic nostalgic past or a neo-liberal marketplace future. It is in these passages that Hall’s writing becomes not only the most impassioned but, more importantly, relevant to the widest audience, and one realizes that the issue of digitizing academic work is in part just a lever which Hall is using to launch a critique of the 21st-century University, and its future (a claim which is at least implicit in the first sections, explicit in the later, about politics in the age of the Internet).

There is a direct critique of cultural studies here: although cultural studies departments are the location, according to Hall, where theorizing the University, or theorizing about the University, has taken place, their critique often falls short. “Many of those in cultural studies have spent relatively little time examining and engaging with the ‘real world’ pragmatic, empirical, ethnographic, and experiential context of their own situation, which more often than not involves the university” (16). So, making use of a proclivity towards theory not often utilized within the discipline of cultural studies, Hall wants to ground his critique both within the milieu of cultural studies and upon a practical engagement with the questions facing the University. However, unlike some of the works from which he draws, The University in Ruins or, “The University Without Condition,” Hall’s work focuses more on the role of scholarship and less on the particular structures, administrative or organizational, which govern the academia’s existence. Thus Hall does not really supply his readers with a vision of what the future of the University is, but rather with a series of principles for pursuing it, primarily focused on the role of cultural studies in this process (more on this later).

The second section of the book turns away from addressing the question of digital publishing in the age of the Internet, and towards the broader question of politics in the age of a hyperconnected public. We could see this section as incongruous to the first, an entirely second essay, with the first section compromising a complete argument in and of itself. But I think to do so misses one of the draws of this book. For those not interested in publication and academic knowledge in the Internet age, this section offers some separate important thoughts. Indeed, although seemingly not the focus of the book, Hall’s engagement with the future of politics, or hyperpolitics as he terms it, contains some of the most provocative, if not fully detailed, thinking in the book. In the same way that publishing cannot be understood according to old models of knowledge production, or the prosumer critique, politics also cannot be understood according to neo-liberal, modern, or enlightenment-oriented views. Politics in the age of the Internet, “hyperpolitics,” does not represent an evolution of democracy, a larger more involved public sphere, but rather represents something entirely other. According to Hall Internet politics is completely heterogenous to our prior frameworks for understanding politics.

Hall’s analysis here follows a line of thinking developed in the first half, and this is why I think it is a mistake to see them as entirely separate (although not entirely connected either), whereby traditional ways of thinking about new media are confronted with the possibility that old paradigms represent a sort of violence, and lack of hospitality towards the digital, which at best limit our understanding and at worst cut short a future yet to come, a “something other than democracy” (179). Most of this section is focused on analyzing an earlier essay by Mark Poster, “Cyberdemocracy.” Hall’s contention is that since this essay’s publication in 1997, scholars of new media have missed what Hall wants to recognize as the potential in Poster’s critique. Teasing out the more radical ideas from the Poster essay, and drawing again on the work of Derrida, and Stiegler, Hall asks us to think about the ways in which politics might need to be rethought beyond the idea of representative democracy (182) or how the Internet might challenge the very notion of sovereignty and the nation state (183). As with the first section, Hall raises more questions than he yields answers. Again this is not a critique, on my part, more an observation, for his whole ethics of analysis is about opening up new ways of understanding the digital rather than supplying particular answers or determining a future path (which would, according the ethics Hall leverages, would be an entirely unethical response).

Consistently Hall’s arguments invoke an ethic of hospitality, an imperative to be open to the “otherness” of the future, a call to not foreclose future possibilities based on the paradigm of the familiar. But despite this ethical stance, at times Hall limits how far he is willing to extend this radical hospitality, in turn limiting how far he is willing to leave the future open. It seems that even in his radical questioning there are some questions beyond consideration, places to which this hospitality does not extend. Specifically this limit manifests itself in Halls approach to cultural studies, and, perhaps more interestingly, in the particular form that Hall’s argument for open access takes.

At times Hall focuses too much on the future of cultural studies. For in Hall’s analysis, it appears that cultural studies holds a privileged position, not simply as the place which has historically analyzed the role of the University, where theorizing about the University has taken place, but as a discipline that is uniquely placed to think/rethink knowledge production and politics (but only if we open up cultural studies to theorists who are traditionally not central to the discipline - Derrida, Stiegler, Weber, etc.). One of the issues that goes unquestioned throughout the book is, what if the future of the university is a future without cultural studies? What if cultural studies has no future? For all the earlier insistence upon rethinking the University, about not prejudging or determining its future iterations, the one thing that seems without question is that cultural studies will/should have a role. Cultural studies seems to serve here as the place of “justice,” that which is beyond critique. In the end I remained unconvinced of the centrality of this discipline; perhaps the future University has no disciplines, as Mark Taylor suggests, or at least none that would be recognizable as such.

More importantly though, one sees a parallel problem in the codex form that this argument takes. It is in the four chapters, spread throughout the book labeled “Metadata,” that Hall’s book seems to most struggle with its codex form, clearly bearing the mark of the digital which it discusses. One could easily skip these sections and still be able to understand the book’s argument. But the metadata add something, supplement the “main” chapters, at time summarizing the argument, at times recasting it, at times seemingly contradicting it, and at times opening up paths for further examination. Clearly by labeling these sections “Metadata” Hall means to point to the book’s digital influence; these sections even appear in a different font, a sans-serif more evocative of digital spaces than the serif fonts of the “main” chapters. More than footnotes, less than fully developed arguments, these chapters, which often directly address the reader, break from the “traditional” scholarly book format: “Google These (84),” “If You Like This Book, You Might Also Like …(85).”

And it is here one can sense the way in which Hall’s book, composed undoubtedly on a digital machine, wants to be more than a book, or at least escape the limits of the book. Not just in physical form, in terms of material availability, copyright restrictions etc. But Hall’s book about the digital also seems to gesture towards, without making the final leap into, a type of scholarship that might operate independently of, or at least not be determined by, a librocentric, codex format, of scholarship. That is, for all of Hall’s attempts to leave open, not foreclose, a future scholarship, this work, perhaps necessarily so, remains rather conservative (despite the Metadata sections) in terms of format and argument structure. As I was reading this book I could not help but wonder what scholarship would look like if it was open access, available on line, and not limited by the traditional structures of the codex medium. To be fair to Hall clearly there is a tactical decision here: if he wants to persuade the analog centric, he needs to convey that argument in the analog. But I also thought about David Gunkel’s critique in Thinking Otherwise, “What’s the matter with books?,” when he argues that we should displace the question of will the computer supplant the book, with the more productive ones of what gives the book the right to speak to this matter? By using the matter of the book how are we already implicated in the question? And by using the medium of the book review how is my critique taking place within a pre-determined discourse? How does the matter of the Internet affect this critique? Or, the matter of the book, although not present, still haunt this specific electronic opining on Hall’s work?

Works Cited

Gunkel, David. Thinking Otherwise: Philosophy, Communication, Technology. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007.

Hall, Gary. Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Taylor, Mark. “End the University as We Know It.NYTimes. 26 April 2009: A23. Available online.