A Digital Publishing Model for Publication by Writers (for Writers)

A Digital Publishing Model for Publication by Writers (for Writers)

by
Scott Rettberg
and Joseph Tabbi
2017-04-17

How might literary databases be seen as alternatives to the commodification of academic scholarship in for profit, subscriber platforms?  Scott Rettberg and Joseph Tabbi discuss issues related to instrumentality, the global marketplace, and the digital humanities.

In Chicago, the afternoon of 26 October 2016, I attended a showing of Hearts & Minds in the Electronic Visualization Lab of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Scott Rettberg, in collaboration with Roderick Coover, Arthur Nishimoto, and Daria Tsoupikova, created this 3D virtual reality theatre enactment of recollections by American soldiers who were active in the torture of political prisoners during the Iraq War. The project was based on interviews with soldiers conducted by collective violence researcher John Tsukayama. Though the identities of the soldiers were protected and their recorded words spoken by actors, the recollections took on a distinctive immediacy against the backdrop of desert landscapes interleaved with domestic American environments such as a boy’s bedroom, a back yard comfortably contained within a white picket fence, as well as a kind of mosque-like space.  Clips from the work can be viewed at http://www.crchange.net/hearts-and-minds/.

Scott and I first met in Chicago in 1998 when he was a graduate student at the Universty of Cincinnati. We were put in touch with one another by his then dissertation director, Tom LeClair. We met near my apartment on Division Street in the Wicker Park neighborhood at Leo’s Lunch Room (now long gone). Scott showed me some scribbled documents he was putting together for a not-for-profit enterprise he was calling the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). Rettberg at the time was collaborating with Dirk Stratton and William Gillespie on a hypertext novel, The Unknown (1998-2001). It occurred to me, that day in October watching Hearts & Minds, that my friendship with Rettberg had extended over a literary period, from the era that novelist Robert Coover would eventually periodize as the “golden age” of hypertext fiction through the CAVE projects that Coover at Brown University would oversee and on to the present systematic archiving of the print and emerging, born digital literary corpus. With this shared history in mind, I suggested (over dinner later that evening at The Twisted Spoke on Ogden Avenue), that we might record our recollections of some of the formative events of the e-lit field and discuss our various projects—notably the Electronic Literature Directory (ELD) that Rettberg and Ewan Branda and I rebuilt for the ELO in 2010; and Rettberg’s European “Electronic Literature Knowledge Base,” the Electronic Literature as a Model for Creativity in Practice (ELMCIP).

That evening, Scott and I discussed the way that the visualization of domestic and war zones managed to bring live remembrances (recorded by Tsukayama in his 2014 disseration) into a setting distinct from reportorial media, where viewers provided with 3D lenses and an instrument for clicking on objects could contemplate the actuality of events experienced by participant soldiers.

Two weeks later, at an electronic literature conference in Bremen organized by Daniela Cortez Maduro, our conversation continued, this time on the topic of our respective literary databases and how they each could be seen as alternatives to the commodification of academic scholarship in for profit, subscriber platforms. In our respective presentations in Bremen, we each addressed a certain instrumentalist tendency in contemporary Digital Humanities which will be the default unless we ourselves in the academic institutions provide an  alternative. Though we recognized the corporatist slant of much “digital”  development, we’d also read an early draft of Henry Turner’s essay, “Love Your Corporation.” In Bremen, our conversation turned toward the idea, expressed by Turner that you don’t supplant corporate power with anti-capitalist and anti-network rhetoric. You resist the incorporation of literary canons (and academic freedoms) by forming alternative, not for profit and Open Access networks.

Joseph Tabbi: In my talk yesterday I’d mentioned some early literary networks like Fiction Collective 2, Alt-X, ebr, the American Book Review, and Open Humanities Press. And you, during the question session, brought up other projects, some that I had heard of and some that I hadn’t.

Scott Rettberg: All right. So let me back up a little bit and say something that I didn’t say earlier. John Cayley made this point during a talk at the 2014 ELO conference when he was talking about Google taking over the commons of language when he mentioned that one of the reasons he was so excited about the ELMCIP Knowledge Base and other bespoke platforms that we are developing in our field is that it represents a sort of a reclamation of some of the functions of things like Google or social networks, but one defined by a participatory community rather than a corporate entity ultimately driven by profit.

JT: That is key. You can’t just have everyone get on Twitter and Facebook and run out to Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park and thinking we’re going to change the world.

SR: Right and it’s sort of the promise of what we’re doing in electronic literature—I mean, hey I use Facebook and Twitter just as much as anyone else…. But it’s true that we have this sort of window in time in which we can still create our own media environments to make and preserve and disseminate things we care about. Which is Stiegler’s idea of anamnetic mnemotechnologies—

JT: That’s one I haven’t encountered but hey, I’m all for it…

SR: It’s the idea that we’re in a period of where we should be taking control of our media technologies. The advantage of writing as a technology is that anyone who can read can also write. And the promise of digital media initially was that you could watch a film on a computer and you could just as easily make a film on a computer. It was the breakdown of a mass media where we no longer had to be slaves of corporate overlords if we wanted to participate in our media environment. Which I think is sort of a powerful idea. I mean what is the use of this medium?  The most important use of the network is as a reciprocal environment for the creation and reception of media.

JT: A scene where writers are writing not for a passive audience but for other, potential writers? And it’s apparent, in the materiality of the medium and the way attention is distributed, you have to write if you want to read…

SR: And Google, Twitter, and Facebook—they are things that we write to, and they are things we read but there is a not-so-subtle distinction between that and what we used to do as writers in digital media. Which is that now we write and then we contribute to a corporate ownership structure that monetizes what we write. And so it becomes important to us to be able to find models where we’re not writing and feeding that kind of corporate entity.  The other thing that we were talking about was the Open Access movement, particularly the movement within university libraries that’s more pronounced perhaps in Europe than it was in the States. This comes about as a result of the fact that the market forces have been much more pronounced and much more aggressive about how they control rights and how much they charge academic libraries.  If you look at SAGE for example, they own a huge swath of the academic publishing marketplace, right? And they’re very restrictive with what they let authors do with their own work after they publish it. Or Project Muse as you mentioned yesterday in your talk which has huge subscription fees for libraries…

JT: Which Bergen has stopped paying?

SR: Bergen stopped paying many of these and has redirected the funding to an Open Access fund. So this is an important trend where the libraries have finally said enough—you know they’re also across the board getting starved for resources. So much of their budget was now going to these annual subscriptions to these journals, and not just journals but mega-journals: Project Muse, SAGE, databases and journals that control our access and then in some cases the libraries have to pay every time one person will sit down and read one of these articles. The libraries will have to subscribe and they have to pay often in addition on an article by article basis. It’s a tremendous corporate takeover of university libraries. Now there’s this resistance that’s being structured in some really positive ways in Europe to this, one aspect of this is Open Access university archives. I think this is happening in the States. I don’t know if UIC has one…

JT: The University of Minnesota does, I met with my publisher there at an MLA in Vancouver two years ago, Doug Armato, he and… I think Yale and two or three other places were trying to set up a system where the universities pay directly for publication and then it would be free online to readers and I think they have it started… 

SR: Yeah, well there’s two things and one is the subvention model which is like Bergen has been doing this for the last few years, for example we did this with West Virginia University Press for the Electronic Literature Communities book—where we paid a couple of thousand dollars and then the book was Open Access from the get go, so as soon as we published it, we published it in our database and we published it in the University database and it’s free for anyone to read and download and they can also buy the book and that’s fine. That’s great. But certain kinds of knowledge you want to be Open Access and it’s important that it’s out and accessible…

JT: So let the universities who employ the authors pay the costs…and these books are primarily for circulation among academics—

SR: Right.

JT: For circulation by writers for writers and that’s not a bad model?

SR: Yeah right, and so the other thing, besides subvention: university-based Open Access archives, so at University of Bergen Open Access (BORA), when I publish something I send it to the library right after I publish it, I send them a pdf and I say to the best of my knowledge what rights it has. The library then extensively checks that, they contact the publisher and ask has this researcher reported the rights properly? And even though it may be under copyright by the restrictions of the publisher, the library takes it, they scan it and put it in a dark archive so it’s not accessible to the public but they still contact the publisher and they ask, ‘when is this accessible?’ Because increasingly there’s been pressure on publishers and reasonably so, that authors should be able to republish their work, right? And so the libraries will actually talk to the publisher, figure out the terms, stick it in the database and then as the clock runs it just sits there and five years from now (if that’s the agreed term) it’s public—and openly accessible. Which is a great model…

JT: I didn’t know about this…

SR: And it’s a tremendous thing for academic research. And the other important thing is of course initially getting it published Open Access and then you don’t even have to deal with that. But then there’s some things like, whatever…the book that I’m currently writing on Electronic Literature…I don’t initially want it Open Access. I want you to go out and buy that book! (laughter). For a time.

JT: And I’m happy to see that Roberto [Simanowski], by contrast, goes with the Open Access option in his book of interviews…

SR: Right. And it makes sense that certain things are available now. With certain things you want to have a different model…

JT: A single authored monograph, for example: Open Access doesn’t make as much sense for the monograph as it does for interviews where each person interviewed has his or her own network and those will be reached immediately.

SR: And you want that out there and ultimately you want everything Open Access but in certain cases you want to have a relationship with a publisher where they make money off of what you do in order to keep them going so that they can distribute in a different way…and it’s not like everything has to be free immediately all the time. But things like journal articles…why would you publish a journal article hoping to profit from it as if it was a kind of a gem, it’s not. It’s an iteration in the production of knowledge. When you write a journal article you write it because you want it to circulate in the community of knowledge as soon as possible. And as widely as possible. 

JT: And the longevity of a journal article…it circulates, it influences a field in the making even if it’s like William Gaddis studies, say, and then five or six years later it counts towards your tenure…

SR: And that’s how they’re able to hold researchers hostage…

JT: …that’s where they economize something that’s an autonomous activity for a not for profit guild type of corporation, which is what the tenured professoriat is: and that’s now being economized.

SR: And then they can control tenure. They control and profit from tenure and that’s the problem, right? So, I’m thinking of those alternative structures and they can, even be simple things like getting journals I guess in our field like ebr, Hyperrhiz, Dichtung Digital

JT: Rhizome  

SR: Rhizome, there’s many of these journals, and new journals too that are committed to Open Access from their start, that didn’t exist before this movement began. And what universities, especially librarians, are recently pushing for, is saying, ‘look, if 50% of our budget is going to subscription-based journals, wouldn’t it be better if our money were spent on just paying our researchers to pay the publishers to make it Open Access from the get go, or even to pay for our researchers to publish journals that are Open Access. Or even to publish journals themselves: some universities are just saying now, “we’re going to have a university press instead of subscribing to these journals and we’re going to publish our researchers’ work. If we trust it and we have a peer review process, well—we just publish it…” That’s a sort of radical model and it might have some problems built into it. But I think the exploration of these models that are resistant to that for-profit corporate ownership system are important. And then the other thing that someone else brought up in the session, it’s just coming in from the last year. Hopefully it will fund some more interesting research, but one good thing the European Union is doing now, is that it’s going to require—and actually I think HERA had a similar requirement and we certainly published everything coming out of the ELMCIP project under Creative Commons—is that if you have a big grant, part of your commitment from that grant is that your publications will need to be Open Access. So that is going to provide a strong incentive for journals —even the for-profit journals—to be Open Access. Because otherwise they won’t get the articles from the European researchers on funded projects any more. 

JT: Are there other alternative locations? What’s the name of some of  those journals that Søren [Pold] mentioned…

SR: Oh you mean the illegal sites, that’s also an important model. That’s where—you know students and researchers in Russia, Poland, China, developing countries—that’s where they go to access research. I’ve got some—you’ve probably gotten them too— some interesting emails from Bulgaria or Sudan or…

JT: …not that I’ll mention on record!

SR: (heh heh) no but I’ve heard from researchers who’ve come across my work through unofficial channels. So for example there’s one site in Russia (libgen.io) that just scans in academic books and those reach audiences that are not able to afford books. And that’s an important channel, a sort of dark academic net.

JT: Is this “sort of dark net” something academics should be bringing to light, and cultivating in our respective databases, journals, and literary networks? 

SR: Really I have no objection to it. Actually I think I’m going to go home and download your Gaddis book tonight. But I think the key point here is that all of these open-access models, whether through official or unofficial channels, can drive knowledge production in new ways that bring us back to the orginal promise of the internet.  Platforms like the Electronic Literature Directory and the Electronic Literature Knowledge Base are in this way a kind of resistance to corporate publishing and the corporate network. And they have really driven the growth of our field. I think the most important thing the Electronic Literature Organization has done to date, for example, was its decision to regularly publish works of electronic literature in open-access anthologies. Making that corpus of work available immediately grew our field. When there is no question that anyone can access these works, in these well-curated collections, for free online, a new audience for the work really develops. And all of these intiatives, when they are researcher-led, are not driven by a profit agenda or by some generalized audience of book buyers but instead by writers, creators, and scholars with an interest in the literary arts, in the fields they actually know and work in and care about.