(This is the text of a talk first given as a keynote lecture at the DigitalHumanities@Leuven conference, University of Leuven, September 18-20. The programme for the conference is available here. More details about Digital Humanities at Leuven are available here.)
In the spirit of the EPublishing/ELearning theme of the day, this talk will begin by looking at a ‘digital humanities’ project I’ve been working on since 2011 with Open Humanities Press, Coventry University’s Open Media Group and Centre for Disruptive Media, among others.
Published by Open Humanities Press (OHP) and funded by Jisc, Living Books About Life is a series of open access books about life – with life understood both philosophically and biologically – that provide multiple points of connection and translation, as well as interrogation and contestation, between the humanities and the sciences. The twenty four books that currently make up the series have been created by a globally distributed network of artists, theorists and philosophers, including Mark Amerika, Claire Colebrook, Gabriela Méndez Cota, Alberto López Cuenca, Timothy Lenoir, Steven Shaviro, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, many of whom are associated with the digital humanities. The books repackage existing science-related research content from open access repositories such as ArXiv.org, PLoS and PubMed Central by clustering it around selected topics: air, bioethics, extinction, evolution, genomics, pharmacology, veterinary science. By initially creating twenty one ‘living books about life’ in just seven months the series, edited by Clare Birchall, Joanna Zylinska and myself, offers one model for publishing digital humanities books in a low-cost manner in the future.
One of the main motivations behind the Living Books About Life project is the desire to experiment with publishing books, not just gratis (free) open access, but on a libre (re-use) basis, too. Interestingly, the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin (BBB) definition of open access lists the ability to re-use material (and not just access
it) as one of its essential features. Yet our research shows that,‘of the books presently available open access, only a minority have a license where price and permission barriers to research are removed.’
What is more, this distinction between ‘author-side openness’ and ‘reader-side openness’ tends to be maintained even in the minority of cases where digital humanities authors have begun to open their books to readers: for example, by making them open to peer-commentary at various stages in the writing process, as McKenzie Wark and Kathleen Fitzpatrick did with GAM3R 7H30RY and Planned Obsolescence respectively. It is significant that both Wark and Fitzpatrick employed a blogging tool for their experiments with open peer review: namely, WordPress, albeit it with the CommentPress plugin developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book, which enables comments to appear alongside the main body of the text on a paragraph-by-paragraph, whole-page or entire-document basis. For the text of a blog’s author tends to be kept separate from that of others who use the same blog to review or respond to that text. Although readers’ ‘responses to the text’ may ‘appear in the same form, and the same frame, as the text itself’ (usually below the line rather than alongside, as is the case with CommentPress), these two distinct identities and roles – of original author and secondary reviewer, respondent or commentator, as it were – are maintained and reinforced by the blogging medium. So in both cases Wark and Fitzpatrick remain the clearly identifiable authors of these clearly identifiable books, and it is to them that these books are attributed. What is more both of these texts were designed to eventually appear as more or less conventional hard-copy, printed books – a version of GAM3R 7H30RY came out with Harvard University Press and Planned Obsolescence was published by New York University Press. So these projects are still highly papercentric. (Is this perhaps one reason they are among the most often cited of their kind: because they are legitimated by their appearance in conventional codex book form and association with highly esteemed conventional print presses?).
By contrast, the books in our series are not just freely available for anyone, anywhere, to read and comment on: these ‘living books about life’ are themselves living in that they’re open on a read/write basis for users to help compose, edit, annotate and remix. Anyone can get involved in the process of creating books for the series, or in adapting existing books for use in ELearning, and in this way produce an alternative Open Educational Resource, where the content and form of the book can be negotiated, updated and altered by learners themselves.
Perhaps the best example I can give of this in action is the course reader Joanna Zylinska developed for our sister series, Liquid Books. This was for a ten-week graduate theory course, ‘Technology and Cultural Form’, taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The course discusses the relationship between various media and technological forms, their social uses and culture in which they operate. In this context, the ‘liquid reader’ provides a practical case study of a media form students can both think about and actively construct. A basic, skeletal course reader was initially devised using a wiki platform. It included the key course content, and was subsequently opened to customisation by students. Throughout the course, students were then involved in adding and editing the reader’s content. They were also encouraged to experiment with the idea of ‘the reader’ – or book – through activities such as collaboratively writing a wiki-style essay. The idea was to provide an Open Education study tool that facilitates the sharing of knowledge and pedagogic practice. This reader continues to be freely available both to Goldsmiths students and to other users internationally.
Given that many of the ideas on which the humanities (and, with them, the University itself) are based – the individualized and indivisible proprietary author, originality, copyright and so forth – are commonly held as means of sustaining authority and creating trust between author and reader, why would we want to put this authority and trust at risk by making the books in the Living Books About Life series available on an open read/write basis? One way to explain this is in terms of digital posthumanities – what should really be called post-digital posthumanities, if that wasn’t such a mouthful.
Our interest in the posthumanities goes at least as far back as 2006 and the chapter on ‘Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities’ Clare Birchall and I asked Neil Badmington to write for a book called New Cultural Studies.
As this reference to Badmington suggests, the idea of digital posthumanities is a development of research conducted not just in the digital humanities but also under the sign of ‘the posthuman’; however, it’s also a departure from much of this research. To explain how and why I’m going to turn to a recent book by Rosi Braidotti called precisely The Posthuman: both because it is an example of posthuman studies; and because it too – like New Cultural Studies and the Living Books series – is very much concerned with ‘the status and value of theory itself’.
Braidotti identifies one of the main questions she wants to address in this book as ‘how does the posthuman affect the practice of the Humanities today? More specifically, what is the function of theory in posthuman times?’ For her, the task of critical theorists is ‘to provide adequate representations of our situated historical location’. What she calls this cartographic aim – ‘a cartography being a theoretically based and politically informed reading of the present’ – is tied up with the notion that the ‘boundaries between the categories of the natural and the cultural have been displaced… by the effects of scientific and technological advances’, such as those associated with robotics, prosthetics, reproductive technologies, and genetically modified food. Her book thus assumes a paradigm change: from a social constructivist approach, which ‘posits a categorical distinction between the given (nature) and the constructed (culture)’, to a ‘monistic philosophy, which rejects dualism, especially the opposition nature-culture and stresses instead the self-organizing (or auto-poetic) force of living matter’.
I am not going to detail them all, but among Braidotti’s ‘golden rules’ and methodological guidelines for posthuman critical theory are:
1) cartographic accuracy, which aims at ‘epistemic and ethical accountability by unveiling the power locations which structure our subject-position’.
2) that such ‘critiques of power locations’ should work alongside the search for creative ‘alternative figurations or conceptual personae for these locations’ which ‘express representations of the subject as a dynamic, non-unitary identity’, and dramatize ‘the processes of becoming’. Braidotti’s examples include ‘the feminist/the womanist/the queer/the cyborg/the diasporic, native, nomadic subjects, as well as oncomouse and Dolly the sheep’.
3) the adoption of zigzagging, non-linear thinking in response to the ‘complexity of contemporary science and the fact that the global economy does not function in a linear manner, but is rather web-like, scattered and poly-centered’.
Braidotti proceeds to propose a number of criteria for a new posthuman ethics capable of generating creatively and affirmatively the means for the renewal of political and ethical agency in the anthropocene era. These criteria include: ‘non-profit; emphasis on the collective; acceptance of relationality and viral contaminations; concerted efforts at experimenting with and actualizing potential or virtual options; and a new link between theory and practice, including a central role for creativity’. At the same time, she argues the contemporary university needs to rethink its mission. The key words here are ‘open source, open governance, open data and open science’.
What makes Braidotti’s book so exciting is the way she’s clearly opening the door for a radical mutation of many of the ideas on which the humanities are based: the subject as a unitary identity, the individualized proprietary author, the linear argument, and so on. She thus seems to be calling for a profound transformation in our ways of living, acting, working and thinking as theorists and philosophers. However, since the ‘key for everything’, for Braidotti, ‘lies in the methodology’, it is perhaps worth paying close attention to her own methodology in The Posthuman. And all the more so given she considers ‘concrete, actualized praxis’ to be the ‘best way to deal with the virtual possibilities that are opening up under our very eyes, as a result of our collectively sustained social and scientific advances’.
Viewed in these terms, Braidotti often appears to be keeping the door to any such transformation barely ajar, if not actively shutting it again. ‘We do need to embrace non-profit as a key value in contemporary knowledge production’, she emphasizes, linking this ‘gratuitousness’ to the ‘construction of social horizons of hope’. Yet the thrust of this argument is rather undercut by the fact Braidotti has not actually published The Posthuman on a non-profit basis, but with Polity. Although independent, Polity are a for-profit press, distributing The Posthuman through John Wiley and Sons Ltd, one of the ‘big four’, profit-maximising, publishing mega-corporations (along with Reed Elsevier, Springer, and Taylor & Francis/Informa).
Nor has Braidotti made The Posthuman available to others for sharing and re-use on an open source or open access basis. Indeed, far from her methodology not being ‘about the authority of a proper noun, a signature’, as she puts it at one point, The Posthuman functions to help certain established forms of authority and ways of being to persist. These include those associated with the construct known as ‘Braidotti-the-internationally-renowned-theorist’ – a construct perhaps as different from Braidotti as, according to Bruno Latour, ‘Pasteur-the-great-researcher’ was from the scientist composed of those elements that formed the ‘Pasteur-network’, many of them objects and non-humans such as microbes, vaccinated cows, notebooks and laboratories. But The Posthuman also helps sustain the not unrelated sense of Braidotti as an identifiable, self-contained, individual human, whose subjectivity is static and stable enough for her to be able to sign a contract giving her the legal right to assert her identity as the ‘Author of the Work … in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988’, and to claim this original, fixed and final version of the text as her isolable intellectual property – not least via an ‘all rights reserved’ copyright notice.
When it comes to how she performs her role and identity as a posthuman critical theorist, then, we can see that, for all the emphasis she places, not just on non-profit, but also on the counter-actualization of affirmative alternatives to dominant representations of the self, on collectivity, open source and open science, Braidotti is in many respects still operating according to the Enlightenment model of the individual liberal humanist ‘subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-holder’ (Braidotti, quoting Cary Wolfe). The Posthuman certainly adheres to the classical definition of a monograph as ‘a printed specialist book-length study… written by a single academic author’. As such, it is somewhat at odds with the stress Braidotti places on the need for posthuman theory to respond to the complexity of contemporary science.
This close connection [in the Humanities] between the individual(s), the research and the writing is at the opposite pole from what goes on in some areas of the natural sciences, where in the extreme case there may be hundreds of names of ‘authors’ attached to the paper.
(Nigel Vincent, ‘The Monograph Challenge’, in Nigel Vincent and Chris Wickham, eds, Debating Open Access (British Academy, 2013)
What Bradotti says of the humanities in general thus seems to apply to her too: ‘The field…tends to be unable to resist the fatal attraction of the gravitational pull back to Humanism’.
Now I hope all this is more than just a cheap shot. To be fair, it is something Braidotti has in common, not only with most of those in the humanities, but most of those associated with the posthuman. For example, in their ‘What is a Posthumanist Reading?’ (Angelaki, Volume 13, Number 1, April, 2008), Ivan Callus and our colleage at Coventry, Stefan Herbrechter, follow Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto in arguing that ‘the erosion of one human/non-human boundary inevitably leads to breakdowns in other boundaries’. What they call ‘critical post-humanism’ is thus interested in the ‘as read’ in the question: ‘How can one read in a manner that does not take “as read” the humanity from which one reads?’ It is a ‘humanism intent on working through its own represseds’, in other words. In which case we might say that what we are trying to develop with Living Books and other projects is a critical post-humanities, to the extent that we are interested in the ‘as read’ in the question: ‘How can one read in a manner that does not take “as read” the established configurations of the humanities (their forms and methods and so on) from which one reads?’ (With the proviso that, as we shall see, this includes for us the emphasis in both the humanities and posthumanism on reading and writing as the natural or normative medium in which such questions are raised and addressed, and which could be said to also represent part of posthumanism’s repressed.) For while the human’s boundaries with the animal, technology and the environment may be eroded in posthumanist discourses, one dividing line that tends to remain intact is that between the humanities and posthumanities. Even the most critical of posthuman theorists – those who are not simply viewing the future of the human in either utopian (as with the extropians), or dystopian terms (like, say, Francis Fukuyama) – seem intent on studying the animal, technology and the environment, more with a view to undermining anthropocentricism and humanist essentialism, than creatively exploring and experimenting with some of the core foundational concepts, values, forms, methods and practices of the humanities.
Nor is the series Cary Wolfe launched in 2007 precisely on the Posthumanities an exception:
Posthumanities situates itself at a crossroads: at the intersection of ‘the humanities’ in its current academic configuration and the challenges it faces from ‘posthumanism’ to move beyond its standard parameters and practices. Rather than simply reproducing established forms and methods of disciplinary knowledge, posthumanists confront how changes in society and culture require that scholars rethink what they do—theoretically, methodologically, and ethically. The ‘human’ is enmeshed in the larger problem of what Jacques Derrida called ‘the living,’ and traditional humanism is no longer adequate to understand the human’s entangled, complex relations with animals, the environment, and technology.
Now I very much admire this series and many of the books its contains. I also agree with Wolfe when, in his own contribution to Posthumanities, he argues that disciplines have to be aware of their ‘own modes of disciplinary practice, their own forms’, which is precisely why they need theory, because of its ability to denaturalize and destabilize disciplinary formations, including those associated with theory itself. I think this series’ vision of posthumanist theorists moving beyond the ‘standard parameters and practices’ of the humanities to think differently about themselves and what they do to a significant extent as a result of their understanding that the ‘estranging prostheticity… of communication’ does not ‘apply to humans, or consciousness, or even to biological or organic systems, alone’, and pursue alternative schemes of thought, practice, knowledge and self-representation, is an extremely exciting one. The question is, though: how does all this square with the fact that what the Posthumanities series has produced in the main is (yet more) specialist, linearly structured, sequentially paginated, book-length studies, published by internationally-renowned individual academic authors as original fixed and final monographs, in uniform multiple-copy editions, on an all rights reserved basis, copyright of the Regents of the University of Minnesota?
It is a tension between the humanities and the posthuman Braidotti acknowledges a number of times. (I could have perhaps developed a similar argument in relation to many of those associated with non-humanist approaches, such as Haraway and Latour. The reason I’m so interested in Braidotti’s ideas is because they are located precisely at this intersection between the non- or posthuman and the humanities, pushing at the latter’s limits.) With its emphasis both on the subject as dynamic, non-unitary, multifaceted and relational, and on non-profit, the collective, open source and the processes of becoming, The Posthuman points toward a serious mutation of many of the forms and methods lying at the heart of the humanities. Yet if the question, for Braidotti, ‘is what the Humanities can become in the posthuman era and after the decline of the primacy of “Man”’, the answer is most definitely not posthumanities. Rather, ‘Posthuman times call for posthuman Humanities studies’, she declares. In other words, Braidotti is interested in the posthuman, but from more of a humanities than posthumanities perspective. Witness the examples she gives of posthuman Humanities studies – environmental Humanities, also known as… ‘ “anthropocene Humanities”’, Digital Humanities, ‘Cognitive or neural Humanities’ – all foreclosed as belonging to the Humanities. Braidotti thus seems to push her work as far as she can without actually becoming posthumanities. Once again we are dragged back toward Humanism.
Now there are understandable reasons why Braidotti, Wolfe and others might have taken the decision not to create, publish and circulate their research in a collective, free and open manner and, for the most part, adhere to the established forms and methods of the humanities. As Braidotti points out with regard to another of her methodological guidelines for posthuman theory: Dis-identification – say, from the dominant institutions and their normative representations of the author, originality, of how particular persons of power and influence emerge – can be highly destabilizing, as it ‘involves the loss of cherished habits of thought and representation, a move which can also produce fear, … insecurity and nostalgia’. When it comes to methodology, ‘it requires dis-identification from century-old habits of anthropocentric thought and humanist arrogance’ – including, we’d argue, those associated with monographs, journals, conferences, research groups, etc.
To provide just one example: Braidotti tells us that the alternative processes of becoming, which conceptual personae such as the feminist, the queer and the cyborg dramatize, ‘defy the established modes of theoretical representation, because they are zigzagging not linear and process-oriented, not concept-driven’. Yet it could be argued that if the posthuman subject is conceived in terms of a multifaceted and relational process of becoming, conceptualised (as it is for her) within a ‘monistic ontology, through the lenses of Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari’, then the work and thought of any correspondingly rhizomatic, non-linear, process-oriented methodology or way of becoming adopted by posthuman critical theory would similarly defy the established modes of applying UK intellectual property laws and asserting copyright, certainly on an ‘all rights reserved’ basis. This is because of a distinction made, not in every political economy, but in our particular political economy, between the ‘process of making’ and the ‘finished object that is made’. As the anthropologist James Leach emphasizes in an article on ‘The Politics of (Making) Knowledge Objects’: ‘One cannot own a distinctive form of creative practice, only the expressions of that practice’. As a consequence: ‘All too often, policy and precedent focus on an object and its value to the detriment of the processes whereby wider social value’ and benefit is created. This is also the case with regard to knowledge created in universities. Here, too, as Leach points out, a ‘recurrent theme emerges’ whereby the ‘emphasis for claims, for calculating recompense… locates value… not in the processes of production’ but in the production of things, finished objects. Books, for example, for which the Author of the Work, as established in accordance with UK copyright law, can claim recompense and accrue value, recognition, advancement.
Ideas such as the identifiable proprietary author, the signature, fixity, may be a means of credentialing authority and creating trust between the author and reader, then. But, as Janneke Adema reveals in her research at Coventry on the history of the scholarly book, building on that of the historian Adrian Johns, it was precisely the conventions related to propriety and trust – developed by publishers in the 18th century as protection against piracy and impropriety – that were also used to turn the book into a scholarly object and commercial commodity. So, to adopt a methodology that does indeed focus more on the multifaceted and relational processes of making and becoming, would involve posthuman critical theory in raising questions that would be profoundly destabilizing:
a) for late capitalism’s commodification of knowledge and the way value here ‘lies in objects, sites, or codifiable (that is static) practices’ – hence the emphasis in universities today on knowledge that can be objectified and thus measured, audited, used, transferred.
b) for conventional ideas of open data and open access, since such research in posthuman critical theory would be understood, not so much as an object to which free, gratis access can be given, but as a process. A process that universities teach and to which – as we’ve seen with the development of ELearning, Open Education and Open Science – free access can be given:
c) but also for many of the ideas on which the humanities are based, and which shape how we live, work and think as theorists and philosophers, including how our subjectivities are created and maintained.
None of this is to ignore or deny that research in critical theory cannot only be processual, and has to be an academic or commodifiable object, site or practice to some degree – not least if we are to make it available on an open access, Open Education basis, or continue to operate effectively within the institution of the university.
One can imagine part of Braidotti’s aim in writing this perhaps more introductory book is to open up the posthuman to a wider audience both within the institution and without. In which case, for Braidotti to have actually assumed her ideas about non-profit, the collective, open source and so on, might well have put this strategy at risk. Publishing on such a basis might not have had the same status as publishing ‘all rights reserved’ with a for-profit print press. It would thus not have fitted so well with the protocols of recognition in the humanities, and how one achieves power and influence, and thus often has an effect. So we have to work strategically in particular contingent contexts, and make the best – or least worst – decisions possible: which is why I wouldn’t want what I’ve said to be taken as a moralistic critique of Braidotti, or Wolfe.
But hopefully what it does do is draw attention to some of the decisions that have been made, and some of the different decisions that are possible; decisions that might enable us to critique certain forms of humanism and the humanities, and creatively attempt other, alternative ways of being as theorists and philosophers that we might think of as posthumanities – and thus show that we don’t have to be pulled back to humanism and the humanities. In this respect, the posthumanities don’t represent an attempt to radically ‘overcome Humanism as an intellectual tradition… and institutionalized practice’, as Braidotti has it. The posthumanities are more of a mutation or intensification of elements, dynamics and potentials already present in the humanities. Far from a dialectical attempt to move on from the human and the humanities by announcing their end, the posthumanities call for even greater care and attention to be paid to them. (Which partly explains how and why I’ve been able to demonstrate all this through a rigorous theoretical engagement with the humanism and [posthuman] humanities of Braidotti’s for-profit, ‘all rights reserved’ monograph, and its testing of their limits.)
So it’s not necessarily an either/or choice, humanities or posthumanities. As the success of Open Humanities Press and other open access publishers shows, one can publish a quite traditional, linearly structured, book-length study, and still make it available open source and open access using Open Monograph Press software and Creative Commons licences. There are even ways of doing so with a book published by a brand-name, print-on-paper-only press – such as making a ‘pirate’ copy available on a text sharing network like Aaaaarg.org. This is why, to the list of alternative conceptual personae or figurations (the feminist, cyborg and so on) we would add that of the pirate – although we’re thinking, not of the romantic outsider of film and fiction, but back to the etymological origins of the term. When the word pirate begin to appear in the texts of the ancient Greeks, it was closely related to the noun for ‘“trial” or “attempt”’. The ‘“pirate” here is one who “tests”, “puts to proof”, “contends with”, and “maan attempt”’.
As examples such as Aaaaarg.org and The Piracy Project show, art can be one space where assumptions about property and propriety can be contended with and tested – in their case via an emphasis on non-profit, collectivity, and process especially. But, thanks in part to developments in EPublishing, ELearning and the digital humanities, we think even the more conventional disciplinary formations of critical theory and philosophy have the potential to offer such a space too. And this is in spite of the way Zizek, Ranciere, Badiou and others appear intent on returning us to a period of ‘phallogocentric emphasis’, to borrow Helene Cixous’s words, ‘heavily masculine and devoid of imagination’.
Now open access has apparently reached a tipping point, with approximately ‘50% of scientific papers published in 2011 available for free’, could we even be on the brink of a post-monograph era? It’s a direction the artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith appears to be pointing us in with his book Uncreative Writing. His argument is that, with the development of the Web, ‘writing has met its photography.’ According to him, writing’s most likely response is to be:
mimetic and replicative, primarily involving methods of distribution, while proposing new platforms of receivership and readership. Words very well might not only be written to be read but rather to be shared, moved, and manipulated… providing us with an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider what writing is and to define new roles for the writer.
Of course, Goldsmith is ultimately looking for new ways to arrive at what are quite traditional goals – or, as he puts it, ‘unexpected ways to create works that are as expressive and meaningful as works constructed in more traditional ways’. But what if we want to place in question humanist values associated with being creative, expressive, meaningful, and indeed writing? Just as Goldsmith has been criticised for being too dialectical because he doesn’t question creativity but simply opposes it, couldn’t we say something similar about his continued emphasis on writing?
What we are interested in, at Coventry especially, is what it will mean for our ways of being if writing, print-on-paper and the codex book are no longer the natural or normative media in which research and scholarship are conducted, but are rather absorbed into a variety of other, often hybrid, forms of communication including networked computers, databases, archives, wikis, image, video and other kinds of file-sharing networks? And, again, rather than attempting to come after writing and the book by announcing their end, we see this as enabling us to pay greater attention to them.
All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why those of us associated with Open Humanities Press, as well as the Open Media Group and Centre for Disruptive Media, are prepared to put many of the ideas on which the humanities are based at risk by making the books in the Living Books series available on an open read/write basis. In keeping with this pirate philosophy, and under the guise of what can be thought of as post-digital posthumanities, we’re trying to critically and creatively test, trial, tease and trouble some of these ideas, rather than being continually dragged back toward the humanities, digital humanities, or even posthuman humanities studies. As well as repackaging the available open access science material on life into a series of books, we thus see this series as engaging in rethinking the book itself as a living, collaborative, non-profit, processual endeavour in the age of open access, open science, open data and open education. After all, as Braidotti writes: ‘Only a serious mutation can… help the Humanities grow out of some of their entrenched bad habits’.
Hopefully all this also explains why, when it comes to those of us associated with OHP, we are experimenting with:
• working on a non-profit basis – all OHP books and journals are available open access on a free gratis basis, some of them libre too
• using open source software for our journals – generally either Open Journal Systems or WordPress
• operating as a collective – of scholars, librarians, publishers, technologists etc.
• gifting our labour – rather than insisting on being paid for it
• and working horizontally in a non-rivalrous fashion – OHP freely shares its knowledge, expertise and even its books with other presses such as Open Book Publishers in Cambridge and OpenEdition in France.