Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Essential New Book – Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. The CRC December 2011 Spotlight Review – by Neil Baldwin; and a Letter in Response from Gary Hall About a Revolutionary Open-Access e-Book Project

Raw metrics will never be enough to tell us about the success or failure of a piece of scholarship.” — Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, p.193. 

A statement of fact, not self-aggrandizement:  Since 1978, I have been writing and publishing books in the ‘analog’ world – poetry, translations, nonfiction, biography, American history, art history, cultural anthropology.  Then, just last year, within two months of launching this CRC site, I published my first novel, a thriller — as an e-book.  

Like most of you reading these words, I am spending alot more time on the Web. But the situation of writing, in my mind, has not changed with the shift in medium. This is an electronic machine, not a typewriter; and so, admittedly, the impact is not direct from small-motor action to impression of ink on paper.  I realize, and accept, that each and every one of these letters has to go through an invisible coding process before it rematerializes in  decipherable visual form. However, I do not experience any self-conscious or interfering moment in acknowledgment of the medium. When I am writing, I am still making meaning, as I have always done, and it still feels like that.

Why, then, make the case for the legitimacy of these pixellated, atomized words?  Which is by roundabout way of announcing my deepest gratitude to Kathleen Fitzpatrick for having written Planned Obsolescence (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011.)   

Fitzpatrick’s reputation precedes her, as the founding editor of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons, and the author of The Anxiety of Obsolescence (2006); and now, on leave from her position as Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, she has taken on the timely position of Director of Scholarly Communication for the Modern Language Association

The narrative arc of Planned Obsolescence is tight, coherent, and eloquent — propulsively staking its territory from micro to macro, personal to global, as its impassioned author argues for “a new way of working,” advocating for “publishing on the Web [being] as valuable as publishing in print.”  Sensitivities in the academic arena run high when this volatile matter is broached.  Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick wants to see the ascendancy of a new kind of critique, “post-publication peer review” rather than the age-old, “entrenched” methods currently in place. We live in a far more “public place” than past generations, she reminds us;  our point of view on publication must likewise evolve.  Incremental blogs add up to book-length tracts before we realize it. Let us open up the entire process of generating ideas, putting them on the digital table, welcoming diverse attitudes toward them, selecting, shaping and reconfiguring them “curatorially” in imaginative response to freely-offered and serious opinions — and then, let us further expand and infuse energy and health into the notion of making words fixed and truly “public.”

Fitzpatrick’s mandate has the exciting potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because there is strength in numbers. The more voices of “reputation and authority” step into the public mode of Web discourse and resolve to bridge the “theory-practice divide,” the more substantial the Web will become de facto.  Planned Obsolescence is a rallying-cry to intelligent writers who want to be communicators to come to the Web.  So doing, Fitzpatrick  rightly invokes Mark Poster’s “new historical constellation of authorship, one that [so far] is emergent, but seemingly more and more predominant.”

The denouement of Planned Obsolescence is vitally devoted to issues of stewardship, storage and preservation arising concomitant with explosions in new media.  Here, Fitpatrick brings in the imperative voice of another pioneer in the field, Laura Brown of Ithaka:  “Recognize that publishing is an integral part of the core mission and activities of universities, and take ownership of it.” It is time, Fitzpatrick agrees, for university libraries and ambitious scholar-faculty to join forces and revitalize the declining model of academic publishing. There is no practical way that inundated university presses in their current “unsustainable” [analog] structure can hope to continue as the exclusive, traditional-media initial offering-ground for young scholars’ monographs — nor should this inordinate burden be placed upon them.

Rather, the contemporary university press must  embrace its nonprofit imperative and focus upon the local as the universal;  slow down the race to emulate trade publishing, and return to a way of life that exists in service to “showcase” homegrown faculty and promote the riches of its 21st-century institution.

“Knowledge which is not public is not knowledge.”  Indeed,  I still remember my attitude, a mere five years ago, before I accepted my first university appointment, coming out of a world where I believed that knowledge was everyone’s purview. I had no experiential relationship to disciplines, departments, schools, or colleges.  And nowadays, even though I am “housed” in a department of a college in a major state university, I find my concept of interdisciplinarity expanded rather than inhibited.  I accept the necessity of separate modes of inquiry as being coexistent with the omnivorous desire to learn more and venture outside the subject of one’s choice and/or passion. 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick likewise reminds and encourages us that — whether we choose to live and work and think inside or outside the academy — special expertise is not a barrier, but, rather, serves as the gateway to freely-ranging thought — and that the Web can be a liberating, welcoming and altogether legitimate arena.   

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A letter in response from Gary Hall with news about an exciting new interdisciplinary open-access e-book project 

7 December 2011 

Dear Neil,

I just wanted to write to express my gratitude to you personally for this review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.

As you rightly say, the more voices of ‘reputation and authority’ – such as Fitzpatrick and yourself – that step into the mode of networked computing discourse and help to legitimate it, the closer we’ll hopefully get to opening up a space for re-engineering the university, so that’s it’s neither simply going along with the free-market economics that are endeavoring to transform it into an extension of the corporate world, nor looking nostalgically to return to the kind of paternalistic and class-bound ideas that previously dominated the institution.

Your efforts in this direction, with your blog, and with the Creative Research Centre generally, are much appreciated – I know it’s not always an easy step to take, as it requires not just creativity and imagination,  but a certain amount of courage too, for numerous institutional and professional reasons.

Certainly, far from this time of financial crisis being an unpromising moment to be taking such steps, or ‘for university libraries and ambitious scholar-faculty’ to be joining together in an effort to ‘revitalize the declining model of academic publishing’, I would argue that this is precisely the moment when we should be doing so. To quote two very different writers on the subject of courage:

‘Moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity – if we have the courage to act creatively and imaginatively’ (Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus, p13); ‘the courage to defend and practice our ideas and principles, to say what we think, what we want’ (Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p.66).

Speaking of the process of generating ideas, putting them on the digital table, welcoming diverse attitudes toward them, selecting, shaping and reconfiguring them “curatorially”‘, we’ve just launched a new expanded interdisciplinary project that’s endeavoring to do just this.

It’s a series of 21 online open access books called Liquid Books About Life. You can find it at:

http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org

I’d very much welcome your thoughts and input on it. All the books in the series are open to being collaboratively written, edited and updated. So you are free to rewrite, remix, reinvent and reuse any or all of them – and in fact you’re expressly invited and encouraged to do so.

Gary

Gary Hallwww.GaryHall.info an early contributor to the Creative Research Center – is a London-based cultural and media theorist working on new media technologies, continental philosophy and cultural studies. He is Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the School of Art and Design at Coventry University, UK, author of Culture in Bits (Continuum, 2002) and Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (Minnesota UP, 2008), and co-editor of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory (Edinburgh UP, 2006) and Experimenting: Essays with Samuel Weber (Fordham UP, 2007). He is also founding co-editor of the open access journal Culture Machine.

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