Monday, July 06, 2015

Here Comes the Summer! More on Writing, and more Medieval Posthumanism

Pygmalion and Galatea come to life

So much good stuff down below: Robert McCruer on resisting the torpor and emptiness of academic assessment, and our own Jeffrey on "Writing Lockdowns." Read it.

On the latter point, I'm reminded of two things:

1) last Spring, I co-led a workshop on publication at the CUNY Graduate Center (thanks again to Mary Catherine Kinniburgh for organizing!). Everything I said was good and useful but I myself was a foul fen through which flowed a pure stream of truth. I don't really spend 20 minutes a day writing during the schoolyear: sometimes I don't even manage that during the Summer. Like our heroes Akbari and Gillespie, I write in bursts. And I write to clear my plate (really: a to-do list is a marvelous thing). Now, having checked off the final boxes (a review for Speculum, and, right after, a long overdue encyclopedia article on "Beast Fables"), and facing no list, having only to write for myself through the end of the year, and knowing I really ought to write BOOK2, poor Karl's a-feared.

2) The most glorious moment, though, came between June 8 (when I was asked to write a piece) and June 12 (when I wrote it): 5000 words for the "medieval" contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman. If you've pulled off similar stunts (Asa Mittman, I'm looking at you), let us know in comments. Here I am with more on the problem of AGENCY, a favorite topic at least since New Chaucer Society 2014 (here and, for MLA 2015, here):
We see a still more explicit questioning of free choice in the medieval epistolary debate between Alexander the Great and Dindimus, leader or spokesman of vegetarian sect of Brahman philosophers. Both sides accuse the other of abandoning their human prerogatives: so far as Dindimus is concerned, Alexander is driven relentlessly and irrationally by an instinct for conquest, while Alexander considers the virtuous, anarchic vegetarianism of these fictionalized Brahmans to be just a symptom of their bestial misery, suffered amid a wretched absence of natural resources. Both sides of the argument presume themselves to be the sole human; both suppose themselves to be exercising their free will, either through the enjoyment (and conquest) of the world, or through its rejection; arguably, however, we may understand the debate as little more than the clash of a warrior-machine with an ascetic-machine, each unable to do anything but occupy the positions each is compelled to take.

My final example will be an equally widespread medieval imagining of the pagan orient, the tradition of Barlam and Josephat, a Christianization of the life of the Buddha, itself adapted from adaptations by Manicheans, Muslims, and various non-Roman Christians (see here and here for more!).  A Middle English version of the story often condemns idolaters for believing that “dumb and deaf” idols were “those who made us,” explaining that these mere objects, like beasts, are properly here only to serve us, who alone among created things have a “reasonable will and desire” to chose to “do good or evil.”  But the Christians decrying idolatry themselves hardly seem free of being objects. Their one difference from the idols is that they are not silent objects, as they recite a limited set of scripts in a manner most reminiscent of amusement-park animatronics. It is not only that the text always resorts to the same language to condemn idols – on three, widely separated occasions it calls them “dumb and deaf” – as if it were following a recipe rather than freely arguing;  it is that the Christian credos it repeats to an audience have themselves been fossilized into orthodoxy by centuries of doctrinal pressure. The “freely chosen” belief praised by this text is also, like the idols, a man-made object that humans have fetishically invested with freedom, all the while evacuating themselves of any chance to break with the old debate between objects and agents, constraint and free will.
For the whole thing, see here (or, if bothers you, here). This argument can and should be taken further, perhaps through contemporary considerations of Asperger's (see NPR here on "best practices," which are, functionally, formula for living with others), and through the knotty issue of those violent individuals granted the grace of individual pathologies ("he was a loner") and those identified as just the symptom of a pathological culture (i.e., a culture of honor, shame, fanaticism, atavism, animality, lebensunwertes Leben, etc). Both of these give us violence in which everything is responsible but the individual, in which the individual is only ever the victim of larger forces. And neither really gives us a workable model of "agency."

For still more that might help us, see Jack Kahn at The New Inquiry ("On Neuronationalism: Autism, Immunity, Security") on the ways that agency, responsibility, surveillance, and neurodiversity require and contribute to political thinking. Kahn writes, for example:
As the security of the nation becomes enmeshed with the neurological security of its citizens, medical machinery promises to immunize the social body from the pathogenic emergence of danger.
We might (as others no doubt have) think of the atypical as running programs not entirely in its own control (and therefore needing intervention), but we might also think of the typical as doing just the same (and therefore being left alone). Somewhere in the middle of all this, agency might be found, just as a miracle might be found amid the humdrum cause and effect of business as usual.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Creativity, Routine, Writing Lockdowns, and the Necessity of Ignoring Those Who Offer Themselves as Example

by J J Cohen

This humane, truthful, useful post on How Do We Write? by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie has already been read more that 7000 times ... and it was published only a little more than a month ago. A larger project has been inspired by the post (I won't scoop the authors or publisher by speaking about the details ... but it does look to be fantastic: stay tuned!). I'm contributing a piece that brings together a blog post from 2011 (edited and condensed), a selection from a series of Facebook updates I disseminated during what I called my Writing Lockdown in 2013 (lightly edited), and a short reflection on both.

Long story short, looking back on what I wrote I find myself to be incredibly annoying and don't understand why anyone reads anything I blog or place on Facebook. But I think there are some useful lessons that emerged from my documenting my writing process, especially about the utility of social media. Indeed, the archive exists only because of social media.

Let me know what you think: there is still time to revise.

Creativity, Routine, Writing Lockdowns, and the Necessity of Ignoring Those Who Offer Themselves as Examples

Habit and Routine (A Blog Post, 2011)

Two versions of the same aphorism seem equally true: "Habit and routine are the nemeses of innovation" and "Habit and routine are the precondition of innovation." When it comes to writing, I need a familiar time, schedule and space ... and I need to break out of this regularity sometimes since it offers the ingredients not only for accomplishment but boredom. I finished my doctoral program from start to finish in a fairly quick five years (having entered directly from undergraduate) in part because I did not stall at the writing stage. Funding and being miserable helped, but so did routine and a semester of teaching release. Each morning I would bike a wide circuit through Cambridge, along the Charles River via the Esplanade, and over to Newbury Street. There I'd sit with my books at a coffee shop. With a refillable mug and a slice of marble pound cake, I would pour over whatever writing I'd accomplished the previous day, filling the printout with marginalia (this was long before laptops were affordable). I'd then add as much as possible to what I had just revised, attempting to extend the chapter as far as I could. When fatigue eventually set in, I'd turn to a book or essay I'd brought along. Back on my bike around lunch time, home to eat quickly (yogurt, banana, granola), and then at my computer, typing in whatever changes I'd made and transcribing the new paragraphs I'd penned.

This daily routine of bike rides and writing in two locations sustained me through the most intense period of composing my thesis. Biking was an essential part of my thinking, not a delay. Most of my research was already done, so I didn't need to visit the library often. I also had drafted thorough outlines of how I expected chapters to unwind. Even if each was in the end disobedient to its draft, possessing a road map for each was essential to writing without agonizing over what comes next. During my final semester in graduate school, I was assigned to TA two different classes, Shakespeare and History of English. Time for bike rides evaporated, but the reshuffling of my schedule wasn't a complete catastrophe. I invented some new routines, and managed to carve smaller spaces within which to write intensely, helped along by a firm deadline for submission and a passion to be done. Work, I learned, has a way of filling all available space.

I don't want to idealize this period. Days were solitary to the point (at times) of sadness. Often I’d throw away what I had written as a false start or a dead end. But I kept at it. Throughout graduate school I also lived with at least one person, and found a powerful motivation in knowing that if I worked as hard as I could during the day I might not have to spend a night locked in my room with a computer and a hundred open books. And I suppose that also shows another reason I could get the writing done: I am rewards-driven as well as generally too impatient to procrastinate. I hate having my post-deadline time robbed by a project that overspills its allotted frame, even when the deadline is self-imposed.

Ever since children entered the picture my working days are significantly shorter than those I describe above. When Katherine and Alex are home, I don't want to be cloistered in the study. I try to end my writing just before they arrive, except for email and odds and ends. It doesn't always work and chaos (in the form of sick days and snow days) enters the equation frequently. Possessing a comfortable space dedicated to writing is essential: the former nursery of our house, a room about the size of a walk-in closet into which I've somehow managed to fit all my important books.

Other strategies that I use, with varying degrees of success:
  • Every day I wake up at 5 AM and (on most of them) run. That seems crazy, I know, but holds many rewards. The world is more vivid at that liminal hour. Running provides me with solitude and reflection to start the day, and I feel better afterwards. 
  • I try to write or revise something every morning. My mind shuts off late in the afternoon so I cannot do much more than email. 
  • Sometimes I simply can't get the words out of me. I fiddle with what I've written, I surf the internet, I go back and try again. But if writing doesn't come it doesn't come. I let myself off the hook rather than allow self-recrimination to snowball. Sometimes you need a fallow day to obtain a fertile one. 
  • I reward myself with small amounts of social media after writing for a bit. Reading blogs or Facebook doesn't necessarily distract from getting work accomplished; sometimes it is the small break needed to return with more focus. 
  • I use an outline not only for my writing, but for my time. I focus on getting a semi-discrete task accomplished within a time period -- a particular section of an essay written, a certain book read. I use Google Calendar and Apple Reminders to keep track of approaching deadlines and portion out my time. I try not to miss these deadlines because then I screw up the work schedule. I have too much travel and too many essays due to allow that happen without triggering panic. 
  • In writing all this down I realize that one of the reasons these strategies work for me is that I'm disciplined -- as well as, I admit, relentless to the point of being annoying, even to myself. I’ve sometimes not been a good collaborator because of my calendaring and my drive. These strategies likely won't work for many because they would be oppressive rather than liberating. 
  • Conference papers (and other public talks) are great motivators because, well, who wants to commit an Epic Fail for an audience? 
  • Running, practicing guitar, swimming with the kids, cooking dinner, having lunch with a friend and off-topic reading are not distractions from my writing. They are what enable me to approach it with freshness and, when it is working well, without resentment. I have to tell myself these things repeatedly. 
  • Writing can be immensely pleasurable. I love it when I get a sentence right, or when a text opens as it never has before, or the argument I am formulating suddenly seems to work. But writing can also be agony, or just tedious. The only way out is a focus on a long view and small joys, because that is what will carries through. 

Writing Lockdown (Facebook Status Updates, 2013)

Writing Lockdown begins now, fifty days committed to long hours spent on nothing but my the manuscript of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. I watched The Shining last night to prepare.

Made progress reworking introduction to be less chirpy. Started on first chapter, a recursive monster of a thing. First bout of project induced melancholia -- or maybe it's the usual early summer funk. Progress will continue tomorrow at an undisclosed location due to fact son will be home practicing "like a thousand times” the song for his final in his piano class.

Have discovered that revising is as enjoyable as poking sticks in your eye again and again. Imagined I was Bartleby, but the version who can't stop typing away at a book chapter even when his eyes hurt from all the poking. Ate a ginger cookie in Bartleby's honor.

DAY 10
The cashier at the Undisclosed Location where I often do an hour of writing lockdown each morning insisted that my coffee is on the house because I’m now a regular.

DAY 11
Encountered much of my writing at its worst (sentences that run on so long they leave their subjects stranded twenty lines from their verbs, catalogs so lengthy they gesture towards infinity, repetitions that tend towards redundancy), but also accomplished some rigorous thinking about the ultimate shape of the book. I do have confidence that it will come together, in time. I've sketched out three possibilities for its final form and we will see what clarity tomorrow brings. Unlike last Friday, when I was declaring that an untimely death would at least free me of this albatross, today I lack lucidity about the final shape of the thing but it seems OK.

DAY 13
Today did not start well, mostly due to insomnia about Writing Lockdown and the shitty chapter I am faced with revising.

DAY 17
No matter how long I looked at the chapter most words seemed ill chosen and the argument I thought I had nailed down dispersed into chains of associative logic and topical meandering. I have a string of terms I can't make cohere and the whole thing seems a repetitious amalgam that doesn't accomplish much (and yet is the product of a great deal of research and labor). The chapter kicked my butt. I need to, um, sit on a pillow or something so that it doesn't do that to me again.

DAY 19
A half day: Wendy and I will escape to Luray for a long weekend, where exploring some caves and hiking the mountains will keep the geologic real even when lockdown is suspended. I feel OK about departing the hermitage because yesterday's deadlock was broken by an outpouring of helpful FB comments (44!) as I tried to wrap my mind around rocks and terminological failure. All hail the power of social media -- and the generosity of those who use it.

DAY 20
After an awesome Geologic Shenandoah Escape, Writing Lockdown began inauspiciously last night with a massive onset of anxiety matched with the thunderous nearing of a storm: each reverberating boom was a footstep of Day 20 approaching and the topple back into my book. Threaten as it did, however, the storm never arrived, and after a tense hour I fell asleep ... and maybe that is a sign that return to lockdown will be OK.

DAY 21
Still going strong. 12 hours after waking up this morning, chapter now seems vastly improved in a critical section. If, however, I am ever compelled to write anything at any point ever again in my career about medieval carbuncles O FOOL, I SHALL GO MAD.

DAY 24
The turgidity of my prose depresses me enough that today I retrench a bit, pruning and clarifying rather than attempting to finish. Puts me off schedule but I'm thinking of it as a cleaning day, just as sometimes the only way to get work done at your desk is to diminish the clutter.

DAY 26
Book chapter down to 25K words, but an incoherent mess that shows no sign of wanting to organize itself into unity. Not a great day.

DAY 28
My reserves of creativity are tapped out, and my chapter is an embarrassment to rational beings everywhere. AND the copyedited manuscript of Prismatic Ecology just arrived. And Wendy is having surgery on her hand tomorrow.

DAY 29
Rather than post an update that mewls about my insomnia, the flooding storms, the work I have to accomplish, Wendy's surgery and the things to do beforehand, I will simply note that (1) Writing Lockdown Day 29 will be a soporific half day; (2) I know that I am very fortunate to have a life that allows me to devote time to writing and rewards me for what I've undertaken, (3) much of that good life comes about from the support of family, good friends, and you, the person reading this: I'm grateful for your companionship.

DAY 32
The end of Writing Lockdown Day 32 witnesses my body rebelling against this regime. My shoulders smart, my right wrist is sore from the edge of the laptop pressing into it, the arch of my left foot aches from the crazy position I place it when I'm not paying attention.

DAY 35
Blue clouds against black sky, and the radiant Thunder Moon behind. A good omen from this morning's run for Writing Lockdown.

DAY 40
40 days and 40 nights of Writing Lockdown either means I'm Noah sailing in an ark full of chapters which are in turn crammed with horrendously strained metaphors OR that I have only two weeks of Writing Lockdown remaining before departure for Maine.

DAY 41
Writing Lockdown Day 41 ends with the drawing of a necessary line. I could read endlessly and add infinite amounts of material to this book but I need to stop somewhere ... and this is my somewhere. Now I start the process of going through the book slowly and carefully to ensure the writing is up to snuff, the argument fully coheres, the footnotes are worked out, and everything is mechanically perfect.

DAY 42
I wish Douglas Adams were still alive so that he could tell me what Writing Lockdown Day 42 means.

DAY 46
Frustrating day. Tried so hard to complete revision of chapter; failed. Discovered that closing section also appears verbatim in last chapter. Overall structure not gelling. Too many quotes, too much digression. Tomorrow had better yield an epiphany or I will complain or Facebook or something.

DAY 48
A reminder of the affective roller coaster intense writing projects produce. After the happiness of yesterday's small achievement, a night of a single, short, dull and infinitely looping dream that kept waking me up -- agitated by its inane repetition, and angry enough at my brain that I'd stay awake for an hour. Reset. Repeat. Anxiety, because Writing Lockdown is nearly over.

DAY 49
Thinking about the health costs of this long regimen. Losing the 75 lbs might be possible but the curvature of my spine and the heroin addiction are going to be more difficult to address.

DAY 50
Writing Lockdown began on June 3 and has repeated intensely fifty times. I've been working like a dog. But even summer dog days come to their close, and mine terminate now. Writing Lockdown ends NOW with a Dark n Stormy.

Backwards Glance (written on a holiday when I got up early due to stress over having too much writing to do: 2015)

I composed the words that appear above on social media, the blog In the Middle ( and Facebook ( The blog post records a time in my life when I was good at getting things done. I wish that time had lasted longer. By the summer of 2013 I had taken on so many projects – and had a book due to press – that I was plagued by insomnia and constantly anxious that I would not be able to complete all that loomed. I used fifty nonsequential days that summer as a Writing Lockdown, working harder than ever so that I could get Stone to UMP. My plan was to have the manuscript almost there by the second week of August so that I could enjoy a family vacation hiking in Acadia without bringing books or thinking academic thoughts. I posted about the Lockdown every day on Facebook as a way of being accountable to the world outside my mind. Reading through these posts now I can see that there will come day when my relentless drive will cause me harm.

Well, honestly, it did cause me harm: I was something of a wreck by the end of the process, emotionally and physically. I injured my shoulder badly enough that it took several months of physical therapy to restore full function. People think the life of the mind is not dangerous, but it will kill you, if you let it. If I could travel back in time I would tell the Jeffrey Cohen of graduate school, 2011, and 2013 to chill the hell out. I offer these words and reflections here knowing full well that underneath the processes I describe run currents of apprehensiveness, fear, self-punishing discipline, and relentless drive that I do not think is healthy and is certainly not offered for emulation. What I want to say in closing is that no one can tell you how to write, only how she or he writes. That process changes as life proceeds: writing is a mode of living, and must therefore be adaptable. Possibilities exist within every model. And so do perils.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Assessing Assessment: Against Managerial Constraint

a guest post by Robert McRuer

[My department chair and good friend Robert McRuer posted the following as a Facebook update, and I shared it, and his post inspired people enough that I thought: why not take Robert to the Venetian Room, ply him with Manhattans, and ask if I can place his post on ITM? I did, and here it is -- JJC]

The grumpiness emanating from my office is a result of the dreaded annual Assessment of Student Learning for the department. It may be the part of my job I dislike most, even if I do take the opportunity each year to put something snarky in my introduction. Here's the current draft of said introduction for 2015:
'The Department of English again begins this year’s Assessment of Student Learning with the recognition that words such as “assessment,” “measurement,” “rubrics,” and “learning outcomes,” while ubiquitous in contemporary higher education, are not merely neutral and descriptive. Put differently, they do not simply name straightforward and preexisting entities or processes; they actively participate, instead, in the materialization and consolidation of a particular sort of institutional context. This managed and managerial institutional context, understood by many contemporary commentators as “neoliberal,” is in many ways inimical to the development of the kind of lifelong learning habits faculty in the humanities often value: a voracious hunger for reading, a wide-ranging curiosity about the diverse and complex world around us, an unbounded desire to generate knowledge and beauty in a range of forms and languages, a deep reflectiveness about the strangeness of our own moment and its differences from other moments in history. We believe that our students develop these habits (indeed, they often tell us as much years later); we also want to affirm, however, that these habits cannot be easily measured or charted on a graph. In our required Introduction to Critical Theory course, our students learn that theorizing entails questioning how arrangements of language and power constrain and produce possibilities for human agency, thought, relationship, community, and praxis. The language of assessment in contemporary higher education obviously produces populations that are easier to monitor; it simultaneously often constrains the imaginative capacities we hope to unleash in our students. 
This year, assessment in the Department of English focused on blah blah blah...'

Friday, June 26, 2015

We like to do the same kind of stuff people do, or, pigs eating pigs in Paris

Touke Psalter, Walters Art Museum, November

Right now, I’m reading/reviewing the proceedings of a Parisian medieval animals conference I attended (my paper isn’t in it, since it was bound for this instead).

With a book in front of me, and therefore without needing to strain to understand the French, I've been able to slow down and be properly shocked by the following entries from the National Archives of France, transcribed by Benoît Descamps in his excellent article “ ‘Chairs loyales et déloyales’: les animaux de boucherie dans les règlements de métiers urbain à la fin du Moyen Âge” [Authorized and Unauthorized Meats: Animals for Slaughter in the Regulations of Urban Trades at the End of the Middle Ages”]

For your delectation:

“les pourceaux de Colin Hoyau estoient montez ou solier et en l’ostel Jehan Moitou, [où ils] despecerent le pot ou la char bouloit au feu, et mengerent la char” (Z2 3264 fol. 45 (July 1408))
"The pigs of Colin Hoyau climbed onto an upper floor of the shop of Jehan Moitou, where they shattered the pot where meat was boiling on the fire, and they ate the meat"

“a emprisonné 3 pourceaulx appurtenant à Jaquet Jarnoy, pour ce que ilz ont mengé et degasté certaine quantité de suif et ont fait en son hostel grant interest, pour la deffaute de la garde dud. Jaquet”
“there were imprisoned 3 pigs belonging to Jaquet Jarnoy, because they ate and destroyed a certain quantity of suet and they have done great damage to his shop, because Jaquet had neglected to watch over them” (Z2 3264 fol. 70 (November 1408))

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"A World of Multiple Natures": On Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene

by J J Cohen

Readers of this blog know that my work took an ecological turn in my fourth monograph -- or, to give my past self a little more credit, I began to intensify some of the environmental thinking already within the fabric of books like Medieval Identity Machines (which opens by imagining the medieval body as ecological interface) and Monster Theory (it did not take the Anthropocene to trigger anxieties about the monstrous limits of the human). Most of this ecological thinking has proceeded collaboratively (e.g. here, herehere, & here) -- and that communality is for me a powerful draw. This fall semester I am on leave, funded to work on two more ecocritical projects, both of them also collaborative: a co-written book (with Lindy Elkins-Tanton) on the Earth as object; and co-edited collection of essays (with Lowell Duckert) that attempts to re-imagine the genre of the keyword anthology to gather environmental humanities types across disciplines and time periods. My summer reading therefore includes many books that push at the edges of what environmental thought, writing, theory and action might accomplish.

Among my favorites so far is Jamie Lorimer's Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature. A professor of human geography, Lorimer redefines conservation as a forward-looking and dynamic practice. Conservation does not attempt to render the present moment eternal, cannot be addressed solely to charismatic creatures, and will not impose boundaries to delimit preserved areas. Instead it is an open and curiosity driven practice of biopolitics (yes he really does attempt to reclaim that word and render it potentially affirmative) that focuses upon wildlife as unruly, discordant, inventive, "multi-natural," and not amenable to management, abstraction, or commodification. This approach refocuses conservation's gaze to include brownfields and urban roofs, which become as generative of possibility as islands and forests-turned-national-parks. Like most who write about the Anthropocene, Lorimer considers recognition of the epoch to herald a cognitive revolution "akin to the shocking thoughts of Copernicus, Lyell, and Darwin" (1). I'm a bit skeptical of such narratives of novelty, rupture and discontinuity, since they obliterate some deep and quiet continuities and pass over enduring epistemological inheritances. Whether in thinking climate change or geological deep time, I believe we are more like our spurned predecessors than we acknowledge, often to our detriment: we need an archive of richer and more complicated stories about the environment and catastrophe. Newness and epochal periodizations too often strive to liberate us from the weight of our history. But I do admire the Lorimer's insistence that a move to biopolitics gives us needed tools for conceptualizing scales vaster than individuals and species; that biopower is about shared existence and inhuman agency; and that both strategies we have developed for the Anthropocene (a [forced or chosen] return to nature; or a salvific embrace of technology) will not solve much of anything. Inspired by the work of Donna Haraway on multispecies companionships, Lorimer stresses the unruliness and rambunctiousness of wildlife (a term he uses to capture all biological life in its creative, nonlinear, open ended attempts to thrive). He contrasts the preservation of a bird called the corn crake (I cannot not hear Margaret Atwood in that choice) in the Hebrides with rewilding efforts in the Netherlands. Whereas the crake is saved by returning to and maintaining the preindustrial agricultural practices upon which its life cycle depends, thereby freezing the bird and the people who live with it in time, the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) was reclaimed from the sea and used an experimental space for rewilding: marginal land become an open laboratory for migratory animals to populate and for cattle and horses to "dedomesticate" themselves (in the hope that "their grazing and carcasses would create a novel ecosystem, full of surprising and unprecedented events," 98; this would amount to "replacement of relations of trust over relations of dominance" 107). Lorimer is careful to point out that in actual practice both conservation efforts tend towards each other: even though corn crakes are managed and abstracted in order to judge success in keeping their numbers high ("land sparing"), this practice is conducted on the ground by scientists and volunteers who have to invent local and place-bound practices of knowledge (how do you count things you can't see? How do you live with them as you move through their space?); even though the OVP was supposed to be left alone, in fact there has been significant human interaction with the space and learning from practices that yielded animal suffering ("land sharing," 101). Lorimer's sympathy, though, is fully with rewilding, which discards a fantasy of managing nature and refuses to believe in equilibrium, instead trusting that the generation of difference and surprise keeps ecologies resilient spaces for multispecies thriving (116). The book details at length the importance of media to creating human affective investment in such projects, praising the work of curiosity and sympathy (which Lorimer argues motivates scientists in the field as much as the publics that might be convinced to support their work).

Curiosity and hope are, without much fanfare, the words that weave together the book's narrative: Lorimer's curiosity to follow various modes of conservation in the Anthropocene, and hope that unexpected events and forms of living together will emerge from the practices he details; the curiosity that may be conveyed through media modes like experimental film in order to move audiences to hopeful ecological action; the curiosity that is a desire for surprise that will yield the sciences and the companionships necessary for creating a hopeful future in a time of environmental degradation and unchecked market forces that render everything a knowable commodity. Lorimer's posthumanism (which he also calls a cosmopolitics) refuses to give up on humans, conservation, technology, administration, politics -- because only through such things can "life and subjectivity, both human and nonhuman" be protected and valued in the face of relentless, inhumane, resource-seeking neoliberal capitalism. Wildlife conservation (a phrase Lorimer wants to maintain as a paradoxical) enables "companionships" that are not "premised on anticipating and securing fixed identities and territories" (190). The book ends with a plea for "a more open mode of conservation," wilding:  "shorn of the prefix re-, it opens up the temporalities of conservation. It is about the future as much as the past. It offers hope" (190). This optimism is best expressed very early in the book when Lorimer imagines the Anthropocene yielding to the Cosmoscene:
The Cosmoscene would begin when modern humans became aware of the impossibility of extricating themselves from the earth and started to take responsibility for the world in which they lived -- turning to face the future, rather than running from the past, and acknowledging, building, and absenting from relations with all the risky, sustaining, and endearing dimensions of the planet. The Anthropocene would become a staging point, the threshold at which the planet tipped out of the Holocene before embarking upon a post-Natural epoch of multispecies flourishing with its own, perhaps less dramatic, stratigraphy. (4)
I'd push at that metaphor, and point out that running from the past keeps is what keeps faces turned to the future, always at the expense of the present. Why not stop running, catch a breath, account better for the complicated stories we have been telling about multispecies flourishing in the face of catastrophe for a very long time? These stories inhabit us, sometimes compelling us to diminish the possibilities for "multispecies flourishing" ... but sometimes rich in possibilities for imagining that companionship in all its intricacy. Against epoch-making and dramatic stratigraphy, I'd rather see dense archives, porous histories, and the surprising endurance of unconformities.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Not Breaking the Rules Is Unconscionable: Where Punctum is Headed, Why It's Hard, and How Everyone Can Help


[first, read Jeffrey on Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman]

... because humanities scholarship is so tied to writing and publishing, opening up new possibilities for writing and publishing may, in fact, open up new possibilities within the institution itself. To change attitudes toward academic style means changing practices in the training of graduate students, ... changing the practices of conferences and publishers, changing the practices of hiring and tenure committees. It means experimenting. Every writer and thinker knows this, because to write and to think is to experiment — to try stuff out and risk failure. It's terrifying because in a very real sense this is about people's livelihoods. But given the state of higher education in the U.S., at least, there's little reason not to experiment, because it's only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will.  ... The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable. 

A grasshopper walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "Hey, we have a drink named after you." And the grasshopper says, "You have a drink named Steve?"

First, try to figure out what the grasshopper joke has to do with any of this (it might become more clear by the end).

Over the past year (or so), and as related elsewhere (HERE and HERE), I have experienced no little amount of anxiety (and also occasional depression) over whether or not an open-access press (in this case, punctum books), which gives everything away for free (and which is located in the U.S. where, unlike most of Europe, there are no government-funded research councils that actually underwrite OA publishing), and which is also dedicated to fostering radically experimental modes of "academic" writing, can actually survive, and the answer is: without some combination of institutional, foundational, private, and also general public (id est, READER) support ... probably NOT. In addition, I have been working myself beyond a certain physical and emotional breaking point -- albeit, I'm really kind of okay with this, as long as it doesn't last forever (in that sense, I think of punctum as a sort of start-up venture, and I have given myself roughly 3 years, until August 2016, to work these inhuman hours, with the hope that eventually I won't have to). And finally, I am going (or have gone) completely broke. And I'm not the only one. Dan Rudmann, for example, who founded and manages punctum records and Studium, has also been working inhuman hours -- 8:00am to midnight most days -- has also drained all of his personal coffers, and teeters on a very precarious economic precipice.

In the way of SOME relief, I am thus THRILLED to announce that both David Hadbawnik (PhD, University at Buffalo, SUNY and soon to be en route to the American University of Kuwait, where he has been hired as an Asst. Professor) and Chris Piuma (PhD candidate, University of Toronto) are joining punctum as Associate Directors, in order to help me manage the editorial and production workflow, as well as help me focus more attention on matters I have been neglecting due to how much time I simply spend reviewing manuscripts, editing and designing books, and managing correspondence, such as: marketing (social media outreach but also getting books reviewed in as many outlets as possible), developing relationships with distributors and bookstores and institutional libraries, managing metadata, increasing the diversity of our delivery platforms, experimenting with different ways of designing enriched reading environments, and also just generally helping me to strategize where punctum goes from here (wherever "here" happens to be). (We also have a new Co-Director waiting in the wings, more about which in a few months.) And as silly as this might sound, I am so happy that David and Chris, like myself, are both medievalists (who also, like me, have backgrounds as well in creative writing), because I really believe that there is something about the orientation (and training) of postmedieval premodernists (who also happen to be creative artists) that makes us especially suited to chart nighttime raids into the past to poach cool stuff that can be re-purposed, in strategic fashion, for creative (and importantly dis/orienting) interventions into various present moments, and also because, at any moment when anyone is declaring the "crisis" of anything, the premodernists have a very useful LONG historical perspective.

In addition, Alli Crandell (a brilliant and creative graphic and web designer -- see HERE), who has previously donated her skills to help punctum design special web-based environments for punctum titles that are not just analogues of print editions (see HERE and HERE), has graciously agreed to help punctum do several things this summer, including: a) a complete overhaul of our website to make it more easily/logically navigable; b) the creation of a subscription service, or services (that would allow us to offer punctum's entire library through unique interfaces that would be adaptable across all sorts of devices); and c) the launch of what I am calling (for lack of a better term at present) a GRADUATED OA model (the idea for which is partly influenced by projects such as Knowledge Unlatched), in which the downloadable PDFs of titles would carry a very small and reasonable fee for a *temporary* period -- say, something like 6 months -- after which they would be fully "unlocked"; these titles would still carry a Creative Commons license that would allow them to be shared at no cost, regardless, with no restrictions, and the bottom line is that, little by little, and with everyone's help, the open archive of punctum titles would continue to grow in leaps and bounds. The primary idea here is that OA publishing won't work without at least some reader support, and simply asking people to consider making a donation (in any amount of their choosing) every time they download a book is simply not netting us anything that would allow us to even pay one person to do ANYthing (and THANK YOU to everyone who has made donations, nevertheless, and please don't stop). OA publishing will not survive, especially in the American context, without government, institutional, and foundational subsidies, and if we in the humanities want to avoid the author-pay system that appears to be endemic now throughout Europe (and has already arrived in the US by way of, for one prominent example, University of California Press -- more on which, see below), and I believe we should want to avoid this, as I see it as a potential impediment to ACCESS to publication for many authors and projects, then as readers, I think we have to be willing to lend some small support (the Open Library of Humanities in the UK, for which I serve on the Editorial Committee, is one shining example of a different, collective funding model). We should be willing to pay reasonable prices for things we really want and need (whether that is a book, a journal issue, a music CD, a TV series, a software app, and so on), unless you want to live in a world where companies like Google and Apple and Amazon own all of the content and all of the tools and toys and don't ultimately care how any of this relates to democracy and a thriving cultural commons, and who will quickly dump any platforms for making content available if it doesn't suit their ever-evolving-at-hyper-speeds business plans.

It is important to point out here that David, Chris and Alli are DONATING their time, albeit with the hope that their labors will help free me up to spend more time drumming up financial and infrastructural support that would eventually lead to the 4 of us (and hopefully more!) actually running punctum books full-time with the sort of compensation that could sustain us and our collective ventures, and in this sense, we all work on borrowed time. The future, as always, is uncertain, while at the same time I see real opportunities for creating something radically different within the Open Access movement (and the Digital Humanities more largely) with punctum books, especially within the American context  -- although, to be certain, we are an international publisher with authors spread out around the globe, and we have very serious interests in multilingual and translation projects (as evidenced HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE, and with more to come). It's just that, unlike in Europe and in other countries, there are no explicit funding mandates, either at state or national levels, for the cultivation of OA academic publishing. Currently, many university publishers and DH Centers are looking to foundations like Mellon for help with developing the initial infrastructure for projects such as Manifold Scholarship, a joint project between University of Minnesota Press and CUNY Graduate Center's Digital Scholarship Lab, and Luminos + Collabra, University of California Press's new OA Monographs and Mega-Journal platforms. In the case of the latter, it is hoped that long-term sustainability will be achieved through a combination of authors+universities, libraries, and the publisher itself sharing the cost of producing the titles up front, and/or through Article Processing Charges. But the troubling question still obtains, especially in the American context where state legislatures are slashing budgets for higher education and university managerial technocrats are increasingly uninterested in helping to sponsor experimental, speculative, and "useless" (non-applications based) scholarship. If there is, for example, currently no money to be had for say, creating more tenure lines or reducing class sizes or supporting faculty development (such as through travel grants, reductions in teaching loads, and the like) or making tuition affordable for all or adequately compensating graduate student assistants, and the like, then where is the money coming from to sustain these new publishing initiatives into the long term? The answer is: from nowhere ... at least, not right now. Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer" comes to mind.

With regard to the larger Open Access movement in general, we are thus at a strange, and possibly troubling moment, and the reasons why were starkly (and serendipitously) brought home to me just this past week when, as luck would have it, the Radical Open Access conference at the University of Coventry (for which I was a featured speaker) preceded by just a few days the annual meeting of the American Association of University Publishers, the proceedings of which I followed assiduously on Twitter (for the first time in my life, as a ghost-spectator to a conference I could not attend, I really *for realz* realized the immense value of those who tweet conference sessions -- the information can only ever be partial, and is sometimes "askew," but it is enough to get a good sense of some of the viewpoints being put forth, and you can also engage with those who are there to ask clarifying questions). There are SO many things I want to say about the ways in which these two events could not have been more radically different from each other (and I don't have room here to go through everything, but ...), especially in the ways in which everyone at RadicalOA was wringing their hands over the neoliberalization of OA publishing, such as by commercial publishers, and especially within the European context where multiple millions of dollars are flowing straight from national research coffers into commercial publishers' bank accounts, with little in the way of what might be called a radicalization and democratization of editorial/curatorial practices (see, especially, Martin Eve on this state of affairs HERE, HERE, and HERE), whereas in Denver, a lot of the sessions at the AAUP conference addressed questions like: when and how and under what circumstances do you both initiate and also kill a book series? what is successful product development? should publishers target libraries or scholars and "end users"? how can acquisitions editors and marketing directors work better together on the "front end"? how can we make backlist titles more widely accessible globally and enhance their "long tails" with minimal investment and positive returns? And so on and so forth. In the meantime (or before this "meantime"), the organizers of the RadicalOA conference (Janneke Adema and Gary Hall, both involved with Open Humanities Press, among other OA ventures) were concerned to "brush" the contemporary scene of OA publishing "against the grain" --
Open access is currently being positioned and promoted by policy makers, funders and commercial publishers alike primarily as a means of serving the knowledge economy and helping to stimulate market competition. This version has become so dominant that even those on the left of the political spectrum who are critical of open access are presenting it in much the same terms: as merely assisting with the ongoing process of privatising knowledge, research and the university. Rather than ‘working with the grain’ of neoliberalism’s co-option of open access, the Radical Open Access conference will reclaim it by asking: what is the potential for supporting and taking further some of the different, more intellectually and politically exciting, ways of understanding open access that are currently available internationally? A particular emphasis will be placed on those that have emerged in recent years, in the arts, humanities and social sciences especially. Radical Open Access will thus provide the impetus for bringing together many of those currently involved in experimenting with ‘alternative’ forms of open access: both to discuss the long, multifaceted critical tradition of open access, its history and genealogies; and to examine a broad range of radical open access models. As part of its refusal to concede open access, the conference will endeavour to strengthen alliances between the open access movement and other struggles concerned with the right to access, copy, distribute, sell and (re)use artistic, literary, cultural and academic research works and other materials (FLOSS, p2p, internet piracy etc.); and to stimulate the creation of a network of publishers, theorists, scholars, librarians, technology specialists, activists and others, from different fields and backgrounds, both inside and outside of the university. In particular, the conference will explore a vision of open access that is characterised by a spirit of on-going creative experimentation, and a willingness to subject some of our most established scholarly communication and publishing practices, together with the institutions that sustain them (the library, publishing house etc.), to rigorous critique.
On the panel that I was involved with, "Radical Open Access in Practice," there was a lot of emphasis on publishing as a practice of care (of persons, of ideas, of relations), on the technological fragilities of the OA enterprise and the Digital Humanities more largely and the ways in which we need to guard against technological determinism + overly simplistic "catching up" narratives tied to the privatization of everything, on the precarious labor practices involved with OA publishing and how to be more mindful of and strategic about that, on how we need to resist "prestige" ranking systems, on cultivating writing as risk/adventure, on promoting invention/intervention over "innovation" (a term toxified through its use within capitalist ventures), on how to resist the neoliberal uptake of OA by commercial presses while also collectively strategizing how to survive that state of affairs, and somewhat interestingly, everyone seemed invested in preserving the print book while also exploring new platforms for digitized interactive-networked forms of scholarship and publication (which, for me anyway, is a valuable stand against the hyper-aggressive planned obsolescence of everything that seems endemic within neoliberal capital). Whereas at the session at the AAUP conference dedicated to "the practical implications and challenges" of the OA monograph, the collective conclusion seemed to be something along the lines of the monograph perhaps not surviving because: a) it will be impossible to get institutions (universities) to subsidize them and it will never pay for itself, and/or b) it will ultimately no longer be required for tenure and promotion and is thus a soon-to-be "outmoded"/ungainly genre, and/or c) shorter-form scholarship will replace it because "the way we read now" is changing, and/or d) dynamic (interactive, hyper-networked), born-digital scholarship will simply supplant it as the "one thing" everyone will be doing in the future.

And here we come to the crux of the matter, and to something that troubles me about the AAUP conference overall: its emphasis on profits and monetization (not the only subjects, of course, but they predominated a lot of panels). And here I must say that, of course, university publishers have done amazing things to advance scholarship in our fields and they are staffed by very well-meaning and super-smart people with real investments in cultivating, curating, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge production (to whit, historically, the Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series at Stanford UP, the Theory out of Bounds series at Univ. of Minnesota Press, Series Q at Duke UP, Prickly Paradigm at Univ. of Chicago Press, and so on), and they have absolutely every right to worry about profitability/sustainability and to talk about and collectively strategize the long-term sustainability of their enterprises, and they have a lot to worry about (as I do) that would necessitate such strategizing. Nevertheless, I personally want to see university presses (which are typically designated as non-profts, I believe, with some institutional subsidization) spending more time distinguishing themselves from commercial academic presses, especially vis-a-vis the question of sustaining, not profits, but the most radically open public commons possible, and to do so in tandem with collectively insisting (through a variety of activist and interventionist measures) that state legislatures and public universities INCREASE their support for underwriting the work of university publishers, who should be spending less time on monetizing everything and more time on sponsoring and caring for radically creative forms of academic writing. This isn't easy, of course. This is the hard part. What might be called "centralized" funding for OA publishing is an absolute necessity, and yet, such does not exist within the American context.

Obviously, those of us within OA publishing should do everything in our power to be savvy about the ways in which we might generate income to help keep our (non-profit) ventures afloat, but that should not be the primary factor driving most of our editorial conversations because as anyone with half a (financially-savvy) brain might understand, that sort of emphasis will ultimately harm (or at least deform) the larger, valuable objective of a democratically rowdy and open commons "without condition." Here's why: if your primary concern is making money to stay afloat, then you adopt the tools of the strategic winnower (you keep what supposedly works in the model of increasing profits, and you eliminate, or stop at the front gate, whatever is not increasing, or might not increase, your profits), and there is not much time you can spend concentrating on developing talent and even more important, taking risks. To be fair, many university presses may not have a choice if they find themselves in a position where the subsidized support rug has been pulled out from under their operations, and much of the conversations at the AAUP conference were likely influenced by that already palpable state of affairs. The other problem is, in the rush to chase money in the face of less and less institutional support (especially in the context of seeking funding from private foundations such as Mellon or government agencies such as NEH), a sort of bandwagon strategy emerges where certain key concepts dominate both the "asks" and the "gets" (such as: born-digital, big data/metadata, dynamic/networked, multimodal, megajournal, iterative/interactive, gray literature/short-form scholarship, encoding/mapping, and so on). There is a lot of pressure as well, when seeking money from foundations and agencies, to serve up the "next big thing" that will somehow provide all of the solutions to whatever problems currently inhere within the contemporary landscape of academic publishing and to declare, "X (often defined as one particular platform, no matter how networked/multi-modal) is THE future."

There is no, and never can be, just one future. Of necessity, certain futures will materialize and others will only emerge partially and still others will be suppressed, outright killed, etc. Our job in the present is to keep all options in play and to maximize what is possible over what is determined in advance (usually by the powerful) to (supposedly) not be possible. This is an ethical, as well as a political, project, and it is not one that could ever be made to be "profitable," although it could be sustainable if enough persons -- in the administrative towers of academe, in the state legislatures, in the gilt halls of the (hopefully socially-minded) privileged, and also in the streets -- banded together to make it a reality. This brings me to the core mission of punctum books, and why I also think what we are doing is truly different from any existing university press and even from most independent presses (although we have our allies, such as Open Humanities Press and, among others): we are an Open Access press, not because we make our titles broadly available to the public (to READERS) without exorbitant fees and high paywalls (although we do do that, and it matters, especially in the context of public universities where research should never be shuttered from the public), but because we are dedicated to opening up access to publication for AUTHORS who otherwise might not find a publisher, either because their work does not fit within a readily recognizable current disciplinary paradigm or because they want to experiment with the forms and styles of academic writing or because their work engages in disciplinary mashups that make marketing their work overly difficult and so on. It's a question of personal freedom and how the publisher (however defined: university-based, independent, etc.) is an agent of both sustenance and change. It's about supporting the WEIRDOs and recognizing that the university, and especially the humanities, should be the haven par excellence for the weirdos and for the weird -- for you, for me, and for grasshoppers named Steve, which is where the ethics of "care of the self" enter in, because I believe that publication is both a practice of care and curation as well as of "seeding" new publics (in Michael Warner's words, this is public-ation as "the poeisis of scene-making"), around which persons, who otherwise might become marginalized, suppressed, lost, etc. can "groupify" (in important counter-cultural modes) with others who share certain predilections, values, orientations, affinities, etc. (see my further thoughts on that HERE). And you can't subject all of your editorial decisions to the marketing team on the "front" OR the "back" end. But you can't NOT worry about how any of this might, or might not, be sustainable, either. You still have to worry and care about, and also agitate for, the money. It really is, in the end, about the money and whether or not, in the United States, state legislatures and public (and also private) universities will decide that the OPEN and unrestricted dissemination of scholarship should be a chief public concern worthy of being underwritten in some manner.

So this all brings me, finally, to what punctum books is currently doing to (hopefully) ensure some sort of sustainable future, and how YOU can also help. To be frank, I have spent a good portion of the past two years striving mightily to convince certain universities, and also funding agencies, to provide partial support and/or infrastructure for punctum's operations, and all to no good outcomes (so far), but I just (perversely) see that as yet another opportunity to continue refining the pitch, and as I've explained above, the situation (and conversations) in both Europe and the US round OA publishing convince me that we're on to something unique that is not (and *will* not be) served by current reigning paradigms. So this is what we're going to do next (again, with your help) --
  • first, we will be redoubling our efforts to convince at least one (if not more) universities to consider engaging in OA publishing "incubator" experiments, along the lines engaged in by Daniel O'Donnell and his colleagues at the University of Lethbridge (see HERE for a recent article about their experiment and the proposals they have about how this can be duplicated elsewhere). The primary reason for this: keep the money (however much or little there is) for publishing and scholarly communication within the departments, units, schools, etc. where it can have the greatest benefit; STOP the outflow of money to commercial, and even university presses, where it is going to fund often bloated overhead and infrastructure, and where, for better or worse, editorial decisions are being made with too many "business"/marketing/"prestige" considerations and not enough emphasis is being placed on maximizing what it is possible to SAY, and in what modes/genres/styles, within the humanities.
  • second, with the generous, pro bono assistance of Sally Livingston (who I am now outing here as one of punctum's angels), we will be developing a task force this summer to go after private philanthropic money, because punctum's mission is just weird and non-dominant-keywordy enough that seeking money from established foundations and funding agencies (such as Mellon, Ford, NEH, etc.) might be a dead end. To that end, I am also happy to announce here that Pioneer Works, a center for art + innovation based in Red Hook, Brooklyn helmed by the mad artist-genius Dustin Yellin, has awarded punctum an institutional residency for Spring 2016, during which time we will be running our primary editorial operations out of Red Hook while also developing an internship program with universities in the NYC area.
  • third, as the Ford Foundation recently announced that they have completely revamped their mission to focus exclusively in their giving on INEQUALITY (see the recent story HERE),  including unequal *access* to information/knowledge, with one of the 6 key funding areas being "Creativity and Free Expression" (and within that, "Advancing Media Rights and Access"), we will be working on seeking a Ford Foundation grant.
  • fourth, when we release our Graduated OA platform this coming Fall/Winter (see par. 3 above), please be an enthusiastic booster. Purchase our PDF e-books (which, I promise you, will carry very affordable price-tags, and only for a brief, temporary period), distribute them freely to friends and colleagues, and thus help to "unlock" these titles for the greater, common good while also contaminating the system with the punctum virus. Purchase our titles in print whenever you can, and also assign them to classes. When you go to the website to download the free PDFs and you see the pop-up window asking you to donate something, please do so. DONATE as often as you can, and go HERE to do that (right NOW, even!). Or go here --
And the reason WHY you should want to help us with this is because we (meaning me PLUS SO many persons, many of whom inhabit very precarious positions both within and outside of the University, who have given selflessly of their time to help edit and design the books) have been working so hard to secure the SPACE that is so necessary for others to do exactly the sort of work they want to do (as opposed to doing the work they are often subtly, and not so subtly, coerced into doing), and at a time when more traditional university and commercial academic presses are simply not wired to help provide for such space that hasn't already been deemed in advance to be "profitable," "marketable," "trending," etc. Because the future of academic publishing cannot be just ONE thing, or one wagon, that we all have to get on (or risk being left behind), and it won't be secured by funneling all of the money into corporate entities that have no real concern for the public commons other than the profits to be gained thereby, and because we don't want our work to be shaped by forces that have no regard for the the singular desires that lead us to our work in the first place, and because we desperately need a publisher that puts a premium on EXPERIMENTation, as summed up beautifully in the epigraph to this post and worth repeating here:
... given the state of higher education in the U.S., ... there's little reason not to experiment, because it's only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will.  ... The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable.