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Performing the Scholarly Monograph in Contemporary Digital Culture

Section 3. Fixity

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets. So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity. (Updike 2006)

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Fixity, or the idea of a stable, standardised, and reliable text, ready to endure the ages, is a quality that often gets attributed to printed, codex books. So much so that it has come to signify one of the essential defining elements of what we perceive a book to be today: a collection of bound pages. Fixity here relates to the bound nature of the printed codex book in a spatial sense, but it also refers to the book’s stability, continuity and durability as a means of communication over time. This is because the combination of bound and easily duplicated printed editions of texts, has offered an excellent preservation strategy (Eisenstein 1979; Cramer 2011). Fixity, however, not only emerged in connection to the medial, technological, and material affordances of the printed book, exemplified by developments in design and by typographic elements—look, for instance, at cover pages, titles, chapters, standardised fonts, indices and concordances, all of which were incremental in turning the book into a fixed object that is easy to navigate. Fixity also advanced as part of the practices, institutions and discourses that surround the printed book, as we briefly touched upon in the previous chapters. Here, concepts and practices such as authorship, the ownership of a work, and copyright, were incremental in fixing, legally and morally, the contents of a book (Hall 2011). Moreover, and as discussed in chapters 4 and 5, books have also been sold and disseminated as finalised and bound commodities by scholarly publishers, as well as being preserved and indexed by our libraries and archives as permanent, stable and solid artefacts.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The concept of ‘gathering’ plays an important role in creating fixity, as emphasised in commentaries on Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés[1] by both Blanchot (2003) and Derrida (2005). Binding takes place here in the sense of ‘gathering together from dispersion’, something that, as Derrida has argued, is essential to the idea of the library too. Readers also bind and gather a book together through their reading practices, both conceptually—cutting it down in their interpretation or meaning giving—and practically. For instance, when it comes to hypertexts, it is specific readings that serve to bind disparate routes and texts together. In an online environment readers-as-writers cut, paste and gather dispersed networked nodes together in fluid digital scrapbooks and book collections. However, alongside these practices and institutions, there have also been strong cultural discourses that have stimulated the bound nature of the book, promoting its perception as a finished and completed object, the culmination of a writer’s work. This discourse is strongly embedded in academia, where the final published book is most often perceived as the end-point of the research process, in certain areas of the humanities especially. Similarly, it is common practice in many humanities disciplines that an academic only becomes an author or a researcher in the true sense, viable for employment, tenure and promotion and so forth, once their first book has been published. Here the book fixes or determines the author in a similar way too.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In this section I will analyse the discursive-material practices that have promoted the idea and use of the book as a fixed object of communication. The printed codex book has come to exemplify durability, authority and responsibility, as opposed to the more fluid, flowing visions of information transmission that are commonly attached to oral cultures and exchanges, and, more recently, to digital forms of communication. This alternative fluid or liquid vision of communication carries important consequences with it for scholarly research, which one could argue has based its modern existence on the reliable transmission of research results. Under the influence of digital technology what is seen as the essential fixed and bound nature of the book has, however, increasingly given way to visions of the rhizomatic, the fluid, the wikified, the networked and the liquid book—as well as to other, similar entities that explore the book’s potential unbinding. What do these more fluent forms entail for the idea of ‘the limits’ or ‘the edges’ of the book? Can a collection of texts, pages, or websites still be called a book without some form of enduring stability? What would a potential unbinding entail for academic research? For bound and stable texts have been of fundamental importance to our ideas of science and scholarship: to ensure that experiments can be repeated according to the same conditions in which they were originally conducted; as a preservation mechanism to make sure academics have access to the research materials needed; but also as a means to assure that authors can take responsibility for certain fixed and relatively unchangeable sequences of text, guaranteeing a work’s integrity. Will we be able to imagine new forms of scholarship and preservation of research that no longer rely so strongly on the idea of a fixed and stable text? Will we be able to allow for more fluidity in our age of virtually unlimited digital dissemination and storage capabilities?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 When considering these questions it might be beneficial to look at them from a different angle. For it can also be argued that books have never been fixed, stable and linear, and that print as a medium and technology is not and has never been able to guarantee fixity—not the least because fixity is embedded in social structures (Johns 1998). Similarly, the digital medium, in the way it has been taken up in academic publishing—its potential for unbinding the book notwithstanding—mostly mirrors the practices of fixing and stabilising that were introduced and further developed as part of the print medium. It can even be argued that, with its potential for unlimited storage, the digital is much better suited to create forms of fixity than print ever was. This becomes obvious if we look at Wikipedia. Its MediaWiki software has made it much easier to preserve changes to a text and therefore to detect and track these changes. All alterations to, and revisions of, a text can now conceivably be saved.[2] Therefore, the preservation capacities of the net have the possibility to offer texts far more durability, and in that sense stability, than print could potentially ever have.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In this respect it might be more useful to start thinking beyond such dialectical oppositions as bound/unbound and fixed/fluid, and to explore the idea of research being processual (although it also necessarily needs to be bound and cut at some point for us to make sense of it). If we then conceive the book as a potential form of binding or gathering this processual research together, we may be able to start to shift our focus towards questions of why it is that we cut and bind.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It is these questions that I will explore in the next chapter, where I will analyse the cuts or boundaries that we as academics enact. But I also want to examine the bindings that are made for us by the book’s changing materiality and the institutions, discourses and power struggles that have grown up around it. The question then becomes: how can we rethink the way we cut and paste our processual research together? Also, how can we emphasise that these boundaries that are enacted (including forms of print fixity) are actually unstable, and that we iteratively produce research and books through our incisions and boundary-making practices? How can we start to rework these forms of binding? What role can the book continue to play in these processes of gathering and collecting? It is important to emphasise here that books are not determinate objects-in-themselves that are bound or unbound or that have inherent properties and boundaries. Books emerge from specific intra-actions or phenomena which, in Barad’s words, ‘do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of observer and observed, or the results of measurements; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies’’ (2007: 139). In this sense, and as I have argued previously, it is through our book-binding and unbinding practices, cutting our research together and apart, that both the book as we know it and we ourselves as scholars arise.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Rethinking how we bind research therefore includes asking questions as to who and what binds, and about the ways in which we currently gather our research together. What are the particular medial factors in the book’s material becoming that force forms of binding on us in their intra-actions with our institutions and practices? In which specific ways do these material structures currently tie our research and our books together, and what new forms of (digital) gathering do they propose? Chapter 6 will begin with a focus on how, historically, the printed book, in its materiality and through its institutions and practices, developed the forms of book fixity and trust that we are now accustomed to today. I will then explore a number of current digital experiments that are focused on the unbinding of scholarly research, most notably in the form of fluid, remixed, and modular books, and projects that are focused on remixed authorship and digital archives. I will argue that these unbound book alternatives are not so much examples of unbinding, as proposals for alternative ways of gathering research together. This section will thus focus on some of the critiques these experiments have formulated concerning some of the ways we bind and are being bound, along with analysing some of the different forms of cutting and pasting that are currently being put forward. The fact that these alternative projects and practices do not so much unbind as propose new forms of gathering—forms that still seem to mirror in the main our codex-based forms of closure (i.e. via authorship, copyright, design and interface)—shows how difficult it is to let go of the methods of gathering developed as part of the print-paradigm.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Nonetheless, as I have argued in previous chapters of this thesis, it is important to challenge, critique and rethink some of the major practices and institutions of gathering and fixity we currently adhere to, from copyright to authorship, to the book as a published object and commodity. It is important to do so, not only to challenge the humanist focus on essentialised notions such as the unity of the work and the individual author, but also to counter the problems created by the book-bound commodity fetish within academic publishing, which I discussed in chapters 4 and 5. This includes investigating the power structures and interests that are invested in maintaining stable texts and that determine when a text is fixed and finalised, and for what reasons. For instance, commercial interests promote the creation of heavily copyrighted or DRM-ed academic works, which it can be argued are standing in the way of the more widespread sharing and dissemination of scholarly research online. The current communication model is based on codex-shaped journals and books with stable and static content, a situation that protects the integrity of an author’s work. In this context experiments with alternative hypertextual and multimodal forms of publishing, or with re-use, updating and versioning, are hard to sustain. And this is the case even though these experiments with the form and shape of publications could offer us ways to rethink and re-perform scholarly communication in a different and potentially more ethical way, along with offering us the possibility to explore what Tara McPherson has referred to as ‘emergent genres’ for multimodal scholarship (2010). What could be the potential in these alternative ‘unbound book’ projects to re-envision the way we perceive the book and do research; to explore different forms of cutting and binding; and to promote forms of processual research? Are there other ways of binding that do not necessarily close down research and the book by means of strict forms of authorship and copyright, for example?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 We need to emphasise—and this is something scholars of bibliography and critical editing are already intensely familiar with—that print has always been an unstable medium and only offers, as Drucker has emphasised, ‘the illusion of fixity’ (2012: 6). As she continues: ‘a book is a snapshot of a continuous stream of intellectual activity. Texts are fluid. They change from edition to edition, from copy to copy, and only temporarily fix the state of a conversation among many individuals and works across time (…) A book is a temporary intervention in that living field’ (Drucker 2012: 6). In the second part of chapter 6 I will explore these issues in more depth by looking at the concept of the cut as theorised in new materialism, continental philosophy and remix studies. Again, this analysis is not an attempt on my part to explore the problem of the fixity and stability of the book from a perspective of bound or unbound—where both print and digital media have the potential to bind and unbind—but rather from that of cutting and iterative boundary-making. I want to focus on how we can shape and bind our work in such a way that we don’t foreclose its open-endedness. In this respect chapter 6 asks, if we see research as an ongoing process that needs to be gathered together at some point, that needs to be cut, how can we do it differently and potentially better? Here the focus is not on the book object unbinding, but on the processes of research and how we can imagine different cuts to stabilise it: how can we give meaning to its fluidity by making the right incisions?


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [1] Un Coup de Dés is a modernist poem by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, using experimental forms of typography and typographical lay out and free verse.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [2] This kind of temporal fixity can become very problematic where it concerns personal data, which the current European Court ruling on ‘the right to be forgotten’ responds to. See:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-05/cp140070en.pdf

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