Friday, May 24, 2013

Publishing Futures 3: economics of e-journals

More on the Forget the Book event at Goldsmiths tomorrow

Increasing numbers of scholarly books are appearing as ePubs. Many are not. A lot of classic texts circulate in pdf and ebook format online through agencies like the Internet Archive (, Marxists Internet Archive ( and ebooks@Adelaide ( But this has the normative effect of getting more people to read the same things. That would be good if they read a lot, but if everyone only reads the top half dozen titles in a given discipline, there's precious little room for development at the classroom level. As a teacher I want my students reading as much as possible across as wide a range as possible, and that means with the least possible dent in their pockets, because students have had to learn, in these parsimonious days, to make every cent count.The books and articles that can't be downloaded or borrowed free have a great deal less chance of being read.

So the boom in online publishing should be good for everyone in the open access movement. The problem is not just that institutions and funding agencies have trouble recognising the quality level of online publications (a problem exacerbated by the proliferation of specialist titles for which humanities in particular have been famous for decades: there is a need for a journal of Blake scholarship or Turner studies or the 17th century Neapolitan baroque – that's the nature of specialisms). The other problem is that quality assurance isn't just stupid management-speak (though they have taken it over for some dodgy purposes). The small list I run at MIT Press gets about 30 proposals a year. We publish about 3 to 4 titles annually. A good number of the titles we don't take appear under other imprints The amount of work going into the successful titles (and indeed into a good few of the unsuccessful ones) is impressive. Assuring the quality of an article is a time consuming process. Journal refereeing is typically unpaid but it has to be organised; copy-editors need to check facts and grammar; typesetters need to check that they have the text and images set to everyone's satisfaction; and the issue has to be delivered in good time and good shape to its readers. All that time and skill costs. Anyone who has hit print in this way knows how much work an author has to do after delivering the manuscript. Multiply that by the work everyone else involved does. The question then is how to pay for these services, if we don't want to spend large tracts of our lives cleaning up other people's publications unpaid and unrecognised.

If you use e-journals you'll have noticed that they come in bundles. If a library wants the Journal of Gerbil Science, it's going to have to take the whole suite of rodentology titles, regardless of interest. Back in 1948, in the age of Hollywood's Paramount Decrees, the parallel practice of 'block booking' was made illegal. The claim is that for the specialist titles to survive, they have to be cross-subsidised by the big titles that most libraries want. The libraries, under intense cost-cutting pressure, don't see subsidy as their business. Of course, the student (or staffer) doesn't pay per use: that comes out of fees and overheads. The sciences have already revolted, demanding open access to the elite journals by threatening boycotts. The supposedly radical humanities and social sciences haven't, in part because, although there's a perceived hierarchy, there is no equivalent to Nature or Mind.

Most of us share out our publications, placing some in top print journals and some in online start-ups. Most of us would prefer a major university press to a print-on-demand solution. Some open access publishers, notably Open Humanities Press (, Amsterdam's Institute for Network Cultures ( and Melbourne's re:Press ( have begun to gather some impressive titles to a mix of hardcopy and free downloads. Behind them lies a huge body of unpaid labour done out of sheer faith. While that is a great resource, we should remember that the early web was like that, but pretty soon turned into the hypermall it is today. Free labour is not necessarily a sustainable business model (Facebook notwithstanding). You are always your own worst proof-reader: that alone make self-publishing a frightening prospect.

At the moment we seem to have the scant choice between copyright as revenue source or no revenue at all. The challenge is to find alternatives. Publication subsidies are forbidden by a number of grant agencies, and smack of vanity publishing. But we may have to get use to the idea that if we want a thriving research culture, we may have to include the costs of publishing in grant applications. Most of us want the speed of online publishing – the speed of blogging, say – but also the assurance that a translation is accurate, that an unfamiliar field has been fact checked and is on the money, and that the references and data are presented in a form that can be followed up. That's necessarily slow. One prospective new journal I'm working on is considering a pre-press release of articles in draft for community critique and revision as one way of maximising benefits from online publishing. Meta-refereeing is beginning to have purchase, where groups like Open Humanities Press (OHP) establish a system for assuring the overall quality of online open-access titles. The Directory of Open Access Journals ( lists almost 9000 journals; OHP ratifies 14 of them ( It isn't a perfect system, but it helps navigate the vast production of open-access research. But its all work.

The problem doesn't get simpler in the era of MOOCs – massive open online courses. The controversy and doubtful legitimations should make us pause over the lessons for open research. Do we actually know that an open slalom will work? Should the Journal of Creationism have the same clout as Environment and Planning D? Can we trust to some kind of market mechanism to get the cream to the top, or can we expect what the economic market has provided so far: quality for a tiny elite, and surrogates or nothing for the vast majority? Can we expect what we have seen in the blogosphere: the end of public debate in favour of sectarian enclaves? Publishing models run exclusively on the economic motive are failing already, and we have nothing sustainable to aspire towards yet. The challenge is to convert the values of open access into sustainable models.

As so often in the network economy, it is a matter not of control over the means of production but of distribution.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Secretion, privation

from a talk given at the Biomediations conference last week

The democratisation of consumption effected by the commodity form is also always sacrilegious. Certain forms of knowledge are not part of the commons; knowledge proper to post-puberty, pre- and post-childbirth, and to post-menopausal women or initiated young men or elders. Such knowledge is not secret, in the sense of a trade secret, nor property but proper, justum, fitting, befitting a person or station in life. Nor is it a right but a role, a task. Such things cannot be copyright-free any more than they can be patented.

Compare and contrast the hierophantic tribalism of the City of London revealed in Michael Chanan's Secret City: the accumulation of wealth under guise of ancient liveries, the old school ties that bind, the guild mysteries defining inclusion and exclusion. These secrets are indeed secretions, like pheromones released to announce the provenance and bona fides of acquaintances. This form of secretion divides an us from a them by excluding them from participation in a powerful knowledge. This is the form of secretion that belongs to the intellectual property regime. An ancient practice of parceling out knowledge in the interests of binding a whole tribe together has become a modern practice of securing privilege by process of exclusion, at the cost of any community other than those in the know and on the square.

Western property is defined by the right of the owner to deny access to the property. In this sense it is not common but private, in the sense that it is defined by the act of depriving another. The owner enjoys property while the other suffers privation. We should speak properly then not of the privatisation of publicly owned industries, but of their privation, and of those from whom they have been taken as the deprived.

Wealth and power operate through the twin functions of secretion and privation. The alienation of both knowledge and bodies from the commons changes the nature of life profoundly enough for us to ask for a new political economy of life, as the global financial crisis enters its sixth year, a state of emergency poised between utopia and collapse. Nicholas Rose (2001: 17) presents us with one vision of this: 'the management and maximization of life itself have become the life’s work'. Warning against ascribing reductionist, eugenic or individualist motives to the new (post)genomics, Rose argues that we are entering a new etho-politics of humanity. Missing however is Fanon's insight, that it is in living that we become ourselves; that it is the experience of social becoming and social strife, and centrally the experience of both sameness and difference, that makes us. The sociogenesis (Fanon's term - see Sylvia Wynter's essay) of difference takes place in a history of environmentalisation which is at once alienation of the commons and externalisation from capital, both processes that de-value (in the economic sense) the well-being that accompanies inhabiting, making, knowing and now living, as the bare life of the body becomes an alien environment for management or despoliation.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Lima talks

Queridos amigos de Lima. Many thanks for your generosity and warm welcome. The slides for my talks can be found at slideshare, with links to all the videos that can be found online

Friday, May 3, 2013

Arte y Optica

Off to Lima at the weekend to open the show I co-curated with Jose-Carlos Mariategui, Arte y Optica. The artists include Jim campbell, David Connearn, Daniel Crooks, Gina Czarnecki, Eugenio Dittborn, Susan Collins,Mona Hatoum, Francesco Mariotti, Francisco Tropa. It promises to be spectacular and profound. This is a text that I wrote for the event.

Art and optics

In ancient times, the Sky and the Earth loved each other so madly, their offspring were trapped between their bodies until the mightiest of the children, Tane, forced them apart and let the light shine in on the world. This, the oldest story of the Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand is a tale retold in many tongues, from Genesis to the Big Bang. Light bursts upon the world, and in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Robert Grosseteste it is light that connects us to God because it is light that gives form.

Every visual art is optical, but some art looks towards the light. Light, which is so potent a symbol for every human culture, is also one of our greatest technologies. Fire, which heats and cooks, is also the flicker of firelight that draws us home to the hearth. Because it is a technology, light has a history. For our first ancestors, the only sources of light were sun in the daytime and bio-luminescence at night. Even until the 19th century, our only light technology was flame. The incandescent electric bulb and its heirs changed that forever. Today light not only illuminates: it is the secret of fibre optics, the laser-powered infrastructure of our ubiquitous computers.

All our lenses and mobile phone displays share one single characteristic: they seek to control the light. Whether light is the visible form of God or cosmic radiation, it pours upon us in chaotic waves, blasting across space, the very measure of ultimate speed. Light creates space and shape, but as it does, it bounces, reflects, refracts, diffuses, its wavelengths and durations changing in infinite complexity. We need light, but we want to control it. We shade the too bright lamp, and magnify the dimmest flickers. With the amplifying chemistry of photographs or the rigid order of receptors in digital image capture, we hold light to our purposes. Our television screens, like our computer displays, shape light into order ranks and rows. Transmission protocols strip time out of the equation: we demand the instantaneous. Light is everywhere organized in optical technologies.

Human beings cannot bear very much disorder. We tidy our nests, guard against dirt, separate and categorise and order what we can. And yet we know that from time to time we must go out into the chaos of the world to find new energies and new ideas. Order is an endless struggle between entropy and fascism, too little order and too much. And this is the terrain of art, to walk the ragged boundaries, to quiz our unexamined taxonomies, to muddy the clear waters and sieve out of them new ways of putting the world back together again.

The artists gathered in this exhibition peer into the light that makes our world. Each of us lives in many eras. We are the electronic generation, our faces underlit by mobile screens, our caf├ęs, shops and houses cast into sharp highlights and shadows, or suffused with warm glows, tied to the global economy of energy production, of the lithium in out batteries, the petrol in our generators. But we are also those who love firelight, and those who walk into the high hills at night to watch the timeless circling of the stars. At once the most ancient and most modern of media, light is the medium of our existence as the historical animals.

The speed of light is the final measure of time, but we have learned to control that speed. The gods came, says the poet Ezra Pound, by speed of communication. But we are human, and our arts of communication are not only about immediacy but slowness.

Every day we navigate oceans of images and data. Every screen, every image, promises to be whole and entire, to speak some kind of truth, about the news or sport or beauty or fun. To offer a whole experience. Our artists work with the light that carries these images. They unpick the woven fabric of images, unfold the impenetrable surfaces, unpack the contents of the black boxes where we keep the engines of image-making. One makes us see, in the scanning electron guns, the remnant of the patient gesture of hand and arm. Another magics into existence a way of seeing bodies moving, neither slow motion nor fast but in a different time to the one we think we know so well. One makes us feel the weight of history , the long centuries of travel and trade that brought us to this moment when all the world's goods can be dangled before the eyes of all its citizens. Another tells us of the geographies of transmission. The ancient light of fireflies inspires another with light that has no history, but comes to our city to tell us just how strange the city has become. Sometimes a darkness is the core communication of the light, a memory repressed, like a photograph stashed under the bed in hopes that one day from out of the dim past will come the flaming swords of justice and shame.

By attending closely to the time of light, of the making of light and of watching, of the purest act of perceiving light, these artists invite us to consider its weight and density and its power to link us in myriad bonds to the history of light and seeing. By making experiences for us, they also bring before us the fragility and ephemerality of light, its unique moment in the sun, its flickering passage into night. Symbol of both mortality and immortality, our hearth of tradition and our beacon of progress, light complies with power, and complicates it. The order of light is the disorder of time, and the order of time is the freedom of light. We celebrate as we mourn both the splashing light of fountains and the rectilinear ray, and contemplate the subtle politics as we engage the deft poetics enacted in the art of light, at this moment, in this city, unique in all the annals of creation.

Sean Cubitt, Winchester, 16 March 2013

Integral Waste

From a chapter on Decolonising Eco-criticism in the Cultural Politics Reader, edited by John Armitage, Ryan Bishop and Doug Kellner, that should be out next year from Duke.

Contemporary semiocapitalism divides its derivation of wealth from handling symbols into two sectors. One sector operates through international regimes of patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs, the other through finance, which today is not only entirely electronic, but in increasing degrees automated as algorithmic ('algo') trading. Those who are not privileged to sit at the centre of intellectual and finance capital produce a diminishing amount of the value in each commodity. Those who can, or are forced to, work, and are treated like the victims of the Bangladeshi factory collapse of Aril 2013: supernumerary, unregarded, a repressed that returns only momentarily as news item. Those who cannot are abandoned to civil war, famine and disease: conditions that, in the case of the Congolese war, have persisted for over a decade as the unconscious of metropolitan consumption (United Nations 2002). Meanwhile metropolitan populations superfluous to both intellectual work and offshore industry are pushed further into ghettos, with diminishing health, education and social resources, prey to drugs and guns, that increasingly resemble the reservations set aside for indigenous peoples in the genocidal heyday of settler expansion. With the abdication of vision common to parliamentary parties of the industrialised and in many instances the industrialising world, the only organic intellectuals left are the gangs, hounded by police in an ethnoclass war to secure human status (Wynter 2003) that extends increasingly into Europe from its origins in 1930s USA. Between civil war and gang war, the trajectory of the mode of destruction instigated by consumerism would appear to lead to the auto-destruction of the consumer class.

Waste is not an unfortunate by-product of consumerism. Without waste, there can be no consumer capital. We are all Batailleans now. Waste takes the form not only of garbage, or of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) but of populations excluded from the centres of capital. Productive labour of the old proletarian kind still persists, but downgraded and exported: it is in countries where productive labour remains significant that we still find a recognisably working-class mode of politics, as in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February 2011, even though mass protests and direct action were promptly painted in the colours of social media by Western news media. The protest against corruption was in part a protest against a systemic waste of common wealth and popular energies by the ruling kleptocracy. That nothing similar has happened in the UK or Russia has everything to do with the move from material to symbolic production, and politics conducted through the same mobilisation of symbols that provides such economic growth as persists. Neo-colonial production likewise is founded on the systemic waste to which it contributes in the cycles of fashion and consumption. The undoubted catastrophe of WEEE, and the consistently colonial structure of the recycling industry (Gabrys 2010, Grossman 2007) can still be seen as curable aberrations: we are on the trail of an integral waste.