A couple of days ago I was supposed to be on a plane to Germany. I’d been invited to Documenta12, often regarded as the world’s most important art event, to talk to some very interesting people about the current state of publishing. I was of course grateful to the good Documenta people, and looking forward to it.
I’d also been pushing things fairly hard, trying, a bit like a lot of modern publishing (as we shall see) to keep control of a situation that had become completely out control long ago. I decided to go for a run to destress. No warm up – as usual, despite my partner’s advice – but hey, like modern publishing, I knew what I was doing. I’ve been running for 40 years! This is not quite as long as the printing press has been around, but long enough.
About 4 kilometres out (and 2 k from home) I heard a sudden snapping sound. This was the sound of my calf muscle tearing.
Weirdly enough, there’s something I find fascinating about these sudden accidents, especially when in the end they don’t matter that much. Obviously they change things, and that’s always interesting. More importantly, I think they’re fascinating because they’re impersonal events (the calf muscle, that I seldom even think about, now with an existence all on its own, in rebellion). At the same time, such events – especially in their banality – couldn’t be closer to home (well it is also my calf, and its tearing changes my life). The dual nature of these events takes you out of yourself like nothing else. They break up your easy path through the world, your plans, and so on. I don’t just mean going to Germany. I mean your whole proprioceptive system breaks down over one “speciously present” extended moment. Where you are, who you are, what your next move is, are all up for grabs, and even when things get themselves together again, much has changed.
Afterwards, I realised I had experienced an enhanced version of the famous Libet lag (important both to Brian Massumi and academic/”Digital Thoughtographer” Mark Amerika). This is the time taken, after an event, for consciousness to pull an event together. During the Libet lag consciousness gets to a) construct the pretence that there really was a present in the event while it was happening – a series of experienced moments via which it, consciousness, experienced the event in situ, and b) pretend to itself that it was making the decisions all along.
My enhanced Libet lag was followed by a return to normal Libet lag … a bit of standing around in pain getting things together while I wondered how to get home (“hobble”, was the answer). As one might expect if you’re me, a very friendly dog came up to me briefly, as if to see if I was ok. I think it was a Springer Spaniel.
Decades ago, when I was trying to finish my honours thesis, I tripped and fell through a plate glass window. This time I (or maybe a version of “not-I”) really inhabited the Libet lag, and it was a lovely experience, although it was another banal accident really. I first broke the window with my hands as I fell. I then hit the ground within the window frame. A shower of falling glass landed on my head, and time slowed down almost to the point of stopping. The blood dripping from my head mixed with falling glass. It was all very beautiful. The glass was catching light as it fell, and there seemed a lot of blood, the redness also catching the light. In slow mo, the glass falling also sounded exactly like hundreds of tiny bells. For what I guess was a second or two (but seemed more like ten or twenty) I thought to myself … with all that blood these seconds could be the last few of my life. Yet I was strangely calm, happy even (I guess the aesthetic took over).
Of course, the injuries were minimal, but I never forgot the experience of the event, even how so very ordinary it felt. A friend – also now an academic – told me he had a similarly enjoyable experience after being hit over the head with a beer bottle (!). As for me, I was able to say that, as I finished my thesis, there was blood on the typewriter.
In any case, the calf injury has stopped me going to Documenta. That’s been a real disappointment (though lying around on the couch with my leg elevated for a few days hasn’t been all bad – for one thing, I’ve been able to start blogging at last, and even had a generous response within hours – that really made me realise, with pleasure, how much publishing has changed).
All of which is by way of introducing a few posts to come (time permitting) on publishing. In the lead up to Documenta, I’d been thinking about publishing quite a bit. About its health. About the politics of publishing, but I guess more importantly, about publishing’s importance to politics.
There are obvious parallels with the music industry and music – although part of my point here is that the music industry and music are not at all the same things. It struck me long ago that few of the debates surrounding the effect of the digital technologies on the music industry were about music itself (despite constantly mobilizing fear about “what might happen to music” – in fact music production has never been more diverse, music listening has never been so great, and live music is in a great state, according the Guardian at least). Likewise, I think that few of the debates about publishing have centred on what publishing is really for – that is, the circulation of ideas, affects, events. In both case the debates have mostly been about the survival of established industries, institutions, authors, practices etc. About laws, about copyright, and morality. About consumers, payments and the circulation of capital. Not, however, about the publishing as the circulations of ideas, affects and events, or how changes in publishing change this.
Anyway, it’s a bad analogy (aren’t they all?) … but traditional publishing seems to me to have just crashed through a plate glass window, or at least pulled a few muscles. There are a lot of things coming together in what is now a perfect storm for publishing. There is digital distribution, and the promise of new viewing platforms for what until this point have been physical books. With that, there is the possibility that what happened when records became mp3′s might happen when books become digital files. There is also the rise of self-publishing. Perhaps most crucial are more and more people collaborating in online environments in order to write and publish – this changes what writing and publishing are for. This is followed, as in music, by a massive increase in the diversity of forms of writing, of the specificity of niches for forms of publication, and even very new understandings of what writing might be. As regards the last of these, I will discuss Mark Amerika’s views on this in another post, but new concepts of writing mean you might write with all media – images, video, code, text. More importantly, you might “write” with the in-between of all of these, for example in cross-signal processing, where for example, video signal produces changes in the audio feed, or vice versa (a common example is where music changes video effects: we even used to see this in discos when I was young). This is before you get the possibility of a kind of last.fm for all kinds of publishing. This all adds up to what Eugene Thacker calls “extreme writing”.
There are obviously any number of important questions regarding social change involved – which we all live, but which we still often talk about in terms of the failure of institutions, not in terms of a new form of health, a new society even.
Indeed, although this might feel like much of this a bad thing – it might be an opportunity to rethink where publishing is, and in fact how healthy it is becoming.
Let’s go back a bit and define some terms. By traditional publishing, I first mean the big publishers. I like a lot of these, I love books, I have friends who work with the big publishers, and I don’t think they’ve made no attempt to adapt. I just think that they’ve been hamstrung by their decades of experience and established practices (not to mention bottom lines) to some extent. I mean more than the big publishers, however, by traditional publishing. I mean the traditional practices of publishing, the very concept of what publishing is, what it does, how it fits into social practices – in the university for example (here I mean all kinds of publishing, from refereed academic journals to the student essay). Traditional publishing as a whole – whether commercial or established practices – has been acting like it probably thought it could handle the stress it’s been under. Yet many of its adaptations have so far been fairly reluctant and fairly small (there has been little real adaptation to the cultural shift behind plagiarism within traditional institutions, for example). Like its more famous sub-branch, the music industry, traditional publishing has thought it knew what it was doing, and probably didn’t have to change too much. Hey – it’s been doing it for centuries and hey, it understands media better than anyone, even if they’re changing. And of course books (and journals and magazines) have been an old-fashioned succcess story in the world of new media, maybe the biggest.
Yet it is for all these reasons traditional publishing hadn’t been watching where it was going. It hasn’t been listening to warnings. It thought experience – tradition perhaps – was the only thing that mattered. It perhaps thinks it has adapted more completely than it has.
However, the music industry’s problems and solutions show what general publishing’s problems and solutions are about to become, perhaps have just become. A key point is that although older forms of publishing – that is, for example, books and films – will survive, they will do so in a much larger, more complex and diverse environment. This is changing not just publishing, but the social as a whole. A second point is that – as regards traditional publishing, the punters might just not care (something the music industry has never recovered from).
So the next few posts are what I think about publishing. There’s nothing radical here – but I thought I would try to sum things up, for my own sake as much as anyone else. After all, a lot of what I do is writing, publishing and editing. I’ve been involved with traditional publishing, and with much in-between. I’m moving towards extensive online collaborations (and offline). Like everyone else, I’d like to be a VJ. Maybe I could even VJ collaboratively (another post).
I actually think that publishing is both genuinely threatened and in excellent health – like music. I think things have already changed – they’re not just challenged or changing. I think there is a lot of resistance to this change, especially from those who, as in the case of the music industry, have vested interests (and certain kinds of experience, skills that have been valued in the market place). I think that authors, like lesser-known musicians, tend to get a bit of a raw deal sometimes (not always) from larger publishers. Yet I think too much of the debate has been on what are these really less important issues.
I think that maybe we’re all experiencing a bit of collective “Libet lag” while we catch up with events.
I think we should be taking a lead from the current and future diversity of publishing – the thinking about publishing that sees the possibility of its greater “health”. We should be asking much more how these changes in publishing change the social, the opening up of possibilities for universities, education, art.
Finally, we should perhaps acknowledge that the end of the medium – as “message”, as basis for institutions and cultural practices – is at hand. Although media such as books and films have so far survived in something like their older forms (well not much else but these two actually) – new forms of publishing present a much more dynamic context in which media intermix constantly. This is to the point that there can be little disciplinarity surrounding a “medium” and fewer constrained forms of practice based upon particular media. If new forms of publishing signify nothing else, they signify the rise of the social. This is a social freed from media – narrowly defined, and controlled by narrow interests.