Guest blogger Gary Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at Coventry University, UK, where he directs the Centre for Postdigital Cultures, and its research studio The Post Office.
The first of our series on Innovation in Scholarly Communication, ‘HyperCritical Theory’ is an extract from a book-in-progress called Masked Media, which creatively samples and remixes some of his own authored and co-authored work with a recently published book of theoretical fictions by the digital artist Mark Amerika called remixthecontext.
How do we explain the fact that most radical theorists in the humanities today work in a surprisingly conservative fashion? Even political philosophers known for engaging directly with new forms of social relations, such as those associated with the horizontalist, self-organizing, leaderless mobilizations of Occupy and the Black Lives Matter protests, are no exception. I’m thinking here of Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Chantal Mouffe, Jodi Dean, Slavoj Zizek … the list is a long one. What I mean by working in a conservative fashion is that texts such as Assembly, Agonistics and Crowds and Party are all written as if they were the absolutely authentic creative expressions of the minds of unique individuals who are quite entitled to claim the moral right to be identified as their singular human authors. They are then made available on this basis for economic exploitation by a publisher as commodities, in the form of books that can be bought and sold according to a system of property exchange which is governed by the logic of capital and its competitive, individualistic ethos. It’s a state of affairs that ensures ideas, concepts and, indeed, whole philosophies continue to be attributed to these commercially minded theorists as theirs. For example, when it comes to their relationship to such social movements, Hardt and Negri can be seen to repeat in Assembly the very behaviour they criticise platform capitalist companies for engaging in with regard to the social relations of their users. Hardt and Negri extract intelligence – in their case from leaderless movements for social justice, accumulate it privately and then control access to it. The latter they achieve by publishing Assembly with Oxford University Press, using an ‘all rights reserved’ copyright license. OUP then make it available, but only at a cost.
The situation is not helped by the fact that, when radical theorists do turn their attention to how scholars operate today, their concern is predominantly with the neoliberal subjects we are supposedly transitioning into with the help of digital information technologies (e.g. corporate social media). They are not quite so concerned about the particular configurations of subjectivity (and the related information technologies: i.e., commercially copyrighted, printed-paper books and journal articles) we are changing from. However, it’s important to pay close critical attention to the latter, too. This is because in practice it has typically been a liberal humanist subjectivity. When it comes to the actual creation, publication and communication of research especially, this model of subjectivity has occupied a position of hegemonic dominance within the academic profession – and, in many respects, still does. The reason is simple: liberal humanism is built into the very system of the university. As Christopher Newfield shows in The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, ‘a consensus version of university humanism has long consisted of “five interwoven concepts: the free self, experiential knowledge, self-development, autonomous agency, and enjoyment.”’ What’s more, ‘university philosophers and administrators did not simply espouse these concepts as ideals but institutionalised them.’ Indeed, if liberalism has to do with the human individual’s right to life, liberty and property, together with the institutions that protect and preserve those rights, what’s really being condemned in many accounts of the corporatisation of the academy is the manner in which one version of liberalism is being intensified and transformed into another, specifically neoliberal interpretation of what, among those rights, are deemed most important: the unassailable rights of property and extension of the values of the free market and its metrics to all areas of life. Yet, as I say, the focus of critical attention has too often been on the process of change, and especially on what we are changing to, and not on what we are changing from. As a result, what is a predominantly liberal humanist mode of academic selfhood is, in effect, held up as some kind of solution, or at least preferable alternative, to the shift toward the constantly self-disciplining, self-governing, self-exploitative subject of neoliberalism by default.
A form of bourgeois liberal humanism, along with the attendant concepts of the self-identical human subject, the named proprietorial author, originality, immutability and the perfect object, thus acts as something of a blind spot in a lot of established critical theory. The writing of peer-reviewed, sequentially-ordered, copyrighted books and journal articles is a professional practice that is typically perceived as transcending the age in which it is employed, which means continuity in these matters tends to be valued more highly than transformation. It’s a way of operating that is taken for granted as fixed and enduring (although in actual fact the activities and concepts it involves are constantly changing and being renegotiated over time), and that constitutes a pre-programmed mode of performance for many academics. Hence the lack of care shown by even the most politically radical of thinkers for the materiality of their own ways of working and thinking.
What forms might theory take, then, if in its performance it is to be neither simply neoliberal nor liberal humanist? It is this question that my colleagues and I are experimenting with in projects such as Open Humanities Press and Liquid Books, in an attempt to conceive radical theory beyond the stereotypes of what it is currently considered to be. Our initiatives are performative, in the sense they’re concerned not just with representing or re-presenting the world: they’re also concerned with intra-acting with it in order to do things within and as part of the world, and so make (other) things happen. They thus constitute a plurality of forms of intervention that are responding to specific issues across a number of different sites: not only those of the university but also art, activism, education, business, politics, technology and the media. As individual projects they unfold according to different scales and life spans, with some being more obviously successful than others (depending on your criteria of success, of course). Nevertheless, their shared aim is to disarticulate the existing playing field and what, following Antonio Gramsci, we can call its manufactured ‘common sense’, and to foster instead a variety of antagonistic spaces that contribute to the development of counter-institutions and counter-environments.
So our theory does not conform to a preconceived notion of what an academic book or paper should look like. It might not even take the form of a piece of writing at all. Our theory-performances can be a business, a collective or an institutional research centre, and can on occasion involve building, developing, maintaining, caring, supporting, encouraging or inspiring more than authoring. It depends on what is most appropriate to the task in hand: different issue, different context, different theory-performance.
Open Humanities Press (OHP), for example – which involves multiple self-organising and semi-autonomous groups of theorists, librarians, technologists and others, all operating in a non-rivalrous fashion to make works of contemporary critical theory available on a non-profit, free, open access basis – is a Community Interest Company. Launched publicly by Sigi Jöttkandt, David Ottina and myself in 2008, this distributed, radically heterogeneous, multi-user collective currently includes nineteen journals and eight book series which, to date, have published nearly forty relatively conventional, hybrid print+digital first books.
One of the reasons we established OHP was to help redistribute research and make it available to all those who want it – rather than having it continue to be restricted either to those with access to university libraries or the funds to buy it for themselves from for-profit companies. All OHP publications are freely available online to anyone, anywhere, who wishes to read them. But we also developed OHP in the hope of having a modest impact on governments, on policy-makers and on the international publishing industry. Our aim was – and still is – to show that it’s perfectly possible to set-up and run a non-profit organisation for publishing journals and books open access, to maintain rigorous intellectual and production standards in doing so, and to acquire in the process a level of prestige that would ordinarily be afforded only to a legacy print press. What’s more, we wanted to demonstrate that all this could be accomplished without relying on external funding or author-pays fees. (While Cambridge University Press and Manchester University Press both charge authors around €13,500 to publish an open access monograph, OHP charges nothing. OHP is able to do so because, as I have made clear in Pirate Philosophy and elsewhere, most of its funding comes indirectly, from institutions paying our salaries as academics, librarians and so forth. ‘We are simply using some of the time we are given to conduct research to create open-access publishing opportunities for others’ on a voluntary basis.)
Not relying on author-pays fees is a policy that continues to be important to us as we are interested in exploring economic models for open access that don’t risk disenfranchising independent scholars, researchers in less wealthy institutions, or those with alternative viewpoints that are unlikely to meet with managerial approval. As far as we’re concerned, the transfer of responsibility for paying for publication onto the individual author (or, more likely, their funding agency or university) that is achieved by gold author-pays open access is a characteristic neoliberal move. One of the principles of Plan S, for example – which is the scheme to speed up the transition to full open access put forward by Science Europe with the support of the European Commission and 11 major national funding agencies – is that: ‘Where applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the funders or universities, not by individual researchers’. So while Plan S wants fees for APCs to be ‘standardized and capped (across Europe)’, at least when it comes to funded research, it is still prepared for these fees to be paid. By placing researchers in a position where they have to compete with others for the inevitably limited amounts of funding that are available to enable them to publish on an article- or book-processing-charge (APC/BPC) basis, however, gold author-pays serves as yet another means of introducing commercial values into the public system of higher education. In doing so it establishes a market for A/BPCs, and with it another way of inflicting debt onto the university. Not only that, it introduces a new set of gatekeepers capable of exercising control – be it at funding council, university vice-chancellor, provost or research committee level – over what research is and is not published, by means of the kinds of emphasis on accountability, transparency and centralized data management that has become such a dominant feature of neoliberalism’s audit culture.
All of which hopefully explains why at Open Humanities Press we’re experimenting with new models for the creation, sharing and use of research; models that are somewhat different – economically, but also legally and politically – from those associated with the market and its metrics. We’re operating according to a non-profit philosophy to make all our books and journals available on a gratis (free) basis – and a considerable number of them on a libre (read/write/re-use) basis. We’re gifting our work, rather than always demanding we be remunerated for it. We see this as helping to shift waged labour from its central place in society by placing more emphasis on activities that are often not valued, including different kinds of carework. And we’re organising horizontally in a non-competitive manner in order to collaboratively proliferate new models for property and ownership. Among other things, this involves us in exchanging our time, knowledge and expertise for free, both among ourselves and with other open access publishers. We even share some of OHP’s books with presses such as Open Book Publishers and meson press. And, while we’ve operated like this from the very beginning, the provision of such mutual support – and the associated forging of new, inter-personal and inter-group relationships – is something OHP has been engaging with even more since 2015, in its capacity as a founder member of the Radical Open Access Collective.
Having said all this, divesting ourselves of the business-as-usual practices of authorship is not just about who we as academics and theorists publish with: scholar-led, community-owned, non-profit presses such as OHP or meson, say, rather than corporate for-profits such as Routledge or Polity. It’s about transforming ourselves and our subjectivities by enacting different, non-liberal, non-humanist ways of being and doing. What this means is that we want to follow the spirit of Eileen Joy of Punctum books, when she writes about the importance of avoiding the fate of ‘Self-Absorbed… Radicals who think being “political” and intellectually “cool”… means publishing leftist diatribes (about #Occupy, Marxism, Disaster Capitalism, Poverty, Debt, Terrorism, the Anthropocene, whatEVER) with the intellectual property thugs at Verso books.’ We have to go even further than Joy in doing so, though. To decentre humanism from its traditional place at the heart of Western thought, it’s not enough to individually author politically progressive books and journal articles about, say, the posthuman and the Capitalocene, important though that may be at times. This is because the humanist subject still remains at the centre of this way of working, regardless of who publishes such texts. This is why we need to engage, critically and creatively, with the very concept of the liberal, humanist authorial subject that underpins our mode of being and working as academics and theorists. And what’s more, we need to do so by actually performing this concept differently in how we think and act.
One method for this involves finding creative means of attracting other collaborators into our network, such as by making our research openly available to be appropriated, sampled and reused. To this end, Open Humanities Press has developed two more experimental series: Liquid Books, launched in 2009 by Clare Birchall and myself; and the Jisc-funded Living Books About Life, launched two years later by myself, Birchall and Joanna Zylinska. The books in these series are ‘liquid’ and ‘living’ in the sense that not only are they open and free for anyone, anywhere, to read, they are also open on a libre open access or read/write/share basis. Users are able to engage with the wiki technology with which the books are created and published live, to help continually compose, add to, edit and remix them using text, images, infographics, podcasts, videos and more. As such anyone can get involved in the ongoing process of creating these books, or in copying and adapting existing books for use in teaching and learning: say, as an alternative kind of online course reader, the content and form of which can be negotiated, updated and altered by learners themselves. Accordingly, these books, along with any subsequent versions of them, are produced in an extended, decentralised, multi-user-generated fashion: not only by their initial authors or curators, but by an open multiplicity of often-anonymous collaborators distributed around the world – a trans-individual multiplicity, it should be emphasised, that includes machines. Indeed, Janneke Adema and Pete Woodbridge, in the introduction to Symbiosis, their contribution to the Living Books series, see the digital medium as enabling the book to be increasingly infected with ‘foreign (non-textual) elements as it evolves into something different’. For them, a ‘living book is also a symbiotic book. It is a merging and co-habitation of different media-species, a mash-up of text and video, sound and images, pixels and living, material tissue,’ whether the latter is living in a biological sense or not. By testing some of the physical and conceptual limitations of the traditional codex volume in this fashion, these two series engage in rethinking the book as an expanded, collaborative, processual endeavour.
Despite appearances to the contrary, however, publishing is not the main concern of my collaborators and I. If some of our projects are experimenting with the material form of theory in the shape of books and journals, others are concentrating more on infrastructure and on our ideas of education and the university, the public library and academic social networks. If I had to sum them up, I would say that what our performative projects are principally about is:
- a desire to experiment with both the invention and collaborative proliferation of new practices, new subjectivities and new ways of life that are neither simply liberal nor neoliberal (nor humanist, for that matter)
- a recognition that writing, print and the codex text are not the ‘natural’ or normative media in which such activities are conducted; and that, while experimentation of this kind can take place in books and journals, radical theory and philosophy should also be open to being what we might call post-grammatological
- a conviction that our theory-performances should not be confined to the realm of academia: it is important they occupy other places too, including those associated with politics, technology and the media
 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Íñnigo Errejón In Conversation With Chantal Mouffe, Podemos: In the Name of the People (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2016); Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (London: Verso, 2016)