Introduction to Version One Point Zero


The idea for New Cultural Studies: The Liquid Theory Reader came about as a result of a suggestion from a publisher that we might like to produce a follow-up to our 2006 print-on-paper edited collection, New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory. This follow-up was to consist of a reader gathering together and making easily accessible a number of important texts by some of the theorists discussed in our earlier volume: Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Kittler, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Slavoj Žižek and so on. While we could see that such a reader might have a certain usefulness, it seemed to us that to turn the idea of 'new cultural studies' into some fixed and stable concept or brand like this would be to miss the point of what we and our fellow contributors were trying to achieve with that book. It felt like it would be out of keeping with the spirit of New Cultural Studies, its commitment to a performative cultural studies, and emphasis on the need for cultural studies to experiment with creating events and new forms of practice, action and organisation. So we have decided to put together what we are calling a ‘liquid book’ instead.1 What we are doing is gathering together texts by some of the theorists discussed in New Cultural Studies, together with some by those we would include if we were to produce a second print-on-paper volume: writers such as Maurizio Lazzarato, N. Katherine Hayles, Jean-Luc Nancy and Isabelle Stengers. Rather than publishing this as a conventional print-on-paper book, however, we are publishing it online as New Cultural Studies: The Liquid Theory Reader.

 

We want to experiment with publishing a book in this fashion for a number of reasons. For one thing, it allows us to challenge the physical and conceptual limitations of the traditional edited codex book, not least by including more (and less) than just book chapters and journal articles, as is normally the case with readers. We also have the freedom to include whole books within our liquid book. (It has the Bible as an illustrious predecessor in this respect.)2 And not just that but shorts extracts and samples from books, too, along with pages, snippets, references, quotations, annotations, links, tags, even podcasts and You Tube clips, as well as different versions  and drafts of our Liquid Reader.3

 

For another, it enables us to elude many of the problems scholars almost invariably encounter when trying to publish a research-led book with a print-on-paper press at the moment. Economic reasons mean that relatively few academic publishers appear to be particularly interested in research monographs or even edited collections these days, let alone work that appears is ‘difficult’ or 'experimental'. For the most part it’s accessible textbooks, introductions, course readers and reference works they want.

 

Publishing a book in this way also has the advantage of allowing us to begin to creatively explore some of the limits and possibilities of the general move toward publishing and disseminating academic work online, what with the introduction of (in the UK) the REF and bibliometrics,4 open access, Google Book Search (most of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory is already available to read online for free via Google Book Search), and the development of digital book readers such as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's dgital book Reader.

 

Interestingly, electronic book readers are often perceived as being more environmentally friendly than buying many different books made out of dead trees that have often had to be physically transported huge distances, because a single copy can be (re)used to read a library's worth of titles, all of them moved digitally. All of which means that the standard print-on-paper reader may be pretty much out of a job soon anyway, and increasingly supplemented (if not entirely replaced) by the more fluid texts online publishing makes possible. However, things are not quite as simple as they may initially seem in this respect. It was recently reported in the UK press that with ‘more than 1.5 billion people online around the world... the energy footprint of the net is growing by more than 10% each year’. It was also claimed that ‘while the demand for electricity is a primary concern, a secondary result of the explosion of internet use is that the computer industry's carbon debt is increasing drastically... leapfrogging other sectors like the airline industry that are more widely known for their negative environmental impact’. One study even went so far as to suggest ‘that US data centres used 61bn kilowatt hours of energy in 2006...  enough to supply the whole of the UK for two months...’.5 So it remains to be seen just what, if any, green credentials can be claimed for liquid books.

 

Be that as it may, it looks like the standard print-on-paper reader may be more or less redundant soon, as it is being progressively supplemented (if not entirely replaced) by the more fluid texts online publishing makes possible. Indeed, is something similar to what the music, television and film industries have been going through for quite some time now not likely to happen to scholarly publishing (if it is not doing so already), with academics making their research available online for others to access and read in a variety of formats, not just the print-on-paper codex book or journal? At the very least, one wonders how long the print-on-paper reader-come-doorstop volume is going to last. As California State Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has posited with regard to school-age students in America, ‘today our kids get their information from the internet downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones’. All of which has led him to ask: ‘So why are California’s public school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?’.6

 

Certainly, university students are already disinclined to purchase such texts. Partly this is due to issues of cost brought on by rising student debt, and partly due to the fact that they are used to getting whatever aspects of culture and information they need for free online, and so do not understand why they should have to pay for heavy hardware objects such as academic textbooks. But this reluctance also has to do with the way in which, as the student population becomes increasingly diverse and drawn from all over the world, coming up with a fixed and finished print-on-paper book that meets the needs of all its potential readers is extremely difficult. As a result many academics are becoming loath to recommend such readers to their students, or to ask their students to bear the cost of purchasing them, often preferring to put their own, cheap, customised collections together instead in the form of course packs that are then distributed internally within their instituions. At the same time, academics are having to think twice about the wisdom of writing and editing such readers for publication themselves, not least because nowadays they would be unlikely to count toward their RAE/REF submissions and research ratings, certainly in the UK.

 

Still another way we are creatively experimenting with new forms of practice and organization with this project is by publishing this ‘book’ open access - and thus making it freely available to anyone with access to the Internet who wants to read it, on a worldwide basis, including not just other researchers, but also teachers, students, investigative journalists, policy makers, union organisers, NGOs, political activists, protest groups and the general public. It isl thus hopefully playing a role, however small, in breaking down some of the barriers between countries in the so-called ‘developed’, 'developing' and ‘undeveloped’ worlds, and so helping to overcome the ‘Westernization’ of the research literature.

 

However, we are making this 'book' available not just open access but under open editing and free content conditions, too. So The New Cultural Studies Reader is ‘liquid’ in the sense that not only is it open and free for anyone, anywhere, to read, providing they have access to the internet; its initial iteration is also open to users on a read/write basis.  So they can continually help compose, add to, annotate, tag, edit, translate, remix, reformat, reinvent and reuse it, or produce alternative parallel versions of it, however they wish.2 (All users need to do is click on 'Log in' above the Sidebar on the right and request access.) The idea is for this ‘book’ - along with subsequent versions of it - to be produced in an open, collaborative, decentralised, multi-user-generated fashion: not just by its initial 'authors', 'editors', 'creators' or 'curators', but by a multiplicity of often anonymous collaborators distributed around the world. In the process it is hoped that a variety of interesting and challenging questions will be raised: for ideas of the book, academic authorship, the proper name, attribution, publication, citation, accreditation, fair use, quality control, peer-review, copyright, intellectual property, content creation and so on; and for cultural studies, too.7

 

Of course for some this idea of books being authored and edited in a decentralized, distributed fashion may still appear to be something of an avant-garde fantasy. It is worth noting, then, that a publication as mainstream as The New York Times has already experimented with decentralized editing – although admittedly to a more limited degree (philosophically, if not technically) than both The Liquid Theory Reader and the Culture Machine Liquid Book series is attempting to do. As the chief technology officer for digital operations at The New York Times, Marc Frons, wrote in 2008, they have a ‘personalization platform called MyTimes that allows you to select headlines from almost any New York Times section and many external sources as well, and then arrange them on the page any way you like’. According to Frons, The New York Times is even planning to offer ‘a way to personalize a small part of the home page… so that you can see headlines from sections that would not ordinarily appear there while leaving the rest of the page intact.’8

 

This has lead the software and audiovisual performance artist Amy Alexander to consider the ‘parallel evolutions of the web and celebrity’, and to speculate on some of the possible long term effects of such open, decentralized and distributed editing on the importance and value of ‘famous’ publications such as The New York Times. ‘As the balance of power continually shifts from the mainstream media to bloggers, will online publications like The New York Times cease to exist – or at least diminish in importance – “as units”?’, Alexander asks:

 

Will they instead become primarily producers of individual articles, to be assembled like components into a myriad of online publications? Will we all assemble our own New York Times home pages – or perhaps pages comprised of articles from a number of sources? Or, more likely, will we select customized home pages assembled by our favorite lay-celeb editors – much like we read blogs by our favorite bloggers today? In other words, will today's decentralization of content production become tomorrow's decentralization of editing? TimesPeople, The New York Times' own social networking application, is moving toward that scenario already. Other sites, such as Newsvine, allow the user community to vote their favourite story onto the front page, further decentralizing the editing process.9

 

For Alexander, such a scenario would lead to a dramatic ‘downsizing of celebrity’ – to the point where ‘in the future, no one will be famous’. Interestingly, she includes in this process of downsizing the superstar status of an organ that is often considered to be the US newspaper of record. The New York Times is a celebrity publication and ‘to be featured in the Times is still seen by many as an anointment of “importance”’, Alexander writes:

 

Will that same level of importance be perceived if a New York Times story resembles a cross between an Associated Press wire story and an RSS feed... ? By the same token, what value will [be] awarded to the appearance of an article on the front page of a site like Newsvine, where the placement decision is made by an anonymous group of readers with unknown qualifications? The public may not be ready to give up on editors completely. The shift, then, could be away from the most famous content and toward the most famous compilations – those compiled by the most famous compilers, for want of a better term.10

 

Alexander is careful to acknowledge that these ‘compilers may not commend the celebrity of a Matt Drudge’ of The Drudge Report fame But then for her we are dealing with a ‘downsized fame anyway’, since the unlimited spectrum space of the internet has made it easy for celebrities to proliferate – to the point where, ‘with so many web celebrities dividing up the public attention span, their level of celebrity must at some point drop below the threshold of “fame”’. 

 

An interesting question arises at this point: could the dramatic downsizing Alexander predicts for celebrity in the future, and for the importance of famous publications such as the The New York Times, also have implications for that of academic ‘stars’ such as Agamben, Badiou, Kittler, Rancière and Žižek? And, more than that, for the academic author in general? Is one of the possible long-term effects of such open, decentralized and distributed editing going to be a shift in power and authority here, too: not just from the academic monograph to the collection or reader, as we have seen, but from the academic author to the academic editor, curator or compiler? And with that, will the importance and value of the ‘famous’ academic publisher of known and recognized quality be similarly downsized - to the point where publishing with Harvard or Cambridge University Press, or in journals such as Nature or Diacritics, will become no more a sign of importance than appearing in The New York Times does in Alexander’s account? 

 

Or is there perhaps the potential for a change even more profound than that?

 

 

Continued on Introduction to Version One Point Zero Page 2...


 

 

Endnotes

 

1. We are aware that ‘liquid’ is an increasingly popular term. Bauman writes about ‘liquid modernity’ and ‘liquid love’ and so on (see Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (London, Polity, 2000); Liquid Love (London: Polity, 2003).), and we know others are working on ‘liquid education’ (Maggie Savin-Badin, ‘Second Life PBL’, Serious Games Institute Seminar, 15th November, Coventry University, 2007.)  However, we would not want to subscribe to the nostalgia of much of Bauman’s work, evident in the idea that we have moved from a form of modernity characterised by gradual transformations and more fixed and solid structures, to a more liquid form characterised by uncertainty and rapidity of change. We see our use of ‘liquid theory’ here more in terms of trying to create an event in the environment that this project is both describing and participating in; or otherwise destablizing and breaking down some of the frozen and solidified structures and conventions of academic research and scholarly publishing, so that more rigorous and responsible (ethical and political) decisions can be taken regarding ideas of the author, peer review, intellectual property and so on, and new, different structures and conventions put in their place.

 

In this respect there is at least something in the ambiguity, flexibility, riskiness, uncertainty and contestable boundaries Bauman associates with liquid modernity we might want to draw on. However our use of the term 'liquid' is derived in the main from Kevin Kelly. Kelly writes about how:

 

once digitized, books can be unravelled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or playlists’, as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons…

(Kevin Kelly, ‘Scan This Book!’, The New York Times, 14 May, 2006)

 

Since embarking on New Cultural Studies: The Liquid Theory Reader, we have also become aware of Jonas Andersson’s Liquidculture Notebook blog; the ‘Networked’ competition to ‘develop chapters for a networked book about networked art’; and 'Liquid Publications: Scientific Publications Meet the Web'.

 

2. As Ted Striphas notes: 

 

For all practical purposes people today tend to treat books – with the exception of anthologies – as if they were discrete, closed entities. This hasn’t always been the case. In the first century of printing in the West, it wasn’t uncommon for a single bound volume to contain multiple works. One could hardly consider these books to be closed, much less objective in the sense of being contained, given how the practice of their assembly... provided for a range of textual juxtapositions. (The Bible is perhaps the most famous and enduring example of this mode of presentation.) 

(Ted Striphas, The Late of Age Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumption to Control (New York: Columbia Press, 2009) p.11)

 

3. It thus partly transforms the idea of academic publications - books, book chapters, journal articles etc. - into collections which, as a project we came across recently attempting something similar with regard to scientific publications puts it, are 'groupings of publications that can be based on topic and time but also on arbitrary rules in terms of what is included and how the quality of publications is assessed for them to be included in the collection. Collections can themselves be liquid' ('Liquid Publications: Scientific Publications Meet the Web'. Accessed 12 March, 2009).

 

4.  The REF (Research Excellence Framework) is the forthcoming means of assessing and distributing quality-related (QR) funding for research in the UK. It is thought that the REF will make more use of quantitative indicators – including bibliometric indicators of research quality - than the system it is due to replace: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise).  For more see http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/ref/. Accessed 5 June, 2009.

 

5. Bobbie Johnson, ‘Power Failure: How Huge Appetite for Electricity Threatens Internet’s Giants’, The Guardian, 4 May, 2009, p. 13.

 

6. Arnold Schwarzenegger, cited in ‘Helen Pidd, ‘Paperless Classroom Becoming a Reality as Arnie Says Hasta La Vista to Textbooks’, The Guardian, 10 June, 2009, p.7.

 

For an example, CourseSmart, an American company specializing in electronic textbooks, has an application for accessing and storing the content of otherwise heavy textbooks on Apple’s iPhone or iPod Touch. CourseSmart have made this application available for free to students in the US and Canada.

 

7.  This is one of the reasons we wanted to use a tool for constructing the Liquid Books series wiki that is easy to use and freely available: to encourage the raising of such questions, both as part of the Liquid Books series, and elsewhere; and to provide a means of doing so. For more, see Paul Miers, Culture Machine Liquid Books series wiki’, Cultural Studies Reader, 20 July, 2009.

 

8. Interestingly, Frons goes to great pains to stress that:

 

a completely personalized version of the home page isn’t something we have seriously contemplated, at least not yet. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, such a page would probably be daunting for most readers to set up and maintain. Second, and more important, I think most readers who visit the NYTimes.com home page go there because they are interested in what the editors of the New York Times think is newsworthy. There’s great value in that.

(Marc Frons, ‘Talk to The Times: Chief Technology Officer, Digital Operations’ 28 July, 2008. Accessed 4 August, 2008)

 

9.  Amy Alexander, ‘In the Future No One Will Be Famous or the Downsizing of Celebrity and its Possible Effects on The New York Times Online Edition’, posted on the nettime list 4 August, 2008.

 

10.  Amy Alexander, ‘In the Future No One Will Be Famous or the Downsizing of Celebrity and its Possible Effects on The New York Times Online Edition’, posted on the nettime list 4 August, 2008.