Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Animals, artists, and the question of ethics: A dialogue with Steve Baker.

"There seems to be a lingering expectation that art should provide consolation – the consolation that terrible things are only happening far away, or that artists unreservedly condemn such things."

What follows here is an interview with Steve Baker about his new book, Artist Animal, in Minnesota’s Posthumanities series (further details about the book at end). Interview first published in Italian in Artribune. Questions by Leonardo Caffo and Vincenzo Santarcangelo.

Sanna Kannisto, Chlorophanes spiza. 2010.

1. First of all, something very banal: why is it interesting for us to analyze the role of animals and their representations in the history of art?

In February 2013 a major exhibition called Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind opens at the British Museum in London. It will show artifacts made between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, and previews suggest that the majority of the objects and images depict animals – horses, bison, reindeer, mammoths, and so on. It includes the extraordinary “Lion man” of Hohlenstein Stadel, which would apparently have taken around four hundred hours to carve from a mammoth tusk. If images of real animals and invented hybrid creatures are regarded as having such prominence in the emergence of the modern imagination, it’s hardly surprising that contemporary artists are still fascinated by the cultural leverage of animal imagery, and by its potential to astonish and unsettle.

2. Would you explain to us, briefly, the fundamental themes of your book Artist Animal?

The book presents artworks from the first decade of the twenty-first century by a small selection of contemporary artists from America, Europe, and Australasia who engage directly with questions of animal life – artists whose concern is with the nature and the quality of actual animal life, or with the human experience of actual animal lives. For the most part their art treats animals as creatures who actively share the more-than-human world with humans, rather than as mere symbols or metaphors for aspects of the so-called human condition. My key concern was to articulate the “voice” of these artists, and to show how they think and how they work. If you’re a philosopher or a sociologist, for example, you may not know much about those things, even if you’ve seen the finished artworks. Most chapters in the book therefore draw on substantial first-hand interviews with the artists in order to present evidence of how contemporary art can make a vital and distinctive contribution to the wider cultural understanding of animal life, and to offer insight into animal imagery that might otherwise sometimes seem willfully controversial or obscure. Many people seem to view contemporary animal art with great mistrust, and my aim has been to explain the necessary connection of creativity and trust in both the making and the understanding of these artworks.

3. Many think that art and ethics have nothing in common. Personally I don't think so. In your latest book Artist Animal you seem to agree with me, suggesting that ethics and art are far from separate. What correlations are there between animal ethics and representations of animality in art?

I’m troubled by the way that “ethics” is so widely used as a proscriptive and judgmental term. When I interview artists, I never ask them directly about their “ethical” stances, no matter how controversial their work may appear to be. What I try to do instead is to draw out information about what I’d describe as the integrity of their art practice, which is about their working methods and their approach to materials as well as the animal subject-matter of their work. In that sense I’m broadly in sympathy with Iris Murdoch’s approach (in her book The Sovereignty of Good), which “does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.” I like her observation that “aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue … in the artist … is a selfless attention to nature.” You ask what correlations there are between animal ethics and animal representations in art. I don’t think there are any fixed or necessary correlations of that sort. Several of the artists I interviewed spoke of needing to rethink their experience and their expectations in each new encounter with a living (or even a dead) animal. That seems to me to be exactly the kind of “attention to nature” that Murdoch had in mind.

4. In your book you quote Carol Gigliotti, a writer and activist who is critical of those who try to defend irresponsible artworks by claiming that art is the last frontier of radical thought. You make the point that art has the same potential as other disciplines but that it “employs different tools for thinking.” We are aware of the condition of nonhuman animals today, exploited and slaughtered for various reasons. To what extent do you think a reflection on art can help with this issue?

I’ve just started reading Cary Wolfe’s new book, Before the Law, in which he makes the succinct observation that “the distinction ‘human/animal’ is a discursive resource, not a zoological designation.” The artists I discuss in Artist Animal offer some telling examples of this. Whether or not they see themselves as animal advocates or activists, their work shows no great interest in maintaining conventional hierarchies or boundaries. Without resorting to rather simplistic ideas of hybridity, they find all manner of ways to suggest or to present the porousness of the human/nonhuman distinction and the pointlessness of drawing that distinction too sharply. This doesn’t have to be done in a heavy-handed way. Angela Singer, an artist who uses recycled taxidermy to make challenging work that nevertheless expresses her commitment to animal rights, puts it this way: “Work that seeks to persuade viewers to take a specific form of action can be quite awful. ... Trying too hard to show the issue you’re addressing can lead to dull passionless art of little interest to anyone except those concerned with the same issues. For me the best art is difficult to ‘read’.”

5. What happens when artists and animals meet in the realm of contemporary art? For example, what are, in your opinion, the limits within which an animal can be "used" by an artist?

That first question is the subject of the whole book. But to answer your second question, there are no limits to what can be done to an animal by an artist, whether through thoughtlessness or, occasionally, through cruelty. In terms of where artists choose to set their limits, there are some genuinely complex cases where the artist is clearly working with seriousness, awareness, and a sense of integrity, but where I’m personally uncomfortable with some of their decisions and actions. My approach has generally been to report in detail on these works and on the artist’s account of them, and to leave my readers to draw their own conclusions. There is no single “correct” limit. Even among the artists I discuss who share a direct commitment to animal rights, there are strikingly different views about whether, for example, the inclusion of animal bodies or animal materials in an artwork should be regarded as grossly disrespectful or as the very basis of the work’s compelling power.

Angela Singer, Dripsy Dropsy. 2006.
 6. Don't Trust Me (2008), a work by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, has recently been at the center of violent polemics, both when it was exposed at the San Francisco Art Institute (the museum staff received death threats), and in 2009 when the Foundation Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin dedicated a personal exhibition to the artist. The work consists of six videos projected in continuous loop of a brutal practice that is still common in Mexican slaughterhouses: a pig, a horse, a goat, a lamb, a roe deer, and a sheep are dragged out of the slaughterhouse and killed with a hammer blow on the head that leaves them between life and death for long and painful seconds of agony. Animal rights associations protest every time against the exhibition of such works. What do you think of such events? And, in the end, which side are you on?

Rather like an anthropologist, I think that what I can most usefully do is to report on what I find, and to try not to distort it or to pass judgment on it. I don’t see it as my job to “take sides,” or simply to condemn particular works of art. For a writer, that’s too easy, and too self-congratulatory. Don’t Trust Me is mentioned in my book, but only in the context of an American legal case where it was cited as an important example of contemporary artists not being obliged to explain or to justify the provocative imagery they present to the public. Is it not legitimate for an artist (whether or not we’re talking specifically about Abdessemed) to make a work that simply presents the stark evidence that these things are still happening? There seems to be a lingering expectation that art should provide consolation – the consolation that terrible things are only happening far away, or that artists unreservedly condemn such things. For reasons that should not be too difficult to understand, contemporary art that engages with questions of animal life is not primarily concerned with making people feel good about themselves.

Mary Britton Clouse, Cecilia. 2008.
7. One final question. Here we truly ask you to dare with your answer: can art, in the function and parameters you describe, contribute to saving "animals" also by helping humans think of their own "animality"?

If, as I suggested earlier, artists can present distinctive and unexpected ways to configure the relation of humans and other animals, that can certainly contribute in its own modest way to broader cultural challenges to anthropocentrism. But this will be a long, slow process. And the effects of art are not easily quantifiable: Félix Guattari aptly describes the work of art as “an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense.”

But contemporary artworks that move in this direction are not quite the same as the “strategic images for animal rights” that I explored twenty years ago in the final chapter of my first book, Picturing the Beast (a chapter recently translated into Italian in the journal Liberazioni). Those were campaigning images that were sufficiently imaginative to resist easy recuperation into popular culture’s clichéd and deeply anthropocentric view of animals. Contemporary art in this area is engaged in a slower and perhaps more difficult game. Describing art that she admires, the artist and activist Sue Coe has stated that “the most political art is the art of ambiguity.” And to me, one of the most fascinating things to emerge from my interviews with the artists discussed in Artist Animal was the widely-shared recognition of the importance of not quite knowing what they were doing at some crucial stage in the production of their work. There was a vital space for confusion, messiness, ambiguity and “not-knowing” in their purposeful engagement with nonhuman life. This stands in striking contrast to the view expressed recently by one philosopher that it is the responsibility of moral philosophy to offer a “consistent” and “coherent” perspective on animal issues.

To borrow Foucault’s words from a slightly different context, what these artists offer instead are images, experiences and structures “within which we both recognize and lose ourselves.” So to return to your question, yes, I think works of art can contribute to human recognition of the continuities and inclusiveness of animal life. But there are no guarantees that such recognition will lead in any direct way to a different or better treatment of nonhuman animals. At its best, what art does offer is a stubborn refusal to be indifferent to animals and to their place in contemporary life.


Steve Baker is emeritus professor of art history at the University of Central Lancashire. He is author of Artist Animal, The Postmodern Animal, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation, and, with the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals.

"(Artist Animal) is a tremendous contribution to both contemporary art criticism and the emerging field of animal studies. I can think of no scholar better poised to offer innovative insight into how artists think about and work with animals than Steve Baker. With sensitivity and a rigorous ethnographer’s eye, Baker investigates the complex attitudes and approaches artists employ when engaging the animal subject. What makes this beautiful book so successful is Baker’s deep understanding of the nuance, intricacy, and contradictions in how artists work today." —Mark Dion

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Visual culture and the Nazi perpetrator

The New York Times features a slideshow in its piece Wartime Architects: Creating Amid Chaos, on the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal's exhibit "Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War." This slide depicts shots of wartime destruction by the German photographer August Sander. Here, Paul Jaskot discusses his new book and how it also investigates how culture was influenced by the impact of "Nazi perpetrators"—and who was or was not considered a perpetrator. Original photo credit: Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Professor of art history at DePaul University

There seems to be a great deal of interest in World War II recently in the art museum world. Major exhibitions in the last year on Soviet posters at the Art Institute of Chicago and a comparative survey of “Architecture in Uniform” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, as well as a show of war related photography going on now at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts point to a willingness of curators to look beyond the canonical stylistic and market-driven categories of art to consider broader questions of social and political history. I’ll be visiting Rice University in Houston this spring and am very much looking forward to seeing the latest installation at the MFA.

These trends to me seem to speak to the broader public interest in a more complex and historical response to visual culture.

I think these kinds of shows form an important backdrop for some of the issues I tried to raise in my book, The Nazi Perpetrator: Postwar German Art and the Politics of the Right. While I have focused for the most part on well-known artists and architects—Kiefer, Libeskind, and Richter, for example—I have also tried to extend the art historical debate to address major concerns of interest to a broader audience, much like these exhibitions do. In particular, I attempt to expand on the popular studies on the memorialization of Nazi victims to ask how culture also was influenced by the impact of the perpetrators. You can search far and wide and come up with relatively few art historical accounts that take Nazi perpetrators seriously as a subject for culture, let alone rightwing debates in the postwar period. But we know that, from moderate conservatives to the most extreme neo-Nazis, the relationship between who was defined as criminal in the National Socialist past formed a constant point of reference. As such a major component of postwar West German and then reunified German politics, how could it not also be an issue of concern to artists and architects?

One of the important arguments that I made was that, indeed, these debates about who was or was not a perpetrator were of concern at particular moments in the cultural postwar history. The interpretation of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, radically shifted as the specter of the rise of neo-Nazis after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 became a matter of public concern and debate. These radical right groups made strategic connections between their own actions and the ideologies or policies of the past. The possibility that a resurgent Nazi perpetrator could be on the horizon drove an interest in completing the museum as well as a new look at the meaning of the dynamic and innovative architectural forms. Certainly, the category of the perpetrator like the politics of the right itself was neither static nor consistently employed in postwar Germany. But the continued interest in and fear of the recent past came in waves in which the debate clustered around specific definitions of the perpetrator and her or his significance to contemporary art and architecture. As in the case of Libeskind’s building and reunification, I argued that those moments in which the debate crystallized help us to explain the resonance of National Socialist Germany with all corners of society.

These recent exhibitions that take up art and war complement this argument. In the Chicago show, Peter Zegers and Douglas Druick led a curatorial team that displayed an astounding array of Soviet posters used internally and externally to promote the Allied cause. The emphasis here was on the political use of imagery for the war effort. So, too, Jean-Louis Cohen’s Montreal exhibition showed not only familiar icons of Modernist design such as Albert Kahn’s Chrysler tank factory in Detroit but also a wide range of architectural projects, from vernacular to highly symbolic buildings like the Pentagon, that supported the war effort of the Allies and the Axis. I think highlighting the political function of art and architecture helps us to see a more comprehensive and realistic picture of culture, both then and now. Our intellectual work in the museum or the pages of a book can exemplify such a political history. That seems to me a worthy critical goal for art history as a whole.


Paul B. Jaskot is professor of art history at DePaul University. He is author of The Nazi Perpetrator: Postwar German Art and the Politics of the Right; The Architecture of Oppression: The SS, Forced Labor, and the Nazi Monumental Building Economy; and coeditor of Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author's soundtrack.

Sometimes the act of not listening can chart new territories for Chicano borderlands music.

Associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside

The recent unexpected passing of singer Jenni Rivera—born Jenny Dolores Rivera Saavedra in 1969 in Long Beach, California—once again placed the spotlight on histories and experiences of Mexican-American Spanish-language singers in the U.S. and across the Américas. The outpouring of public grief over Rivera’s passing as it was covered on Spanish-language television and the continual playing of Rivera’s music on the radio resonated with me because this event took me back to the days following the passing of Selena in 1995. In fact, commentators on Spanish-language television and radio consistently expressed that they had not witnessed such a dramatic public display of grief among Latinos since the passing of Selena. Watching and listening to the continual coverage, music performances, and fan interviews in days after Rivera—nicknamed “la diva de la banda”—tragically passed away induced a flashback to the earliest queries and curiosities that framed my book Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music for the ways it prompted me to listen for Chicana singers of previous generations.

Yet, before I could listen to Chicana singers of decades earlier, I had to learn how to listen for them.

Chicano music scholarship taught me, as a graduate student, to search, query, document, and follow leads. What I learned in the research for my own book was how to be lead by unanticipated musical imaginaries held in people’s memories, the songbooks of singers, and the desires of fans. The musical canon of Chicano borderlands music is highly based on the recorded, the legible, the chronological, the audible, and the verifiable. The process of researching and writing Dissonant Divas taught me to listen for Chicana singers by being unprepared, following uncharted territories, and trusting the unexpected and intangible. Thus, one goal of the book is to affirm a way of listening to Chicana music that includes hearing singers’ voices describe life experiences, gossip, “off-the-record” tales, as well as memories that surround and move through musical notes and rhythms; these too are Chicana musical imaginaries. Such considerations certainly allowed me to propose arguments, histories, and analysis toward what I argue is “Chicana music.” Yet, such ways of listening to and for Chicana music also produced what I refer to as my own “author’s soundtrack,” that is, a musical soundtrack composed of the “off-the-record” unexpected interactions and unforeseen journeys.

One of the earliest musical additions to my soundtrack occurred while I was a graduate student conducting research at the Cineteca Nacional (National Cinematic Archive) in Mexico City. I had learned some details about films Eva Garza had appeared in from her sister. I recall sitting in a large movie theater waiting for Garza’s archived Mexican movies to be screened for me because most have not yet been transferred to DVD and are not easily acquired through mass circulation. Through the magic of visual technology, I met Eva Garza playing the character “Lucha Medina” in Bolero Inmortal (1958) and appearing as a caberatera singer in Mujeres Sin Mañana (1951; see clip below). In this performance of “Así así así” Garza’s voice hovers over the scenes of the movie as the camera moves to and away from Garza. Movie appearances by Garza such as this one would come to symbolize the way her voice has lingered around the sounds of Chicano borderlands music.

Another musical moment in my soundtrack occurred the day before I departed Havana when I had an unexpected visit with Manuel Villar, the disc jockey and musicologist I interviewed during my research trip. Mr. Villar, in his late eighties, was sitting in my hotel lobby waiting and hoping he would run into me. He explained that he had come by to bring me a gift. He handed me an old reel of audiotape wrapped in a makeshift cardboard cover that had some of Garza’s songs listed, written in ink by Villar. Villar had painstakingly transferred copies of his 78s of Eva Garza’s songs, many of the ones he still plays on his Sunday-morning Havana radio show “Recuerdos” (“Memories”) to make sure I was not missing any in my discography. Even though I had versions of the songs already, the songs on this audio reel were different and I believe they represent a different set of music by Garza than the versions I have heard in my compilation of her songbook.

My soundtrack also includes the day I walked into my office after teaching to find a voicemail on my campus phone. There was a message from someone named Harrison, an elderly man with a Southern accent, who said he was calling from Alabama. He expressed in his long message that he found me while doing internet searches for Eva Garza and located an essay I had written on her for the San Antonio-based Esperanza Peach and Justice Center Newsletter. He explained that he wanted to know more about her, where she was from, and what other song recordings she made. When I asked how he knew about Garza’s music he recounted how he fell in love with her music when he first heard it on a restaurant jukebox while stationed at military base near Monterey, California, in the late 1940s. He went on to tell me how he purchased one 78rpm of Garza’s music soon after and “played it until it was worn out.”

“I still have it,” he expressed. It’s the only record he ever owned by Garza and he never forgot her.

There are many soundtracks and songbooks of Chicana singers that are not included within the pages of my book that are still waiting for someone to listen to. I believe these soundtracks—stuffed in manila folders, recalled through gossip, and created each time someone sings along with a song that conjures a memory—is what creates a potential power of music and of music scholarship. My soundtrack to this book is continually playing and consistently offering me lessons on thinking critically about music, that sometimes not listening, not following the material leads, and instead hearing the sounds around music can offer new meanings for what Chicano borderlands music can imagine.


Deborah R. Vargas is author of Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda. She is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside.

"With Dissonant Divas, Deborah R. Vargas makes us the gift of a more vibrant and expansive soundscape for hemispheric cultural studies. By broadening and interrogating the archive of Mexican and Mexican American popular music, Vargas restores a pantheon of Mejicana recording artists to their place at the center of a musical scene where artists contested the boundaries of gender, sex and nation through innovative performance and subversive self-styling. Like the music it so artfully engages, Dissonant Divas is a landmark text, beautifully conceived and written, with much to offer a wide range of audiences."
—Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Yale University

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More guns in schools? An ethnographer's perspective.

Author Kathleen Nolan has studied what really happens when police patrol school hallways. Images from Creative Commons.

Princeton University lecturer

Since National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre made a wildly irresponsible statement in favor of placing police or armed guards in all schools last month, several politicians have put forth their own proposals to “beef up” school security and even give teachers and principals handguns and target practice for protection.

Subsequently, gun-control experts have provided many cogent rebuttals, but there has been very little public discussion about the realities of daily life in schools with armed police officers and guards.

As our nation chooses which policy direction to take, it is crucial to consider existing research that illuminates some of the consequences of security programs that rely on guns in schools.

My own ethnographic research in a highly policed school in New York City shows that when law enforcement patrol school hallways, students are regularly confronted by the police and often end up getting arrested for incidents that begin with school infractions, rather than violations of the law. The school takes on prison-like characteristics, and a culture of control overshadows the educational mission of the institution.

Other research is consistent with my own findings. A 2009 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, for example, shows that policing in NYC schools has led to gross violations of students’ civil rights, and several reports published by the Advancement Project have demonstrated how “beefed up school discipline” can create a “school-prison track”—especially for Black and Latino/a students and students with special needs.

My findings, of course, describe an extreme set of outcomes that would likely remain limited to racially segregated schools in low-income communities.

Nevertheless, in any school with armed guards and police, there are no clear boundaries between school discipline and security. It would be naïve to believe that students would only be protected and never targeted. Indeed, some shooters in previous school gun massacres have been students, so students would be under the gaze of the guards. If your child is a person of color, he or she is already marked. In fact, an abundance of evidence demonstrates that Black and Latino/a students and other students of color are much more likely than their white counterparts to face the punitive consequences of police intervention—even for the same behaviors. Our children with special needs are also marked. Their easily misunderstood behaviors or compromised communication skills place them at risk. In fact, the number of children at risk of facing the barrel of a gun would be ever-growing. The unusually angry or sullen child, the quick-handed kid who reaches for his cell phone, the unrecognized, visiting father—they are all vulnerable.

Additionally, while many schools would be able to avoid the prison-like atmosphere I encountered at the racially segregated, urban school where I conducted my research, you could reasonably expect a cultural shift. In any school with a visible police presence or armed guards and metal detectors, the institutional language and daily rituals are influenced by the logic of the criminal justice system. Students become accustomed to walking through a metal detector. And this is not an event that goes unnoticed. In large schools with metal detectors, students often have to stand outside and wait in line—sometimes for an hour or more—to get into the building. As one teacher in my study shared, going through the metal detector each day sets a very negative psychology; it’s a hostile experience. Kids get used to the frequent pat-downs that occur when every little benign metal object sets off the detector, going on “lock-down,” and seeing peers get “picked up.” Children are also at risk of either developing animosities with police or living in fear that they are not safe without armed protection.

Placing armed guards in schools is also much less effective and more dangerous than some may realize. Some research suggests that school-based policing programs, also known as school resource officer (SRO) programs, have been successful at reducing disorder and certain forms violence in schools. But this is only the case when the role of police is clearly defined and carefully limited. It also appears to work best when police take on constructive roles such as mentoring students in gangs rather than patrol duties. Other research indicates that armed guards do not make schools safer. A study published in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations in 2011, for example, revealed that schools with armed security guards have higher rates of violence than schools without them.

In my own study, there were several auxiliary officers, thankfully unarmed, and I found that they often exacerbated incidents of violence rather than defused them. They knew very little about adolescent psychology and were unprepared to constructively address a range of student behaviors. Imagine if they were armed. Even well-trained police officers usually have little experience confronting crazed shooters.

Additionally, I found that virtually everyone with whom I spoke, including police officers, believed that despite security technology and heavy policing, guns could be slipped into the building, through windows, back doors, and even right past the metal detectors. After spending much time in the school, I too was convinced that it would not be difficult to get a gun into the school for any person intent on doing so. Indeed, a gun may not even need to be concealed. As a number of analysts have pointed out in recent weeks, it is more likely that the guard at the door would be shot and killed by an armed intruder before he or she knew what was happening. For similar reasons, we should not be swayed by proposals to arm one trained educator in the building. Chances are much higher that such a plan would go terribly wrong rather than actually stop a gunman who would likely take the armed educator by surprise or enter on the opposite side of the building from the armed educator’s location.

Turning so much of our attention toward “beefing up” security by introducing more guns in schools is particularly dangerous because such plans divert our attention away from the kinds of solutions that will actually help to create safer schools and a safer society. Some SRO programs may be successful in curtailing certain forms of violence, but at a potentially great cost. Ronnie Casella’s research on this topic demonstrates that when we rely on police strategies for matters of school safety, “hidden” forms of violence, such as bullying and self-mutilation associated with mental illness, get overlooked. And this hidden violence, not adequately addressed, has contributed greatly to rampages.

We do not need cadres of armed guards or gun-toting principals in schools. We need instead amply staffed teams of social workers and counselors in schools—professionals who work from an educational, child-development, or mental health perspective, rather than a criminal justice paradigm. We need to invest much more in providing schools with these supports as part of reasonable and well researched, rather than reactionary and dangerous, school security plans. We also need better and more accessible mental health services in and out of schools, and we need to target gun violence at its source through strict gun control. Don’t let the reactionary, uninformed rhetoric of puffed-up politicians sway you.


Kathleen Nolan is author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School. She works in the Teacher Preparation Program and is a lecturer at Princeton University. She teaches seminars related to urban education.

"A damning portrait . . . by exhaustively profiling an unnamed Bronx high school — shadowing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators, security guards, and police officers over the course of an academic year — Nolan reveals the worrying ways educative aims have been eroded by a culture of control, the ways learning is superseded by law enforcement."
—The New Inquiry 

"Anyone interested in education in America should definitely take this sobering journey into life in an urban high school."
—Library Journal

Monday, January 7, 2013

From MLA 2013: Considering serial scholarship and the future of scholarly publishing

Taking a look at how the lifecycle of the scholarly book, and how the concurrent move toward a database structure for dissemination of scholarship in article and monographic form, has the potential to further promote an emerging new ecology of serial discourse.

BY DOUG ARMATO, director of University of Minnesota Press
Discussion delivered at an MLA 2013 roundtable on serial scholarship

In the Albanian novelist Ismael Kadare's 1980 novel The Palace of Dreams, spies lurk in the corners of taverns, coffee shops, town plazas, parties, and other gathering places in order to overhear people talk of the dreams they had the night before, and then report them to a central agency where they are analyzed and correlated with other overheard dreams for the indications they may provide about events and attitudes that will emerge from the subconscious to action and tangible reality.

Kadare's vision of a surveillance bureau for the unformed, still emerging impulses and desires revealed in a network of dreams is a fair approximation of the university press acquisitions editor's practice as scholarly communication — as distinct from scholarly publishing — continues to move online via informal modes such as blogs, microblogs, social networks, digital commons, and serial scholarship. We are increasingly in a position of tracking scholarly ideas as they emerge and take shape; correlating them with other emerging concepts; seeing them shared or challenged; and monitoring them as they coalesce into tangible form. Somewhat akin to William Gibson's famous definition of cyberspace as a "collective hallucination," the emerging scholarly spaces on the web including individual and collective blogs and scholars' use of commercial spaces such as Twitter and Facebook, and other online traces such as syllabi, CVs, conference programs, and open-access journal articles, become for the university press editor a kind of collective scholarly becoming.

There is a massive flaw in this schema in that clusters of scholars and areas of scholarly inquiry have an unequal distribution and concentration on the web—architectural historians, by and large, do not dream in public the way that medievalists or 19th-century American literary scholars seem to. But, increasingly in certain areas in which we publish, we see scholarly projects emerge serially from the larval stages of Twitter or Facebook discussions through the chrysalis of blog posts and conference papers and unlike other, earlier, forms of editorial sleuthing, we can simultaneously obtain a sense of reception and audience, the extent of an author's network, and even the author's aspirations, from online scholarly communications. The editors with whom I work are constantly sending each other links to traces of projects, many at very early stages, that we discover online; in a recent University of Minnesota Press catalog, the first three titles all had social media connections as part of the acquisitions process. That same year our bestselling scholarly title had been published nearly in its entirety as serial blog posts. We also discover books that are unaccountably out of print and indications of authors who need to be translated online. To use another William Gibson concept, the scholarly acquisition editor's work is increasingly that of "pattern recognition" and not the mere bureaucracy of peer review that some imagine.

A columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education came by the Minnesota (MLA 2013) booth and asked the question: "What percentage of prior publication makes you hesitate to publish a manuscript?" A bit too glibly, I replied: "100%". Too glibly, both because we would consider, have considered, and indeed regularly publish, single-authored books that are revised from100% previously available material and also because, for a project of limited or very focused potential, the prior publication as chapters in journal form or as an online dissertation may accomplish the level of circulation we believe that particular work requires. Similarly, our question considering works that have appeared serially online isn't, and this may sound strange, so much "have people already read it?" but rather "how many more readers can we find?” and “can we make more of it editorially?” Because, in our current cultural moment at least, people respond and act upon published books, in print or electronic form, differently than they do the serial form of the same material. An author I work with who has a widely trafficked blog, and who also contributes to even more trafficked sites such as The Atlantic's blog network (and, I should say, his books sell) has told me that people don't remember blogs, but they do remember books. This might not be true in a blog-intensive area such as Digital Humanities (though, in fact, I suspect it is) but it does hold for most scholarly publication where the authors of the most influential blogs are also the authors of some of the most successful books.

For me, the current place of the individual book in this emerging ecosystem is as an area of highly concentrated, unitary scholarship amid a flow of less concentrated expression, with a membrane (let's dub that membrane "peer review," though it is more than that) regulating the passage between those environments as a form of osmosis. That flow of blog posts, social media interactions, conference papers, online discussions coalesces into the highly concentrated monograph or scholarly book (endosmosis) and then flows out again (exosmosis) in the form of other scholars' blog posts, social media comments, conference discussion, reviews and articles.

The problem here, currently, is that that membrane separating the highly concentrated scholarly book from the overall flow of scholarly communication isn't as permeable as it should be—the membrane we've dubbed "peer review" also has pernicious, regressive layers known as "intellectual property" and "strained library budgets." So what we need to do to make this environment function is to increase the passage between those serial molecules of informal scholarly communication and the more concentrated cells of scholarly communication. This requires a form of greater openness but not, I should say, one founded merely on blunt political and economic arguments with their appeals to either utopianism or neoliberal Creative Destruction, but rather on the common need to create a better, more interoperable system of scholarly communication and publication and a steady flow from the serial development of scholarship into the material event of scholarly publication and out again. Emerging collective publishing projects such as Books@JSTOR and the University Press Content Consortium at Project Muse provide the opportunity to reshape scholarly publication into database form and, in the process, both open that flow and equitably distribute costs across institutions worldwide.

In his 1976 philosophical work Summa Technologiae, which will be published in translation this spring by the University of Minnesota Press, the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem posed the problem of "peak information," the human inability to process the information it creates:

Let us now consider the possibility of a defeat. What will happen to a civilization that does not manage to overcome its information crisis? It will become transformed from one that studies “everything” (as ours does at the moment) into one that only focuses on a few selected directions. With each one of those directions gradually beginning to experience the lack of resources, their number will steadily decrease.

As attractive as the concept of free and ungirdled information and scholarship may be, it will, as Lem projects, lose its vitality if it is not managed, regulated, constrained. We need, I believe, to encourage and celebrate the practices of serial and often informal scholarly communication but also preserve the cultural strength and presence of scholarly publication, increasing the flow between and interoperability of the two in order to protect our discipline from the form of extinction that Lem foresees in the apocalyptic battle of the disciplines that will come as we approach "peak information."

Thank you.


This discussion was presented by University of Minnesota Press director Doug Armato at the 2013 MLA convention's Serial Scholarship Roundtable. The panel was moderated by Mark Sample (George Mason University) and included participants Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona College/MLA; Frank Kelleter, University of Gottingen (Germany); Kirstyn Leuner, University of Colorado at Boulder; Jason Mittell, Middlebury College; and Ted Underwood, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Just released: Debates in the Digital Humanities, OA edition

Yesterday at the 2013 MLA convention, author Matthew Gold unveiled the brand-new, online, open-access edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities. This website is a joint initiative of The Graduate Center, City University of New York and the University of Minnesota Press. It features new articles, feedback visualizations, and a whole lot of awesomeness.

Want more information? Check out Debates in the Digital Humanities in print.

The flooded streets of Minneapolis

Yesterday afternoon, a major water main break on a busy downtown Minneapolis intersection flooded streets just a few blocks from the University of Minnesota Press headquarters. We thought we'd share some excellent photos taken by colleague Anne Carter: