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Publishing in the Humanities Today: Part III

9th December 2009

Part III of Helen Tartar’s lecture at Northwestern University on November 18 discusses the role of computers and technology in the traditional publishing model:

First, a few general things about media change and about computers. Last week at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, answering a question about generational difference in response to electronic media (in particular, in the truly remarkable interimplications of metaphors and technics of electronic media in Ghanian Pentacostalism) the media scholar Jeremy Stolow said that he has not found such questions usually all that helpful in looking at the history of media change. In general, media (by contrast to types of technology) do not pop up and replace each other; rather, their evoluution is usually a complex negotiation and interimplication with earlier forms. To which I would add that there is an interplacy of coercion and freedom in how all this develops.

            The print medium provides an excellent example. The very fact of writing no doubt enabled a sort of orthodoxy more rigid than would have been possible in the mutual shapings of oral transmission—it became possible to “do things by the book.” But ever since Plato it has been common knowledge that the author of written words is powerless to control their circulation, which contributes to the fact that print has been a famously subversive medium. To publish is to disseminate to locations and audiences not determined or determinable in advance—and with effects even less so. Through publication, words can go anywhere and can have the most astonishing, and sometimes devastating, results. As an example, let me point to the Taiping Rebellion in nineteenth-century China. It was sparked when a Christian missionary tract was put into the hands of a disaffected literatus, Hong Xiuquan, who had failed to find employment in public office. He actually read the tract, and in a subsequent fever dreamed of himself as literally one of God’s children—specifically, the younger brother of Jesus. In the massive millennarian uprising that ensued when Hong brought God’s visionary battle against evil down to earth, 20 million Chinese lost their lives.

            Computers exhibit this interplay of coercion and freedom in spades. Of course, there are many positive things enabled by computers, and we are all now so bound up with them that one hardly need enumerate these things. Yet the disruption, disempowerment, and anomie they create in the “flexible” neoliberal workplace by eroding traditional modes of doing and reasoning has long been recognized. And if you can distance yourself a bit from a mythic hype of self-empowerment, autonomy, and individual choice, you just might notice that computers massively increase your dependency upon logics, organizations, persons, work skills, and locations that you know nothing about and to which you have no access. I suppose somewhere there must exist the real-life counterparts to the hackers I know only from science fiction and detective novels—miraculous adepts who can effortlessly compute their way through quasi-mystical cyberspaces to retrieve boundless amounts of secret data (and also usually money). But in the workaday world, for every one of those there must be tens of thousands of people reduced to “putzing” when something (inevitably) goes wrong with the machine, or just turning it off and praying that all will be as before and not too much time and work lost when it turns back on again. Computers also work, very actively, to hide that dependency on other workers and work skills. When the PC first came into my workplace, I assumed that eventually it would be like a car: that a system equivalent to car mechanics would grow up such that when the thing malfunctioned there would be a specialist—indeed, someone with whom one might develop a long-term relationship—to turn to. Guess again.

            You’ll have noticed that negotiations with computer technology entered my narrative in the seventies, when the advent of computer typesetting convinced universities that their linotype plants were obsolete. Ever since universities lost control of that means of production, there has been a constant negotiation about the types and locations of suppliers, including various spasms of outsourcing to Asia and, since the nineties, the possibility of bringing typesetting back in house, given new software development. This is literally ongoing—I do not know from week to week which book will pop up as having been sent to Lightning Source for “on-demand” publication rather than being reprinted conventionally.

            This is probably the main area of negotiation with electronic technology in a university press. It probably matters little to a humanities scholar whether his book is set in linotype by a university employee (the pre-seventies model), is “rekeyboarded,” as we now say, in Texas from a manuscript edited on paper (the model in the eighties), is “flowed” into a standard design by someone in Virginia on the basis of angle-bracket codes input in the course of on-line copyediting (as usually happens at Fordham UP today), or is typeset by the nice freelance managing editor in Denver who has been writing to keep the author apprised about each stage in the process (as happens with our Mellon-funded books). This does in fact, however, have an impact on the author, and to what degree she is required to participate in the drudgery of computer work via manuscript preparation or reviewing editing or dealing with proofs online. Again, though this is how the use of computers in publishing probably most directly affects authors, is rarely spoken about.

Check back tomorrow for Part IV!