The Politics of Information: A Critical E-Book Under Way

The Politics of Information: A Critical E-Book Under Way

Joseph Tabbi

On the imminent publication of the first alt-x critical e-book.

“The Politics of Information” is an essay collection in five parts co-edited by Marc Bousquet and Katherine Wills. Released serially in ebr through the Fall of 2003, the essay volume is set to appear, in early 2004, as the first in a new initiative, the altx critical e-book series. This series, an alternative and complement to academic press publication, is itself a way of responding to the issue of Informatics revisited by Bousquet, Wills, and the numerous collection authors. With the instrumentalization of higher education comes a need for professional academics to publish - and to continue publishing, and to continue publishing in print - regardless of whether or not the printed book is the best means for circulating an argument, a literary thesis, or the close reading of a work of literature. If the scholarly book becomes obsolete, computers and the Internet will not be to blame; obsolescence is more likely to result from overproduction and the requirements of personal advancement within the university system.

At we hold that the medium of publication is less important to the development of scholarship than the scholar’s ability to engage within a professional network. Evidence of such engagement is of course possible with books, although it may take years for citations to appear in future books by other scholars. In practice, a scholar’s publication in a prestigious press has been itself evidence enough, for most voting members on a tenuring committee, that the candidate has made the grade. But, important as acceptance by a Press may be, its enormous powers of validation easily become themselves the reason and rationale for scholarship: so much so, that scholarly activity often ends before the book comes off the Press. Rather than read the work, most committee members are only too happy to cede the decision about quality and importance to the Press and its readers.

The altx Board and the editors at ebr do not disparage the institution of peer review. The Bousquet/Wills manuscript itself duly went out to independent readers before acceptance, and such will be the norm for future titles in the critical e-book series. What we dislike, however, is the tendency to let peer review, and the written responses of a Press’s reviewers, take the place of active engagement by a community of writers and scholars, whose work should be available to the public. The process that brought a work to publication should not be hidden from view. Hence one of the distinguishing features in the altx series is that reports on successful manuscripts will be made available to readers - and available too, like the published work itself, for further commentary, glossing, and riposting.

One characteristic of Web publishing is its remixing of functions that print and its institutions had once neatly separated out. In the past, authors writing with an eye on the future could safely leave the material preservation of content to libraries. Today, if an author working in electronic environments does not do the work of preservation, nobody will. Certainly preservation will not be accomplished by commercial software, since each new software generation (and even the same version seen on different platforms) most likely will alter links, metadata, dates, and the overall `look’ of a document, if not character strings in the text itself.

Likewise a book’s publication and the appearance of its reviews traditionally have been so materially distinct that the distinction now constitutes, in the minds of most scholars, an ethical imperative. But we do not see the benefit to having reviews appear scattershot, in forums that most of the book’s readers never see - or to have a book, for that matter, detached from its reviews. (Even the Norton classics, bound together with original reviews and scholarship, are highly selective, and scarcely representative of the reception of the book as a whole.) One of ebr ‘s near-term goals is to commission responses in the place where scholarly and critical writing is published, at the moment of publication. As publishers of literary scholarship, we will organize the publication’s own first response, and continue to solicit responses throughout the work’s life online. Integrity will be maintained, not by a material separation of book and commentary, but by having both authors and commentators understand that the work is under discussion, ongoing, and revisable.

The ebr editors have already invited critical readers in to comment during the online serial publication of “The Politics of Information.” Further commentary from general readers is welcome. The collection content is polemical and timely; initiating a new ebr thread, “Technocapitalism,” the essays also touch on earlier threads, in particular “Writing Postfeminism,” “Critical Ecologies.” Recalling that Donna Haraway’s Cyborg was never meant to be a wired, blissed-out bunny, Bousquet and Wills recover the political dimension in socialist-feminist thought. “The Politics of Information” brings class back into cultural studies, considers the Web as crucial to the expanding “informatics of domination,” and recovers the cyborg as a key figure for an entire world of labor and lifeways. The authors in this wide-ranging collection, most of them pioneers in the development of Internet content, address the concerns not only of designers and users, but of everyone in the service and homework economy: “janitors, perma-temps, motherboard assemblers, and all who provide the feminized labors of reproduction that include child care, health care, and a deeply instrumentalized education.”

(My citation is from Marc Bousquet’s first section introduction; readers may take up the thread there.)