Reimagining the past and future of academic books: interview with Janneke Adema, author of Living Books

At DARIAH, recognizing and even celebrating the complexities of humanistic and artistic research practices has always been at heart of our interest. This includes connecting DARIAHns with fair Open Access players and showcasing, discussing innovations that are pushing the boundaries of what we can conceive as the scholarly monograph in the 21st century. The conversation below with Janneke Adema, author of Living Books: Experiments in the Posthumanities had started out as a twitter exchange that later we continued in the margins of the book. In this post, you can read its remediated, recontextualized version where the questions are not directly anchored in the introduction chapter of the book. We discuss how blogging helped her to rethink book publishing (of her own and of others); the fetishization of print books and how it relates to Zoom background, dynamic forms of publishing and many more. Enjoy!

Hi Janneke and thanks for teaming up with me to experiment with an interview format that unfolds in the margins of the book. Could you start off by telling us a bit about what motivated the creation of Living Books? What kinds of experiences were influential in this respect and how did you manage to turn it into an experimental book writing project? 

Thank you Erzsébet for engaging with Living Books here in the margins of the text, further extending it and keeping it alive! I guess the start of the book in some ways lies back in 2008 when I just finished my MA in Book and Digital Media Studies (with a dissertation on open access publishing). I first encountered the open access movement during my MA and shortly afterwards I started working as a researcher on the OAPEN project, which focused on developing open access models for academic books (at a time when this still seemed like a far-fetched ideal to many). Around that time I also started writing a research blog, Open Reflections, which was a way for me to publish my research ideas as they were developing, report back from conferences and events, and establish connections with other research projects and researchers. Blogs were both still relatively novel in academia then while also being heavily experimented with in DH and media studies circles. In this sense it provided me the opportunity to experiment with publishing my research-in-development in an alternative, more direct way (than traditional print-based scholarly outputs – e.g., by incorporating a different writing style, length and format, by incorporating pictures, video etc.) and the blog’s commenting function (in the heydays of RSS) offered the option for more direct interactions around research.

This ‘experiment’ with blogging very much formed the basis for my interest in other more experimental forms of open publishing, and to explore alternative futures for the book in general. But my motivation has also always been an activist one, to intervene in and rethink humanities knowledge production, specifically with respect to the political-economy of book publishing, the hegemony of commercial publishers, and the commodification of scholarship into knowledge objects.

Experimenting with and reimagining the book as living, collaborative, and iterative is an essential part of this intervention, to challenge the ongoing objectification and commodification and to highlight the inherent dynamic materiality of the book. Inspiration came from other experiments with the form of the academic book, for example from the influential Institute for the Future of the Book, the design experiments of N. Katherine Hayles (with Anne Burdick) and Paul D. Miller (with COMA), McKenzie Warks’ GAM3R 7H30RY, and a blossoming interest in remix studies and theory, amongst others through the work of Miller, Mark Amerika, Eduardo Navas, and Lawrence Lessig’s book Remix, the rise in use of Creative Commons licenses, etc. When an opportunity arose to do a PhD on the future of the monograph at Coventry University with Gary Hall (himself experimenting with the future of the book and open access through Open Humanities Press, amongst others), I decided to use my blog as a way to openly develop my thesis while also rethinking the form and practice of the thesis—and the thesis again lies at the basis of this book!

Living Books challenges a broad set of opposing logics (perceived or real) that structure publishing and academia of our age. Thinking and working along well established schemas and units of scholarship vs. experimenting that cross-cuts these units is one of them. Let me still ask: how would you ground this work in terms of disciplines and methodology? Critical media studies, science and technology studies, posthumanities, cultural anthropology or none of these? 

In many ways the research that informs the book is inherently interdisciplinary and takes inspiration from various fields. Book studies and media studies are the most directly related perhaps (also given my background), but I also draw extensively on cultural studies theories and practices, feminist new materialism, remix studies, and publishing studies. One of the arguments I make in Living Books is that book studies as a field still holds on to a lot of dichotomies (culture/technology, print/digital etc.) where I have tried to complicate these, while at the same time exploring what lies behind this humanist and representationalist focus on the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent. In formulating, performing, and expanding a critique of these binaries and the authority of certain essentialist ideas related to the universal sovereign “human” that continues to underlie the humanities (e.g., the fetishisation of the rational, individual, original, liberal humanist author, or the way the book and publications are perceived as fixed and bound commodities) Living Books connects to a larger movement toward formulating a posthumanities. Here the focus is on how we do scholarship while challenging the humanist assumptions underneath much (book/humanities) scholarship and publishing practices. A posthumanities practice thus acknowledges the agency of nonhumans, of tools, technologies and material objects in research practices, and wants to create spaces for alternative posthumanities’ ways or methods to create, perform, and distribute research that better accommodates this plurality of actants. In this sense, posthumanities also has to include both a theoretical and a practical critique involving our scholarly practices, methods, and approaches with respect to knowledge production and dissemination. I see my research therefore as also incorporating such a practical critique, as being grounded in a methodology of critical praxis or a scholarly poethics, reflected in and through the various publishing projects I have been involved in, in connection to and as part of Living Books. Finally, Living Books also connects to what Georgina Wilson recently coined as ‘Book Theory’ ‘theoretically-alert work at the intersection of the literary and material’—to which maybe I would add the prefix ‘critical’ to reflect its activist and interventionist potential to provide alternatives to our accustomed forms and ways of publishing in the humanities and to explore how we move publishing away from commercial interests and towards public ownership, while seeing publishing as an essential part of our research practice.

Front cover of Living Books for the print, PD and PubPub version.

Let’s also discuss the fetishization of print books. To give you a personal example: I’ve been following Kathleen Gregory’s research on digital discovery practices and found her insights really interesting (you can read about her research here, for instance). The other day, I received a print copy of her dissertation and, completely paradoxically to its topic, it felt so good to put it on my bookshelf. Where is this satisfactory feeling coming from and why do we still purchase print copies of OA books that we like? 

Beyond the fact that some, or maybe most, people still prefer to read long-form research in print (although I think academics are more and more reading books online or digitally these days too), there is so much cultural and academic capital invested in printed books and this satisfactory feeling that you describe is very recognisable to many researchers I think!

And not only researchers. Look at how the bookcase is a favourite backdrop in our zoom calls to showcase authority (see the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility @BCredibility for some hilarious commentary on this). But it also reflects the prestige that is still afforded within academia to the printed academic book or the print form, for example within our promotion and assessment systems (unfortunately still to the detriment of digital scholarship or more experimental long-form work, although progress is also made on that front).

The cultural form of the book as status form and symbol is also what Jessica Pressman explores in her book Bookishness, and in many ways this renewed focus on print can also be seen as a direct response to the digital, and sometimes also reflects a post-digital culture in which print is increasingly used purposely as a way to elude online surveillance and tracking of research. Yet as Living Books also highlights, it might not be that useful to put print and digital in a binary relationship to each other, lots of interesting experimental long-form scholarship is published in print, where the adaptation of academic books to the digital environment for a large part has mirrored established print-based (bound and objectified) forms. What is clear is that beyond the material forms of our long-form scholarship (be it print, manuscript, digital, postdigital, or hybrid) what scholars need most of all is a dedication to and a focus on care for their books as part of the publishing process (including for the published object and how relationships and communities are established around it) which is something that the radical OA presses and communities that I outline in Living Books, are envisioning as an essential part of their publishing outlook and relationship with the research community. Here presses such as Mattering Press, for example, are juxtaposing care practices in opposition to a logics of calculation and metrics-based regimes, as part of a recognition of and dedication to the diversity of relations at work in publishing and scholarly communication.

Speaking of opposing logics, Living Books invites us to think beyond the print vs. digital dichotomy. (A personal note: for me, it turned out to be especially challenging to revisit this opposition frame) In the first chapters concerning book history, Living Books outlines complex dynamics of how the long establishment of books as material, social and power objects have been shaping our ideas of what counts as scholarship also in the digital age. How about the other way around? Do you think our everyday digital environments (such as the use of social media, Spotify, Pinterest, OMEKA etc.) and our everyday textual habits (such as the amount of text messages we exchange per day) have an impact on scholarly writing? 

What an interesting question, and yes, definitely, the book is shaped by both these digital environments and our textual communication practices. Social media (from blogs to academic Twitter and Facebook) have become part of our established ways to share research (including book research) and to disseminate it, but they are also increasingly platforms to publish research on and to have conversations around research (see Twitter threads, hashtags, conference blogging etc.). As many have already remarked, our attention span is changing and work-pressures keep increasing and often scholars simply do not have the time anymore to engage as much with long-form scholarship (or, to write it) as they might maybe want to, which is partly why there has been a trend for shorter or mid-length books or minigraphs (see The University of Minnesota Press’ Forerunners series, Stanford Briefs, and Cambridge University Press’ Elements series).

But something I am personally also excited about is the rise in academic or non-fiction audiobooks (I recently listened to D’Ignazio and Klein’s Data Feminism which lends itself really well to the audiobook format) which is part of a general trend—potentially due to our increasingly working from home (WFH) environment—to minimise screen time while audiobooks are also a great companion on lockdown walks. Yet I do think that within all of this there remains a clear space for the long-form (and print) format, we might just engage with books differently going forward as readers/scholars (and we do already, the way we skim read and how digital tools have helped us read and search books more purposely is one example of this) and will probably switch more between print and digital for the time being.

According to Living Books, one of the most disruptive twists in (re) imagining the future of scholarly books is to challenge the idea of long forms necessarily being fixed, finite units of scholarship and explore writing and publishing mechanisms that open a much bigger window on the epistemic processes themselves, enabling authors to “share research as it develops” (p. 34). I know such mechanisms from STEM disciplines called continuous publishing. Can you name examples from the Humanities? Also, this dynamicity is naturally enabled by digital media where our dissemination capacities are non finite any more. But human attention is very much so. Will we, scholarly communities, gain capacity to keep up with dynamically changing outputs? 

Also, can you list your favourite examples of living books that were influential on your thinking about the future of scholarly books? What piece of advice would you give both to their readers and future authors of these kinds of work?

You raise a very valid point about attention span and the time scholars have available to contribute to collaborative scholarship.

Publishing a book (or “cutting it down” at a point of formal publication) is of course one way to signal, hey, this research is ready to be interacted with, to respond to, to submit for assessment etc. But we might want to cut-down research at other points during its development too, and we already do (when we publish ideas on Twitter, first drafts on blogs, papers at conferences, updated editions etc.), so versioning or continuous publishing as you call it is in many ways just a mirroring of established practices.

But processual or iterative publishing also has the potential to complicate distinctions between research and publishing and can help us think through why (for what reasons) we publish (which is also something I and others are exploring as part of the Post-Publishing programme, which in a way is a follow up to Living Books or a continuation of some of its arguments). Partly publishing is of course about making research public, but it is also about creating publics or communities around our research. Keeping communities involved in dynamically changing research might indeed mean a move away from a focus on single-authorship and the commodified object-focused logic underlying most publishing, and towards co-creation and an acknowledgements of the various people and agencies (already) involved in knowledge production. Research and publishing are always already inherently collaborative and processual, maybe this is just something we need to start acknowledging more.

I am excited by books that challenge our thinking about what a book is or that critique or reperform our established way of doing publishing, be that through forms of anonymous or posthuman authorship, to radical forms of publishing that disrupt the relationalities of publishing (from radical OA to shadow libraries), or books that experiment with the form or medium of the book in a more material sense (multimodal, experimental design, remixed, versioned, etc.). As part of the COPIM project we have worked towards creating a typology of experimental books, which includes several examples of the above.

My advice to those wanting to experiment with their publishing practices, would be to reflect on the reasons they want or need to publish and to actively try out alternative ways of publishing books or research, to explore platforms beyond Word and print or online PDF, to examine what kind of form or format, or way of writing best reflects their research or research process. If that is print, that is great, but currently print and print-based publishing is the default we fall back to, and I would suggest to both authors and readers to be more expansive in their choices (where possible—with the caveat that we don’t always have a ‘choice’). At the moment, there is still the issue of the ‘double load’ where it comes to authors experimenting with alternative forms of research and publication (where this tends to happen in addition to more traditional forms of publishing, which scholars are often pressured into doing to align to assessment and promotion criteria) but hopefully this will start to change once more people start to experiment and with the support of the alternative (community-owned) open publishing channels, infrastructures, and workflows, that are increasingly being created.

Selection of draft chapters of Living Books made available on the Openreflections blog (https://openreflections.wordpress.com/)

The fact that Living Books is itself an experiment to broaden our understanding of what a scholarly monograph of our age can be adds interesting meta reflections and critical test implementation practices to your research. As you say: “Therefore Living Books itself functions as an intervention and experiment; starting with the long- form argument that is the book itself, it actively critiques, in form, practice, and content, established print- based notions, politics, and practices within the humanities in a performative way.” Do you have optimal ways of engaging in mind in which the readers of the books can interact with the different manifestations of the book? Can you point us to a sort of a map which shows the network of its different versions and enrichments? 

I guess I always had engagement with readers in mind, given my experiences with the Open Reflections blog, and I have always tried to encourage others to take my research, reuse it, and adapt it (it is all—or almost all of it—openly licensed and I share as much as possible my writings and presentations). But I have to confess that for me this project has maybe mostly been an opportunity to experiment with using different writing and publishing platforms, familiarising myself with their modalities, engaging with the communities that maintain these platforms (the amazing Knowledge Futures Group for example, in the case of the PubPub version of Living Books). More so than perhaps necessarily having optimal ways of engagement in mind from the outset (although my original plans for the book did include more of a focus on others remixing the book more directly, but I couldn’t find a publisher interested in pursuing this with me). If anything, certain tools, technologies, and platforms, or even publishing work in an open way, don’t directly enable engagement, as this need to be sought and promoted, and there needs to be an incentive for others to engage (for example as part of review process (pre or post-publication), a reading group, educational setting, or conference, etc. or because they are actively (and personally) asked to provide feedback or are co-creating the research). However, one thing that I am interested in exploring is interactions such as this, interviews in the margins, or making connections from the book to other and related works (by myself and others) via annotating and hyperlinking. But there is also the versioning aspect that keeps intriguing me, the opportunity to further add to and update Living Books, and to incorporate other voices. This is something that I would like to explore more, also to see how this version will start to diverge from the print version. At the same time, I don’t think a clear map exists of how the book and its various versions have developed up to now. I have outlined a few versions in Living Books but I am not sure the full network of connections, iterations, and adaptations will be that easy to trace back as over the last decade elements of this research have found their way into conference papers, articles, remixed essays, twitter threads, magazine articles, interviews, video recordings, podcasts, wikis, liquid and living books etc. and it this sense a clear demarcation or network maybe doesn’t exist to easily map the project, which perhaps is an indication of how open and networked scholarship tends to spread and can be taken up by others and in other forms and media.

Thank you for your time, Janneke! It has been great to learn from your insight and experience!

Cite this article as: Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra, Janneke Adema: "Reimagining the past and future of academic books: interview with Janneke Adema, author of Living Books," in DARIAH Open, 18/10/2021, https://dariahopen.hypotheses.org/?p=1128.


You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. 10/11/2021

    […] verweise ich auch auf das Interview mit Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra vom Projekt […]

  2. 06/12/2021

    […] with author: Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra (Dariah Open, […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search