As part of the documentation for the first book coming out of the Combinatorial Books Pilot Project, we are reflecting on its application of collaborative re-writing as a form of re-use.
Depending on the type of open licence, open access publications allow for the re-use of already published content. In addition to this, collaborative editing and writing tools enable further engagement with and around published works by (communities of) authors. The interactive and collaborative potential of open books can add further value and new avenues and formats that go beyond the more obvious benefits of open access, such as, for example, enhancing the discovery and online consultation (Snijder, 2019) of scholarly publications.
Re-use can take different forms, being highly context-specific. Imagine, for example, a collage text entirely composed of text snippets, or a remix in which two existing texts are woven together in the fashion of a parallel montage. Re-use mobilises combinatorial creativity, or the process of combining existing ideas to produce something new, that can be perceived as a critique of the idea of the original genius, or, in the context of academia, of the single liberal humanist author (Popova, 2011). Re-use might also involve creating new communities and conversations around already existing books and texts, for example by means of gathering together comments and annotations, and adding hyperlinks. It can additionally foster experimentation with more social and open forms of performing humanities scholarship and scholarly interaction with and around books: for example, through open peer review and networked books. Other forms of re-use can be directed towards the updating, translating, modifying, reviewing, versioning, and forking of existing books. Combinatorial Books will experiment with such possibilities in theory and practice in order to stimulate, explore, and practice the full range of social book interactions made possible by open access. As such, it aims to promote the reuse of open access books as part of a workflow that enables the creation of new publications out of existing ones. Engaging with re-use in this way implies the adaptation of existing workflows, systems, practices, and licensing. However, these can be, as we hope to show in this series of blogposts, relatively simple, low-key adaptations that do not have to be labour- and cost-intensive and do not necessarily require advanced technological expertise.
For the experiments around writing, re-use, and remix that have been done in an open access context in the humanities (and specifically also in the field of cultural studies), visual art and literature from the first half of the 20th Century are much cited inspirations. See for example Hannah Höch’s collages, Tristan Tzara’s cut-up poetry, or John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy; the work of beat poets such as Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in the late 1950s and 1960s; and feminist art and avantgarde scholarship of the 1970s, e.g. Kathy Acker’s textual collages or Martha Rosler’s photomontages.
In addition to this, in the context of the OHP Pilot Project, the combinatorial creativity the project has aimed to foster, namely the cutting and pasting of texts to create new manuscripts as a form of ‘remixing’, relates back to the practice of cutting and pasting texts to compile scrapbooks or so-called commonplace books in Early Modern times (Adema, 2017). In this context, re-use can be seen as an exploration of writing that has as its starting point the position that every book is a community of other texts, readers, and authors (and thus materials, technologies, and bodies). Texts draw on each other, in a dense network of implicit references (hence Roland Barthes’ famous description of the text as a ‘tissue of quotations’ (1967)).
For the first publication within the Combinatorial Books Pilot Project a group of scholars, technologists and students from the Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México (including Etelvina Bernal, Sandra Hernández Reyes, Sandra Loyola Guízar, Fernanda Rodríguez González, Yareni Monteón López, Deni Garciamoreno, Nidia Rosales, Xóchitl Arteaga Villamil and Carolina Cuevas), led by Dr Gabriela Méndez Cota, are producing a book-length response to a volume published by OHP, Michael Marder’s and Anaïs Tondeur’s The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (2016) Their response is titled Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium. The authors’ preparation involved six months of collectively discussing what re-using – conceived by the group as re-writing – in the context of this Pilot Project could be. This negotiation process involved questions such as why and in what way the team would want to respond to and re-write The Chernobyl Herbarium. As Mendez Cota writes:
“Our sense of purpose grew out of trying to align our understanding of ‘re-writing’ with the material and historical context in which we set out to do that, and with the vegetal thinking at work in The Chernobyl Herbarium …. we realised that the ‘re-writing’ project needed a shared narrative and motivation so as to sustain the time and effort that it demands.”
Against this background, the Mexican scholar and author Cristina Rivera Garza’s understanding of re-writing as disappropriation, was of special relevance for Mendéz Cota and her team. As Rivera Garza explains, re-writing is not about appropriation, but rather it is about exposing the incomplete, processual nature of any text; it is about making time and taking the time, and it is about relating to others in accountable ways (Garza, 2013).
Beyond Rivera Garza’s formulations, the authors of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium aimed through their re-writing,
“to explore ways of becoming accountable for invisible connections between human and non-human aspects of contemporary devastation, and for the scalar conflicts which any ethical or political narrative inevitably inhabits.”
The authors’ re-writing of The Chernobyl Herbarium, is a new book in its own right. For them re-writing didn’t mean directly intervening into the original text. Rather, they took Marder and Tondeur’s work as a basis to elaborate a narrative on Mexico’s relation with Chernobyl, not by adapting, editing, or remixing the original text, but by expanding upon it. Their book has been written collectively and will be published as a bilingual print and online publication. The design and technical features of the online publication, currently in development, will materially respond to and interweave with the open-ended, relational, meandering (vegetal), and fragmentary nature of the re-writing process, while also taking into account the different ideological, institutional, cultural, geographical, and epistemogical locations that are interwoven with one another to form Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium.
Within a Mexican context, as Gabriela Méndez Cota underlines, experiments with writing, writing technologies, and media have been less tied to the context of avantgarde-art and scholarship than in an European and U.S. context. Rather, they have emerged from within extra-academic engagements, for example, as part of “the community-building and grassroots organising around the various manifestations of structural violence (economic inequalities, internal colonialism, ecocidal extractivism, authoritarianism, organised crime, etcetera).” Acknowledging that “counter-stories” on or “counter-practices” of publishing and rewriting have had a long and extensive history that stretches beyond the temporal, epistemic, and spatial limitations of the current experiments taking place within open access publishing, is therefore important to emphasise here. They are not one but many and emerged from different epistemic, geographic, and cultural contexts. Bringing together these traditions (including the way in which they act performatively upon academic knowledge cultures today) in a shared publishing undertaking, while acknowledging the differences between them, allows for multidirectional, multidisciplinary, multi-voiced conversations to emerge. These conversations can provoke lines of escape, and ruptures beyond the manifold conventions and traditions that dominate academic knowledge production in specific institutional, disciplinary, and cultural realms – in the case of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation and the Combinatorial Books Pilot Project, for example, the prevalence of single authored, closed access books in the humanities.
In parallel to these conceptual discussions, the team worked out a tentative chapter structure meant to frame and guide the re-writing of The Chernobyl Herbarium. Not having had a lot of experience with editorial design, programming, open-source digital tools, and artistic experiments, the group decided to embark on their journey by using simple open-source tools, suggested to them by the publisher and the series editors/COPIM and supported by the Rancho Electrónico Hackerspace, which the authors had worked with before (more on the specific workflow that was created out of this in one of our next blog posts). They collaboratively annotated the Chernobyl Herbarium online PDF with the aid of the hypothes.is plugin, and they kept a journal of their meetings (including the negotiation on the nature of re-use as re-writing) in a HedgeDoc pad.
Tagging and grouping the hypothesis annotations along the themes the discussion on The Chernobyl Herbarium evolved around (for example, #Acontecimiento #ChernobylMéxico #Cuerpoterritorio #Ecocidio #Testimonio #Vida), allowed the group to draft a tentative table of contents. This structure enabled every author to develop particular sections of the book without losing sight of a general structure or of other people’s writing process. As Méndez Cota writes:
“We agreed to do this in a slightly longer temporality that allows us to collaborate in the material process of writing, beyond juxtaposing individual writings.”
This lines up with how, due to their relational, shape-shifting, open-ended, and experimental character, re-use projects are time-intense and require flexibility from everyone involved. Re-use (as re-writing) also disrupts prevalent notions of scholarly practice, and communication. It changes the temporalities of and blurs the boundaries between research, editing, writing, and publishing. As such the authors, in the course of their undertaking, conceptually and practically experimented with, renegotiated, and reperformed traditional ideas of proprietary and individual authorship, and the concept of originality; they have continuously had to adapt and re-adapt to a layered, shape-shifting, multi-vocal, and open-ended working process.
The work on Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation has shown once more how important it is to count in enough time for conversations and negotiations and recognise their importance as generative and performative activities in the publishing process – even if in this process motivations might shift, and tasks and workflows might have to be adapted over time. The collaborative, iterative, and intricate process of writing, re-writing, discussion, revision, negotiation, and re-revision allowed Méndez Cota et al. to develop a shared motivation and a common sense of responsibility – towards the Chernobyl Herbarium and towards how to re-write it in a conscientious way. It is essential to allow and support these negotiations to emerge, specifically in an academic publishing landscape that is still struggling with how to accommodate more collective forms or writing that challenge established notions of ownership and originality.
The next blogpost in this series will introduce and reflect on the diverse communities involved in making Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation.