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Spineless Wonders: The Global Book roundtable

Published onJan 14, 2022
Spineless Wonders: The Global Book roundtable

During the Spineless Wonders Conference on 12 November 2021, Patrick Hart and Rebekka Kiesewetter discussed the ways in which scholarly OA output — and modes of engagement with it outside the Anglo-American global North — articulate with questions of the global, globalisation, and globality.



This is a transcript of our initial contribution to the roundtable, which was chaired by Dr Heather H. Yeung (University of Dundee) and Prof. Tim Brennan (Manchester School of Art). The other contributors were Prof. Tom Mole (Durham University) and Prof. Ashleigh Harris (Uppsala University).


PATRICK: Thank you! As Heather said, Rebekka and I are both from COPIM [SLIDE], which stands for Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs. COPIM is an international partnership of researchers, universities, librarians, publishers and infrastructure providers. Together we’re  building community-owned networks and infrastructures to help genuinely open access book publishing flourish. The project has several different strands. My research focuses on questions of governance, while Rebekka’s examines ways to align experimental publishing with the workflows of open access book publishers and with the infrastructures that COPIM is working to create. It’s work we feel has significant implications for the future of the global book, as Rebekka will discuss.

COPIM, Open Access & Textual Practices

REBEKKA: In the following, I aim to underline that – within the seemingly globalised sphere of world-wide digital publishing – the global and the local are not separated or opposite but always already entwined. This might be a truism. Yet, an affirmation of this condition also implies to question the narratives of globality and the pertaining international scholarly relations with and around publications (e.g. between scholars and scholars, scholars and texts, texts and public/private) that have been embedded in certain framings of Open Access publishing.

Open Access publishing often has been framed techno-legally: it is about digitalinfrastructures and legal conditions to make scholarly work freely accessible. Some believe, this would be sufficient to equalise the relationships embedded in knowledge creation, world-wide. This framing of OA however, ignores the role textual norms and practices have played in shaping the (uneven) relationships between scholars and scholars… and scholars and texts, world-wide.

Today, textual production is enmeshed with the evaluation of scholarly success and remuneration. Commercial actors within OA propose unified bibliometric indicators (such as Elsevier’s Scopus) as benchmarks for international comparisons. They’re based on a “globalised” notion of research excellence (derived from humanist Northern European and US standards) that is defined in opposition to “outdated”, local, ideas. Here, the local and the global have become increasingly divisible in terms of academic recognition and renumeration [SLIDE]. The impact of this is not only geographical, it affects researchers from historically marginalised contexts and identities the most.

This, and prevalent humanist norms within text production, influences how scholars relate with and around OA publications through textual practices: Writing and reading are determined by utilitarianism and efficiency; the text remains an auctorial, secluded entity – materially and conceptually; exchanges emerging between scholars around texts – for example in reading groups – often are dominated by protocols like maintaining critical distance, or lecturing. Collaborations on “open” digital platforms and tools – even if they are “more ethical” non-proprietary or open-source – are underlined with unacknowledged gendered, racist, and ableist preconceptions and actions.

Considering this, I in my PhD (and we in COPIM WP6) argue that textual practices should be included in a holistic framing of Open Access – at least when it is meant to figure as a leverage for more equal relationships within knowledge creation, world-wide. Using texts as intermediaries of relation, we facilitate situated, grounded encounters between seemingly distant participants in OA. This, to counteract the disconnection between “global” OA and its local making/becoming. In these encounters experimental textual practices become catalysts for questioning normalised ways of producing and processing OA content and for thinking about how these have shaped the relationships with and around texts, globally. Through this engagement, we seek to take time for envisioning forms of relating in more accountable ways.

These encounters sometimes evolve online, where we use editable “non-normative”, “code of conducts” [SLIDE] highlighting potential inequality issues in “democratic” online spaces. Sometimes we do grounding exercises: Short meditations, rooting the participants in their bodies, their geographical and historico-political spaces before entering the somewhat “levelling” online experience. For facilitating the flow of these engagements we use “protocols” geared at intervening into normalised ways of relating with and around text (or sources) – beyond, for example, possessive authorship or utilitarianism. For reading, the protocols can be simple: such as reading together aloud or rhytmicising texts through walking while reading. For writing it can be something like this [SLIDE]. We also asked participants of a workshop to engage in plant-inspired procedures for re-writing fragments from a CC-by-published OA herbarium [SLIDE]. Then, we invited everybody to prototype alternatives to present conditions asking for plant-based recipes for re-using/re-writing texts [SLIDE].

These encounters are not solution oriented. They’re a form of awareness-raising. To some they might seem trivial – yet, I think they aren’t. Maybe we can bring this into the discussion…

Corsair Codices

PATRICK: Where is the global book? What forms does its object-life take? In trying to answer, my interest is drawn by the aesthetic pull of the everyday as much as the exceptional.

Tim passed through Turkey on his whistlestop tour of the book’s global beginnings, and it’s to Turkey, where I was teaching until a couple of months ago, that my first thoughts go.

Turkey has around 8.4m students: Istanbul alone has 58 universities and counting. Exchange rates and a currency crisis place legal access to most academic books beyond these students’ reach. Most libraries have minimal collections and cannot afford online subscriptions. As a result students (and faculty) rely upon shadow libraries such as LibGen and Z-Library (one colleague working in Elâzığ, in the south-east, estimated 80% of his reading came from LibGen). But readers want printed books–especially after a year of online classes. So a whole industry of semi-legal print shops exists across Turkey to meet this desire. Books are printed in various ingenious formats, commonly with cheap plastic spiral bindings [SLIDE], truncated, spliced together, anthologised, sometimes with ingeniously improvised covers designed by the printer [& I’m sorry I don’t have better images of these publications to show you]. The pirated digital copies often include scanned handwritten underlinings and annotations (often in several languages), as well as erasures and missing, mis-ordered or poorly scanned pages. The resulting printed ‘books’ commonly then get heavily highlighted, annotated, doodled upon, decorated, and shared between several readers. They accumulate inserts, sticky notes, folded pages. These korsan kitapları, or corsair books, become remarkable renegade repositories of intellectual effort, affect, and intercultural engagement, palimpsestic sites of intimate, often ludic struggle and delight. And sometimes these palimpsests return to digital, as classmates in one city scan or photograph their annotated texts to share with friends and partners in another. They’re both treasured, and ephemeral: ripped apart, rebound, reworked, shredded.

The korsan kitap shows the need for true open access of the sort COPIM supports, to provide books for global readers with minimal technical or economic barriers. But what really fascinates me about them are the composite codicological subjectivities (and inter-subjectivities) they evoke. I treasure the digital hand, the private, privateering graphological self that twines itself unselfconsciously about the kidnapped digitized type. Now, with scanning, handwriting recognition and e-ink tablets, scribbled notes are digitised and optical character recognition (OCR) makes them searchable, editable, and convertible into digital ‘print’. The corsair codex becomes a treasure map of embodied affective responses to type. Looking for analogies, I go back to the complex impact of print on literary culture, and to how in Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes the intimacies of Thomas Wyatt’s manuscript verse (itself written down by his secretary) are turned outward into public displays, reflective self-doubt turned into bombastic irony. Michael McKeon writes of how at the moment of the public sphere’s emergence, “the category of privacy emerges [through publication] from privation and coheres in the fulness of its freedom–its difference–from the very publicity by which it comes to be known.” How will the digitisation of the hand transform the co-implication of private and public in the spineless global book? What new structures of possibility will emerge? What kind of (dis)embodied self might be made there? And in what relations to openness, community, and market? These are the questions I’d like to leave hanging.

Header image: Robert Koorenny on Unsplash.

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