Clare Birchall on “The Futures of Writing”

Julia Rehfeldt —  September 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

We proudly present the speakers of the Post-Digital Scholar Conference! birchall.clare
This interview series will give you a first impression of whom you will be seeing at the conference and with what topics they are concerned with.

Dr Clare Birchall is a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of North American Studies at the King’s Collge London. Her research is mostly concerned with the relationship between secrecy and transparency in the digital age. She is one of the editors for the online journal Culture Machine; an editorial board member and series co-editor for the Open Humanities Press; and part of the team behind the JISC-funded Living Books about Life series.

Hybrid Publishing: What topics are you currently concerned with in your work or research, anything that relates to the conference?

Clare Birchall: I am currently writing a book about the rise of the ‘data subject’ for whom the imperative to produce, track, and do things with digital data, celebrating interactive citizenship, self-quantification and entrepreneurialism, runs alongside the demand to submit to commercial and state surveillance: to be monitored as, and reduced to, data and metadata. I propose that, through a process of Rancièrean subjectivization, the Left should encourage data subjects to think collectively through an identity or ‘class’ I call the ‘datatariat’. This is an emergent class that needs to interact with data in the creation or exploration of radical collective politics. While the most common response to the level of data surveillance uncovered by Edward Snowden and revelations about how social media sites treat users’ data is greater transparency, my work argues that the best tactic to resist the pitfalls of the data subject, particularly for those on the Left who have an alternative vision of agency, collectivity and politics, would be a turn towards secrets and secrecy.

In terms of the concept of the ‘post-digital’, such a study is relevant because it posits the ‘post’ as a ‘working-through’ of what it means to exist, operate, know and politically engage in a thoroughly digital data landscape (in the same way, for example, that the postmodern can be thought of as a working-through of, or ‘paced and patient reckoning with what is at stake’ (Badmington 2006) in, modernism). The question my study of transparency and secrecy raises for this conference on the ‘post-digital scholar’ is: what kinds of publishing, networks and communications might scholars develop if they are guided by a right to opacity rather than ideals of transparency and openness?

HP: As part of the team behind the fascinating Living Books about Life series you asked people to create open access books about biological and philosophical life. How do you see the relation of this project to traditional scholarly book publishing?

Birchall: To ensure the Living Books about Life project was acknowledged as a scholarly endeavor, we borrowed certain conventions from traditional publishing such as peer review, quality jacket design, and ISBN numbers. We also made some concessions to authors’ anxieties by producing a fixed and frozen pdf version of their edited book prior to any edits the community subsequently made. There are good justifications behind all of these decisions. Peer review, for example, should not be read as the accoutrement of an outmoded system. Rather, it suggests that digital publishing and whatever ‘post-digital publishing’ might be are on a continuum with ‘traditional’ scholarly book publishing rather than indicators of a complete rupture.

Nevertheless, there are certainly ways in which Living Books poses a challenge to traditional scholarly book publishing. Crucially, Living Books offers an opportunity to see open access and open editing in action – practices that traditional scholarly publishing, with its first loyalty to stakeholders, is most often simply not prepared to do. When I say ‘in action’ I mean that the Living Books performed open access by asking its editors to learn about the limits and rules of open access as they went about the business of collating science related articles. It was often quite surprising to editors to learn about the different licenses, permissions and rights, and the limitations on repositories. Equally, being open edited undermined, to a degree, the investment traditional scholarly publishing has in the idea of the self-present, masterful author by opening itself to the input of multiple editors and users. In theory and in practice, ‘the scholar’ becomes a collective and disparate entity rather than individual agency.

In their use of multiple media, moreover, Living Books move scholarly practice beyond standard textual offerings. In their introduction to one of the books, Janneke Adema and Pete Woodbridge describe a living book as ‘a merging and co-habitation of different media-species, a mash-up of text and video, sound and images, pixels and living, material tissue.’ As such, they write, ‘The digital medium has in many ways made it possible for the book to become increasingly infected with foreign (non-textual) elements as it evolves into something different’ (Adema and Woodbridge, 2011). The borders of the text are exposed as insecure and the ‘book’ must reconstitute itself as an agent of hospitality.

The attempt to ‘be taken seriously’ that informed some of our decisions, therefore, was always in tension with a deeper aim to question the performance of legitimacy attached to ‘the intellectual’ and ‘the book’. The post-digital scholar, then, might be one that ‘posts’ not only the ‘digital’ but also the ‘scholar’ and ‘the book’. What are we prepared to give up and what do we want to hold on to when embarking on a publishing project outside traditional and commercial parameters. Might we describe the ‘post-digital scholar’ as a hospitable network or assemblage of authors, curators, editors, programmers, designers, platforms, algorithms, readers etc.?

HP: What made the most significant impact regarding your personal insights on the futures of writing?

Birchall: I would say that my encounters with continental philosophy and critical theory rather than the development of any medium, platform or tool have made the most significant impact on how I think about the past, present and future of writing. It is because of the radical decentering of the author and the human and a reconceptualization of signs, knowledge and writing that took place in the work of Freud, Lacan, Barthes, Cixous, Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida (to name just a few of the thinkers that were so important to me as an undergraduate in the 1990s), that have impelled me to seek forms of dissemination that attempt to responsibly enact, or at least respond to, such ideas.

HP: Which book will you always have as an analog copy in your bookshelf?

Birchall: Building Stories by Chris Ware

Read our next introduction with Søren Pold, Associate Professor of Digital Aesthetics at the Department of Information and Media Studies, Aarhus University, which will be published on wednesday! Your find all Interviews here.

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