"Combustion of Early Summer"

Humanities Journals: Present and Future
A Conference Convened at the University of Virginia
April 8-9, 2005

Combustion of Early Summer

The elation of the past is over, the news tells us,
Suggesting it was there to begin with
Or recoverable, like a heavy ore or a shipwreck.

But on closer inspection, the past buzzes around us,
A conversation in another room we thought dormant,
Soon its occupants will crash through the door

--opening stanzas; from "Two Poems" by James McCorkle, published in Postmodern Culture, v1. n.2 (January, 1991)

Yesterday I heard:

At this point, it seemed to me that perhaps our contempt for the public was exceeded only by our contempt for ourselves. But then I heard:

And then I heard:

And by the end of the day I felt that perhaps there was still a glimmer of hope for tomorrow, but I have to tell you, only a glimmer. I feel somewhat better after the morning's session today, in which I heard about journals reaching across language boundaries, I heard about the perils of knowing more and more about less and less, and about knowing less and less about more and more, I heard a good-humored and self-deprecating account of the mentoring role of the journal editor, and I heard encouragement to take notice of the audience for culture outside the academy, accompanied by a dismissal of the notion of a crisis in the humanities. But even now, I still find that I have a sense of dreamlike urgency, as though I am watching people discuss the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. In this case, though, we are not about to run into something: we are about to run out of something, namely audience.

I was invited to come here today to talk about electronic journals, invited because I co-founded one in 1990, the first peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, called Postmodern Culture (PMC). I am no longer editor of PMC: that post is occupied by Jim English, the current chair of the English department at Penn, and will soon be taken over by Eyal Amiran, from Michigan State, who co-founded the journal with me, fifteen years ago, just after we completed graduate school here at the University of Virginia.

I came here thinking it might be entertaining to debunk some of my own predictions about electronic journals, from fifteen years ago, but after hearing, yesterday, how "the past buzzes around us," I think that, instead, it is more important to call your attention to some things that PMC got right, because the news of those early and successful experiments sometimes seems not to have reached everyone. In particular, I think it is important to point out that there is a far larger audience for what you do than you will find in the serials rooms of research libraries or even in the gated communities of licensed online journal collections, and this audience is literate, thoughtful and, in the main, college educated. That's the good news: there is intelligent life outside of English departments! The bad news is that, for the most part, we seem profoundly uninterested in finding it, though there's still a chance it will "crash through the door" and save us from ourselves.

Postmodern Culture was published first independently by its editors, then by Oxford, and for last ten years now, by Johns Hopkins. For a long time, we were the only all-electronic journal in Project Muse, and we are still a rarity in that regard. We are also a rarity in some other respects. We publish our current issue for free, from a server here at Virginia, at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, with multimedia elements (sound, film, animation, etc.), as web-based hypertext. We publish a text-only archive of all our back issues for free (still) from that same server. At one point, a few years ago, when Muse had about 100 humanities journals, Postmodern Culture accounted for about 20% of the use of the whole collection, by paying subscribers, even though all of our material was also available for free; a few years later, in 2002, when Muse had over 200 journals, PMC ranked 7th, based on use.

In the "Postface" at the end of our first issue (September, 1990), the editors wrote:

We hoped that _Postmodern Culture_ would provide a place for experimentation, for opening discussions, for dialogue. In some of our early explorations of what the journal could or should be (and do), we expressed a hope that we could dis-establish the practice of admitting only those who speak our language or who position themselves as we do. In fact, we hoped that the medium itself would encourage us to think of our writing as constituted both from the writer's position and from the readers'. Such thinking (about writing and reading) can lead to further experimentation within the academy, in culture, and with/in those relationships fostered through _Postmodern Culture_. How much difference we make remains to be seen.

In an article that my co-editor Eyal Amiran and I wrote about the journal for The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, in 1991, we said:

...every issue of the journal will have to navigate the sometimes obscure connections between different networks--particularly between the non-commercial academic networks and the more widely available commercial carriers of electronic mail, such as MCI, AT&T, Sprint, and CompuServe. CompuServe, for example, limits the size of electronic mail transmissions which can be received into individual accounts, and that limit is well below what would be necessary to receive the journal. We are concerned that the journal should be available to non-academic subscribers, so we will [strive] to make existing connections work and to open new ones.

Apparently, this strategy worked, because we had 1300 subscribers by the end of our first year, and (as I noted in a paper deliverd in 2003 to the ACLS annual meeting),

when we signed with Project Muse, we had 2,500 subscribers to the e-mail list through which we announced new issues and we were getting about a quarter of a million visits a year on the Web [in 1994]. By anybody's standards, that's a large audience for a scholarly journal, and especially for one that published articles with titles like "Flogging a Dead Language: Identity Politics, Sex, and the Freak Reader in Acker's Don Quixote" In fact, I think that a solution to [the crisis in scholarly publishing] is, plain and simple, to reach a larger audience. We tend to condescend to the general reader, and we count her out when it comes to our mental construct of the audience for humanities scholarship—and yet, believe it or not, this is an actual e-mail I received one day in the mid-1990s, from a reader of Postmodern Culture:
Dear Mr. Unsworth: I'm a union teamster living in rural Vermont so I don't have a lot of access to the sort of stuff you have in your journal and you provide access to from your Web site. Our local library is swell, computerized too, but a computer search under postmodernism or poststructuralism or Derrida or Baudrillard or Jameson produces zero hits. Thank you.
Going way out on a limb, I'll suggest, as I have elsewhere in the past, that
[....] Maybe we could enlarge the audience for humanities scholarship, not by dumbing it down, but by making it more readily available. Maybe if we did that, scholars would find an audience first, and a publisher second, instead of the other way around. And maybe in that world, the risk to publishers would be less, because the demand would already be demonstrated.

We also tried hard to open up "our editorial process to the scrutiny and comment of our readers, both in the interest of fairness and because we feel that our editorial process is itself a work-in-progress." As my co-editors and I wrote in 1991,

[W]e integrate our readers into the editorial process by using self-nominated peer-reviewers in addition to our editorial board. These peer-reviewers are journal subscribers who explain their qualifications to review a particular submission when they nominate themselves. So far this procedure has been surprisingly helpful and the reviewers have been thoroughly professional.
--"Refereed Electronic Journals and the Future of Scholarly Publishing," by Eyal Amiran, Elaine Orr, and John Unsworth, in Advances in Library Automation and Networking (1991).

Elsewhere in that same 1991 article, we wrote that

theoretically and philosophically, Postmodern Culture and other such journals can shift the emphasis of scholarship from the product to the process and from the single author to the corporate author (writers and their readers). We can begin to make clear to ourselves the rootedness of knowledge in conversation. Furthermore, because the medium makes possible and even encourages updates and revisions of articles, we both illustrate and theorize about the mutability of information and knowledge and the open-endedness of scholarly pursuits. Thus the dynamic nature of e-texts allows us to recognize contradiction, change and difference as the standard features of complex thinking, rather than fearing them as inimical to thought.

That optimisim was tempered somewhat by experience that, early on, made it clear

technological potential is not the only factor that determines our modes of intellectual production and consumption; the system of institutional rewards is at least as powerful a factor, and probably a much more powerful one. Where institutional rewards are concerned, there are three principal issues to consider: the legitimacy granted to electronic publication by tenure committees and university administrations, the incentives or disincentives for authors to experiment with using electronic media in new ways, and the incentives or disincentives for readers to do the same.

Until and unless colleges and universities recognize electronic publication as having the same legitimacy as publication in print media, there is little likelihood that academic writers will feel it is worth contributing to electronic journals. Interestingly, many of our essays have come from well established authors who can "afford" to publish in this medium: they already have tenure. But part of our incentive in creating Postmodern Culture was to encourage less established writers and to provide a forum which would provide encouraging and critical response to work in progress.

Yesterday, we all agreed that we oppose the academic establishment. Today, let us recognize that we are all part of it, as tenured academics, and this puts all of us on the far side of the line between the have nots and the haves. Now that we've all passed over that line, what matters is what we do with the privilege we've got. If journals are indeed, as they seem to be, destined to replace the monograph as the instrument of credentialing the rising generation of the professoriat, we ought to be reviewing unsolicited manuscripts, otherwise what's the hope of a meritocracy in the next generation of the academy? If journals are the future home of critical insight, and yet we can only use them to speak to one another, what hope is there for a more educated public—and indeed, what right have we to complain about the failure of that public to appear?

Around 1934, Paul Valery predicted that "Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign" (Pieces sur l'Art; qtd. in Benjamin, Illuminations). Speaking at MLA about that prediction more than ten years ago, I said

It is a matter of some moment . . . whether the hand in this scenario holds a remote control or a mouse. If it is a remote control, then we can expect a sort of Nick at Night future—Leave it to Beaver on demand. If it's a mouse, we might hope for something better, and we might hope that the consumer will, at will, be able to become a producer.

In 2005, I think in one sense the happy ending has arrived: broadcast television is fighting for its life, bloggers rule, and broadband adoption in the home is increasing fastest in households with incomes under $10,000 a year. But where is the humanities journal? As McCorkle says, later on in the poem I began by quoting:

We are trapped in the same voices we've known for years,
Words drop among the glowing debris of streets--
Which are yours or mine, what was said or when, unknown.

But I think we can do better: I think we can escape this trap and have an impact beyond the academy. I think we can reach a general reader—after all, the humanities are about what we share as humans. But we may need to accept the notion that our carefully crafted words will "drop among the glowing debris" of the web, and that in the end, when those words finally do make a difference, it will no longer be important "which are yours or mine."