I used to work in the theatre, and to teach it - now they were great days, as they say! Teaching theatre is completely different to anything else - simply because learning is embodied in a very different way (no one seems to care too much about marks for one thing - either it’s too much fun or there’s too much as stake - performance is not the abstract kind of constricted non-performance of performativity). This is by way of introducing the truism that you have to get involved with things to really understand them.

So the last couple of weeks - since I’ve finally had time to do a few things I’ve wanted to - I’ve been engaging with new media differently. I’ve started blogging more. I’ve realized quickly how relational it is - primarily via the generous welcome to the blog world by N Pepperell at Rough theory. I also read blogs very differently when involved. I’ve realized that the level of discussion in blogs is in fact very high - much higher (for academics) than many other contexts one could name. It’s hard to really realize this until you understand how complex a dialogue it is, even if in parallel. I already read a lot of blogs before, but now I’m beginning to realize what a different and complex mode of being it is - socially much more than technically.

Strangely enough, there was also a sudden migration of a lot of my friends to Facebook this week. I’ve long avoided MySpace and so on (although I’ve been using, YouTube and Flickr for a while). For one thing, a lot of the lists I’ve been on have been immersed in long debates about all that’s wrong with web 2.0 (see especially the wonderful Institute for Distributed Creativity - Trebor Scholz is one of the most informed and articulate on these issues - and I can’t wait to get The Art of Free Cooperation, published by Trebor and Geert Lovink). Of course, there is a lot to this criticism, especially concerning precarity, but it’s also, as nearly all the critics point out, pretty hard to just step outside the system - and more interesting are the moves in different directions in any case. In any case, my very brief take on this is that there’s much more to cognitive labour, a la Virno’s description in Grammar of the Multitudes (which I’ve discussed here) than sociable media (the previously mentioned culture of performance in what I call a politics of cognitive models - maybe another post). I guess that I mean there are worse systems of precarity and cognitive exploitation that give very little back to the user/used, although this doesn’t mean we can’t work to make more things open source, and to make sociable media genuinely sociable. In the meantime, in the face of peer pressure, I signed up for Facebook so yet another enterprise could skim my lifestyle profile. We’ll see how long it lasts but I must say I was surprised by how many people I know there, and how active they all are. More surprising was the sudden migration itself, a kind of wave - a sudden instance of a change in resonance in Larval Subject’s subtle and very useful discussion of the term.

Makes my previous discussion about new forms of embodiment in relation to networks and computers more relevant - to myself!

The final instance of this - since I couldn’t go to the Documenta12 publishing week, I’ve been getting involved online. This has been great really. I’ve read papers, listened to podcasts and blogged here and also here (the latter on OpenMute). Of course, the problem is that I’ve also seen the pictures of everyone sitting around drinking beer.

I guess it’s not a question of distribution versus presence. It’s rather a question of a lot different forms of distribution involving different kinds of presence - from the publishing and distribution of blogs to the “publishing and distribution” of beer.

In the first discussions at Documenta12, Nat Muller writes on Text Tactility (registration and login required) and Alessandro Ludovici writes on The Persistence of Paper. Both are understandably attached to paper, particularly to books or, as editors, to the permanence of ink and printing. Both seem equally immersed, however, in the world of pixels, and they capture the strange feeling many of us have of living across worlds. They capture the feeling of this strange new life in which publishing is suddenly so interesting as a cultural issue, as it mutates in a series of strange new lifeforms - or more correctly, modes of living. Nat sums up the ambiguities involved -

Many of us though, seem ourselves to be a bit lost in Genet’s desert, negotiating the best strategy between production and consumption; between ownership and sharing; between how and what to read and how and what to write; between hard copy and soft pixel.

Nat also rightly mourns the lack of subtlety in thinking through this dilemma - in which it too often becomes a choice between “coffee OR tea; boy OR girl; paper OR pixel”. Of course, it’s not a choice that’s even possible, let alone desirable. It’s simply no longer how we live (even if it might be how we still speak about it). We are all paper AND pixel these days (and boy AND girl, although I must admit I’m really a tea person). An increasing number of publications (commercial, art, independent, amateur) find themselves mixing up paper and pixels, bookshops, pdf’s and print-on-demand, quite happily. (my local paper in Sydney actually has an article on ebooks today and there’s another site here).

For me, Alessandro’s evocative description of the failure of pixels to overwhelm paper and print is important and compelling. Yet I’m also wondering about our body/our feelings in relation to pixels - how does that side of things play out? The problem is perhaps one of re-embodying our relation to text - to words and images - differently. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s happening. And although we can talk about the rights and wrongs of it, it’s not something we can resist. This also had to happen with paper and print. It has to happen for each of us. As individuals (over a certain age perhaps) our attachment to books began early. Like a lot of people, I remember the first times I stayed awake in bed reading because a book. Here was something I could hold, more than that, an object that set up the world of my body and its sensations completely differently. It seemed to give me its entire attention - it “looked back at me” - precisely because it did close me in on my own world (not that different from a laptop really). I also remember the books my grandmother used to buy me. My grandmother (who came from a long line of Welsh school teachers) used to buy me “classics”, often leather (or at least pseudo leather) bound and yes, I can remember how they looked, their feel. I also remember, when a graduate student of literature, finishing Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which has a peculiarly sad ending, and getting so angry with the book - the physical object - that I threw it against a wall.

At this stage, I’d never seen a computer, and didn’t have to contemplate my relation to different forms of text, to pixels in short. Now I do. I work with text on screen for at least eight hours a day - and I’m sure this is also leading me to embody a relation to text in pixel form. It’s just as passionate. I might not have thrown my powerbook against the wall yet - but that’s only because it’s too expensive. I’ve had to stop myself a couple of times - we have a definite love-hate relationship. And I know I embody different affective ecologies with pixels, differently across different packages. Email is a shocker at the moment - my whole body shifts in expectation (for better for worse) when I open the browser for it. I can’t stand Word, although I use it (swearing) all the time. I like some other text programmes. For some reason I don’t mind writing online, especially in collaborative environments (it never quite feels so lonely). There are also an increasing number of things I like to read online, rather than offline. At the same time, like a lot of people, I can’t imagine reading a novel online - yet. Although, I like good design in paper and pixels (actually I think I prefer good design in pixels to paper now - as much as I love both).

I guess I’m repeating the point that it takes time for us - individually and culturally - to create new ecologies - complex, deeply affective ecologies of relations to our own bodies, objects and the bodies of others - in which we can embody a relation to pixels (and more importantly, the much more complex relations that we now experience across a range of forms of publishing, atom-based and pixel-based, often all at once). The story/myth goes that once (into the middle ages) there was very little silent reading. When this simple fact sinks in, you realise how important silent reading is. Much of our sense of being an individual, and a diminishing of our sense of being dependent on others - living communally - depends on it. Yet for a long time, not only could many not read, if they could, many couldn’t read without speaking the words (there is of course debate about this, although this is more than a question of literacy). Silent reading - which seems “natural”, is something that had to be learnt - culturally and individually. Learning it transformed culture. It led to new pleasures, and perhaps the a new kind of person (the individual). These new experiences were no substitute for reading aloud, which persists today, but they did add to it immeasurably. They also departed from it. And of course, this changed culture immeasurably.

Much of the same applies to the relations between pixels and paper. This is about unstable text versus more stable, and about “interactivity”, but it is also perhaps about more than this - socially at least; and affectively. There’s actually been a lot of discussion about the instability of pixels, and about interactivity. Indeed, we are probably fairly used to the idea of thinking through how interacting with text makes a culture of pixels different - McLuhan, Ulmer, Pierre Lévy and many others have discussed this kind of thing. This is valuable, but thinking about interaction in this way - as the “new” thing happening to text - is to look at pixels from the point of view of the past, not the future perhaps … from the point of view of the printing press, or from that of the kind of individualism made possible with the “invention” of silent reading. Much more interesting today even than the revolution in interactive reading per se, is the publishing revolution (a huge shift in the relations between reading and writing, between the individual and the collective). Ulmer in particular has dealt with this in a highly original manner. This is not so much a question - in fact to some extent it is a question to be avoided - for the larger companies and established institutions, even if they are trying to figure out how to leverage the digital. Smaller independents (such as Alessandro’s Neural), are able to respond in much more interesting ways. As importantly - so is everyone whose interests are not invested in a given arrangement of reading and writing. Here the shift that pixel publishing provides in terms of community is crucial. I guess I think Alessandro is right about the possibility of knowing (print) and now knowing (pixels) the audience when one publishes in these different forms (although I’d like to hear more). However, it is also true perhaps that sometimes these days online one can know one’s audience - precisely because they are one’s friends, or become one’s friends, and because in the process writing, reading and publishing are never quite finished.

What does it mean when everyone is a publisher as a well as a reader and writer? This is a different question to that of interactive pixels. This has even become a bit of a commercial problem for ISPs in Australia. Most of them don’t currently charge for uploads, because in the past people were mostly downloading (I can’t remember the rate but it was something like only 5-20% of traffic was uploads). Now uploads to downloads are occurring in a ration approaching 1/1. Many are thinking of charging for uploads.

These kinds of shifts put institutions and traditional practices into a strange position. Let’s take the university - where shifts in the nature of publishing affect things from funding for research to the cultural (and embodied) habits of students in relation to learning. Academics are natural pixel users themselves - I think led by the sciences more than the humanities or even design/arts. Yet many academics - and certainly many universities - by and large don’t understand, or want to understand - this shift in the distribution of power and the new forms of embodiment in relation to the communal experience of knowledge. Some are adapting - famously MIT for example (my impression is that a threshold is being reached as regards these changes in places such as Amsterdam). However, the fact that many students are used to creating their own contexts for writing and reading - and want flexible contexts often different to those provided for them by the institution - is a difficult one to deal with. It’s difficult for academics, they have long been used to holding the keys to the literacy kingdom. (I’m not saying that students shouldn’t have to read books - and I do think there are problems in the new formations of reading and writing involved in new media … we still need to adapt however).

This is reflected in other areas. It’s difficult for publishers, for designers (it’s terrible I know but I love clunky amateur web design - I’d never go for it in a book), for writers, for similar reasons. In general, as established publishers, artists, designers, publishers, we all have an affective investment in what our bodies, minds and feelings are good at, what sensations we are good at dealing with (although Spinoza - and everything that follows him - would suggest that we try and expand beyond our habitual investments). Our institutions tend to follow the investments of those who work there - and vice versa - the more the more senior they are. The sad result is that innovation is often blocked. This doesn’t mean there is no need for academics, good writers and editors, designers, publishers, institutions - it doesn’t mean that everything has to be abandoned. However, it might fundamentally change what these professions and institutions do. Or rather it is changing things fundamentally, and an increasing amount of conflict within traditional institutions surrounds this change.

Personally, I know things are changing for me. When I “studied computing” the first time (in 1974), the “computer” was a large calculator. Computers will never be “natural” to me. Despite this, I know that in terms of academic publishing my ratio of reading online/self-edited material to offline/other edited material is now towards 1/1. I have different relations to them but I am developing am embodied/affective relation to them both - and often both at once.

These relations are not always what one might expect. I used to be well-known as a PhD student for always carrying around a worn copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (a book as a kind of talisman). This book gave me great pleasure - more than tactile, this book was a crucial part of my “umwelt”. However, after I finished my PhD I suddenly realised one day that I never finished reading it. My pleasure in the object was indeed in the object - not necessarily in reading it. On the other hand, I read a massive amount of material online now - more usually than not several things at once. I think one reason for this is precisely that I tend sometimes don’t treasure specific pixels as much as the book (or not quite in the same way). So reading can be a funny thing in relation to the objects - paper or pixels - with which we read.

A couple of days ago I was supposed to be on a plane to Germany. I’d been invited to Documenta12, often regarded as the world’s most important art event, to talk to some very interesting people about the current state of publishing. I was of course grateful to the good Documenta people, and looking forward to it.

I’d also been pushing things fairly hard, trying, a bit like a lot of modern publishing (as we shall see) to keep control of a situation that had become completely out control long ago. I decided to go for a run to destress. No warm up - as usual, despite my partner’s advice - but hey, like modern publishing, I knew what I was doing. I’ve been running for 40 years! This is not quite as long as the printing press has been around, but long enough.

About 4 kilometres out (and 2 k from home) I heard a sudden snapping sound. This was the sound of my calf muscle tearing.

Weirdly enough, there’s something I find fascinating about these sudden accidents, especially when in the end they don’t matter that much. Obviously they change things, and that’s always interesting. More importantly, I think they’re fascinating because they’re impersonal events (the calf muscle, that I seldom even think about, now with an existence all on its own, in rebellion). At the same time, such events - especially in their banality - couldn’t be closer to home (well it is also my calf, and its tearing changes my life). The dual nature of these events takes you out of yourself like nothing else. They break up your easy path through the world, your plans, and so on. I don’t just mean going to Germany. I mean your whole proprioceptive system breaks down over one “speciously present” extended moment. Where you are, who you are, what your next move is, are all up for grabs, and even when things get themselves together again, much has changed.

Afterwards, I realised I had experienced an enhanced version of the famous Libet lag (important both to Brian Massumi and academic/”Digital Thoughtographer” Mark Amerika). This is the time taken, after an event, for consciousness to pull an event together. During the Libet lag consciousness gets to a) construct the pretence that there really was a present in the event while it was happening - a series of experienced moments via which it, consciousness, experienced the event in situ, and b) pretend to itself that it was making the decisions all along.

My enhanced Libet lag was followed by a return to normal Libet lag … a bit of standing around in pain getting things together while I wondered how to get home (”hobble”, was the answer). As one might expect if you’re me, a very friendly dog came up to me briefly, as if to see if I was ok. I think it was a Springer Spaniel.

Decades ago, when I was trying to finish my honours thesis, I tripped and fell through a plate glass window. This time I (or maybe a version of “not-I”) really inhabited the Libet lag, and it was a lovely experience, although it was another banal accident really. I first broke the window with my hands as I fell. I then hit the ground within the window frame. A shower of falling glass landed on my head, and time slowed down almost to the point of stopping. The blood dripping from my head mixed with falling glass. It was all very beautiful. The glass was catching light as it fell, and there seemed a lot of blood, the redness also catching the light. In slow mo, the glass falling also sounded exactly like hundreds of tiny bells. For what I guess was a second or two (but seemed more like ten or twenty) I thought to myself … with all that blood these seconds could be the last few of my life. Yet I was strangely calm, happy even (I guess the aesthetic took over).

Of course, the injuries were minimal, but I never forgot the experience of the event, even how so very ordinary it felt. A friend - also now an academic - told me he had a similarly enjoyable experience after being hit over the head with a beer bottle (!). As for me, I was able to say that, as I finished my thesis, there was blood on the typewriter.

In any case, the calf injury has stopped me going to Documenta. That’s been a real disappointment (though lying around on the couch with my leg elevated for a few days hasn’t been all bad - for one thing, I’ve been able to start blogging at last, and even had a generous response within hours - that really made me realise, with pleasure, how much publishing has changed).

All of which is by way of introducing a few posts to come (time permitting) on publishing. In the lead up to Documenta, I’d been thinking about publishing quite a bit. About its health. About the politics of publishing, but I guess more importantly, about publishing’s importance to politics.

There are obvious parallels with the music industry and music - although part of my point here is that the music industry and music are not at all the same things. It struck me long ago that few of the debates surrounding the effect of the digital technologies on the music industry were about music itself (despite constantly mobilizing fear about “what might happen to music” - in fact music production has never been more diverse, music listening has never been so great, and live music is in a great state, according the Guardian at least). Likewise, I think that few of the debates about publishing have centred on what publishing is really for - that is, the circulation of ideas, affects, events. In both case the debates have mostly been about the survival of established industries, institutions, authors, practices etc. About laws, about copyright, and morality. About consumers, payments and the circulation of capital. Not, however, about the publishing as the circulations of ideas, affects and events, or how changes in publishing change this.

Anyway, it’s a bad analogy (aren’t they all?) … but traditional publishing seems to me to have just crashed through a plate glass window, or at least pulled a few muscles. There are a lot of things coming together in what is now a perfect storm for publishing. There is digital distribution, and the promise of new viewing platforms for what until this point have been physical books. With that, there is the possibility that what happened when records became mp3’s might happen when books become digital files. There is also the rise of self-publishing. Perhaps most crucial are more and more people collaborating in online environments in order to write and publish - this changes what writing and publishing are for. This is followed, as in music, by a massive increase in the diversity of forms of writing, of the specificity of niches for forms of publication, and even very new understandings of what writing might be. As regards the last of these, I will discuss Mark Amerika’s views on this in another post, but new concepts of writing mean you might write with all media - images, video, code, text. More importantly, you might “write” with the in-between of all of these, for example in cross-signal processing, where for example, video signal produces changes in the audio feed, or vice versa (a common example is where music changes video effects: we even used to see this in discos when I was young). This is before you get the possibility of a kind of for all kinds of publishing. This all adds up to what Eugene Thacker calls “extreme writing”.

There are obviously any number of important questions regarding social change involved - which we all live, but which we still often talk about in terms of the failure of institutions, not in terms of a new form of health, a new society even.

Indeed, although this might feel like much of this a bad thing - it might be an opportunity to rethink where publishing is, and in fact how healthy it is becoming.

Let’s go back a bit and define some terms. By traditional publishing, I first mean the big publishers. I like a lot of these, I love books, I have friends who work with the big publishers, and I don’t think they’ve made no attempt to adapt. I just think that they’ve been hamstrung by their decades of experience and established practices (not to mention bottom lines) to some extent. I mean more than the big publishers, however, by traditional publishing. I mean the traditional practices of publishing, the very concept of what publishing is, what it does, how it fits into social practices - in the university for example (here I mean all kinds of publishing, from refereed academic journals to the student essay). Traditional publishing as a whole - whether commercial or established practices - has been acting like it probably thought it could handle the stress it’s been under. Yet many of its adaptations have so far been fairly reluctant and fairly small (there has been little real adaptation to the cultural shift behind plagiarism within traditional institutions, for example). Like its more famous sub-branch, the music industry, traditional publishing has thought it knew what it was doing, and probably didn’t have to change too much. Hey - it’s been doing it for centuries and hey, it understands media better than anyone, even if they’re changing. And of course books (and journals and magazines) have been an old-fashioned succcess story in the world of new media, maybe the biggest.

Yet it is for all these reasons traditional publishing hadn’t been watching where it was going. It hasn’t been listening to warnings. It thought experience - tradition perhaps - was the only thing that mattered. It perhaps thinks it has adapted more completely than it has.

However, the music industry’s problems and solutions show what general publishing’s problems and solutions are about to become, perhaps have just become. A key point is that although older forms of publishing - that is, for example, books and films - will survive, they will do so in a much larger, more complex and diverse environment. This is changing not just publishing, but the social as a whole. A second point is that - as regards traditional publishing, the punters might just not care (something the music industry has never recovered from).

So the next few posts are what I think about publishing. There’s nothing radical here - but I thought I would try to sum things up, for my own sake as much as anyone else. After all, a lot of what I do is writing, publishing and editing. I’ve been involved with traditional publishing, and with much in-between. I’m moving towards extensive online collaborations (and offline). Like everyone else, I’d like to be a VJ. Maybe I could even VJ collaboratively (another post).

I actually think that publishing is both genuinely threatened and in excellent health - like music. I think things have already changed - they’re not just challenged or changing. I think there is a lot of resistance to this change, especially from those who, as in the case of the music industry, have vested interests (and certain kinds of experience, skills that have been valued in the market place). I think that authors, like lesser-known musicians, tend to get a bit of a raw deal sometimes (not always) from larger publishers. Yet I think too much of the debate has been on what are these really less important issues.

I think that maybe we’re all experiencing a bit of collective “Libet lag” while we catch up with events.

I think we should be taking a lead from the current and future diversity of publishing - the thinking about publishing that sees the possibility of its greater “health”. We should be asking much more how these changes in publishing change the social, the opening up of possibilities for universities, education, art.

Finally, we should perhaps acknowledge that the end of the medium - as “message”, as basis for institutions and cultural practices - is at hand. Although media such as books and films have so far survived in something like their older forms (well not much else but these two actually) - new forms of publishing present a much more dynamic context in which media intermix constantly. This is to the point that there can be little disciplinarity surrounding a “medium” and fewer constrained forms of practice based upon particular media. If new forms of publishing signify nothing else, they signify the rise of the social. This is a social freed from media - narrowly defined, and controlled by narrow interests.