Running towards publication – Jonathan Sterne on the pace of publishing

Over on the group blog Culture Digitally, Jonathan Sterne has written about the competing paces of publication, audiences and the lifespan of our examples:

The recent Culture Digitally posts by Jeff Pooley and C.W. Anderson suggest that one of the main broken areas of new media scholarship has to do with publication and speed. Our examples are out of date before our articles appear in the journals to which we submitted them. Our books suffer even worse fates. Both authors suggest the problem is the speed with which our objects of study–digital media–change. Both also point to the dilemmas faced by academic authors and presses as the world of academic publishing changes. . . slowly. And both suggest that iterated versions and new digital platforms would be one set of solutions to this problem.

Sterne makes the point that the texts to which we continue to return, and with which we teach, are those that do not solely rely on the examples. While examples are ‘examples of themselves’ (see Dewsbury et al. 2002), they are also (hopefully) illustrative of a broader theory about the world:

Scholars have developed a number of strategies for dealing with the different temporalities of scholarship and life, and that in fact is important for our students to learn about. Take four canonical examples that still frequently appear on media studies syllabi (do a search for these and “media studies syllabus” if you don’t believe me): Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding,” Raymond Williams’ Television; Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style; and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. All of these were originally published in the 1970s and reference social worlds vastly different from the ones our student inhabit. Two of them refer to the UK, one to the US, and one to France, which means students everywhere else need to make some adjustments. Why are these texts still being taught if they are so out of date? The answer is simple: the ideas in them transcend the examples, and even where the conclusions no longer obtain, the questions they ask might be useful for students to ask today. To be sure, treating them as timeless social science theories would be a disservice: Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model is tied to the inaccessibility of television production in the 1970s; an account of the same politics around news today would have to think very differently about production.

Dated examples in readings are not a problem. They are unavoidable when the reference is popular culture, current events or new media. They can be used to teach students about the specificity of their (and our) own moment; and they provide an opportunity to teach students that intellectual work is an ongoing process and conversation of which our students can be a part.

Sterne goes on to make a plea against ‘keeping up’ with the acceleration, against ‘keeping [old work] up-to-date’ and that

we must also let scholars walk away from their projects. More than that, we should encourage it. Abandoning work has probably done more to advance scholarly conversation than any other single act by academic writers.

It’s worth reading the whole thing. I would briefly note that it is possible to argue that there is a healthy academic tradition of ‘abandonment’. In philosophy, there have been a number of writers/thinkers that have unapologetically changed their minds or simply shifted the terms of their projects – for example Francois Laruelle has made it a feature of his work as such, and one might argue that Foucault did so too.

Likewise, there have been arguments made for a more contemplative pace of work. For example, Bernard Stiegler has argued that we need to (re)constitute what the Romans called Otium the techniques of the self, of our care for ourselves and for knowledge, such that we allow space and time for attentive thought.

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