Academic journal article New Formations

The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists' Books and Radical Open Access

Academic journal article New Formations

The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists' Books and Radical Open Access

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The medium of the book plays a double role in art and academia, functioning not only as a material object but also as a concept-laden metaphor. Since it is a medium through which an alternative future for art, academia and even society can be enacted and imagined, materially and conceptually, we can even go so far as to say that, in its ontological instability with regard to what it is and what it conveys, the book serves a political function. In short, the book can be 'rethought to serve new ends'. (1) At the same time, the medium of the book remains subject to a number of constraints: in terms of its material form, structure, characteristics and dimensions; and also in terms of the political economies, institutions and practices in which it is historically embedded. Consequently, if it is to continue to be able to serve 'new ends' as a medium through which politics itself can be rethought--although this is still a big if--then the material and cultural constitution of the book needs to be continually reviewed, re-evaluated and reconceived. In order to explore critically this 'political nature of the book', as we propose to think of it, along with many of the fundamental ideas on which the book as both a concept and a material object is based, this essay endeavours to demonstrate how developments undergone by the artist's book in the 1960s and 1970s can help us to understand some of the changes the scholarly monograph is experiencing now, at a time when its mode of production, distribution, organisation and consumption is shifting from analogue to digital and from codex to net. In what follows we will thus argue that a reading of the history of the artist's book can be generative for reimagining the future of the scholarly monograph, both with respect to the latter's potential form and materiality in the digital age, and with respect to its relation to the economic system in which book production, distribution, organisation and consumption takes place. Issues of access and experimentation are crucial to any such future, we will suggest, if the critical potentiality of the book is to remain open to new political, economic and intellectual contingencies.

THE HISTORY OF THE ARTIST'S BOOK

With the rise to prominence of digital publishing today, the material conditions of book production, distribution, organisation and consumption are undergoing a rapid and potentially profound transformation. The academic world is one arena in which digital publishing is having a particularly strong impact. Here, the transition from print to digital, along with the rise of self-publishing (Blurb, Scribd) and the use of social media and social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Academia.edu) to communicate and share scholarly research, has lead to the development of a whole host of alternative publication and circulation systems for academic thought and knowledge.

Nowhere have such changes to the material conditions of the academic book been rendered more powerfully apparent than in the emergence and continuing rise to prominence of the open access movement. With its exploration of different ways of publishing, circulating and consuming academic work (specifically, more open, Gratis, Libre ways of doing so), and of different systems for governing, reviewing, accrediting and legitimising that work, open access is frequently held as offering a radical challenge to the more established academic publishing industry. Witness the recent positioning in the mainstream media of the boycott of those publishers of scholarly journals--Elsevier in particular--who charge extremely high subscription prices and who refuse to allow authors to make their work freely available online on an open access basis, in terms of an 'Academic Spring'. Yet more potentially radical still is the occupation of the new material conditions of academic book production, distribution, organisation and consumption by those open access advocates who are currently experimenting with the form and concept of the book, with a view to both circumventing and placing in question the very print-based system of scholarly communication--complete with its ideas of quality, stability and authority--on which so much of the academic institution rests. …

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