Horizontal Writing and Abolition Publishing

Over the course of a long day at CAA, we debated with artists and art historians as to the value of open source, open access digital media projects. For many in the audiences, the question at stake was one of professional development.  Personally, I feel a synergy between the horizontalizing work I have been developing in new media, including on this blog, and the pressure for a direct or abolition democracy in which horizontal process is a central tactic. Merge the two and you might get: abolition publishing.

A horizontal “writing” is always on our side, whether that writing be text, code, or a drawing. It is simple, as in the sign drawn on cardboard, as well as complex. As the technology of the right to look it goes backwards and forwards between its authors and its audiences, constantly affirming consent. It worries about the “author” in “authority” from the place of its claim for autonomy.

This in-between is the place of the spectre, the place of revolt. In terms of today’s discussion, this is the in-between space of “revolt” in the art history of the 1970s and 80s that got me involved in questions of the visual, beginning with feminist questionings of the gaze, moving via a Marxist interrogation of the “popular” image, to an engagement with the social that produced visual culture. More recently, there has been the widely discussed “revolution” of digital humanities, especially in the 2008-9 period, even though many are distancing themselves from these rhetorics now. And now these spectres are confronted by the real revolutions of 2011 and the challenges of 2012.

As I have often observed here, this circulation of information and ideas has been enabled by a public/private interface from the Privately Owned Public Spaces like Zuccotti to the interface of Facebook, Twitter and bodies in space symbolized by Tahrir. It is now time to think about sustaining those exchanges in the common space that we can produce together. As we have seen, we cannot rely on occupying the interstices, the in-between. We need to be bodies in space where they are not supposed to be. Such bodies are writing in places they are not supposed to: in the most vertical of institutions that is the university, the most vertical of all verticalities is publishing. Direct democracy in publishing exists, is needed, and can be whatever we all want it to be. It would be abolition publishing for an abolition democracy.

The need is well-known—debt epitomizes it, whether in the crisis of student debt, university debt for neo-liberal expansion, or the debt presumed to be owed by authors to publishers. Last year, scientific publishers Elsevier generated $3.6bn revenue of which 36% was profit—that’s a billion dollars of profit on academic labor. This isn’t market forces, it’s extortion.

Alternatives exist from the open access publishing of Open Humanities Press to the non-hierarchical multi-media platform Scalar. These formats allow for an exploration of autonomy. I call it non-hierarchical in the formal sense: every entry is equal, whether you think of it as a page, a tag, media or whatever. Thus Scalar is not so much non-linear—because we tend to use it to tell stories, just ones that are recursive and looped—so much as it is non-hierarchical. This is a counter-visuality to the authority which insists on the viewpoint of the hero or great man. So whereas projects like the excellent Vectors were vanguardist, like the Leninist party, Scalar is horizontal like Zapatismo or horizontalidad.

These alternatives can enable us to do what we want. My sense of working within this open-ended project for the past couple of years has been of a reboot consisting of a new openness, a sense of flow, and the thinking of the interactive/interdisciplinary as activity. We learn what we want by doing it, whether in the academic form of horizontal writing, or the horizontal democracy of Occupy. These are not simply equivalents of course: the latter carries a far higher degree of engagement and risk than the former (though the writing is not without professional risk for those in less secure situations than mine). They have been transforming when interactive. Occupy 2012 has by its durational form allowed me to explore and instantiate some of what I think might be meant by solidarity and horizontalidad.

So when David Graeber highlighted the most critical development of 2011 as a transformation of the imagination, how might we apply this to academic and writing contexts? In other words, how does it begin to become possible to visualize a writing in which the economic is not the dominant value?

In terms of the horizontal imagination, imagine what was once the case: a public education from pre-K to PhD that is entirely free. This long-time position of abolition democracy needs to be insisted upon not in terms of accounting–that people need degrees to get jobs and so on–but in terms of democracy: a direct democracy needs citizens who are critical, knowledgeable, resourceful and autonomous. And they would get that by using the products of abolition publishing from the tweet to the long-form text: open-access, open source, live.