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Publishing as Activism: punctum books, Aaron Swartz, and the Medieval Sudan

Published onJul 05, 2017
Publishing as Activism: punctum books, Aaron Swartz, and the Medieval Sudan

This text was first presented at the 2017 International Medieval Congress, Session 1135: “The Theory and Politics of Medieval Studies II: Activism.”

Good afternoon.

I would first like to thank Alaric Hall [check] for organizing these panels on the theory and politics of medieval studies and for inviting me to speak about publishing as activism.

My name is Vincent, and I am co-director of punctum books, a non-profit, open-access, para-academic press. The press was founded in 2011 by Eileen Joy, and I joined as her partner in 2015. We currently have a catalogue of around 200 books and publish between 30–40 titles per year.

If you look up our website, you will find a manifesto that expounds our publishing philosophy, and I hope you will allow me to quote a few lines from it:

punctum books […] is dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage […]. We have a special fondness for neo-traditional and unconventional scholarly work that productively twists and/or ignores academic norms […]. We take in strays of any variety. This is a space for the imp-orphans of your thought and pen, an ale-serving church for little vagabonds.

We exist, in part, to convince scholars in the humanities – that is you and me – that the current academic publishing model is predatory and unsustainable for both scholars and universities. And unless we together do something about it the humanities will atrophy at an accelerated rate.

It is not my intention to list here the many ways in which the current academic publishing system provides all the wrong incentives to the wrong people. As has been argued widely in different fora, we as scholars are currently and at a massive scale providing free academic labor – as authors, reviewers, and editors – to massive corporations who have outsourced nearly every single aspect of publishing, who then sell us back the often publicly funded fruits of our own intellectual endeavors to be paid, again, with large amounts of public money. This double- and triple-dipping business has created enormous profit margins for these companies, has depleted the pockets of academic libraries, and caused burnouts across the academic world.

The only reason that this perverse situation continues to exist is because of an intangible concept, "prestige," and the quasi-religious concepts that have become associated with it, such as double-blind peer review, impact factors, accountability, and academic ranking.

To a large extent, the future of this predatory industry lies in the hands of us, academics and para-academics. Divesting from this industry will take away its legitimacy, as "prestige" lies with us, not with the publisher. An excellent recent example was the resignation of the entire board of prominent linguistic journal Lingua, which left Elsevier after the publisher refused to make its articles more accessible. Together with Martin Eve's Open Library of the Humanities, they founded the new open-access journal Glossa, which has immediately taken over the academic prestige that Lingua used to have. "Zombie-Lingua" lingers on, but no serious linguist would ever consider publishing in it, no matter how high Elsevier claims its "impact factor" to be.

So when you are in an editorial board of a journal you should all ask yourselves, whom are we profiting? Our community and colleagues, or a profit-margin-oriented corporation?

This is a fundamental question, because for us at punctum books, publishing is an essential form of "making public" – making public not to those who have the money or status to acquire what we publish, but making public to "everyone," including precarious scholars at universities in the non-Western world, including adjuncts and para-academics without library access, including those who wish to expand their horizon and simply want to read something new.

None of this means that we have to give up on quality, peer review, editorial standards, or design. It means, however, that we have to rethink all of these aspects of book publishing and how these can be reconfigured in such a way that academic publishing will once again be of the academy and for the academy.

This also means to investigate how our own research affects us. Are we publishing our work to gather points in the game toward ever less realistic tenure, or are we publishing work in modes and forms that say something about ourselves? Are we publishing our work with publishers that encourage us to explore and experiment, that allow for chimeras and miscreants as well as innovation?

For punctum books, publishing, making public, is an essential aspect of the what Foucault called in his late work the "care of the self." An essential aspect of this care of the self is what Foucault named in a sequence of lectures at the Collège de France "alethurgy," "parrhēsia," and finally, in The Courage of Truth "etymos logos," true discourse. This etymology, "true discourse," is an expression of the care of the self as what Paul Veyne called "a work of the self on the self."

In this very sense, punctum books is an "etymological press." We very often receive books that deprecatingly called "pet projects." Books in which authors situate the core of their thinking, break new grounds, and experiment with new forms. Very often these works are "unmarketable" within the fixed constraints and conceptual frameworks of regular presses. These are the books that we love to release into the world. So if you like, this would be part of our activism.

punctum books is an open-access press, and we support open access to all academic publications. This also means that we try to speak out whenever other open-access initiatives are under attack, which they constantly are. Sean Dockray, founder of open-access repository was sued in the court of Quebec by publisher whose book had appeared on the website, and Alexandra Elbakyan's Sci-Hub was recently fined $15 million in damages to be paid to Elsevier for infringing on its copyright. In a thoroughly cynical statement, Maria A. Pallante, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, stated on June 22:

The Court has not mistaken illegal activity for a public good. On the contrary, it has recognized the defendants’ operation for the flagrant and sweeping infringement that it really is and affirmed the critical role of copyright law in furthering scientific research and the public interest.

If anything, copyright law has become a burden on scientific research and the public interest, which is proven by the success of open-access pre-print servers in the sciences, such as arXiv. Here, collective peer review has completely circumvented any for-profit publishing model.

Websites such as aaaarg and Sci-Hub perform a critical service to academics, para-academics, and students in non-Western countries, and we see it as our duty to speak out against the injustice that is done to them in the name of "scientific research and the public interest."

One case in which our protests have been successful is the case of the publication of Aaron Swartz's collected writings by The New Press and Verso. Swartz was the victim of one of those copyright infringement court cases after downloading thousands and thousands of articles from JSTOR, without ever even having made them public. Under pressure of the ongoing case, Swartz, one of the developers of RSS and many other digital platforms, committed suicide at the age of 26.

Swartz was a fierce advocate of open access. That his collected writings, which are freely available online under a Creative Commons license, were marketed by Verso and placed under copyright and "all rights reserved," including watermarks in the digital files, was a shocking act of cynical appropriation of open-access work by a for profit "left-wing" corporation. This is what Aaron himself thought about copyright:

A copyright is an entirely negative right: it gives you no new freedoms, merely the ability to prevent others from something they would otherwise be allowed to do. It gives one individual (the copyright holder) full control of a whole market (the sale of their writing). This is a monopoly, something governments must protect us from.

Copyright is not a natural right, but merely an outdated invention from the era of the printing press. To call copyrighted works “intellectual property” corrupts thought, by subjecting those who want to replace the invention with a more effective one to nonsensical claims of “you’re stealing my property”.

It took us months of conversing with Aaron's executor, and a massive online campaign to force Verso to declare that it had no rights on the materials. So when we are talking about activism, it is not enough to be open access yourself, we also have the duty to speak out whenever that which is public and a public good is appropriated for the profit of the few.


A second example of what may fall partially under the rubric of activism is perhaps my own scholarly work on the Medieval Sudan. For this I should give you a little background, because it is impossible to speak about activism without revealing yourself, activism, as form of parrhēsia and care of the self, is intimately bound up with who we are.

I had never thought or planned that I would become a Medievalist, or a publisher. I was an activist first, I suppose, from the moment I campaigned to become student board president in my high school. I spent my student years in the DIY band scene – we did everything: promotion, distribution, recording, the art work, gigs – and until just before the end, without official record label. But I kept the DIY attitude and started my own publishing house when I was in grad school, to publish the work of my peers and any work out there that I found interesting and thought deserved a wide audience.

So what about medieval studies? When I did my MA in linguistics, we had to take several credits in non-Indo-European languages, and I chose Coptic as one of them. After two semesters, my professor told me: There is this other, unknown language in the same region, Old Nubian, that we know little about. As you are a linguist, maybe we can do a seminar on it.

The Memorial for King George. Photo by Grzegorz Ochała.

This is the Memorial for King George, found way outside the Nubian heartland in the Wadi el-Natrun, who died on the 20th day of Thoth anno martyrum 874, or September 17, 1157. We still don't know how this Old Nubian inscription ended up in lower Egypt, but I do know it got me hooked.

But I soon realized, that the study of Medieval Nubia had very few connections with the Nubian minorities still living in Northern Sudan and Upper Egypt, the destruction of their homelands by the construction of hydropower dams, and the marginalization of their culture under a regime that promotes Arabization. So when I was first introduced to Andaandi language activist Shafie El-Guzuuli, one of the first projects we did was a Nubian translation in Andaandi of the Old Nubian miracle story about Saint Minas.

This was also when I started to realize something. Nearly all research on Medieval Nubia that is published is produced inside Western research institutions, such as universities. These institutions have acquired expertise in this field mainly as the result of European colonial expansion in Africa, and the large archeological salvage campaigns when the Aswan dam was built in the 1960s. Much of the materials excavated remain unpublished and relatively inaccessible. Much of these materials are considered their university's "property," and complex hierarchical structures within archeology departments regulate the privileged access to these materials. I don't have a university position. Most Nubian speakers do not have university positions.

It is damaging to scientific progress that these materials are kept hidden, and are treated as copyrighted material by those who have excavated them. If these archeological finds are anyone's "property," certainly the original inhabitants of the region from which they were extracted should be the first to be considered. But I would say that – with their original owners long deceased – these materials belong to mankind as a whole. These materials should be open access.

This is when I started a collaboration with a group of academics and para-academics like myself around a new open access journal, Dotawo. Our goals were to open up Nubian scholarship to Nubians; to collaborate across disciplines – archeology, anthropology, linguistics, codicology, Bible studies, history, and so on; and make our research available for free to all. It is maybe difficult to convey what this gesture meant within an academic setting in which white, Christian, male university-based archeologists had so far set the tone.

Dotawo, as open-access journal that is now hosted by punctum books and the open access repository of Fairfield University thus accomplishes two goals. First it releases otherwise unpublished materials out into the world, not only toward scholars who would otherwise have never been acquainted with it, but more importantly toward those people whose heritage it is.

The result has been stunning. An ever larger group of Nubian and Sudanese scholars is engaging with the materials and attending workshops and events that are cohosted by Dotawo inside and outside Sudan. We also can see the slow opening up of the closed ranks of established university departments, because suddenly there is this multi-disciplinary group of scholars publishing materials that no single scholar could comprehensively address. It has therefore become profitable for these departments to share their materials with us – not profitable in terms of monetary value or prestige, but in terms of the advancement of knowledge.

And this affirms to me something very positive. No matter how "prestigious" an outlet may be, or how close to tenure they are, at the end of the day scholars are only motivated by one thing: bringing their field of inquiry forward. This motivation has been often abused, by publishers and research institutions who claim that theirs is the "only way" to safeguard quality. But quality is not the same as progress, and we know this with every fiber of our being.

It may be true that an article written by a Sudanese scholar is not up to the "standards" that we set in the Western research institution, but nothing beats a new data set and the expansion of our horizon. I can spend hours puzzling over the translation of an Old Nubian technical boating term, but what an excitement when this word is easily translated by a Nubian boatsman, who has traveled the Nile for years.

As scholars, we are often locked up into our own disciplines, but sharing our research with the public, with colleagues, with other departments, and especially with non-academics, can only be enriching. The more we share our work, the better it becomes and the best way to share it is to make it available to everyone, to make it open access no matter where they live or how much they earn. This seems self-evident, but we will have to fight for it every step along the way.

Thank you.

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