No Authors: Writing and Supervising in the Digital Commons

How my blog-dissertation changed my scholarship, my supervisor, and my anarchism.

Contributed by Dani Spinosa Doctoral Candidate & Instructor at York University
November 14, 2014
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In May of 2013 I launched Generic Pronoun, a basic WordPress blog that would become the foundation for my doctoral thesis work. I had no idea, at that time, about the digital humanities. I just knew that I was uncomfortable with the idea of writing a protomonograph and emblazoning my name on its binding as though I had somehow, over the course of a few years, become an expert in a field—contemporary avant-garde poetry—that was so much larger than I could have imagined. I knew I was no expert when I began, and now that I finish the last sets of revisions on this project and work to schedule a defense date, I am even more convinced of this fact. I also felt like assigning my name alone to this project would be a lie. I knew I’d have a long and extensive Acknowledgements page, but tucked into the paratext of the doctoral thesis, this page felt less like I was acknowledging the multiplicitous and communal authorship of my work and more like an awards-show acceptance speech.

So, I pitched a blog to my supervisor, Dr. Andy Weaver, who thought it was a great idea. “This way,” I told him, “your comments, my committee’s comments, my friends’ comments, and even the comments of people I don’t know can be included and I won’t have to pretend that these were all my ideas.” He was supportive from the get-go. A self-proclaimed anarchist who is still not fully comfortable with the authority that all the letters added to his name give him, Andy liked my project’s transparency, its communality, and its idealism. Even when I pitched this idea to my program’s mandatory proposal workshop and was met with a resounding “don’t experiment so much,” Andy stood by my project and the radical, communal authorship and readership it proposed.

When I was approached to write something for this cluster, I knew that I would be able to write a whole book on the process of writing this dissertation. I might still do just that. But when it came to limiting the scope of my discussion here, I knew immediately that I wanted to focus on the ways that the dissertation both works within the digital forum and forges one of its own; this was both made possible and radically altered by Andy’s support. But, perhaps most importantly, the project also radically altered my relationship with Andy as my supervisor, fostering comradery, mentorship, and growth while at the same time producing friendship and the occasional academic animosity. Of course, in many ways this piece uses Andy’s name as a stand-in for the larger systems of administration in my department, as well as the preexisting scholarship of my field. While I will use his name throughout this piece as a kind of short-hand, I want the reader to keep in mind that with mention of his name I include not only the wonderful individual but also academics at large who have used digital scholarship and the digital humanities in general as a way to bridge the seemingly very large (but actually very small) gap between established academics and new and emerging scholars and graduate students.

On the Digital as Humanizing Print Scholarship

To begin in a completely honest way, the blog form that my dissertation began as was just plain easy. I don’t mean the research or analysis end of it; those remained difficult and were perhaps made more difficult by the increased demands of multiple commenters recommending additional material, as well as by the fear that comes with posting your research for an indefinite number of  anonymous eyes to read and critique. What I mean to say is that the posting process facilitated my writing by placing relatively strict deadlines on my writing progress and by encouraging me to continue producing quality work in order to encourage my readership, however small it may have been. It also made my relationship with my supervisor much easier by dispensing with tedious emails questioning progress, minimizing the need for meetings, and ensuring not only that Andy had an idea of how far along I was in the project but also that he had available, wherever he was, the most recent iterations of my work. While the ease of this experimental form may seem like a strange thing to include in this discussion, I maintain that these practical elements are not only important to consider but also demonstrate that experimentation may render more visible the problems and challenges of existing modes.

Additionally, the blog form made Andy’s relationship to my work much closer than that of a more traditional thesis supervisor. The form required that he attend to my progress fairly regularly, which was already an onerous task for both of us at the start, and became progressively more difficult as Andy welcomed the birth of his first child. In the end, and I can speak to this very specifically as I am in the middle of my final round of revisions as I write this, Andy’s closeness to my project throughout has made the final revisional stages very easy. There were no surprise disagreements or requirements for major rewrites because he was close to my ideas and my progress from the beginning of my project. Additionally, this meant that he could recommend sources (including his own) throughout my work, tying our scholarship together in inextricable ways. At times I felt as though it was difficult to maintain critical distance with my supervisor as such a vital critical lens to my project, but Andy always welcomed my critiques and sometimes even changed his mind about his arguments. It also meant that he could offer further thoughts on his own work (and critique it on more than a few occasions). By this I mean that Andy as human being became synonymous with Andy Weaver author of the articles I was using, thus making my criticisms of his work more nuanced (hard to dismiss a real person the way we so often dismiss a name on a page). This not only happened in the case of Andy’s involvement, however; it also included conversations with Jesse Cohn on my use of his book Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation; the backlash against my critiques of Christian Bök which he posted publicly from his very popular Twitter account; and the close engagement of my colleague Sean Braune with work that included my use of his published articles. Though digital scholarship—and indeed the digital at large—is often criticized for being impersonal and unemotional, the digital commons produced by my project humanized the abstraction of names on the pages of scholarly journals, radically altering my approach to scholarship. If I began my work as an emerging scholar intent on taking down or poking holes in the extant scholarship, I am now interested in building on scholarship, in forging connections with other scholars, and on collaboration above all.

Ultimately, my digital work emerged within a collaborative forum, one which most explicitly included Andy and me, but also included everyone who commented on or read my work. This was probably the most important element of the project for me because the later years of a graduate degree in the humanities often underscore the fact that humanities scholarship is widely treated as and considered to be a solitary and highly individualized practice. As Lisa M. Spiro’s post on her digital scholarship blog demonstrates, while collaborative authorship is relatively common in the digital humanities, it is quite rare in more traditional literary studies. This is despite the fact that panels such as the one I participated in at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention in Chicago have been touting the benefits of collaboration for many years. In fact, the concept of collaboration and collaborative authorship has been discussed at least since 1999, when Cathy N. Davidson article, “What if Scholars in the Humanities Worked Together, in a Lab?” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she critiques the notion of the solitary humanist as one grounded in a Romantic conception of authorship that is more or less universally disregarded as archaic in literary scholarship. Nonetheless, print-based scholarship in the humanities has tended to prioritize single-author publications, fashioning scholarship as something that happens in private—a clandestine relationship between one scholar and a rather large pile of books. This is, of course, not the case; the core of research is that we use the ideas put forth by others in order to improve and inform our own work, and we as scholars participate constantly in workshops, conferences, panels, peer reviews, seminars, and the exchange of ideas in order to better our scholarship. Regardless, print-based humanities scholarship has generally been resistant to collaborative authorship in a way that the digital humanities has not. Part of this is because digital projects often require many individuals with different kinds of expertise (a programmer, a graphic designer, a linguistic analyst, a statistician, a literary scholar). But part of it is also because digital projects—often using the internet as a networking tool—embrace the potentials of the digital world to produce a common readership.

As Dave Parry notes in his essay, “The Digital Humanities or a Digital Humanism,” it is not that the digital humanities invented or even reinvented collaborative scholarship, but rather that it makes accessible and visible the collaborative nature of the work that we already do. “Of course,” he writes, “collaborative and collective scholarship has a long history both inside and outside of the academy, especially in the sciences, where collaborative scholarship is the standard, not the exception” (np). Instead, for Parry, the digital humanities confront the relatively new idea that scholarship in the humanities is what he terms “an individual, indeed often solitary, performance” (np). In the end, Parry argues that while “[d]igital humanities did not invent collaborative scholarship,” it ultimately “make[s] such work more acceptable and transparent” (np). My goal with this dissertation project was to carry on this task; in some ways my project is a digital humanities one, and in others—the fact that I work primarily with print-based media and I will defend this as a print-based dissertation—it is not. What I am primarily concerned with, in welcoming other voices into this project, is that my work enter into a discourse with other scholars, ultimately producing better and more nuanced scholarship on both sides. This is all to say that what I am most proud of is this project's effort to make the discursive nature of humanities scholarship transparent, and to openly give recognition and “credit” to multiple contributors in a way that isn’t found in the traditional humanities. It also merits pointing out that my project doesn’t simply foreground collaboration with scholars that I literally communicated with, but also foregrounds the essential collaborative nature of all scholarship; it is not a terribly new idea, but one that digital humanities finds is increasingly ignored.

What makes this project anarchist, and postanarchist in keeping with the terms of my own research, is that the digital forum of the work also does its work to critique the very notions of authorship, authority, and expertise that are typically associated with writing a protomonograph in the humanities. This authority is necessarily a fiction, and every humanities scholar implicitly knows this. The digital project, which will remain open to comments even after my project has been defended and my degree conferred, remains as a testament to my own mistakes, misreadings, and difficulties throughout my project, failures that are typically hidden in the ephemera of draft and process in a print-based project. The comments section testifies to my fallibility as an emerging scholar (and as a human being!), as well as the fallibility of my supervisor (apologies to him) and of other readers who would disagree with each other and point out the errors in not only my work but also in the comments of others. The print-based version of my dissertation retains many these comments as footnotes clearly attributed to the commenter, even when I have already made the change that their comment has signaled and even when I do not take their advice. The result is that multiple names sign my project and nearly every other page of the print version is underscored by the voice of at least one other reader (who then becomes a kind of co-author). This, alongside a lengthy works cited section, produces a text that concedes throughout its pages that though I am attributed the first authorship, my name on the first page signals only that I initiated the discussion, not that I controlled it.

On the Digital as a Safe Space to Fail

All this said, I believe that in many ways that my project has failed. I don’t want to suggest that it hasn’t been a worthwhile endeavor, or an important learning experience, or even that I did not, in the process, produce some valuable and enjoyable scholarship. In fact, Susan Brown’s lecture on “Knowledge Production in the Digital Age” at York University in November of 2014 argued that the willingness to fail is a hallmark of digital humanities, and what offers it the opportunity to be radical and innovative. But what I mean to suggest is that the goals I laid out in the introduction to my thesis about the revolutionary potentials of the blog form were naïve and idealistic at best. They did not account for the fact that digital scholarship that embraces a collaborative atmosphere and is thus enriched by the plethora of voices made available in the digital common is a vastly different enterprise than the protomonograph. Perhaps this means that, as digital scholarship gradually encroaches on the traditional realm of print-based media in the humanities, we need to rethink the protomonograph altogether. When I presented a pecha kucha presentation on my project for a panel concerned with rethinking the protomonograph at the Modern Language Association annual conference in Chicago, the response from the crowd was resoundingly that we can no longer justify the mode of the traditional print protomonograph, or the resultant scholarship. Framing the dissertation as a protomonograph remains an archaic practice that is unhelpful for graduate students as emerging scholars, and it is my hope that my own work and the (entirely anticipated) stir that has resulted from it can help to change doctoral requirements and open up space for new and exciting digital, creative, and collaborative work in literary studies and the humanities at large. But the conclusion of a doctoral thesis is probably no place for such a diatribe; the work of doctoral reform has its roots and its efficacy elsewhere, and I recommend Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence if you’re interested in this topic in terms of the protomonograph and of publishing in the humanities more generally.

I should return to my claim that this project has failed, because it merits clarification. As I work on editing the project in anticipation of a defense (a defense that is, by and large, of the print-based dissertation that has resulted from my digital project), I am forced to confront how very little discussion it produced, and the fault of this lies primarily with myself. I see now that I was writing for too many audiences. To begin, I was always writing first and foremost for my supervisor and my committee, all three of whom welcomed the digital form of this project but who were always primarily concerned (and rightly so) with the research and scholarship produced therein. I was writing to the administration in my department who were resistant to the digital form of the project. I was writing to my peers who were excited by the prospect and the potentials of this project’s collaborative elements, and some of whom participated actively and enriched my project in ways that they could never know. I also tried to write to a general public; but as the confused responses I got from non-academic friends and family can attest, I did not manage to reach this audience as I had hoped. All in all, the public and digital form of this scholarship required a tone of address that I could not and did not find, and largely for that reason the discussion on these posts tended to involve Andy and me.

The digital for(u)m of my project is thus an argument in and of itself. It argues through its destabilization that the postanarchist literary theory that it proposes throughout is a literary theory of the digital even (or especially) in non-digital texts. My work argues that all work contains the potentials and the limitations of a digital poetics, and postanarchism argues that the digital revolutionizes scholarship and creates the spaces for unhelpful critique as outlined above. To argue that non-digital (print-based) texts contain the potentials and limitations of digital poetics is probably a very controversial argument—although perhaps less so when we consider the results of Nicholas van Orden's study of the impacts of technology on print humanities scholarship—but I see it as having roots in the already extant studies of digital poetry. As C.T. Funkhouser illustrates in his seminal work Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995, it is not only useful to understand that digital poetry has its roots in a history of the avant-garde. It is also useful to consider that all poetry—especially experimental poetry—written in the last half-century is necessarily influenced by the radical potentials and McLuhanian obsolescences of technology and the technologization of poetics. Digital poetry, Funkhouser argues, was “mechanically and conceptually built in the decades before personal computers” (1). With roots in Dada, Oulipo, Black Mountain poetics and projective verse, concrete poetry, imagism, the French avant-garde, Futurism, and high modernism, digital poetry (and its many off-shoots like cyberpoetics, kinetic poetry, hypertext fiction, and so on) cannot be understood as separate from the print-based tradition. We must also consider the manner with which writing anything in the last fifty years or so is necessarily influenced by the technologization of this practice from the typewriter to the personal computer to the current ubiquity of internet network accessibility. In this way, the tendency in scholarship of digital poetics to look back on these precursors and influences should also work both ways; it would be incomplete to study the texts in my project without also considering them a part of the network of digital poetics. In some cases, as in my discussions of the poetic works the tapeworm foundry (Darren Wershler) or Soliloquy (Kenneth Goldsmith), I have explicitly done just this. Throughout this project my eye has always been on the material and technological conditions of the production of these poems, which are often digital in nature. I would like to make explicit here the need to pay particular attention to the digital and networked elements of all poetry, especially print-based poetry.

To begin, digital poetics explicitly work towards a depersonalization of poetry and a de-individualization of the author by virtue of their networked nature and the often randomized elements of their production, as well as their tendency toward the active engagement of their readership. As Funkhouser notes, “[d]igital poems are more inclined toward abstraction and are largely depersonalized, especially as the media used in composition has become hybridized” (17). While these effects are not exclusive to digital poems, the processes of

[r]andomization, patterning, and repetition of words, along with discursive leaps and quirky, unusual semantic connections, are almost always found in digital poetry, though sometimes these effects are so amplified that the poems would not be considered poetry by someone using traditional definitions. (Funkhouser 18)

Additionally, digital poems are marked by instability and flux. As Funkhouser goes on to describe, “[d]igital poems do not exist in a fixed state” and thus “[a]ny work that exists in digital form is temporary” (21). Indeed, “[l]ongevity is not one of the genre’s defining characteristics” (ibid). While recent curatorial work by the acclaimed digital humanist and creative writer Dene Grigar has endeavored to change the way we view the ephemerality of the digital text, it stands to reason that this very ephemerality is a hallmark of the digital text. In some ways, the fleeting nature of the meaning inherent in the print-based media this project studies reflects the temporariness of the digital poem.

Perhaps the most important feature of digital poetry, from a postanarchist perspective, is that it is marked by linking, both through hypertext and through a radical intertextuality that both directs to other texts (either digital or print-based) and conditions itself to generate new poems and/or proliferate itself. As I wrote in my introduction, hypertext and hyperlinking are a major feature of the form of Generic Pronoun and of postanarchism in general, in that they embrace a rhizomatic structure that opens up the potentials of a reader freedom not typically afforded by the gestures toward linearity inherent in the bound book. For Funkhouser (and this position is affirmed by the scholarship of many digital humanists studying electronic literature, including Florian Cramer, Brian Kim Stefans, Sandy Baldwin, &c), digital poetry is marked by this rhizomatic linking. “Digital poetry is not a fixed object,” Funkhouser explains, and “its circuitry perpetuates a conversation” (18). Embracing the conversation and discursivity inherent in the common and also outlined in my introduction, digital poetry makes apparent the fact that “[p]oetry is a social constructed art form, always situated within other texts (not limited only to poems) and extended by readers” (ibid). What all of this is meant to suggest is that a postanarchist literary theory has a lot to learn from digital poetics, and the relative failures of this project in blog form is a testament to this.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that digital humanities and digital poetics are inherently postanarchist, or even inherently political. As Matthew K. Gold points out in “The Digital Humanities Moment,” the introduction to the highly influential Debates in the Digital Humanities, “fault lines have emerged within the DH community between those who use new digital tools to aid in relatively traditional scholarly projects and those who believe that DH is most powerful as a disruptive political force that has the potential to reshape fundamental aspects of academic practice” (np). While it is clear from the form and the politics behind my project that I side with this latter group, I have no interest in designating my work as effective digital humanities in a way that other projects that appear to be much more traditional are not. Instead, I would like to argue first that any digital intervention into humanities scholarship—a historically and culturally print-dominated medium—has the potential to be disruptive, but it need not be. But, more importantly, I would also like to argue somewhat controversially that all postanarchist projects must in some form or another pay attention to the potentials of the digitally networked world to create many and multiple temporary autonomous zones (a moment of transient insurgency, a term I borrow from Hakim Bey) and to connect disparate and unique individuals into a common in which all voices can be accessed. This is not to suggest that the internet is an anarchist utopia where all humans are created and treated equally (such a statement would be so egregiously false that the internet itself would stand up to oppose it), but rather that postanarchism must insist on creating moments of digital scholarship in which moments of radical freedom and relative autonomy can erupt more easily and more accessibly thanks to the connective potentials of the digital.