Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chronicle of Higher Ed, McKenzie Wark, and the Future of the Book

So the Chronicle had an interesting article - a whole interesting issue, actually, but let's start with the article - a few weeks ago (July 28th) about a professor of media and cultural studies at New School University, McKenzie Wark, who was putting his latest academic book fully online to let any old web user "peer review" it. The sub-headline read "Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations."

The article referenced the now infamous May 2006 New York Times article by Kevin Kelly, called "Scan This Book!," which was then discussed at BookExpo America (covered here by the Washington Post). I found Kelly's piece useful in unpacking the mentality of these kinds of futurists who foresee the end of books as we know them, and a future of "books" which are online, shared amongst readers who can make alterations, tags, updates, and offer feedback. Wikipedia-esque. I'm not against this, but I'm skeptical and a tad nervous when the idea is applied liberally to any and all books.

In this Chronicle piece, Professor Wark is living the dream. His whole book is online. "Each paragraph of Mr. Wark's book has its own webpage, and next to each of those paragraphs is a box where anyone can comment." Given that the book, entitled GAM3R 7H30RY, is about videogames, arguing "that popular culture increasingly casts life itself as a kind of game-where you're only truly a survivor if you can avoid being voted off the island," this format isn't that huge a stretch. But Wark goes on and on about how he's writing "low theory," and wants his book to be accessible to the masses - while hoping it gets published old-school-style - on paper and stuff - by the publisher of his last book, Harvard University Press. One extreme to the other, from cutting edge publishing online to stodgy publishing with an outfit funded by rich old white men guarding their money like it's the last bit of cash on God's green earth. But to each his own. MIT Press would be a bit better, but I'm sure he has his reasons.

I'm not waving the flag of John Updike, who responded to Kelly's NY Times piece with choice words in support of The Book - as in books in general, not the Bible per se. Updike claimed passionately that "books are intrinsic to our human identity." I work with the things everyday, and I'm still not that against a book like Wark's online in such a way. But I do take issue with the idea that any idiot with access to the interweb can offer useful critiques of a book of non-fiction. I'm far from an elitist, but I am an editor, and I don't understand how an author can truly believe we do not need standards. I don't think someone with a Ph.D. is better than me, and christ knows that I know from firsthand experience that the smartest people can be real assholes, but they are still, in their subject, smarter than me. And this is true if I read a book the week before in that subject. This is probably true if reading about the subject is a habit of mine. If you disagree, you're calling our entire academic institution into question. And if you're doing that as a professor, than you are in the wrong business, I'm afraid.

I am going to use this space to explore this issue further. I should state my politics upfront: I'm far left, power to the people, etc... I get frustrated by the way our culture has universally decided to feed the masses tripe, but I still am not ready to put everybody on an intellectual even playing field with no regard for scholarship. Getting education, reading thoroughly in a subject, is labor, and the person who has performed that labor should be given respect and a certain amount of authority.

More to come, and happy to hear responses!

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