[-empyre-] networks and exchange

joseph tabbi jtabbi at gmail.com
Sat Apr 4 11:12:35 EST 2009

Tactically, I see three areas for concerted, networked action among
literary scholars and artists: defense of tenure, peer-to-peer
reviewing of scholarly/creative work, and credentializing across

Contextually, I see these changes happening through networks - not so
different from those communications networks that have transformed the
financial sphere. The difference is, these networks need to be open
and communicative, not overly complex or opaque. And the regulation
has to be done in common, by all those with a stake in the development
of a profession. Discourse needs to be not encouraged but required, so
that consensus is not built too quickly (the way prices are set, and
risks determined, at the speed of electrons).

On the defense of tenure, Bousquet and others have done more, in their
books, than I can do here - except to say that where cases come
forward involving scholarship in electronic formats, we can do more to
make visible the kinds of recognition that many among 'us' have
achieved. By 'us,' I mean those who have entered into discussions like
this one and attracted considered response among peers and potential
collaborators. That kind of activity needs to be brought to the
attention of those in administrative positions, and since some of 'us'
hold such positions, at one level or another, there is no 'us' versus
'them' opposition necessarily. But more of 'us' need to urge
alternative modes of scholarly evaluation (the creation of a kind of
cultural capital) through whatever administrative channels we can
access. And we're not likely to do this through conventional
disciplinary channels: these need to be dismantled in my view.

None of this can be done through arguments exclusively. A more
developed, peer-to-peer reviewing mechanism needs to be in place. At
the Electronic Literature Organization, my colleagues and I've put a
fair amount of sustained effort into the development of an e-lit
directory, a repository of 'born-digital' literary works that is set
to go live this year (largely through volunteer labor by organization
members). These works currently are being read, described, and tagged
by a group of advanced grad students and beginning professors with a
career commitment to the field. (As of yet, most scholars with such a
commitment are early in their careers.)

Unlike conventional 'peer review,' this process will not be done by
committees behind closed doors. It is done openly by people who select
works for inclusion in the Directory, and these evaluations can be
reinforced, or challenged, by peers and members of the public. The
weight of such judgments will be measured by the level of a
participant's reviewing activity. As comments are accepted, the
commentator reaches higher levels of 'trust.'

None of this is paid work (that's a carry-over from traditional peer
review, where people are invited to report on manuscripts and tenure
files gratis, as a service to the scholarly community). What we have
instead is a gift economy among professionals devoted to making the
work of individuals visible to others working in the networks that
matter to scholarship and creativity.

Another thing that distinguishes such trans-disciplinary and
cross-cultural review, is that it uses the affordances of the
technology and networks that define the field. It will work, if it
works, by identifying sympathetic institutions with a common interest
in credentializing scholars: academic departments, journals, and
websites with a common interest in having their work
recognized by an emerging community of writers, artists,
technologists, and academics.

As for its connection with finance - the point is that such a system
creates alternative modes of capital, separate from monetary value and
capable of regulating those exchanges.

I'm no expert on the organization of financial institutions, but my
suspicion is that, when they work, that's because a sufficient number
of the professional cohort enjoys some level of job security and
recognition among peers. Only people with that level of security can
work with a *conscience,* and can observe conscientiousness in
colleagues. Partners in law firms, and apointed justices, would be the
rough equivalent of tenured professors, I guess, in the realm of
finance. (My lawyer friends tell me that the Partner system is
similarly threatened, but I don't know about this myself.)

And no, no culture war, not here: although mobilizations will need to
be made on occasion to help educate recalcitrant administrations.  And
this will be more effective if scholarly networkers can be confident
that they HAVE a field, with systems of evaluation in place that are
at once measurable, collective, and self-generated.

That's one vision, for a reformation of the network culture and its
inflection away from the reduction of communication to commerce and


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