Some thoughts on the future of academic writing - written in March as part of an assignment for my MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.
I am writing this in Vienna - doing a bit of culture for a few days. So, in my attempt to create a multi-modal artefect for IDEL I am about to get all pretentious and arty-farty on your ass. As with a lot of my thinking and writing about stuff, I’m making this up as I go along, so if it doesn’t hang together as coherent then feel free to say so - after all, this is a networked digital artefact - recursive and open-ended - process not product (Fitzpatrick 2011).
One of the exhibitions I went to see was Austrian artist Franz West at the Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK).
As with a lot of modern conceptual art I spent a bit of time wondering what I was doing wasting my time looking at this stuff. However, one idea that West had - his ‘Adaptives’ produced a bit of clarity and understanding. Adaptives are abstract objects, made from plaster and metal.
The idea is that you pick these items up and play with them.
The video at the start of this blog is of Hungarian performance artist Ivo Dimchev using some of West’s Adaptives. Note that one of the ‘uses’ to which Dimchev puts his Adaptive is ‘Not Safe For Work’. If you’ve already found this out to your cost - sorry!
In the traditional view of art, the artist was central, authoritative.
The artist would engage in discrete projects that would result in an end product - the painting, or sculpture, before moving on to the next discrete project.
What West wanted to show was that art only becomes art when people interact with it. For West a work of art is not an autonomous object - it is a process, not a discrete project with a start and end point. ‘Art’ in whatever form requires interaction from the viewer, it only exists as art because of our relationship with it. When I read this on one of the ‘idiot boards’ next to the work I immediately ‘got it’ (maybe I’ll have such a moment with Pinterest one day…). I shifted from my original view of West’s work, which was “WTF!" to understanding, and thought that there was a useful metaphor here that I could use in relation to this week’s IDEL task. There is also one other aspect of the display that is important in this metaphor - but I’ll save that until the end.
So, what does this have to do with the future of academic writing? Well, writing too requires interaction - it needs us to give it meaning by reading it, and relating it to what we already know - the notion of intertextuality suggests that all texts are ‘rife with references to other texts and that it is impossible for a reader to approach any given text without reference to everything she has previously read or seen.’ (Fitzpatrick 2011). Fitzpatrick quotes Barthes, who says that any text is a collection of quotes - it is built upon the cultural knowledge and the words of every writer that has gone before it. The general idea is that reading and writing are shared social and cultural experiences, rather than the discrete work of a lone God-Like author who produces a text which most people won’t read, before moving on to the next one.
In current academic practice the writer is central, she produces an academic paper as the result of a discrete project, before moving on to the next.
Networked digital writing disrupts this conception of writing. It allows interaction for example via comments in a blog. The writer moves from the centre to the margin. The writing is given meaning by the people who read it , but they then take part in its development, by commenting. The writing is in a constant state of development, its meaning changes with each comment. Just as West’s Adaptives change with each use.
A sting in the tail
In the Mumok gallery we weren’t allowed to use West’s Adaptives. They were displayed as in any other gallery with notices not to touch ‘due to reasons of conservation’- despite descriptions of each piece telling us how they were meant to be touched in order to have any meaning as art! Maybe West would have appreciated the irony. The old way of presenting art had taken over - back to the the art as autonomous object and artist as God-like creator. The whole point of West’s art reduced to a one-way object-to-person relationship.
My view at the moment is that the old ways of academic writing will remain, because they are more easily quantifiable, and measurable. In the neo-liberal marketised university the shareholders will need to know what they’re getting for their money, and it’s more difficult to monetise a process than a discernible product.