Inter-Disciplinary Angst and ‘Distributed Authorship’.

(A list that I contribute to (called fibreculture) is entering the post-cyberspace age (or second-wave Internet research) and there are some interesting conversations. Here is my reply to a ‘Position Statement’ on distributed authorship).

Dear Fibreculture,

I wish to comment on a couple of the important themes that Mr Adrian Miles raised in this position statement (2). Whilst in principle I agree with much of what Adrian Miles has to say, there are still some troublesome institutional prejudices about broader academic practices that should be addressed (if we are to move towards ‘distributed’ anything). I will attempt to provide some more academic reference points in the hope that we can foster a more inclusive conversation and thus provide some forward movement in terms of discussing the specific benefits ‘distributed authorship’ might provide for us.

One is that being an academic is not just about a communication process. It is not just about the process of writing a book nor is it just about the process of building a web site. The craft (or process) of communication for a humanities academic is an important part of the picture, but it is not the whole picture. Being able to write well doesn’t necessarily make you a good humanities academic any more the ability to make a good web site accords you the status of being a competent humanities researcher.

And whilst innovation in academic communication processes are an important component of the broader humanities, they are just a small part of our many disciplinary components. There are many other innovations within the humanities that are thrusting forward, not just applied communication techniques and processes.

Whilst ‘the humanities’ may welcome specific innovation in academic communication, the humanities won’t be dictated to by these innovations. The humanities have a choice of what communication innovations that they embrace within their various institutional settings, disciplines, study areas and practices, and these choices are based on what they think is important to them and the duties that they have to the communities that they represent. Technology is not neutral and we can make an informed choice to ignore ‘innovation’ just as much as we can make a choice to embrace it. Technology (ICT) in the humanities, as in the rest of our society, has a ‘voice’ as well as an ‘opinion’ and it is only one of many voices that we can choose to ignore or listen to.

As an historian, I have made an inordinate effort to advance notions of hypertextuality within the study of history (because I think that it is important). But these communication innovations are only useful to communicate certain historical questions (I know this through trial and error). And just because I have made numerous innovations in how history is communicated, doesn’t mean that they are applicable to the rest of the discipline (and history is just one discipline within the humanities). For most of how history is researched and communicated the academic codex provides the most advanced solution.

And as a ‘communication historiographer’ there are certain responsibilities that I am not willing to take on board. I know nothing about Philosophy, I have resisted cultural studies throughout my education, I know nothing about Archeology, I know nothing about Greek history, I know nothing about pre-Federation Australia, I know very little about Queensland history, I know nothing about education policy, I know nothing about the History and Philosophy of Science, I know nothing about 19th Century Hapsburg Art, I know nothing about India under the Raj. I can’t speak Chinese nor do I know anything about the Aboriginal tribes of Northern NSW. I know very little about the history of Feminism, I don’t understand how the senate voting system works, I don’t understand what a QC does, I don’t understand the College voting system in the US, I don’t understand the history of mining not do I understand 19th Century German Philosophy. And I don’t understand how the local council voting system works in Melbourne (and I forgot to vote).

The point is that I have difficulty speaking for the rest of the humanities because I don’t understand what they do. And just because I am an expert in my field, doesn’t mean that I can speak for other fields that I know nothing about. Despite its claims, communication studies (applied and theoretical) has discernable boundaries and it is just one constituent within the broader humanities polity. It is a contingent form of communication, not a universal one.

That said let me make a comparative statement to some of the statements that I hear coming from the technical disciplines. What if I said to the Universities of Technology that its’ academics cannot practice Communication studies within Australia unless they have an honours degree in history. I could argue that unless you understand the nuances and contradictions of the history of the society in which you practice your craft (and the literacy/s of its many historical conversations) then you cannot possibly provide communication innovations for the use within the broader humanities.

It’s never going to happen huh? And also what is never going to happen is that communication professionals are never ever going to make a universally applicable technological ‘cooky mould’ that dictates how this society engages with and advances its vast cultural heritage. The humanities are a lot bigger than ICT, a lot bigger than the Universities of Technology, a lot bigger than the present political administration and a lot bigger than me.

And beyond my own contextual ‘cooky moulds’ here, where I do strongly agree with Adrian is that there is a place for ‘distributed authorship’ and other innovations in academic communication and this is within one of the very fields that studies these innovations. And the irony is (as I have often pointed out on this list), is that the eclectic study areas of Media Studies and Cultural Studies (beyond their often monolithic canards) have actually made far few tangible innovations in new media than have a number of other humanities disciplines. The (non University of Technologies) humanities disciplines of archeology, history, linguistics and philosophy are actually far more advanced in ‘practice based new media’ than most Australian Media Studies, Cultural Studies and Communication Studies centres. Individuals from the newer academic traditions are in no position to demonise and pre-judge the rest of the humanities unless then can provide them with some tangible evidence that what they claim to be true (about the capabilities of ICTs) is actually true.

Again this said, I welcome Fibreculture’s innovations in new media and I agree with Adrian Miles’ assertions that there are too many academics in the field of new media who have not invested enough energy into technically understanding and advancing the medium they talk about (and there was a time in Australia when you could score an academic position in a university as an Historian of China without learning Chinese!) Fibreculture is ripe to address this problem and also assist in building some healthy and respectful bridges between the Universities of Technology (RMIT, Swinburne, QUT etc) and the other decent and hard working humanities scholars in the broader education system (Griffith, La Trobe, Melbourne, ANU etc.)

And sorry but ‘distributed authorship’ doesn’t cut through deeply ingrained communities of practice, institutional cultures, cities, states, suburbs, class, gender, sexuality, institutional status and competing academic cultures etc. Just because I walk sideways for 1 hour per day, doesn’t mean that I can walk sideways for 300 years. Get it?