I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Stafford, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, about his new anthropology journal Anthropology of this Century. Click below to read the interview.
AF: Sherry Ortner sent me a link to her article on neoliberalism that opens the online journal you founded and edit, Anthropology of this Century (AOTC), which debuted in 2011. It’s got an awesome title. There are 88 more years in ‘this century.’ This is different from a journal with the same title coming out in 1988, which would necessarily be diachronically focused. So how do you conceptualize AOTC’s predictive focus on the emergent? Do you see its status as an online and open journal in terms of this predictive and emergent capacities?
CS: I find myself wondering what anthropology is going to do THIS century, by contrast with the interesting things it did in the last one. Anthropological theory has been stuck for a while, in my view. We need iconoclasts like Edmund Leach – who said that accumulating cultural descriptions for the sake of it isn’t good enough. Obviously, a handful of articles in AOTC won’t sort out the future of the discipline. But I’m hoping we might help a few colleagues think more clearly about some important questions. As for the open/online format, the main advantage is that AOTC is there for anybody to read, including the many anthropologists who lack easy access to journals and other publications. Our latest issue, which went live last week, has already been looked at by people in 84 countries.
AF: AOTC is mainly composed of reviews of anthropological work. Is this because you’ve found this an important component lacking in the anthropological journalistic sphere or because it lends itself nicely to the online format?
CS: It’s easy to find reviews of anthropology books. Having said this, you’ll almost never find them in London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, etc. And the ones at the back of anthropology journals tend to be short, and are written for specialists. Our reviews are longer than average, a bit more reflective, and we’re basically saying that ANY of them should, in theory, be of interest to ANY anthropologist – as well as to scholars and students from other disciplines. So, for example, you might not especially care about Mongolian shamans, but in the latest AOTC there’s a fascinating article by James Laidlaw (a review of Morten Pedersen’s new book) that should, I think, convince you that they are worth thinking about.
AF: I am probably overdetermining the journal as a form of critique but to me AOTC represents the application of much of our theoretical antagonism against closed and privatized journals. Am I overdetermining this analysis? What is the ideological origins of AOTC in relationship to the present state of academic publishing?
CS: The current academic publishing model doesn’t work very well for anthropology, in my view. Obviously things are going to change in the next few years – perhaps dramatically – because of the internet. Having said this, there are costs involved in supplying outstanding content to readers, regardless of the delivery method. So I think some degree of commercialization or subsidization (which is really hidden commercialization) is inevitable in academic publishing.
AF: I noticed on your online list of publication that you cite your written work at AOTC. You are considering it a legitimate location for publishing. How would you like AOTC to develop as a space for publication for the professionalization of anthropologists?
CS: We are not going to start publishing large numbers of peer reviewed research articles on AOTC, if that’s what you mean. That is a huge amount of work, and we don’t have the institutional backup for it. Our niche, at least for now, is just to comment on research published elsewhere. So to an aspiring anthropologist I would say: you should try to write an important and ambitious book so that we can publish a glowing review of it on ANTHROPOLOGY OF THIS CENTURY.
AF: AOTC’s design is vivid with its playfully bricolaged nomeclature set against its stark black background. It’s an excellent and simple example of stylistic possibilities available for journals online. You must have an excellent team on the design side of things. What’s AOTC’s style logic?
CS: All of the design ideas in AOTC come from one person, the art director, Ed Linfoot. Luckily, he is very, very good at what he does. The logic is in his brain.
AF: Its a simple one but one of the affordances that internet publishing has over hardcopy publishing is the capacity for fast dialogic commentary and the modeling of a virtual public sphere. As one of the moderators of this blog Savage Minds, I understand the work entailed in moderating commentary but I still find it a necessary component of online writing. Considering this, why don’t you allow comments on the articles?
CS: The question you ask is one that I anticipated. Not only does AOTC not have serious interactivity (e.g. readers’ forums etc.), we don’t even have a letters page! This may seem odd for an online open access journal. But if people want to respond to our articles my advice is that they should stop – think carefully – and then publish a response elsewhere, either on a blog (such as yours), or in an article, or a book. The instant response is in some ways antithetical to scholarship. I’m not a big fan of it, except in the context of research seminars, such as the anthropology seminar we hold on Friday mornings at the LSE. There I can be extremely critical of someone’s ideas but this is followed by us having a drink together, and then lunch, which obviously transforms the whole interaction.
AF: I am sure others might like to replicate your experiment with AOTC. In terms of cultural and social capital what does it take to pull off a journal like this?
CS: You need a lot of friends.