HAU, the ground-breaking open access anthropology journal, continues to grow and change. Now more of a scholarly society or research network than just a journal (if it was ever just a journal), HAU introduced it’s latest innovation on Monday: An open access book series. Actually, HAU Books is not exactly brand new — we ran an interview about HAU’s book project back in October. But with HAU’s current social media blitz about the site, I thought now would be a good time to talk about the new site and what it does. Disclosure: I’m on the board of the journal version of HAU, but have no affiliation with the book project and took no part in its creation.
There’s a lot to say about the site and the project, but the most important thing to deal with up front is the content: the books themselves. At the moment, two books are available live: Gifts and Commodities by Chris Gregory, and Anti-Witch by Jeanne Favret-Saada.
Gifts and Commodities is a hoary old classic of anthropological theory. Before its digitization, I remember it asa slender, pale blue volume with green letters. The book grew out of Gregory’s experience living in Papua New Guinea during its transition to independence (HAU’s new cover features the PNG equivalent of a twenty dollar bill on the cover, which was a brilliant choice). Talk of the difference between ‘the village’ and ‘the city’ was very big at that time, and Gregory turns Papua New Guinean insights about the distinction between gifts and commodities into a classic of Marxist anthropology.
Back in the day, Gifts and Commodities was considered part of an economic anthropology tradition — it tied Mauss to volumes like Money and the Morality of Exchange and Money and Modernity. Today Gregory (along with Keith Hart) has become one of the main sources of inspiration for David Graeber, and a key foundational figure for an economic anthropology opposed to Neoliberal reform.
It’s fantastic that HAU has made Gregory’s book available again. In doing so, they have not reprinted a classic, they have added helped stoke the flames of a vital part of anthropology by making its past accessible.
Jeanne Favret-Saada is a different kettle of fish. Educated in Algeria with a long history of studying French-Muslim relations, Favret-Saada has also published two monographs on witchcraft and soccer in rural France. Both of these books suffer the fate of having a French title to elegant to be translatable into English. Her first, Les Mots, La Morts, Les Sorts was translated in 1980 as “Deadly Words”. HAU’s new volume, Anti-Witch, was originally published in 2009 as Désorceler, something closer to ‘de-sorcery’ or ‘un-sorceled’ afaik. HAU’s title has a vague interetextual resonance with Anti-Oedipus, which is nice, and certainly much more successful than “Deadly Words”.
Why is Favret-Saada’s work interesting to people who don’t study rural France? Because it focuses on the blurring of observer and observed that has become a central theme of authors such as Marilyn Strathern. Back in the day, I read Deadly Words and Pasteurization of France side by side. Today, Favret-Saada comes out of left field for many of us. She articulates with French folklore, psychoanalysis, and an Africanist tradition of witchcraft studies (Max Marwick, anyone?) that generated theoretical excitement as part of the ‘rationality debates’ of the seventies. But today anthropological theory has caught up with her, or is perhaps ready to read her with new eyes. Anti-Witch is not a light read in terms of content, but it has minimal scholarly infrastructure: a brief bibliography, and no long literature reviews. As a result it will reward anyone who wants to dive into it, folklorist or not. And it’s now much easier to access than its scarce, out of print elder sibling, Deadly Words. Perhaps this marks the beginning of the Favret-Saada turn in Anglophone anthropology?
In general, HAU has made great choices in making these works available. One is a hard-to-find classic, the other a representative of a tradition English language readers might not be familiar with. Neither is American. In fact, with one exception (a forthcoming title from Emily Martin), none of them are. HAU is slowly deterritorializing the American anthropological imagination — and good thing too.
I’m less enthused about the site’s usability. HAU’s previous book offerings have always been difficult to actually read — in the past you could download individual chapters as PDFs or read them online. I respected this choice, since it gave HAU better metrics on readership than just having a button where users could spam download content and then never read it. The downside, of course, was that I couldn’t spam download HAU’s content and then read it.
The new HAU books site goes even farther, removing PDF download. Now if you want to read a text you have to buy a physical copy of the book, or read it on the web (or HAU’s new app, which I will give some time to improve before I tell you what I think about it). At the moment HAU titles on Amazon and Google Books have no preview of the titles, which is a shame since many people often use these features to locate page numbers for citations. There is currently no ebook edition. I don’t know if one is going to be offered.
This makes HAU very different from open access publishers like ANU Epress. That publisher lets you read their books online, download them as PDFs, or mobi, or epub, or buy them as a print on demand book. HAU Books, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a way to navigate from section to section of a book as you’re reading it — you have to return to the table of contents every time you finish a section. Surely a ‘next chapter’ button wouldn’t have been too much to ask? Or perhaps it is coming soon.
HAU is also quite different from Cultural Anthropology, which has happily mutated into a… well, what exactly I’m not sure. But it certainly is in keeping with the journal’s long-standing commitment to experimentation. Most importantly,
HAU has partnered with the University of Chicago Press for this series and I imagine that Chicago is, very fairly, worried about the sustainability of a book series which is also given away free online. I understand this concern, and at the end of the day I am willing to live with a sub-optimal open access product if it means getting Gregory, Favret-Saada, and so many other important authors back in front of the public. But as it currently stands, the HAU Books site currently feels more like an online appendix to a born-paper product.
But these are still early days for HAU Books and I’m sure improvements to the site are not far away. The important thing to focus on at the moment is not the usability of the website, but the quality of the scholarly product it provides us. On this front, there’s no question that HAU is moving the ball down the field. I’m excited for the forthcoming titles, especially Severi’s The Chimera Principle. HAU continues to take its unique vision and turn it into a list of genuine scholarly value.