Tag Archives: Bibliomania

What have we been doing for the past 25 years, anyway?

The journal Cultural Anthropology is marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Writing Culture with a special issue devoted to the lasting impact of that volume on the discipline. Then I got to thinking, what makes the last 25 years of anthropology so significant?

It is kind of an arbitrary number. But now that its been suggested why not take stock? What have been the most significant achievements of anthropology since the publication of Writing Culture in 1986?

The other day I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Wittgenstein when I came across a claim that piqued my curiosity, “In 1999 his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) was ranked as the most important book of 20th Century philosophy.” The embedded citation led me to this–

Lackey, Douglas P. 1999. “What Are the Modern Classics? The Baruch Poll of Great Philosophy in the Twentieth Century.” The Philosophical Forum. 30 (4).

Lo and behold, it’s a journal article. In Wikipedia! It just so happens that my library has access to The Philosophical Forum, so I got the pdf to check it out. Call it productive procrastination, but I love digression. I’m like a kid pulling a thread out of the sand. Where does this lead?

It was Y2K and Lackey had read a bunch of Best of the Century-type lists and had the idea to do one for philosophers. So he emailed 4,000 philosophy professors and received 414 replies to his survey. The article includes separate rankings for most important book and most important article, with light commentary on each entry. It’s quite an enjoyable article, worthy of an extended coffee break or unwinding at the end of the day.

He describes the survey methodology:

We asked respondents to name the five most important books in philosophy in the twentieth century, and also the five most important articles. Giving five choices permits discretion, but five is a small enough number to force voters to choose their selections carefully. Since we were interested in judgments of quality, we instructed respondents to make their choices on the basis of intrinsic merit, not on the basis of causal influence. (By the causal influence standard, Mein Kampf might be the most important book of the twentieth century.)

We asked respondents to list their choices in order of preference. On this score we had little compliance… We decided not to use any point system for weighting the results according to preference. We did keep track, however of which book was listed first on each ballot, and used that indication to break ties.

Lackey notes that only twenty five books got eleven votes or more, which if he took in more than 400 survey responses means many, many books only got a few votes at most. In other words, there’s a long tail on this not represented in the rankings below. The survey results, Lackey’s top twenty-five:

Total votes/ Total ranked 1st…..Author, Title

  1. 179/ 68….. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
  2. 134/ 51….. Heidegger, Being and Time
  3. 131/ 21….. Rawls, Theory of Justice
  4. 77/ 24….. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  5. 64/ 27….. Russell & Whitehead, Principia Mathematica
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Ethnographic Approaches to New Media

I myself am not currently doing research on new media, but because I am an active user of new media I keep getting asked for links to contemporary research on the subject. The best place to start is E. Gabriella Coleman’s Annual Review article, “Ethnographic Approaches to New Media.”

This review surveys and divides the ethnographic corpus on digital media into three broad but overlapping categories: the cultural politics of digital media, the vernacular cultures of digital media, and the prosaics of digital media. Engaging these three categories of scholarship on digital media, I consider how ethnographers are exploring the complex relationships between the local practices and global implications of digital media, their materiality and politics, and their banal, as well as profound, presence in cultural life and modes of communication. I consider the way these media have become central to the articulation of cherished beliefs, ritual practices, and modes of being in the world; the fact that digital media culturally matters is undeniable but showing how, where, and why it matters is necessary to push against peculiarly narrow presumptions about the universality of digital experience.

Beyond that, there are also two excellent and up-to-date online bibliographies: Max Forte’s Cyberspace Ethnography, and danah boyd’s Bibliography of Research on Social Network SitesFeel free to post additional resources in the comments.

How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made)

There have been several recent reports of the closure of Rice University Press (here, here and here). RUP made a splash when it was resurrected as an “all-digital” print-on-demand, open access university press, the first of its kind and for many in the ailing university and scholarly publishing world, a beacon, or at least a canary in what is turning out to be a very large, very dark coal mine.

So if it’s closing down, it must have failed, right? There must be no money in digital publishing of scholarly works, right? This must be proof that the only way to make money is with strong intellectual property rights held by massive conglomerates, right? Wrong Wrong Wrong. RUP’s closing is a crystal clear case of something entirely different: bad university administration. The decision, despite the claims in the various articles, had absolutely nothing to do with the viability of the ideas, or the expertise of the staff, or the realities of the marketplace. Instead, it had everything to do with short-sighted, self-important, autocratic management of a university by administrators whose interests are hard to identify though clearly at odds with any possible goal of producing high quality scholarship. (And don’t get me started about the other recent decision to sell the student-run 50K watt radio station, KTRU, one of the best in the country. Sign the petition)

As a board member of Rice University Press, a former employee, and a participant observer in the whole experiment, I’ve had a worms-eye view the fiasco as it has unfolded. I won’t detail all the ways in which RUP is innovative, but for those in the business, i’ll just say: you should all be madly copying their ideas, because RUP had and has no real competitors. Do not be deterred by the shutdown: take advantage of the fact that one less rich university is out there spending $$ on something innovative.
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Another Publishing World is Possible…

There is so much to say about what’s wrong with the publishing industry these days, and so much depressing to report about the state of reading and writing and the circulation of good ideas, that it’s nice to see a clear example of someone trying hard to find another way. John Sundman (aka John F.X. Sundman) is a science fiction writer with a background in truckdriving, volunteer firefighting, development in West Africa. I’ve read one of his three novels (Acts of The Apostles) and (full disclosure for my haters) he’s written a very nice review of by book, the sordid story of which is chronicled on his website. All his books are available for free under CC licenses, as well as (as my friend JFB says) in a flat rectangular form with printed symbols throughout.

John is writing a new novel, his fourth, called Creation Science. But he’s not independently wealthy, so writing and publishing the book is not free, regardless of its form. Fortunately, there is Kickstarter. For years I’ve been hearing people talk about alternative business plans for publishing, art, movies or music. This is it: a platform where people can pitch projects, have people pledge money to them, and if the funding level is met, the funds are released. There’s no mechanism to monitor whether the project is completed… but pledging a fistful of dollars doesn’t hurt anyone. Good old-fashioned risk-sharing. If you think John’s novel sounds like something that should be written, then pledge away. If you like Cory Doctorow’s books (who is also running a similar experiment in self-publishing), you will probably like Sundman’s as well.

But at the very least: think about what he’s doing. This isn’t vanity publishing. Well it is, but it relies on a pool of people who are willing to feed someone’s vanity. But that’s what the mainstream publishing industry is, except instead of vanity, it feeds on raw exploitative power. We have the technology, we don’t need to go back and read Marx again… just stop and think about it.

John is offering different levels of funding: you can pledge just a little ($5) and get a pdf. That’s basically a donation. Or you can pledge $17 and get a signed copy of the book. That’s a steal. Or you can pledge $750 and get “a souvenir pack of nifty stuff from my Creation Science archives, including my original notebooks, copies of correspondence with my editor, one-of-a-kind mockups, etc. After Creation Science has outsold Harry Potter, you’ll be able to sell this on Ebay for a fortune.” That’s hilarious, and not totally insane.

There are other projects like kickstarter, but none, so far as I can tell that are directed at a scholarly audience in any particular discipline. Imagine what a tool like this might look like for scholarly publishing. Imagine a journal run this way, for example. Topics or collections of research are proposed, along with a funding goal, projects that get funded have money to pay for editorial work, copyediting, promotion, maybe even on-demand publishing of the work. At the very least, it’s an easy way to go open access. Anti-OA people like the publishing staff of the AAA always wave the “pay-to-publish” bogeyman at anyone who argues that our work should be freely available (“OMG. It will cost you $9000 per article, we can’t do that!”). So bypass them. Start your own edited volume and raise what you think you’d need to pay someone to edit and manage it (hey you, yes I’m talking to you, the assistant professor trying to get tenure, you end up doing all that work FOR FREE anyways, what do you have to lose here?). Use your AAA Membership fees to contribute to other people’s edited projects that you think deserve to be published and read. It could engage the population of people who care about your work most. It’s an alternative to conventional grant-writing etc.

But even more than that, it could transform peer review and quality-monitoring. Currently Kickstarter is “invitation only” whatever that means. Imagine a scholarly version in which rather than it being “inivitation only” one has to constitute a mini-editorial board of respected scholars (for whatever value of ‘respected’) who would sign off on a project, peer review it and stamp it with a seal of approval (we do this for free already, or at most for $350 in books). My mind reels with the possibilities this has for improving the sorry state of scholarly publishing today. Kickstarter probably isn’t the right forum for this. In fact, I know it isn’t. But some enterprising people from the university press world could get together and make something like this happen right (hint hint). It could even be a consortium of existing presses, if they could solve the collective action problem of saving themselves from extinction. In fact, they might want to check into Kickstarter’s business model: they get 5% of successful projects. In other words, Step 3: Profit!


Sente is still my reference manager of choice, but there is one major limitation to the way Sente works. Sente has powerful tools to identify citation information embedded on major scholarly sites. Recently they even added support for AnthroSource, which would be great news if AnthroSource hadn’t become so impossible to use since the “upgrade” back in January. But to make use of these tools you need to be using the web browser embedded within Sente. So, if Firefox is your default browser and you open up a link in an e-mail or blog post to an interesting book or scholarly article, you can’t simply add it to Sente. You have to launch Sente (if it isn’t already running), find the appropriate website, and find the book or article again. Oh, and don’t forget to properly select the library you want to import the article to…

By the time I’m done adding the citation I’ve forgotten what I was researching in the first place. Or I just don’t do it because it is too much of a pain. I want to be able to save that citation right then and there – in my browser, while I’m doing whatever it was I’m doing, without missing a beat. Continue reading

Information Foraging

Following up on Rex’s last post, I’d like to ask readers a question about doing online research. One of my favorite radio shows, On the Media, recently interviewed John Lorinc, author of an article on online distractions. In the interview Lornic says the following:

I came across some studies that had identified these two terrifically descriptive terms, “informavores” and “information foraging,” when you’re working online. There is this craving for information. It’s difficult to know when to stop. And you can quickly come to the conclusion that you can go on link by link by link ad infinitum… You’re always waiting to get closest to some ideal of a perfect state of information? And, you know, in a pre-digital, pre-Internet environment, you could get to that place very quickly, whereas with the Internet I do think that the horizon is much further off, and yet you still crave that. And I do think that’s the addictive nature of it.

I imagine most of you wouldn’t be reading this if they weren’t informavores as well. I use a number of tools to try to keep my information foraging at bay (i.e. Too Many Tabs, Instapaper, Sente, and Evernote), but it isn’t enough. I often feel I spend more time foraging than I do sitting down and actually reading what I’ve found. Of course, some times I find something and I know this is the thing I need to read next – but that feeling comes few and far between. So I’m turning to our readers: how do you deal with information addiction?

UPDATE: I wanted to add a further thought, which is that the nature of our discipline might make matters worse. Perhaps I am wrong, but I can imagine being an expert in a particular subbranch of neurobiology and having a pretty clear idea of what literature I need to read in order to be a master of my field. The holistic nature of our discipline, however, means that there is seemingly no limit to what we must know. In my dissertation, for instance, I discovered that the literature on land policy was particularly useful for understanding the development of Aborigine education policy. If I hadn’t been an informavore I never would have made such a discovery. But the vast amount of really interesting and potentially useful stuff is simply overwhelming me these days…

The book is dead! Long live the book!

University of Michigan has just announced that it’s press is going “all digital.” New monographs will be available online (with a print-on-demand option) instead of going through the expensive, time-consuming process of producing a print-only version of their books. U Mich is not the first press to do this. Rice University Press was the first (in 2006-7) when it resurrected itself as an “all digital” press. Nor will it be the last, Duke just launched it’s e-Duke press which allows subscriber libraries access to pdf versions of recent books. As you might expect, I object to the phrase “all-digital”–primarily because all of these are better understood as monetization experiments. There is nothing “all-digital” about any of these projects. Printed, hard-bound books with ISBNs are still eminently purchasable and consumable… but now so are electronic versions which can be sold as e-books, as quasi-journals to which libraries subscribe, and as one-off monographs potentially made freely available. They are projects designed to experiment with the revenue stream which until a few years ago was assumed to come only from the sale of copyright restricted paper volumes available in no other form and marketed as such. The U Mich announcement, as well as the e-Duke announcement represent the first steps it experimenting with alternate systems of revenue capture that are trying to come to grips with the fact that the Internet allows for 1) massively larger audiences, but only if 2) you can figure out how to market and promote your product. The books are not necessarily open access, but at this point, it’s too early to expect a radical shift; and probably a good sign that presses are willing to experiment at all, given the financial situation.

The concerns it raises are the same as always: will books in this new regime get the same editorial and peer-review attention they got in the old one. I suspect the answer is yes, because that’s what university presses do best, but part of the challenge is for these presses to convince academic audiences that this is true; that just because a new monograph is available for free online, and for a reduce price as a print-on-demand book, this does not reflect anything about its quality, does not mean it has been remaindered, and does not mean that the author paid to have it published. The difficulty of making scholars realize this should not be underestimated–as I continually discover, the majority of them are living not just in the 20th century, but in the 19th… sigh. Kudos to U Mich for joining us in the contemporary moment.

Memory, Virtual Archives and Johannes Fabian

This is a long, drafty, and somewhat less review-y version of a review I am writing about Johannes Fabian’s latest projects.

Johannes Fabian, Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive, Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2008. 140p.

Johannes Fabian, Memory Against Culture: Arguments and Reminders, Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2007. 192p.

Johannes Fabian’s contributions to anthropology are distinctive. Depending on where you start, he is an Africanist, a linguistic anthropologist, a partisan and critic of the “Writing Culture” moment in American anthropology, a folklorist and student of popular culture, a historian of drug use by colonial anthropologists, a theorist of time, memory and alterity, and now something of a hacker as well. Two books have been published recently which capture some of his heterogeneously distinctive work. The first, Memory against Culture, collects several recent talks and articles, including one called “Ethnography from the Virtual Archive” which is the germ of the second book Ethnography as Commentary, which is both a meditation on creating a “virtual archive” of ethnographic sources and a “late ethnography” of a popular ritual which Fabian experienced in 1974 in Zaire with a healer named Kahenga.


Ethnography as Commentary is a fabulous (and short!) book. It is an excellent introduction to the detailed practice of ethnographic interpretation; it is also a very thought-provoking meditation on the changing possibilities of the ethnographic monograph after the Internet, and of the possibility of ethnography as commentary. Lastly it is an experiment in “late ethnography” in which an explanation of a cultural event (Kahenga’ ritual exclusion and protection of Fabian’s house in the Katanga district) is conducted through memory, notes and sources, contrasted with the practice of writing history and used to shed light on the authority of ethnographies based in contemporary sources.

The core of the experiment proposed by Fabian is the creation of an online resource of materials: The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archives (LPCA). The PCA includes an online open access journal started in 2001; a collection of heterogeneous transcripts and documents collected, transcribed, translated and annotated, all of which bear some rough thematic connection to popular culture in Central Africa. It includes, for instance, a Boloki perception of a visit to Europe written in 1895-1897; translated and annotated poems from a French collection of Central African songs and poems published around 1930. Several conversations that Fabian has recorded over the years (including the one which is at the center of Ethnography as Commentary). An interview with a Burundi potter discussing the history and local techniques; the “archives of popular culture” which contain letters, a local history of Zaire, a play “Power is Eaten Whole” by the “Troupe Théâtrale Mufwankolo” of Lubumbashi; a vocabulary and other texts; an extensive bibliography of related sources.
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Economies And Cultures

I wasn’t happy with how my undergrad course on political economy went last time I taught it, so I spent a lot of this week looking for good introductory texts I could use. My big discovery was Richard Wilk’s Economies And Cultures: Foundations Of Economic Anthropology. I rarely use entire books in my classes, preferring to mix and match articles and book chapters, but this slim volume really impressed me as a solid and highly accessible introduction to the field of economic anthropology.

Two Bits at Six Months

Last June I announced that I had published my book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. It was released both as a book by Duke University Press and as an open access publication via a website that I created and maintain. For scholars in my fields—anthropology, history, science studies, media studies—this is one of the first experiments, if not the first, of this kind. As such, I’ve been doing my best to keep some notes on the process, with a mind towards reporting on the results of going open access with a first book.

Herewith, therefore, are two reports generated by Google Analytics, which is hands-down the most un-evil thing Google has ever done (General Report | Traffic Source Report). These reports are chock full of information, beautifully organized and fascinating to explore. Unfortunately, they are also pretty hard to interpret. I’m posting them now, because I think they show a few things pretty clearly, such as the initial spike of interest, the fact that 4 times as many of my readers use Firefox as do Internet explorer, the role of small communities in creating attention (savage minds, hastac, and a handful of close friends account for a significant portion of the traffic to the site).
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Hacking the AAA II – Book Edition

My school’s library doesn’t have a very large collection, but they’ll buy almost anything I request. So when I go to the AAA book room now I’m happy to order almost anything that seems like it might be of interest. But it takes time to write down all the information about each book, and it’s a very big room. My solution? I use Evernote on my iPhone to snap photos of the book covers. I can write them down later (or better yet, have my RA do it for me).

Another advantage is that Evernote does OCR on the text in these photos so I can actually find them by search. It isn’t perfect, but its helpful.

Did you discover any great books at this year’s AAA? Or have any thoughts about some of the books I’ve listed above? Maybe you have your own book which just came out? Let us know in the comments!

It’s a book! Two Bits

So I have an announcement: I have written, and published, A Book. I know that Savage Minds readers harbor the suspicion that we are all just doing this gig until someone pulls the curtain back and we have to dust off our barista aprons and work for a living, but I am actually in this for the long haul… The book is called Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, and it is produced by the punkrockingest press ever, Duke University Press. It is now available for purchase, for download and for derivation and remixing. Two Bits Cover

I am extremely happy to finally be able to announce its arrival. I’m also happy to announce that it is part of a series edited by Michael M.J. Fischer and Joe Dumit called “Experimental Futures” of which Jeff Juris’ excellent book Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization is also a part. And as well to thank HASTAC for helping out in its publication and in marketing it as well.

Two Bits has taken a long time, and it’s a better book for that. In some ways, it is untimely: the moment of Free Software is over– both the media and many of the scholars who focused so much attention on it starting in about 2000 seem to have moved on to some other next big thing. This is a shame, but predictable given the drive for novelty and for being first in academia. But I think (and I will throw modesty to the wind here) that anthropology has a tack on such things that is slower, more coherent, and more concerned with a certain precision in charting historical changes. I like to think that the book isn’t only about free software, but an anthropology of knowledge circulation more generally, and I hope that it interests even those who are too cool for old school.

Obviously I hope that others think the same thing, and I expect people to read it in light of the current peak of interest in web 2.0, social networking and internet celebrities, or whatever, which might be usefully re-thought through the lens of Free Software. And maybe it might just convince a few people, scholars especially, that the moment of Free Software is definitely not over, and that there is some really incredible scholarship out there by people like Gabriella Coleman, Matt Ratto, Shay David, Casey O’Donell, Jelena Karanovic, Anita Chan, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, Jenny Cool, Allison Fish, David Hakken and Karl Hakken, Jeff Juris (my labelmate!), Bernhard Krieger, Karim Lakhani, James Leach, Siobhan O’Mahoney, Greg Vetter and many others on these topics. Like the scholarship emerging on gaming (with Rex representing), that on Free Software constitutes a major locus of scholarly concern and questioning that should be the basis for understanding much of the recent past and near future.

Having been through the process of publishing a book, like oneman, I wish we could publish our books faster, and try to merge some of the timely but ill-considered insight of the blog-form with the deliberate and peer-reviewed caution of the book-form… but I’m nonetheless a committed modernist in that I think the book-form has a quality that no other form of communication has, and it has taken centuries for that quality to develop. Nonetheless, nothing lasts forever, and since this is a book about software, there are a few special things that I want readers to know about this book:
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A Special Offer and a Note About Blogging

Everyone’s arguing lately about Savage Minds — it’s “civil society” or lack thereof, its institutional position in the field of anthropology, it’s Euro-Americano-centrism, and so on. What’s missing, I think, is that while Savage Minds is a “place”, a “publication” of sorts, with some cohesiveness, it’s also a somewhat random collection of individual anthropologists bound together by no shared theoretical orientation, area specialization, political stance, or academic genealogy. I think it’s clear that we don’t always agree — in fact, we’ve disagreed quite sharply at times. More to the point, we not only blog about different stuff but we blog for different reasons.

For me, Savage Minds has always been a place to “mess around”, anthropologically speaking. A place to try out new ideas and thin hypotheses, a wall to throw stuff onto in order to see what sticks. A place where I could try my hand at the kind of argument Yehudi Cohen makes in Disappearance of the Incest Taboo (that’s an AnthroSource link, for those with access) and string together some ideas about the end of marriage, or muse about the moral underpinnings of anthropology. A place to incubate arguments and positions — and to receive feedback from my peers both inside and outside of the field.

It’s been invaluable to have this kind of forum, away from the main channel of academic thought — the journals and academic presses that are our disciplinary mainstream, even if many of them have lower readerships than Savage Minds. So valuable, in fact, that I felt it absolutely necessary to include Savage Minds in my “Acknowledgements” when I published Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War. Here’s what I wrote:

Over the years, two online communities have proven invaluable as both a source of new ideas and a place to rehearse my own fevered anthropological imaginings. To the members of ANTHRO-L (especially Ron Kephart, John McCreery, Richard Senghas, Jacob Lee, Richard Wilsnack, Anj Petto, Ray Scupin, Robert Lawless, Wade Tarzia, Lynn Manners, Martin Cohen, Bruce Josephson, Richley Crapo, Tom Kavanagh, Scott MacEachern, Mike Pavlik, Thomas Riley, and Phil Young) and my fellow Savage Minds, (Alex Golub, Kerim Friedman, Chris Kelty, Nancy LeClerc, Kathleen Lowery, Tak Watanabe, and newbies Thomas Erikson, Maia Green, and Thomas Strong) I offer both my gratitude and respect.

In the end, I’m not sure I could have written Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War without having had this forum to develop those ideas. The other Minds and the many people who comment here not only helped me to refine my thoughts on anthropology and its role(s) in society, but to rethink myself as an anthropologist.

By way of gratitude, then, I asked my publishers if I could offer at least a little something back to this community which has offered me so much. They responded enthusiastically, providing me with a discount code to offer Savage Minds readers. So here’s the deal:

  1. Order Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War from U Mich Press.
  2. At checkout, enter the coupon code: WAX08UMP
  3. Enjoy a 20% savings!

With the coupon code, the US price is $26.00 instead of the usual $32.50. As far as I know, this offer is not limited to US buyers, but I’m pretty sure the price of international shipping will eat up any savings over buying the book at full price locally. The coupon code expires on May 30, 2008.

For more information about the book, check out the review by Penny Howard at the Socialist Review. More reviews and information about the book will be posted at my personal site on the book page as it becomes available.

And if you’re not interested, for whatever reason (maybe your mother was cruel to you as a child?), that’s cool, too — I offer you as a member of the Savage Minds community my thanks.

But really, buy the book. Buy the book or I shall plug at you a second time! Tphptptptptp!