The Critic as Artist?

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After reading the chapter on “Authorship” of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (in which she discusses similar ideas to her talk given at the MLA 2013 Conference, seen here), I was struck by the idea that she draws on multiple popular culture examples of art (as this group discussed last week). Fitzpatrick specifically discusses Radiohead’s open source/pay-what-you-can album, in which the band still took home profit. But why does she use a pop culture art example within her discussion of academic writing?  It seems that she is implying a parallel between the art which she refers to (i.e. Radiohead) and the academic writing she mostly discusses: the academic who writes and publishes ideas is himself, an artist – a statement with which Oscar Wilde would most certainly agree.

Upon further investigation, it becomes clear that we are coming to engage with the market of academic writing in much the same way we engage with contemporary arts. There are times when I find myself on the same torrent website I download music from, when searching for a book I need for my research. In both cases, I am taking an illegal, pirated version of someone’s work in order to engage with it for free, and also to have immediate access to it. On one hand, this is a problem because there is no renumeration for the author, but on the other hand, it is very exciting to me that people are willing do commit illegal acts to simply engage with scholarship! Again, the writer will never know the statistics of how many people have encountered their ideas, but it stands to reason that when a text becomes more accessible, it will in fact be accessed more.

So then the question becomes: why do we do what we do? Consider this discussion of Authorship in the Digital Age, which renumeration for one’s work figures extremely prominently. As Fitzpatrick herself highlights, most scholars do not make money off of publications of their work – a stark contrast to how popular artists work in a capitalist market. But does that matter? Specifically examining scholarship coming out of the humanities, we see so many works that discuss subjugated groups of people who often has significantly less capital than the dominant group. In fact, lots of scholarship suggests that the very structure of capitalism is what produces and/or reifies these inequalities. And yet so much discussion about digital scholarship is about renumeration! Furthermore, I find that a lot of these discussions expose the ‘ivory tower’ of academia by having scholars whose work espouses critical consciousness for non-dominant groups, but argue that their work should not be made open source. If we recognize that these groups are hegemonized through capitalist structures (as I assume we do…), then what do we make of the hypocrisy of claiming that they must engage with these structures to read the very texts meant to empower them?

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