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PUBLISHING THE UNPUBLISHABLE: OR ON WHY THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH / LANFRANCO ACETI


Lanfranco Aceti
Visiting Professor and Research Affiliate
Art, Culture and Technology @ MIT

Email: aceti@mit.edu
Web: http://www.lanfrancoaceti.com
Google Scholar: citations?user=snEM2x0AAAAJ&hl=en
ORCID: 0000-0002-6835-2382
Twitter: @lanfrancoaceti

Reference this essay: Aceti, Lanfranco. “Publishing the Unpublishable: Or on Why There Ain’t Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” In Publishing as Slavery, edited by Lanfranco Aceti. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2019.

Published Online: August 15, 2018
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: To Be Announced
DOI: To Be Announced
Repository: To Be Announced

Acknowledgment: The Leonardo Electronic Almanac is a collaborative effort supported by MIT Press, Leonardo/ISAST, Goldsmiths, New York University (Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development), OCR (Operational and Curatorial Research), and CAC (Contemporary Arts and Cultures).

 

This essay is in memory of Stephen Wilson, former Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, and a patient mentor even when he was battling cancer. He advised me for free!

 

Abstract

This essay analyzes the cost of operating within academic publishing as well as the ideas of ‘free contribution’ and ‘service to the academic community.’ These terms have become synonyms of neo-slavery for neo-serfs in a context in which non-profit academic publishing and non-profit academia have transitioned into a thriving exploitative corporate industry.

The contemporary inherited frameworks of service and support within academic communities have been transformed into institutionalized, unreasonable demands within a transactional educational framework between the students as consumers and customers on one side and the university/publisher as corporate dominus on the other. This relationship excludes artists, professors, authors, editors, and reviewers from monetary compensation for their time and work that is delivered for free to the publishing industry and to academic institutions.

How does a publication exist in the interstitial spaces of these processes of exploitation? What are the ethical obligations of corporate publishing to keep ‘free’ content Open Access (OA), while at the same time fulfilling a mission that is to give visibility to an area, the interdisciplinary field of art and humanities, constantly struggling for funding and for visibility? Is it possible to receive both acknowledgment and monetary compensation and avoid falling into the cracks of institutional taxonomic contempt?

LEA (Leonardo Electronic Almanac) is but one of such publications, entirely managed by volunteers, which now faces the demands of ever more tiresome customers, who, without paying any of the necessary dues either in kind or in cash, expect a platinum corporate service. And, while demands have risen, there has been no contribution or support to the services rendered by the people who volunteer (work for free) for enshrining in the history of art, through a publishing project such as LEA, aesthetic undertakings, social activities, and academic thinking that otherwise would be silenced, left at the margins, or simply lost.

Keywords: Exploitation, academia, publishing, free lunch, art, open access

 

Introduction: Should We Have Been All Plumbers?

This essay is inspired by ten years of volunteering for the Leonardo/MIT Press project as Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (LEA). It was sparked by an accusation of neo-slavery when I was trying to create an opportunity for exchange between institutions in Europe and in the US. I wanted to set up a framework that allowed one or two students to volunteer for three months in Europe, who I could then hire if conditions changed (conditions changed was a hint dropped to signify ‘if I am able to get the financial support necessary’). Also, one must not forget that one must complete a Visa process that could have been far too costly, complex, and byzantine to overcome for a one-year research internship. The structure that I envisaged was put in place in order to: a) create an initial soft academic international exchange to be expanded at a later date; b) navigate carefully through the complexity of three different institutional bureaucracies; and c) allow enough time to both develop and generate opportunities for research funds and financial collaborations between some of the best institutional settings in the world.

The description I created to announce the volunteering opportunity was posted on an online board and met with the criticism of a few students that was not just vociferously stated but was rather problematic because of the way in which it was delivered, its method, and content. Volunteering was presented as another form of exploitation and, of course, somehow I was the one gaining from this process. Not satisfied by my lack of engagement (I have always been told that it is better to try to let ethical fascists vent unopposed), they decided to email directly one of the institutions involved. The result was, first, the end of that particular venture and, second, a setback for a publication constituted entirely of volunteers, which has, for years, been serving the academic and artistic community that it tries to represent by providing opportunities and outlets where there are none, a free service (with all of its problems—but nevertheless free), and a rigorous structure for content published.

What I had continued to ignore and actively fight against was the idea that a new generation had been shaped by the very policies that it claims to fight and that is happy to exist within an exploitative system as long as it is allowed to criticize without action.

It also confirmed, in many ways, my personal ability not necessarily to alter systems but to penetrate them and slowly carve out spaces to be used by ‘disruptors’ in order to operate according to ‘alternative models.’

It is in this context that one should wonder what a university or a non-profit publisher is, what audience it serves, and what policies it expresses in order to serve the demands of that audience.

“It expresses the policies of neoliberalism, repealing the policies of the New Deal and Great Society, shifting the university from being a public entitlement like high school to more of a pay-as-you-go, privatized service.” [1]

Since a crisis is a moment of reflection, I realized that there was something wrong not just with the system itself but also with my insistence in wanting to realize a common process of engagement with a view for the long-term when both parties (exploiter and exploited) were content to operate and exist within the policies of neoliberalism.

I had to acknowledge that the system and the people within it increasingly favor individual and short-term approaches that do not and are not supposed to create collegiality, a shared commitment, or a collective interest. I also had to understand that there is not a large appetite for an integration between disciplines, scholars, and students that is focused on the development of outputs. Everyone has the expectation that they need to favorably exploit these synergies solely to their advantage—even if it means the collapse of the entire operation.

My annoyance, a British understatement to signify a rather strong anger, came from the fact that I had been volunteering for years for LEA and that, if I had been paid according to Glassdoor’s rates, I would have received a median salary of $85,601. The lower level of the scale tips at $52,000 and the higher end at $120,000, also according to Glassdoor.

Time, effort, and resources, which I had drawn upon in order to revive and sustain the publication, are to be considered an extra and they are a hefty amount of money that could be summed up as $10,000 per year in travel and accommodation.

In the end, my efforts for ten years could be placed in between $520,000 or $856,010, excluding the $100,000 in travel and accommodation. This is the price of my volunteering at this particular moment in time. My contribution to the ‘community’ stands at that level. If we really wanted to be careful and consider the hours I spent doing this as a second job, during Saturdays and Sundays, and holidays—which in Europe are supposed to be paid as overtime—I feel happy to say that the contribution of my time could be estimated at around $500,000, although for the sake of this narrative I will stick to $856,010. Both amounts made me reflect and left me astonished. This is an inordinate amount of money! It is also an inordinate amount of time, which had the nature and the demands of a second full-time job.

If I actually had received that money I could buy a Porsche.

It is money that the academic/publishing industry did not have to pay and it is time that I have freely given to render visible contributions to the field of interdisciplinary arts.

“Some plumbers charge a flat-rate service call plus an hourly rate for their labor. The plumber may be able to break down their labor rate into quarter-hours. The average hourly rate ranges from $45 to $150.” [2]

It is for these reasons that I have decided to alter the structure of LEA and to clarify, once and for all, the financial nature of the journal/publication series and the process linked to it in an age in which, within the humanities, exploitation by the neoliberal corporate industry clothed as non-profit is rampant.

This essay also serves another function: namely that of clarifying how the journal works and the reasons behind the thinking that have officially determined this shift. It offers the opportunity to explain to writers and contributors what to expect if they decide to engage with LEA and how to operate and behave.

It is a shift that I hope will ensure a different approach to publishing and negate the exploitative nature of academia and the academic publishing industry. It is an editorial exploration of post-capitalistic publishing and of the ways and methods to get around it—if any actually exist.

“As of 2015, the academic publishing market that Elsevier leads has an annual revenue of $25.2 billion. According to its 2013 financials Elsevier had a higher percentage of profit than Apple, Inc.” [3]

The median hourly rate of plumbers for their labor is $100 and that is the rate that I have chosen for everyone that works on an article or a publication of LEA to be paid at from August 2018 onwards for all new incoming projects. [4]

 

No Longer Exploiting

In order not to exploit an entity has to work out the maths of the process. What does it mean to pay everyone and is it really possible?

There are two options when it comes to exchanging: a) one that is linked to money and b) one that is linked to personal passions and freely exchanged labor.

What is not possible is to ask for a free exchange framework (not paying any money) while demanding and pretending to be a service that is based on a paid contractual assumption. One cannot be a customer if one is not paying for services or goods. [5]

Therefore, from January 1, 2019, for the ten years anniversary of my tenure at LEA there will be two options.

The first option (Work=Money) is a paid contractual one, which entails the payment of everyone working on an essay or volume so that no accusation of exploitation can be levied against the publication itself and any of its members. This means that every single essay proposed to LEA under the contractual terms will require a financial support by the part of the author and their institutional affiliation of $4,200. This will allow the authors to be customers, to be paid $1,000, to pay everyone who works on their articles, and to have certain privileges, e.g. the demand to have the work delivered on time and according to schedule. 

The first option (Work=Money), however, will not allow unreasonable demands: e.g. for a sloppy article that requires a rewrite to saddle an editor with an inordinate amount of work. The work will be strictly controlled by time limits and the amount of money to be paid to the editors. Articles that require extensive rewrites will require more hours of editorial labor and therefore larger sums of money that will be charged in advance to the authors and their affiliated institutions for the article to proceed further.

LEA will be the only publication in the world that will pay its three blind reviewers (reviewers selected by the publication) and two friendly reviewers (suggested by the author). The reviewing system becomes in this way fairer and more variegated, offering to the author the possibility of engaging reviewers that are familiar with the author’s work and can knowledgeably comment upon it and strengthen it with more honest, engaged, and open critiques than what have currently become rather superficial commentaries. [6]

Also, in this context, I have decided to pay the same hourly amount for labor independently of task assigned: e.g. editing, marketing, or administration. This approach will allow paying whoever is working in the marketing or administration (students or professionals) a fair wage for a job well done. This is an egalitarian approach which in times of inequality speaks volumes.

It is also a way to generate a sense of responsibility in staff and volunteers. If there is no work there is no money, no credit, no reference. It eliminates having to engage with so called volunteers who disappear after training or hang on delivering work poorly done and demanding the highest possible level of recognition.

The second option (Volunteer or Go!) is based on people volunteering their time and labor. Time is an incredibly precious commodity and as such should not be freely given. One could only try to imagine what it would cost to buy back time: it is an impossibility. It is for this reason that courtesy towards the editors and the publication, when they volunteer their time, is not just expected but demanded.

With the second option (Volunteer or Go) there is the demand that volume editors and authors, who cannot afford to pay, volunteer an equivalent amount of time, labor, or opportunities to the life of the publication. They will have to convince current editors and the editor in chief of the value of their proposed publication and why and how this particular project that they are proposing would directly benefit LEA.

There is also the expectation that authors will contribute by facilitating the work of the editors, readily complying with editorial processes, and assist in the collegial promotion of single essays, volumes, or scholarly events linked to the publication. The authors should engage with each other in order to support their colleagues in the development of the essay that will be compiled in the collection and understand the complexity of the editorial work and the amount of labor that it entails. It is a communal approach to production in which the shared effort allows the realization of a project within existing frameworks—academic publishing frameworks in this particular case.

These two approaches have their own set of pros and cons, nevertheless they allow access to more variegated members of the community who can still find an opportunity to publish interesting work without the financial burden.

The table below shows the breakdown of costs for every single essay in order to keep each article open access and be able to pay those who work tirelessly on these publications. Volumes are a compilation of essays and the cost is just multiplied for the number of essays contained within a volume.

 

Editor 1  3 hours $100 = $300
Editor 2  3 hours $100 = $300
Editor 3  3 hours $100 = $300
Reviewer 1  2 hours $100 = $200
Reviewer 2 2 hours $100 = $200
Reviewer 3 2 hours $100 = $200
Reviewer 4 2 hours $100 = $200
Reviewer 5 2 hours $100 = $200
Designer 3 hours $100 = $300
Mktg & Mgmt 5 hours $100 = $500
Administrator 5 hours $100 = $500
TOTAL = $3200 + VAT

 

 

 

 

 

The table does not show the cost of paying the writer, although it shows the overall costs of production of a single essay.

The writers/authors being paid is a further complex issue that requires an in-depth analysis. Nevertheless, after some careful thoughts as Editor in Chief of LEA, I have decided to ask authors to demand of their university to be paid $1000 + VAT for their writing. This is a little bit less of what I was paid at Sabanci University, Istanbul, every time I published in an international academic journal. The complete total for the publication of an essay, if we were to include the writer’s cost, would then be around $4200 + VAT per essay.

The payment of the writer should be a responsibility of the university as well as that of the publisher. The issue is that in this age in which academics have no research hours and are overwhelmed by administrative, teaching, research duties (e.g. grant writing), and service [7]  to the university and its community of customers, it is the University that benefits from the free writing way more than an academic publisher like LEA in the humanities does.

This is a conundrum for which finding a solution is difficult. Nevertheless, in order to bring to light the exploitative nature of this process and the abuse of cultural producers, particularly within the humanities, I have decided for LEA to ask of each author either to ask to be paid or to submit a letter signed from their department’s chair stating that “the university is unwilling to pay the writer and that the writer accepts to waive the corresponding fee without holding LEA responsible for the nature of these exploitative frameworks and processes.”

I clearly understand that the initiative is a palliative; nevertheless my hope is that it will generate discussions internally in the various departments and universities on the role of research and research writing in academic institutions. It will also provide the journal with a record of letters that crystallize the abusive and exploitative nature of twenty-first century academia and academic publishing in the humanities. These letters could be collected and published, as a LEA volume, for future generations to draw their considerations upon the nature of academic and editorial work in this day and age.

The maths are simple $3200 + VAT x 100 essays = $320,000. This is the monetary value of the production of 100 articles.

12 26 19 14 23 15 19 26 17 11 16 25 6 15 22

$3200 x article x 266 articles = $851,200. This is the monetary cost/value, in monetary terms, of what LEA has produced over ten years, according to the previous calculations.

If all people at LEA were paid for their work over the years and if we had collected their money, or if I had been paid for my work, at zero interests, we would have $851,200 or $856,010. If we were all paid (the editor in chief and the staff) the amount earned would be $851,200$856,010 $1,707,210.

The cost of the particular Porsche in the image below is $845,000. This means that with LEA’s money that was supposed to be paid to the collaborators per every article or with my never paid salary we would have been able to buy at least one Porsche 918 Spider.

If all were paid, we would have enough money to buy two of these beauties and would be left with enough change to celebrate.

 

Figure 1. “Porsche 918 Spyder Wallpapers,” stmed.net, accessed March 9, 2019, https://stmed.net/vehicles/porsche-918-spyder-wallpapers.

Why did I choose a Porsche as a comparison in order to make my argument? Because of an email, one of a few, that I received complaining about my proposed unpaid internship. These emails made me realize that I was being perhaps unclear about both goals and expectations, but also that my ethical approach was perhaps faulty. I understood that while I was focused on the idea of opening doors, granting access, and trying to develop opportunities—all of which are based on my own personal experience of volunteering for many years in order to develop a career—I had not realized that expectations had changed, conditions had been altered, and demands were different. My demands had always been that of being given access to resources and the possibility of proving myself. Current demands are more articulated and go to the very core: my time, my work, my money, and my fun. This is an equation in which the amount of work has to be the least possible and the fun and money are the highest priority.

 

“Mr. Aceti have a warm welcome in [our city and our university].

I dont know exactly your expacations about [our country], [our country’s] Students and programmers when it comes to their social and economic situation, but maybe you should lower them a bit. Most of the people here (still) deal with inherent necessities of capitalism which means: You need to SELL labor to buy food and pay your monthly rent. We live neither from air nor love, food is not for free and cannot be picked from trees. I guess you know that. Why should ANY programmer work for free? What do you think a craftsman is doing after you tell him he should do some renovationwork at your house for free? Right, he will pack his gear and leave. Why should artists and creatives should react differently?

Thats worse than feudalism!  programmers would may get no money but a place to sleep and at least a warm meal per day. Here I get nothing.

If you have no budget to pay proper wages you should also have no intern. (Same reason I have no Porsche. Because I have no money for that. No money no funny. Very easy)

Have a nice day,

[signed, which I appreciated very much and was grateful for]

PS:  your homepage says you are known for your SOCIAL ACTIVISM. haha. great.”

 

In many ways, not a reprehensible demand if addressed against the current corporate-state capitalistic frameworks of exploitation. The problem I found was that although there was some merit, the person to which this particular email had been directed and the lack of knowledge and understanding on the side of the writer, together with the number of assumptions that were made, was problematic. They could only be framed in the current climate of social tensions, which creates a Kantian a priori of self-righteousness and therefore the impression that an articulated argument or a complex structure can be addressed in simplistic terms and ignorance can be excused by pretending to sit on or by conquering with verbal violence the higher moral grounds.

There was not an interest in understanding what the possibilities for the unpaid internship were and what were the possible gains to be had—if any. The approach was just that of shooting the messenger and be damned. In all honesty, this is an approach that I don’t find too problematic since it is something that I recognize and have adopted myself out of frustration, anger, and disappointment. Nevertheless, I have always tried to direct my anger toward situations and not people and always tried to see if there was a middle ground to be found before engaging in personal attacks.

Since I tend to have a constructively critical approach and I was inspired by the critiques, I decided to revise the way in which LEA operates, keeping in mind that all have to be paid for their time. Justice and equality, if they are to be applied, have to be applied equally to all parties involved.

The new contractual framework applies to all those who demand contractual relations.

It is a different story for those volumes in which everyone will decide that the collaborative effort has to be on everyone’s part: from the authors, the editors, the administrators, and the volunteers in order, all together, to make the project see the light of day.

 

A Lesson to Be Taught and One to Be Learned

As I mulled over the emails that I had received I realized that there were two strands characterizing them: the first anger at being abused (a concept I am rather familiar with together with many other editors saddled with total rewrites of papers of authors who couldn’t give a damn about their own scholarship and expected someone else to do all of the work) and the second a hostility towards anyone that is not like minded.

 

Figure 2. Lanfranco Aceti, Meme: The Apotheosis of Idiocy, 2018. “The Simpsons Movie Angry Mob,” topsimages.com, accessed September 10, 2018, https://www.topsimages.com/images/the-simpsons-movie-angry-mob-a8.html.aption.

I have always found communities incredibly problematic. I am not really much of a joiner. I don’t think I have been able to resolve negative experiential issues with the word ‘community.’ These issues have compounded over the years and, for a variety of personal and societal reasons, continue to make me perceive the community, and all of its manifestations, as a dangerous locus. In my mind—since I side with Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Giuseppe Verga, Grazia Deledda, and Luigi Pirandello—communities are dangerous, homogenous, fascistic, and violent. I don’t think that there is escaping from the perverse and homogenizing nature of community.

The collapse of the state and the return to civility happens necessarily via the fascistic violence of the community, which, enshrined in a super-community, takes over all other groups and modus cogitandi in order to generate a common destiny, a common history, a common ground, and a common identity. Corporate identity is nothing other than a fascistic framework with a corporate twist as much as academic culture is nothing more than an appropriation and adoption of a fascistic operational system borrowed from the corporate world.

The idea that we are not all the same, that we do not necessarily share all the same values, that we have different modus operandi and modus cogitandi does not seem to sink any longer in people’s minds when the self is the only, or the principal, parameter of engagement.

These emails have given me the opportunity to reflect carefully and attentively on a variety of issues and re-analyze in depth the way in which LEA is structured but also my own ethical, social, and personal thinking. What are the values that we propagate? Are we contributing to the fascistic structures of this system? How do we implement radical change and how do we generate alternatives?

The emails had a positive impact on my own personal thinking and I believe on the restructuring on LEA. [8] This was possible not because of the validity of the arguments that were put forward but in spite of the fact that they were poorly made and visually limited. If I were grading them I would have given an F. The comments had a positive impact because they fell on the fertile ground of a mind willing to analyze and explore the issues that were brought up.

 

Dear Professor Aceti,

I am so delighted to welcome you here at our school and I look forward to the wonderful opportunities that you will bring with you.

Thus far, I have yet to experience advanced forms of capitalistic exploitation as customary in the US, but I hope that my experience in European forms of miserization and pauperization will qualify me for the opportunity of working with / being abused by you. Since you write about neo-serfs, please note that I pride myself in having become one of them and would like to deepen my understanding of this new post-postcapitalistic status.

I heard that you do not eat or sleep and are able to work without pause. I hope to be able to learn these and other skills from you in order to become a ‘successful’ artist at getting unpaid internships.

Please, do not mind what may come across as hostile sarcasm, I am working hard at erasing it and learning how to exchange pleasantries without rancor. Please consider joining me in developing the seed of an exciting conversation over a drink. In fact, as a testament to the commitment to my career in the arts and willingness to learn, I will work an extra shift this weekend in order to be able to be your host and show you a good time in our city.

Yours sincerely,  

Lanfranco Aceti

 

The email above would have been what I would have written if I had to write and criticize the exploitative nature of the internship I was proposing. I would have left the possibility, while being sarcastic and ferociously criticizing the person on the other side, for a dialogue of sorts in order perhaps to discover and understand more.

I owe this mindset to Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko, a great artist and mentor that I profoundly admired for his candor and frankness as well as ability to get into a heated argument without holding a grudge. He allowed me to be at the CAVS (the Center for Advanced Visual Studies) as an unpaid artist/researcher years ago while I was studying to complete my Ph.D. and offered me his knowledge, for free, helping me to further my career.

 

Figure 3. Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle, 1988-1989 (5th Avenue, New York, 1988), photo courtesy Museum of Art in Łódź.

While I learned some lessons from these rather poorly crafted emails and memes (I expect and demand a certain wit from an artist and pride in visualizing their thoughts via a meme), I hope that I was able—although my pessimistic nature highly doubts it—to teach at least two important lessons.

The first lesson is that an argument can be made in an intelligent manner and not with the banality, the obviousness, and the laziness of stereotypes and clichés.

 

Figure 4. Lanfranco Aceti, I Am Coming for Your Ass, 2013. Print on poster paper. Curator: Artemis Potamianou in the photo.

The second lesson is that silence, since I was silent on this topic for several months until now, does not necessarily mean surrender.

 

Value for Money 

The previous analysis tried to offer an explanation on current publishing structures and to base them on actual numbers: is it possible to quantify the value of what has been produced by LEA or any other humanities’ publication? The maths of a monetary scale are rather simple, although this measuring system is rather limited since it does not take into account the actual work that went into overall developing and structuring the publications or the networking efforts (with real financial costs) that were made in order to ensure the realization and cultivation of partnerships and collaborations.

These amounts of extra work and extra costs were shouldered by institutions who were able to see and understand the importance of keeping and developing an open access journal as a platform for the contemporary arts outside the remits of traditional contemporary corporate art and aesthetics.

These institutions are few and far between, and they exist in a situation of financial security or social commitment that goes beyond the transactional nature of educational services and academic corporate frameworks. Here I have to thank three people in particular: Professor Mehmet Bac, the former Dean of the Faculty of Art and Social Sciences at Sabanci University, Haluk Bal, the General Secretary at Sabanci University, and a colleague Professor Elif Ayter. They believed and supported the LEA project with deeds and not just with words, ensuring during my tenure at Sabanci University that the publication would raise its international profile.

It is becoming increasingly uncommon to find such institutions and, therefore, projects and initiatives like LEA exist as interstitial spaces, exposed in their fragility and dependent upon the effort of people that volunteer by having contributed and continuing to contribute with their time and work to the existence of these projects.

The lack of institutional support from a University automatically signifies harsher conditions for the existence and survival of the publication. Nevertheless, the lack of financial support does not negate the interest of such University to use any outputs to beef up, for free, their scholarly achievements.

A recent example of this approach is how universities shift onto others the cost of labor by adopting contemporary digital corporate forms of exploitation. For examples by creating a platform for visibility the editors and the authors (scholars in most cases) are obliged to add a further step to their work, that of uploading into the platform creating metadata and ensuring the article’s conformity to the standards. This was argument for an email exchange which I am reproducing below with names omitted.

 

Hi X,

I really don’t remember discussing this. We spoke of the fact that you would have a dedicated person and that this person would be doing the upload with the Y’s publications that we needed to catch up with as well as the new ones—this is something I clearly remember.

I am not sure I can commit to this since it means to add further work to my load and shift it away from Z University. The big question with this approach will become: why to do it then? It doesn’t seem that there is a mutually beneficial structure in place. I am happy to do the work or to have someone to do the work if they are paid.

Platforms have become sites of exploitation of labor shifting down working hours and financial responsibilities from institutions to individuals and communities. I am very wary of engaging with these and facilitating forms of post-capitalism in corporate education.

To give an answer in one way or another I would have to look at the platform and see what it entails from a work upload perspective. If it is a question of half hour or one hour tops per an issue of 20 essays – then it is not particularly burdensome. Anything more than that, in my opinion, should be paid for.

With all my very best as always,

L

 

It is for this reason that acknowledgments, as a result of dialogue and understanding, become important. Moreover, it is fundamental to be able to constructively relate to the people that make these ‘alternative’ interstitial spaces possible, within which one may appear, be noticed, network, or exist.

 

Consequences: Intended and Unintended 

The intended consequences that this new approach should achieve are listed below.

The first is that this new approach should speed up the publication process by ensuring that the articles that are submitted conform to the in-house style and require little editing of grammar. The editors should thus be able to concentrate on the structure of the submission and provide conceptual editorial advice and not engage in a rewrite to ensure proper grammar and conformity to the in-house style (the Chicago Manual of Style for notes and bibliography). The more work an article requires, the more the cost will be for the author. It is a disincentive to bad writing. This monetary ‘structure’ together with the immediate publishing of the article should: a) avoid sloppy writing, and b) ensure the visibility and transformation of an article evidencing the amount of work that goes in each single one of LEA’s articles and essays.

The second consequence is that editors and reviewers will engage more willingly with LEA since their work will be financially rewarded or at least know that under this editorship they are not abused. This should allow for a prioritization of LEA’s material over that of concurring publications. Also, the level of engagement of the editors should be qualitatively better since, after eliminating the frameworks of exploitation, their work will receive the financial recognition and consideration that is actually necessary and they will be bound to dedicate the necessary time to achieve the necessary quality for editing or reviewing. Also, each article will have the assigned reviewers listed publicly (exception made for the blind reviewers) showcasing the work of reviewers who in the current academic system donate their time for free and are literally invisible.

The third consequence, and perhaps the most important one, is that no one will feel used and abused either via the contractual or the volunteer framework. This should allow for a customer-based relationship whenever the people who work on articles/essays are paid for or a volunteer-based relationship in which the exchange of time and labor replaces money for the realization of a project in which everyone is invested. In the latter case, the project has to solicit the interest of the editors and the reviewers who have to be willing to donate their time and efforts in collaboration with the authors to the realization of the article/essay.

The predictable unintended consequence is that authors who are unable to raise enough money for the contractual option will have to persuade the editors, via the validity of the project, to invest time and labor in it. This may adversely affect young students and academics, but on the other hand, having enforced an egalitarian framework as asked vociferously by some people it is my obligation to ensure fairness for all parties. The new framework places a burden on students and young scholars who will have to pitch their ideas to editors and collaborators at LEA. The students and young scholars will have to address the question that they themselves most often ask and that their prospective collaborators, who now they are pleading for their free labor, will also want to have a response to: What’s in it for me?

Has this new approach now resolved all problems? Of course, it hasn’t. Several things remain pending: e.g. my volunteer relationship to Leonardo/MIT Press about which I have not complained, screaming bloody murder, over all these years, trying to push forward and enlarge a space for international collaborations, documentation, and archives. 

Nevertheless, the vociferous complaints at the origin of this article showed me that sometimes perhaps it pays to raise the voice and oblige the other part to reconsider the way in which they are operating and not to work on assumptions that are safely based on customary practices.

LEA is an experimental journal and, as such—at least in the eyes of the author of this essay—should continue to experiment by offering space to alternative practices but also by adopting innovative approaches that respond to the challenges of twenty-first century art and academic landscape.

It also showed me the tenuous relationship, not that I had any doubt of it, between the academic volunteer and the publisher. This is a relationship outside legal contractual frameworks that can be severed at any time for any reason.

“‘Academic publishing is the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.’ Nosek finds this whole system is designed to maximize the amount of profit. ‘I, as the researcher, produce the scholarship and I want it to have the biggest impact possible and so what I care about is the prestige of the journal and how many people read it. Once it is finally accepted, since it is so hard to get acceptances, I am so delighted that I will sign anything — send me a form and I will sign it. I have no idea I have signed over my copyright or what implications that has — nor do I care, because it has no impact on me. The reward is the publication.'” [9]

As far as precariousness and corporate abuse go, this is one that is structured at the highest level via a series of consolidated needs and branding necessities that exist solely within the real or perceived need that ‘one has to be published’ or has to have a prestigious editorial role either for their own career or for the realization of a social-ethical purpose.

The argument that ‘I have personally benefited from my volunteering activities and therefore I have been repaid for my time’ does not hold very much water. Firstly, because I have actually not really benefited from it since it has not been determinant in securing jobs, and, secondly, it is the same argument for which each author who has volunteered their time has also benefited for having been published. This leads to the ultimate conclusion that we all should be volunteering and working for free for the corporate non-profit publishers and academia. 

In reality, the benefits are minute and do not create a direct economic or social advantage. They may satisfy the need of realizing an ideal or the incremental development of a personal journey but do not translate in Porsche-money, pension funds, or extra vacation days in tropical islands.

The ones who have benefited from this system are the publishing and academic industries which have received something for free that otherwise they would have had to pay for.

 

To Conclude: Give Me My Porsche!

Perhaps we can start to reconsider the way in which these institutions work by doing very simple things: e.g. stop reviewing for free. Or simply asking ourselves and the institutions a very simple question that my students, directly or indirectly, keep asking me: What’s in it for me?

 

Figure 5. Lanfranco Aceti, Meme: Shut Up and Work!, 2018. Digital meme. Dedicated to some students and inspired by Tyra Banks.

Societal conflicts are increasing, pitting a post-postmodern approach to advanced capitalism, never willing to consider the reasons for a resistance to, or a reframing of, its exploitative operational frameworks. The participants, or neoserfs, exist in these digital frameworks by showing a divided front and divisive impulse to entrench isolation, and continue to exercise criticism while never attempting or generating failed attempts to rescue social structures of participation and engagement that if not necessarily ‘commune’ or ‘commonist’ nevertheless could provide visibility to the invisible research and ostracized thinking outside neoliberal frameworks. There is, therefore, a need to ask even more profound questions of ourselves and others that do not let platitudes and tropes override the complexity of reality.

I could not resist, since we are talking of platitudes and tropes, to use one by Tyra Banks and respond meme for meme to the student who provided a pixelated and recycled image as expression of outrage. “Be all you can be, not bitch all you can bitch” is a wonderful quote to reflect upon when one can’t be bothered to make an argument in an intelligent, rigorous, and visually strong manner.  [10]

More importantly, it is necessary to remember that a dialogue is not a shutting or shooting down of the other but is an exchange which, no matter how difficult and problematic it may be, should and must lead us to a renewed understanding of ourselves, the project we are working on, and the others we are engaging with. Shooting people down verbally or physically and shutting them down emboldened by our own sense of self-inflated-righteousness confirmed by our own soliloquy with like-minded individuals are at the very core of divided societies that have forgotten the nature of dialogue and fallen prey to fascistic behaviors through self-referential digital communities.

It was not my intention to write this rather long response, which has now become an essay, but engrossed in the analysis of what happened and how it developed and the behavior of the people involved in what was and is an incredibly minute incident, I couldn’t refrain from extrapolating and constructing and connecting a series of reflections that link the particular to the universal and vice-versa. The grand scale events that have affected the beginning of the twentieth century have eroded notions of society and with it the very basic notions of citizenship and social solidarity. Academia and the related not-for-profit publishing industry, and its meaning of enlightened discourse, has fallen prey to a consumeristic approach finalized to the exploitation of knowledge for a job. This is happening in a context in which digital frameworks shift downwards labor for the many and move upwards revenues for the few. It is a parasitic system that, not differently from Kafka’s The Castle, exists on the basis of people willing to toil, willing to submit, willing to enforce frameworks of exploitation in the name of others or in their own name. The Castle would not function if people were not to show up for their bureaucratic duty; feeding their delusions of hope of a better day and the selfish and reassuring act of feathering one’s one nest well hidden behind the excuse of some higher call which, instead, reveals the nature of humanity in the twenty-first century and the role that knowledge plays in it.

 

Dear X,

For the past year or so I have gone along with the project obtorto collo (for those not familiar with Latin: rather unwillingly). This was the result of a promise I had made to Z more than the result of my enthusiasm for this volume. As the trilogy/trinity of volumes developed my interest increasingly diminished due to the nature of the content.

My first problem is one of time: in order to dedicate my unpaid time to a volume, mainly if not wholly, based on economic considerations is something, I am afraid, I am not interested in. There is nothing more precious than time in this world and to throw it away in order to reinforce or participate in capitalistic exploitative frameworks, which carry the promise of the unattainable land of Prester John, would be pathetic particularly at my age.

My second problem is one of hypocrisy: I am incredibly irritated by the half-way and half-wit attempt to insert color and gender in a volume by simply asking to one or two colleagues to lend themselves as fig leaves for an editorial process which does not tackle the underlining problems of race, gender, minority issues, censorship, class issues, and etc in the volumes themselves or in one of the volumes. You asked for a rethink—in response I gave a well thought out and rather necessary address of all that has been, is wrong, and will be wrong with the current trajectory of New Media (the word art is something I find increasingly difficult to subjugate and enslave to this category).  The language I used for the ‘subtitles’ comes directly from the activism of the 1970s’ and the Viennese Actionists—starting with the SCUM manifesto as a choice to deny current forms of fascistic censorship paying lip service to so-called liberal ideals. Also, I can assure you that there would be many academics from Harvard, MIT, Goldsmiths, the RCA, and etc. (since I spoke with them informally) who would be willing to participate in a real critique of contemporary new media structures. I also wished that in the editorial comments the editor/s did not assume that I was a white man, but realized that my academic background is steeped in social activism that walks the walks and not just talks the talks and stems from me being a minority.

The third and final problem is the acronym: XXXX. A dear friend of mine at Harvard referred to it as: “An ENEMA without the comedy factor.” This is an operation that I believe desperately needs to address the fascistic contextual undertone of its existence as well as the history of the material it is exploring. Not to do so it would be to collude with that same fascism. I have just asked to my students here in the US to stand on the right side of history, beyond the labels of Left and Right, because History will call upon them to explain their pusillanimity.

Dear X, I really appreciate your balanced English tone in trying to rain in a project that in your opinion is gone crazy. In my case that madness was a deliberate choice in order to show to the publisher the real challenges that exist in discussing New Media. Also, an encyclopedia is imperialistic, fascistic, and colonialist in nature due to its attempt to taxonomize complex realities.

Z, thank you so much for letting me push this volume in this direction and to allow me to show what my voice really is. One thing that I asked since the beginning was to have editorial freedom in exchange for my time: unfortunately, it does not seem possible in this context. You have the previous outline we made together that you can continue to use, please consider it a gift of my time to you and feel free to use it. Regarding the new outline, as discussed, I consider it my property and it is my intention to publish it with MIT Press for a book that I will call ENEMA. Not sure if you know but intellectuals during fascism where purged in case of ‘Entartete Gedanken’ with ricin oil.

Z, it was really fun to explore this direction together and thanks so much for indulging me: I had a smashing time doing it.

In conclusion, I bow to all of you, drop the mike, and let the curtains close.

Wishing you all a smashing economic success with the 3 volumes.

With all my best,

Lanfranco [11]

 

Knowledge, as a commodity of the twenty-first century, has been enslaved and is carried and paraded around like a cheapened, useless, and diseased whore to be sold to whomever is willing to pay for it. Both, sellers and buyers participate in this process and are equally responsible, when all that we are taught to know and understand “is the price of everything and the value of nothing.” [12]

It is for this reason that I have decided to strive for the publishing value and no longer for the price. By pricing LEA’s effort, which appears counterintuitive and contradictory, the effect I hope to achieve is to make people understand and appreciate the value of the publication, the work that it entails, and the strength and moral fiber of the people that work and support it with their time, talent, and labor.

 

Notes and References

[1] Jeffrey J. Williams, “The Academic Devolution,” Dissent 56, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 113.

[2] “What Is the Average Cost to Hire a Plumber?” Improvenet, accessed March 9, 2019, https://www.improvenet.com/r/costs-and-prices/plumber-cost.

[3] Jason Schmitt, “Can’t Disrupt This: Elsevier and the 25.2 Billion Dollar a Year Academic Publishing Business,” Medium, December 22, 2015, https://medium.com/@jasonschmitt/can-t-disrupt-this-elsevier-and-the-25-2-billion-dollar-a-year-academic-publishing-business-aa3b9618d40a.

[4] I have chosen a plumber hourly rate just because they did not have to invest as much money in their academic careers and students’ loans as academics do. It is a way to highlight, should it be necessary, how low intellectual and cultural work is paid.

[5] Lanfranco Aceti, “But I Can’t Help Myself,” public lecture, KHM, Cologne, June 11, 2018.

[6] On the role of reviews and their value it is customary to cite Albert Einstein’s rejection of the peer-reviewing process after his experience with Physical Review, the editor John Tate, and the anonymous reviewer Howard Percy Robertson. I find that the experience is more complex and there is a need to stress the importance of direct and face to face engagements versus anonymous critiques to allow the development of an argument and the discussion and clarification of fine points. This is an argument to be developed separately on a different paper on what peer-reviewing is like in the twenty-first century and what it should be like. Albert Einstein, quoted in Daniel Kennefick, “Controversies in the History of the Radiation Reaction Problem in General Relativity,” in The Expanding Worlds of General Relativity, eds. Hubert Goenner et al. (New York: Springer, 1999), 207–209.

[7] Service to the academic community has become a disguise for the word slavery. Since the market is skewed, particularly in the humanities, in favor of academic institutions, the word service has been used to place an inordinate amount of work on academics in order for them to deliver happy learning and fanciful ‘educational’ experiences in a cost-cutting environment.

[8] This will have to be seen since at MIT Press people may find this article too critical of their operations and more or less gently show me the door. As much as they fear and loathe to have any young person upset or levy charges of abuse, they appear to be much less concerned with their academic staff and collaborators which, and the which is used to signify objecthood and not personhood, they believe and know that can replace at will. 

[9] Jason Schmitt, “Can’t Disrupt This: Elsevier and the 25.2 Billion Dollar A Year Academic Publishing Business,” Medium, December 22, 2015, https://medium.com/@jasonschmitt/can-t-disrupt-this-elsevier-and-the-25-2-billion-dollar-a-year-academic-publishing-business-aa3b9618d40a.

[10] Eren Orbey, “The Enduring Miracle of Tyra Banks on ‘America’s Next Top Model’,” New Yorker, January 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/on-television/the-enduring-miracle-of-tyra-banks-on-americas-next-top-model. 

[11]  This was my response to an international academic publisher after more than a year of wrangling. After the initial promise of editorial freedom revealed itself to be moot, I decided to make my position clear and move on and start working on a volume entitled ENEMA: Encyclopedia of New Experimentations in Media Art.

[12] I. Glenn Cohen, “The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing: Reframing the Commodification Debate,” Harvard Law Review 117, no. 689 (2003): 689-710.

 

Bibliography

Aceti, Lanfranco. “But I Can’t Help Myself.” Public lecture, KHM, Cologne, June 11, 2018.

Cohen, Glenn I. “The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing: Reframing the Commodification Debate.” Harvard Law Review 117, no. 689 (2003): 689-710.

Kennefick, Daniel. “Controversies in the History of the Radiation Reaction Problem in General Relativity.” In The Expanding Worlds of General Relativity. Edited by Hubert Goenner et al., 207-234. Springer, New York, 1999.

Improvenet. “What Is the Average Cost to Hire a Plumber?” Accessed March 9, 2019. https://www.improvenet.com/r/costs-and-prices/plumber-cost. 

Orbey, Eren. “The Enduring Miracle of Tyra Banks on ‘America’s Next Top Model’.” New Yorker, January 16, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/on-television/the-enduring-miracle-of-tyra-banks-on-americas-next-top-model.

Schmitt, Jason. “Can’t Disrupt This: Elsevier and the 25.2 Billion Dollar a Year Academic Publishing Business.” Medium, December 22, 2015. https://medium.com/@jasonschmitt/can-t-disrupt-this-elsevier-and-the-25-2-billion-dollar-a-year-academic-publishing-business-aa3b9618d40a.

Williams, Jeffrey J. “The Academic Devolution.” Dissent 56, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 113-117.