Where I attempt to write about Hate, and find myself writing about something else. This post was originally published in Graphixia, 26 November 2013 http://www.graphixia.cssgn.org/2013/11/26/why-openness-is-about-love-not-hate/.
“Honesty and openness is always the foundation of insightful dialogue.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (1999)
Like Brenna, I wouldn’t have chosen to write about things I hate. The term refers to a very strong, negative emotion we reserve for extraordinary, hopefully exceptional circumstances. Hate: there is already too much of it. As this is my first post for Graphixia, I will try to stick to the brief whilst hopefully managing to re-focus the post towards something positive.
Not liking things is different to hating. There are many things I don’t like. This means I wish these things were different. When I say “I wish they were different” it means that an a priori for that feeling is an intuition that something can be done about it. Many times we face situations we dislike that are not really the consequences of our conscious acts, or which we are (or feel that we are) not directly responsible for. There are problems whose roots are beyond our realm of immediate influence. In those cases it is easier to change our attitude or reaction to the circumstances we dislike, because there is really not much we can do to change those circumstances. There are other cases, however, in which things we dislike can actually, pragmatically, be changed. This means we can change them from something we dislike to something we actually feel comfortable with.
This takes me to finally writing about things I dislike that I think I (we) can do something to change. These “things” are interconnected in my mind. What I dislike is lack of openness. For me openness is related to generosity, reciprocity, fairness. And these three terms are related to the concept of access. In this sense what I dislike is closeness, lack of response or feedback, self-centeredness and inequality. What do these things have to do with comics?
Let me tell you a story, then. A personal one. I am only able to tell you this story, here, right now, because in my life I have been lucky and privileged enough to have access to a series of fortunate circumstances, one of which is an education. [No, we were not and have never been wealthy]. I was born in Mexico and I am a native Spanish speaker. When I was growing up, Mexico [this was the early 1980s] was not unlike countries from the former Eastern Block during the Cold War era. Or so it felt to many of us, who did not have access to many books, records and magazines that we somehow had an idea that existed but that we couldn’t get hold of. When I was a kid one book shop in Mexico City where my parents religiously took me and my brother every Sunday stocked Asterix books. The albums were prominently displayed in one of the tables at the main entrance. [These were Spanish editions, translated, published and printed in Spain]. My father was not entirely sure Asterix was “good for us” (he mainly disliked the drawings… perhaps he saw himself in them, as his nose is not dissimilar to Uderzo’s Caesar’s nose). My mom however humoured us and eventually bought us [at great expense, often saving in secret for it] the whole collection, which I still treasure and re-read again and again and again.
My dad, a civil engineer, got us to like American magazines (for years he was subscribed to Popular Mechanics, Discover and National Geographic, and I bizarrely have blurry memories of him bringing copies of Esquire from his work trips to Monterrey) and I liked to collect the computer adverts on those. It’s there I guess where I first started reading in English. We also took English at school (about an hour every day) but it was reading magazines how I really got to practice it and expand my vocabulary. A bit later, as a teenager one of my favourite places to hang out (by myself) was the Bejamin Franklin Library in Mexico City. There I could read, for free, the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and basically devoured every fiction book they had, including some comics. Had I not had free access to this library, I wouldn’t be writing this in English right now, and most surely my life would be very different from what it is now.
For most of the years in which I was an undergraduate at the National University in Mexico (courses take longer back there) there was no Web, and most of us had access to resources in photocopy only. Everything was photocopied. As a student and as a tutor you could not assume everyone would be able to buy a given book, or that there would be enough copies in the libraries. Many tutors brought books from their trips abroad (no expenses claimed) and photocopied everything for their students. I remember bringing books back like one would smuggle banned goods. To date, my friends return home from their trips to the UK like culture trafficants, loaded with books, records and DVDs.
I hope this brief anecdote illustrates a little bit why I care so much about open access to scholarly research. There are of course many other reasons why I think open access to scholarly resources online is important, but I cannot dwell in that here right now. (I have done that elsewhere). My (probably embarrassing) personal anecdote hopefully transmits the idea that I am now who I am because I had access to information. The information I had access to and the information I did not have access to defined me as a person. Of course I had to be interested in accessing that information in the first place, but had I faced a “computer says no” or “buy access here now”, my life would have been completely different, in a completely negative kind of way.
Comics studies or comics scholarship is an academic field or academic professional area that still makes most academics raise an eyebrow. If academic research in general is often perceived as incomprehensible Ivory Tower hyperspecialisation (not to say elitist snobbery), comics studies research is a niche within a niche. In the case of comics studies, however, the object of study is an art form/language/means of expression/cultural expression/whatever that belongs to popular culture. Non-academics love comics with a passion. It is in fact pathetic that something like that should be clarified, that the specialised appreciation (study) of comics is not exclusive of those in academia.
Making research about comics available openly implies an act of generosity because it implies that authors and publishers are thinking of all types of readers, not only those lucky enough to be affiliated/have access to institutions or libraries that pay for access to that research (institutions pay so their members do not have to). When a piece of research is only available to institutions/consortia of institutions that pay a subscription, interested members of the public get the message they have to pay a hefty fee (or find a public library that subscribes to that resource; it is estimated that UK universities paid £150 million in journal subscriptions in 2010). This increases the friction between user’s interest and accessing the research. It seems to me that we all could try harder to make academic research less difficult to access. This is where Open Access [PDF] comes in.
For me personally writing is about communicating. Community, communion, communication: it is not only about being read, but about creating connections and enabling dialogue. At the moment the current state of academic publishing leaves me very unhappy because it does not look to me like it’s trying harder to ensure the research academics get paid to publish by their institutions and/or funders (including the government in many cases) is openly available to those who are not academics, and perhaps more importantly to those who are not academics in the wealthiest institutions of the wealthiest countries. Perhaps “Joe Public” (supposing he exists) will not be interested in reading academic research on comics. But why would we prejudge that? Who are we to predetermine who is to be interested in what we do? [And especially when "Joe Public" has paid taxes that have helped some of that research be conducted and eventually published?]
Openness to me is like an extended handshake. It is an offering. It means that even if the offering might be received with disinterest, or silence, or doubt, or suspicion, the offering remains. Openness allows a space for reciprocity, but it cannot guarantee it. It will sound hippie and naïve and maybe stupid to many, but openness is an expression of love. This does not mean it’s all done for selflessness. Far from it. Openness means love for the work we do, because we want it to be accessible as widely as possible. It means, too, a form of love for our academic colleagues, whom we hope will be interested and will find it directly useful, and love for the unknown Other, non-academics and young people and parents and grandchildren and whatnot, regular people who might or might not be interested, but who will face an open invitation and not a closed door.
My arguments for Open Access in academic publishing are not just touchy-feely, they are very pragmatic and stem from what I and others perceive to be the current situation in academia. The traditional system of academic publishing has encouraged a culture in which academics publish to get jobs, and in some cases this has led to a sad case in which a happy bunch of academics read other happy few academics but no one else does. Changing this culture is more complicated than changing access or distribution -business- models, as it implies a profound transformation of the public reception, understanding, valorisation and re-use of academic research outside academia itself. I really dislike that in the age of the World Wide Web, academic culture in general seems still very provincial, assuming everyone has the same level of privilege than everybody else, as if everybody could just grab a plane and spend a month living in London to do research at the British Library. (Sorry for italics excess, but hey, we were asked to rant…).
Academics do not need to sell individual copies of the journals they publish articles in, and with a few exceptions the royalties from academic monographs are frankly negligible. Most academics don’t really publish for money (i.e., academics don’t make money depending on how many individual copies of their work they sale). Academics however publish because that’s what they are supposed to do, and at the moment the only ones making money from the work academic publish are publishers. I dislike the fact authors have been practically alienated from the product of their labour by these commercial publishers, who get authors to accept licensing conditions that potentially and practically limit how authors can distribute their own work. At the moment it looks like academic reputation is de facto defined by who is excluded from it. Openness is meant to offer a template for inclusion.
The pragmatic obstacles are financial, infrastructural and cultural. The challenges are huge, and most existing Open Access options are indeed not ideal and undergoing important transformations. Academics need jobs, and on the one hand we are told that public impact and all forms of impact matter, but at the same time we are constantly told to do things as if the Internet had never been invented. Working towards increasing fairer access to research is not about “destroying academia as we know it”, on the contrary, it is about working to ensure academic research achieves its purpose of contributing to society in a fairer, less elitistic kind of way.
The brief for this post was to write about hate, and I chose to write about openness as an expression of love. I may have failed at it –I know it is too long– and you might have totally hated this post, but here it is, for free, for you, to read and reuse, and do whatever you wish with it. Think of it this way: at least you didn’t have to pay for it.
Originally published in Graphixia, 26 November 2013 http://www.graphixia.cssgn.org/2013/11/26/why-openness-is-about-love-not-hate/
The views expressed on this post are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of his affiliated institutions, projects, committees, publishers or employers.