This is a rough draft for a presentation to be given at the start of a Panel Discussion at the Left Forum at the end of May. The panel is entitled Radical Publishing: Contradictions in Clickbait and will feature Aaron Leonard, Michael Thomsen, and Johan Kugelberg as participants. I (Douglas Lain) will be the moderator as well as a participant.
Every Zero Book title features a paragraph long Zero Book manifesto. Written, I believe, by the former publisher Tariq Goddard this paragraph is printed under the Zero Books logo and it lays out the aim and ideology behind the imprint. Here's an excerpt from that paragraph:
"Zero Books knows that another kind of discourse--intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist--is not only possible: it is already flourishing, in the regions beyond the strip lit malls of so-called mass media and the neurotically bureaucratic halls of the academy. Zero is committed to the idea of publishing as a making public of the intellectual. We are convinced that in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before."
So that's the stance and sentiment of the previous crew that ran Zero Books. But, I have to say, I'm not so confident or optimistic about the fate of the “public intellectual.” I agree that critical and engaged reflection is needed, probably desperately needed, but I'm not so sure that just because there is a need for this kind of work that it already exists. I come from that region beyond the realm of the strip lit malls of mass media and have no ties at all to the University system. My day job has been in the nonprofit art world for the last twenty years and my faltering career as a writer has been in the realm of fringe publishing. In the early 90s, as a college dropout, I published a 'zine called “Diet Soap” out of my local Copyshop. In the Zero years I played the game of submitting short fiction to various literary and science fiction magazines, and got published here and there along the way. Today I'm a freelance publisher. What I've learned so far is that all of these different regions, whether 'zines, blogs, or book publishers, are moved by the same forces and face the same problems. There is a reason that the University is so neurotic. There is a reason the mainstream media is so infantile.
I'll give you an example, a fairly current example, of the kind of problem publishers face today and what can happen to people with the best of intentions. One of the blogs I occasionally write for is called Thought Catalog and this is how the blog described itself back in 2010 when it started:
Thought Catalog is a digital mag for culture; a catalog of thought: a digital database. A destination for quality content without the annoying clutter.
If you go back and look at the first blog post Thought Catalog published you'll find a title that might sound a bit frivolous, but really isn't, or at least not entirely. Douglas Wolk's essay “Why Doesn't Spiderman beat up women?” is an attempt at pop-cultural analysis with a feminist bent, and compared with how the blog looks today it's positively deep stuff. The most current blog post on Thought Catalog at the moment is entitled “Twenty-four things I learned at the age of Twenty-Five,” another recent post is “8 Things you Agree to When You're Drunk that you Regret by Morning.” They also publish books with titles like “The Alcoholic Bitch Who Ruined Your Life,” and “Sex for Smart Women.”
What happened to Thought Catalog is that it was ruined by its own success and by technology. That is, the editor hit upon a way to get traffic to his site and moved towards the hits. What happened was that he discovered his market and gave them what they wanted. Given what's happened to Thought Catalog over the last five years you might be tempted to agree with the former crew of Zero and conclude that it's the problem is some sort of moral failing. You might think the problem is the staff of Thought Catalog, but what happened is that Thought Catalog got popular, and as it got popular the expenses started going up and the opportunities to make money increased as well. The problem isn't that these guys at Thought Catalog are “cretinous anti-intellectuals.” We should be more pessimistic than that.
I think of Adorno when I read Thought Catalog now. Adorno's notion of pseudoactivity from his essay Resignation should be transformed and applied to radical or alternative publishing. That is, there is such a thing as actionism in publishing. There is this idea, expressed above, that the ideas are already waiting for us. The good books are already being written, and that they would be marketable if we only printed them. This leads us to simply publish what we find and to promote books to the audiences that are already there through the mechanisms that already exist. But, if we do this. If we simply take the criticism and narratives that are ready at hand, if we remain one sided and hope to fix the problems that lead to regression and suppression of critical thought in this way, we're doomed to repeat the Thought Catalog path. What comes out the other side might not look exactly like Thought Catalog, but we'll either be led by the easiest and most pervasive ideas or, conversely, we'll chase our own tails down into obscurity. If we take what's ready to hand and then then follow the clicks, we assure our own distortion.
The fact is that the world of Capitalism and the anti-intellecutal culture that comes along with it can't be reduced to the level of bad ideas in the heads of cretins, hacks and CEOs. That culture and that system are material facts and any attempt at sustained critical engagement with it, any attempt to reinvigorate the figure of the public intellectual and to sell real thinking, what Adorno called Open Thinking, will have to include a material struggle. The aim here, as far as I can tell, isn't to simply clear the way for the public intellectuals that already exist but rather it's to think past ourselves, to take risk and try for self-creation.
If you ask me precisely what I mean when I speak of material struggle in the context of publishing I have to answer that I don't know precisely what I mean. But I do hope that recognizing the problem we face, seeing at least the outline of a system that suppresses the public intellectual rather than blaming a group of cretins for the problem, is a good first step toward an answer.