This post is published on the occasion of University Press Week, in which about 30 university presses have published posts on five significant topics: collaboration; your Press in pictures; connections with popular culture; a throwback look at an influential project or series; or #FollowFriday, today’s topic on university presses and social media. Find more details about University Press Week here.
|The siphonophorae, considered by Gabriel Tarde
to be the embodiment of sociality.
BY JOHN HARTIGAN
Professor of anthropology and director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin
Books capture and convey the motion of thought as it grapples with topics or conjures up scenes. But does that line of thinking simply come to an end when the book does?
I was mired in the opening stages of my next book—an ethnography of plant biodiversity science in Mexico and Spain—when Jason Weidemann mentioned to me the experimental Forerunners series at University of Minnesota Press. I was enthralled. Immediately, I peeled off a dozen or so speculative ideas that had been cluttering up the simple analytical frame I needed for writing about multisited fieldwork on plants. These were unruly but intriguing thoughts—on whether “natives” are principally plants or people; on how “model organisms” serves as fables guiding bioscience research; or the notion that a horticultural hermeneutic reaches from the Bible to the root directories of cloud computing. These and many more assembled as Aesop’s Anthropology, a series of short essays responding to one basic question: What can we learn about sociality from other species, once we suspend the belief that it is the unique possession and characteristic of humans? You can read it if you’d like; what I’ll principally convey here is how this format and the modes of social media I’ve engaged with to promote it are turning out to be remarkably generative beyond the book itself.
First, the book as “platform”: there’s more to this than marketing metaphorics. Seeing the essays as templates, I’ve been able to write on new topics before Aesop’s was even released. Laying out a framework of speculative ideas allows me to develop them sporadically, in turn, as new instances arise—in the media or everyday life—rather than having to hive to the scholastic argument format. Using a blog site, I am writing new essays that extend the initial inquiries, generally in surprising direction, or certainly ones I didn’t anticipate when I developed the initial frame. Now I don’t have the maddening wait to get something “in print”; I can write it, post it, and move onto the next idea, knowing they’re all coalescing in ways I won’t entirely anticipate. And who doesn’t like to be surprised by where their own writing leads?
Second, there’s Twitter, a medium I abhorred without knowing much about it. I turned to it, also, for reasons I generally loath: marketing! But it has considerably changed my understanding of how I think and write. Yes, there’s the way “networking” can develop into collaborative approaches, new ideas and directions, different conversations, and all that. Through following others on Twitter, I’ve come across articles, symposiums, and research projects that I would have otherwise entirely missed—even though I do a dogged job of keeping up with academic publishing on my various subjects. The biggest impact, though, was when I realized I could use my page as a curated site, collecting the intriguing items I am finding and not yet sure of how to use. For instance, I read more science journals now, keeping up with my plant scientist subjects. Previously, I would’ve been trolling these for tropes and other ideological operations, evidence of “social constructions” of science. Now, though, I’m more inclined to mimic these scientists and compile findings, research protocols, and study subjects into … what? I’m not yet sure. Probably a synthetic account of plants that combines cultural critique with social observations, percolating with natural science facts and theories, all about that particularly charged topic: evolution. I don’t see the final frame yet at all, but I use my Twitter page to write it up incrementally.
Most liberating of all, https://twitter.com/aesopsanthro lets me write with a persona, one that’s emerged from the book project. I don’t use the page for personal updates; rather, I compile quotes and citations—think links—the way Walter Benjamin imagined composing his Paris Arcades project. My profile picture is a siphonophorae—a remarkable marine entity that appears as a single organism (a jellyfish, perhaps) but is actually a massive colony of interlocking individual zooids. Gabriel Tarde considered it as the embodiment of sociality, which helpfully figures the nonhuman dimension I’m striving to learn from. I only post when I’ve come across new scholarly or news items that variously stretch the connotation of “culture” and “social.” When I reread the page, I start seeing connections between trajectories that I didn’t foresee. In this sense, too, I use it to gain some distance from myself by assuming a curatorial stance for this ledger that is gradually materializing.