Mr. Penumbra and mixed-reality publishing

A recent book review in The New York Times of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore quotes Kathleen Fitzpatrick on “the anxiety of obsolescence.” As it happens, I’m finishing a chapter that also puts Sloan’s novel alongside Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. My argument supports and helps to explain an observation made on Twitter by Matthew Kirschenbaum, that Sloan’s book is “quite likely the first novel of the digital humanities” (Nov. 26, 2012). Sloan (who used to work for Twitter) responded to Kirschenbaum, “Dunno if it’s the first, but I definitely had the digital humanities community in mind while writing it.”

Sloan is part of a group of technologically savvy creative types, writers, designers, book people and typography geeks, who have seen themselves as participating in what they call (taking the term from blogger and designer Jason Kottke), “Liberal Arts 2.0.” Carmody and Sloan co-edited a collection of essays in 2009 called New Liberal Arts, which might in fact be understood as a project in the “vernacular” digital humanities. The collection began as a group blog, was printed as a limited edition chapbook (which sold out), and was also made available online in PDF and HTML forms under a Creative Commons noncommercial license. The physical book, the editors said, was meant to be “a beautiful object,” their way “of keeping faith with the past. For all this fuss about new-ness, we know the score: Books are pretty great techne.”

Sloan’s novel is I think truest to digital humanities now in its expression of a desire for a mixed-reality, physical and digital creative culture, a desire also expressed in almost every interview Sloan has given about the book. It’s a desire that grows out of the real physical/digital maker culture (of which Sloan’s a part). This aspect of the technology culture over the past decade amounts to a central ethos, one that’s only recently starting to be widely reported, and that can too easily be misread as mere nostalgia, or as part of an analog backlash. It’s instead, I think, based on a healthy skepticism about the “frictionless” immaterialities of digital publishing, a way of resisting the easy oppositions between “print” and “digital” that have riven publishing in the past couple of decades. This ethos has much to say to emerging digital humanities scholarship as it tries in a critical way to reinvent its own forms of digital publication and scholarly communication while also turning outward, to address developments in the world at large.

What Fitzpatrick’s book on (mostly academic) publishing expresses so well–and what the MLA Commons project she’s spearheading also addresses–is that publishing in the digital age has to begin by recognizing the constraints and affordances not just of “ebooks” or “screens” versus “pages” but of new publishing platforms. Those platforms have to be recognized as social, mixed-reality “stacks,” layered systems that connect writers and readers through materialities of various kinds, for various purposes, and that for now will participate in “book culture” even as they bridge to other forms of communication, other, emergent forms of making public (which is what publishing means) in this era of the eversion. This is true for a variety of digital humanities experiments both inside and outside the academy.

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