'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

Pirate Philosophy, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast

HyperCritical Theory

Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

Recent publications

Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 

 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repositories PURE here, and CURVE here 

Radical Open Access

« The academic as public intellectual | Main

The neurological turn and the ambient scholar

Book publication assumes and creates a certain kind of reader--a reader who will be attentive,  patient, and care enough about the topic to read the book, if not all the way through, then at least a substantial portion of it. Web reading, on the other hand, assumes and creates a very different kind of reader--a reader who will skim material, skip from one text to another, and supplement any text with hyperlinks, lateral references, etc.  It also assumes and creates a reader in a more or less constant state of distraction, one who is constantly leaving a text to check email, surf the Web, chat online, etc. 

... There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that different media wire the brain in different ways... The neurological re-wiring takes place quickest when small repetitive tasks are repeated over and over, reinforcing synaptic pathways and encouraging the associated neural nets to grow--as, for example, clicking a mouse, scanning a web page, etc.

... In my capacity as a series editor, I read a lot of manuscripts, and among the younger hipper scholars, I see a clear tendency to move toward a Web kind of writing, even if the final product is meant to be a print book--texts that lend themselves to skimming, that have much shorter blocks of prose and argumentation, that can be perused in an hour or so and put down without feeling that you have missed too much.  

(N. Katherine Hayles, ‘post for convergence; print to pixels’, posting to the empyre forum, 9 June, 2010)


As Katherine Hayles points out, questions of the ‘neurological turn’ are important because ‘they bear directly on what pedagogical strategies will be effective with young people’. But I wonder if there isn’t more at stake even than this. As well as a certain kind of reader and a certain mode of reading, wouldn't such a turn - if we accept the notion - create a certain kind of scholar, too, an idea Hayles seems to be pointing us towards with her comments on the manuscripts she receives for Electronic Mediations Series from ‘younger hipper scholars’? And if this is indeed the direction things are headed, what are the implications of such a neurological turn for the authority of the scholar?

Given that knowledge and research is increasingly being externalized onto vast, complex, multilayered, distributed networks of computers, databases, journals, blogs, microblogs, wikis, RSS feeds, image, video-sharing and other social networks – of which empyre and this post are both a part - to what extent are the ‘post-neurological turn’ scholars who emerge out of or after the current generation of 18-24 year old students still going to be expected to know the field? Will the scholars created within this scenario continue to endeavour to internalize a particular – and what was once perceived as a potentially knowable - branch of knowledge by means of extensive (and intensive) learning, training, reading and study? That’s what would make them scholars, after all. Then again, how can they do so, if they have difficulty integrating even the books they do read into their long term memory because they are ‘in a more or less constant state of distraction, ... constantly leaving a text to check email, surf the Web, chat online’?

Or, since there already seems to be more to read nowadays than ever and less and less time in which to read it (for many of those who work and study in the contemporary university too), will the scholars who are created in this way increasingly give up on this idea of knowing their field deeply and passionately, and having a comprehensive overview of it. Is it likely that they will come to concentrate instead more on developing their specialist search, retrieval and assemblage skills, confident in the belief that, if they need to know something, then they can find it quickly and easily using Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and a host of Open Access, Open Education, Open Data resources?

In which case, is there a risk that a large part of their authority is going to pass to the administrator, manager or technician? Will scholars themselves increasingly come to resemble such figures? Someone who does not necessarily need to know the knowledge contained in the systems they administer and have access to. Someone who depends for their authority more on an expert ability to search, find, scan, access and even buy knowledge using online journal archives, full text search capabilities, electronic table of contents alerting, citation tracking, Zotero, Mendeley, Scribed and so on, and then organize these fragments into patterns, flows and assemblages.

Or will the kind of phenomena that's being discussed in terms of the neurological turn lead to the emergence of what could be thought of as a rather different form of scholarship? One where scholars won’t get the bulk of their information in concentrated immersive doses, as they might have in the past from sitting down and carefully reading a book or even a journal article. Instead, they will indeed experience more fragmented and distributed flows of smaller bits of information, which nevertheless enable a certain body of knowledge to be built up over a longer period of time in a more ambient fashion? What might be called ambient scholarship. (I recall some people describing the experience of being on Twitter in the early days of its existence in terms of ambient awareness, for example.)

Now, while I’m intrigued by all these trains of thought set in motion by the idea of the neurological turn put forward by Hayles and others, I must admit to having no strong attachment to either of the two main ways of responding to this ‘crisis’, as Hayles calls it, that have been proposed so far: that which suggests we need to learn more about such hypertextual scanning if we want to teach our students more effectively; or which proposes we view the maintenance of the traditional aesthetic values associated with reading books and literary texts as acquiring something of a radical aspect in this context (even in its very reactionary-ness). Nor does it seem to me to be a matter merely of learning how to use both modes of reading and analysis and co-switching between the two as appropriate, which is what Maryanne Wolf proposes at the end of her book on the subject, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

What really interests me most about this discussion is the potential this crisis has to produce, not something that encourages those of us who teach to adopt new pedagogical strategies so we can educate our students more effectively. I’m interested in the potential it has to generate what might be called an unteachable moment - in the sense of a crisis in the teaching situation itself in which the very authority of the educator is placed in question.

It’s here that we come to the question of politics. For this moment of crisis, chaos, perplexity and undecidablity is precisely the moment of politics. As I've said before, we can never know for sure whether the legislator – the founder of a new law or institution such as a university – is legitimate or a charlatan, because of the aporia that lies at the heart of authority, whereby the legislator already has to posses the authority the founding of the new institution is supposed to provide him or her with in order to be able to found it. I make this point, not because I think revealing this state of affairs will somehow bring the institution to its knees. It's more to show that the impossibility of any such foundation is also constitutive for an institution such as the university, and so highlight the chance this situation presents to rework the manner in which the university 'lives on', as Derrida might have put it. Writing precisely about the moment of politics, Derrida says this:

once it is granted that violence is in fact irreducible, it becomes necessary - and this is the moment of politics - to have rules, conventions and stabilizations of power.. since convention, institutions and consensus are stabilizations,… they are stabilizations of something essentially unstable and chaotic... Now, this chaos and instability, which is fundamental, founding and irreducible, is at once naturally the worst against which we struggle with laws, rules, conventions, politics and provisional hegemony, but at the same time it is a chance, a chance to change, to destabilize. If there were continual stability, there would be no need for politics, and it is to the extent that stability is not natural, essential or substantial, that politics exists and ethics is possible.

(Jacques Derrida, 'Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism' in Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (London: Routledge, 1996) pp. 77-88)

I'd see the politics of online open access publishing in much the same terms. This is why I’ve argued that there is nothing that is inherently emancipatory, oppositional, Leftist, radical, resistant, or even politically or cultural progressive about open access, any more than there is about what is called digital piracy. The politics of open access, like those of digital piracy, depend on the decisions that are made in relation to it, the specific tactics and strategies that are adopted, and the particular conjunction of time, situation and context in which such practices, actions and activities take place.

So open access publishing is not necessarily a mode of political resistance. But what does interest me about the transition to the open access publication and dissemination of scholarly research that is occurring at the moment, is the way it is creating at least some ‘openings’ to take this kind of chance to destabilize, change, and think the university (and publishing and thinking) differently - in a way that doesn’t offer simply a lifeline to the University as it currently exists, or advocate a return to tradition and the past. What’s more, the transition to open access is doing so in a fashion that, to my mind anyway, a lot of modes of resistance which operate according to a logic of either/or are not.

The discussion of publishing that took place on the empyre forum in June 2010 began with a quote from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: ‘How can the book find an adequate outside with which to assemble in heterogeneity, rather than a world to reproduce?’. Let me end here with a different quote taken from the same book. Just the next page, in fact. For, to be sure, the different or alternate kind of economy I'm performatively looking toward - with open access, and with these media gifts - is based more on  openness, hospitality and responsibility, and less on individualism, possession, acquisition, competition, celebrity, and ideas of knowledge as something to be owned, commodified, communicated, disseminated and exchanged as the property of individuals. Still, it is unlikely to be an either/or thing: either market capitalist, communist or gift economy. It’ll likely be more multiple, hybrid, operating according to the ‘logic of the AND’:

‘“and... and... and...” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be””. Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions... move between things, establish a logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings... Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away.'

(Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone, 1988) p.25)


(This is a revised version of a text first posted on the empyre forum, 17 June, 2010, as part of a discussion of open access publishing in relation to Publishing in Convergence:

Reader Comments (1)

Interesting article.

September 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertorrent download

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