IN THE PARA-ACADEMIC PLAYGROUND: An interview with Eileen Joy, co-director of punctum books

By Tom White

Eileen Joy is co-director of punctum books, an open-access, print-on-demand imprint that is the home of Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf, Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love, Dark Chaucer: An Assortment, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, and Speculative Medievalisms: Discography, amongst others. Punctum also publishes the journals O-Zone: A Journal of Object Oriented Studies, Radical Criminology, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies, Contention: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Protest, Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory, and Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism. In addition, Eileen is also a co-founder of the BABEL Working Group, a “non-hierarchical scholarly collective” of primarily medievalists, but also of others working in early modern studies, critical and cultural theory, film and women’s studies, new media studies, and critical sexuality studies. Roaming the ruins of “the post-historical university,” it is BABEL’s aim to “develop new co-disciplinary, nomadic, and convivial confraternities between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts in order to formulate and practice new critical humanisms.”

In this e-mail interview, Eileen answers questions about open-source and print-on-demand publishing, access to academic writing and punctum books’ publication of the Beowulf translation by Thomas Meyer. My review of Meyer’s Beowolf is also published by the GRB.

Tom White: You co-founded punctum books with Nicola Masciandaro in 2011 as, in some senses, an off-shoot of the BABEL Working Group. Was establishing an open-source, avowedly cross-disciplinary imprint something you had been thinking about for a while as a relatively natural progression of the aims of the BABEL group, or was it closer to one of those moments of ”spontaneous […] combustion” that forms the imprint’s tag-line?

Eileen Joy: In some ways, it has always been the aim of the BABEL Working Group to found all sorts of events and projects (from our own journal, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, to our own biennial meeting, symposia series, etc.), but I don’t think we ever wrote down anywhere or said, “one day, we’ll start our own press.” Nicola Masciandaro had already been engaging in some so-called “self”-publishing, as when he put together the volume of essays Hideous Gnosis, based on the symposium he organized on black metal theory in New York City in December 2009, and I was struck by how much he enjoyed doing that and also by how well that volume of essays did, even getting reviewed in WIRE Magazine. So, Nicola’s example really inspired the venture, and one day when we were in Brooklyn together (Nicola teaches at Brooklyn College), the idea for punctum books did just kind of spontaneously arise between the two of us. Once the idea took hold of us (it actually took a while to come up with the name) it seemed to just naturally attach to and land upon people we knew who were developing off-beat writing projects for which there was no viable or readily identifiable publisher. We wanted to create a press where strange and weird work (especially work that might want to flirt with what Nicola calls neo-traditional forms and genres, such as commentary, breviary, florilegium, etc.) could find a home, and where we would worry less about what anyone thought about that. In some respects, this was to be an experiment in real academic freedom. We did assemble an Advisory Board to help lend the venture some academic “legitimacy” up front, but the intention was to create a playground – one where, as Nicola would aver (I’m not as intent on this), intellectual rigor would still matter, but free play of ideas and styles of writing would be paramount.

TW: You describe punctum elsewhere as a “para-academic” imprint. Was it always part of the plan for it to be open-source and print-on-demand? Having all the “strange and weird” titles available for free as PDFs must be great for contributors as it opens their work to a wider range of people both inside and outside of more traditional academic settings, and it’s obviously good for readers too, particularly in a world of often prohibitively expensive academic titles.

EJ: We always intended for punctum books to be an open-access as well as a print-on-demand publisher. Open-access, as you intuit, is critically important, especially within so-called “academic” ambits, because we simply need larger audiences for our work, especially work that wants to take risks, style-wise and otherwise. A typical academic monograph, for example – let’s say, one published by a commercial academic press, such as Palgrave Macmillan, or Ashgate, Brepols, Blackwell-Wiley, Continuum, Bloomsbury, etc. – will usually be printed in a run of 150-200 copies, all of which are priced too high for the average buyer (like a university teacher and her students), and sold directly to institutional libraries, then allowed to go directly into “out of print” status. Who does this serve? Only the publisher, really, who obviously has a “get in and get out quickly” sales rationale. I don’t like to heap scorn on commercial academic publishers, because I think they are an important plank in the foundation that holds up the humanities at present, and of course once a book is in a library it is preserved for the long-term (until global warming or asteroids take us over) and many different readers can borrow that book and read it, but there is always the matter of the fact that many, many university faculty and students and also intellectuals and curious readers outside the university proper don’t all have equal access to those 150-200 libraries, so the book remains somewhat “locked” and “hidden” as it were, beyond fully public view. Given that the University (writ large across many different sorts of institutions – an actual network of site(s) but also an Ideal) ought to be the place where we practice free speech (Foucault’s “fearless speech,” in my view) as well as put into place Derrida’s “university without condition,” it seems to us at punctum that academic/public intellectual writing should be made widely accessible to whoever, wherever, wants to read it. Authors want an audience, after all, and in our mind, the less rarefied, the better. A book, given how it is written, might be purposefully inaccessible in certain ways (certainly, at punctum, we have published what might be called “difficult” work as well as work so creatively “wonkers” that it might have limited appeal or only a coterie audience), but whether one nets 6 or 6,000 readers, let the public decide what they want to gravitate to, as long as it is all “accessible.” What we need now, in the academy as well as the world, is more, and not less, thought, more, and not less, experimentation, more, and not less, “free play” of ideas.

So, basically, if we want a radically open public marketplace of ideas, as well as better support for the well-being (eudaimonia, or “flourishing”) for authors and their work, freely expressed, and I think we should want those things, then having an open-access press is paramount, but as punctum was also founded by medievalists (myself and Nicola Masciandaro) who are interested in the book as a beautiful object as well as a textual structure of some durability. After all, the printed book was invented over 500 years ago and is still with us, whereas more modern communication/entertainment media, such as the reel-to-reel tape, the cassette tape, the videotape, celluloid film, the record album, etc. are already obsolete, and one imagines, as we move more and more to cloud computing, that “hard” communication media and platforms of any kind will become harder and harder to locate. The book, perhaps queerly, endures as the one media object that is also its own delivery platform. It may be that less and less people read and that the future of bookstores and libraries is somewhat threatened (although, I don’t believe so; I think only the scale of such will change), and yet, some people still buy and are devoted to books as material objects. Books are, aside from their cognitive content, works of art as *objects* (object-art), and punctum aims to keep the book alive as a work of art for those who are still interested in maintaining personal libraries that take up architectural space, whether in a briefcase, a living room, a 3rd floor of a house, or otherwise. And with new print-on-demand technologies, which seem to be getting better and more sophisticated all of the time, we can make these objects, lavish special attention on them, design-wise, and also offer them at very affordable prices. Open-access means authors get the potential audiences they deserve and print-on-demand means we still get to have our books as material objects we desire, if we desire that. It feels very win-win to us. We also do not think there are many people left in the university and commercial academic publishing realm who are still willing to lavish lots of labors upon design (from choosing the right, most elegant font to designing the cover, etc.), although there are still quite a few small, boutique (even letterpress) publishers who still do this (at a fairly high cost, I might add), of course, and we admire them mightily for it. But we would like for punctum to offer authors the kind of attention to editorial and design detail they don’t often get. In this way, we are a bit schizoid: going with the technological “digital humanities” flow while also hanging on to the printed book as an object worthy in its own right. My experience tells me people want both, and in different times and places.

TW: Definitely, and though they will perhaps not be as durable as books in the long-term, as you suggest, there is perhaps a link to be drawn between punctum’s approach to the book and the way in which many independent record labels have gone back to producing vinyl records and cassettes, not in direct competition with digital formats but rather as lovingly designed art-objects to go alongside them. The balance between downloads and sales must be a delicate one though, of course. How do you think punctum has fared in that respect? Particularly seen as punctum is the home of a range of journals as well. How does the process of disseminating a journal present different challenges to one-off titles?

EJ: It’s interesting that you mention independent record labels returning to the vinyl record and also the cassette tape; punctum is actually in discussion with some musicians who are interested in creating a punctum open-access record label, where we would create an archive of open-access music “singles” and also offer cassettes- and vinyl records-on-demand. We’re looking into that as a possible new “imprint” of the press (with all puns intended).

As you also mention, yes, the balance between downloads and sales of print editions is a delicate, and lop-sided, one (hence, no real balance actually), and something I think about a lot, because I want to create an open-access press that might be financially sustained through print sales, while also giving everything away for free. It sounds like a crazy, maybe unworkable, notion, but I actually believe it might work, especially as our list grows and we gain more and more dedicated readers (dedicated in the sense of being devoted to punctum as a “brand” or as a reliable “library” of certain sorts of titles: radically experimental, creative-academic mashups, etc.). But to give a more concrete example of how these figures look (and with downloads, you have to assume the numbers are, maybe, 10-20% higher, given how people share titles with others straight from their own computers), with our current best-sellers, Thomas Meyer’s translation of Beowulf, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen et alia’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, Leper Creativity (a volume devoted to papers on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, edited by Ed Keller, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker), and Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love, the figures break down this way (as of today (28/02/13)):

  • Beowulf (3,149 downloads; 168 print sales)

  • Animal, Vegetable Mineral (2,214 downloads; 194 print sales)

  • Leper Creativity (2,160 downloads; 171 print sales)

  • Desire/Love (1,591 downloads; 204 print sales)

Obviously downloads far outweigh print sales, but when you consider that these are academic titles (para-academic, in our own parlance), and that most academic titles are printed in runs of 150-200 copies (most of which sell straight to institutional libraries at outrageous prices if they are produced by commercial academic publishers; some university presses manage to sell titles at lower prices yet still don’t produce large print runs), then are dropped “out of print” altogether, these numbers are, in my mind, heartening. Because they indicate that sales of print versions of our titles may be enough to keep our operation somewhat afloat, although I suspect we will also need infusions of monetary support from philanthropic foundations as well as academic institutions, and I am actually spending all of 2013 working on raising capital from such sources. We are technically a non-profit press, so we are hoping individuals will also make donations, and many people have just in terms of donating their labor and expertise as editors, designers, and the like. I think the strongest chances of punctum surviving and thriving will be to adopt a hybrid “business” (or, sustainability) model where we combine in inventive ways share economies, profits from print sales, and philanthropic support in order to ensure completely open access to the most vibrant public intellectual-creative commons imaginable, one in which the producers of new intellectual work would hopefully have the means to keep caring about the aesthetics and presentation of that work as cultural *objects* in their own (creative) right.

As to the difference between producing and releasing journals as opposed to books, right now they are virtually the same, with each journal issue also being treated as an individual title, or book, with both an ISBN identification and an ISSN identification, and we are of course now looking into DOI classifications as well — digital object identifiers for individual articles in specific journal issues. We want our titles to be searchable and locatable by all means available: it can get a little hairy, I must say, but this is essential. We have not yet set up a subscription system, but will soon have that up and running so people can subscribe to specific journals that are very regular in their issuance (not all journals are, so some may best be served by simply issuing “numbers” semi-regularly, easily purchasable or downloadable as individual “titles.” We actually insist that each journal maintain its own web-presence, and while we help out with any or all phases of creating each issue (from copy-editing to formatting, etc.), each journal is responsible for making that content available on their own website and then linking back to punctum’s website. Journal content – making it accessible as a whole volume, as a whole separate issue, as individual articles – is definitely more challenging than what is involved for one-off book titles, for sure, and requires a serious team effort. I am just amazed by what some of the editorial teams, often made up completely of grad. students and/or post-PhDs with no regular faculty appointments, are capable of. The crew at Speculations, for instance, need practically no help from me and the punctum staff and do everything themselves for every single issue, from conceptualizing and gathering the contents, to meticulously editing and proofing those contents, to designing the interior layout and covers, etc. I designed and pay for a website for them, and they’ve done everything else, and that is one hell of an impressive journal. It shows that where money and institutional support is lacking, desire makes up for a lot, but part of punctum’s aim *is* to lend support to these ventures that otherwise might peter out over the longer term precisely due to the lack of more dependable institutional and/or traditional subscriber support.

TW: The success of Meyer’s Beowulf in a relatively short period must be particularly pleasing, and as a work it certainly illustrates well the ways in which punctum “seeks writing that does not let go of its own time, its adjacency to what is immediate and intimate, as well as writing that abandons time and lights out for other territories.“ One of the things I remark on in my piece on Meyer’s translation is its serendipitous path to the door of punctum, and how this is in some sense fitting, given what we know of the Beowulf poem/manuscript itself, i.e. that it was nearly destroyed by fire in the eighteenth century and was then left to decompose for a few decades before anyone really realised what they had on their hands. In his preface to Meyer’s translation David Hadbawnik briefly traces how this publication came about, but it would be interesting to hear your take on it, too. Were you familiar with Meyer’s work before you encountered his Beowulf translation?

EJ: I have, indeed, been thrilled with the success of Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf, which remains our #1 most-downloaded text, and our #3 bestseller in terms of print copies sold. It has also been receiving really positive reviews, and readers appear to be thrilled and energized by it. As someone who is a specialist in Old English literature and who has published scholarship on Beowulf and taught the poem over the years through many different translations, I can tell you, without prevarication or exaggeration (or simply due to pride as the publisher) that Meyer’s translation, for all of its avant-garde experimentation and inventive typography, really seems to have gotten the true rowdy spirit and also dark violence of the poem. I see Meyer’s translation as one that may really attract new readers to the poem and that is saying a lot. When (Seamus) Heaney’s translation first came out, I honestly was, like: ugh, this is so ponderous and Serious (with a capital “S”). There was a lot of discussion, and some ire, among scholars over Heaney’s supposed “Irish-izing” of the poem, and some, like Terry Eagleton were, like, “Why bother? We don’t need poetry like this anymore.” And my feeling about his translation was: a) I’m bored, and, b) this is treating the poem as if it is some sort of precious “epic” that can only be disinterred to be draped in more heavy funereal clothing. I feel like Beowulf has been waiting for Meyer for over 1,000 years to reverse-engineer its verses to really unleash and unhinge the poetry and story, and in a way that – albeit via typographic pyrotechnics – somehow does honor to its likely oral-performative beginnings.

I’m happy you note its “serendipitous” path to publication with punctum, especially by way of David Hadbawnik who, in a sense, re-discovered the poem after it had lain dormant for over 30 years. For me, it’s critically important, at punctum and elsewhere (such as with the BABEL Working Group and also the journal “postmedieval”) to foster and cultivate the work of graduate students, and even post-grads without regular appointments in the university. David is a PhD student at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and in addition to re-discovering Meyer’s translation, he also edited, along with Sean Reynolds, portions of Jack Spicer’s unfinished translation of Beowulf, from the 1950s, which he discovered in the archives at UC-Berkeley (where Spicer had been a student and where he was also influential, with the poets Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, in the Berkeley Renaissance and the subsequent Beat movement). David, as well as Daniel Remein, a PhD student at New York University, who wrote the introduction to Meyer’s translation, are both very interested in the intersections between contemporary avant-garde poets, poetics, and medieval poetry, and with the exception of the work of Chris Jones (St Andrews University), who wrote the book Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford, 2006), there is really a dearth of scholars plumbing this very rich vein, so in my mind, the convergence of Meyers’ long-neglected manuscript with David’s and Daniel’s research and artistic interests (both are also accomplished, published poets with degrees in poetry writing) was … pure gold. I, for example, had never even heard of Thomas Meyer until I saw David present a paper on Jack Spicer’s Beowulf on a session panel at the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies a few years ago, in which he mentioned Meyer’s translation. I immediately knew David was on to something invaluably important to the history of translations of the Old English poem. And it sounded just “weird” enough for punctum. We’re certainly not into disciplinary piety around here; if anything, we’d like to unsettle that.

TW: I completely agree about the balance Meyer’s version strikes between modernist experimentation and typographic flair, and what, in a quote that adorns the cover, Roy M. Luizza calls a “lovingly close reading” of the original. Stepping back a little though, and as John Niles wrote in the early 90s, there is an unsettling “paradox” in which, while interest in Beowulf continues to grow, the place of Old English (and medieval literature as well) on many university literature courses seems increasingly marginal. In this context, what kind of further work do you think (or hope) Meyer’s translation might prove to be an impetus for? Particularly now that domains like punctum can offer the opportunity to disturb some disciplinary boundaries in a more accessible ”para-academic” setting.

EJ: I think your observation (one I have heard others in the field of medieval studies make as well) is a good, and troubling one – that, as interest in the Middle Ages among culture-at-large grows, premodern studies within the university is increasingly marginalized and in some places, even defunded altogether. The state of Old English studies within medieval studies more largely, is even more precarious. One of the reasons I personally love Meyer’s translation of Beowulf is precisely because it does not treat the poem with so much historical reverence that would merely keep the poem in the past, and a deadening one at that. Meyer’s version of the poem is, indeed, irreverent and daring in its experimentation, while at the same time it somewhat miraculously stays true to both the poetic and cultural ethos of the original. If, because of how much fun it is to read, it draws new students to the study of medieval literature, so much the better, although that doesn’t have to be the primary aim – “Hey kids! Look how cool this old poem is!” Rather, the aim could also be to draw new readers to the work of Meyer himself, who has been a somewhat neglected figure in avant-garde poetry circles of the late 20th century. For me (and I think also for Daniel Remein and David Hadbawnik), the aim was to bring to the public a sense of the vibrant, transformative contact that medieval verse and contemporary poetics have been in for a long while, but which is not always registered as visibly as it could be. But in general, “YES” to the idea of disturbing and leaping across and muddling and fucking with and jamming  and mashing up disciplinary boundaries, if that means enlarging the potential audiences for what we call “academic” work, and for which pursuits Meyer’s translation of Beowulf may certainly be an impetus. I would venture to say, actually, that many of the books that punctum has already published, including Meyer’s, have already emboldened new experiments in writing across, not just disciplinary boundaries, but also across genres (such as in M.H. Bowker’s Ostranenie, which blends memoir, poetry, and cultural criticism, or Jean-Paul Martinon’s The End of Man, which blends autobiography and queer studies + gender critique). I am seeing more and more proposals cross my desk that are really daring in terms of the creative-scholarly risks they want to take (I was recently pitched a “how-to” manual for creating scholarly editions of medieval works that would use Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” as an exemplar case; another author has pitched a commentary on Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense using cartoon illustrations), and thereby hopefully might lead to the enlargement of the domain of what we mean by “criticism,” in all fields of academic and creative “play,” which also might lead to new audiences for our work (with “our work” meaning what we do here in the university, but which just as well could mean what we do “out there” with partners we had not imagined before; although, strictly speaking, I don’t buy into the in here/out there distinction at all).