Academic Whores and Publishing Pimps
Mark John Isola
It is difficult to express the anxiety that accompanied the writing of this article. I found myself rewriting it several times, and I wondered if I would even submit it. The reasons behind my concerns are numerous, but they are sufficiently represented by a recent headline from Adult Video News, which reported the fate of a text based erotic web site: “Red Rose Stories Shutdown by FBI.” What does the closure of this text based web site have to do with me? Everything, for not only do I believe in free speech, I also believe in free erections. I represent the silent majority of Americans, whose presence can be detected behind every dollar that constitutes America’s porn industry, who appreciate erotic and pornographic material. Not only do I enjoy erotica, I also produce it. I write erotic fiction and manage an erotic website, and over the past several years, while pursuing a graduate degree, I have managed some publishing success. My fiction enjoys an online reading community of over eight thousand readers a month, and I can only imagine my readership is nearly as large via my print publications. Before you review my byline and think about your favorite bookmarks and anthologies, let me assure you, you do not know me, or you might, but you will not recognize me under my this—my academic identity. Given the recent events surrounding the closure of Red Rose and the growing determination of the Bush administration to create the Meese Report sequel, the decision to write this article from my academic perspective was simply made. It is safer to be an academic than it is to be an erotica writer. Think about it—would you rather face a tenure committee or the FBI? Sure, they will both probably be comprised of men in black, but one is decidedly more likely to be carrying a gun. Herein lies the difference Louis Althusser posited between an ideological and a repressive state apparatus.
Originally, I thought this article would explore how my academic identity delimits, if not forces, my pseudonymous identity. Although I have little use for celebrity of any kind, I would prefer to publish my fiction under my common name, for I am pleased to own it. In addition to writer’s pride, there is the matter of my resume. In a discipline that highly values publications, as my field of literary studies does, I might actually benefit from my publishing success. However, when I have dared mention it all, the academy has encouraged me to keep silent. The advice is consistently the same, and I am told to keep my two identities separate, at least until I achieve tenure—the academic writ of freedom. From professors to peers, I have been told everything from I will never be published or tenured if the academy finds out I write erotica to being told my fiction publications do not matter in the academic world. Well, there goes all hope of a tenured position or an academic publishing career, for I have just outed myself: Admit not Mark John Isola; he writes erotica.
The conservative reader might think I am dissembling, but I am not. When I have dared mention sex to academic Marxists, I have been told sex does not matter when people are starving in the world—as if sex was not a hunger. The moderate reader might think I am exaggerating because “things have changed,” but things have not changed that much. When I have dared mention sex to academic feminists, I have been told to adjust my critical lens to the more productive reading of gender—as if sex could not be productive. The progressive reader might think I am playing identity politics because sex is now queer, but these people are never beyond their own constructed identity of politics. When I have dared mention gay sex to queer academics, I have been told to acknowledge my privilege of being sexed male and raced white—as if gayness never impinges other cultural positions. From professors to peers, I have been told everything from sex should not matter to sex does not matter. I have met some sexually minded academics, but when push comes to shove, on the syllabus and at the lectern, the academic hegemony of race, class, and gender overshadow the consideration of sex. I look to heed Cornel West’s call for a new cultural politics of difference that demystifies the construction of all categories of difference as they formed by social structures of power. This includes the analysis of how categories of difference are included or excluded by the academy itself. Between anti-sex politics and sex-phobia, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is as groundbreaking today as it was in 1984.
Anti-sex politics and sex-phobia form the academy’s resistance to sex. The former denies the sexual body; the latter denies the sexual act, and their complicity performs a significant act of oppression. In keeping with the function of a discriminating prejudice, this sexism ritualizes a process of abjection (insert Julia Kristeva) by which a larger ideology is justified and upheld. This larger ideology can be detected at the very center of Western Civilization, beginning with Plato’s dialectic of existence and being.
The academy’s refusal of sex upholds the mind/body binary and elevates the mind by subordinating the body. This casts individuals, who make a living with or through their bodies, as other to the academic. The subaltern constituted by this process, the body upon which the academic rests, is the laborer, and the primary archetype for the laboring body is the prostitute. The trope of the prostitute functions to convey, albeit stereotypically, the alienation that lies at the heart of Freudian and Marxist theory, and in this sense, we all fear the prostitute within us. But what does the prostitute tell us, if anything at all, about the academic? This question explains the provocative nature of the article “I’d Rather Be a Whore Than an Academic” and accounts for why it continues to find a grateful readership. This anonymously written article brings the body of the prostitute precariously close to the academic, and this proximity threatens to destabilize the binary by demonstrating similarities instead of differences. Since abjection is ultimately a process of projection, the academic refusal of the prostitute is a telling symptom of the fear of self-recognition. What about the academy, the intellectual industry of capitalism, makes the academic feel like a prostitute?
“I’d Rather Be a Whore Than an Academic” is ambivalent regarding the similarities between academics and prostitutes. Anonymous is invested in reversing the academic/whore binary and contends that such an analogy is actually degrading to whores. I appreciate this reversal; however, despite this contention, Anonymous effectively delineates how the academy reduces academics to a commodity status, and I direct the reader there for further reading. Instead of rehearsing these observations, I would prefer to spend the remainder of this limited space fingering the fulcrum I detect behind the academic resistance to sex, for this resistance lies at the heart of the academic abjection of whores. Anonymous maintains, “[The] condemnation of whores ultimately boils down to the fear and hatred of sex.” This is not entirely accurate, for as Kinsey discovered, humans—even academic ones—can hardly get enough of even the most quotidian aspects of sex. The prostitute is not condemned because s/he is necessarily objectified in his/her reality but because the figure of the prostitute reflects the objectification an academic feels in their reality. A fundamental dehumanizing process can be detected in the academy, and it is a profound example of reification—the extraction of a commodity from an abstraction. The academy alienates academics from the product of their intellectual labor and turns this labor into a marketable commodity. From abstraction to commodity, every time an academic publishes an article a bit of humanity dies. Indeed, academics are a species of whore, and their pimps are academic journals.
Academic journals trade in academic minds. They obtain rights to market articles, the intellectual labor of the academic, and in turn, the academic becomes alienated from the product of his/her own intellectual labor. The submission guidelines for “Bad Subjects” evidence this point: “Any reprint material requires express permission from the original publishers or proof that the author retained copyright.” The alienation of academics from their intellectual labor is so entrenched academics routinely have to prove they own their own work! Indeed, academics are a species of whore, and their pimps are academic journals.
Journals have rationalized their objectification of academics for decades. Over the years, I have heard several arguments offered in defense of the journals. A popular one claims that academic journals do not make much money, but this claim has always been suspect. The most cursory analysis indicates journals are either based on a flawed business model or are outright lying. The annual subscription rates alone must more than cover the cost of production for the number of issues a typical journal offers. Moreover, over the past couple of decades, journals have benefited from the digital age, and I simply do not believe they have not profited from this development. Subscriptions to digital journal archives turned the occasional backordered issue into its own industry. Additionally, with the advent of digital delivery, archiving, and production, bounded journals are fast becoming obsolete, for digitization results in an inexhaustibly reproducible copy. This inexhaustibility has also widened the journal’s profit margins. I have heard the claim that the digitizing process is so expensive journals need to continue being supported by subscriptions, yet the journals had no problems getting everything digitized for the electronic journal market. Even if this process was expensive, once this cost is recouped, where exactly are the subscription dollars going to go. Indeed, academic journals are a species of pimp, and their whores are academics.
The vast majority of academics are little better than their publishing pimps, and they bear a responsibility for their own objectification. Academics have not only settled into their oppression they have largely worked to uphold the system that oppresses them. Tell an academic you have been published, and they will immediately label sniff for the prestige of your publication. Like an archetypal group of whores fighting over a last stash of condoms, academics battle to outdo one another in the publishing prestige game, and the ego games of the conference circuit are well known. Meanwhile, the journal pimps continue to accept submissions with one hand while cashing checks with the other. Academics have also reproduced their own oppression. Instead of using their experiences to learn how to organize for a more egalitarian dissemination of intellectual work, like a traumatized child under some perverse repetition compulsion, academics have simply taken to co-opting the work of others. Hence, the chicanery and rarifying of critical theory and the theory excesses of the late twentieth-century. By dislocating authors from their textual artifacts and denying language a generative function, academics—specifically so-called literary academics—have co-opted textual artifacts. It’s all about culture now, don’t you know? Buy a clue, it always has been. Ironically, or not as much ironic as simply hypocritical, academics reserve the agency they deny authors for their own critical work, which is somehow above and beyond the indeterminacy of language and mysteriously wrought with an intentionality that rivals the Adamic conception of language. I have actually had to endure several flaccid monologues on how important I should consider the “crafting” of critical writing. Between the sundry levels of hypocrisy and objectification, we academics have too often failed to fight our own objectification.
Let us no longer be academic whores alienated from our labor by publishing pimps. Free the academy; support open source journals.
Open source journals have created a significant challenge to the journal pimp, and several objections to open source journals have already begun circulating. The strongest objections are about vetting and copyright infringement. Regarding vetting, there is simply no reason open source web based content cannot be as vetted as any other publishing medium. Regarding copyright infringement, are you kidding me with this one? The copyright to intellectual work should be retained or sold by intellectual laborers not capital holders. Besides, this argument is a straw man. Most articles are already available in digital formats via electronic journals and interlibrary loan dissemination, so the cow is already out of the barn on this one. After all, as my friends in the field of library sciences tell me, digital delivery is already the preferred article delivery format. No matter how you spin this argument, academic pimps are hard pressed to defend their empires in the age of open source journals.
Open source journals hold a powerful and productive potential. They promise to empower academics by allowing them to retain rights to the product of their intellectual labor. Instead of trading on the promise of some purported future benefit from a publication, the academic will either immediately benefit from his/her labor or will be able to control what happens to their work over time. Transforming the existing academic journal model to a web format is not open source; market concerns need to be removed from academic journals. This promises to free the dissemination of intellectual work from market delimitation. Does anyone actualize believe journal pimps are somehow oblivious to subscription numbers when making editorial decisions? Exactly how much have market forces already shaped who and what gets published in academic journals? Perhaps it is time for academic institutions to take responsibility for the dissemination of intellectual content. Open source journals should be organized from the location of the academic workplace—college and university campuses. Moreover, such a development will allow significant professional development opportunities for academics. Imagine that, academics performing publishing apprenticeships. Who could have thought this would be important in a discipline that highly values publications and produces a large volume of them? I shiver with excitement to think how open source journals can slash the class barrier that often bars a person from accessing intellectual work, particularly the intellectual work of the academy, which is locked up in pricey journal subscriptions and inaccessible expensive electronic databases. As a high school dropout with a college degree, I can attest to the world of knowledge I never knew existed behind the walls of the Ivory Tower. By their very nature, open source journals fulfill the egalitarian impulse that lies at the heart of any discipline that purports to have an interest in social justice.
Let us no longer be academic whores alienated from our labor by publishing pimps. Free the academy; support open source journals.
Where do I stand in relation to my polemic? I have submitted the first two articles of my academic publishing career (welcome to number two) to open source journals, and I would prefer to make this my standard operating procedure, as I parse my dissertation into journal articles. However, without the prestige of a publication history with the journal pimps, this is a rather ineffective and possibly unwise choice on my part. Therefore, I call upon my established peers to make a difference. Yes, I am speaking expressly to you, the untouchably tenured: Free the academy; support open source journals.
Still reeling from my deployment of the sex worker trope? Trying to out-left me by claiming my deployment is itself an objectifying act? So what do I know about men trading fistfuls of dollars for fingers of flesh? Well, for a fee, I will write that article. After all, that is my content to mange.
This is the first contribution to Bad Subjects by Mark John Isola.
Images from Gentleman of Leisure by Bob Adelman and Susan Hall.