Why University Presses Matter: A Guest Post by Jack Halberstam

Up_week_2012Welcome to University Press Week! We're so excited to be kicking off a great tour of university press blogs featuring posts by authors, press staff, customers, and many more fans of the great work university presses do. Watch this space for more posts and links to all the other great university press blogs. Today's post is by Judith (Jack) Halberstam, author of, among many other books, 
The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Female Masculinity (1998), one of our all-time bestsellers. The blog tour continues at Stanford University Press. A complete schedule is available here

 In our post-optimistic, pre-revolutionary, ante-Apocalyptic, late pollution, early warning signs, post-election end times as we try to determine what is wrong with politics as know it and imagine life in a different time zone, one that is not marked by lost hopes, disappointments, resentment, regret and anger but instead finds different things to believe in and different ways of making those things become reality, it is as good a time as any to think about how radical knowledge emerges, circulates and lives on.  

Two words: university presses. Obviously not all radical knowledge appears through university presses and not all university presses have made commitments to sustaining radical and alternative forms of knowledge. And yet, the sheer volume of material produced by university presses in any given year, much of it arcane, specific, highly theoretically, heady, cerebral and written in specialized languages, ensures that alternative knowledge remains available, in circulation and imaginable. 

And university presses guarantee much more than just the availability of radical knowledge. They also ensure that slow knowledge can percolate, that unpopular notions can be aired, that counter-intuitive thinking can flourish. Honestly, without university presses, we would have few venues left for big ideas and bookstores would be filled with hundreds of books on “Yoga for Pets,” “Who Killed JFK,” “50 Shades of Gray” and “Was Lincoln Gay?” Not to mention “50 Shades of Gay,” Who Killed Your Pet?” and “Yoga for Presidents.” Not that there is anything wrong with these books but it would be depressing to lose the rich variety of topic, approach and density that university press books offer on a wide range of topics from slavery to settler colonialism, from empire to the multitudes, from material culture to digital worlds, topics, in other words, that can be addressed only in long format and accompanied by bibliographies, indices and footnotes. 

We need university presses today more than ever as new forms of literacy are emerging all around us. Even as we are rapidly learning new modes of intellectual and cultural production and unlearning old modes, our intellectual disorientation can be mapped and assuaged by the university press books that address new paradigms and then leads us through their implications to new forms of literacy.

In fact, education today is as much about Unlearning as learning and, as Alvin Toffler put it in Rethinking the Future: “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” To which Cathy Davidson adds: “Unlearning is required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back."

Unlearning-in-progressIf we are living at a time of crisis, and we obviously are, a crisis that has been manufactured by the overwhelming emphasis placed in our culture on money, the economy, work and business, then this is not the time to mount an elite defense of learning, genius and expertise, nor is it a time to emphasize a canon or to dig into idealizations of the book and print culture and excoriations of the screen and digital culture. Instead, our current crisis affords an opportunity to rethink the ways in which all of our forms of cultural media—print, visual and digital—work together and are 
interdependent. As books go electronic and can be carried around as part of a massive archive on a hand held device, new understandings of the library, of reading and of researching emerge. Now is the time for more not less products, more not fewer ideas, more range, more depth, more clarity and higher degrees of difficulty.

As our world becomes more complex everyday, as our political idioms fall short in their ability to makes sense of the convolutions of ideological positions, as web based data banks grow and as information circulates at higher and higher speeds, in this age of what Lauren Berlant names as the “ongoing thickness of the everyday,” we need university presses more than ever. The commitment to publishing ideas rather than pushing book sales drives university presses and keeps all our intellectual projects and pursuits alive.

Albert Einstein was said to have predicted that if bees die out, mankind would last only 4 more years before dying out completely. The end of cross-pollenation would signal the end of crucial food staples and the end of man. If university presses were not around to cross-pollenate, to cross-fertilize, to allow for knowledge to buzz around at all altitudes, we would not become extinct in four years (barring other ecological disasters), but certain forms of knowledge certainly would, arcane forms, expert knowledges and subjugated knowledges. And just as a world without bees would lack sweetness and light, so a world without university presses would lack the hard edges of the difficult, the dense and the didactic. So, buy a university press book today, better yet, write one. 

One comment

  1. Beautiful, articulate, and inspiring post!

    The first university press I ever visited was HUP in Cambridge, MA, and I have very fond memories associated with the place.

    Reading your post above reminded me of how the summer before I was to attend my undergraduate university, Gonzaga University in Spokane WA, my fellow classmates and I at the Gonzaga Honors Program were given a reading list we were to complete prior to entering campus. The reading list was designed to help us “acculturate” and “acclimate” our minds to university reading. One of the books on that list included Mortimer J. Adler’s HOW TO READ A BOOK. Adler’s book helped us (that is, my fellow Gonzaga Honors Program classmates and me) understand the differences between academic literacy and popular culture literacy.

    It’s been twenty years since then, and I’ve loved reading oeuvres produced by university presses. I’m grateful to you for your above post’s last sentence, “So, buy a university press book today, better yet, write one”—–because you’ve sparked a fire within me to pen a good university press book 🙂 Cross your fingers that I can actualize this new aspiration 🙂 Thank you 🙂


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