Digital Scholarship and the Playlist

When I discuss digital scholarship, like many, I strategically draw analogies to more traditional forms, in order to demonstrate its scholarly potential.  This is how I framed my digital dissertation as well as my subsequent digital work, such as the two digital anthologies I co-edited and published in Kairos, or the Scalar article I authored which appeared in the IJLM

But some analogies are more productive than others. For instance, the use of the term “publish” as applied to putting content online (e.g. publishing to the Web) has proven problematic. In the early days of the internets, there was a notion that having something online meant that it was not eligible for publication in scholarly journals, most of which require that submissions not be previously published. And it's no doubt the notion that anyone can "publish" anything online that has contributed to the marginalization of digital work, or, at the very least, it has contributed to the suspicion of digital work vis-a-vis its degree of rigor. But it's also simply a blind spot that many academics have as I was recently reminded of when working with some more traditional colleagues. As such, I often distinguish between public and published, using the latter term to indicate the jurying that takes place—whether via peer review or editorial review—as opposed to making something publicly available by posting it online.

Screenshots from my 2005 digital dissertation (left) and from several digital publications (right). 

One concept I’ve been toying with lately, one that I hope will prove more illuminating or at least less problematic than publish, is that of the “playlist” and its particular resonance for contemporary publishing. The term comes from music of course, whether to indicate a DJ's lineup, a live band's plan (aka "setlist"), or people's song groupings on iTunes and other media players.  

I have not thought this all the way through, but so far the notion of the playlist seems useful for a few reasons: The best playlist becomes a musical journey in its own right, where tones and tempos are strategically mixed to guide the mood. Sometimes that means resonance, sometimes the assembly of dissonant sounds. A cut that builds to a loud and fast flourish is often followed by one that is slow and quiet. It's the juxtaposition, in the larger context, that contributes the strength of each. The key is to have a through line.

Thinking of media-rich texts this way, we might be able to escape the entrenched tendencies of logocentrism and the type of thesis-driven, hierarchically-framed prose that has dominated scholarly argument for the last several centuries. Conceptualizing a media-rich text as a playlist, we might view the relationship among the various registers (textual, aural, visual) as illuminating each other, rather than simply illustrating or reiterating each other. This might mean that the image calls the text into question, or it might reinforce it from another angle, but the relationship between and among the constituent parts would undoubtedly be more complex and interesting.

Likewise, we might view the relationship among different texts in an anthology--digital or otherwise--as being playlist-like and, as such, encompassing the potential to help authors/readers/viewers/users explore new ways of knowing, thinking about, and producing academic work. Anthologies already lean this way--after all, the multi-authored nature of an anthology makes heterogeneity inherent to some extent--but there is typically a unity of tone the editor strives for, and often a homogeneity of disciplinary backgrounds among the authors.  However, an anthology based on the playlist model would embrace dissonance among its chapters (tracks) whether that means actively recruiting authors from differing backgrounds, including texts with distinctly different styles, or simply assembling texts that mix generic conventions. 

The musical roots of the term playlist make it especially valuable given the shared provenance of remix culture which increasingly informs the contemporary mediascape.  Indeed, I began toying with the notion of the playlist while co-editing a book-based anthology of feminist texts many of which invoke musical roots to argue for future texts. Early in the process, a potential publisher asked for more cohesiveness between the two sections. It seemed to us (my co-editor and I) that if we conformed, we'd work against one of our basic premises: namely, that digital space offers the possibility of subverting the status quo in the very form that scholarly argument takes. Needless to say, we chose a different publisher; still, I felt the need to more explicitly articulate the objection to this call for conformity.

And it was in the context of reviewing a forthcoming anthology focused on sampling that the potential value of the playlist concept seemed more clear. The anthology constitutes an exceedingly rich inquiry into the diverse nature of the influence of  "sampling", but one of the editors framed his contribution by invoking the logic of the playlist, separating each section into "tracks" whose headings simultaneously name the musical texts under consideration, while also indicating the points made with regard to the overlap of the musical, and the cinematic "shadow" of each. 

How might this concept resonate more widely and enrich digital publishing?

Screen shot from the Indiewire blog, The Playlist:

Image on front page by Metal Chris and available on Flickr. 


Many of the points that you hint at within this piece resonate with some of the work that we do within MediaCommons (at least the front page). One of the trends that I have notices is that more open less "thesis-driven, hierarchically-framed prose" seems to gain more readership and more commenting. MediaCommons wants feedback and we encourage contributors to format this way. Developing this kind of publication is a different kind of genre that demands a slightly different kind of writing and skill set. I am not sure where it fits in a universal hierarchy.

I like many connections between the notion of play list, especially the way that the various types of media build meaning instead of supplementing them. I like notions of play and choice as well that come with a metaphor of playlist. I wonder, though, if such a metaphor does not introduce too much play for those that are already hesitant about the validity of online publication?


Good point, Jamie. The notion of play suggested by the playlist metaphor could become yet another reason for traditionalists to dismiss digital publishing. Still, I wonder if the concept isn't a good way of thinking about book-based anthologies (as it arose for me twice), in that its use might at least open up spaces for further experimentation and that might eventually inform natively digital texts. I didn't name the anthology to which I referred because I'm not sure I should before it's out, but the publisher is Oxford UP, not exactly an upstart (!). This  makes me optimistic about the trajectory of academic publishing and the influence that Media Commons and other such efforts have exerted. 

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