Samizdat lessons for Mattering Press

Originally published 12th March, 2014. 

Many thanks, Nicholas, for the kind introduction – it’s great to be back as a guest blogger! Last time I was here, I wrote a series of posts about the material practices of democratic politics, and the ways in which they were being coordinated and distributed by the Hungarian Parliament as a complex political technology. That was in late 2011. Since then I’ve become a postdoc researcher at the Department of Sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, and got involved in the setting up of an Open Access book publisher called Mattering Press.

Last week I participated in a very interesting symposium, organised by the Centre of Disruptive Media at Coventry University (more precisely, by Janneke Adema and Gary Hall). It was the first of a series of events called Disrupting the Humanities, and I was asked to talk about Mattering Press as an initiative that aims to rethink scholarly publishing. While preparing for the event, I remembered an older project of mine, which was about the technologies and techniques of illegal publishing in communist Hungary, and decided to use that as a case to articulate what might be called the politics of self-publishing. What follows is a shortened version of my talk – hope you’ll find it interesting.

Mattering Press and STS

Mattering Press started in early 2012 as a publishing initiative of the Flows, Doings, Edges collective: a peer-support group of young scholars interested in relational research. Sensitive to the politics of knowledge production we began to explore the possibilities of alternative modes of engaging with works we find interesting and important. (Our first books are due to appear in the end of 2014.)

The term ‘mattering’ comes from science and technology studies (more precisely from Karen Barad’s 2003 paper). Since the appearance of the first lab studies in the late 1970s and 1980s, STS scholars have been busy extending their gaze to a wide range of sites, from hospitals through high-tech innovation centres to stock exchange trading rooms, in order to explore how scientific knowledge is being produced and distributed through seemingly trivial material practices – and how it could be produced and distributed differently. Ironically, what’s been largely missing from the list of the usual sites in STS-inspired works are the institutions that play one of the most important roles in shaping the academic world STS scholars themselves operate in, namely publishers.

Mattering Press is an attempt to better understand current developments in academic publishing by actively participating in them. It’s a political undertaking, but in order to specify in what ways it is political, some articulation work is needed. I’ll try to do this work using the case of illegal – samizdat – publishing in the 1970s and 1980s. First, I will briefly recount the history of samizdat production in Central and Eastern Europe in general and in Hungary in particular. Drawing on the insights of samizdat research, I will then identify three dimensions of self-publishing: materiality, experimentation, and the ethics of openness. Finally, referring to the work of a couple of STS scholars, I will discuss how these three dimensions can be simultaneously captured by the term ‘mattering’, and in the publishing practices of Mattering Press.

Samizdat histories

The term ‘samizdat’, coined by the Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov in the early 1950s, means self-publishing and refers to both the various processes of producing texts unauthorised by the state, and the outcomes of those processes: mostly literary and political writings that could not have appeared in official periodicals. In the Soviet Union until the mid-1950s, samizdat activities were limited to circulating handwritten manuscripts or a few copies of uncensored typescripts among friends and colleagues. It was only a few years after Stalin’s death when a wider group of people began to reproduce and pass on uncensored writings – even without the authors’ consent. The relative success of literary samizdat in the Soviet Union was followed by the gradual appearance of more explicit political writings, such as open letters, appeals, even manifestos. As the number of copies of illegally published texts kept increasing, those who were writing, distributing, or even reading samizdat, risked constant harassment by the secret police. In order to prevent imprisonment and confiscation of manuscripts and printing technologies by the authorities, dissidents formed various networks in which sensitive information, printed texts, money and other objects could be transmitted in an anonymous manner.

Outside the Soviet Union, samizdat activities in one form or another existed in many Central and Eastern European countries. The history of Hungarian samizdat began in the late 1960s, although some illegally published poems and novels had been around since the early 1950s. Initially this was much more of an artistic ambition, rather than an explicitly political mission. One of the most exciting places where avant-garde artists, political philosophers and other groups labelled as ‘deviant’ by communist authorities could gather to experiment with new forms of expression was at a chapel at Balatonboglár. Each summer between 1970 and 1974, dozens of people moved into the chapel and the surrounding field for a few weeks to present their art or theoretical work. These summer events were more than simply occasions to meet like-minded people from all over the country: as one of the ‘action artists’, put it, the performances that took place in the chapel were ‘punishment preventive auto-therapies’.

The lectures presented and artworks exhibited at the Chapel often conveyed serious political messages, which, consequently, led to the official closure of the Chapel in 1974, and to the forced emigration or arrest of many of the artists. After Balatonboglár, it proved to be difficult to keep different strands of alternative artists and political ‘troublemakers’ together. It was only in the early 1980s that a number of illegal publishing houses could be established in Hungary. Some publishers commissioned essays on ‘taboo topics’, while others debuted with works of banned authors, such as Arthur Koestler or George Orwell. In 1981 the first issue of the most influential Hungarian samizdat periodical, the quarterly Beszélő appeared in ca. 1,000 copies, followed by a circulation of 2,000 for subsequent issues. The aim of the founder-editors’ was, to put it shortly, to create a ‘parallel’ or ‘second society’, where any political topic could be discussed openly.

Three dimensions of the politics of self-publishing

According to the dominant view in samizdat research, the aim of illegally published texts was thus to report the ‘real’ conditions in communist countries. Probably this view explains why most researchers concentrate exclusively on the content of samizdat texts. However, the content and material existence of samizdat texts can hardly be analysed independent of each other. To quote the literary scholar Ann Komaromi, ‘the amateur typescript, the deformity of the text, the characteristic mistakes, corrections, fragile paper, and degraded print quality had value because they marked the difference between samizdat and official publications’ (2004: 609). Moreover, building upon Jacques Derrida’s concept of the written ‘trace’, Komaromi argues that there was an element of ambiguity in the relationship between the physical from and the idealised content. Unlike officially published texts, samizdat articles were constantly modified by copyists, while authors had practically no control over the life of their own writings.

Seen this way, samizdat in the Eastern Bloc can be considered as a distinctive text object: the result of complicated processes that required the co-operation of a whole range of actors including authors, typewriters, editors, graphic designers, low-tech (or, occasionally, high-tech) printing devices, distributors with vans, and so on. It was also the beginning of subsequent processes in which periodicals and books got borrowed, secretly photocopied, collected, read and discussed, and, no doubt, analysed by the authorities. Such processes in samizdat research are usually discussed as particular forms of resistance associated with the ‘subordinate’ or the ‘powerless’. In an essay entitled ‘The terrifying mimicry of samizdat’ another literary scholar, Serguei Oushakine, criticises this understanding of resistance, located in places outside of the field of power. Through the analysis of illegal publishing in the Soviet Union between the late 1960s and late 1970s, Oushakine argues that the topics and the ways in which dissidents discussed them were ‘largely framed by existing public discourses on Soviet law and civic and human rights’. In other words, he claims that those involved in samizdat publishing mimicked and thus actively experimented with the dominant political order: ‘Dissidents questioned not so much the principles of the existing political order but rather their implementation. For the majority, the issue was not whether socialism was feasible at all; it was too real to have any doubts about its existence. Instead, to quote the title of an influential samizdat article, the main question was: “Is a nontotalitarian [sic!] type of socialism possible?” ’ (2001: 199)

The answer, historically speaking, seems to be ‘no’. In 1989-1990 the state socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe gradually fell apart; the democratic transition made not only the institution of state censorship obsolete, but also the established practices of illegal publishing. In fact, the only places where samizdat can be found these days are temporary exhibitions and specialised archives (for example, the collection of the Open Society Archives in Budapest). Located in these institutions, the once illegally published texts serve as ‘obligatory passage points’ for historians interested in the collapse of communism, but are considered to have no relevance whatsoever to contemporary politics. But is this right? Recent uses of samizdat as a term suggest otherwise. According to the Jargon File, which is a comprehensive compendium of hacker slang, samizdat ‘originally referred to underground duplication and distribution of banned books in the Soviet Union; now refers by obvious extension to any less-than-official promulgation of textual material, esp. rare, obsolete, or never-formally-published computer documentation.’ Given this latter meaning, it’s not surprising that there is also a collaborative tool called samizdat that can be used to publish websites: ‘Samizdat is a generic RDF-based engine for building collaboration and open publishing web sites. Samizdat provides users with means to cooperate and coordinate on all kinds of activities, including media activism, resource sharing, education and research, advocacy, and so on. Samizdat intends to promote values of freedom, openness, equality, and cooperation. Samizdat’s open and transparent nature and its multi-lingual capabilities make it an excellent solution for international and political projects.’ And finally, you’ll be happy to hear that there are several Open Access book publishers that use the term, like Samizdat Press and Samizdat Express. These are just a few examples, and they are obviously different, but what seems to connect them is a specific ethics of openness.

Mattering – again

So how does this all relate to Open Access publishing in general and what we’ve been up to at Mattering Press in particular? As I mentioned in the very beginning, the term ‘mattering’ comes from STS, and I believe this single term nicely captures what I call the three dimensions of self-publishing, although not without giving them a certain twist. So let me briefly go through them again, and qualify them with three quotes from STS.

The first meaning of mattering is associated with materiality. In the case of samizdat publishing, the materiality of the texts had played an important role in establishing the truth-value of those texts. In our case, this is clearly not the case: in fact, our aim is to produce as beautiful and professional-looking texts as possible. Mattering for us is to make it visible how such texts come about. In Susan Leigh Star’s words, it is ‘to take on the erasing process as the central human behaviour of concern, and then to track that comparatively across domains. This is, in the end, a profoundly political process, since so many form of social control rely on the erasure or silencing of various workers, on deleting their work from representations of the work’ (1991: 281)

The second meaning of mattering has to do with experimentation. In the case of samizdat publishing this term was used to place those involved in illegal publishing not in direct opposition to a singular regime, but to put them in a position from where experimentation with various aspects of that regime became possible. Just as the aim of samizdat publishing was not to bring down state socialism, mattering is not against commercial or academic publishing as such. It ‘proposes not so much a new definition of truth as a method of experimentation, or a construction for new truths. To experiment is to consider theory as a creative practice. This is why it is no longer a question of knowing what is true, but how truth comes about.’ (James quoted in Stengers 2011: 251)

Finally, the third meaning of mattering has an ethical component. In the case of samizdat publishing this ethics was – and still is – defined primarily in terms of openness. However, making things open is only half of the story. The other half is to keep those things open, which requires what Annemarie Mol calls care. Mattering, in this sense, ‘is a process: it does not have clear boundaries. It is open-ended. This is not a matter of size; it does not mean that a care process is larger, more encompassing, than the devices and activities that are a part of it. Instead, it is a matter of time. For care is not a (small or large) product that changes hands, but a matter of various hands working together (over time) towards a result. Care is not a transaction in which something is exchanged (a product against a price); but an interaction in which the action goes back and forth (in an ongoing process).’ (2008: 18)


This post was originally published on Installing Social Order