Introduction: How Open, or, Can Vulnerability Go Digital? /Holly A. Crocker


Introduction: How Open, or, Can Vulnerability Go Digital?

Holly A. Crocker, University of South Carolina


[W]hat difference to moral philosophy would it make, if we were to treat the facts of vulnerability and affliction and the related facts of dependence as central to the human condition?

                   –Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals

Chemists, rocket scientists, and physicists are used to seeing their laboratories explode, but it had been quite a while since the sociologist’s office could run an experiment risky enough even to have a chance to fail! And, this time, it did explode.

–Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

I introduce postmedieval’s Forum II on “The State(s) of Review” with a sense of deep admiration, for the contributors gathered here are making a catalyzing difference to the ongoing discussion of scholarship and community in the digitized humanities. The immediate occasion for this forum is postmedieval’s recent “crowd review,” which could not have gotten off the ground without the earlier experiment in open review completed by Shakespeare Quarterly in 2011.1 Both these projects, as essays in this forum will note in different ways, relied on a host of readers, reviewers, and writers. What is initially striking about this digitized form of scholarly review is the visibility of its debts: we all know that “traditional” peer review depends on unpaid and unseen labor, but often we justify that practice as a recognition of expertise. One would not be called on to review for a scholarly journal or press, so the thinking goes, were one not an expert in the field or area. At its best, closed peer review is a service to the profession and the life of the mind. As Bonnie Wheeler observes, “In a substantial review, an Author and Editor see the Reader’s situation and biases and thus decide how to assess the assessment. A really keen review can lead a smart Author to jettison a flimsy argument or guide the revision process.”

Even if we recognize its persisting value, we also know that less gratifying myths surround traditional review, since, as Martin Foys rightly notes, this form of scholarly evaluation often perpetuates the shopworn fiction of “the Humanities scholar laboring, Samuel Johnson or Spinoza-like, in splendid isolation.” Such an image, of the solitary scholar applying rigorous disciplinary standards to an argument denuded of personal or institutional identity, is thought by many, as Eileen Joy puts it, to impede “more open, transparent, and collaborative forms of academic review.” Because it ignores the network of actants required for intellectual exchange, Jen Boyle emphasizes, “blind” peer review obscures the relations of dependency that constitute academic life. As Sarah Werner observes, open peer review has the potential to cultivate “emergent scholarly communities,” introducing members of a scholarly field or subfield to one another through their collective investment in the process of evaluation. One positive goal of open peer review, to return to Eileen Joy’s remarks, “[is to model] a learning process in which you never know where your best ideas (or advice for revision) might come from. Everyone has something to teach someone else.” In Katherine Rowe’s inspiring appraisal, open peer review seeks to acknowledge our scholarly interdependence through a process of experiment and replication.

Notwithstanding its promise, open peer review is also beset by its own, potentially distorting, fictions: as Sharon O’Dair points out, the ideal of “helpfulness” as a galvanizing principle of open peer review mischaracterizes many scholarly interactions (scholars are not always constructive), and misidentifies the purpose of most scholarly reviews (it is not usually or exclusively about community building). Furthermore, as Sarah Werner notes, open peer review also relies on expertise, since all such endeavors solicit recognized reviewers, and the process of encouraging participation from field scholars is often quite arduous for editors. To act as if open peer review is thoroughly democratizing is not only false, it is also potentially undesirable, since, to return to O’Dair’s bracing assessment, it risks eroding the distinctions of training that justify tenure in an increasingly corporate university system. It is not at all clear, especially in light of Bonnie Wheeler’s frank observations, that open peer review can be sustained beyond a few isolated instances.

As a way of crediting these disagreements as active, substantive investments in the future of this enterprise, the most refreshing aspect of this forum, in my view, is the genuinely experimental character of open peer review. Katherine Rowe is able to make a strong case for the future of open peer review because she is keenly attuned to its challenges: her question, “Will reviewers be frankly critical in a venue that is not anonymous?” is one that proponents of this new form have yet to answer. Similarly, Martin Foys bemoans the reviewers’ resistance to negativity: “But the freedom to ‘go negative’ (constructively, not ad hominem) also can be a very valuable tool that feels rather missing from our experiment.” About such over-cautiousness Bonnie Wheeler asks, “Will anything short of sweetness in open replies keep you from being invited to the cool parties?” The challenge of negativity is probably the most serious hurdle for open peer review, since there is no point in revealing “the equal constitution between humans, objects and networks,” as Jen Boyle puts it, if we do so only to construct a saccharine fantasy of the academy. Here one is reminded that in Middle English, “nice” means, “foolish, frivolous; ignorant.”2 If open peer review is too nice, then its ability to shake up the humanities is seriously compromised.

Yet, to recall the passage from Latour with which I begin, open peer review has the potential to be explosive in the most daring ways. To make scholarly co-dependency visible is to challenge the exclusive model of rational mastery in a venue that has deep impact for the continued struggles of anti-repressive movements involving class, race, region, disability, gender, animality, and sexuality. It is to provide emerging scholars an opportunity to observe and to transform the review process. It is to confront the habits of negativity that perpetuate structures of institutional privilege in the profession. For this experiment to succeed, it must continue. To point out its faults is to commit to this project in the deepest ethical fashion. It is to be neither utopian nor defeatist. It is, to end on the note sounded by Alasdair MacIntyre, to acknowledge vulnerability and affliction as shared facts of scholarly existence.

In this context, therefore, MacIntyre’s remarks about moral philosophy serve as an invitation for readers to participate in this unfolding project as an ethical experiment that reaches beyond the digital humanities. Comments for this Forum will remain open, and we very much hope that many of you will help us navigate the challenges and possibilities of open peer review. Our dependency entails a considerable amount of vulnerability, and we know that here, in an ungated digital community, the experiment is risky enough to fail. If it happens to explode, it is my hope that it will do so in ways that acknowledge our collective indebtedness to the scholars who are willing to cook up this forum’s potent admixture of ideas.



1 postmedieval’s archived crowd review may be viewed here: http://postmedievalcrowdreview.; Shakespeare Quarterly’s archived site may be viewed here:

2 MED, s.v. “nice” (adj.), 1. (a): “Of persons: foolish, frivolous; ignorant.”



Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. The Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies, 99. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacIntyre, A. 1999. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. The Paul Carus Lectures, 4. Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press.

Middle English Dictionary. 1975-2000. Ed. S.M. Kuhn and J. Reidy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


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