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Marshall Sahlins

Open Education

Marshall Sahlins wants to make the Internet the new medium for traditional pamphleteering. Sahlins, a celebrated anthropologist at the University of Chicago and the founder of Prickly Paradigm Press, has decided to re-release the press’s backlist with “some rights reserved.” This week, Prickly Paradigm goes online with the publication of five pamphlets under a Creative Commons license.

Alex Golub, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, recently spoke with Sahlins about his project.

Creative Commons: What is Prickly Paradigm Press and how did it come about?

Marshall Sahlins: Well, Prickly Paradigm is a pamphlet producing press—that’s a five-word alliteration—which began as the heir of a British press called Prickly Pear. Prickly Pear was founded by the anthropologist Keith Hart in 1993 and published ten pamphlets. It then branched into North American and British offices, which were essentially independent of each other—they worked independently of each other and there was no total organization. I had already written a pamphlet for Prickly Pear called Waiting for Foucault, and a few years ago had written something else that I thought was suitable for a Prickly Pear pamphlet. I never did publish it as a pamphlet, but at the time I contacted Matthew Engelke, the man who was running the North American branch of Prickly Pear, and who was then was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia. He told me that he was unable to publish my pamphlet because he didn’t have enough money, since he only could publish pamphlets when he had a sufficient return from those that were already in print. At that rate, he was publishing about once a year. So I asked him how much it cost to publish a pamphlet and he told me, and I thought that if I could raise sufficient money we could publish at least four or six pamphlets a year if we took over the press. So I essentially inherited the press, and I started a limited liability company to publish these pamphlets.

The first thing we ran into was that we had to change the name, because there were already three Prickly Pear presses in the United States, one of which had been in existence for twenty-three years. We had already gotten mail addressed to them—it was not a good idea to continue that name. So we developed a new name, Prickly Paradigm Press, and we started publishing. The first thing we published was a revision of my pamphlet, Waiting for Foucault, which was now called Waiting for Foucault Still, and there will be a further edition in the not too distant future called Still Waiting for Foucault, Yet—each edition enlarged by about fifty percent. In the first half-year we published five pamphlets; the next semester we published four more. We then published another four, and the fourth semester we were in business we published two. So we’ve published fifteen pamphlets altogether. Our aim is not to publish anthropology pamphlets exclusively, or even preferentially. Approximately forty percent of these pamphlets are by anthropologists and about anthropology, but we range over quite a bit of other territory, some of it political, some of it in the fields of art criticism, economics, and cultural studies, one on academic publishing.

CC: So there’s really an idea that it’s sort of a pamphleteering outfit in the old style of public distribution of pamphlets?

MS: Yes. The object was to give people free reign to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about or that were beyond their particular discipline, something that they thought was of general interest, that they could get off their chest without having a big scholarly apparatus, footnotes and so on. We wanted them to just let go, and that’s the way we’ve published. It’s the old pamphlet form, yes. But the fact that we are going into a Creative Commons licensing scheme also indicates something that was said about us very early on in the New York Times, namely, that we raise the question issue of whether the Internet is the new pamphlet arena. There is something to be said for the notion that bloggers and their like are a new form of pamphleteering. So the fact that we’re going onto the Net in this way is consistent with the observation that the Net has taken over the function of discussion in the public sphere, and it’s consistent with our own approach and spirit.

CC: Have you encountered resistance from your authors about publishing for free?

MS: About going free?

CC: Yeah.

MS: There was only one. I would like to mention his name, but… Well, he resisted in all sorts of ways about all kinds of things, including accusing us of keeping his royalties! And we’ve had a couple of “I’ll wait and see” responses. But basically the responses are positive, ranging up to “I’m proud to be associated with a press like that.”

CC: How much do you think this model of publishing with Creative Commons licenses or new kinds of copyright reform is going to affect academic publishing more generally? Do you see Prickly Paradigm as the cutting edge of a new movement to publish online?

MS: Frankly I don’t. It’s just my guess, but I think Prickly Paradigm represents the limit of the utility of this approach. When you open a book that has three hundred pages you’re not going to sit and read it on the screen—at least I’m not, and many people I know are not. Additionally, most people do not have the capacity to easily copy it; printers that would work at that rate that would make it cheap and easy. So when you I opened something like Lessig’s last book, which is available free online, —I mean, the name of the book is Free Culture, as I recall— and after you read the first couple pages, well, my reaction was that I went and bought it! So, the pamphlet is a better idea. Our pamphlets run in a small format. They’re are four and a half by seven inches, and they run up to about twenty thousand or twenty-five thousand words—maybe eighty pages to one hundred in this small format—so you can read it on the Net. It is worthwhile to have it available for free, especially because the cost of publishing being what it is, we have to charge ten dollars at the bookstores. And it’s not just the cost of printing. We are distributed by the University of Chicago Press, which takes a healthy chunk of our returns. So the effect is that we don’t make a lot of money, to put it mildly! If we break even I’m happy. Just to continue publishing is the aim. Our books are too expensive, frankly, and the Net is for us a good alternative.

CC: Are you worried that the Net is going to cut into the sales of the printed pamphlets?

MS: Well as I envision it, we will keep the new pamphlets off the web site for a year or so, hopefully just to break even. My position is that once we’re even, it can go free. None of our authors and none of our publishers and certainly not me, above all, are in this business for gain. I mean, I write a lot of things for academic journals for which I never see a penny. And I’ve written books that I do see a penny for, but it’s literally about a penny for an hour of hard labor. None of us is making a living off of this. Most of us feel that our ideas for the most part come from other people, and it’s certainly the case that we want them to be disseminated among other people. So free distribution seems to me correct. The only constraint I put on it is this one that I would like to be able to break even so that we can continue to function.

CC: Right, and that’s just really to make sure that there’s still a paper copy somewhere.

MS: Yeah, we’ll always keep the copies in paper available in bookstores.

CC: So what is next for the press? What do you see its future operations as being? What’s in planning?

MS: We have just published three books that are getting considerable play. One is by James Elkin, called What Happened to Art Criticism, and it’s so popular that we’ve had to reprint it. The second is David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology — he’s an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale. Finally, we’ve released a book by Lindsay Waters, who is the humanities editor at Harvard University Press, on academic publishing, a book called Enemies of Promise. It’s received a lot of publicity, including a healthy amount of argument, both in the British press as well as here in America. We’re about to publish a pamphlet by Harry Harootunian, a well-known historian of Japanese history and well-known theoretician of history at New York University, called The Empire’s New Clothes. We are also publishing and another pamphlet by Bruce Kapferer, who is professor at the University of Bergen, again both on American imperialism. We have several books also lined up in the future, including ones by Susan MacKinnon, on sociobiology, one by Keith Hart, and one by Edwardo Viveiros de Castro on the nature of kinship. So we have quite a bit. We have also some unsolicited submissions – manuscripts are coming over the transom. Recently we got something very interesting from Rick Perlstein that may turn into a pamphlet. So there is plenty to do. If we had more money we could do more.

CC: Cool. Well, is there anything else you want people to know?

MS: I just want to say that I truly support the idea of the free dissemination of intellectual information, and that I truly lament the various forms of copyrights and patents that are being put on so-called intellectual property. I also lament the collusion of universities in licensing the results of scientific research, and thus violating the project of the free dissemination of knowledge that is their reason for existence. So I consider it an important act to release these books under a Creative Commons type of license. I’m happy, and also a little proud, to do so.

Posted 01 October 2005