Pandemic and Subversion-Dialogue with Federico Zappino

The Exception of the Minorities: Pandemic and Subversion

A Dialogue with Federico Zappino by Lorenzo Petrachi

Federico Zappino is philosopher, translator and queer activist. He translated into Italian work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler and Monique Wittig. Among his recent works are Il genere tra neoliberismo e neofondamentalismo (Gender Between Neoliberalism and Neofundamentalism, ed. 2016) and Comunismo queer. Note per una sovversione dell’eterosessualità (Queer Communism. Notes toward a Subversion of Heterosexuality, 2019).

Lorenzo Petrachi is co-founder of the research group Dalla Ridda, in Bologna.

The interview appeared first in Italian OperaViva Magazine, April the 2nd 2020 and was translated by Eleonora Stacchiotti.

OHO group (Nasko Kriznar), Red Snow, 1969, 8 mm film, silent, colour film, 2’40”, Marinko Sudac Collection.

Lorenzo Petrachi: Almost two months after the declaration of the state of emergency, the measures that have been taken against the spread of Covid-19 are widening the gap that merges and separates two inherently different sets of signs. On the one hand, there are practices of control and domination that address the problem by holding the individuals responsible, for instance, as with the increasing attitude towards blaming the others, authoritarianism and militarisation – which engender forms of slanderous psychosis. On the other hand, the exasperation of inequalities, the healthcare crisis and the fear for the coming bailout of the failing real economy are making tangible the variety of forms of solidarity and struggle, movements that emphasize interdependency over individualism. The pandemic definitely brought about a radical call as regards the question of our existence, especially by doubting the rationalities informing the government of the individuals and, more fundamentally, of the emerging entanglement of people and objects.

These organized practices with their particular subjects have proven to be unable to respond coherently to an adventitious, global problem and are on the verge of an inescapable transformation, although very uncertain in its nature. During one of the most recent mobilisations against neoliberalism in Santiago de Chile, a light installation on a building claimed No volveremos a la normalidad porqué la normalidad era el problema. In these recent days, a growing number of people are sharing this slogan on their social accounts, with a clear reference to the current crisis. Nevertheless, the current crisis is unprecedented for a number of reasons and this is why it is still not clear how this is going to turn out. It is still not clear how the joyful colors of (the more and more realistic) utopia are going to blend with the dull grey of the continuously extended state of exception. Are we then so sure that the “normal”, in these peculiar times, is our enemy?

Federico Zappino: I do not think I can be counted among the defenders of ‘normality’, because this term refers to the white, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal order established on the principles of environmental degradation, of violence and of institutionalized politics of inequality towards women, sexual and gender minorities, poor people, non-white people, people with disabilities and non-human beings. This is what the ‘normal’ actually looks like. Whoever takes part to a politicized minority perfectly knows that the ‘normal’ is the main problem. And those who are still willing to be included – without fighting for the subversion of it – are witnesses of the enormous fascination that the realm of normal has even on those who are oppressed. For this reason, I agree to the spirit of the light installation realized by the Chilean artistic collective Delight Lab, and I completely understand the reason why so many people borrow and make use of such a slogan in these melancholic, uncertain and endless days of collective grief.

However, we can first observe that there is a difference between a crisis induced by a political conflict waged by social movements in the order of “normality”, to which the Chilean slogan refers, and an epidemiological crisis. The current crisis is induced by a pandemic that has plummeted on a global society rather demobilized by the decennial crossfire of neoliberal and neo-fundamentalist policies (institution of the self-entrepreneur subject, dismantling or privatization of public and social services, restoration of the heterosexual family as a form of natural welfare), and which is politically managed through the establishment of a state of exception which – at least from what we can experience in Italy – replaces day by day pieces of ‘normality’ with increasing forms of coercive ‘social distancing’, disciplining, individual blaming, authoritarianism, even with the deployment of military means and practices.

The ‘normal’ that is being replaced by the state of emergency does not correspond with the white, hetero-patriarchal and capitalist order – that is, on the contrary, reinforced by the crisis. The state of exception is replacing the “public”. And while the State-Capital-Heterosexual Family tryptic gains centrestage, the exceptional decrees show us how public space is precisely the precondition for the exercise – albeit unequal, and violently repressed if exercised by minorities – of all those freedoms such as walking, moving, gathering, expressing themselves, protesting, mourning a loss. Of all those freedoms, namely, which have meaning only in their collective and public exercise, and which fail when their condition of possibility fails.

To avoid any misunderstanding, what is at issue here is not whether the state of exception is justified by the need to stop the spread of the virus, whose causes, figures and territorial impact require further detailed analysis. What is a cause of concern now is that even now that health workers and all the workers in the production chains deemed “essential” are denouncing the shortage of protective gear and the lack of the medical resources to face the pandemic, the state shows that it wants to “defend society” by investing in population control devices such as drones, geo-location or monitoring of telephone cells, encouraging the population to relate those who break the rules of what is called “social distancing”, and much more. It would be irresponsible to consider these dark sides of the problem as relatively important, because they are evidently interconnected with the less dangerous aspects of this lockdown.

Lorenzo Petrachi: For instance, some argue that we are called to reflect on the traumatic desolation of the present in order to produce the inner feeling of existential crisis that will not be forgotten once the pandemic is over. Others insist that the pandemic is giving us the “chance” to witness first-hand the precariousness and the vulnerability of human life as the other side of the coin of the hegemonic vision of a subjectivity defined by sovereignty, ownership and entrepreneurial attitude.

Federico Zappino: I am not sure if I completely disagree with what you just mentioned. I believe that dwelling on loss, collectively lingering in mourning, rather than indulging the imperative of removal and restart at any cost, as if death had no effect on those who survive, can be not only transformative for the rethinking of the meaning of a community itself, but necessary. The point is that the labor of mourning does not need to suspend political criticism, as many, animated by dangerous forms of compassionate humanitarianism, suggest. On the contrary: if there was one thing that minorities learned from the HIV pandemic between the 1980s and 1990s, it is that the way to honor the many deaths was to politicize their causes, and to “ideologize” in order to subvert them. It was precisely in that context that queer criticism took shape, for example.

I think this has to do with the fact that, as minorities,  we know that life is vulnerable and precarious regardless of the pandemic: the likelihood that our life is taken away prematurely is a consequence of the marginal position we have in society. If we extend this assumption, we can understand that any form of vulnerability, including those induced by the pandemic, have never happened on an abstract level, but usually occur in specific social conditions. Hence, insisting on the vulnerability and precariousness of (non-)human life only makes sense in relation to the fact that an epidemic is such also, and perhaps above all, in relation to the sanitary means and structures that such a situation requires – or on the contrary, the absence of such means and structures. The heavier the cuts in medical resources, the more authoritarian the emergency measures. This must be made clear. If then we can also grasp the eugenic subtext underlying this connection (in Italy there are a few thousand beds in intensive care for a population of sixty million inhabitants), we can easily understand how it makes no sense to understand as two distinct things ‘governmental’ power and ‘sovereign’ power of life and death over the population.

There would be no need to threaten the application of eugenic criteria for access to limited places in intensive care if these places were not limited, and if their number was proportionate in an egalitarian sense to the idea that the population, in its complex, it is vulnerable. What constitutes an insult to vulnerability is the neoliberal brutalization of public health resources and structures. Clearly, this cannot only be reduced to a critique of what has been done so far by the political classes that have facilitated neoliberal measures, but must be turned to a present demand for a radically different future: we must no longer listen, not even by mistake, that some subjects “deserve” more than others access to medical treatments. This “value”, I fear, has to do with their productive and reproductive capacity of species and whiteness, and which, therefore, ratifies and consolidates the differential value accorded to people in line with principles like gender, race, age and psychic and physical ability. A materialistic and egalitarian commitment to vulnerability requires us not to accept death – or the need to choose who deserves to live – as a tragic fatality.

Lorenzo Petrachi: The connection that you make between the healthcare crisis – that has to do of course with the public financial cuts – and the growing authoritarianism of the governmental measures is fundamental in various ways. Pointing at this specific interdependence allows us to become aware of the difference between a disciplinary society and ours, by avoiding easy associations between the condemnation of violence of the state and the latter’s irrationality. What we are highlighting here is not the excessive suspension of the exercise of fundamental freedoms, but the modes of operation of a number of governmental rationalities working together. Your analysis also reworks the concept of “normal” that, similarly to “power”, results to be less monolithic than what it seems to be at first glance.

Federico Zappino: My idea is that only emphasizing the multiplicity of rationalities of government we can protect ourselves from the risk of channeling our critical and political attention in one-way ways, as it happened too often on the sidelines of the issuing of emergency decrees. This is no time for binary oppositions. No fans needed. We collectively need to keep a watchful eye on a number of elements like the legitimacy of exceptional measures, the pandemic-induced reshaping of the relationship between capital and labor, the instrumental function of authoritarianism to the neoliberal decimation of public health resources, or the eugenic drifts that threaten, in an unacceptable way, to preside over the distribution of these scarce resources.

Moreover, we need to be aware of the strengthening of nationalisms, induced by the fact that health systems are national and that, in the absence of global and common forms of health organization (as Judith Butler seems to suggest), any vaguely cosmopolitan idea fails at the first pandemic, as evidenced by the closure of all borders. We must be aware of the discursive and mediatic invisibilization of homeless, migrant, disabled and queer populations. Finally, it is of vital importance to acknowledge the hegemony of the heterosexual family and the re-naturalization of the exploitation of work and the violence based on gender that are given within it.

At the same time, I believe that it is fundamental to emphasize that there is no reason not to go back to “normal” if we understand the normal as the restoration of the public space. I believe that minorities should not be taught that public space is constituted and torn by power relations: yet it remains the only space for social and political transformation. Therefore, going back to “normal” is necessary. We need to go back to “normal” to enable the meeting of bodies, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, social conflict, forms of solidarity that fall outside the capitalistic monopoly of digital platforms. Having the possibility of gathering with other people in the public space to demonstrate, to protest, to mourn – also in the name of those who cannot do it, so to go against such an impossibility: aren’t these forms of the “normal”? The point, if anything, is to start immediately to understand what needs to be done once we have returned, and net of what we will find there, certainly not by our choice. The paradox created by the state of exception is that we must go back to “normal” in order to subvert it. We can subvert it by mean of the political, cultural and social instruments that are part of the public space that we envision as radically democratic.

The state of exception cannot be a condition of social transformation, unless this is done through violence – a perspective that does not look intriguing to me. As I understand them, the claims of minorities are requests of a radical subversion of cultural, political and economic factors causing the social differences at the base of systematic inequalities. But the strength of these instances does not need to double the violence that produces them: the anger and the grief we feel can be turned into a transformative politics rather than a violent one.

Lorenzo Petrachi: As regard as the coaching to keep a daily routine during the lockdown, it is interesting to observe how the political use of certain kinds of normality incites the population to keep a productive rhythm with lines like “Put your makeup on as if you were going to work”, “Set your daily goals”, “Stop wasting time and set a schedule”. It is precisely this efficient lifestyle, this form of entrepreneurial and proprietary freedom that is showing its inconsistency and its being unsustainable during this moment of global crisis. The fact that the exceptional measures  stopping the ‘normal’ are still promoting this mode of existence – by reproducing the ordinary repressive structures that you, in your book Comunismo Queer, put at the intersection between modes of production of the subjectivities, of relational spaces and of social relationship – is even more revealing about the true nature of the ‘normal’. The order to stay-at-home, for example, not only does not take into consideration the homeless, but also does not take into account the limits and the iniquities of the majority of people that are living most of the times with their heterosexual family or on their own. This is what is emphatically supported by the popular banner hanging outside a Spanish house: “La romantización de la cuarentena es un privilegio de clase.” The presumably good sense to prioritize basic necessities on an institutional, economic and individual level is based once again on an established meaning of “necessity”, that does not deal with the impact of such measures on different subjectivities. How can we shy away from this evidence?!

Federico Zappino: If we observe the “micropolitics” of this state of exception we can see that it needs to ensure the reproduction of “normality” right in the middle of its suspension. This exhorts us to look at normality in a less dogmatic way, detecting different regimes of competing normalities, so that it is evident that the suspension of a certain kind of normality takes place by means of the corroboration of the modes of production which, historically, come together in its determination.

It was not necessary to wait for a pandemic to find out that the capitalist modes of production operate by transforming ecosystems deeply and irreversibly, to the point where, as some argue, pandemics should be understood as anything but dysfunctional as regards the modes of production themselves. Yet, since the epidemic broke out Xi Jinping has repeatedly (often turning to Trump) asserted that in no way will the virus affect the Chinese economy, which, from his point of view, will restart stronger than before. In Italy too, we are witnessing a precise political will to maintain productive ways and sectors whose “essentiality” is to be proven, and in working conditions often unsuitable for the context of a pandemic. This allows us to highlight in new ways the dependence between a specific mode of production and the form of life it generates, the latter which continue to depend on the former even if the price to pay for this dependence is life itself.

The same goes for all the modes of production of subjectivity which, from my perspective, offer human and symbolic resources by means of which capitalism can assert and reproduce itself. In Italy, the anthropologist Miguel Mellino brought attention to all the racist limits of the governance of the pandemic, insisting that migrants – who often work in agricultural production chains – are made totally invisible by media and institutional discourses. Mellino wonders: “Are there no infections among migrants? Are there no hospitalizations? Or maybe they are not assisted or not even counted? Or are they not even considered as worthy of representation, speech and even less of tampons?” For Mellino, in other words, the state of exception exacerbates a racist rift, reproducing specific white coordinates of social reproduction. In my view, the state of exception is also the product of a heterosexual rift.

While psychologists and pundits urge men and women to dress and put on make-up as if they were going to work – that is, to reproduce the heterosexually regulated “society” even in the times of “social distancing”–, the lives of those constituting an exception in the exception remain equally invisible from the public discourse, still obliged to abide by the criminally binding injunction to stay-at-home: the lives of those who do not have a home or an income, and the lives of those who live in situations of mental distress – and we know how many women and queer and trans people live in situations of housing, income and psychic precarity.

Likewise, women trapped in violent heterosexual contexts who, due to the suspension of public space, can only count on incomplete forms of support from anti-violence centers or other supportive and solidarity relationships; women who bare the full domestic brunt of taking care of children, of elderly or of sick or disabled people, in the general suspension of school and social activities; queer, trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual adolescents and pre-adolescents, in contexts of legal and economic dependence on violent or hostile parents (in most cases fathers), and especially in non-urban contexts; sex workers, for whom the alternatives are either risking exposure in the suspended public space or having insufficient financial resources to pay bills and rent. The list could go on: what is relevant here is that public silence on these issues is only one of the effects of the “heterosexual social contract”, as Monique Wittig would call it. Just like the capitalist modes of production and the white domination, what I call “heterosexual mode of production” is inscribed in the material and cultural hierarchies of the exceptional government of the pandemic crisis, and is clearly reinforced by it. Precisely for this reason, we need to present it with its limitations, in a way that cannot be deferred.

Lorenzo Petrachi: I would like to go back to the issue of public space again, which you have defined as a necessary condition for social and political transformation. In the state of exception, on the contrary, it is not possible to protest using the traditional methods of assembly and demonstration, and even the possibility of striking, in its various forms, is precluded to many of us. Furthermore, the only means we have to communicate and to express our dissent – means that for a not negligible part of the population are unfortunately the only ones imaginable – are owned by private companies. Yet, now more than ever, the success of a number of demands seems not only urgent and unpostponable, but also more plausible. If it is true that restrictive measures unfolding before our eyes have definitively re-entered the field of the politically contingent, the same must be said also for the unprecedented horizons opened by the crisis.

Consider, for example, the claims relating to the suspension of rents and bills, the claim for universal income, the visibility of prison conditions, the certainty of the value of public health… To all this we must add not only the elaboration of unheard practices of social solidarity even in times of “social distancing”, but also the awareness that comes with each of these instances. In other words, are the suspension of public space and the relative difficulty in organizing the struggles sufficient grounds for postponing the articulation of our claims until later? We must undoubtedly return to normal in order to have the necessary means to transform it completely; but can we miss, in this situation and in its narrow limits, the opportunity to create a precedent? We are encountering an exceptional scenario. It is a matter of understanding what about this exceptionality is destined to become transitory and what, for better or for worse, will establish itself.

Federico Zappino: Hoping to go back to “normal” in order to have the means of public space that allow for its subversion, does not mean postponing this subversion towards an indefinite future. Just as the state of exception induced by the pandemic illuminates problems and contradictions of a social system based on inequality and violence, and aims to preserve it, at the same time it begins to favor the possibility of forms of solidarity and resistance which, for the first time in a very long time, seem to be on the brink of possible. In fact, they can create a “precedent”. The demand for an income independent from productive work is perhaps among the most important and the most transformative of social demands. However, its effectiveness, and that of any anti-capitalist practice, will depend largely on the way in which, in the public space, we will manage to thematize and subvert the specific modalities that exploitation and exclusion assume, because each of these modalities refers to specific ways of production that concur in defining what, in generic terms, we then call “exploitation”, “exclusion” and, above all, “capitalism”.

When we talk about exploitation, are we sure to include within it also the exploitation of women’s domestic work by men, in the vast majority of heterosexual cohabitative contexts? When we talk about the exclusion of the minorities from the public space, are the material and economic implications of this concept clear for us or do we limit ourselves only to those aspects that we like to define as “cultural”? Is it clear for us that the cultural construction of entire social groups as “diverse” means exposing them to the greatest likelihood of poverty, indigence, violence and premature death? Are the links between symbolic and verbal violence and its substantial premises and material consequences clear? If we do not keep all these implications in mind, and if we do not endeavor to subvert them, a highly transformative instrument such as the universal income can easily be turned into its opposite, that is, an instrument to normalize already existing power relations.

The vast majority of women will continue to serve a man inside the house – but with an income; and so on. Any means that aspire to be “universal”, however, must deal with the fact that the universal has always been internally torn by power relations, and in the absence of an effort aimed at healing that fracture, every universality will be destined to reproduce as much. This aspect is very difficult to understand if you are not part of a minority group, or if you are not aware of it. My idea is that only by thematizing and keeping together all the forms that exploitation and exclusion assume, we can understand what capitalism needs in order to function – and indirectly, also what needs to be done to subvert its unjust and violent order. This, at least, is what I have attempted to illustrate in Comunismo Queer. Until a few weeks ago, the various currents of queer, feminism, anti-speciesism, decolonial thought could be conceived as utopian, brave, full of hope and anger, certainly ridiculed by those defending, consciously and unconsciously, the sad and criminal heteropatriarchal, white, capitalist and speciesist “normal”. The exceptional thing is that they could instead constitute the theoretical framework from which to draw inspiration from now on for the next transformative and instituting practices.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

The cost of Open Access (OA) book publishing has been the topic of some discussion in the UK due to UKRI’s consultation on its Open Access policy, which proposes that all UKRI-funded research published in book or chapter form should be Open Access from 2024.

One of the biggest objections to the plan is that it will be too expensive to fund the OA publication of academic books—some of the more breathless coverage has speculated that this policy might herald the end of the monograph as a viable format for scholarly work.

At Open Book Publishers (OBP) we have published all our books Open Access since our founding in 2008—so we disagree. Our books are rigorously peer-reviewed, award-winning, innovative, and available in multiple Open Access editions (PDF, HTML and XML) as well as physical and ebook editions. We do not charge authors ‘Book Processing Charges’ (BPCs) to publish with us—quality is the only factor that determines whether or not we publish a book.

It can be done.

But many of the conversations about the financial viability of Open Access book publishing are predicated on a single business model—that of the BPC—and they assume there will be no revenue when a book is published OA.

The debate is usually held on these terms because up-to-date, detailed information about how much it costs to publish an OA book, and the revenue streams that are available to meet these costs, is sorely lacking. Such information is rarely made public, in part because commercial presses are reluctant to do so on the basis that it will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Recent estimates have therefore tended to be drawn from the charges some well-known publishers levy to produce an OA book—but price is not the same as cost.

As Elizabeth Gadd has recently pointed out, the purpose of research dissemination is not to prop up broken publishing systems. Open Access is much more effective at communicating knowledge than a non-OA system, as the current pandemic is starkly demonstrating (and as was obvious before to those without access to a well-stocked academic library, with the funds to pay for expensive monographs and to cover hefty journal subscription costs).

Therefore, if a BPC model cannot support Open Access for books in a fair and sustainable way, it isn’t Open Access that should be thrown out—it’s the BPC model.

We decided it would be useful to lay out our own costs and revenue for the last financial year (1 October 2018 - 30 September 2019), to provide some of the numbers that are currently missing and to counter some of the prevailing assumptions about funding OA books. We explain our business model in some detail to demonstrate that there are alternatives to the BPC approach, and that they can produce high-quality, Open Access academic books.

The post is set out as follows:

About OBP

OBP has published award-winning Open Access books (including monographs, edited collections and textbooks) since 2008. In that time, our output has grown to over 170 titles, at a current rate of between 24-30 books per year. Our books mostly cover subjects in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

We are an independent, not-for-profit social enterprise, run by and for academics, based in Cambridge, UK. The press’s founders and Directors are researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences, as are several of our team. We are committed to making academic books freely available for everyone.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

All our books are available in high-quality Open Access editions (PDF, HTML and XML), and reasonably priced paperback, hardback and ebook editions (EPUB and MOBI), all created from the same master file and published on the same date with no embargo period.

We do not charge authors to publish with us. We believe that charging authors is an unsustainable and inequitable way to fund Open Access.

Our titles are accessed by millions of people around the world. A monograph typically sells 200 copies over its entire lifetime, but our books are viewed an average of 400 times per title every month. In total, we have received over 3 million book visits, and this is only from those sources we can measure: actual usage of our books will be far in excess of these figures.


All our books are rigorously peer reviewed: first an author’s proposal is assessed internally by our Board of Directors and members of the Editorial Board and Advisory Panel, and then, if judged of sufficient quality, the full manuscript is sent for review by at least two experts in the relevant field. Based on these reports, our Board of Directors makes a final decision.

Our titles have been submitted for scrutiny as part of the UK REF assessment exercise and they are reviewed by academic publications including The Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education, Choice Review, Essays in Criticism, Modern Language Review, and many more. They have received prizes in recognition of their excellence, and we are particularly proud that our authors often commend the quality of our editorial and marketing work, comparing it favourably with that of larger presses.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

Our publications often include multiple full-colour images, embedded sound and video, and other innovative features to enhance the reader’s understanding of a subject. With the use of URLs and QR codes in paperback and hardback editions, our titles make good use of the digital medium without abandoning the printed book.

Each book is marketed to researchers, journals and libraries, and thanks to our Library Membership programme our titles are listed in the catalogues of academic libraries all over the world. We work in partnership with organisations such as Worldreader, who make our books accessible for people who only have basic mobile phones, and the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) who create editions for those with visual impairments.

Our printed editions are available via print-on-demand and all our books are preserved in the UK legal deposit libraries at the British Library, OpenEdition, Google Books and the Internet Archive.

All this is to say: we don’t get away without charging BPCs because our work is sub-standard; it is of high quality.


Studies of Open Access business models often focus heavily on revenue (as have some discussions of the UKRI OA policy, with their emphasis on the author-fee model when discussing the funding of Open Access books). But this is the wrong place to start: more revenue is required if costs are bloated.

Conversely, if costs can be managed, revenue does not need to be as high. As detailed above, our cost efficiency is neither at the expense of the work we publish nor the experience of publishing with us. High costs are not in themselves an indicator of quality.

We are a non-profit publisher, so we do not need to make additional revenue for shareholders. Our operations are entirely structured around our key objective: making high-quality research as widely accessible as possible. Financial sustainability is obviously important, but any profits are reinvested so we can publish more titles. Our full financial statements are publicly available online at Companies House.

During the last financial year (ending 30 September 2019) we had two operational centres within OBP: a publishing centre (the core of our work, publishing OA books) and a software development centre (developing open source software to support OA book workflows and infrastructure). The latter was funded entirely from research and development grants received for that purpose, and had no direct impact on the funding model of the publishing centre. So here we separate out the costs and revenue of our publishing operation.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes
OBP costs and revenue, 2018-2019

During this period, we published 25 new titles.

For comparison with other studies, it might be informative to consider the average ‘first copy’ cost of production for our titles. This can be obtained by considering Total Costs less Printing Costs & Royalties (which are associated entirely with costs incurred after the first copy) and dividing by total number of titles published

Average ‘first copy’ cost of production = £5266  per title

For complete transparency, we should note that our offices in King’s College, Cambridge are kindly provided to us on favourable terms. If we were to be renting office space in Cambridge at commercial rates our rent would be approximately £12,500 pa higher than we are presently paying -- so for comparison with some other studies it may be reasonable to add an additional £500 per title to the first copy production costs to reflect that. Even then our first copy production costs come in at under £5,800 per title.

By comparison, the Ithaka report into publishing costs at university presses in the US (2016) estimated average first copy costs of production at around $30,000-$50,000. So why the huge difference in these production estimates?

We provide a more detailed breakdown of our estimated costs of production on our website:

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes
OBP standard publishing costs

In informal discussions with some traditional university presses it appears that our costs of copyediting/proofreading and typesetting are comparable to, if not a little higher than, many other presses -- but that the largest difference is in expenditure on acquisitions. Other presses invest a lot of resources in “acquiring content, an area closely tied to the character and reputation of the press [...] selecting and developing the most promising authors and topics to the press.” However, we would suggest it is unfair to pass this cost onto the author (or funder) in the form of a BPC -- a cost that is invested essentially to burnish the reputation of the press and to make it stand out compared to its competitors, rather than directly to support the publication of an author’s work.

Another aspect of costs worth highlighting is distribution. The costs detailed above, and included in most studies of publisher costs, exclude the cost of distribution, as these are typically taken out of sales revenue prior to receipt of that revenue by the publisher. Most distributors, of both printed editions and ebooks, take a margin of 30-60% of the sale price of the title. Given that our printed titles typically retail at less than £15-£30, and ‘legacy’ publications typically retail at prices in excess of £60-£120, it seems likely that distribution costs associated with our printed titles are, at most, half of those for legacy publishers. Of course the comparison of distribution costs for digital editions are considerably more striking -- with the vast majority of people accessing our digital titles at no cost (with the hosting costs for that incorporated into our ‘Overheads’ cost).


There are four strands to our revenue:

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes
OBP revenue model

The largest is sales—an aspect often completely ignored in discussions about how to fund Open Access books. As previously mentioned, our books are freely available in OA editions from the date of publication as well as in reasonably priced paperback, hardback and ebook editions. Generating significant income from sales of Open Access books is by no means unusual, as studies have shown—and as other presses have noted.

Grants and donations: we do not impose charges to publish with us, but we do encourage authors if they can to apply for grants to defray production costs—this enables us to take on more books that do not have any grant income attached. The availability or otherwise of grant money has no impact on our publication decisions, which are entirely dependent on the outcome of the peer-review process detailed above. We have also included donations given directly to OBP to facilitate our work (i.e. not associated with any particular title).

Library Membership programme: our Library Members pay an annual fee of £300 to support our work, in return for a range of reader-targeted benefits for members of the university. This innovative programme has been in place since 2015 and it has proven popular—we currently have over 170 member libraries from all over the world, and other presses are beginning to create similar programmes. Many libraries see their membership as an investment in the future of Open Access and as part of the transition away from expensive, closed-access models of research dissemination. We are proud to have their support in making research freely available for everyone.

Title production charges: While we do not impose publishing costs on authors, we are sometimes asked by authors to provide additional services such as image-processing and indexing, which we charge for separately.

But how does it scale?

This is a common rejoinder to discussions about our business model. An obvious answer might be: we could increase our revenue via our Library Membership programme and by hiring more staff to publish more books, thus boosting our sales income. But we want to facilitate a more powerful expansion of OA book publishing—by facilitating the growth of more presses like ourselves, which publish OA books without charging authors.

Despite the habitual focus on a small group of large legacy presses, there is huge diversity in the Arts and Humanities publishing landscape. Simon Tanner has noted that, for REF2014, 1,180 publishers were associated with the books submitted to Panel D (Arts and Humanities). Many of these were small and/or specialist presses, with the top ten publishers accounting for less than 50% of submissions.

We believe the scholarly ecosystem is best served by this diversity among publishers, producing a rich variety of books. The best way to ‘scale’ what we do is therefore not to grow bigger ourselves, but to facilitate OA publishing among multiple presses by developing the systems and infrastructures that will enable other publishers to produce Open Access books without needing to charge authors BPCs.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

We are a key partner in the £3.5 million COPIM (Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs) project, an international partnership between researchers, universities, librarians, OA publishers and infrastructure providers, which is building community-governed, open systems and infrastructures to develop and strengthen OA book publishing. (COPIM is substantially funded by Research England and is mentioned in para. 112 of the UKRI consultation as a ‘supporting action’ for the OA monographs policy.) It is exploring alternative business models to enable non-OA presses to flip to Open Access, as well as building systems to facilitate better funding, dissemination and archiving for OA books. Everything it creates will be community-owned and open, so that it serves the dissemination of research in a sustainable and equitable way.

The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes

We also participate in groups such as the Radical Open Access Collective and ScholarLed (which we co-founded), developing practical ways for OA presses to mutually support each other. The five not-for-profit, academic-led Open Access presses of ScholarLed have between us published over 500 books, and expect to publish over 80 new titles in the coming year. What would the publishing landscape look like if, rather than 5 presses, we were 25, 50, or 100 in number?

In conclusion

We believe that public discussions about the future of Open Access books, which have intensified thanks to UKRI’s policy review, urgently need to broaden their scope. Rather than taking costs of around £10,000 as a given and focusing on author charges as the only possible revenue stream, there needs to be much more awareness of the diversity of presses operating in Arts and Humanities book publishing today—particularly those presses that are already Open Access—and the range of business models and strategies they adopt.

How might we imagine the future of scholarly book publishing if we consider its whole landscape, rather than focusing on the practices of a few big publishers whose approach to Open Access is so inadequate it is inspiring fears of the death of the monograph?

What can be learned if we widen our perspective, and how might that guide our progress?

We hope this post will contribute to fostering that broader and more informed debate about the future of Open Access book publishing.

Virtual Book Stand

This post documents our first attempts at creating a virtual book stand for member publications. Available at:

Pop-Up Book Stand

As part of the 2017 OpenAIRE project, “New Platforms for Open Access Book Distribution”, ScholarLed developed a shared book stand, designed to promote Open Access publishing and to present our collective catalogue at conferences, fairs and events. The book stand was designed as a pop-up platform able to be easily transported to and rapidly deployed at relevant conferences attended by conference members. This allows one press to represent the entire collective at a conference, increasing the reach of all participating presses as well as introducing the collective as a non-competitive association of presses. The design of this book stand is available under a CC BY-NC licence, which allows other not-for-profit presses and publishing project to use our step-by-step guide to adapt and develop the stand according to their own needs. The Radical Open Access Collective adapted this low-cost, portable book stand to promote ROAC and ScholarLed members and share our publications at conferences all over the world. As part of this book stand we cross-promote each other’s publications, and promote the ideals and values that sustain our projects: around open access, not-for-profit and scholar-led publishing, experimentation and an ethics of care. Our aim is to advocate these forms of publishing within our academic communities in order to showcase the existence of alternative models for open access publishing. We also want to make a public and political statement about how not-for-profit presses can start to collaborate through these kinds of projects.


A Virtual Book Stand

Now that due to the Covid-19 pandemic our events and conferences have been moving online or are increasingly being completely envisioned online (such as the Open Publishing Fest), we feel the book stand needs to be reimagined too. In many ways, the argument can be made that as all our open access publications are already online and openly available for free, our virtual book stand already exists. For example, the function of a virtual book stand is represented through essential organisations such as the DOAJ, the DOAB, and OAPEN (which also hosts the ScholarLed Collection). However, were these discovery platforms and repositories are crucial for the promotion of open access content, they do not necessarily replace the function of a book stand, and the specific targeted promotion that book stands can do at conferences and events. As such we want to explore what a virtual book stand could be for the ROAC and ScholarLed, and we hope to do so together with our community, so please be in touch if you have any ideas or suggestions on what a virtual book stand could look like and what it should encompass for you. For now we have made a start by updating the ROAC’s Latest Publication page and rebranding it as our Virtual Book Stand. You can find our book stand here:

Changes at INC, introducing ‘synthesis’, central INC email list

While we’re publishing a lot, here at the Institute of Network Cultures, trying to facilitate critical reflection on the corona crisis with diaries and essays from around the world, we’re also planning a restart of INC so that we’ll have space and resources for new urgent projects and research networks in this corona period/economic crisis.

As you may have noticed, we’ve just wrapped up our two-year publishing Making Public research project with Here and Now?

Digital publishing research (and output) will continue, as will the MoneyLab network that just got a board. The board can be rearched here: As MoneyLab #8 Ljubjana was cancelled because of the corona crisis it turned into a weekly online lecture series. The program you can find here.

However, with a considerable legacy of projects, networks, publications and a heavy website aka archive, we noticed that we had to spend more and more time just on the maintenance work. It became harder to start new things (also due to changes in the Dutch funding structures). Finally, we’re about to do something about this.

As a start, five mailinglists (MoneyLab, Video Vortex, re-search, Unlike Us and CPOV) have been discontinued and have been replaced by one INC list called synthesis (also responding to the widespread idea of email being a ‘dead medium’).

If you want, please subscribe here:

The synthesis list has three objectives:

1. To inform the wider net community about INC projects and activities.

2. To foster debates about net criticism, tactical media, hacktivism and research into critical network cultures from multiple perspectives such as design and the arts, activism and research.

3. To create links between different INC research fields that were previous running as different projects about online video, crypto currencies, search, social media, future of art criticism etc.

The name ‘synthesis’ expresses a desire to overcome different disciplines, fields and scenes in order to strengthen the critical forces in arts, tech and society.

Soon we will see what other new channels will work to debate, maintain communities, inform and support each other. Please approach us if you have ideas and suggestions, also for common projects, grants, publications, campaigns and other forms of poetry.

Keep on questioning, Geert and the INC team

A Kids’ Book about Plague from a Bygone Century

A Kids’ Book about Plague from a Bygone Century

By Jan M. Ziolkowski

A Kids’ Book about Plague from a Bygone Century
Figure 1


Grown-ups grappling with the current global crisis have sought guidance from human experience of past pandemics. For want of hot-off-the-press novel coronovirus novels, those attracted to fiction have immersed themselves in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron with its backdrop of Tuscany during the Black Death of 1347–1351, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year about the Great Plague of London in 1665, and Albert Camus’s The Plague set in Algeria during the 1940s. People who prefer streaming films have turned to post-apocalyptic thrillers about viruses from The Andromeda Strain (1971) through I Am Legend (2007).

All well and good, but what can we offer the junior set? In these dismal days, would it make the slightest sense to nestle into a comfortable sofa and read aloud a children’s book in which an epidemic plays a central role, or should we avoid such literature (ahem) like the plague? According to the proverb, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander—but who’s to say what’s good for the gosling? Youths cover as wide a range in their personalities as do individual adults, and in addition they vary enormously in their psychological responses according to their age cohorts. From toddlers to teenagers, the young too struggle in coming to terms with COVID-19-induced anxieties. Should we shield them from hearing more? Parents and caregivers may wish to shelter their protégés from exposure to death and suffering in the arts. Yet in doing so they may underestimate the often astounding capacity of little ones not merely to tolerate but even to embrace grimness that their elders have greater trouble facing.

English-speaking children worldwide, now especially pre-schoolers, join hands, dance in a circle, and drop down after singing variations on the lyrics “Ring around the rosie / A pocketful of posies / Ashes, ashes / We all fall down.” The text is widely taken as a fossil of folk wisdom from the bubonic plague era. In this interpretation, a rosy rash was an early symptom, a posy of herbs or flowers a common preventative, sneezing a late indicator, and dying a dreaded consequence. Alas, the nursery rhyme likely has not even the faintest connection with the Middle Ages: nothing close to this wording is attested before the end of the eighteenth century. Yet whatever we make of the ring-song, the pestilence is one aspect of the medieval period that seizes childish imaginations. The Black Death occupies a place of macabre honor alongside castles, cathedrals, and Crusades.

The Acrobat & the Angel and the Juggler of Notre Dame

…. which brings us to an illustrated book, pitched at an audience aged 4–8, that was published in 1999. In it, the hero is a child orphaned when a contagion strikes his village. For a short spell his kindly grandmother cares for him, but then she dies and leaves him to fend for himself by performing as a street acrobat. To make matters worse, the mass illness breaks out again. Cold and hungry, the homeless waif collapses by a roadside cross and is taken into a monastery. There he antagonizes the abbot by doing his routine before a statue of an angel. Eventually the celestial messenger turns animate and carries the boy to heaven, but only after he has shown kindness to a baby who is thus saved from the plague.

The volume is one of two staged in the Middle Ages that the brothers David and Mark Shannon produced in collaboration. The first, printed in 1994, reworks the Arthurian romance Gawain and the Green Knight. This second likewise retells a literary work from Europe of old. The writer Mark Shannon (b. 1958) has maintained his passion across the decades, even setting a recent novel in the Middle Ages. While taking the protagonist’s name Péquelé from what purports to be a twentieth-century French folktale by Henri Pourrat, he knows full that the story can be traced back to the thirteenth century or earlier. The tale captivated me personally enough to produce the six-volume The Juggler of Notre Dame and, more important, seized the imaginations of past children’s book authors such as Barbara Cooney and Tomie dePaola.

The illustrator of The Acrobat & the Angel is Mark’s younger brother David Shannon (b. 1959), a prolific writer and illustrator. Of his picture books, the most relevant to the present post may be the semi-autobiographical No, David!, which offers fictionalized glimpses of Shannon family life and fraternal love in the 1960s. Some of their childhood infiltrated The Acrobat & the Angel, if we accept the stern abbot in the book to be a fond caricature of their father. The artwork of their joint production is crisp and clear, in incandescent acrylics.

David lives in Los Angeles, Mark in Barcelona. On December 15, 2018, the brothers traversed a combined distance of six thousand air miles to deliver as a team their first ever live reading and art demonstration. The event arose from teamwork between a private and a public institution: Dumbarton Oaks, then hosting the Juggling the Middle Ages exhibition, sponsored the hour, which took place in the Georgetown Branch of the DC Public Library.

A Kids’ Book about Plague from a Bygone Century
Figure 2

Watching Mark and David Shannon (Fig. 2) in action was a joy, the one with a winningly gentle and softspoken contemplativeness, the other with a irresistibly boisterous mischievousness (embodied in an arched left eyebrow that leads a rascally life of its own when its owner recounts anecdotes). They have traveled far in geographically opposite directions, with distinct characters and talents, but to this day they share a background that makes their brotherliness ever apparent.

The Acrobat & the Angel is an odd window on mass illness of the kind we are experiencing today, and even with the replacement of the Madonna and Virgin Mary by a family keepsake and an equally angelic sculpture, it remains deeply Christian. The religion is baked into the story of the Juggler of Notre Dame, and it contributes to the sweetness of the narrative that makes such harshnesses as plague and parental death endurable. Right now we can use uplifting transcendence wherever we can find it.

A Kids’ Book about Plague from a Bygone Century
Figure 3

The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, six volumes by Jan M. Ziolkowski, are freely available to read and download online.

Open Position: Digital Publishing Intern

For the further development of its publication strategy – combining digital and print publications with web-based content and other media – the Institute of Network Cultures is looking for an

intern with production and research skills, for an internship with our digital publishing team

Internship period: August 31st until December 18th, 2020 (0.8 fte/4 days a week).

The Institute of Network Cultures (INC) is a media research center that actively contributes to the field of network cultures through research, events, publications, and online dialogue. The INC was founded in 2004 by media theorist Geert Lovink as part of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam). The Institute of Network Cultures has a tradition of experiment in digital and hybrid publishing. On the front line of development in publishing, we explore the promises of the digital for the (cultural) publishing industry.

For more information, see:
For an overview of all INC publications, go to:
For previous work on this topic, check out our research programs Making Public, The Art of Criticism, and the Digital Publishing Toolkit, and see the PublishingLab, which INC has previously collaborated closely with:

In this internship, you will work on international publications in the field of online media in different formats (print, .pdf, .ePub), as well as blog series, longforms, and other digital-born formats. The internship offers both practical experience and a chance to conduct research in the field of hybrid and digital publishing.

This internship offers you the chance to:

  • produce .PDF- and .ePub-books from scratch, using the INC digital publishing workflow
  • update the website and blog, including the possibility to write contributions for the blog
  • identify possible authors, books, events to write about
  • assist with the production of new titles, both print and electronic, including editing manuscripts
  • learn how and why applied research in the field of digital publishing is conducted
  • think along for future possibilities and strategies for urgent publishing

You will be a part of a small team within a large institution. Other tasks within the team may include:

  • assisting with general office operations
  • attending meetings
  • collecting and reviewing interesting and relevant literature
  • being part of the crew at INC events

We are looking for an enthusiastic, energetic, inquisitive (former) student with knowledge of and a demonstrated interest in digital publishing. As the INC has an international scope, active English skills are required, in speaking and writing. In addition, you have strong writing and communication skills, and experience with social media management and web administration. You balance a desire to learn, take initiative and suggest better practices and take constructive feedback. A background in (graphic or interaction) design, art (history), cultural studies, or media studies is an advantage.

Monthly compensation: € 400 gross (0,8 fte)

For further information you can contact

Out Now: TOD#36 Listening into Others: An Ethnographic Exploration in Govindpuri


PDF of Listening into OthersePub of Listening into Othersinc_icon_lulu_@2x

By Tripta Chandola.

The essays collected here are based on two decades of engagement with the residents of the slums of Govindpuri in India’s capital, Delhi. The book presents stories of many kinds, from speculative treatises, via the recollection of a thousand everyday conversations, to an account of the making of a radio documentary.

Zig-zagging through the lanes of Govindpuri, Listening into Others explores the vibrant sounds emanating from slum culture. Redefining ethnography as listening in passing, Chandola excels at narrating the stories of the everyday. The ubiquity of smartphones, sonic selfies, wailing, the ethics of wearing jeans, the crossroad rituals of elections, the political agency of slum-dwellers, the war of the sexes through bodily gestures, and conflicts over ownership of both property and sound generated in the slums — these are among the many encounters Chandola opens up to the reader.

Slums are anxious spaces in the materiality, experience, and imagination of a city. They are the by-products of the violent and exploitative mechanisms of urbanization. What becomes of the slum-dwellers, who universally, across centuries, cities and continents, befall similar fates of being discriminated, reckoned to be the scum of the earth, and a burden on society? By listening to identified others and amplifying their voices in their own vocabularies and grammar, Tripta Chandola’s praxis creates a methodological, political, and poetic rupture. Slums, she finds, are not anathema to the city’s past, present, or future. They are an integral component of urbanization and a foundational part of the city.

With Listening into Others, Tripta Chandola poses the question: ‘Who owns the slum, and who determines which voices are heard? From where you are, listen with me.’

Editors: Geert Lovink and Sepp Eckenhaussen

Proofreading of previous versions: Dr. Jo Tacchi and Dr. Christy Collis

Cover design: Katja van Stiphout
Production: Sepp Eckenhaussen

Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2020
ISBN: 978-94-92302-63-2

This publication is licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

Get the book here

Order a print copy here

Download .PDF here

Download .ePub here

Margery Spring Rice: A Life Retold

Margery Spring Rice: A Life Retold

By Wendy Mach

Since the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960— widely considered the “turning point in humankind’s struggle to control fertility”— there has not yet been any milestone in the field that has impacted society of the same degree. However, in the last year, press interest has grown around research into new and long-anticipated forms of male contraception, and together with the arrival of the world’s first contraceptive app, Natural Cycles, conversations about contraception are being thrown back into public discourse. We may yet be seeing another ‘turning point’ along the horizon.

Historically, birth control had been limited to abstinence, coitus interruptus and barrier methods for males and females, in the forms of animal intestines and sponges soaked in fruit acids. Attempts at oral contraceptives included willow shoots, bees, and the scrapings of stag horns; when all else failed, many resorted to crude methods of abortion in the form of self-harm and visits to dubious back-street alleys. Unlike today, birth control used to be a topic subject to taboo and shame. The introduction of the pill was therefore monumental in liberating women because, for the first time in history, it meant that women now had a greater degree of control over the sexual reproductive functions of their bodies – allowing them greater choice over when they are ready to have children, how many they would like, and how far apart to space their births. With the normalisation of the pill gradually lifting the veil of taboo and shame surrounding birth control, long-overdue conversations about women’s sexual health and well-being could finally emerge and be brought to public attention. This was the vision Margery Spring Rice (1887 – 1970), suffragist and women’s health pioneer, dedicated her life to achieving.

Gathering old family archives, letters and personal anecdotes, our recently published biography of Spring Rice, Margery Spring Rice, Pioneer of Women’s Health in the Early Twentieth Century, is not only the first biography of its influential subject, but also a uniquely intimate peek into the life and work of the British social reformer by Spring Rice’s own grand-daughter, Lucy Pollard. From her happy childhood years spent between London and Aldeburgh, taking up studies in Moral Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, to the setting up and running of her North Kensington birth control clinic, the book covers, with great sensitivity and insight, the highs and lows of Spring Rice’s colourful life. From beyond the limited attentions of historiography and the overshadowing merits of her public achievements, Pollard reveals the people and ideas that shaped her, and presents to us the many faces of this extraordinary figure. We see Spring Rice as the daughter with a strained relationship with her mother, as the young widow of a war officer, as the distant mother who worked tirelessly for social causes to escape her own grief, and as the grandmother who spent the rest of her life bringing joy to many children, friends and family.

In a letter to Spring Rice, dated 18 August 1910, one of her oldest friends, Eileen Power, wrote: ‘I thought it possible that your habitual opinion that valour is the better part of discretion might seize upon you…’ Spring Rice certainly did dedicate her life courageously and feverishly to the championing of the ‘lost causes’ she was passionate about. Aside from advocating for women’s suffrage, women’s health and the use of birth control; Spring Rice was also involved with the League of Nations Society and the Women’s National Federation; opened up her home to child evacuees during World War II; and went on to establish the Suffolk Rural Music School during the last few months of the war. Pollard’s biography truly brings to life one of the great, and yet lesser-known, personalities behind the birth control movement— introducing her to us as, first and foremost: a woman, a mother, and a friend. This book will be of great interest to those interested in the history of medicine as well as the climate of shifting views towards gynaecology, feminism, birth control, and women’s health during the inter-war period, helping to recontextualise existing androcentric histography.

As much as the pill liberated women socially and enabled greater awareness and discussion of women’s health and family planning, over time, it arguably shifted the responsibility of birth control onto women. It is striking that, even with all the innovative developments taking place in the field of male contraception today, the excitement and anticipation for upcoming products (such as the contraceptive gel, the male pill and the contraceptive injection) are mostly generated by the thought of relieving women of this burden, rather than increasing choice for men. This demonstrates that dialogues in contraception and sexual health today are starting to implicitly value the sexual health and well-being of women, not just as an afterthought but as a given priority — a development that would have made Margery Spring Rice, and her whole team at North Kensington birth control clinic, leap for joy.

A Charred Cathedral in Paris and A Modern Masterpiece in Glass: Le Jongleur de Notre Dame

A Charred Cathedral in Paris and A Modern Masterpiece in Glass: Le Jongleur de Notre Dame

by Jan M. Ziolkowski

On April 15, 2019, dismayed millions around the planet stared at phones, televisions, and computers as smoke billowed and flames engulfed Notre Dame de Paris.

A Charred Cathedral in Paris and A Modern Masterpiece in Glass: Le Jongleur de Notre Dame
FIGURE 1. By LeLaisserPasserA38 - File:Incendie Notre Dame de Paris.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0,

For anyone who holds Gothic art and architecture dear, merely recollecting the image is painful. But the hurt affected far more than just lovers of the Middle Ages and its multiple cultures: for everyone who cares about cultural heritage and civilization, the blaze risked harming the very essence of France itself. Since the late nineteenth century, the Gallic heart has had two ventricles, with the Eiffel Tower embodying the country’s cutting-edge modernity and the cathedral exemplifying its ancestral cultural heritage.

Like many Gothic churches, the gem of medieval stonework in the French capital weds distinctive architecture with equally characteristic art. Among other things, it exists courtesy of structures such as pointed arches and flying buttresses that permits its weight-bearing walls to be penetrated by windows. In turn, the apertures are filled with pane after pane of colored glass. Consolingly, its three famed roses and other lesser lights weathered the firestorm.

Many present lives play out in postmodern cities where spikes of steel sheathed in glass fence in human inhabitants.

Today such transparency surrounds us, whether looking out of openings or in through them, though we seldom stop to contemplate the meanings and mysteries of our vitreous environs, let alone to ponder what is bygone. But churches and their closest relatives can serve as time machines. The stained glass of medieval and medievalesque edifices transports us back to imagined pasts. The windows have qualities all their own, in blues and reds, shapes and thicknesses, and figurative scenes from forgotten stories, that force us to stop and think: glassy-eyed takes on new implications.

This blog post takes its title from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. To quote from the King James Bible:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.  And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Corinthians 13: 12-13).

In the first of these two verses, seeing “through a glass” means peering into a reflecting surface.

The vision takes place “darkly” because here and now the substance allows only an obscure and imperfect perspective on reality, whereas at the end of time it will grant a clear sight.

The Apostle could not have had stained glass in mind. When he wrote, its use in houses of prayer lay more than a thousand years ahead. Furthermore, panes of the medieval medium have little in common with mirrors. Those who view panes from the Middle Ages are meant not to seek out their own reflections but to attain enlightenment by apprehending people and actions that help in decoding the correspondences between God’s macrocosm and man’s microcosm.

The stained glass in Gothic churches lent itself especially well to representation of foundational beliefs held by worshipers who performed devotions there. Medieval artisans often depict the theologically foundational moment of the annunciation with the Holy Ghost as a beam of light that emits from heaven through a window and often through a pane into the Virgin.

The underlying conception holds that as light penetrates glass without touching it, so the Holy Spirit renders Mary with child while leaving her virginity intact. The glass is equated to a hymen. Whatever stand we take on this doctrine, stained glass confronts us with the reality of a medium that, like cinematic film, requires the passage of photons through it to become animate.

A Translucent Triumph: Le Jongleur de Notre Dame

A year ago fire enveloped one nation’s cultural monument. The current conflagration of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens an entire species. Much of the developed world has been driven into high-tech hiding. Global jetsetters of a few months ago have morphed into computer cavemen, fearful of the novel coronavirus that invisibly infects the environment and fellow human beings alike. People huddle in homes, waiting for the disease’s undetectable droplets to dissipate. Though the situation could encourage despondency, we would do better to focus on creation and not contagion, on hope and not horror. What new Decameronwill we tell to entertain and edify one another? What scenes will we daub on walls around us?

And so we arrive at the second topic of these paragraphs, a single beautiful work of stained glass that was crafted in 2018. The maker was the Atelier Miller in Chartrettes, a commune about fifty miles southeast of Paris.

The artwork now resides across the Atlantic in Dumbarton Oaks, where it has featured on covers of an exhibition catalogue and of an annual report. The glass depicts the culmination of a story called Le Jongleur de Notre Dame. In this episode, a juggler presents the Virgin the only offering he can, by juggling before a Madonna. In a miracle, Mary materializes to soothe him when he collapses after his performance. The narrative was put into French poetry early in the thirteenth century, distilled into Latin prose a few decades later, and forgotten from the early modern period until the late nineteenth century. After its rediscovery a remarkable French scholar named Gaston Paris helped to popularize it, the Nobel Prize-winner Anatole France transformed it into a beloved classic of short fiction, and the celebrated composer Jules Massenet brought it onto the opera stage. Though its heyday was the Gilded Age, it remained vibrantly living throughout the twentieth century in many retellings. Nowadays it thrives in children’s books, as the recent death of Tomie dePaola reminded us.

My six-volume exploration The Juggler of Notre Dame tracks the story from its beginnings down into the twenty-first century, while simultaneously investigating our ever-changing attraction to the Middle Ages. Though my study trawls deep and broad, the stained glass from 2018 eluded my catch for the simple reason that it was made too late. The incompleteness deserves celebration: a theme truly lives on when it continues to be reconceived and recreated, and nothing will benefit the tale more than if artists of all sorts persist in engaging with it.

The glasswork was produced specifically for the exhibit “Juggling the Middle Ages” that ran from October 15, 2018 through March 3, 2019. Why? The museum installation afforded an opportunity to correct an omission through a commission. Extra effort was required to insure that the show, based on literature, would not overfocus on the two-dimensionality of print culture. The medieval story had infiltrated many media: short story, novel, opera, dance, radio, television, cartoon, film, painting, sculpture, and more. The medievalizing artists of the twentieth century who illustrated Le Jongleur de Notre Dame in books often drew inspiration from stained glass, and in fact they even made the form a backdrop in their expressions of the story. But the juggler, however beloved, had never been memorialized in stained glass. The closest approach had been a lamp, a work in the round by a Franco-American sculptor, Armand.

By background I was predisposed, even if largely unconsciously, to glass. I had been exposed to it first in Marc Chagall’s “Peace Window,” both at the United Nations in New York and on postage stamps

The tour de force was dedicated in 1964 as a memorial to the late Dag Hammarskjøld, second Secretary-General of the United Nations. The glass teems with biblical imagery, such as elements of paradise and motifs of peace, a central tree with a snake at its roots, the ten commandments, and a couple with a child. Alongside the Bible is symbolism of music and dance, relating to Beethoven’s Ninth. The ensemble is at once seething and soothing. The apparent paradox between those two attributes makes good sense, since it relates to the very nature of stained glass.

The material befits an organization devoted to peace, and not just because the substance is found so often within churches. My own attraction to the stuff owes partly to its intermediate nature. A common misapprehension holds it to be not a solid but a supercooled liquid. In antique windows the panes are often thick-bottomed, and the explanation goes that they slowly ooze downward. On the contrary, glass is an amorphous solid that exists in a strange state between liquid and its opposite. That intermediate condition offers a middle way. In today’s partisan world people are expected to be either/or. Glass is the slash.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, my casual exposure to the genre expanded. During those years Tiffany & Co.-style glass lamps became chic in American popular culture. Originals were few and far between, but replicas abounded. The oeuvre of John La Farge was not so well known, since it had not been factory-produced. Then there was the stained glass of Europe, considered by many the only real thing, which mass tourism brought to the attention of ever more travelers.

A couple of decades into the twenty-first century, I had the idea of adding glass to the exhibit. But who could fabricate it? Eventually I realized eventually that the person with the right combination of an artist’s creativity and a businessman’s can-do-ism was an old but intermittent friend, Jeffrey Miller. In 1985 he had started a stained glass studio in Paris, which led eventually to the establishment of Atelier Miller. The glass resulted from his collaboration with his daughter, the Paris-based artist Sarah Navasse, and the master craftsman Jeremy Bourdois. In a future piece I will interview Jeff about the creative thought behind the design and the practical demands of the making.

Friction and the aesthetics of the smooth: Ethics in times of dataism

Read an excerpt in English from Frictie over at Eurozine:

Seamless design is an important dogma of dataism. Without unpredictable behaviour, however, there’s no data to retrieve. A wholly predictable future is just a continuous present, a tyranny of choices on offer. But returning to our time-honoured language is similarly impossible. What we need is a politics of de-automation.

More on the book can be found here (in Dutch): Out now: Frictie – Ethiek in tijden van dataïsme, Miriam Rasch

Interested to know more? You may always drop me a line on miriam [at]