The wonderfully organized and mediated endurance of ephemera

Introduction

There used to be a time, in the late noughties and early teens, when at ephemera editorial collective meetings an item would sneak onto the agenda: the closure of ephemera. I joined ephemera as a member of the editorial collective in 2007, and left 10 years later. Especially during the early years of my time with ephemera, there was a sense in which the name of the journal was taken quite seriously: if the journal is to be ephemeral, when has our time come? When is the time to call it a day? Loosely inspired by Jacques Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, Karl Marx’s ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ ([1843], in 1992: 207), and perhaps also Friedrich Engels’ ‘gnawing criticism of the mice’ ([1888], in 1996: 7), the question was whether ephemera had already fulfilled its purpose (‘self-clarification’ it was for Marx and Engels as they elaborated their materialist conception of history, ibid.), particularly since it was felt that other journals in the field, such as Organization, were catching up in terms of content and style with ephemera. There was also always a general discussion on the project of critique – the subtitle of the journal until 2004 was ‘critical dialogues on organization’ – and a reverberation of discussions elsewhere, for example the self-criticism of critical projects such as Critical Inquiry (Daston, 2004). Lorraine Daston’s worry for Critical Inquiry and the humanities could equally have been voiced with regards to ephemera and critical management studies: ‘It seems to me that the greatest risk for Critical Inquiry is becoming predictable and uniform, just as the greatest risk for the humanities is becoming hermetic’ (Daston, 2004: 361).

And then there were Bruno Latour’s reflections on critique having run out of steam (2004). Predictability and uniformity, Dalston’s fears, perhaps weren’t such a problem in organization studies: even though ephemera more or less explicitly set out in a rebellious spirit against these, perhaps they were part of ‘growing up’, or more gratuitously of developing a certain ‘style’ or ‘approach’ that could characterize the journal? Hermeticism could equally be dealt with: in ‘repositioning organization theory’ (Böhm, 2006) one could turn towards social movements and other kinds of alternative organization (ephemera 8-2) to find some purpose and orientation to organizational practice. Yet Latour’s reflections, which seem timely today considering he warned against the way critique would be used to undermine (climate) science and to promote conspiracies, seemed more hurtful, nagging the self-reflective critical scholar often in conflict if not at war with her institution, the business school: ‘Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction? More iconoclasm to iconoclasm? What has become of the critical spirit?’ (Latour, 2004: 225). ephemera partly pre-empted this discussion by re-engaging the history of critique and the enlightenment with Immanuel Kant via Michel Foucault (1996; 1997), and by removing ‘critique’ from its byline, announcing: ‘We are removing the label in order to learn the thing itself’ (Böhm and Spoelstra 2004: 100). Yet the learning continues, as does the self-criticism.

This brief anecdote demonstrates how ephemera and its editorial collective worked on itself to keep going, to confirm the critical project of the journal and to justify its existence both to itself and to its readers. As may be obvious, however, discursive closures, positionings or situatings can only temporarily suspend the continuous questioning of an ongoing concern. The putting into question of ephemera’s existence at editorial collective meetings always resulted in a collective pulling-together and a bout of enthusiasm which, if not necessarily leading to new energetic impulses, would at least keep everyone involved and working until the next meeting. Even if this brief contribution to ephemera’s anniversary issue can’t quite perform a re-staging of these moments of self-doubt leading to self-affirmation, I want to offer a few reflections on the endurance of ephemera, which isn’t only down to self-criticism and collective enthusiasm – although these are key elements – but also to media and organization. ephemera’s is, after all, a wonderful story of success – and of endurance.

Media

ephemera’s history is intimately intertwined with media of publishing and organization. While the ‘gnawing criticism of the mice’ (Engels [1888], in 1996: 7) already suggests that permanence is difficult to achieve even for paper-based publications, the conundrum explored above is exacerbated at a technical level by digital media. Digital memory comes with ‘constant degeneration’, as Wendy Chun writes:

Digital media complicates this relationship [between the transitory and the permanent, the passing and the stable] by making the permanent into an enduring ephemeral, creating unforeseen degenerative links between humans and machines. (2008: 148)

Digital memory is fickle, too. What applies to digital memory also applies to ephemera, not only because of its name, but because of the way digital media are inscribed in its project. ephemera is a digital native, we could say, set up on the World Wide Web, making use of what the Web and the Internet offered at the time. It is the ‘enduring ephemeral’ of these technologies that perhaps seemed so appealing: not so much ‘the enlightenment ideal that better information leads to better knowledge, which in turn leads to better decisions’ (Chun, 2008: 155) – this promise of these technologies was left to ‘mainstream’ scholars – but rather the hope that the time of thinking and writing in media could change, that thought could catch up with the speed of events (Chun, 2008: 151-152). Scholarship could be cheap and cheerful, fast and responsive, yet more than pulp fiction.

Out of curiosity, when working on this piece, I checked what the earliest saved versions of the ephemera website on the Internet Archive are. ‘These pages are not quite dead, but not quite alive either; the proper commemoration requires greater effort’, Chun writes of what we find there (2008: 169). It turns out the first one is dated 17 February 2001, so not long after the launch of the first issue (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot of ephemera’s homepage at ephemeraweb.org as recorded on the Internet Archive[1]

The Mondrianesque design, the old subtitle, the static HTML pages, the emphasis on ‘free’, the invitation to join a discussion mailing list, and more broadly the faith in what the Web has to offer – all of this reminds us of an age in which the World Wide Web was still a novelty for most, and independent, scholar-run journals were popping up everywhere (Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry also launched in 2001), as scholars were hoping to liberate themselves from publishers. While Tiziana Terranova had already written about ‘free labour’ (2000), here were a few PhD students eager to work for free to challenge their field and to establish a new outlet for their work and that of their friends and colleagues. And their vehicle was going to be a website, which, not just a journal but ‘an electronic forum for developing and extending discussions of critical perspectives on organization’, as the aims read at that time, reproduced key features of journals, including editorial governance, peer review and the (for the Web) anachronistic insistence on scheduled ‘issues’.

Notwithstanding working papers and other kinds of ‘grey literature’ (Striphas and Hayward, 2013), this kind of independent publishing would have largely been unthinkable without the Web, and a few other material conditions, like the ability to engage in free labour. Key were also media formats such as the PDF, which gives these documents ‘the look of printedness’ (Gitelman, 2014: 115), and allowed them to enter into competition with many other traditional print journals, even the already 7-year-old Organization, which at the time were being made available online (we could say, with Lisa Gitelman, ‘remediated’) in that very format, much as they are today. In fact, the website contained very little text formatted in HTML, and largely served as a container for said PDFs, either of the entire issue – promising a kind of boundedness and binding reminiscent of a heavy and heady book (Hall, 2016: 145-159) – or individual contributions, allowing for speedier and more directed circulation. Most importantly, these PDFs could and can be printed, and while it is exactly these same PDFs of the first issues you find on the newer website today (I don’t think they have even been updated to a new PDF version?), I wonder how many yellowed, scribbled-upon and earmarked print-outs of these PDFs still occupy stacks of print materials or file drawers of stuffy academic offices today – if the mice haven’t had a go (or someone’s toddlers, cf. the cover of ephemera 8-4). After all, this journal was to be printed, as publishing only slowly became properly digital.

The endurance of ephemera on the Web was fragile and at times amusing. Soon enough the HTML page wasn’t timely but pleasantly vintage, and there were at times only a few members of the collective who knew how to update the website through FTP, and with little knowledge of HTML ‘uploading new issues’ (as I think it is still called) involved a lot of copy and paste of HTML code. At a certain moment the collective didn’t even know where the website was hosted; soon the URL was found to be directed at a server operated by Alf Rehn, who had volunteered space some time earlier and was also working on open access publishing (e.g. Jones and O’Doherty, 2005). The website was hardly seen to be key to ephemera, perhaps because it was the content and the printable PDFs which were seen to make up the journal’s output – the website was hardly more than a vehicle for distribution, an interface for access. It was only in the mid-2010s that ephemera moved to a content management system, namely Drupal, on the recommendation of friends at Mute Magazine. At the time Drupal could be considered an open platform providing ‘alternative, and non-commercial means of producing the web’; it offered more modularity than WordPress and a trendy programmability: a kind of ‘selective programming – connecting amateur web developer with the mature code of open source programmers’ (McKelvey, 2011: 48, 42). While Drupal turned out to be rather needy of maintenance, something a journal with hardly any institutional funding could ill afford, it ensured ephemera’s Web presence for another decade.

While we can consider ephemera to be born digital, its tendency towards bookishness and printedness, and its rather traditional journal formatting, mean that it hardly embraced the intertextuality the Web had and has to offer. While on Drupal more recent contributions were made available to read in HTML, and a comment function was integrated through a Disqus plugin but hardly used, there was little consideration of the promises and perils of hypertextuality. Consider for example the way in which Miller describes hypertext as ‘multimedia assemblies of signs’, turning ‘a linear verbal text into a vast indeterminate assemblage, mixing sounds and pictures with words that you can navigate in innumerable different ways…’ (1995: 35), and all kinds of literary experiments related to this. Or consider the way Katherine Hayles considers hypertext enabling different kinds of close, hyper and machine reading (2012), which may inform how a journal is written.[2] Having said that, ephemera did early on consider itself to be in the business of ‘writing differently’ (Grey and Sinclair, 2006; Gilmore et al., 2019), with for example an early issue on ‘silent sounds’ experimenting with textual form and offering a ‘playlist’ of contributions (ephemera 3-4). Ironically, the only issue that every really tried to play with the issue format, volume 5 number X resulting from the first ephemera conference Capturing the moving mind (on the Trans-Siberian Express), which included image works as well as flash animations, and withs its heavy imagery challenged the PDF format, was in its presentation a victim of the introduction of Drupal, with the issue being reduced to its PDFs once again.

With Drupal also came issue covers, and a few years of ephemera issues being available in print. Where this was partly a confirmation of ephemera’s bookishness, it was also an attempt to fund the open access journal, of which more below. While print-on-demand in some ways promised to be quite radical, with technologies like the Espresso Book Machine coupled with open access content promising journals like ephemera to be available for ‘post-digital print’ in any library with such a machine (Ludovico, 2012: 70-78), the solution ultimately put ephemera in touch with the platform capitalism of the print-on-demand (LightningSource/Ingram) and book distribution (Amazon) industry, in that sense having ephemera come to grips with this new era of the Web (Srnicek, 2017). Printing stopped after a few years, as very few readers and supporters subscribed or bought issues, which is not unusual for a Web-based journal freely available to read online – and perhaps a blessing in disguise for ephemera, as energies could now be spent again on content rather than yet another layer of formatting for print. So, despite some early experiments in format, and some attempts to play with what the Web and later platform capitalism had to offer, ephemera was in this regard a quite conservative force. Where it turned out to be perhaps more radical than may have initially seemed was in in its organization, with its radical commitment to open access and to institutional independence.

Organization

In terms of organization, the key feature of ephemera is that it is a self-organized collective. In that sense it is an experiment in organizing, one which has so far escaped both the ‘poverty of journal publishing’ (Beverungen et al., 2012) and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). We could read this brief contribution like a case study of ephemera as an institution of the common, with particular ways of governing itself (see also ephemera 12-4). Membership is by invitation, and has expanded throughout the years to currently 20 members, with quite a bit of turnover and a lot of former members now ‘affiliates’. One of the achievements of ephemera was – also in response to it being perceived as a ‘boys club’ – to become one of the first editorial boards of any business or management journal to become majority female in the mid-2010s. Production processes, governance structures and the distribution of labour are regularly renegotiated, and although the kinds of free labour required for publishing a journal means collective members are far from able to do ‘one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner’ (Marx and Engels, 1998: 53), the free labour is distributed among members so that each one takes part in different parts of the editorial and publishing process.

This is not unusual for independent publishing (e.g. Dean et al., 2013), which resists the business models of especially ‘feral’ publishers (Harvie et al., 2012) and with it how professionalism is defined there (and often constituted by outsourced labour). It also resembles other free labour in the cultural industries more broadly, where amateurism has received appreciation and professional cultures are being renegotiated (Reichert, 2008; Hesmondhalgh, 2010). Even though in a sense ephemera refuses a certain professionalism, it hasn’t stopped working as a spring board for a lot of former members to become editors at more ‘established’ journals published by institutional publishers mostly in the field of organization studies. This may be of concern as it positions ephemera at the lower end of the journal pecking order in the field, on which more below, but it also attests to the way ephemera has drawn in PhD students and ‘early career’ scholars, contributing to their success as scholars. ephemera has often seen itself as ‘marginal’ to the field of organization studies (Spoelstra et al., 2007), yet it is the disciplinary landscape surrounding this ‘undisciplined discipline’ (Czarniawska, 2003) that the journal is oriented towards and which it has shaped.

ephemera’s somewhat rogue status – ‘The key problem of positioning a critical journal in this way, is this need to take an oppositional stance’, write the editors of the first issue (Böhm et al., 2001: 2) – also include the institution of the business school. As the discussion of its format as a journal has made clear, there ephemera was rather traditional, meaning it qualified for various journal lists, such as the Chartered Association of Business Schools Journal Guide, where it was rated rather poorly. Because of contributions of ephemera being cited in established journals, other platform businesses in the publishing sector (such as Informa or ThomsonReuters) sought to list it and its free content. ephemera has always been rather indifferent to these listings, if opposed to their logics, e.g. those of journal rankings which ‘stifle diversity and constrict scholarly innovation’ (Willmott, 2011: 429). What also characterizes ephemera in this regard is its regular reflection on the modes of governance associated with its institutional environment. For example, Peter Svensson et al. note how the discourse of ‘excellence’ is a self-referential game and one that ‘too often produces stuff that just isn’t good enough’ (2010: 5), thereby also challenging what counts as good scholarship.

More broadly, ephemera’s reflections have thoroughly shaped its relationship to the institution were most of its collective members have traditionally been employed, namely the university-based business school. ephemera would not have gotten off the ground nor sustained itself without institutional support. Its production and maintenance were initially supported by Warwick Business School, as the website acknowledged in 2001. During the years, it also received financial and administrative support (e.g. via the funding of graduate research assistants) from the School of Management at the University of Leicester, the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary, University of London, from the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, the University Library Bern and the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. Pretty much all of these places based in the UK in particular have witnessed serious challenges to the ways they have embraced what is known as critical management studies, a project ephemera has long identified and grappled with (Böhm and Spoelstra, 2004). Warwick came under attack in the early 2010s (Burrell, 2001; Parker, 2014), Queen Mary around the same time (cf. Rowlinson and Hassard, 2011), and Leicester as I write (Parker 2020). This attests to the contested and precarious nature of these endeavours, with Parker (2020: 1) for example lamenting the lack of ‘an understanding of the politics of the institution and its environment’ leading to a ‘defensive isolation’ which puts critical scholars at risk.

Curiously, Rowlinson and Hassard write of a ‘third wave’ of critical management studies, which ‘may eschew formal organization, but its adherents are associated with the journal, ephemera, and a conference circuit, hosted by UK business schools’ (2011: 676). ephemera never really was that central to critical management studies nor these business schools, although at times there were a lot of personal overlaps and solidarities. That ephemera has managed to survive all of these onslaughts is also due to the careful distance it has kept to the business school as an institution. ephemera has broadly embraced notions of the common and the commons, has often understood itself as producing a commons, and has embraced what David Harvie (one of those formidable scholars purged from Leicester) has expressed so clearly with regards to communities in the university whose forms of collective knowledge production require protection from enclosure: ‘the community can only be sustained by commons!’ (2004: 3). This insight requires a certain distance to the university as an institution which has become so thoroughly financialized (ephemera 9-4), for example rejecting forms of participatory management and instead managing in common (Kamola and Meyerhoff, 2009), or, more radically, considering one’s position as part of the ‘undercommons’ of the university, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have so forcefully put it:

it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. (2004: 101)

If anything, ephemera gave more to the universities it was affiliated to in terms of edginess and output than it took in terms of free labour (often performed burning the midnight oil anyway) or photocopy paper. After all, there aren’t that many journals in organization studies or business and management more broadly, that have so consistently brought contemporary debates in social sciences and cultural studies to the field, such as debates around the multitude (ephemera 4-3) and immaterial and affective labour (7-1), or opened up debates on urgent topics such as the atmosphere business (12-1/2) or post-growth (17-1). During the mid-2000s ephemera was also arguably a part of what Dean has called the ‘new left communicative common’ (in Dean et al., 2013: 161-162), which included magazines such as Mute and blogs such as those by Jodi Dean or Mark Fisher (aka k-punk). Certainly, as a still rather traditional scholarly journal ephemera wasn’t central to this, but with its proximity to debates in cultural politics and social movements it was read widely beyond organization studies. In particular, issues focused on social forums (ephemera 5-2), new political forms (6-4) or social movements in Latin America (6-3) brought it worldwide readership. Even before alt-metrics for scholarly publications became popular, or research ‘impact’ became imperative, ephemera managed to gather a readership that many journals in organization studies would presumably be envious of: more than three and half million hits and more than half a million visitors (not quite readers) on ephemera’s website between February 2004 and September 2007.

Figure 2. Access Statistics for the ephemera website, February 2004 to September 2007 (Source: ephemera internal document)

The popularity of ephemera at the time was both a blessing and a curse. Many collective members felt the journal was moving away too far from organization as an object of study and organization studies as a discipline to be able to keep a concise profile and a committed readership. This was also a contest over how to constitute organization studies as a field, a debate that is ongoing (e.g. du Gay, 2020). ephemera, perhaps without much actual strategy, managed to deal with this minor crisis born out of its own success quite well. In addition to a changing constitution of the editorial collective, which still meant it was broadly business-school based but perhaps embodied more diverse interests, ephemera also adopted a new organizational principle, recommended by friends at Social Text, which was to solve two problems at once. For most future issues, ephemera was to invite outsiders as guest editors, joined usually by one member of ephemera; in that way it could both draw in the labour of colleagues who were willing to provide it in return for editing an issue of ephemera, and at the same time ephemera could engage more assuredly in debates beyond organization studies, for example in cultural studies or urban studies. Broekman describes a similar kind of editorial process at Mute as a ‘connection-engine’, which ‘draws people in, propels people out, in a continual, dynamic process, which, due to its intensity, very effectively blurs the lines of “professionalism”, friendship, editorial, social, political praxis’ (in Dean et al., 2013: 165).

As far as I am aware, this principle broadly is still in operation, and while it has meant that ephemera has remained a journal with a strong editorial (or curatorial) line – and concomitantly rather few unsolicited, open theme submissions – it has resulted in a remarkable set of issues engaging scholars and knowledges from other fields, such as those on digital labour broadly situated in media studies (ephemera 10-3/4), the politics of consumption broadly related to (critical) marketing (13-2), organizing in the post-austerity city engaging with urban studies (15-1), affective capitalism emanating from media studies and affect theory (16-4), or repair matters exploring science and technology studies (19-2). The productivity of these engagements is, I would suggest, unparalleled, certainly in organization studies if not in many other fields where at least established journals hardly dare to venture out so widely in terms of themes and approaches, and hardly managed to establish such diverse networks, affiliations and solidarities.

Ephemeral futures

ephemera’s endurance, despite or because of its regular self-criticism and its marginal status in organization studies, is therefore quite remarkable and presumably more of a success than its initiators might have hoped for 20 years ago. What is perhaps most important for ephemera, which still today ‘provides its content free of charge, and charges its readers only with free thought’, is that it gets read. There are still around 100,000 users which visit its website annually according to Google Analytics, and many of the contributions have several thousand reads and downloads. Nonetheless, if the spirit of the early days of ephemera is to be sustained, there are a few things one could suggest to the current editorial collective. For example, why not engage more fervently in radical open access politics? ephemera is a member of the Radical Open Access Collective,[3] yet its policies around open access have hardly changed. It still, for example, sticks to a rather conservative Creative Commons licence, which allows neither commercial use nor derivative works. While the book publisher MayFlyBooks[4] emerged out of ephemera, it seems the collective is currently not involved in pushing open access forward, while in the meantime most commercial journal publishers have embraced new open access models. Certainly, ephemera’s model of not charging article processing charges is preferable to these models’ ‘double-dipping’ into funders’ pockets (cf. Harvie et al., 2012), but could there be a way in which ephemera’s model could be developed, also to make ephemera itself sustainable? This is a challenge for many scholar-led journals, not just ephemera.

In terms of formats, ephemera has often rather by default chosen to stick to scheduled issues, standard text variants with little variations (such as ‘notes’ like these), and rather established writing styles, not to mention double-blind peer review. Why not think of some other formats? Why not, for example, break up the issue logic, engage in more timely publications, reform the peer-review process (cf. Prug, 2010)? Even if ephemera wants to remain a by now established scholarly, academic journal, why not use the scope of what is possible within those bounds to experiment with some new formats and styles? Furthermore, ephemera could also embrace its position as a journal read beyond organization studies to rediscover the role it fulfilled in the mid-2000s. As Antonio Negri put it: ‘A good journal is like an octopus, continually reaching out and pulling in the theoretical and historical happenings in the environment in which it lives’ (cited in Thoburn, 2010: 12). A lot of the recent crises, in particular the financial crisis of 2007-8, brought forth a new set of public intellectuals and a bout of new political magazines such as Dissent, The New Inquiry or n+1 (Goldstein, 2016). Couldn’t this be a new communicative common to which ephemera could contribute, strengthening and expanding its affiliations and solidarities beyond the academy?

Finally, I often thought of ephemera being in the business of making anti-commodities, of what Nicholas Thoburn (2010) calls ‘communist objects’. For Thoburn this perspective ‘emphasizes the capacities of objects to have transformative effects on human sociality and thought that are not predetermined by the form of the human subject’, and is ‘attentive to the way human and object association can undo the capitalist patterns of subjectivity that institute that dichotomy in the first place’ (2010: 2). So it’s a matter of thinking of objects as comrades (cf. Shukaitis, 2013), and to think about how in our case a journal could have affective and transformative, potentially anticapitalist effects, beyond the forms of capitalization journal publication itself is subject to. What could that entail today beyond printable PDFs with linear textuality of cultural theory and radical politics, beyond buying a copy of Capital during crisis (cf. ephemera 9-4)? What kind of critique could this precipitate, so urgently needed in the business school today?

 

[2]       See for example book projects such as Open Humanities Press’ Liquid/living books (http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/series/liquid-books/), or the Scalar platform for semantic web authoring and journals such as Vectors which run on them (https://scalar.me/anvc/scalar/ and http://vectors.usc.edu/).

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the author(s)  

Armin Beverungen is a former member of the editorial collective and now an affiliate of ephemera.

Email: armin.beverungen AT leuphana.de