A Feminist Note on “Publication, Power, and Patronage”

whitney trettien
7 min readJul 27, 2017

Earlier this month, Critical Inquiry posted a pre-publication version of the article “Publication, Power, and Patronage: On Inequality in Academic Publishing,” co-authored by Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper. The essay’s central claim probably won’t surprise anyone: that “the modern research university” does not live up to its egalitarian ideals but rather is “a place deeply marked by patterns and practices of patronage and patrimony and the tight circulation of cultural capital.” The authors support this claim through:

  1. a brief history showing how publishing overtook patronage and patrimony as the standard for academic advancement in German universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — this intends to counter the claim that publishing metrics are simply a “neoliberal” incursion — and
  2. a quantitative analysis of “four leading journals in the humanities” (PMLA, New Literary History, Representations, and Critical Inquiry), showing that the majority of their articles are written by scholars affiliated with a small handful of elite universities. (With some exceptions, the gender parity isn’t great either — but you read a critical response to this part of the paper by Jordan Brower and Scott Ganz here.)

The paper concludes with a call-to-arms defending quantitative analysis and publishing metrics:

What we need in our view is not less quantification but more; not less mediation but mediation of a different kind. It is not enough to demand intellectual diversity and assume its benefits. We need new ways of measuring, nurturing, valuing, and, ultimately, conceiving of it. We need alternative systems of searching, discovering, and cultivating intellectual difference. We need platforms of dissemination that don’t simply replicate existing systems of concentration and patronage, just as we need new metrics of output and impact that rely less on centrality and quantity and more on content and difference.

There’s much that I deeply admire in the essay, especially its blended historical/quantitative approach; and I share the authors’ interest in seeking new vocabularies and methods for tracking power and prestige in academic publishing. Vaguely weaponized terms like “neoliberal” have only served to occlude specific mechanisms of inequality from our view; as I wrote in a short piece last summer, what is needed is, indeed, a savvier use of mediation to expose, divert, or dam the flow of power through material/technological networks of publishing (making public) scholarly work. Yet the desire to disprove the neoliberal thesis and prove the worth of quantitative analysis leads the paper to some awkward arguments about the history of publishing and “intellectual difference” (the authors’ term). And so in the spirit of collaborative inquiry, I’ve jotted down a few thoughts. Some respond directly to points made in the the article, others riff off Wellmon and Piper’s tune, drawing on my perspective as someone who studies the history of women’s mediawork and publishing. I may wander far afield from the paper’s original aims, but it’s my hope that this digression will help to productively expand their argument.

First, a history of academic publishing that doesn’t account for the many people long excluded from participating in it — and excluded from university life more generally — will never be sufficiently complete to account for contemporary inequalities. The early modern system of patronage and patrimony, the increased “emphasis on writing and publishing when hiring or advancing professors” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany, the increased visibility of written knowledge and individual authorship as a result — all of these transitions happened during a time when every major European university was closed to anyone who was not a white man. (I know Wellmon and Piper know this; but oddly it isn’t mentioned in their history, which assumes a universal “scholar.”) Women could not matriculate at Tübingen, Berlin, or Göttingen until the end of the nineteenth century; when Anna Maria van Schurman studied at Utrecht in 1636, she had to attend lectures in a curtained booth. The first African to attend a modern European university was Anton Wilhelm Amo in the 1720s, and that was made possible through aristocratic patronage — the best hope for many non-white students to gain entry.

If publication could be seen as a “corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks,” then, it was so only for white men without aristocratic connections. In my opinion, it’s not enough to point suggestively at this history as one of increased meritocracy, or at least one that contains the latent potential for meritocracy, if only we had new tools for measuring “intellectual diversity” (as quoted in full above). To trace the vectors of power and prestige in the history of publishing, we’d need to look to the history of the university as an engine of exclusion more generally. At which point intersectional feminist and postcolonial theory would become useful.

Which relates to a second point I’d like to make: the cultural capital of publishing has always been unevenly distributed. For some men of the eighteenth century, publishing surely did allow “the value of [their] work” to be made “visible to all because it was subject to more public and, therefore, so went the reasoning, more rational standards”; women often risked being branded a licentious whore for doing the very same. In such a world, “patronage-based advancement” was not always evil nepotism. It could be (and to some extent remains) a survival strategy: a way for scholars of color and women to both seek protection for their writing and exert influence in a textual economy that denied other forms of access.

Not that this strategy always worked. In hope of advancement, the middle-class scholar Bathsua Makin dedicated her 1616 book of verse to King James. She was only 16 years old at the time, and the book was written in seven languages (seven languages!). To this extraordinary display of youthful erudition, the king responded, “But can she spin?” Although the remark may be apocryphal, the century’s learned men still found it amusing enough to copy over and over again into their commonplace books.

Those early modern white women writers without access to a powerful patron (or who didn’t need a patron because of their own aristocratic privilege) sometimes turned to another strategy: emphasizing their own whiteness in contradistinction from other racial categories (which they helped to produce) in order to override the ideologies of gender. This is particularly evident in the work of Margaret Cavendish, whose novel The Blazing World might be read as the outrageously colonial revenge fantasy of a scholar mocked by her learned male peers and disallowed from participating in the Royal Society. We’re still living with the racist discourses that these proto-feminist women deployed to prove to misogynists their right to publish, and to display their knowledge. From this broadened historical perspective, it begins to seem like representation — publishing a few more women in Critical Inquiry — is maybe the least of our worries. Perhaps we might begin instead by decolonizing our relation to the prestige perpetual motion machine that is academic publishing and the clawing for cultural capital that it ceaselessly spurs on.

Which leads to a final point: one problem with relying too much on quantified research outputs is not that they are neoliberal, but that we can’t know what isn’t or can’t be tracked. Put another way, if quantitative data is taken to be our best tool for fighting inequality, then the inequalities we thus commit ourselves to fighting are those that exist in spaces readily quantifiable — like journals with a discrete number of printed articles by single authors. And via metrics that are as well — like gender parity. Which means we miss — and obscure — the many other forms of scholarship and knowledge and expression that flourish and have flourished around and outside universities, often in the face of the academy’s indifference. We miss them because such forms aren’t easily quantifiable (I’m thinking of some of the cut-up books I work with), or because we don’t keep data on them (missing datasets, who is visible, who isn’t), or because certain knowledge communities don’t want data held or kept about them (surveillance, the deliberate rejection of certain identity categories).

Maybe we don’t care about these things, maybe we say that’s outside the circle of concern for a project about inequality and power in academic publishing, and anyway no one is saying quantification is the only tool, just one tool in the toolbox. But what I’m trying to emphasize here is that there are already deeper stakes with terms like “inequality” or “power” (or for that matter “diversity” and “difference”). All that non-quantifiable stuff — the para-academic publishing strategies and non-university-based knowledge communities; David Ruggles’ bookshop, Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press, the academy at Little Gidding, van Schurman’s mediawork, flying universities— it runs in rivers overflowing from the university’s intentionally narrow channels. To understand why prestige still marks a publishing system founded on the rhetoric of meritocracy, we’d need to not take that rhetoric at its word but instead understand how it has functioned discursively, and often nefariously, in an institution whose entire existence is predicated on keeping the channels narrow.

And in doing that, we’d have to ask whether such a system is worth redeeming, and why. That is: to what end do we want to diversify the “four leading journals in the humanities”? I don’t spit that question invidiously but ask it earnestly. If we think a collective of people who look different from each other and think differently from each other and have different experiences will lead to better knowledge about the world — which is what I think most of us assume — then it’s not probably not going to be enough to count names and affiliations, adding a few more to this column, a few more to that, finding inspiration in moments where some achieved a little bit more by maintaining a system that exists through exclusion. Instead, we’d have to rethink the entire enterprise of academic publishing and making public scholarship from the ground up — peer review, the look and affordances of the print, the projects that publishing can support, the forms of language and life we’ll let into the fold.

And once we start doing that — and I think that in some areas of the (digital) humanities we already see this happening — we’d realize we’re in a very different place than we thought we were; and we’d have to ready ourselves for the deeply transformative, fiercely destructive effects of such a change on the institutions we thought we held dear.

And now I may have wandered very far indeed from the interests and aims of Wellmon and Piper’s paper — but perhaps the digression itself still has some worth.



whitney trettien

Academic zoophyte working at the fringes of book history, media studies, and digital humanities.