Pirate Philosophy, Experimental Publishing and Beta-Testing the Future


DRAFT text submitted for comment and criticism:

I invite readers to send comments or other contributions to me at rmalina@alum.mit.edu and I will append them to this blog post. And in exchange we will happily give you free betatester access to the ARTECA aggregator !  http://arteca.mit.edu/

Pirate Philosophy, Experimental Publishing and Beta-Testing the Future

Hall, G. “Pirate Philosophy: For A Digital Post Humanities”, (MIT Press, 2016). A Leonardo Book.

Reviewed by Roger F. Malina

ORCID  No : http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3399-3865

I have just finished reading, with great pleasure and interest, Gary Hall’s “Pirate Philosophy; For a Digital Post Humanities” published in our Leonardo Book Series. (Sean Cubitt, Editor in Chief; Doug Sery, Acquisition Editor; I serve as Executive Editor) (Hence I must declare my conflict of interest in this review). (1)

Gary Hall surveys and engages with the major debates that pit the various schools of thought within the Humanities and Publishing today. His fundamental argument is that Humanist scholars must go beyond the debates on digital humanities and the various post-modern, post-human and post theory theories, to inventing new ways of being theorists and philosophers. He coins the phrase ‘pirate philosophers’ drawing on the ancient Greek meaning of pirate as someone who “tries, tests, teases and troubles as well as attacks”. As one of the co-founders of the Open Humanities Press (2), he has sought to practice what he preaches, experimenting with new forms of un-bound , ‘liquid’, books, open access multi modal publishing within philosophy, cultural studies, literary criticism and political theory.

The book is riddled with wonderful paradoxes and contradictions, unresolved questions and agendas; he sometimes seems to be in dialogue with himself, rebutting or augmenting his argumentation in the footnotes and references which make up almost 40% of the book. He rails against the academic system that privileges the book and monograph form published via academic or commercial publishers, yet does so himself with MIT Press, as he lambasts colleague and favorite foil scholar Rosi Braidotti (3) for publishing with a commercial publisher. He laments the legacy of single author, humanities practices in favor of more open and collaborative collective theorizing, yet his book is signposted with the “names” of the usual favorite French philosophers from Latour to Deleuze to Stiegler, among others, as markers in his argumentation. (Sociological comment: the names of almost 140 individuals are listed in the table of contents, 20% of these are women).

He argues convincingly that the transition to the digital is proving to be transformational in its ability to develop non-linear, evolutive and multi-media narratives and argumentation, while using the classic book form as an effective part of his methodology. He argues a strategy that “experiments with writing collectively and publishing anonymously….shifting continually between different theories and concepts such as new cultural studies, open media, media gifts, liquid theory, pirate philosophy, radical open access and disruptive media’”.

In our own ArtSciLab research lab (4) at the University of Texas at Dallas, we talk of multi-modal publishing as a deliberate strategy to engage with a variety of publics deploying different narrative approaches. What is perhaps less clear is whether Hall views this as a long term shift in methodologies, and development of enduring ‘diffractive’ strategies, or a transitional period as the digital shifts our formats and approaches that will then re-stabilize; since he argues  that developing new behaviors as theorists and philosophers as an objective with fluidity at its core, perhaps the latter is the case.

Hall balances a meta-narrative about the Arab spring, neo liberal politics, the business model of the modern university with a micro narrative examining the choices of approaches and tools a humanities scholar must confront with respect to the burgeoning of grey literature, open access and open science. His approach connects that of Bernard Stiegler, whom he quotes at length, whose work also bridges theory and praxis, with his Ars Industrialis consortium and prolific book publishing; like Stiegler he views the digital as pharmacological- both curative and poisonous, hence the need for pirate actions but also ‘organological’ with digital media externalizing and augmenting mental and bodily mechanisms not extending them.

I read the book, almost in one reading, sitting in the sun in our garden, a three or four hour commitment that displaced all other interruptions and then again during a delayed  train ride in France when I wrote this review, with no access to the internet. (The train ride was interrupted by demonstrators blocking the track in protest at new government labor law; the macro intruding seamlessly with the micro). The corners of pages are turned to mark points that need to be re-read, red question marks and exclamation points litter the margins. I suspect a hundred years from now books will still have a place in the discourse, as Hall also argues, and perhaps with liquid paper my annotations are already on the way to other readers and the author with their contributions shifting the text as I finalise it.  Amusingly, Hall comments that the original concept of piracy is not only nomadic but situated on a liquid medium with a turbulent and dynamic flow.

I am going to use this brief, non-comprehensive review, as the excuse to branch off on some thoughts triggered as I read, but which also externally imposed as they are among the issues I have been working on in recent years and are one of my motivations for my reading this book in final form. Reading is indeed a process of matching and discarding, reinforcing and de-emphasizing. My internal dialogue could have been made visible by contributing to an open liquid book, but the process of interiorisation is crucially valuable in itself, occurring both inside the individual reader and the collective readers. And even if we redefine the concept of the individual within networked collective methodologies, the nodes in the network even if dynamic, are important elements in the structuring architectures and resulting narratives and theories; yes, the role of the singular author is dispensed with in large part in the sciences without disabling the development of research and theory. As a scientist myself I still often find it grating to have ideas or concepts so firmly attached to names.

Perhaps surprisingly, although Hall attacks the values of the neo-liberal university, he chooses not to questions whether universities should continue to exist at all. As he notes modern Universities were invented before and during the age of the book and are structurally co-aeval with the development of publishing systems. Why in the digital age, whether the digital is a medium or a type of information (cf. Florian Cramer), would universities as structures still make sense? When the airplane was invented railway stations were not adapted, instead the airport was developed in different locations and using different infrastructures. The development over the last decades of new forms of continuing education, picking up on 1960s experiments with TV based open universities, with MOOCs are now proliferating on line certificate systems. Some of these emerge from universities, but most do not. Yet to be seen is what sustainable system will develop that provides employment, for pay, to sustain research and education practices. Hall defers these issues to the parallel text of the footnotes and references; it seems to me that we need to question the very concept of the university at the same level that we question being theorists and philosophers in the world, because of the fundamental mapping between theory and praxis. Pirate education is alive and well, and necessarily interferes and refracts with the practices enabled, discouraged or encouraged by those structures that currently house education and research.

What Halls’ discussion does foreground is the importance of communities of practice; and hence one reason that the names of authors are significant is because of their function as nodes in these professional social networks independent of their role as authors. Hall talks about these authors often as friends or colleagues.  Actor Network Theory is alive and well. As I read the book, I also found pleasures in names of people I knew and are part of the communities of practice that I identify with. I met and recorded podcasts recently with Bernard Stiegler whose evolving ideas I find stimulating and convincing; I had lunch just a few weeks ago with anthropologist James Leach, quoted at length by Hall, who is writing compellingly on issues of distributed authorship and new merging models of intellectual property; we published Johanna Drucker early in her career. By their nature these communities of practice are cross or transdisciplinary, ill adapted to the rigid tree of knowledge structure of universities. Professional societies themselves, commensurate with university structures, also fail to respond to the situation of new emerging media scholarship and professional advancement; if there is to be new ways of being theorists or philosophers in the world, it seems to me inconceivable that the university can host these practices even if we try to ‘return’ the wonderful, mythical, golden, pre- “neo-liberal” university age.

 One is compelled to ask what form of organization is adapted to an open liquid book created by collective communities of practice. What would be the new business models? Certainly not the emerging business model of universities today (Stiegler is working on alternatives) or professional associations that resemble the Association of Window Framers (yes it exists, I walked into their conference by mistake at a Society for Scholarly Publishing meeting) (A meaningful co-location). (Yes easy for me to say, I have an endowed tenured position and a joint appointment in Physics and Art and Technology).

One area where I feel synchronized with Hall’s metaphor, is in his concept of “Pirate Philosophy”. We have been calling the work in our lab “experimental publishing’, because like Hall we think that we are in a research phase of trying to understand the implications, epistemological as well as ontological, of the emergent media and their social adoption and transformation. As I noted above, we use the term ‘multi-modal’ in a positive connation, with the implication that researchers and scholars must discuss and disseminate their thinking and collaborations in a variety of formats- from the book , the article, the monograph and multigraph, from print to electronic, audio and video and interactive. We doubt that will emerge ‘one or several’ appropriate fixed formats for the digital age, but that we are enriched by the ability to engage with different publics in different modes.

Currently we are about to release a new experimental platform, ARTECA, with MIT Press (5). An “art, science, technology” aggregator and grey literature archive that is intended to evolve functionalities to respond to the needs of the art, science, technology community of practice. We are currently ‘beta-testing’ the platform and find ourselves using this metaphor more broadly in terms of ‘beta-testing’ the future (and re –imaging the future of the Leonardo Organization that is partnering on its construction). The initial phases are the construction of digital libraries of peer reviewed and grey literature; we are advocating a hybrid “open access/pay wall” model where intellectual barter and gift exchange enable “open” access to a community of practice through its collective contributions and exchanges. Activities such as authoring, advising, peer reviewing, developing will be elements of an open access exchange culture; other activities will continue to be remunerated financially such as editing, distributing or archiving; some activities such as marketing can function either in an exchange mode or a remunerated mode. This is not a fremium model, but rather two interlocking economic systems that link a gift exchange culture in a mutualist synergy with, by design, a cash exchange business model. ( Perhaps we could even establish barter and exchange to readers of ARTECA material- after all in the process of reading you accept to have the author change you the reader through the act of reading, or certainly of those who cite ARTECA content – since this contributes to creating the community of practice) In any case, we accept the ambiguities of straddling the open and closed worlds. We hope that ARTECA will attract pirate philosophers who will “try, test, tease and trouble as well as attack” and help us navigate and structure a liquid and turbulent environment. If the present has a bug, fix it, if it’s beyond bug fixes, design a new boat for the future incrementally. Realize that every bug fix embodies a theory and value system. Sorry to be mixing my metaphors.

Having read Hall’s book, I feel a digital humanists’ need to map it visually as one way of understanding the continuities and discontinuities in discourse. We are currently working to make available the content of ARTECA in a form that digital humanists can find patterns that might not be evident in the kind of ‘close reading’ that I just indulged in the sunshine. The pattern finding is not a ‘new structuralism’ ( as Manovich also protests, according to Hall) but rather a way of providing new integration mechanisms across ranges of scale ( time, space, human groupings) that allow one to bridge the qualitative and quantitative as argued by Slingerland ( among others) in the rethinking of consilience  as a transdisciplinary methodology (6).

Hall’s book is rife with new vocabularies and neologisms, almost as important as the names of authors. (The index includes at least 25 technical terms that did not exist 25 years ago). And phrases that are used in multiple ways, as with the discussion Hall engages in about post and trans-humanist theories’; or the various ways that the concept ‘open’ is now being used. Trivially we can create simple maps of the history of ideas using n-grams of first uses of words or phrases, and their context to illuminate where differences in opinion originate. Clarisse Bardiot is beginning to work with the collection with Timothy Tangherlini at UCLA and collaborators in Finland and Mexico to identify and follow the collaboration networks by treating 10,000 journal articles and 300 books as a single’ book’ or corpus; maybe we can design a form of intellectual dating service, short circuiting the accidental crossing of paths that often occur in conferences, professional meetings or parties, and enable generative interactions in ways that commercial social media platforms fail to do. Leydesdorff and Salah analyzed the network structures of inward going and outward going references in Leonardo over 40 years with revealing insights on the sociology of the community of practice that uses Leonardo publications as one of its dissemination mechanisms (7); I found the mapping visualisation influenced my own practice not as a theorist or philosopher but as an editor and social actor, interlocking the quantitative with the qualitative.

            I highly recommend Gary Hall’s book as one thoughtful, and vituperative, entry point into the issues facing scholarly practices in the Humanities and the Sciences and in Publishing today.

I invite readers to send comments or other contributions to me at rmalina@alum.mit.edu and I will append them to this blog post. And in exchange we will happily give you free betatester access to the ARTECA aggregator  http://arteca.mit.edu/ !


  1. Leonardo Book Series : https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/series/leonardo-book-series

  2. Open Humanities Press: http://openhumanitiespress.org/

  3. Braidotti, R., “The Posthuman”, (London: Polity, 2013)

  4. Artscilab: http://artscilab.atec.io/

  5. Arteca: http://arteca.mit.edu/

  6. Slingerland, E. and Collard, M., “ Creating Consilience”, (Oxford University Press: 2011)

  7. Leydesdorff, L., Salah, A., Maps on the basis of the Arts &Humanities Citation Index:the journals Leonardo and Art Journal, and “Digital Humanities” as a topic,Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61(4) (2010) 787-801,

    Comments Received

  8. From Michael Punt:

  9. Dear  Roger

    Many thanks for this – so interesting that a stream of thoughts  replace the interrupted forward movement of the train.

    Just a point about the airplane – indeed the railway station was not adopted – (except later at TEGEL, Berlin)  but it did adopt the inappropriate marine port model which is something we are trying to unravel. (Ships can wait around until it is OK to enter airplanes can’t which cause the problem) .

    If you get stuck again – this might help


    Like Hall  he calls for a radical rethinking in the humanities about what is real.



Comments from Gary Hall posted with his approval

Dear Roger,

Many thanks for such a perceptive – and generous – engagement with Pirate Philosophy. I read your review in Venice, where I was visiting the Architecture Biennale. But I also had an opportunity to see a very interesting exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia on the invention of both the concept of publishing and the modern book. ‘Aldo Manuzio. Il rinascimento di Venezia’ positions Renaissance Venice as the Silicon Valley of its age due to its role as the international capital of print (1). Yet Venice was a doubly fitting place to read your post as of course it’s a city built on water that has no fixed or stable boundaries. It’s interesting to bear in mind that European publishing – which, as a technology and as a process, has always been liquid rather than having only become so with the advent of the digital age – itself emerged from an inherently fluid environment.

I’m going to respond to the issues you raise in separate posts containing some of the thoughts that were triggered as I read your review. That way I can do so in a correspondingly ‘brief, non-comprehensive’ fashion.

So, I guess the first question is, why have I written a book, Pirate Philosophy, that ‘rails against the academic system that privileges the book and monograph form published via academic or commercial publishers’, and yet published it with just such a press, MIT?

Well, versions of most of the material that makes up Pirate Philosophy are already available open access. This material can be found on my website as pre-prints, as part of my Open Humanities Notebook (2), and on the websites of some the journals in which versions of particular chapters were first published (3). Given that much of the work is already available in other places and in other forms, the question then becomes more: why did Ialso publish this material as a conventional print book with a traditional academic press?

The last conventional print monograph I wrote was Digitize This Book! which came out with Minnesota in 2008. Since then I’ve published all sorts of free, libre, open access books and texts – some of them indeed in open, collaborative, collective and anonymous forms of theorizing (4). But as the comments that were made about Pirate Philosophy on Twitter a few weeks ago bear witness (5), people still respond (in the form of tweets, blog posts and reviews, for example) more to material published as a conventional print book with a traditional academic or commercial press. And so if my ambition is to challenge the way we work and think as theorists and philosophers with regard to concepts such as the individualized named author, the sovereign proprietorial subject, originality, the book, and copyright, then it looks like I still do have to publish in ‘conventional’ ways now and again.

At this point I’d like to take a cue from your idea that ‘in the process of reading you accept to have the author change you the reader through the act of reading… since this contributes to creating the community of practice.’ I want to do so in order to raise a question for us as a community of readers in turn, as I think you’re absolutely right here: the community has to take some responsibility for this situation. My question for the community is this: why are we still so focused on privileging ideas of ‘the book’, even when material is already freely and openly available (just not in a bound, linear, sequential, print-on-paper form that has been published by a traditional academic press)? In other words, is it my practices as an ‘author’ that need to change, or our practices as a community of readers / scholars?

As for Pirate Philosophy, it endeavours to move beyond ideas of open and closed access, legal and illegal modes of publication, even the human and nonhuman, the ‘I’ and the ‘we’, as a way of engaging with our scholarly practices and the technologies involved in them – while also avoiding, as you rightly observe, any positions of moral or political purity.

Best, Gary.


  1. http://www.gallerieaccademia.org/exhibitions-and-events/current/aldo-manuzio-il-rinascimento-di-venezia/?lang=en.

  2. http://garyhall.squarespace.com/journal/.

  3. See here for one example: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/pirate-radical-philosophy-2.

  4. This material and/or the relevant links can be found on my website: http://www.garyhall.info/.

  5. https://twitter.com/BiellaColeman/status/733025063637819392;