Unconventional Wisdom

December 7, 2017

In a Q & A, Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press editorial director, director of Intellectual Publics, and a visiting distinguished lecturer at the GC, spoke about challenging assumptions through books and events.

Ken Wissoker, the editorial director of Duke University Press and visiting distinguished lecturer at the Graduate Center, created Intellectual Publics at the GC in 2014 as a way, in his words, to create "a public space between the excellent public-oriented programming that is plentiful in New York and the academic events put on by departments and institutes."

On December 11, Intellectual Publics will host Black and Blur, a conversation between author Fred Moten and cinematographer Arthur Jafa.

Wissoker spoke to the GC about this event and his approaches to both public programming and academic publishing.

GC: Why did you start Intellectual Publics and what have you achieved with it?

KW: Intellectual Publics showcases visionary thinkers in conversation about the ideas themselves. New York is filled with intellectually engaged people, in and out of the many universities. Since the Graduate Center is a centrally located public institution, it seemed like exactly the place that could draw audiences from all over. I'm happy to say that's worked out.

GC: On December 11, Fred Moten will discuss his forthcoming essay collection Black and Blur (Duke University Press, 2017) - which addresses the place and force of blackness in African diaspora arts, politics, and life - with cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Why did you choose to feature this topic and these two figures?

KW: This is really a dream set-up. Moten and Jafa are longtime friends and interlocutors. They have both been important figures for a long time, but both are breaking out in a wider way at this moment. Moten is one of the most important thinkers of our time. His is publishing this major three-book work and is quoted everywhere. Arthur Jafa's Love is the Messages, The Message is Death, which was shown at Gavin Brown uptown last fall, has now been picked up by the Metropolitan Museum, The Serpentine in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It's a big time for both and by cruel necessity, a crucial time for Black thinking and theorizing. I feel that we are in what will be seen retrospectively as another major African American renaissance. Moten and Jafa are two of the reasons why. It couldn't come at a more important moment.

GC: You've selected an impressive lineup of speakers for Intellectual Publics events who address topics ranging from climate change to genealogical mapping. What is your curatorial process and what are the threads of continuity between your events?

KW: I've worked to highlight significant approaches to topics deserving of wider attention and to feature speakers -- especially women, people of color -- who will draw, but are not the usual talking heads. I feel if you can come in knowing what people will say, it's not going to make you think. I like the conversational format because it is looser and more accessible, but I want the audience leaving with new ideas, or thinking about their own topics in a different way. My work as editorial director for Duke University Press gives me access to thinking across the humanities, arts, and narrative social sciences. I look for the places where there is an explosion of new thinking. Sometimes that comes from a new interdisciplinary combination, or a conjuncture of our historical moment and certain questions or modes of analysis.

GC: What are your priorities as a publisher and how do you balance them?

KW: I look for books that change the way I think. If I can predict what a book is going to say by knowing the subject and the approach it feels like already-tired machinery clanking on. I want to support work that opens out new ways of thinking or puts ideas together in a new way. I suppose I am something of a modernist in that! That extends to supporting junior scholars - especially women and scholars of color - who are bringing needed perspectives to scholarship. As a publisher, I can give institutional support to both scholars and ideas. That said, most American university presses are working hard to break even. We are at Duke University Press, however much status we have. That we only have to break even allows us the chance to be as scholarly as we are. But, it's a lot of work to achieve that. The market for scholarly books - as with books in general - changes all the time. So, my challenge is to be following the many disciplinary and interdisciplinary changes in theory, method, and subject while balancing those with the changes in what books will be successful and not. There need to be enough big books to support the ones that might win prizes, but don't have the possibility of selling as well.

GC: What, in your view, makes a great monograph? And what are the differences between a first book and a dissertation?

KW: A monograph could be great for many reasons. It could cover a topic in a field that everyone has known needed to be done, but no one had yet taken it on. It could be a beautifully composed account of a special object, whether an artwork or a historical event. I like a monograph where the idea is so compelling that people who had no interest in the object itself, still find it necessary reading.

In a dissertation one knows the whole readership in advance. The faculty on a scholar's committee agree to read the thesis before the scholar writes it! Even though one is not supposed to write for those five or six people, any scholar could imagine their committee at another university and say how they might have been pushed in other directions. So that's a start. An even more important characteristic is that the committee members are presumed to read to the end. If the chapters are lumpy, or uneven in length, they will keep reading. If there are six pieces of archival evidence to establish a point, it only looks like the author did a lot of work. Because the readers are going to read the whole thing, the structure is allowed to begin with the background literature review, theory, history, or whatever. Then the cases can be unpacked one after another. If they add up to a conclusion, it can come at the end of the thesis, but in many dissertations a conclusion isn't even necessary.

A book based on the same research would need to be structured entirely differently. No one has to read it. It becomes the author's task to make it necessary to the readers. Instead, the author has to make the book compelling to potential readers through the strength of the argument, the inventiveness of the approach, or by other narrative means. That argument then governs what evidence is needed. What does a reader need to see in what order to be convinced? What makes them want to keep reading to understand more?

GC: In reviewing submissions for academic publishing, where do you see writers go astray? What advice could you give that could alleviate some common issues?

KW: The biggest issue is whether authors know their thesis and what makes their manuscript more than a smart reading of their chosen object. What do they want to be known as having said? Too many people base their approach on a set of quotes from other scholars. They think of themselves as "being in conversation with." I always ask them, "What are you bringing to the conversation?"

Another frequent issue is worrying too much about the wrong readers - often ones who will be critical whatever the author does. They might have different investments in the field, or maintain a pose of being "unsatisfiable" towards work done by those unlike themselves. Authors who spend a lot of time adding details for such readers can end up compromising their own arguments.

When we read, usually less is more. The more succinctly the argument is stated and the more on point the evidence, the more convincing the book. When we write, it is hard to leave out the material that was hard-won in the archive, or the chapter that on its own received praise in an earlier version. I like to compare the author's situation to that of a filmmaker who has shot hours and hours of footage, but needs to cut and pace that carefully if they are going to make a compelling film.