In February 2011, sx salon published its first themed discussion section, Caribbean Arts and Culture Online. As a new editor in this arena, I (Kelly) wanted to hear from people who had been engaged in digital Caribbean content production for some time—from long-running personal blogs to complex commercial websites. As part of the discussion, Nicholas Laughlin and I conducted a conversation via email that was published in two parts: “The Democracy of Ideas” in sx salon 3 and “This Question of Place” in Antilles: The CRB Blog. That was a beginning for me, and for sx salon, and as this current themed discussion on digital publishing corresponds with the close of my role as sx salon editor, it seemed fitting that Nicholas and I reflect again together on (and in) the digital space, thinking in particular about the (future) lives of the archives and projects we have built in the past decade. In the past months we have talked about this in person and via Skype and collaborated over Whatsapp, Google Docs, and e-mail; the collection of ideas below is our effort at capturing and conveying our ongoing exchanges about writing, editing, Caribbean literature, and digital publishing.
Kelly Baker Josephs: I know we’ve both been thinking of endings, for various reasons. And given space limitations here (and we thought back then that “digital” meant limitless space), I thought we would focus most on that. Two related questions Vanessa Valdés and I circulated for this discussion were, “Does the digital space guarantee writing in perpetuity?” and “How are you responsible to your writers and readers in this arena?” sx salon is fortunate in having Rachel Mordecai come on as general editor and Ronald Cummings as book review editor just as Vanessa and I are stepping down, so there is continuity for our readers. We also have the support of the Small Axe Project and that of our respective academic institutions, offering some guarantee to our contributors that the publication will not only continue to publish new work but also remain digitally accessible for some time to come. You’re in a different situation with Caribbean Review of Books. You haven’t published work there since 2016, but the site remains up as though any moment now there will be something new. Is it at an end? An open-end?
Nicholas Laughlin: Lately I’ve been thinking about ending versus finishing, or just about the subtle implications of coming to an end versus coming to a finish. When you finish writing a book, say, that’s usually a moment of success and celebration: it goes to press, printed copies arrive and head out into the world. But many online and digital projects—or maybe just the ones I’ve been involved in over the years—are or were conceived or perceived as ongoing serial initiatives. Specific instalments or editions may “finish,” but the project as a whole wasn’t meant to end. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that at the beginning, and for a long time, the “end” wasn’t in sight.
It’s one thing if an ending is a planned, desired, managed moment. It’s something else if resources and energy simply run out, if the thing just stops, without declaration or intent (or declaration of intent). It’s a moment that may look like, or feel like, a failure.
But I’m avoiding answering your question, about the current situation of the CRB. It’s a question I’ve been avoiding, frankly, for a few years now. The CRB hasn’t published anything new since late 2016, and was patchy for a few years before that, but there’s been no actual announcement—I’ve made no announcement—about whether this is a temporary pause or something more permanent. Perhaps I’m ready to say now that I think it’s permanent. It’s not just a matter of the old practicalities: time and human energy and what they cost. It’s taken me a long time, obviously, to conclude—with reluctance but growing certainty—that the particular enterprise that is or was the CRB has run its course, also that in a slightly scary and somewhat selfish way, that was a conclusion for me alone to make.
May I ask you a couple things, in turn? First, what does it feel like to step away from sx salon? You’re lucky in that you have very able colleagues—Rachel and Ronald—who’ll keep the ball moving down the field, but I guess sx salon is also lucky that you’re willing to let the brainchild go, that you have imagined a way forward for it that doesn’t include you.
I also want to ask something about if and how your sense of motivation and purpose with and for sx salon changed over time. You mention those two e-mail interviews we did—you interviewing me and vice versa—back in 2011. I must admit I haven’t gone back to read them. There’s something specially deflating about one’s long-ago optimism.
KBJ: When you ask questions, you don’t ask easy ones, Nicholas. Let me avoid all the feels about this particular ending by saying: although I conceived and manifested sx salon, it’s never been just me (as is the case with any successful publication). Not only is it part of the larger Small Axe Project but it also takes a team to produce, from contributors to copyeditor. More to the point of this discussion, the digital nature of sx salon has always made it feel like a community project. True, my associate editors—Vanessa Valdés and Rosamond King (and Andrea Shaw before her)—and I have done a lot of individual work, and I don’t want to underemphasize that, but the immediacy and intimacy of digital publishing has made response (both support and criticism) part of the project. When we began, I had the idea that the discussion section would have open comments, with the kind of exchange you used to see on Caribbean blogs in the 2000s. That dream didn’t last very long, but we still receive quite a lot of behind-the-scenes response from readers and contributors about published issues.
Some of this response happens now on social media venues, the growth of which I believe has changed digital publishing. I don’t know that I can say definitively it has changed the content of sx salon (it’s hard to believe it hasn’t in some way, but I couldn’t say how). More, I would say social media has changed postpublication engagement with that content, often linking to other relevant discussions or histories. Unfortunately, this engagement is lost in the ephemera of Facebook comment threads and passing Tweets. Of course, the digital nature of our publication makes social media platforms a necessary tool for reaching our (potential) audiences, and I have had to learn as I go how best to use this tool for sx salon. In some ways, I am obliquely answering your second question here. As our platform has grown and matured since our first issue in 2010, my basic motivation/purpose has remained to create an accessible space for contemporary Caribbean literature, much as I saw you doing with the CRB; however, as digital media in general has changed rapidly in the past decade, I have had to revise how I create (in) that space.
NL: I’m pondering that last sentence, and the need to, as you say, revise how one creates—really, how one exists—in the digital space. It’s an impetus I felt first as a kind of moral discomfort, and that I’m still trying to figure out.
Over some duration of the past seven or eight years—and it was or is a long-drawn-out metamorphosis, not a specific epiphany I can point to—I seem to have changed from being a kind of evangelist for online tools and online publishing to having an attitude of enervated skepticism. There’s no singular reason.
My serious engagement with online publishing started in late 2002. I’d just bought my first laptop (that’s part of what triggered it), and I kept reading about these websites called weblogs that didn’t require much or any coding skill to set up, and didn’t cost anything. I was curious, and I had the time (how? when?) to experiment and explore. It took all of five minutes to set up a personal blog, and I then had to figure out what to do with it—the medium existed before it had a purpose, at least for me.
I guess what motivated me then was a sense of possibility. It suddenly seemed so easy to set up a website, and there were so many interesting people and projects around me here in T&T and in the wider Caribbean space—so much thinking and making—that had no web presence at the time. So why not use these free or nearly free tools to plug them into the youngish universe of the web? I set up blogs for various friends and colleagues, and I remember all but berating others for not making their work accessible in the same way.
Seventeen years later, I find I’m exhausted by the sheer quantity of, well, everything that’s online. In particular, by the way social media platforms have essentially become the web for most people—and the way certain kinds of conversations and content are amplified by the specific motivations of specific platforms, which increasingly seem dangerous. And yes, I am thinking very much of Facebook, whose harms by now outweigh its usefulness. There is no innocent engagement—the moment I load up the site I’m being manipulated by an algorithm explicitly designed not for my benefit.
Obviously there are people who use a platform like Facebook for relatively benign things like keeping up with friends, and others genuinely trying to use it as a space for productive conversation, sharing creative work, and so on. But you can’t escape the fact that every “engagement” is ultimately giving quantifiable support to a tool of online capitalism that is more and more overtly dictating and distorting how we perceive and understand the world, and deforming our own senses of identity, individual or communal. When I try to imagine how this dynamic will continue to evolve, I feel that social media is not a space of possibility, despite immediate appearances, but a space to shut down possibility, to limit options, to block the flow of worthwhile information—all while seeming to do the opposite.
Yes, I’m totally aware of how grumpy this sounds, but the relevant point to our current conversation is this: much of my earlier motivation for exploring online publishing was the sense of filling a void, bringing the ideas and words and images of Caribbean writers and thinkers and artists into a virtual space where they were un- or under-represented and where they could be more widely read and heard and seen. Rationally, I know that is still a valid and necessary goal. Emotionally, I’m exhausted by the sheer quantity of data that floods out at me every time I open my laptop. Rationally, I know there is still important work to do, and an imperative to keep rethinking these tools and platforms—to revise one’s strategies, to get back to that word you used. But for now I am conscious of having stepped back. Of redirecting my energy toward quieter and more private and decidedly analog forms. Notebooks! Micro-scale noncommercial print publishing! But also more consciously working on a kind of consolidation: taking stock of what I’ve written or made (or edited), figuring out what’s worth preserving, and how best to do that.
KBJ: I haven’t quite gone back to analog forms, but I do share your questions (the what and the how) of preservation. It was simpler, though not necessarily easier, with analog forms. Once something was printed, it was already preserved. With online publishing, that’s not the case. Things are changeable, deletable, and possibly more vulnerable to loss than with print forms. With online publications like sx salon and the CRB, the notion of preservation—of a stable “archive”—seems like a mirage.
NL: I can’t remember which digital sage it was who said, “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.” In headier days, I used to quote that all the time. Now, if something is truly important to me, I want it in a material, tangible version, if possible. So I’m constantly printing things out. When we’re done with this conversation, I’ll print it out. I’ll probably also print the earlier draft with the notes and paragraphs we’ll end up deleting.
KBJ: The option of retrieving earlier drafts/versions makes it seem as though the digital archive really is forever, but I’m learning to accept that with the increased potential of access gifted by digital publishing comes an ever-increasing potential for loss. This, to go back to (but perhaps again not answer) your earlier question about how I feel about leaving sx salon, is the thing that most concerns me right now: how to ensure preservation of the work we have done for the past decade as we move forward. Because I am currently working in the archives of older Caribbean literary journals and magazines—Savacou, Bim, Kyk-Over-Al—I find I am constantly thinking about what you could call the “future archives” of sx salon and whether that concept even makes sense for a digital publication.
NL: You could always sit down and print the full contents of each issue of sx salon! Something I should have done already with the online-only parts of the CRB, from 2010 onwards.
Now I’m thinking about one of our earlier exchanges about this conversation—you asked if I think of the CRB as part of my “legacy.” I suppose the answer is yes, even if legacy feels like a premature word. Or maybe the answer is to admit that at this stage my motivation for keeping the CRB archive online is double-edged. I certainly feel a sense of obligation to readers and writers—both the writers we published and the writers whose books we reviewed. But if I’m honest, equal to that altruistic impulse is a perhaps selfish wish to preserve the CRB as a record of my own effort, my own thinking, my own enterprise.
The thing about an ending is that it prompts you to think about its beginning. When I finish reading a book, I often turn from the last page immediately back to the first, to see if and how the one foreshadows the other, with specific words or images or situations. So I’m thinking now about what was going through my mind when we started the CRB back in late 2003 (doing the groundwork for the first print issue in May 2004).
I’m astonished now by my confidence then, or maybe I should say my arrogance? But I guess that’s part of the recipe for any publishing project. And the key point I think is that, whatever my intentions at the time, it was never a matter of bringing any superior literary expertise to shape the CRB. It was very much a matter of being rapidly educated by the task, of having to read a lot very quickly, fill in huge gaps in my knowledge. Only in retrospect can I discern the degree to which a kind of self-interest was the original impetus for the CRB. I don’t believe it was ever a self-indulgent project—I mean, it couldn’t have kept going for the years it did if there wasn’t a tangible audience, or so I tell myself. But when it comes to my own motivations, the intellectual development permitted by the CRB was probably as important, however unconsciously, as any sense of duty to readers. (Maybe it was like doing a postgrad degree with no diploma at the end.)
KBJ: I like confidence better than arrogance. Or maybe it’s just sheer (stubborn) idealism. If endings make us think of beginnings, I think beginnings require us to blithely ignore potential endings. It puts me in mind of David Scott’s preface to the twentieth-anniversary issue of Small Axe, wherein he reflects on the beginnings of the journal. He writes of having to put aside warnings of endings and focusing instead on producing the next issue, and then the next: “It was impossible to discern what they would add up to—whether the shape of something more than the sum of all the issues put together would emerge from within what we were anyway carrying on with."1 As I mentioned, I’ve been researching Caribbean literary journals, and I find I don’t have an example yet of one that announced their ending (though there are several announced beginnings). This leads me to wonder if they thought overmuch about a “future archive,” about a responsibility to “keep it going” even after it has ended. Because in many ways that’s what an archive is, a continuation of the past into the present. Though, because those were print periodicals, they wouldn’t have had the same worries about preservation that we have about digital publications.
NL: When I think about the “archive” of the CRB, I look first at the stack of magazines lined up along one side of my desk. They take up all of three shelf-inches, such a small trace of five years as a print magazine, but something real: solid objects that please me with the texture of the paper, the columns of type. It’s a more immediate pleasure than I feel when I load up the CRB website (which I don’t do so often these days, as I’m reminded when the URL doesn’t show up in my browser autocomplete).
What David describes in that quote—the imperative to just keep going, once you start—is a feeling that I think any journal editor, in print or otherwise, must be familiar with. And publishing anything is an act of optimism—a hope that someone will find this material useful, transformative, or just entertaining. Fifteen years ago, I also felt optimistic about the medium itself, about the possibility that digital publishing would make certain kinds of intellectual and creative work, from places like the Caribbean, more accessible. That’s still a goal worth struggling toward, and lots of people are doing just that. And probably it’s a goal I’ll return to sooner or later. But for now, for the reasons I’ve hinted at above and others, my optimism is, let’s say, focused in other directions.
Kelly Baker Josephs is a professor of English and digital humanities at York College, CUNY, and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Nicholas Laughlin, born and living in Trinidad, is the editor of the arts and travel magazine Caribbean Beat, the program director of the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, and a codirector of Alice Yard, a nonprofit contemporary art space and network based in Port of Spain. He has published two books of poems, The Strange Years of My Life (Peepal Tree, 2015) and Enemy Luck (Peepal Tree, 2019).
1 David Scott, “Preface: Small Axe and the Ethos of Journal Work,” Small Axe, no. 50 (July 2016): viii.