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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I’ve been gearing up for quite some time to write about the false labour dichotomies in the academy that seem to be emerging that put “academic labour” as some privileged space of difference from other types. This isn’t that post, which I haven’t had time to work on yet, but it is related.

I don’t usually agree with everything that Daniel Allington writes. And that’s fine. Spice of life etc. But I do think and admire much of the sharp commentary about LaTeX in his recent post.

There are two points on which I disagree though. The first is that LibreOffice and Word are much better tools for the scholarly communications workflow because “both of [them] store text in XML form, but neither of [them] ever makes the user deal with the actual XML”.

This is technically true. Technically. But the XML that is produced by Word and LibreOffice within the Office Open XML format document schema is horrendous. So complex is the schema that it might as well not be a portable XML format underneath. It’s so bad that the default approach of typesetting tools is to create a plugin to the interface of MS Word that doesn’t read the underlying XML so much as allow a user to re-mark-up the document for typesetting.

In other words, you can disparage LaTeX for being unreadable and unhelpful, but I don’t think it’s a good argument to say that Word and LibreOffice are good tools because they use XML. They are good tools because they allow for comprehension, editing, and formatting etc. (as Allington notes). They are not good tools because they produce a nice, manipulable format that helps others. In fact, nobody outside of Microsoft has managed to produce a tool that can accurately and reproducibly handle the “Office Open XML Format” type; LibreOffice does it buggily and they’ve been working on it for years. Have a read of their standards documents, and weep.

My second quibble though is that Allington says we should not use LaTeX (and should use Word/LibreOffice instead) because “There’s already somebody whose job it is to do that” (typesetting). He then says that “If you’re so keen on doing other people’s jobs for them, then maybe you’d also like to pick up the physical copies from the printers, transport them to the publisher’s warehouse (hey, they might let you drive the forklift yourself!), do the marketing using your own telephone, and deliver copies to customers and retailers in your own car. Wait – why stop there? Why not insist on operating the printing and binding machinery yourself? In fact, why not buy a mechanical hand press and print and bind the copies at home, like Virginia and Leonard Woolf?”

There’s quite a lot to unpack in there with which I simply don’t agree. I mean, first of all, there are lots of things I could do to make sure that other people have tedious and boring tasks to do that count as “jobs” for which they could be paid. Don’t put your rubbish in the bin in public: that’s someone’s job you’re taking away! Don’t proofread your own work; it makes less work for proofreaders! In fact, why not strew your manuscripts with deliberate errors to ensure that there is continual work for others? Why even type your own work when you could provide it delivered by personal courier in cursive handwriting, thereby creating scope for typist labour? I’m exaggerating for comic effect, clearly. But the point stands: advocating for tools and practices that create tedious and repetitive work on the pretext of providing jobs is not a strong argument for me. That doesn’t mean I favour LaTeX here, I just don’t think it helps Allington’s argument against LaTeX to make using a word processor a beneficent act of employment.

Secondly, woah!, now hold it on the slippage here. Just because some people want to control the layout of the documents they produce using a typesetting tool, we can rhetorically slide to suggest that they should take on every other conceivable form of labour in the publishing process? Really? I’m sure there are lots of forms of labour that used to exist but that, through practices that we (including Allington) now think are normal, have disappeared. The fact that we type our own manuscripts on computers now, for example and as above, meant that typists disappeared as a widespread profession. The fact that we write posts and articles to promote our works (often at the behest of publishers) is surely encroaching on the labour of the marketeer. I don’t think I’d suggest that, because someone typed their own manuscript these days, they should be forced to take on the entire publishing labour chain. But that’s what Allington’s claim seems to suggest; if you take on other’s people work, you should do it all because you are somehow in favour of volunteering all of your own time instead of dividing labour. That is, that the minute that you step onto any other form of labour than your own turf, you are basically putting people out of work.

This is a difficult area. It’s not straightforward. (For instance, just in terms of classifying when you are “taking on a typesetter’s job” [my words], does using the alignment tools in your word processor count?) It’s not straightforward primarily, though, because the division of labour can be seen as both pro- and anti- progressive. I firmly believe, for instance, that people should be fairly paid for labour that we want done. Volunteerism is not the way to go in a complex system of scholarly communications. Allington is suggesting, I think, that by loading more and more labour onto academics, we create a system where more labour is done for less remuneration while entities continue to extract surplus value from that labour. That is a great concern and one that I share.

At the same time, I don’t think that the division of form and content (or labour) here really holds so well. It’s not as though there’s “academic work” in some rigorously defined way and then “other types of work”. In fact, in academic labour, we tend to self-define what we see as valid paradigms of research practice and thinking through doing. Practice-based research. And thinking about the conditions of possibility for academic work (critique) leads me to consider that the scholarly communications system is both determined by but determining of academic labour. That is, I don’t hold with Allington’s assertions elsewhere that certain types of computing labour should be considered strictly technical, as opposed to academic. This is what I need to write about and think about more thoroughly. I also don’t think that what counts as a type of labour is permanently fixed. Boundaries move and, without fetishizing it as deterministic, technology interacts with that process.

Finally, then, I’m fine with saying “don’t use LaTeX”. I’m just less sure that you shouldn’t do so because: 1. word processors use XML; or 2. that you’re preserving (meaningful) jobs.