AGITATE! As Creative Commons: AGITATE! Editorial Collective Speaks to Nancy Sims

This interview was compiled by Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota for Against the Grain. It was published in the Charleston Hub on November 30, 2021.

AGITATE! Editorial Collective members Keavy McFadden, Richa Nagar, Sara Musaifer, Emina Bužinkić, Nithya Rajan, Sima Shakhsari, and Samira Musleh participated in the interview.

Introducing AGITATE!

An online, open access journal, AGITATE! is a platform for knowledges that seek to unsettle the dominant politics and practices of experts.  AGITATE! explores the possibilities and challenges of interweaving scholarship, creative writing, art, journalism, and activism.  We invite contributors from diverse locations to engage the anti-disciplinary space of AGITATE! to catalyze new conversations, visions, and narrative practices in multiple genres and languages, in order to advance struggles for sociopolitical and epistemic justice.  We encourage work that is cognizant of and intentional about the simultaneous ethics, aesthetics, poetics, and politics of transformative knowledge-making and pedagogies.  We welcome the submission of essays, creative non/fiction, artwork, poetry, translations, musings, and meditations on political struggles in named and unnamed forms.  By evolving an open process of co-creation, AGITATE! challenges the traditional divides between process and product, and between author, artist, reviewer, and editor.  As an anti-hierarchical collective, AGITATE! strives for equity, transparency, and plurality in our creative, editorial, and publishing processes.

Launched in 2019, we have now published three volumes, one annually since our founding.  In addition to our volumes, we also host a more dynamic space called AGITATE Now! which compliments and extends AGITATE!’s annual volumes by offering a home for ongoing conversations, emerging meditations, and creative agitations.  Because volumes are imagined around particular themes and are published annually or biennially, AGITATE Now! provides a space for fostering ongoing discussions that fall outside of volume themes but reflect our political commitments and communities.

The editorial collective, the collective of seven that is co-writing this interview, is the group most directly involved in the recruitment, review, and development of the publications; in the daily life of the platform;  and with the unfolding relationships with our contributors and editorial board members.  The work of publishing includes:  conceptualizing the thematic focus of each volume, recruitment of contributions, reviews in multiple languages and genres, determining the layout, undertaking all the work of formatting and revising, and translating the labor into forms that both reflect and share with our audiences what the work of unsettling dominant knowledges looks like for us, and what are the lessons learned in the process.  Our editorial collective evolves with each volume.

Nancy:  Why did your collective choose to use a Creative Commons license for AGITATE!, broadly speaking?  How did your collective make that choice? 

When we embarked on the process of dreaming up and later founding AGITATE!, our emphasis was on building a platform that would work against the dominant norms of publishing and knowledge production, especially as conceptualized within universities.  While there are many dominant norms that one can name here, there are at least two that we were concerned with from the get go:  First, how to encourage, nourish, and recognize knowledges that are necessarily created through collective praxes, including creative partnerships between authors and artists, on the one hand, and editors and reviewers, on the other.  Second, how could we better represent knowledges that are partial, tentative, everflowing, and ever-evolving and that refuse clean genres, frameworks, and languages.

The work of creating a space that agitates against these norms has been an ongoing, labor-intensive, and highly rewarding process of co-evolving a vision, of naming AGITATE! intentionally, and of developing a language about who we are and what our own evolving priorities and ways of co-traveling have been.  For us, this has always been done collectively and the editorial collective is central to advancing the visions of AGITATE!.

The early conversations about AGITATE! started in the context of our individual and collective involvement in other collectives and long-term collaborative relationships.  Our vision for the journal, in part, came out of a dissatisfaction with (a) how graduate students in the collective (Keavy McFadden, Sara Musaifer, Beaudelaine Pierre, Julie Santella in the initial group) were being pushed to produce work in certain kinds of formats by other publishing venues and (b) the types of feedback we received when we tried to publish our work, particularly politically-engaged, collectively-created work that blurred and challenged the imposed compartmentalization of academia, activism, and the arts.  We felt that some of the tensions we were trying to hold — particularly around the genres and forms in which our intellectual and political engagements were taking place — were not empowered or were purposefully erased and hidden by reviewers.  When we thought about where we could turn to with our emerging pieces and commitments, we realized we did not know of a home for our writing that would honor the particular ways in which we were engaging with storytelling, scholarship, and politics in our work.  Incidentally, one member of our collective, a faculty member (Richa Nagar) who had been working closely with us, had already been in a long-standing conversation with the University of Minnesota Libraries about the necessity for creating a publication that agitated against these dominant norms, values, and practices and she had heard great enthusiasm from the publishing team at the UMN Libraries to help advance such work.  So the group that would later become the founding editorial collective began to ask:  what would it mean for us to work with the UMN Libraries to start a platform that intentionally pushed back against some of the limitations that intellectuals from marginalized locations repeatedly face?  What would it mean to share and articulate knowledge(s) in ways that are foreclosed in the dominant disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and anti-disciplinary academic spaces available to us?

The emphasis from the beginning was on how to push back against traditions of exclusion — how to create a platform for knowledges that are suppressed both within and outside the academy, and how to struggle for and center just and ethical processes of knowledge production in our platform rather than representing mere products?  It was by dwelling in these questions as a collective that we began to develop a vision for AGITATE! and of naming AGITATE!’s evolving priorities and language.  Through the platform of AGITATE! we, alongside our collaborators and co-agitators, are interested in exploring the possibilities and challenges of interweaving scholarship with storytelling and all forms of creative expression (whether classified as “art” or “activism” or “analysis”), and many of our engagements dive into the simultaneous ethics, aesthetics, poetics, and politics of such knowledge making.  AGITATE! explores how stories told from multiple genres, languages, and perspectives can be read as theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical tools in order to rethink intellectual labor and socially transformative engagements.  It searches for what it means to undiscipline ourselves in search of sociopolitical, epistemic, and poetic justice, while also embracing the responsibility to translate ourselves to and between the communities and issues we agitate with, in, and for.

This has involved challenging and interrogating the conventional separations that are held/policed between process and product, between genres, and between author, artist, reviewer, and editor.  The process of review is a central place where our commitments and priorities come through.  So we have consistently devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to imagining how our collective review process can emphasize relationship building and nourishing collaborations with those who are creating and thinking in ways that unsettle prevailing norms.

From this agitational mode, licensing and copyright were not at the forefront of our minds.  But, in conversation with you and other folks at University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, we realized that a Creative Commons licence might help support our commitments to open access, freely accessible content and to granting explicit control and copyrights to contributors.  We were particularly inspired by your insights around copyrights and how they can be shared with journals and publishers without the contributor being stripped of the copyrights to their own work.  Collectively, we agreed that engaging with CC could help us articulate visions for and practices of intellectual, artistic, and academic freedom, even though we didn’t have much of a background or stake in the legal context.

Nancy:  Why did you choose the specific license you did (CC BY-NC-ND)?  (Were there any you considered and chose not to use?  If so, why?)

Initially, we did go with the ND, largely because we did not have a full understanding of the ecosystem of Creative Commons and what the different clauses mean.  However, we recently decided to change our licensing and distribute our work with a CC BY-NC 4.0 rather than the CC BY-NC-ND.  When we were in the very early stages of dreaming up and building AGITATE!, we were not fully aware of the differences between the different Creative Commons licenses and did not know that we had opted for a relatively more restrictive license.  For example, we did not understand that the more clauses you add to a CC license, the fewer ways that readers can re-use the content without the author’s permission.  But, especially as we have grown and deepened our work, we realized that we needed our licensing to reflect our commitments around sharing, adapting, translating, and otherwise agitating existing knowledges, and the ND was too restrictive to support those goals.

This shift and our return to questions around CC licensing and copyright speaks to a longstanding tension that is at the heart of our work, especially as we continue to grow.  As an anti-hierarchical collective, we are acutely aware of the violence of dominant academic systems.  Setting out to challenge and push up against the dominant norms of publishing, there can be a tendency, or maybe a temptation, to think that agitating conventional models means just throwing out and doing away with everything that is a vestige of the traditional system — whether it be peer review, author or submission agreements, editorials, etc.  But what we have found, and what we continually return to as our collective process evolves, is that some of these practices and mechanisms, such as licensing, can be reappropriated and used in powerful ways to actually support agitational modes of knowledge production.  At present, we see CC as supporting our broader commitments.  Is Creative Commons alone going to undo entrenched ways of thinking about knowledge and publishing in the academy and beyond?  No.  But it can be an important component or supportive piece of that effort.  Our evolving engagements with copyrights and licensing represent our simultaneous complicity in the violences of dominant academic systems but also our commitments to creatively working through them, resisting them, and fostering collectivity by pushing back against them.

Nancy:  Did you consider using more mixed approaches (i.e., allowing contributors to select between more than one CC license, or using both Creative Commons licenses and more traditional approaches to copyright)?  If so, why did you move away from that?

We haven’t ever considered that.  From our launch, we were committed to CC over more traditional approaches.  From our perspective, our commitment to open access and collective processes means that we need something like the CC framework and that more conventional or limited approaches are not capable of supporting our vision.  One of our core principles is a commitment to including marginalized or less heard voices that are not professionally trained in academia, arts, or activism, but whose commitments align with and advance the vision of AGITATE!.  Especially in this context, it is important for contributors to retain control and autonomy over their own work.  So the traditional approach will likely never be something that we are interested in, unless a contributor could make a compelling case for why they needed something published under a different license.  We do occasionally make changes to our review and publishing processes on a case-by-case basis, based on the needs and dreams of our contributors, but rarely are folks asking for more traditional models.  Instead, our collaborative relationships with contributors often lead us to keep learning to undo and reimagine conventional approaches.

Nancy:  Do you think using a Creative Commons license for all contributions has affected contributors/contributions?

We haven’t had a contributor approach us about it either way. There haven’t been any instances of someone choosing not to contribute or choosing to contribute because of our licensing, at least not any that have been communicated to the editorial collective.  We have had to explain our licensing approach to potential contributors who have asked about permissions or republishing, but one of the best parts of operating with a CC license is that it takes away most thorny legal and permissions-based issues:  the answer is always “yes,” because a contributor retains the rights to their own creative, intellectual, and political work.  And, for us, this comes from a deep acknowledgement of the ways in which knowledges and any “outputs” are always the result of collective processes of knowledge production, even if a particular article or artist expression or translation is thought of as a result from a “single author.”

We are just now starting to have more explicit conversations about our policies and licensing with contributors, so perhaps we will have more collective discussions about CC as our upcoming volumes take shape.

Nancy:  Are there ways in which Creative Commons licenses are frustrating or disappointing for you as editors/facilitators?  (e.g., do they limit things you’d want to enable;  are they tied to legal constructs you’d like to get rid of/bypass)

When we began this work together to build the space of AGITATE!, we added the tagline “unsettling knowledges” to our journal.  We felt this tagline helped capture our intention to build a space that fundamentally questions some assumptions about what knowledge looks like, which are frequently taken for granted in academic spaces. This knowledge pretends to be complete, authoritative, owned by individuals, and authored either by experts or at least with the stamp of approval from experts.  We sought to destabilize much of this by creating a community wherein partial, shared, collective, and non-“expert” knowledges would properly be held up as intellectually and politically rigorous knowledge.

Since then, we have often discussed our use of the term “unsettle.”  Particularly given our affiliation with and sponsorship by UMN, an R-1 land grant university responsible for ongoing stealing and ongoing occupying of Dakota homelands, as well as profiting from the theft and occupation of other Indigenous lands, what sorts of claims to “unsettling” can we actually make? What does it mean to seriously grapple with the complex histories and present realities of the land on which UMN presently sits? Recognizing that this ‘we’ is a fraught term, what obligations and responsibilities do we carry as a result of where we are located — both as a collective and individually, situated as we differently are?  What might it mean for us to ground AGITATE!’s commitment to “unsettle knowledges” here, in relation to this land, while also attending to the many lands and struggles that we associate with?

Coming at these questions with accountability displays some of the limitations of CC.  Western copyright law is deeply embedded within rights discourse and histories of colonialism and imperialism, and that includes contemporary articulations of CC even as it works to address some of that history.  CC still intervenes at the level of authorship, ownership, and property, even if the intent is to redistribute and share that authorship and ownership.  But CC’s entrenchment within legal constructs of property and colonial assumptions about ownership is certainly a limitation and frustration.

Nancy:  Are there ways in which Creative Commons licenses have been freeing for you, or have allowed you to make positive changes?

Another core principle of ours is a commitment to publishing work and fostering collaborations across multiple sites, genres, and languages, that are often rendered unequal by prevailing structures.  CC helps mitigate some of the extractive models of publishing by making sure that, to the extent possible through licensing, the power and autonomy is in the hands of the contributor.  In this sense, CC is a supportive infrastructure that frees us to dream and agitate in other spheres without getting bogged down by legal obstacles and decisions.

Nancy:  If you could begin AGITATE! again with — absolutely any — approach to copyright/ownership/authorship/credit, what might that look like?

Within current constraints, we would likely still reach for the Creative Commons model, especially given the mentioned importance of working against extractive models and expanding the terrain of collectivity in publishing.  However, if we can imagine a different world, we would take a different approach to embodying an anti-copyright and anti-intellectual property position, in order to work towards copyright abolition.  We would do away with any notions of individual “ownership” of intellectual “property.”  We would also do away with copyright’s emphasis on neatly categorized products, rather than elevating the messy and creative processes of knowledge production.  Consequently, any conversation about reimagining authorship means a re-imagination of the purpose of AGITATE! and a re-dreaming of what forms AGITATE! might take.  If we could rebirth AGITATE!, we would likely question the journal format altogether.  As we’ve grown over the past few years, we’ve expanded our engagements beyond our annual journal publication.  Our dreams have found inspiration in the relationships we fostered and the communities we built across our platform, which includes the journal volumes, but also our AGITATE Now! space, workshops, webinars, and organized conversations.  What we realized in the years since our inception is that much like copyright frameworks, the inherited structures of journals emphasize final products, a narrow understanding of authorship, and a glorification of the written word.  All of this happens at the expense of the relational, the collective, the messy, and the creative in knowledge production.  Were we to dream AGITATE! over again, we would emphasize ourselves as a platform, a community, a different type of periodical, or something else entirely, rather than a journal.  As we grow, we continue to think about how we can expand into a platform that supports named and unnamed radical work that agitates beyond the outputs we have so far been focused on — beyond the written word, beyond final “products,” and beyond publications.

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