Contrivers’ Review is an online journal of theory and criticism. Though our first issue self-reflexively questioned the value of “intellectual” work, one crucial aspect of our description has yet to undergo much scrutiny—namely, the adjectives “online” or “digital.”

Today, the opposition between analog and digital lifestyles relies on a misnomer. Etymologically “digital” derives from the Latin word for the fingers. It’s unclear how it came to be an antonym for “analog,” which at the dawn of the electronic era referred to the smooth waveforms specific to audio and radio. The technical sense of “digital” means a stepped wave, usually audio, created by computers. It is likely the oppositional meaning arose when audiophiles insisted that older recordings were superior to the newer, digital versions offered on newfangled compact discs. It is nevertheless ironic that the slogan for resisting the assault of electronic communication technology is itself a technological term, not unlike insisting that flying in a single-prop airplane is more authentic than flying in a jet-powered aircraft. This opposition also fails to adequately describe the complex relationship between digital and traditional publishing formats.

The recent, very public implosion of The New Republic underscores the tension between traditional publishing and newer venues run as tech companies, where performance metrics trump content.1 As the economics of the industry continue to evolve, can nuanced, intelligent, politically and morally courageous writing survive when every sentence must be monetized? Certainly, boutique web journals like N+1, Jacobin, LARB, and even Contrivers’ Review, demonstrate a commitment to the essay. However, it is far from clear which strategies or institutions will survive the continued contraction of the industry at large. This is a time of change and experimentation. That this experimentation is driven by economic realities does not mean that these changes are detrimental. The challenge is to rethink how the web extends and complements the traditional essay form.

The current answer to this challenge is to marry the technology of web logs to old media brands. Thus, The Washington Post and The Atlantic hire successful bloggers who continue their writing under the imprimatur of traditional media. In some cases, this model has proven successful; in others, less so. It’s clear, however, that blogging is a genre somewhat at odds with the essay, favoring timeliness and informality over structure and considered thoughtfulness. The industry is rethinking what it means to “publish” an “essay” when even staid academics have decamped to Blogger or Tumblr. And how should the labor of writers be valued in a market where the most profitable column space is unpaid and exploitative? There are no firm answers to these questions yet.

Blogs developed originally as a sort of public diary. Each entry is independent. There was, and is, no easy way to represent revisions. Nor was there an easy way to group posts together.2 Content could be consumed only through the browser (or through now-neglected RSS feeds). Before the advent of tablets or e-readers, this lack of portability could be excused, and while services like Instapaper can provide some of this portability, many web sites are designed still to barricade content within rather than share it widely. Control over where we read content, after all, is how web sites make money.

One core difference between Contrivers’ Review and other publications such as N+1, Jacobin, or Guernica is that we do not publish a print edition. Even LARB has recently started a quarterly print journal. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the smell of an old library book or the tactile act of penciling in marginal comments. However, we are skeptical of the economics of print publishing and doubt the long-term viability of investing heavily in that medium. Some publish online for publicity and to encourage subscribers to buy a print version. Without downplaying the challenges of monetizing—a dreadful term—online content, we do not assume that print has an ontological priority over the web.

Contrivers’ Review is committed to exploring the ways in which the web can extend and compliment the essay. Frustrated by the limitations of existing blogging platforms, we built our own content system from the ground up. Such a project is ambitious, but matches our belief that the existing paradigms are insufficient and overly beholden to existing genres. Content cannot be wholly divorced from form. Many of the features planned are “behind the scenes” or transparent to the reader. For the reader, it may not matter to you whether we’ve designed the database in a particular way. However, these design choices percolate up to determine what is ultimately displayed on the screen. Moreover, such technological choices reflect our editorial vision of considered, dialogic, theory-driven, long-format writing.

Reading and writing has always been a deeply intertextual act. A writer always brackets many concerns in order to foreground and organize a particular argument. Understanding an argument depends on our proximity to its context, on our ability to unpack what is bracketed or implicit, to fill in the blanks. While this unpacking is more self-conscious the farther in time or culture we are from the writer, all reading involves a hermeneutic act. Without trivializing this practice, I would like to suggest that the hypertextuality of the web technology more closely models the referentiality of our reading practices than the printed page.

Perhaps the most obvious design decision was not to include reader comments on articles. This was a conscious, deliberate choice on our part. In place of comments, we have the concept of “Responses,” which were inspired by Slate’s letter exchanges and “Critical Exchanges” in the journal Perspectives on Politics. The goal is to foster an environment of collegial disagreement and conversation. We expect such conversations to span multiple submissions and authors, to thread and interrelate. In effect, the goal is to model the deep referential knowledge of a scholarly conversation in a digestible, navigable form.

HTML was designed to be intertextual. The ability to embed metadata within a page or paragraph may be the most significant benefit over the printed word. Hyperlinks are far more supple references than the printed footnote or marginal note. Happily, the flexibility of the web does not force us to choose between such supplemental meanings, but allows the agile writer to leverage intertextuality directly. No new technologies are necessary to take advantage of this power, only writers and editors with sufficient know how.3

Contrivers’ Review therefore is designed by us to suit our needs. It represents a wager about how the form in which an essay appears might augment the content. Over the next few years, we’ll see if Contrivers’ can make good on this bet.

  1. From Ryan Lizza’s article:

    The editors were hardly opposed to giving greater attention to digital media, but they came to believe that Hughes was losing interest in the actual content of T.N.R.’s journalism and cultural criticism. “The only compliment Chris or Guy ever said about a piece was that it ‘did well,’ or it ‘travelled well,’ ” one of the staffers who resigned said. “If we had published Nietzsche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy,’ the only question would be, ‘Did it travel well?’ ‘Yes, Wagner tweeted it.’ ”

  2. I would be shocked to learn than anyone made heavy use of tags or categories to browse content on blogs. 

  3. Two specific examples may make this clearer. First, Contrivers’ supports footnotes. Considering the semi-academic writing we publish, this was essential. In the future, we hope to include other mechanisms by which our articles can be referenced by section, paragraph, or sentence. Secondly, our articles are fully “exportable” in the sense that they are (or should be) compliant with HTML5’s semantic tags. Each article now features a menu bar with options to export a link to Twitter or Facebook, or add the entire article to your Instapaper reading list.