the historical commodity fetish and the Creative Commons

I love Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, largely because of his disruption of linear form in historical analysis. Grafton takes the reader through multiple historical regressions from the end point of the use of footnotes in von Ranke’s professionalized history. Along the way he demonstrates that the innovativeness attributed von Ranke’s scholarship, and its particular form on constituting historical knowledge, had roots in a variety of eighteenth century forms of inquiry. By moving backward and forward repeatedly, the book hammers home through the lowly footnote the extent to which historical scholarship is dependent upon, and constructed on the shoulders of “multidisciplinary” forebears.  And, of course, it’s appropriate that the footnote be the object of investigation to play out this reality.

I had a professor at Appalachian State as an undergrad who was a full on footnote fanatic. The class I took from him was on Abraham Lincoln, and those of us who wrote papers for Dr. Haunton were terrified of his reputation for carrying one’s work to the library, and physically checking the citations. Apparently this reputation carried beyond his classes as well, as I had an assistant professor tell me once the Haunton had done the same thing with his dissertation during the interview process! The fear instilled in me that semester of messing up a citation stuck with me for the rest of my days.[1] The lowly footnote is the anchor of legitimacy for one’s work because it constitutes the trail of primary and secondary work that forms the genealogy one’s production.

At the same time, the footnote, and also the endnote, acts in a manner that reminds me of Marx’s insight into commodity fetishism. For Marx, the danger of the commodity form in part is its ability to mystify the social relations that underpin capitalism by giving capital the appearance of a relationship among things. The commodities of the historians’ trade are bits of archival data, ideas, theories, prior arguments, traces, physical manuscripts, etc. And, the work we produce, engaging these historical commodities, appears ideally under the aegis of the single-authored monograph, published by an academic press for an audience of tenure reviewers. The single-authored monograph acts as its own sort of fetish, hiding the collaborative relationship that exists across time (and in many cases long stretches of time) and between the various practitioners that produce the commodities to which we apply our labors.  This is particularly true in the case of archival materials, whose very existence depends on an unknown series of social relations that produced their preservation.

As any good student of historiography knows, the process of production of historical knowledge is essentially remix labor. We take was has already been written, interrogate primary sources, and produce “new” readings of the past. We are remixers from start to finish. The single-authored monograph (or journal article) mystifies our dependencies on collaborations across time, with people we likely don’t or may not ever have the possibility of knowing, by presenting our work as acts of singular creativity. Sure, the acknowledgements section of a piece of work recognizes an author’s immediate debts to supporters, reviewers, readers, etc. But, that section does nothing to reveal the fundamental fetishism of seeing single-authored work as singularly creative.

Finally, it’s the intention of most every historian I’ve had contact with that their work become a part of this commodity chain, that it be read and incorporated directly into the flow of new historical production. Granted, we all want credit in the space of the lowly footnote for that which we’ve produced, but we are still writing to be remixed again. Academic history is precisely the type of creativity that marks the internet age and remix culture, even if it’s much more ploddingly and less self-consciously ironically produced.

I think that this fundamental nature of historical work argues for the Creative Commons licensing of academic history as a disciplinary standard. CC licenses do not forfeit all intellectual property rights, but they do legally formalize the process of production in which we academic historians engage. CC licenses reveal from a legal perspective the dependencies that the fetish of the single-author monograph mystify, and give explicit permission for future use. Further, the true enemy of historical work is the closed archive. Historians have long been advocates for making the archival patrimony/matrimony of humankind freely available. But, when it comes to our professional production, we trade in that commitment to freely available sources for a self-serving publication process that puts the shared labors of historical commodities behind walls and in silos (a process overdetermined, it should be said, by the demands of tenure and promotion). The very possibility of our work depends on the existence of an archival commons and remix of our predecessors, and yet we all too often perform acts of enclosure in the last instance.

Creative Commons is explicitly designed to allow creators to ‘stand on the shoulder of their peers’ and ‘collaborate across space and time.’ Could there be a better descriptor of academic historical work?


[1] It didn’t, though, keep me from making a citation mistake in my dissertation and first article. My most embarassing moment as a historian was  the moment I realized, through an email conversation with an eminent historian in my field, that I had incorrectly entered an author’s name from an 18th century legal commentary in my citation software. That one mistake led to larger problems in an article and my dissertation, but that I finally fixed in my book.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Research and Writing
5 comments on “the historical commodity fetish and the Creative Commons
  1. ctb says:

    And of course, as a friend reminded me, we usually alienate the rights to our labor without fiscal compensation anyway– to journals and presses– receiving non-economic remuneration (prestige, validation, etc) instead. All the more reason to jettison the single C.

  2. MDG says:

    Great analogy with Marx there. That’s the sort of thinking for which you get paid the big bucks, right?

  3. ctb says:

    So, you really think antagonizing a committee member who’s about to start writing letters for you is a good idea? :D

  4. […] the movement towards open access and Creative Commons work in scholarly work. I’ve argued before that the nature of historical evidence and inquiry provide ample justification for making CC a […]

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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