Reading the Archives:
Ten Years on Nonlinear (Kairos) History

Jim Kalmbach

A Digression: Assembling

While the Kairos approach of encouraging writers to take ownership of the appearance, media elements, and hypertextual structures of their webtexts may be relatively rare in current practice among online academic journals, it is not without historical precedent (though it is a precedent in the world of small press, avant-garde literary publishing).

At the beginnings of the late age of print -- that is, the late sixties and early seventies when disco, Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon, and Xerox machines dominated our imaginations -- literary magazines began appearing that resisted the cost structure and editorial controls of traditional small press publishing. Groups of authors were asked to submit not poems or stories but copies of finished pages on which they had written and designed anything they wanted, and those pages were then collated and bound by the editors into magazines. Editorial control came not in the review of the pieces but in terms of whom the editors invited to participate. Early examples of this form were Notebook and Omnibus News, both published in 1969 (Perkins, nd). The most well known and successful magazine in this genre, however, was Assembling magazine, edited by Richard Kostelantz. Here is how Kostelantz described the process of creating the magazine:

In brief, Assembling was founded in 1970 as an outlet for "otherwise unpublishable" creative work. Since its founders were bothered by the authoritarian restrictiveness of conventional magazines, whose editors wanted everything to fit neatly into a pre-determined formula and format, we wanted a medium that would, by a radical counter-editorial stroke, transcend these deleterious practices. The simplest way, we discovered, was to invite artists and writers whom we knew to be doing innovative, "otherwise unpublishable" work to contribute a thousand copies of whatever they wanted to include. Assembling in turn would bind the contributions into a thousand alphabetically collated books, and return two copies a piece to each contributor. In spite of the requirements that contributors prepare all of their own pages for the copy-camera, literally self-publishing their work from scratch, hundreds of writers and artists around the world have joined me as colleagues in Assembling. Indeed, the medium has become so thick with contributions that Eighth Assembling (1978) has to appear in two volumes. (p. 5)

The magazines were produced by an almost anti-editorial process (arrangement was strictly by alphabetical order):

Work appears as contributors want it to appear: they need fear no censorship; any typos in the work are their own fault; any compromises that may be made are their own responsibility. Participants contribute the work that seems most appropriate to them. THEY, rather than the editors, decide what is their best work, or what they feel best represents them, or what they feel would be most useful . . .(Young, 1986).

Kostelantz produced ten issues of Assembling and another three issues were put out by his collaborators, the last appearing in 1987 (). Though Kostelantz's magazine is the most well known in this genre, Perkins argues that in the seventies and eighties, "assemblings have flourished as an important international self publishing activity with approximately nine new assembling projects starting yearly from 1968-86" ().

Although Assembling solved many technical problems for alternative small press editors who did not have institutional support, the impact on the work of putting writers in control of the production and appearance of their work is I think even more fascinating. Consider these comments by Karl Young, one of the principle collaborators on the project:

There is something demanding about the freedom an Assembling contributor has. That vacant space he's given can draw something out of him, challenge him to do his best . . . The lack of editorial restraint encourage him to things which he otherwise might feel too limited to do (from the forward to the 1975 issue of Assembling quoted in Kostelantz, 1979b, p. 1).

There have been several aspects of Assembling that weren't clearly thought out when the magazine was first conceived, but which have helped make it one of the best magazines around. Collage and chance processes have dominated the arts throughout this century, and Assembling, with its varied contributors sequenced in alphabetical order, seems to be the chance-generated collage par excellence. Performance art has become increasingly important as we've moved closer to the end of the millennium, and Assembling is a sort of Happening done in print, an Event created by a number of people going in different directions, following a simple program, unable to see the final result until the Event has been completed (Young, 1987).

Kairos does not have the same anti-editorial bias that these artists thriving on the margins of American Art culture embraced. Webtexts that appear in Kairos go through a rigorous peer review process. But the similarities are remarkable. Kairos even lists webtexts in alphabetic order within sections as Assembling did. Moreover, Kairos' philosophy and business plan (as Doug Eyman once said, "No money in, no money out"), its strong community, and its seemingly endless creative energy have clearly grown out of the same impulses as do assembling magazines and mailart exchanges.

An issue of Kairos is a sort of Happening done in digital media—an Event created by its authors and editors, a form of performance art, or perhaps more accurately, a form of performance scholarship (Footnote: My Experiences with Assembling).

You can continue to the beginning of the actual analysis of hypertexts in Kairos, or you can return to the home page.