In a conversation I was having with a friend the other day, I was telling her that, in all likelihood, the journal SubStance will survive its founders. It is not the possibility of survival that I ruminated about for the next few days. After all, there are many a journal that survived, some of them for centuries. But it is the word “survive” that kept busying itself in my mind. Why do we use metaphors of life and death to talk about just about everything? Look around you and you’ll see how pervasive it is, from what we say of the “lifespan” of an institution to the trite “Live TV,” just to name a couple of examples that immediately come to mind. And not to forget, of course, the just as pervasive efforts in fantastic tales, horror movies, and science fiction to embody the metaphor by imparting life to a severed body part, to an inanimate object, or even to a computer program. There is, of course, the unforgettable 2001: A Space Odyssey but also the wonderful Spike Jonze’s film Her where, very close to our own everyday experience, life and love are imparted to an operating system on a smartphone.
Why, then, do we indeed use the life metaphor to talk about inanimate objects, even to talk about an immaterial, quite complex organization, such as the publication of a journal? Could an organization, in this instance a journal, have a little something about it that is independent of its actors? To carry the metaphor a bit further, could a journal have a little something of a life of its own?
A journal is published (I’m tempted to say “lives”) within a highly complex set of links without which it simply cannot exist (“survive”), consisting of the authors and their own highly complex links (their education, readings, obsessions…); the Editorial Board members, with their own set of links; the Managing Editor with his/her links; the Publishing House with, as one can imagine, its own highly complex set of links; the printer, the electronic database providers, the visitors of these databases all over the world, the distributors of the journal, the libraries, the remaining few readers with hard copies sitting in a sunny corner of their libraries, each with their links. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others. An immense tapestry of links. The livelihood of a journal is, in other words, highly dependent on the vast ecosystem in which it lives (here again are the unavoidable biological metaphors…).
Willy-nilly, SubStance has evolved and this evolution has occurred without any discussions or conscious decision by its editors to change its course. It did so almost by itself, freeing itself from the first intentions of its founders, a knee pressing on its throat. It opened itself up progressively to various disciplines, artistic activities, theories, becoming what it is today, the best example of which is this very issue celebrating its 50th anniversary, where you’ll find short contributions by poets, writers, literary critics (of course), philosophers, media artists, digital artists, anthropologists, choreographers, composers, librarians, independent scholars and essayists. However, from SubStance’s very beginnings down to the present day, what has remained constant has been the publication of edgy, a bit risky, somewhat off-the-beaten-path contributions that have, over the years, formed its profile, its unique identity, what I like to call its signature.
In this very issue of SubStance, you’ll find a contribution that proposes a breathing text (John Cayley). Similarly, one can embody the life metaphor and imagine a journal that is breathing to keep itself alive. Each activation of a link in the vast tapestry that is the journal’s ecosystem, be it something as minor as responding to an inquiry or catching at the last minute a misspelling in proofs that are about to be sent off, or major ones, such as closing the preparation of an issue and clicking on that “send” key to be published, or receiving a submission that has that distinctive spark, processing it, and seeing it through publication. These are all breaths nurturing and nourishing the journal, keeping it alive, helping it survive.
Well… what remains is wishing it good health and O’bal meet sana, as they say in that part of the world I was familiar with: may you reach one hundred years.