In 2019, Liane Carlson wrote about a dying field (hers, the philosophy of religion). Its death arrived more rapidly than most others. She observed that the collective nature of all scholarship (“There is no intellectual work that does not take place as part of a dialogue with the living or dead”) sits awkwardly alongside the scarcity and inequitable distribution of tenure-line positions that sustain that work (“I could only name three women and two people of color in thirteen years who had gotten tenure track jobs in philosophy of religion”). How and where will communal thinking now be done? This is her question. As communities of thinkers in the academy shrink, so too do possibilities for thinking together about our failure. In what Carlson calls “the last moments of an old world,” academics and writers “no longer write the books we teach,” and, more depressingly, she surmises, those that do get published will be “pared down to a modest, acceptable form by the sputtering of the tenure machine.” But Carlson offers a justification for failing to think about our failure: “it is hard to think about precarity in moments of precarity.”

Fast-forward five years. What of death now? What of our failure? Beyond the scarcity of tenure-line positions, departments of religion face real and frequent threats of closure. This academic year, religious studies faculty at UNC Greensboro challenged the administration’s planned dissolution of their unit by collecting more than 4,000 signatures, enabling them to transition from a department to a concentration, an alternative they’d proposed. Academic restructuring is now so common at tuition-dependent U.S. institutions like UNC Greensboro that naming this fact seems trite. Not only departments and programs are at risk. Observers estimate that lesser known, private colleges are closing at a rate of one a week. Only the wealthiest institutions are seeing applications for undergraduate admission soar. Today, two things are true: the academic job market is more lottery than market; tenure and unionization do not guarantee job security.

Each of the four books featured in this forum — Lata Mani’s Myriad Intimacies, the multi-authored The Abyss or Life Is Simple, Shahzad Bashir’s A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures, and Shannon Lee Dawdy’s American Afterlives — is an invitation to collaborative thinking. Each demonstrates the possibilities for thinking together in a time of constriction, of not giving in to an ever-smaller intellectual world. They traverse the fields of film and media studies, creative nonfiction, Islamic studies, religion and literature, cultural anthropology, and philosophy of religion. All differ from traditional single-authored monographs in significant ways, though all are also published by university presses and therefore bear the imprint of peer review, which distinguishes scholarship from other creative work. Their shape toggles between multiple dimensions of experience. Whether through QR codes, uncaptioned stills, or clickable links, references to other modalities of argumentation elasticize the books’ boundaries and boundedness.


This forum includes contributions from the book authors, responses by scholars who were invited to read the featured books, and, perhaps most notably and for the first time on The Immanent Frame, essays by acquisitions editors and producers. I asked Fred Appel (Princeton University Press), Allison Levy (Brown University Digital Publications), Kyle Wagner (University of Chicago Press), and Ken Wissoker (Duke University Press) to consider their motivations for acquiring these titles, how they see the book they acquired or helped to produce advancing conversations in the fields with which it is engaged, and what, if anything, about the book’s form and style figured in their sense of its anticipated contributions. I also asked them to discuss the most significant changes they have seen and expect to see in scholarly publishing.

Here are some key takeaways. From Wissoker, who acquired Lata Mani’s Myriad Intimacies, we learn the importance of timing. An experimental work is “on time stylistically and politically” in relation to other works published by that press. Wissoker compares Myriad Intimacies to then-recently published transdisciplinary books by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Fred Moten, and Christina Sharpe. Appel, who acquires in anthropology, religion, and religious history, offers a complementary view, explaining that books like American Afterlives “create synergy across [his] publishing programs.” Dawdy’s book would likely find an audience among readers of another Princeton title, Thomas Laqueur’s acclaimed The Work of the Dead. Appel also notes that the “expansion of book formats,” from hardback to paperback editions and from e-book to audio editions, “has been among the most consequential changes in the book publishing landscape,” such that “over time, we’ve all developed a more capacious and flexible understanding of what a book is.” As digital formats have expanded, new challenges have also emerged. Wissoker, for example, explains that “the standard steps of production” had to be paused while the editorial and design department figured out how to provide stable hosting for the video materials Mani wished to include in her book.

Levy, who developed Shahzad Bashir’s A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures at Brown University Library before it was published by MIT Press, offers another perspective on these developments. Funding organizations like the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have made open-access born-digital long-form books like A New Vision possible, offering the necessary digital infrastructure and supporting collaborations between libraries, university presses, and authors. Those working across these institutional sites share a view that “monograph publishing in the digital age must be intentional and ambitious.” Lest we associate experimentation with the now, Wagner remarks on Chicago’s long-standing commitment to “publishing experimental work that propels scholarship into the future.” Editors sometimes turn to peer presses to consider models for new projects they might take on. Wagner used The Ferrante Letters, published by Columbia University Press, to think about the book that became The Abyss or Life Is Simple. He notes that while experimental works are often collaborative, “most collective relations shouldn’t be books.” Those that succeed, such as The Abyss or Life Is Simple, “bear witness to the process of becoming as well as the product of that process.”


Lata Mani’s Myriad Intimacies is a transmedia, multi-genre work that interweaves videopoems and videocontemplations, a form that, as she writes in the book, enables cognitive honesty “about sensemaking as provisional synthesis.” The reader/viewer is crucial to this undertaking. Mani, an independent scholar, conceives of this being within a tantric understanding of relationality. “Every life,” Mani writes in her book, “is deeply imbricated in, imbricated with, every other life.” Mani’s project is as much about knowledge as about its production. The project draws from and remixes her collaborations with filmmaker Nicolás Grandi to question prevailing norms about unfolding processes. In doing so, Mani challenges “the authoritativeness of a finished work,” which “can occlude the destabilizing uncertainty of inquiry.” Myriad Intimacies plays with text and image not to resolve the tentativeness immanent to her subjects, which include desire, the body, love, and the sacred, but to show how “one lives with, ponders, and gradually allows oneself to learn from the dance of cogitation and revelation.” Myriad Intimacies brings these subjects “alive as experience” through political commentary, film clips, and poetry, inviting the reader/viewer to move and think beyond the printed page.

In the essay she contributes to this forum, Dawdy describes her documentary film with Daniel Zox, I Like Dirt., as a companion to American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century. But the film came first. Is the book a companion to the documentary? These are complementary modalities for learning and exploration. Seeing on film how Americans today are reinventing the disposition of human remains, rituals, and ideas about the afterlife invites us into the book, while the book, through Zox’s stills and Dawdy’s cinematic, often personal, writing invites us into the documentary. The conclusion to the book isn’t anymore an end, or a beginning, than the film’s closing credits. Dawdy’s research questions, the ones she asked Americans across the country — What do you want done with your body when you die? What do you think happens to us after we die? — gain a life beyond her and Zox and the people they interviewed. Once brought forward to a reading, viewing, and listening public, these questions become available to all to ask ourselves and one another, making the “contemporary mortuary archeology” that is American Afterlives a historically finite multimodal project — a study of American death practices at a particular time — and one that necessarily morphs as it is received by and discussed with others.

The Abyss or Life Is Simple: Reading Knausgaard Writing Religion has as many contributors as comprise an edited volume but is not an edited volume. Carlson is one of the book’s eight authors, who refer to themselves as the Knausgaard Reading and Writing Collective. They read the six-volume novel My Struggle and discussed it over six years, in multiple cities and online. Among the authors of The Abyss is Hannah Garvey, who participated in the group primarily as a transcriptionist. What does it mean to ascribe authorship to a witness? And what does it mean for a group of scholars, only one of whom can be said to specialize in religion and literature, to publish a book of interlocking essays that is occasioned by a novel they read, but may be more about the experience of reading and talking about it together? The Abyss reflects deeply on what the collective calls “writing religion,” what they name in the book “a religious dimension at the heart of literary expression,” one that “happens — must happen, Knausgaard tells us — without calculation and without critical intention.” What the collective provides, then, is an account of how a community is made, and perhaps a model for other scholars to think about what they do when their common endeavor is to read and write “the indeterminate and the inadvertent.”

The born-digital, open access book A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures by Shahzad Bashir moves beyond monolithic representations of Islam by presenting Islamic history as an ever-expanding, ever-contingent web. He explains in his essay for this forum that “The book’s form — a custom-designed digital interface — is its argument.” Bashir places himself within and in relation to the myriad primary sources that comprise the digital interface of A New Vision and invites readers to do the same. Instead of presenting a linear history of Islam, the book’s table of contents offers many pathways for exploration, demonstrating how the same sources can be marshalled differently based on the reader’s interests, commitments, and preferences. Mapping a range of possibilities for understanding Islamic pasts also anticipates Islamic futures whose presence isn’t simulated in the web, only acknowledged in its premise. As Bashir writes in his essay, “the book aspires to engender new epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical relationships between us as readers and writers and the evidence pertaining to Islam.” Readers who engage with the book are guided less by Bashir’s authorial intention, than the web of meaning they create and arrange as they delve deeper into its uncertain paths.


“What we are at the end is a reflection of who we were as we were fully vibrant and alive,” says Maureen, who curates a contemporary urn collection at Funeria, a small art gallery located in Grafton, California. “So it’s really all about packaging.” Maureen stands beside one-of-a-kind art objects on pedestals, looking at the camera flatly as she says this. After a brief pause, her lips part to form a smile, eyes squinting behind butterfly shaped glasses. Her cheeks constrict nervously and then relax and all her teeth show. Maureen is one of several death-care professionals that Dawdy and Zox interviewed. The gallery that Maureen runs faces stiff competition in the U.S. death-care industry, Dawdy tells us in the book. Consumers prefer ash scattering and memorial commodities like diamonds, paintings, and glass orbs “that incorporate, rather than contain, human remains.”

We should not think of the books featured in this forum as artifacts so singular in their distinctiveness that they could only appeal to a finite audience. Instead, these are experiments that expand what a scholarly book is and can be, work that is being done by thinkers who are differently positioned in many corners of the academy and beyond it, even as the institutional allocation of spaces available for thought constrict year after year. Crucially, this work is supported by long-time editors and other professionals across university press publishing. Their editorial vision affirms the need for non-obvious and open-ended, exploratory projects whose original ideas advance public conversations.

As far as I can tell, none of the contributing authors believes in art’s capacity to redeem our failure. They are more like Aaliya, a septuagenarian who translates one book a year unbothered that its readership is yet unknown. The novelist Rabih Alameddine, her creator, explains that his, and likely Aaliya’s, compulsion to write is about aliveness. Alameddine battled bouts of depression after each of his novels was published, realizing that not a single one of them had changed the world. Eventually he let this expectation go. He embraced his true motivation for writing. “I write because I care,” Alameddine says. “I write because I care deeply about books.”