Knot to Read

This is perhaps my fourth time working with “Benito Cereno” – for some reason, I keep on having Melvillians as professors – and thus perhaps my third time confronting the issue of how to discuss “Benito Cereno” with a group. As with any work that involves mysteries and twists, it is risky to discuss elements of the plot less one accidentally exposes a reveal to a first time reader and thus ‘spoils’ the story (because, obviously, a story becomes unpalatable once its entire plot is known). In effect, one must create a bifurcated discussion: that which discusses the novella in progress and that which discusses the novella in total. Or, it may be better to remark that our consumption of the novella exposes us to multiple aspects of “the Text” (Barthes), those myriad avenues of interpretation and signification that are invoked by a work’s integration into the world of signs, that become revealed as our consumption reaches conclusion. Of course this begs the question: what was “the Text” up to the point of our completion? Can one see only a partial element of “the Text” obfuscated by ignorance (consider the parable of the three blind men and their encounter with an elephant) or is this encounter with “the Text” as legitimate as that for the one who rereads – an aspect of the “irreducible…plural” (Barthes)?

I ask these questions because, such as I perceive, “Benito Cereno” is among those works that can only be read upon rereading; the novella was written for those who had already read it and are aware of what has/does/will occur. We can not complete the first page before we are (re)introduced to “Captain Delano’s…singularly undistrustful good-nature…Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” (Melville) Knowing that this “good-nature” will/has risk(ed) Delano’s life and plunge(d) him naively into a bloody rebellion, it is hard to read such a quip as less than jest. Where an initial reader may have seen particularly heavy-handed foreshadowing, the returning reader now understands that the narrative was/is accompanied by a game, one including only those who know the plot before it unfolds. We realize that that work itself and its foreshadowing was a “Gordian knot” much like that the “old knotter” offered to Delano. We were suppose to ‘untie’ the work. Yet, not knowing the significance of its ‘threads,’ (or even an understanding that would permit the knot’s dissolution) an initial reader must dismiss these moments as “odd tricks” and let the significance be “tossed…overboard.” Yet, for the returning reader that possesses the knowledge to “Undo it…”, they have paradoxically rendered the ‘knot’ useless, as they already know what it contains. All that remains is the “play” (Barthes) that comes from unraveling the knot – much like “the Text” that emerges from “the Work.”

The metaphor the narrative presents thus suggests that “the Text” is only available for those that return to the novella after a prior consumption. It is, essentially, a work written to be reread, not read. When we take this understanding and turn to face the “problems of annotation” (Bauer and Zirker), we realize that this element of the work creates substantial complications for an initial reader. Understanding Bauer and Zirker’s method of annotation as a means to elucidate “the Text” in tandem with consumption of “the Work”, we can conjecture that annotating “Benito Cereno” would essentially reveal a rereading of the novella to any initial reader as “the annotation of parts presupposes the understanding of the text as a whole while at the same time providing such an understanding.” (Bauer and Zirker) For instance, in annotating the incident with the “Gordian knot,” an annotator will be forced to consider whether they wish to elucidate the connection between the knot and the narrative. To do so will reveal several elements of the plot that would be hidden for an initial reader. Yet, to abstain from such an annotation, and thus avoid ‘spoiling’ the novel, would fail to do justice to “the Text.” That is, the pleasure of exploring “the Text” and the pleasure of consuming “the Work” will be in contention. Thus, I return to my original question: is a reading of AN obfuscated “Text” equivalent to a reading of “the Text.” If not, the annotator is duty bound to elucidate all aspects of “Benito Cereno.” If so, he is bound to abstain.

Massacre on Wall Street

For me, the experience of working collaboratively to create an audiobook of Bartleby the Scrivener, a Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville was an instructive exercise in learning how to negotiate a collaborative project. I found it oftentimes a painful exercise because I had to step out of my comfort zone and muster up enthusiasm for a handling of Bartleby which failed to convince me, namely, the translating of text to speech by automated voice. My inclination was to craft a warm storyteller’s space where we would do our best to translate into auditory terms the beautifully rich, funny and tragic story of Bartleby, but our process was a democratic one so I gracefully set my old-fashioned ideas aside.

After a first discussion of what we could do, Lauren created a Google Doc summarizing our brainstormed ideas and division of labor. I wanted different (human!) readers and sound effects. Everyone else wanted automated voices, an idea that I liked at first but came to see as an oversimplification of the 19th century urban landscape as a totally dehumanized space transformed by the capitalist machine. Maybe this would have worked better for George Orwell’s 1984; and maybe it would have worked better if we had had more time to humanize the machine by annotating our audiobook with human voices, chirping birds, music and other sounds.

My first task was to choose a fifteen-minute sample segment of the audiobook to present our project with, and I chose the part where Bartleby first says that he prefers not to do what the lawyer requests because in this part there is a lively conversation which involves a number of different voices, and the key emblematic “prefer not to” is tossed around a lot. The segment actually could have been one of any number, for the novella engages the reader from start to finish. The second part of my role was to proof listen to the recording and mix annotated tracks into a final version where all participants would have jumped in and added voices and sounds to enliven and humanize the monotonous robotic voice. Had we had more time, we would have annotated more extensively.

As I worked on finding ways to bring the thing we had created, Frankenstein-like, back to life, I forged a deeper relationship with Melville’s text and a greater appreciation of the context of its times. I had said that the lawyer was from the South; I had based this bold assumption on his comparing Broadway to the Mississippi; I realized that his references to canonical white male literature and philosophy – Lord Byron, Cicero, the Bible, Marius at Carthage and so on – were representative of the slave-trading aristocratic South, while the scriveners represented the industrial North. I also – probably because I annotated to push against the automated voice – appreciated how very funny Melville’s tragic novella is. Finally, I came to appreciate the exercise of dehumanizing and rehumanizing the text as a potentially rich conversation that could be a pleasure to listen to.

On “Doing Audio Things with” Bartleby, the Scrivener

Within our adaption of Bartleby, the Scrivener as an audiobook, we decided to divide the text into four parts, read by three [or four, depending on the interpretation of “Samantha”, the pre-installed “American-English voice” of my computer which we used to record the title and the author at the beginning as well as the credits at the end of the audiobook] female voices, and to then add different kinds of sound effects to these readings.

To me, the decision to record the text in three different voices (in the literary and metaphorical sense of the word) revealed how even though we all can read the same text, every one of us will always also read a different text depending on our interpretation and understanding of what we read. When I listened to the whole audiobook told in those three voices, I perceived the narrator to be a slightly different character in each of them. Every reader emphasized different aspects and interpretations of him and his personality. This made the experience of reading/hearing the story a more diverse one than merely reading the text alone in silence and therefore staying within my own “reading voice”. Even though the readers were not changing the text itself at all, merely the tones they chose, their way of emphasizing, of putting pauses showed how a text can change depending upon who reads it.

I was part of the editing team, specifically in charge of the sound effects, within the production of the audiobook. In my interpretation we were using sound in at least two different ways:

First, as an element of illustration. By using the sound of dropping coins instead of the “___/blank” Melville left in order not to mention the exact address of the narrator’s office on Wall Street, the sound of a computer-voice, and within Kelly’s manipulation of her own voice, we were referencing and interpreting elements the text itself suggested to us. In the first case, the illustration is quite literal: Melvilles textual “___/blank” could maybe be translated to audio most obvious with a “beep”. Instead, we decided to use the sound of dropping coins, referencing to Wall Street as a place that is defined by finance and money, which matches the role Wall Street is associated with in the short story:


In the second case, we let the introduction of the audiobook as well as the credits at the end read by the “system-voice” of my computer which I see as a reference to the interpretation of Bartleby/scriveners/workers as being expected to “function like machines” within capitalism. In this light, I find it to be witty that the story ends on the notion of “Oh humanity!” which is then followed by a “computer-voice” reading the credits:


Additionally, I think of Kelly’s sound editing of her own voice as a way to translate her interpretation of the dissociation (see Kelly’s post) into the sound of her reading. This can be seen like adding another layer to the text in order to transfer and illustrate her interpretation of it to the listener:


Secondly, I would argue, we also used the sound effects in order to add thoughts and elements to the text that were not induced by the written story itself. Our creation of what we called the “I prefer not to-chorus” can therefore be seen as a movement throughout the text, one that was not invented by Melville, but created by us. The creation of different voices echoing Bartleby’s famous “I prefer not to”-statement can of course again be interpreted in different ways: e.g. as a wish for Bartleby to be not alone, for a movement joining him in his passive resistance, as a reminder that others—particularly his immediate colleagues—could have joined him, but didn’t; or as a adding a force or maybe even a sort of power to Bartleby within the audiobook which he doesn’t have in the text:


I very much enjoyed the creation of the audiobook and the collaboration with Anthony, Julia, Kelly, Patrick and Raven! I’d just have one suggestion for groups who work on the same assignment in the future or maybe even for a little change of the assignment: I think that the process would have been easier and even more fun if we would have chosen a few scenes/passages and only worked on them. I feel it’s a little sad that we spend so much time on reading/editing the whole 1.5 hours, and therefore had less time to develop our ideas concerning the audio-storytelling part, to add sound effects etc.

Reading through syntax in ‘Bartleby’

While completing our Bartleby audiobook, my attention was most drawn to how much more my understanding of the text was newly grounded in literal words, diction, and syntax, as opposed to imagery or theoretical and hypothetical ideas within the text.

It also forced me to wrestle with the central question, what is the “right” way to read?, in the outwardly expressed mode of audibly reading the text. This resulted in a much more tangible engagement and expression of that question. I found that in speaking the text I inhabited an area of tension where I was reading simultaneously closer and further than I previously had; some sentences, with challenging syntax, diction, and grammar required a more behavioral, practiced approach where I was focused on my adequate performance of what and how the text was written rather than on the meaning of the text. Other sentences pulled my focus to the opposite. The push and pull of this effect could alternate in each sentence:

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways.

Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary.

He is useful to me. (pg 10, I think)

Overtime, while reading aloud, I appreciated the flow and rhythm resulting from this structure and became much more comfortable speaking through it. By the end of my recorded segment, I actually found myself needing to slow down, because I had adjusted to speedily moving through the sentences. This created a tension, however, when I would make a mistake and feel the frustration and destabilizing effect of having a break in the rhythm. This comfort, speed, and breakage also mirrored the development of the narrative and the anxieties and excitement of the narrator as he continued through his story of Bartleby, so my own flubs and pauses (the word ‘ignominiously’ was a serious obstacle for me) created an uncomfortable but also parallel breach in that rhythm that I had a hard time taking in stride as a productive reading tool.

The aspect I was most excited to hear in the completed project was the echo effect of many voices at each “I prefer not to,” and how it mimicked the disruptions of my reading in a more purposeful and controlled way, by creating a slowing but also confusing and obfuscating effect when the phrase appeared. It also gave a consistent tone throughout the narrative as we switched readers, and complicated my understanding of Bartleby as a single, rare, uncommon human to more of an indefinite type. The echoing also gave a ghostly effect which emphasized his death at the end and how the story is being told from a place of the narrator’s haunting memory of him.

A criticism I have for myself, however, is that with all the challenges and the time required to read out loud, I wish I could have spent the time recording multiple takes as I developed a strengthened sense of voice and character, plot, sub-themes, grasp on the language and syntax, etc.  While I was able to get a lot out of reading aloud as a personal close-reading exercise, I’m not positive that had a listener heard my voice alone without effects or without being framed by the other narrators in my group, that they would not grasp the issues that I found myself countering (and benefiting from) during my reading.

Piecing Together an Audiobook Presentation

In anticipation of making this blog post, and creating a presentation for my group’s project, I was slightly concerned that I would not benefit from this project as much as my groupmates. However, to my surprise, upon stitching together the quilt of our experiences I’ve managed to create a cohesive slideshow that resulted in a unique experience of my own. Our group was very good at communicating right from the start, and over thirty emails later we accomplished something pretty solid. I was assigned to be the presenter. Patrick and Kat were the editors. Kelly, Raven, and Julia were the readers. That was established quickly, and we immediately started throwing ideas out there.

As the presenter, I simply asked everyone to make notes of the creative decisions we were making on a shared document. My groupmates went above and beyond in terms of the communication of ideas and creative choices made. I’d like to give a special thanks to Katharina for creating individual sound files for my presentation as well! What ended up making my role in the project so unique was my need to pick everyone’s brains about their experience. By having everyone express what they have encountered as they worked, it invoked their interest and passion within the text. It was almost enlightening to hear them discuss the different social issues of modern-day and how they were expressed in Melville’s piece published way back in the late fall/early winter of 1853.

Through conversations with my partners, It sparked my own interest and caused me to investigate the text myself. Like mentioned and depicted above, Bartleby exposes issues within the workplace between 1853, all the way up to 2018. He represents the working class in a way that makes him replaceable with a woman in the workplace, as well as with a person of color within the workplace. Prior to creating this audiobook and presentation, Bartleby was just another short story I had read multiple times across several classes. However, reading it with this new lens has given me a greater appreciation for the first time ever. As someone who is going through life as a biracial (non-white passing) male, I dig deep into race issues within literature, education, and the workforce. The narrator as we know him is an extremely condescending lawyer of high status, working on the well known Wall Street in the year 1853. He is the epitome of corporate American issues in the way he runs his office. He had a blatant disregard for the condition of his employees. For example, Turkey’s drinking problem. The higher up did not care as long as the work got done.

This also cuts into the issue of working conditions for marginalized workers by people in higher positions of power. Bartleby’s working conditions were less than ideal, but who was he to argue with the big boss? Overall, the audiobook assignment was a positive experience. However, I feel as though if the group had the opportunity to select a text of our own to create an audiobook for, it may have provided the class with a larger platform for discussion across several genres.

Disrupting Literary Cannon Through AudioBooks

Going into this project, I couldn’t help but feel slightly insecure by the classes experience and knowledge with this type of literature. During my initial read, prior to this group project, I found the language and usage of words difficult to comprehend, which affected my ability to immerse myself with the text.

In thinking of one of my favorite librarian scholars, Pura Belpre, I constantly kept thinking of her words on how vital representation and seeing oneself in literature is so important to the immersive and imaginative experience of reading. As a librarian and archivist, it was her mission to provide books that reflected the experiences of Puerto Rican and LatinX children of the Bronx. When there weren’t any, she created them and made it her life’s work to change the perception of how language can he used to influence and inspire readers outside of the typical Westernized literary cannon. When I reflect on the Benjamin piece my heart goes back to writers like Belpre, who reach outside of the cannon to recover lost pieces of history and indigenous practices of visual knowledge in her work rather than compare the novel’s and audiobook’s origins in a Eurocentric linear perspective.

As a reader for our group, my insecurity persisted as I wondered how I would engage my own voice (and frankly enthusiasm) into a group of characters I in no way could identify with across the spectrum of race and gender. It was interesting to feminize these characters, and quickly I found myself enjoying what felt like a “disruption” of the common flow of the story. Somehow I had infiltrated the expectations of the demeanor and voices of these traditional characters, and I relished in the idea of being able to re-frame a story in a completely different context. The constant repetition that recording an audiobook requires also enabled me to immerse myself with the text in a way I wasn’t able to before. The thoughtfulness to the emphasis on each word alleviated the confusion I had in understanding many of the correspondences happening between the characters in what initially felt like a world with language that did not belong to me. It was influential scholars like Belpre that paved the way for me to gain these skills in deciphering literature across many genres, all starting with her classic stories such as Juan Bobo, a collection of folk- Taino tales which painted an illustrative literary experience I carry with me forever.

By the end of my recording, I had gained a new appreciation for Bartleby, and find myself making new connections to how the story connects with many social themes we could relate to today. I empathize with the narrator in many ways, and have had moments I feel myself unraveling under the constant “respectable” expectations of what is considered intellectual and respectable in an academic setting. The unspoken assumptions of etiquette, and expectation to perform under a specific cannon of knowledge. This assignment overall has helped me re-think what can be possible in engaging different audiences to texts through the use of collaborative audiobooks, and using this platform as a way to re-appropriate literature in the academic cannon.

Editing Bartleby

Patrick Grady O’Malley

Editing raw sound files in order to contribute to a cohesive project such as a complete audiobook was very fun and fulfilling. My role was largely taking everyone’s individual reading files and putting them together into one large, usable piece. This was a bit cumbersome as there were many different files, as well as some retakes that needed to replace other bits of audio already recorded. This entire process jogged my memory rather quickly on the ins and outs of using Audacity successfully. It has been a long time since I used that software, so there was a rather steep re-learning curve, but once I got used to what I was working with, the how to’s of usage came back rather quickly.


As I mentioned, I was more in charge of putting the files together to flow nicely, I had less creative decisions than say Kat who was more in charge of putting effects within the sound. However, I still had to come up with some executive decisions on my own. These included how long certain pauses were between paragraphs, how loud or quiet to adjust the volume and getting the fades right that we used to transition between readers.


We all agreed we wanted our audiobook to be as experiential as possible. In order to do this, we felt like we needed our book to come off a little quirky and unique, and I tried reflecting this spirit in the way I spliced and added audio files to one another. The readers did a great job in staying true to the essence of our project and also Melville’s story. My job was to see their (the readers) commitment to the well-being of the project was not lost and that the sound reflected the readers distinctive styles of storytelling.


I felt we challenged the notion of providing a “Reading” and a “reading” experience that Rubery distinctly defines [61]. Since we wanted our book to be experiential, it had the qualities of a public “Reading” in that we hoped the user felt like our readers were almost performing the text. However, it is still a private, “reading” experience. Hearingthe text brings Bartleby new life, and it was fun to consider the ways I could alter that as I manipulated the sound files to make our project consistent with itself. It is my belief that the digital voice we left behind is there exclusively for the reader to encounter Bartleby and his world.


“Voice characterization” was something to listen for while editing. This helped me choose when to start a certain passage or how quickly to make a conversation begin and end. Thankfully, the readers were very creative with how they presented themselves in the reading, so editing their files was very meaningful. The narrator of the story’s voice was always distinct, especially in comparison to the other characters, so it was especially enjoyable playing around with how he came off.


Overall, this was a great collaborative project. Everyone worked really hard and I think our finished product is something we can all be proud of.


Technofeminist Bartleby

Image title: Face Cry Robot Artificial Intelligence Sad Woman.  Found at

Face Cry Robot Artificial Intelligence Sad Woman

I was not expecting that we’d actually complete the entire audiobook rendering of Bartleby in two week’s time with just short class meetings to discuss our strategy and each of us having demanding jobs and difficulty working on the project on the same days, but like Jenna, Travis, and our other group mates, I am proud of the accomplishment.  Although our audiobook might not sell for top dollar on Audible, it might definitely get a listen (or two) on librivox!

To give you an idea of where we started, after class on September 13, we drafted this document to organize our thoughts.  It’s evolved since the original creation, and we did our best to contain our thoughts to the doc, but we often veered into long email strings of conversations (continuing even as I write this blog post), going back and forth about creative ideas and varying interpretations and directions we should take the audiobook in.

As the online conversation and email correspondence was not getting us any closer to important decisions, we decided to meet before last week’s class (in the new MADH lounge) in person to discuss and finalize our strategy for rendering the audiobook.  It took us one more meeting after class to finalize our strategy.  There were still some creative back and forth, but we were able to settle on a division of labor:

  • Travis would mark up the script and color code the different voices/characters in the text (in addition to drafting the presentation) so that
  • Lauren could make a text to speech rendering of each character’s voice (using Mac’s accessibility functions) and then pass on the files to
  • Lisa who would string them all together using Audacity, but who would also get human read files from
  • Jenna (Bartleby’s voice was intentionally left as a human voice) & Sabina (who would identify parts of the text where the character’s humanity outweighed their inhumanity).  The final edit would be completed by Sabina which included the human voice overs and other sound effects.
  • Jenna & Travis were the point group members for working on the presentation and for keeping us all on track!

Creatively, we decided to “read” the text using a text to speech approach where all the voices of characters, except Bartleby, were rendered as female robot voices (Jenna narrated Bartleby).  As Lisa pointed out in her post, we were interested in a feminist approach to the text which, for me, has been inspired by a heavy load of reading texts authored by men and written about men (mostly) in addition to being in a collaborative group with a majority of women.  Also, I remember discovering in the ITP Core I course last fall that most of the automated voices used on our devices (GPS, Siri, Alexa, etc.) are female which may have evolved from the traditional role women played in assisting with administrative tasks over the last century.  We also had lots and lots of discussion about the humanity and inhumanity of the characters and our various interpretations.

I am new to reading texts closely like this.  My relationship to reading has mostly been for enjoyment where I find pleasure in the stories authors tell.  I’m still grappling with the interpretations of the text, but have found our in class discussions enlightening.  Rendering the text as an audiobook has provided me with an opportunity to think non-traditionally about reading and the mere experience of enjoying the material.  As a group, we had to impose interpretation of the text and represent that interpretation which has been manifested as a somewhat techno feminist approach.  Nonetheless, we all agreed that we also wanted to represent the many varied interpretations of the character’s humanity, so we experimented with both machine and human read voices.  I’m impressed with the quality of our accomplishments, but there may be a few moments where the interspersion of the audio files may not run so smoothly.  As a group, we created over 100 separate audio files that needed to be edited together!  Quite a task, but maybe in future iterations of this course and this assignment, students can be given another week perhaps or be asked to submit a more polished version at the end of the semester.

Finally, I’ll conclude with saying that with our audiobook, it’s also quite interesting to hear the machine readings of the text.  For our previous audiobook assignment, it was important to me to find a book that was read by the author so that I could hear their voice and their interpretation of the text.  With our version of Bartleby, the automated and human read voices do not match the voices in my head of the character’s!  Nevertheless, that’s part of the interesting nature of audiobooks which Matthew Rubery has discussed in his writing: Canned Lit After Edison & Play It Again, Sam Weller.  I also don’t think I could regularly rely on being read to from a robot voice.  Despite there being a few different voice options, hearing the robot over and over might drive me a little mad and if I had to read texts this way, I might just have to say “I would prefer not to.”

I Prefer To: A Convert Speaks of Narration

After last week’s work, I had begun to agree with Rubery that audiobooks had the power to turn us all into listeners. Turns out Rubery might be right about the their second capacity as well: to turn more of us into narrators. While listening brought the text from the page to me, creating an audiobook brought me back to the page, deep into the page.

As our group prepped for project, the mere act of imagining the audio brought out elements of Melville’s text that I’d missed such as frequent alliteration and hilarious slapstick. Our attention was largely on Bartleby himself—how we might represent him as both passive and powerful. Our idea of layering additional narrators to his spoken lines as the story went on seemed both promising and wonderfully menacing, especially when he is ultimately silenced in the Tombs.

But, treating the text as a script and re-recording passages forced me to explore more profound possibilities. I found myself (I hope) doing what both Liu and Rubery had described as co-authoring—interpreting to offer something new.

For example, the story seems, by virtue of its title and eponymous, enigmatic character, really about Bartleby. And given our class discussion of parallels between Bartleby’s occupation and Melville’s life, that reading makes sense. As the oldest and weariest of our group, I’d volunteered for the first two and last eight pages–the times when the narrator himself is his oldest or weariest. In those pages, I found equally significant the disintegration of the narrator—of big business—in the face of Bartleby’s unmoving movement. Melville’s punctuation and fragmented sentences suggested an almost dissociative disorder besetting the narrator on page 27—a Poe-esque one—as he argues darkly with his own conscience and desire. Trying to voice that split, that unraveling, I felt the fever brought on by the what the narrator subconsciously sees as the contagious disease of Bartleby’s passive defiance—one fatal to an industry reliant on unthinking workers—which explains the absolute and dark necessity, in the narrator’s mind, to cure himself of the scrivener.

The dissociation became so intense (and I used GarageBand effects to capture the internal voices) that I entertained for a moment whether Bartleby was even real. I thought perhaps he may be a projection of the narrator’s psyche—a freedom he longed for in himself that he externalized and then murdered through neglect to protect the comfortable life of ease to which he had grown accustomed. (Farfetched, yes, but fun to kick around.)

That reading brought the truly baffling last two lines into greater clarity: they seem to be the reconciling of the dissociative mind. “Ah Bartleby!” the narrator cries just after blaming the Dead Letter Office for what seemed the scrivener’s predestined course for death—a course that, if truly predestined, removes the narrator from all culpability. “Ah humanity!” he adds, ruing the state of the very world that he feeds and that feeds him financially and necessarily sends all unproductive fluff to the flames.

While I value a recording that strives to be faithful to the text, this experience made me long for time to play around, like a jazz musician with a riff, to see what else “Bartleby” might yield—to try exaggerating the humor, to imagine Bartleby’s inner monologue, to see the story from Nippers’ or Turkey’s eyes. Ah the due date! Ah full time jobs!

The Bartleby Tapes

Related imageI’m writing some of this host with this speech to text app in my excess ability settings on my computer. Since we worked with text to speech applications to render the voices in Bartleby the scrivener, I thought it would be interesting to try things the other way around.  I’ve never used speech to text before, just as I’ve never edited a few dozen audio clips together and end to end until this past week. Composing sentences in my mind first is much more difficult and composing them on a keyboard karma which in it, which enables me not only to correct mistakes, but to work with the language in a nonlinear way, and this seems to be the way my mind works with the language most of the time  Amo G

Okay, this is becoming too difficult and time consuming.

Just as the experiment of “writing” with my voice forced me to shift my approach to composing with language, our group experiment, using text-to-speech for every character but Bartleby, forced me to listen differently and to think about how voice shapes a reader’s perceptions, not only of character but of an entire story. Removing the expected reshuffled the story thematically; it produced effects/affects that more conventional strategies might not achieved for an audiobook listener; and it caused me to be more open-minded about robots. The following ramble touches on some of the aforementioned:

These days speech-to-text/text-to-speech most often brings to mind the “accessibility features” I was just playing with: tools to make both two-way communication and/or reading easier for some people unable to speak, see, or manipulate a physical text. But speech-to-text was once primarily a tool used in modern business practices—dictation. The “boss” spoke into a machine and a secretary—a copyist of sorts who was the human mechanism for rendering speech to text—listened to it and typed it out. In the 20th century, the clerical workforce primarily comprised of women.* Without consulting any sources I’ll go way out on a limb and suggest that women still make up a large percentage of the white-collar workforce that is not “middle management” or above. Women added a gender differential to the workplace, and the way we perceive, define, and differentiate labor was forever changed. Automation is a form of apparently “workerless” labor; now that it surrounds us, could it be that the way we conceive of it is obliquely but intrinsically connected to the way we understand gender? Siri and Alexa, for example, have been discussed in this respect. (It’s also been argued that some voices are shown to affect listeners in a more optimal way than others, which is supposedly why people prefer women’s voices on their GPS.)

As we know, when Melville wrote Bartleby, the office worker and the copyist were traditionally male roles—women had not yet entered the public sphere as white-collar workers. It follows then that Bartleby, as both scrivener and refusenik, was rendered from the get-go as a rather robotic individual in every way, someone who becomes increasingly sapped of a humanity the narrator laments—or fears for?—in the final sentence. Ironically, this loss of humanity is also what seems to accelerate (or at least coincides with) his loss of functionality as a copying machine. Conversely, we like Siri and Alexa because they have the amazing functions of a machine, yet sound sort of human. (Although personally I can’t stand the sassy tone of the UPS lady.) Could it be that, in order for the world (as we know it) to work, robotic and  humanistic elements must coexist in our machines somehow? In us? I don’t think Melville had the cyborg in mind, but N. Katherine Hayles might agree. Marx might not approve.

Our group chose to use a chorus of female automatons for our version of Bartleby. This was in large part an effort to work against the text, this time to turn the entirely male world of the narrative inside out. One thing that occurred to me as I discussed this with Lauren, just before she began converting the text to speech, is that this approach also turns a typical feminist reading on its head. Not only were all the human characters rendered as robots and the most robotlike character rendered as human, but women occupied roles both of labor and power over labor. They were running the machine.

These three shifts in perspective produced a very alien/alienating experience of the story– but in a good way.  As other people have noted, listening accentuated aspects of the narrative that might have slipped by more easily in an unvoiced text. Listening to a text-to-speech rendering, with all of its imperfections, tone-deaf pronunciations, and incorrect “translations,” highlighted Melville’s language choices and the way we hear “authority” and force in individual words and phrases that could just as easily be deemphasized by “wrong” speech. Voices with the barest hint of emotion—as well as those with non-“English” accents—actually brought out the humor in the story, even in the mundane interactions of minor characters.

Not only did the humor become clearer to me, but oddly enough, so did the idiosyncrasies of Melville’s characters.  In many ways, Bartleby is the least sympathetic character, if only because he is the most thinly written character. There’s just not much of him there at all, which is part of the point. Although the narrator’s empathy was something our group had debated, and which drove us to make some unusual post-production choices, as a female robot, the narrator actually seemed a little more human to me. They all did. Melville’s characters are flawed and interesting, because humans are flawed and interesting.  Listening to the clips of “tape” I was ham-fistedly editing together, I found myself sympathizing more with these alien voices.  Forced to act out Bartleby the Scrivener, they resembled machines that were putting on a play, on the verge of manifesting human traits, but just shy of the kind of emotional capacity we believe draws a line between them and us.

* I’m thinking ahead to fantasy scene in Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945):

At a recent World Fair a machine called a Voder was shown. A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech. No human vocal chords entered into the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electrically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker. In the Bell Laboratories there is the converse of this machine, called a Vocoder. The loudspeaker is replaced by a microphone, which picks up sound. Speak to it, and the corresponding keys move. This may be one element of the postulated system.

The other element is found in the stenotype, that somewhat disconcerting device encountered usually at public meetings. A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze. From it emerges a typed strip which records in a phonetically simplified language a record of what the speaker is supposed to have said. Later this strip is retyped into ordinary language, for in its nascent form it is intelligible only to the initiated. Combine these two elements, let the Vocoder run the stenotype, and the result is a machine which types when talked to.