Technofeminist Bartleby

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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.”

One thought on “Technofeminist Bartleby

  1. Like yours, our group chose to go with an all-female narration, both out of practicality (as Patrick was our lone male) and philosophy (to try to upend the male-centric story of Wall Street). The choice to do that with a machine’s female voice seems to offer further social commentary: that Wall Street in 2018 may be driven more by algorithm than finance baron.

    You noted the prominent role of women in administrative tasks over the last century, and certainly serving as a stenographer or secretary is an excellent parallel to Bartleby’s profession. I’m reminded, too, that Rubery mentioned that women in the home often served as the book readers to their eye-weary husbands–a role that, almost perversely, required education despite its limited ends. As you know, I teach at a private, all-girls school, and an alumna visiting recently mentioned that she was amazed that we now educated girls with an eye toward them leading fulfilling professional lives. She (graduating in the late 1960s) said that she and her classmates had been educated to become interesting, conversation-upholding wives. So, the subservient female voices that speak to us through our machinery at our command, as they gain more sophisticated artificial intelligence, may be paralleling the development of the female voice over time as well.

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