Annotation and Epistolarity

Just at the beginning of his article, Jones points out “as long as there has been writing, there have been readers who follow along and ‘write back.’” It caught my attention sent me to Blair’s discussion of note-taking and her reference to linking it to different forms of communication and inscription (newspapers, diaries, lecture notes,) and Bush’s argument that note-taking’s primary use is in referencing and informing discussion. We have followed these principals in our use of, and we’ve discussed how our social annotation creates a dialogue, and a Barthesian reading through writing. Because the nature of annotation as presented by all as a dialogue, I was prompted to think of how annotation intersects with the epistolary genre. The most obvious is that their primary medium shares a signifier, “note,” as well as in the corporeal acts required to create them—the typing to function “memex,” and the friction of pen on paper—but more so that correspondence is inherent to both genres.

The two genres share a distinct relationship with transmission and documentation. Blair’s piece is ultimately concerned with transmission, and she addresses that the “note” in “note-taking” is one that is grounded in a desire to converse with a text or an author, and that the desire to read other people’s annotations—typically scholars or experts—is useful in informing the reader of conversations, albeit fragmented ones. While she addresses that these are pragmatic, academic uses (more akin to “memex” in Bush), what sets note-taking apart is “thought and expression” and “personal memory on paper” (99,106). This deeply human aspect doesn’t at all deviate from the epistolary genre: texts are often written ephemerally; they are fragmented both in writing, and historically, in lagging or interrupted delivery; authors pick and choose what they wish to address based on the content of interest from the initial letter; and they represent conversation between one author and another who’s natural and required response to reading is writing in return. Furthermore, their mediums share a signifier: the “note” can be the scribble in a margin, a grocery list, a telegram, a diary entry, or a letter. Blair uses the terms “thought and expression” and “personal memory on paper” to describe note-taking, but in my opinion they fit in even more organically with letter-writing, or perhaps note-making.

This emphasizes the call-and-response nature of the note, but also the note’s form as being both independent of, but intimately linked to the text is responds to. I first think of archives of letters which may only have one side of the correspondence. In this situation, lacking the other half doesn’t render them null, but rather emphasizes the role of response as a valid and fulfilling means of approaching a given text. Another example are annotation editions of texts; Ulysses Annotated does not contain the written prose of Joyce’s novel, but rather dedicates the pages solely to dissecting the book’s allusions in its own separate body. This publication comes off not as inherently epistolary but as one with coded language, saying to Joyce, “hey, we figured your riddles,” and separately to its compatriots in reading Joyce, “we got your back.” These independent bodies of annotation slide into Bush’s examination of the “record” and the role of the machine in storage and transmission. In these cases, the note itself becomes the archive of conversation. But the engineered machines that Bush conceives of with “memex” technology is actually better suited for the longer-form, independent, more epistolary note-making rather than the marginal annotation. In my experience, at least, it’s pretty difficult to annotate on a computer without additional programs (like which allow you to do so—and it’s worth pointing out that programs devised by this construction are, in themselves, a practice in notation through a language of codes written between electric signals.

Creating this metaphor for myself continued to solidify the conversations we’ve been having around social annotation both as a way of communicating with a text and author, as well as with each other. Blair’s mention of the diary format, an epistolary medium, for note-taking against the robotic and photo-textual methods in Bush against the contemporary and pragmatic suggestions in Jones emphasized communication among texts and readers as critical to comprehension. The differences across them reminded me of the non-teleological nature of note-taking as it is embodied by any style of notation— or (oftentimes) letter writing. It also causes me to wonder what value it might be to approach annotation as a project in more literal letter-writing (though, I guess that’s what we are doing in [what Jones would agree are useful] blog posts)—framing annotations as directed explicitly toward the author, the text, other readers, and myself as figures that will respond and converse based off of contributions and engagement, as opposed to the single-word side note, symbol, highlight, or other scribble.

One thought on “Annotation and Epistolarity

  1. I like the implicit connection with Foucault’s comment, which Blair references, that taking notes is a form of taking control of the text for the reader, for establishing some freedom from its disciplinary force. You also emphasize the bodily and intimate and dialogic aspects of note-taking, whether it’s private or public in actuality.

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