Rubery online lecture on audio books next week (9/17)

In a bit of kismet, Matthew Rubery, whose pioneering work on the audiobook and oralizations of novels we will be reading and discussing, is giving an online lecture next week at U of IL. Details below: I’m going to try to catch part of it around my teaching schedule.

The Center for Children’s Books at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign is having an online lecture that will be of interest to those DHers with audio interests. Please see abstract below and attached flyer:

Prof. Matthew Rubery, “Book Audio”
Sept 17, 12-1pm CST

Audiobooks do more than reproduce printed books. Although the audiobook’s reliance on sound is sometimes perceived as a liability, there are numerous instances in which the addition of sound effects might be said to enhance the reading experience. This presentation examines recordings that take advantage of the audiobook’s affordances to go beyond simply replicating print. Drawing on sources ranging from children’s books to celebrity memoirs, it takes up the question: What happens when publishers experiment with sound to create “book audio” instead of audiobooks—that is, recordings whose soundtracks go beyond the verbal description of sounds by using actual sounds?

To sign up, check this URL for the Zoom info on 9/17:

final “presentation” guidelines

As I mentioned in class, Thursday we’ll be sharing our experiences/projects, briefly and informally, as we eat, drink, and think about the semester as a whole. For those who feel more comfortable with some parameters, here are some ideas of how to approach this brief assignment (3-5 minutes is ample):

  • for essays, give a sketch of the argument
  • for objects you’ve built, share a few slides that show what the thing looks like
  • talk about interesting materials you dug up in your research
  • tell us where you’d like to to take this project in the future, or otherwise how the project might lead to future work (e.g., Kelley has discussed doing Twine games with HS students; Katharina is interested in expanding her project to include all available narratives of Jews displaced from Vienna during the Nazi period)
  • talk about failures and frustrations: we don’t do this nearly enough in higher ed, though JITP is a leader
  • explore ideas for new projects that working on this project inspired in you

Have fun, and I look forward to hearing about your work next week.

quick follow-up on Patrick’s presentation

A hearty thanks to Patrick for his excellent tour of text analysis and NLTK in particular. I just wanted to follow up with a couple of notes and links that might be useful to those interested in further study:

  • The NLTK Book is one-stop shopping for getting up to speed on the platform and (as Patrick demonstrated several times) quick searches for syntax, etc. even for experienced users.
  • The Stanford Literary Lab is an excellent place to sample the kinds of things you can do with text analysis in ways that combine traditional humanistic questions with data-driven answers grounded in the kinds of analysis that computing makes possible, or in some cases, just must easier, than traditional print-based research methods.
  • In case anyone was puzzled about Patrick’s references to the cloud over Franco Moretti, the figure most associated with “distant reading” (and a founder of the aforementioned Stanford Lit Lab). He has been accused of truly horrible acts: for those who want to read about it, one of his accuser’s narratives is here.

Playing novels: some thoughts about Ivanhoe

Katharina asked the very useful question last week, after I suggested that one or both groups might choose a substitute for the planned Billy Budd: what makes for a good text to play via Ivanhoe? Here are some thoughts on that score:

  • you can “play” virtually any fictional narrative (or even historical event, legal debate, etc.): as long as there are an array of different personae to inhabit, the play will work.
  • shorter is better: in my experience, the game works best in groups of 4-7, to allow for a range of different personae and to give a sense of the text as a whole. As I joked in class, Russian “doorstop” novels have too many characters and too much plot complexity to work well. Novella-length is great, given the time constraints.
  • public-domain is always nice but less necessary here: we are transforming these texts and thus can “publish” our work in the open under “fair use.” So the only downside is the expense, potentially, of getting your hands on an in-copyright text.
  • interesting publication history: if you dig deeply enough, almost any text has a rich publication history on some level, but it’s nice to think about texts that occasioned some kind of vivid debate, or had unusual itineraries through the publication process, or otherwise teach us something about the production/consumption/distribution of texts.
  • As I mentioned in class, the Bedford Cultural Edition series has a few 19thC texts that have rich publication histories, are of manageable length, and are chock-full of the kinds of cultural materials that would enhance your play.

For an example, check out the site in which my honors course at Hunter played Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Tales last term. As you can see, both teams played the same text but with different emphases and different “paratextual” characters. The fun of the game emerges through the interactions, in which players, much as in improvised music or theater or dance, have to listen to one another in order for their expressions to mesh with the whole. Of course your play will look very different, but I think these students did great things with the project.

some helpful context for reading BENITO CERENO

In light of our discussion of Melville last night, I wanted to provide a bit of context for those interested in Melville’s politics and the way his work (especially Benito Cereno) has been read in cultural political terms in recent years. I recognize that it’s a heavy lift to read this text for the first (or the third) time, especially in a course that has an interdisciplinary DH focus rather than the kind of robust historical/cultural infrastructure of a course on Melville or on nineteen-century US literature, for example. So no obligation to plow through this stuff, but I wanted to provide a fuller sense of how this text has been situated and read, for those who are interested.

Here’s Toni Morrison’s pathbreaking 1988 lecture on Melville and whiteness. It’s worth a read in its entirety, as is the book that grew out of it, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, one of a small handful of books that gave birth to “whiteness studies” in the early 1990s. I won’t summarize it, but she wrestles, strenuously and critically, with Melville’s work (here, Moby Dick ) as an attempt to deconstruct the whiteness that subtends the imperialist and racist and patriarchal structures that dominated Melville’s time (and have never left the stage, and, in unsettling ways, have come roaring back to the forefront in recent years).

And here’s a pithy post from Carolyn Karcher, an editor of the Melville section of the invaluable Heath Anthology of American Literature, which is responsible for greatly diversifying the range of what constitutes “US Literature” in college classrooms in the past 30 years. Karcher is speaking to faculty, as they think about planning courses, but the post gives us a clear window onto how scholars have linked Benito to a wide range of texts giving narrative form to the traumas experienced, individually and collectively, by enslaved Africans in the period.

Finally, for those interested in my investment in the text (and the embarrassing/humorous story of how I first encountered it), here’s the epilogue to my book on Depression-era documentary work in the US, in which Benito guest-stars.

See you next week.


Group Project #2: Creating an annotated “edition” (due Thursday, 10/25)

The overarching purpose of this project is to put the theories of Barthes, Bauer/Zirker, Iser, Drucker, et al. into practice by collaborating on “editions” of a text, in this case Melville’s Benito Cereno. Obviously, it takes many hands and several years to create a publishable edition of a literary text, so we will keep our expectations modest and emphasize the process of collaboration and the experimentation with the affordances, design choices, and relationship with “implied readers” that digital publication allows.

In class, we decided by consensus to work within the following parameters (apologies to those who were absent, but the deadline is looming!):

  • two roughly equal groups will each create an edition: to enroll in a group, sign up here
    • the groups need not be perfectly equal, so follow your interests. But if things start getting very imbalanced, be a mensch and take your second choice, please!
  • each group selected a relatively narrow “frame” for the edition. Whereas the Norton edition we have in print, for example, aims to tell a “general reader” everything they need to know to feel oriented to the text, both editions will focus on a narrower (but more novel) issue:
    • group one (Anthony, Jenna, and Lisa so far) will create an edition focusing on the geography of the novella, providing links to historical maps and perhaps providing some context from historians of the period as to the global flows of goods, bodies, and capital that sailor/merchant/sealer/slavers like Delano and Cereno engage and enslaved Africans like Babo and Atufal attempted to wrest away for their own liberation.
    • group two (Sabina, Patrick, Travis, and Kelly so far) will create an edition that links the text to its own “reception history,” embedding quotes and links that give readers a sense of how Benito has been read, from its publication in the tumultuous 1850s to the present day.
  • both groups began discussing next steps:
    • choosing a platform (some suggestions are here), creating a division of labor and workflow, and scheduling things out to ensure finishing within two weeks.
    • I want to emphasize that I want you to experiment and enjoy the collaboration: I am realistic about what you can do in two weeks and am perfectly happy with a partial edition that is a “proof of concept.” For example, group two might limit itself to the mid-19th century reception of the text, or it might add “reception history” only to the first 1/3 of the text. Group two might also “map” only a part of the text, or discuss representations of the slave trade in the visual culture of the period. Be realistic and follow your interests where they go.
  • instead of formal presentations like last time, we will have an informal discussion of the process/product on 10/25. I do ask that, as for the first group project, each team member compose a brief post for the blog (500 words max) reflecting on a) the process/product as a whole and b) your specific role within it, with an emphasis on what the experience taught you that theorizing about annotation, marginalia, readers, and editions, or consuming such editions, didn’t.
  • evaluation will be very similar to last time, with a group comment/grade and an individual comment/grade. The criteria are only slightly changed:
    • adventurousness: does the text take risks, or just play it safe? Does the edition resemble other standard “critical editions” in print, or does it do something new, using digital affordances to engage readers in novel ways or devise a new angle on the text that will be fresh to readers?
    • quality: is the product accessible and user-friendly? Does it articulate a clear relationship between the “primary text” and your “secondary” comments on it? Was some attention paid to aesthetics and design?
    • reflectiveness: does the presentation (and the discussion in the seminar and on the blog) reflect careful thinking about the project? Did the secondary readings by Barthes, Bauer/Zirker, Iser, Drucker, et al. inform the project in any way?

“yahoo” annotation assignment

For next week, you will note on the syllabus that there’s a “yahoo” annotation assignment. Since we’re thinking about the history and future of annotations in the study of literature in this unit, I thought we could do a quick experiment prior to producing together an actual annotated edition of Benito Cereno. I want to see what happens when we’re confronted with, on the one hand, a relatively blank text–the Project Gutenberg plain vanilla HTML formatted text of Benito Cereno with no notes, introductions, or scholarly apparatus whatsoever–and, on the other, our own relative ignorance about the text.

The challenge, then, is to make annotations that mark areas of questioning or uncertainty, that provide interpretation or analysis of key moments, or gloss difficult words or concepts for peers, using little bits of research (e.g, the Oxford English Dictionary or other useful reference texts). We’ll use good ol’ for this, and please use both the allred720 tag and a “benito” tag as well, so we can pull out just these annotations as a separate stream if we like.

In terms of expectations, let’s say that you must make a minimum of five annotations for next week, but that your annotations can be on absolutely anything from any part of the text. And be sure to annotate the text I’ve posted on this site so your annotations will be with everyone else’s.

And in closing, you may find these two passages from Melville useful or therapeutic as you face this assignment.

First, from Benito itself:

Relieved by these and other better thoughts, the visitor, lightly humming a tune, now began indifferently pacing the poop, so as not to betray to Don Benito that he had at all mistrusted incivility, much less duplicity; for such mistrust would yet be proved illusory, and by the event; though, for the present, the circumstance which had provoked that distrust remained unexplained. But when that little mystery should have been cleared up, Captain Delano thought he might extremely regret it, did he allow Don Benito to become aware that he had indulged in ungenerous surmises. In short, to the Spaniard’s black-letter text, it was best, for awhile, to leave open margin.

Second, a riff on the unbearableness of whiteness from Moby Dick:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?


Some models/platforms for creating annotated texts

As we chew on the Bauer/Zirker piece on how to theorize and enact social annotation, I thought a few examples might be worthwhile, prior to our attempts to create our own texts. First, you might look at Bauer/Zirker’s own platform: here’s the beta version in which students have annotated Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (obviously this is their test case in their article). Bauer/Zirker also mention the “social edition of the Devonshire Manuscript” on wikibooks, David Bevington’s editions of several of Shakespeare’s plays, and Whitman’s works at the Walt Whitman archive. Also see the Annotated Books Online and Digital Thoreau sites mentioned by Schacht: the latter was produced using CommentPress (see below). The Bevington and the Bauer/Zirker are the closest examples for what we might do: both add gloss to aspects of texts that might be opaque or challenging to students or  nonspecialized “lay readers.”

In terms of platforms, in addition to, we might consider:

  • CommentPress: a theme for WordPress that the MLA Commons uses for the Bauer/Zirker piece and that has been used by high profile DHers like Wardrip-Fruin and Fitzpatrick to circulate prepublication drafts of texts for public comment.
  • Medium: a proprietary platform (I’m sure you know it) that features bloggy presentation of a primary text and the capacity for readers to comment, like, etc., with a strong emphasis on social media promotion (and earning money). Here’s how to post on it.
  • Manifold Scholarship: powerful tool for rethinking scholarly publishing. I’ve not used it myself so am not sure of the learning curve, but our program’s own Matt Gold is one of the founders of the project, so there are local resources to help. Perhaps prohibitively complex for this project, but very doable for a final project.
  • like Medium, a proprietary platform that convenes a group of users around texts in which users can comment on the texts.
  • Ed.: example of “minimal computing,” a movement that seeks to create maximally accessible texts by dispensing with bandwidth-heavy dynamic modes of presentation characteristic of Web 2.0 (including WordPress) and embracing more minimalist, static presentation of texts. This would be somewhat challenging from a technical standpoint (one must first install Jekyll using the UNIX “command line” and then install the Ed. template, before editing the text there), but would be by far the most interesting path in many ways.

Study Questions for “The Storyteller”

Some questions to guide your reading/thinking on Benjamin’s formidable text for Thursday’s discussion:

  1. Early in the essay, Benjamin claims that, in the early 20thC, “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” Why is this? What is it about modern life that makes storytelling more problematic than in the past?
  2. What are the two kinds of “experience” that feed into traditionally storytelling, according to Benjamin? How does Benjamin use this distinction to link, on the one hand, literary form and, on the other, labor? [n.b., in the original German, Benjamin distinguishes between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, which both often translate to “experience” in English]
  3. WB claims that the novel’s rise in the 18th-19th centuries is the “earliest symptom” of a process culminating in “decline of storytelling.” Why? I thought that novels are storytelling!
  4. What does WB make of the rise of “informational” writing, such as news articles? How do these new literary forms compare to traditional storytelling?
  5. Why, for Benjamin, is death so central to storytelling? What happens to the relationship between death and storytelling in modernity, with the rise of the novel?
  6. More German, folks! What is the difference between remembrance (Eingedenken) and reminiscence (Gedächtnis)? How do these categories map onto a) the deep historical currents WB is tracing between the “old days” and “modernity,” to speak very broadly, and b) the “story” and the “novel”?
  7. Near the end of the essay, Benjamin claims that the story and the novel are shaped in a fundamentally different way: what is the distinctive closure of each form? How does this mode of closure relate to a) WBs discussion of death throughout the essay and b) the distinctiveness of the novel as a genre?
  8. What are some questions we might raise about Benjamin’s argument in light of our study of the audiobook? In what ways does listening to an a-book edition of a recent novel on our phone while commuting to work square with Benjamin’s thesis, and in what ways might it force a revision of it?