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Digital Mapping of Oral Histories

My final project will be a digital mapping project based on the oral history archive of the Leo Baeck Institute’s (LBI) Austrian Heritage Collection (AHC). The collection contains more than 600 oral history Interviews with Jewish émigrés who fled from Austria to the United States shortly before or during World War II. The interviews, most of which were conducted in English, are publicly available online via DigiBaeck, the LBI’s online archive. Most of them are between one and four hours long. The interviewees tell their “life-stories”, starting from their childhood in Austria, reporting about how they escaped the country after the Nazis got to power and how they finally arrived in the United States as well as about the course of their life in the US.

While I listened to some of the interviews, it was striking to me that a lot of the narrators mention street addresses in Vienna, for example the address of the house they lived in, or of their schools, their family businesses etc. It was this insight that gave me the idea to locate the voices of the interviewees within a map of Vienna. In doing so, I hope to encourage a broader (and also a non-academic) audience to listen to these interviews or at least parts of them in order to engage with the experiences of the narrators and with questions and reflections deriving from an encounter with their life stories today, and second, I hope to create more awareness for this still underrepresented part of Vienna’s/Austria’s past.

Over the past decades various but still relatively few memorials for the victims of the Shoa have been established in Vienna. Some of them are referring to personal accounts of those who were killed or managed to escape (e.g. Catrin Bolt’s “Alltagsskultpuren Mahnmahl / Every-day-life-sculptures Memorial” in which the artist installed letterings of individual accounts of the violence that happened in the streets in the sidewalks), and some of them are directly referring to the houses those who were killed used to live in (e.g. the so-called “Stolpersteine / Stumbling Stones”).

The mapping project I will conduct will combine the approaches of these memorials by linking the personal accounts of those who managed to escape and are therefore able to testify about what happened to actual places in the city. The Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance is currently working on a project that looks similar to what I have in mind, called Memento Vienna. It consists of an online map of Vienna that shows “the last-known addresses of those murdered as well as archival documents and photographs of people and buildings in the city.”

My research will first of all consist of establishing an overview of the oral history collection and identifying interviews in which addresses are mentioned. In a second step, I will chose five to fifteen interviews which shall be located in the frame of the project. (I can definitely imagine to continue to work on this project after this semester, but as the time is limited now, I decided to focus on very few stories in order to have more time to figure out the technical and conceptional aspects of the platform I want to create.) As the project is centered around the wish to make people listen to the presented life-stories (rather than “merely” reading (about) them), the audio quality of the interviews will be a central criteria within the decision making process about which interviews will be presented within the map for now.

In a next step, I will create four to six minute long “excerpts” of the interviews using the audio editing software Hindenburg. Depending on the individual interviews, these excerpts may include testimonies about the experiences the narrators made connected to the address the audio-clip will be related to on the map, but also about their lives after they escaped Vienna and emigrated to the United States. Additionally, a link to the complete interview as well as a short, written biography of each represented interviewee will be added to the audio file and located within the map.

The project will be informed by literature from different disciplines and about different topics such as the historical events that have affected the lives of the narrators, the use of digital public history projects in order to engage a broad audience with historical research, oral history as a method, modes and politics of memory and digital storytelling.

I have not yet decided which digital platform I will use in order to create the map. So far I have looked into Google Maps, Neatline and Storymaps/esri.

Claiming Space, Or: The Text as a “Map”

Staying in the language of mapping, I can say that I took quite a bunch of detours until I arrived at the idea I finally realized for this week’s assignment. Thinking about Benito Cereno in connection with maps reminded me of how I first learned about slavery and colonialism in high school: by being introduced to maps displaying the so-called “triangular trade”:

These maps and their textual descriptions displayed slavery as an historical fact that can be displayed and understood by placing an arrow on a map, from the African continent to the Americas, the slaves being part of the “cargo” on ships following this line. It was not only until years later within my undergrad studies that I read more about how intrinsically linked the act of mapping has often been with colonialism, how the creation of maps has been used not only to display, but to create colonial facts and exercise power. And even though the display of the “triangular trade” is not the same as dividing a continent into actual zones in which different colonial powers rule, staying within this image helped me to think about mapping Benito Cereno. I decided to look at the novella as a form of adding a story to the objectivity of those forms of display—but whose story?

The question we decided to ask ourselves as a group was what is missing from Melville’s depiction in Benito Cereno. We agreed on applying this question as the overarching theme to our mapping projects. I therefore decided to look for accounts written by (former) enslaved people themselves—because their perspectives and testimonies are missing from Melville’s novella, and from an understanding of slavery as a mere part of the colonial “triangular trade”.

My search took me to the shelf in the library on which various (anthologies of) so-called slave narratives can be found:

I decided to look for reports that talk about what happened in places that are similar to the ones Melville chose as the setting of Benito Cereno: the coast, the sea, the ship. I soon found the testimony of Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa (ca. 1745-1797), who was enslaved and kidnapped as a child in today’s Nigeria, and who became an abolition activist later in his life. After he had been kidnapped, he was taken to the Carribean and subsequently to Virginia. In his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano (1789), he describes what he had to endure on the ship that brought him to Barbados.

My first idea then was to create a map on which the arrow in “the south” of the “triangular trade”, displaying slaves being brought from the African to the American continent, is annotated with Melville’s story which is then again annotated with accounts from Equiano/Vassa. I looked into the possibilities Googlemaps, Neatline and Story Maps offer, and I found that all three applications didn’t provide the means I would need in order to visualize this twofold annotation process, or at least that I could not figure out how to use them to do so in the amount of time I had to complete this project.

Thanks to Raven’s and Lisa’s (who was my partner in annotating the first part of Benito Cereno) comments within conversations about the issues I encountered and Lisa’s reference to the notion that maps “don’t only depict space, they claim it”, I decided to interpret Melville’s text as a sort of map on which I would locate parts of Equiano’s/Vassa’s autobiography.

As Lisa has put it in her blogpost, I took the map as a “metaphor–whether a means of geolocation, of representing history, or conferring identity, or of claiming some kind of physical, psychological, political, aesthetic, or linguistic space, among many possibilities”.

In order to make an actual slave narrative visible and claim it’s space within Melville’s story, I therefore searched for passages within The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano which correspond with passages from the first section of Benito Cereno and added them to Melville’s novella via hypothes.is. Additionally, in order to take my idea one step further, I copied Benito Cereno to a Google document and directly inserted parts of Euqiano’s/Vassa’s account into the story, using a different font in order to make the two different voices not only readable but also visible. My idea behind this was to not merely annotate Benito Cereno with The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, but to make the latter an integral part of the former, a part one cannot over-read by ignoring the annotations.

Admittedly, I had to stretch the idea and the concept of “mapping” quite far in order to pursue this idea and make it part of a “mapping”-process, but at least to me this was a very informative process, even though I would consider the result/product of it still very much a “work” or even still a thought in progress.

Special thanks to Lisa and Raven who gave me very helpful advise within my thinking about this task.

The Machine and its Content

What all the authors whose works we read for this session share, is that they understand annotation (Jones, 2014), note-taking (Blair, 2004) and computing—or maybe better put: “memexing” (Bush, 1945) as based on and serving human interaction and communication, and therefore as not a merely individual undertaking, but one leading to a spread of knowledge, thoughts and/or their preservation, not only for oneself, but also for others.

Whereas Blair focuses on notes as a means to either intently or involuntary store knowledge, Jones describes a use of annotation very close to the ideal of ours’ in the virtual extension of our classroom by using hypothes.is—as a means to gain a “better understanding [of] a text through others’ experience” and knowledge, and as a space of discussion. And also Bush, even though he mainly focuses more on the technological specifics of the machines he imagines, mainly sees the memex as a tool to navigate through “the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things”, to keep track of chosen ones and share them with others, at any point in time. One of the liveliest anecdotes in his essay is his description of two friends meeting and discussing the advantages of a Turkish over a European bow resulting in one of them passing the other one a reproduction of what he had collected about this subject years ago in his memex. (The anecdote, strongly reminding of the uncountable links we send each other today, is also part of this video that show how the memex could look like and operate.)

Bush’s essay was remarkable to me concerning at least two aspects. First, I found that his astonishingly accurate predictions of the prospective technological developments are a good starting point to reflect upon the technologies we use in our everyday life today. His detailed descriptions of the machines he imagines provoke comparisons to computers, algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning. And by drawing those comparisons, by imagining a computer and checking which aspects of Bush’s prediction are accurate, I think about what a computer, the machine I use daily but nearly never explicitly reflect upon, actually is and does. The effect reading this text had on me was similar to what I experienced when I first read Adam Greenfields 5-pages long description of a smartphone in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (Verso, 2017). It starts as follows:

“Though its precise dimensions may vary with fashion, a smartphone is fundamentally a sandwich of aluminosilicate glass, polycarbonate and aluminum sized to sit comfortably in the adult hand, and to be operated, if need be, with the thumb only. This requirement constrains the device to a fairly narrow range of shapes and sizes; almost every smartphone on the market at present is a blunt slab, a chamfered or rounded rectangle between eleven and fourteen centimeters tall, and some six to seven wide. These compact dimensions permit the device to live comfortably on or close to the body, which means it will only rarely be misplaced or forgotten, and this in turn is key to its ability to function as a proxy for personal identity, presence and location. (…)”

I still find this passage not only a fascinating with regard to the fact that people who might read this book in a post-smartphone era (or at least one in which smartphones function significantly differently) will actually need this description. But it also shows how I would actually not even rudimentarily be able to describe a smartphone, the thing that is with me all day, in detail. This again is very telling about the degree to which I have already accepted the existence and functionality of my technological environment as a sort of “second nature”.

Second, while I was unsuccessfully searching online for an interview with Vannevar Bush (who died in 1974) in which he reflects upon his predictions in the decades following its publication—I found out about his involvement in the Manhattan Project. This was a powerful reminder that technological advancement is never neutral and can’t, not even on a theoretical level, be separated from its (possible) applications. I think that a discussion about the text can only gain from being informed about his engagements within the development and testing of atomic weapons. Passages like the last paragraph in which Bush claims that “he” [referring to “man”] “may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome” become even more urgent to discuss, and telling about the discourse at the time in which it was written, in the light of this knowledge.

Reflections on my first time hypothes.is-ing

As for some of us, annotating From Work to Text by Roland Barthes was my first experience with online annotations. I usually am a very active annotating reader; the pages and margins of most of my books and printed texts are full of notes, underlinings and arrows. My experience of using hypothes.is was therefore strongly framed by a comparison between my analogue annotation practices and this new experience.

First of all, obviously, the main difference is that this time I was annotating in a semi-public sphere, and in dialogue with others. I could see what Schacht describes as the pedagogical effect of digital annotations as highlighting “what democratic deliberation shares with academic discourse: the general form of conversation.” (paragraph 8) It was this aspect that I valued the most within using hypothes.is. I definitely felt less alone in encountering this very dense and in parts (to me) enigmatic essay, to see that others had already encountered similar difficulties, asked themselves and via their annotations us, their colleagues, similar questions. As multiple people had already read and annotated the text before I did, I felt like I would join a conversation that was already taking place. (I would therefore be interested in the experience of the first and second person reading/annotating.)

Furthermore, hypothes.is is encouraging the dialogical aspects of its application by sending e-mail notifications as soon as someone replies to your annotation. I could not withstand going back to the text and read the replies immediately each time I received one of these notifications, sometimes leaving a reply to a reply. Therefore, using this form of annotation definitely made me engage with Barthes’s essay more intensively than I would have otherwise. I doubt that I would have re-read certain passages that many times if it was not for the sake of being curious about these replies to my annotations and my desire to reply to them in turn.

At the same time, my reaction to these replies also made me aware of hypothes.is as being a form of “surveillance” of my studying practices. Hypothes.is documents the time someone makes an annotation or writes a reply. And so there was this one time, when I read the e-mail notification in the middle of the night, and I was wondering what “the others” and “the teacher” might think of and know about my lifestyle if they see that I am still awake, and still engaging in coursework. I know this might sound a little paranoid, but while I was reacting to this reply around 1.30am, I did so with a feeling of slight discomfort. I thought about what if I would have made all of my annotations between 2 and 4am in the night before class, or an hour before class? And what if I would do this with every assignment? Would it influence my colleagues’ and teachers opinion about me? I guess it might sound exaggerated to think so much about these questions in connection to this class and this one assignment, but I think that the publicity and kind of information collected within forms of digital expression is something we should always keep in mind.

The aspect of these annotations to be (semi-)public also was relevant in terms of the content of my comments. What I was writing was definitely different from what I would have written in the margins of a print version of this text no one else would see. I didn’t write down what I figured would be not interesting or relevant for other readers, or too private for me to share it. I therefore liked the idea of an option for private note-taking, which Bauer/Zirker refer to as a “useful provocation to explore the countervailing values of openness and privacy in the classroom, on the Web, and in democracy generally.”

As Bauer/Zirker have also pointed out, “annotation (…) provides readers with an interpretation not of a complete text but of its particular aspects.” This was definitely helpful given the complexity of From Work to Text. It felt liberating to be able to react only to the parts I could best connect to, or the parts that immediately arose questions. I didn’t feel the pressure of having to “understand everything” before I would have the “right to” say something about the essay, a dynamic that is often prevalent in academic contexts. At the same time, doing so made me think about “the selection of which aspects of a text are to be annotated and the relation of the parts of a text to its whole.” (Bauer/Zirker) What happens with our reading of a text, if we are not forced/encouraged to react to a text as a whole? On the one hand, I definitely felt more comfortable in the first place with skipping over the parts I could not make sense of immediately, whereas at the same time as soon as someone else had commented on one of these passages, I—depending on the content of the annotation—engaged with them more than I would have if they were “plain text”. I therefore think that social annotation practices benefit incredibly from a diverse readership sharing their annotations, and would therefore argue that in this sense hypothes.is encourages a conversation between a non-homogenous group of readers (see Bauer/Zirker’s statement that readerships become more diverse in the digital realm).

Last but not least, I appreciated Bauer/Zirker’s development of different categories/levels of annotations, “which takes into account the risk of the loss of information through the overabundance of information”. While doing the annotations in hypothes.is, I missed my different-colored pencils and my personal system of abbreviations (which I use similar to hashtags), which allow me to immediately see the difference between an added definition of a word, a question, a note on what I need to look up later, a comment on the content, the style etc. On the other hand, this would of course require a group of readers to compromise on a common use of categories which would in turn restrict and determine the ways in which we annotate once again, and therefore speak against the “openness” digital annotations want to provide.

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.

Audio: “Signature Research” (& belated Post #1)

“Signature Research” by Dylan Gauche, 2017, [Trigger Warning]: https://www.theheartradio.org/solos/signatureresearch

The piece I chose is technically not an audiobook, but an about 7 minutes long audio piece written and produced by Dylan Gauche. It has been published in an episode of the podcast “The Heart” and deals with the narrator’s childhood, youth, and family—and the various forms of pain he experienced as well as with his resilience. I chose this piece, because applies an incredible variety of the possibilities that audio as a medium provides but is based on the reading out loud of a written text. (Still, as this text has most probably been written for the piece and therefore for audio, it cannot be considered to be an audiobook in the traditional sense of the word.)

First of all, there is Gauche’s voice. He tells, he whispers, he imitates others, his voice gets loud and intense—at some point it feels as if he was shouting at the people who hurt him, the ones he’s talking about—and then quieter again. And he thereby never seems to be acting or “merely” reading. What I found especially interesting is that Gauche even used different levels of recording quality depending on the content of the narration. At some points the recording is deliberately rough and noisy to enforce the rather dark atmosphere of the text at this point. Gauche’s narration is also perfectly paced, he’s sometimes talking faster and sometimes slower depending on the mood and the content of the story. And, his narration also contains a very strong onomatopoetic moment when he quickly speaks out the word “drink” three times in a row and thereby imitates the sound of drinking.

Second, there’s the music. The piece contains two different kinds of music. On the one hand there is a rough recording of someone singing and playing the guitar—most probably the narrator’s father who is introduced as someone who would record himself playing self-written songs. At this point, the music works like an illustration of the content of the piece: while the “I” talks about his father, we hear him singing in the background. Then, a different application of music follows: two piano pieces are used to underline the emotional content of the story.

Third, there are sounds. In some moments, the piece consists of three different layers: A voice, music and other ambiance sounds. Some of them, such as the sound of probably a beeping medical machine, function as illustrating the story’s narrated content. Others, such as whirring noises, are undefined or at least not “readable” for me. I have interpreted the use of those noises as the creation of general unrest, which reflects the content of the presented story.

Fourth, there are other people’s voices. As already mentioned we (most probably) hear his father singing in the beginning of the piece, and we would also hear recordings of him on the phone. Another time, it’s the narrator himself imitating the voice of his brother. At a later point, we hear one sentence, a question, from his mother to which the narrator then responds.

Finally, there’s the silence. The piece talks about how during his childhood and youth, the narrator would constantly hear his father talking, leading to the “I’s” claim: “I can’t stand silence now.” This is reflected within the above mentioned creation of an overload of sound within certain moments of the piece. Moments in which we can hear the narrator’s voice without any underlying “background” of music or noises, are well placed and rare. The use of silence as a tool of storytelling is most strongly applied at the end of the piece. Its last sentence is: “And my house is quiet now.”—followed by a few seconds of this silence.

Overall, I think that—additionally to its challenging content—this piece wonderfully illustrates how rich the possibilities of translating a text into audio can be: one can work with voices, sounds, music, pacing, sound-illustration and “sound-counter-narration” of the actual content of the text etc. I therefore hope that it can be an inspiration for our projects!

 

(& very belated—sorry!) Blog Post 1:

After having read (and discussed in class) the texts by Kirschenbaum, Liu and Spicher Kasdorf et al, all of which focus on different aspects of reading and literature in the digital realm, I started thinking about the relationship between form and content, and I was astonished that if at all, this topic only appeared quite indirectly in the presented texts.

The thought came to my mind first when Liu introduced Blair and Sherman’s work about annotation practices and mentioned scribbled notes in the margins of books. As someone who cannot read without a pencil to underline and write, and as someone who loves handwriting and paper, I am one of those who still find it hard to read longer texts on a screen even though I used computers from the age of 13. When I do, I use the underlining and commentary functions extensively, but I am pretty sure that what I write in the “digital margins” is different from what I would write down in the margins of a book displaying the same text. I would not call one of those ways to write into the margins “better” than the other, and I certainly don’t want to join the ranks of those who lament about the disappearance of analog writing and reading as a matter of principle, or who decry digital technologies. But I do think that it is important to reflect critically about the media, the technologies and the digital infrastructure we use, and to acknowledge that there is a relationship between the content we express and the form in which we express it. This accounts for the book as a medium as well as for digital platforms and means to display content. The texts do this, but in a way that seemed to me as if the authors implicitly would accept the digital realm as a sort of “second nature”, as something neutral, something that mainly adds new possibilities to engaging with literature instead of understanding it as an infrastructure created by humans and commercial companies, and as an infrastructure that promotes certain forms of expression as well as it is defined by certain limitations.

One of the best, and indeed overworked, examples therefore is twitter with its limitation to 140 characters per tweet. As Kirschenbaum states in a side note, twitter’s “format encourages brief, conversational posts (…) that also tend to contain a fair measure of flair and wit” (my emphasis). Twitter is only one example for digital infrastructures providing various new possibilities to engage with (and produce) literature and to explore new “agencies of the readers” (McKenzie/Liu), but—as is any sort of analog printed text too—these new possibilities are not only provided but also restricted and to some extent determined be the means used in order to write, publish, read and respond to texts. Hayles’ differentiation between deep and hyper attention as two distinct forms of cognitive styles could for example be a starting point in order to analyze which digital medium could be best suited for certain projects associated with the Humanities.

Therefore, when Liu presents the use of Facebook to help students engaging with Shakespeare’s works, I think that it would be as interesting to explore what the students learned about the possibilities and limitations of Facebook as about Romeo and Juliet. While Liu asks: “how does engagement with literature or literary communities inflect, extend, or criticize the culturally dominant tools and practices of vernacular social computing?”, he concludes that these questions “can wait until we have more experience with literary social computing.” I would disagree and suggest that an analysis of those culturally dominant tools should be a part of any undertaking in the Digital Humanities from its very beginning.