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Final Project Concept

For my final project, I want to try playing with the essay form by incorporating a few thoughts I’ve been mulling over during our unit on annotation and note-taking. As I noted in my blog post on Blair, I feel as if our readings really leave open the idea of note-taking being an ultimately expressive activity; it is a means through which a reader may ‘respond to the text’ via the margins of the text itself. Yet, taking a few steps back from our natural delineations of genres, one may note that this definition extends beyond note-taking in general. Consider the traditional literary essay and how it pulls from assorted marginalia and a text in order to elucidate hidden aspects of its subject. Is it not in itself ultimately a ‘response’ to a text, an attempt at lexicographic expression? Indeed, if one incorporate examples such as Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the short, epigraphic nature of Borges’ stories, they could even argue that the division between notes and Literature is a rather ephemeral one as well.

Wanting to explore this ephemeral division, I want to try writing an ‘annotated essay’ through Hypothesis (or any easily accessible annotation platform). Structurally, the idea seems rather simple: I would create a private Hypothesis notation on the text I intend to focus (or start) my analysis on. Once finished with an aspect of my argument, I would hyperlink to another text (or multiple texts) and continue my analysis via the hypothesis overlay for that piece. While a rather simple idea (and gimicky) it seems like a cool opportunity to use form to finally break from concerns of structure and linear argumentation that has plagued my essay writing since primordial elementary school days. Rather than force my reader to engage with my argument through an artificial linearity, I can simply leave the ‘flow’ of argument to her/him. That is, I can actually allow my reader to engage with my argument in the same manner that it truly developed.

Of course, form without content that complements its capabilities is wasted, hence why I wish to address another topic that I’ve been mulling over for a while: consumerism in Barthes’ “From Work to Text.” I still feel unease at the dichotomy Barthes draws between “the work” and “the Text” in regards to consumption (i.e. the former is a product of while the latter resists). The need for one to ‘return’ to the consumable work in the attempt to decipher the unlimited “Text” seems far too problematic for anything beyond a false division. The annotated essay seems a perfect opportunity to investigate these concerns: forcing the reader to engage with individual texts through the hyperlink strategy will allow them to visualize the intertextual web of signs that Barthes addresses in his writings while also forcing them to engage with the economy of digital production (e.g. site-traffic, paywalls, embedded advertisements) that is incurred in a contemporary exploration of “the Text.”

As I’m approaching the topic with a concern for the relationship between consumption, production, and art, my research will likely need to engage with classical critical theorists, most notably Adorno, while the digital nature of the project will benefit from some insights via Liu and some ‘classical’ arguments by way of Bolter and Grusin. As well, since I do not have the resources to consider all possible variations of “the Text” and how they have changed across the decades between now and Barthes, I intend to focus my inquiry on a single example of textual response: the individual essay itself. That is, I wish to simply display a counterpoint through how the annotated essay itself engages with consumption and capital in its own attempts to “play” with Barthes’ “Text.”

Returning to form, I also realize that even an unambitious use of hyperlinking between annotations will likely be an irritant to the reader. As such, there is a distinct possibility that I may need to abandon the use of annotation platforms in general and simply create a series of rudimentary HTML pages that simulate visiting multiple websites. (Which, due to separating the article from the immediate world of the World Wide Web, would significantly alter the argument as it provides a means to return to the text without engaging within the eternal recurrence of consumption.)

Annotation Assignment Thoughts.

For the project, we each focused on a subset of the theme of ‘a critical history.’ Following our own personal tastes, each member conducted individual research pertaining to their intended focus (e.g. contemporary reception to Melville’s piece, readings from alternative backgrounds). My focus began as the critical interpretation of slave narratives in relationship to the novella but, as my reading progressed, it developed into a more abstract look into how critics have approached the relationship of history and “Benito Cereno” and how Delano’s historical narrative has been progressively undermined by literary readings over the last few decades of criticism. While our annotations should ideally flush out this research, it suffices to summarize that the rising critical awareness of the injustice of slave revolt trials can be seen at play in the frequent omissions and alterations witnessed in Melville’s adaptation of the legal document that concludes the novella. Rather than serving as a ‘true’ interpretation of events, the document has been denigrated by criticism into yet another example of obscurity, power, and race dynamics, only this time being revealed more in our ‘real’ codified histories rather than fictional narratives.

Having time to evaluate the project, I hope I express a shared feeling of greater ease when comparing this product with the audio-book assignment. While, obviously, this assignment required personal effort and a sizable degree of critical thought, the fact that we were ultimately collecting and displaying available research seemed to reduce the critical burden. In creating the audio-book, the sheer question of ‘how?’ seemed to be overwhelming; our decisions would ultimately limit the possibilities of production and possibly entail critical interpretations that we would not be able to divine until likely too late. Yet, for the annotation assignment, one did not feel such a ‘burden of choice.’ True, we were ultimately limiting ourselves with our selections. (What if I had not chosen to use Coulson’s essay on slave narratives? My annotations would have gone a different route. A new edition would have existed.) But, our selections would not limit the reading itself. The benefit of annotations is that they exist in the margins, that they are not direct impediments to our traditional routes of reading but, rather, accessories for the reader to use, or not use, as they may.

Complementing this relief was our selection of publishing: we decided to use Manifold for our annotations. As the application hides annotations and resources until a user chooses to engage with them, our annotations took on a more laissez faire aspect. What if the critical insights I provided were haphazard? The reader can simply ignore. What if someone knew a critical argument that made this theory unfounded? They could simply reply. Such an ephemeral nature of annotation, while understandably open to abuse in a public setting, relieved even the financial and personal costs of a traditional annotated edition. It permitted us the freedom to simply “play” with the readings of the text, comfortable that we were simply engaging, not providing definitive readings.

A mental note

I find my thoughts on this week’s readings shaped by two mental “commonplace” notes. One is I. A. Richard’s quip, “A book is a machine to think with.” The other recalls an experience at the Morgan Library: upon presenting a series of medieval manuscripts, a curator mentioned that textual margins developed in order for readers to turn a page without smudging ink. After note-taking became common, scribes began playing with margins and spacing to facilitate the study (e.g. wider spaces between characters in reading primers so students could practice).

Taking these notes as “epitomes” for the readings, one can attempt to crystallize a few simple truths regarding note-taking. Beginning with Richard’s comment, we understand that the act of reading requires, much speech, structuring one’s thoughts to comprehend the meaning the creator intended to convey. Such is the rationale for why one may reread a sentence; the issue is less a failure to understand the individual words used in an utterance and more the personal attempt to develop a receptive thought structure. Viewed under this concept, Blair’s adversaria” become quite transparent and familiar in their utility: they’re simply notes to guide our thinking towards a mental structure that aids comprehension, a warm-up for our ‘cramped’ brains prior to the Barthesian game of reading. Hence the merit of other writer’s notes; they present an avenue of thought or “experience” (Jones) that may assist understanding a writer’s intended meaning.

Indeed, this view also explains the merits of note production in general and classroom phenomena like, “…students in the same class in Paris [coming] away with full-text notes from a course on geography, identical but for aural mistakes…” (Blair) As much as the act of reading requires a structuring of thought, so does the writing act itself. The production of even scribbles requires a (via Whitehead and James) “violence” of thought that steals language away from the associations of thought in the mind. In the act of writing these notes, the students experience the frame of thought conductive to this stream of language. Even if they fail to return to these notes, they still possess the experience of structuring their thoughts in such a manner, should they be required to do so again.

Yet, while this frame of thought explains the “adversaira” it fails to address the “commonplace” and other aspects of note-taking. While the act of writing itself may facilitate thought, it appears wasteful for such mental tools such as “Intermediate notes and drafts” to be discarded and “never meant to be kept.” (Blair 95) Nor does it approach the rationale for note-taking to move “toward the diary based on personal experience,” (Ibid 102) and dismiss the narrowing of thought that notes of “epitome” provide. In fact, reliance on experience suggests undermining the utility already mentioned as the “violence” to produce language entails complete separation from the myriad of thoughts that birthed the utterance. To rely upon experience in one’s notes casts a shadow of impossible recapitulation with the factors producing an utterance; one knows while reading that the full mental structure is irredeemable. (Perhaps this is why Jones held himself from embracing the “full understanding” of Bush and Engelbart and his desire to subsume their thoughts as “dramatize[ation].”)

Hence the provision of the latter note. In it, one sees a cycle of writing to reading to writing. The sheer pragmatic need to engage with a text provided literal space for the reader to write, regardless of the work. Even with the production of manuscripts designed for the act of note-taking, the original feature of margins remained universal. Or, to be pithy, “For as long as there has been writing, there have been readers who follow along and ‘write back.’” (Jones), regardless of the need for understanding. Rather than seeing notes as a “transmission of knowledge” (Blair 85), it seems more appropriate to see note-taking as a product of another fundamental aspect of language: conversation. Within these margins, the reader does not seek to solely provide means to understand the text; s/he seeks to answer to the text and, in turn, be understood as well.

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.

It’s a process

At the beginning of our foray into the world of audio-books, I was concerned about the possibility of limiting interpretations of the text. Reading about Dicken’s audience and its reaction to his voicing of Sam Weller in Rubery’s piece, I saw the inkling of an issue posed by the medium: by providing a definitive voice through an audio ‘reading,’ a text risked losing aspects of the ambiguity that fosters criticism. It seemed rather monoglotic, privileging a select set of voices over the multiple ones an audience provides in solitary reading.

Now, with our projects coming to completion, I admit that this hesitancy was rather unfair. If anything, our work on audio-books only exposed the sheer vibrancy of language and ambiguity at play in a text. Consider my role as scrip preparer. Going through the novella to color-code individual character voices in order to aid recording, I realized that my task was consequently making the text’s internal dialogism more explicit. With each character voice symbolized by a color, I could simply glance through the text and understand how narrative voice was being challenged in dominance by noting how its symbolic blue was fragmenting into a rainbow of color – coincidentally in tandem with Bartleby’s increasing obstinateness. Sharing this script with my fellow group members, I saw the text further fragmented as dubbings were inserted so as to expose elements of humanity that contrasted with the automated recording we used as a base. Thus, not only could one see external challenges to narrative voice develop but internal alterations of the character could be visually manifested.

Of even greater interest was what the audio-book added to the text. An issue that impeded our work was deciding on how to ‘read’ our audio-book. Each group member had their own understanding of the text and we wanted to ensure that the project retained a collaborative nature that could accommodate this. However, as literary interpretation is a holistic phenomenon, we could not merely pick and choose which readings remained by mass agreement: the result would be schizophrenic. Rather, we had to decide on a format that allowed individual readings to prevail while also allowing them to yield to a holistic reading. That is, our individuals readings generated an alternate reading due to the demands of the audio-book itself.

This result reveals a flaw in my thinking about audio-books: I concentrated on the interpretation of the product, not the process. As in any collaborative activity, the audio-book involved a ‘circuit’ that incorporated multiple ideas and thoughts into the media artifact by sheer consequence of production. Having the opportunity to participate in this circuit, I feel as if my understanding of the authorial role, regardless of medium, has been altered. Where I considered the author as an ‘arranger’ of the language and ideas of his society, I now question whether he is better understood as a ‘negotiator’, developing techniques and forms to best accommodate all ideas that mediate through him.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Narration

For my audio-book, I chose the BBC recordings of Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Besides being one of my favorite works of fiction (and thus being a text I was already familiar with and able to easily procure), I wanted to work with this novel due to the unique relationship between this rendition and the text. Unlike other audio-books, this recording predates its (re)incarnation as a material book; Adams had originally written The Hitchhiker’s Guide as a script for a radio play before writing the novel. A ‘reading’ of the original BBC play offered an uncommon opportunity: rather than seeing the audio in light of the text, which was my basis of criticism last week, I would be able to experience the reverse and see the effects of an ‘reading’ originating in audio. Or, to use the words of this week’s reading, the text itself would be seen as a “…a new edition, direct from the author…” (Rubery 68) in light of the original audio.

The aspect of the audio recording that featured prominently in my ‘reading’ was its treatment of narrative voice. While the BBC was able to procure multiple talented actors capable of modulating their voice to distinguish character, the sheer amount of parts required for the performance inevitably produced redundancies in timbre. To establish exactly when the actual narrator was speaking, a musical effect was played in tandem with narration. When contrastedagainst the text, an interesting consequence of audio mediums appears. When reading, we are conditioned to accept the narrator’s voice as the default while actual character voice must be set apart. One can see this in the use of quotation marks: we reserve their use for actual character dialogue and refrain from inserting them when the text is providing description and narration. Excluding works that involve stream of consciousness and experimental techniques, we typically need to distinguish moments of characters speaking against a default of narrative voice.

For the audio performance, this was reversed; the voice of character was assumed to be the default while the narrative voice required a musical motif to indicate its identity. When I failed to notice this audio cue, I found myself confused, having difficulty parsing the narrative voice among that of other actors. Though this may be a result of the exact genre of audio recording (i.e. radio play), it appears as though the use of auditory mediums create a centrifugal expectation of language. As we are accustomed to auditory inputs originating from a multiplicity of sources, we are less conditioned to accept an authoritative voice unless we are given a priming signal to prepare ourselves. It is reminiscent of Bakhtinian heteroglossia: the voice of the author becomes subsumed by the voices of individual characters, creating a Saturnalia effect in dialogue.

This facet of narrative voice becomes more significant when the radio play and the text are compared for fidelity. Even with a cursory comparison, it is obvious that there are multiple differences between the text and original. Several jokes have been replaced with new ones (likely born from a desire to distinguish the two mediums for marketing purpose) and there are multiple editorial revisions to streamline narrative. However, I find the most significant alteration to be the insertion of several paragraphs of narration. Simple descriptions of movement and scenery were created in the act of novelization that are noticeably different in purpose and tone than the original narrative descriptions from the play. One is given the sense of two narrators co-existing in the novel: the original narrator and the novelic narrator. It appears as though Adams doubted the reader’s imaginative ability to carry over from the play and needed to supplement his original writing. If so, one becomes curious as to whether this was a valid concern and ponders the exact quality that causes this variance across mediums.

This observation must be coupled with noting how the play treats the narrative voice as a character. In the actual credits for the recording, one notes that the actor serving in the narrative role is credited as “the book” aka the eponymous guide of the novel. Whenever a character seeks to ascertain knowledge from the guide, the narrative voice will speak as the guide itself, implying for the listener that all narration is actually “the book” speaking to them. In effect, it gives the sensation that the narrator is yet another character, an individual participant in a free exchange of voices that directs the audio’s narrative. In Adam’s alteration of this voice in his novelization to one of conventional narration, there appears to be a doubt towards the feasibility of such ‘democratic’ use of voice, an impulse suggesting the need for a less egalitarian narrative to facilitate the text.

What Remains(?)

Regarding the remediative practices that constitute the digital humanities, I am drawn to the ebb and flow of the private and social that seems to pervade their discussion. In Berube et al.’s “Community Reading and Social Imagination” there is an insistence on an inherently social tradition that helped to establish the novel. Tracing the genre back to the “…coffeehouses, literary salons, reading clubs, reform associations, tea tables…where people read, and listened to others read, together,” (Berube et al. 422) they argue that the practice of reading has a far more public nature than that dictated by contemporary conceptions. Such an argument is happily seized upon by Liu and Allred to argue for the use of digital humanities in ‘recapturing’ the novel’s social nature and using remediation to realize modern instances of public reading and literary discussion.

While I agree with this championing of the novel’s social past (indeed, I was dismayed they did not go even farther and include instances like town readings of Pamela), the (to borrow Liu’s use of the term) “margins” of their argument suggested a resistance to the novel’s supposed public nature. Regardless of origins, the novel did eventually serve to construct the “…illusion {italics self-inserted} of participation in wide social networks…” (Ibid 421) and did not remain a traditional item of the ‘public sphere.’ That is, the novel may possess an aspect “…which does not lend itself…” (Benjamin 258) to the social. In a certain respect, this may simply be a consequence of the obvious necessity of individual reading even within a group setting. Though these events had individuals reading and reciting in solidarity, it does not seem as if they could not avoid the act of an initial private reading of some form. Indeed, in Allred’s comments on Rubery regarding public readings, we see that while the dominance of the original text was not so absolute a reading became a “passive reproduction,” the products of such social phenomenon were ultimately confined to the shadow of their origin in text and became “new editions” or “textual variants.” (Allred 123) Such classification would suggest that one would require a prior familiarity with the original text to fully appreciate the variations involved in this social occasion.

Ultimately, I suppose my critique can be paraphrased as remarking that books must simply be read prior to remediation and that the act of reading limits the remediative act. Albeit simple, I doubt the consequences to be of themselves simplistic. Consider Allred’s writings on audio recording in pedagogy. He recalls a student who, “…lamented that even her best-prepared peer ‘struggled with pronunciation of outdated words, and everyone managed to either switch words to constructions we were familiar with, or changed words to do the same.’” (Ibid 121). Note that the struggle occurs not from the act of reading itself but from the act of “pronunciation” required for a “compelling performance of the text.” The issue arises from the very act of realizing her private act of reading in a social environment. Whereas the antiquated lexicon of the text was of little issue in the interior world of “silent reading,” now it cannot help but clash with the individual idiolects and dialects that dictate societal needs for communication. As a result, we see a public choice for the “familiar;” portions of the text must be rejected because of their failure to realize themselves effectively socially.

This rejection is my rationale for my previous mention of Benjamin. This rejection of the text’s language due to its inability to “lend itself” to the social needs of the audio recording is reminiscent of the translator’s task. Just as the tools of digital humanities allow us to understand the text through what they successfully ‘translate’ the text into, so may they demonstrate what lies at the “nucleus” of the text by identifying that “…which does not lend itself…” Truly, the latter may lend greater significance due to its ability to identify aspects of the text unknowingly reinforced in remediation. (e.g. Candide 2.0’s required “scaffolding” to limit a completely free public reading, Allred’s admission that a better mastery of material would assist Looking Glass 2.0, Liu’s moderation of annotations on “From Reading to Social Computing” to assert some authorial control over his paper.) That is, the negative results of the digital humanities suggests as much literary insight as its successes.