In Search of (Digitally, Scholarly) Annotated Ulysses

Annotation is arguably a piece of art, so it has to be approached respectively. From other readings we covered in the past, it was also fascinating to learn that, although annotation is a genre that has been around for a while, we still do not have a clear definition or set of definitions for what is annotation. This even makes the whole situation even more intriguing and keeps us in suspense. 

Elysa Graham’s article, written stylishly, offers a panorama of projects related to the attempts of annotating James Joyce’s celebrated work, Ulysses. A masterpiece of modernism, this 1922 novel, is somewhat problematic in terms of its form and the way we know the novel now. A number of generations of scholars working in textual studies made efforts to produce what could be defined as an ideal, or ideally accurate, Ulysses. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising to me that Graham mentions (albeit in passing) Hans Walter Gabler, a German literary scholar responsible for producing what is currently being considered as the complete variant of a critical edition of Joyce’s novel, and barely mentions John Kidd, another scholar of Joyce who once was supposed to prepare “not merely a perfect text, ‘as Joyce wrote it,’ but also a marriage of modern technology and literary genius.” Moreover, the “manifold connections and allusions” would be “instantly visible via hyperlinks, and the common reader would be able to appreciate the infinite recesses of Joyce brilliance.” [1] Kidd never finished the project, needless to say. It would have been interesting to see if Graham’s piece would say more about which versions of the novels the scholars involved in digital projects typically rely on and if any of them try to do something else than Gabler and Kidd did. 

By reading the Graham article, I found out more about Amanda Visconti’s project Infinite Ulysses which key idea was, as I understand, to make the novel available and be annotated by the ordinary users who can create an account, log in and leave their ideas, comments. This is a strikingly great idea, but then I start thinking about scholarly the existing parameters of annotations that are left by the users (if such parameters existed at all). And, in general, would need to have regulations in projects like that? Nonetheless, in a novel as problematic and complicated as Ulysses, having a set of some shared visions towards the annotation process might be a good idea. 

Also, I have a general comment regarding the usage of online annotated projects. I wonder if the people working on these projects think about their target audience as they construct sites, divide responsibilities, start work on the texts. If these annotated projects are aimed at undergraduate and graduate students, would those projects help a different audience—say, scholars, working on Joyce professionally. For instance, are these versions going to have new and fresh for scholars and researching working with these texts? And vice versa, of course. What kind of digitally created, hyperlinked platform produced by scholars and researchers would benefit students of different types.

Finally, as I read the Graham piece, I started to think about the possibility (and necessity, why not) of some emuseum devoted entirely to lost digital projects involving annotations. Interestingly enough, in the past, we were thinking of books like vanishing objects, but now we also can start thinking of these online projects, which might end up delve into the abyss without leaving any footprints behind. Some of the projects mentioned by Graham can illustrate this idea.

[1] Jack Hitt, “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar,” New York Times (June 12, 2018).


As I learn more about new and old digital humanities projects and the history of the discipline, defining the scope of the digital humanities becomes more elusive. The space of DH activity seems to be changing and expanding constantly; not only in the nature and number of projects created, but in its values and attitudes. Elyse Graham’s Joyce and the Graveyard of Digital Empires examines the history of a few pioneering digital projects, and in the process it illustrates the very changing and expanding nature of the digital humanities. As Graham herself writes, “the discipline that has come to be known as the digital humanities encompasses too much activity and incorporates too many histories to identify a single genealogy for its protean operations.” P7

More than the evolving values and approaches of digital projects, the ultimate focus of the piece is sustainability. The Graveyard of Digital Empires came to be because the values and attitudes of digital scholarship have changed, moving away from “print architectures as the primary blueprint” etc. But most importantly, these projects are no longer alive because they did not deal with issues of sustainability, including their own. When it comes to issues of sustainability, I find myself as optimistic as Vannevar Bush about the reliability of machines, or at least I did before reading this article. I consistently dismissed concerns about the preservation of digital projects, because I was certain that this was purely an issue of technological advancement. Graham’s tour of the ‘graveyard of digital empires’ opened my eyes to the urgency of sustainability. 

There are two central values to digital humanities projects that have emerged as inherent values of the discipline in the course of this program; they are collaborative and open. I considered the collaboration and openness of digital projects primarily as means to elevate marginalized voices, by highlighting and preserving their histories and experience, but it is in the engagement of user activity that these projects truly live and are sustained. These values are central to the sustainability of digital projects. “The reliance of digital artifacts on the labor of human agents for development, support, and preservation is (it is now clear) a condition of digital textuality, even as it presents a challenge to older tendencies in the humanities to privilege the labors of the solitary scholar.”p8 

It is a little ironic that the Infinite Ulysses project is still in a coma, as Graham offered it as an example of a contemporary project focusing on sustainability. It is in the other example of James Joyce’s Ulysses that comes a unique example of conservation efforts. The project shares the data with major institutions, such at the University of Oxford Text Archive, and works to bring it to the attention of a large number of users, thus helping preserve it. But the most unique effort in sustainability is the active proselytizing, as “the project’s affiliates actively campaign to attract the interest and participation of new contributors.”

Thinking ahead by looking to the past

While reading Vannevar Bush’s piece As we May Think, I couldn’t help but recall Leonardo Davinci’s famous notebook collection, Codex on the Flight of Birds. In the 1500s, the renaissance man stetcked flying machines that couldn’t be constructed/properly executed until the 1900s. Though I’m more of a secretive notetaker myself, this shows that nowhere is it more important to preserve and share one’s notes/thoughts than in the area of STEM. Yes, we can also credit science fiction writers for other human-made inventions like Jule Vernes’ under the sea and flying machines that inspired the submarine and the helicopter, but it’s the experimental logs and notes from women and men in science and technology that takes an idea and transforms it into reality.

“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think

We have an enormous capacity to capture and store information (notes, logs, etc.) through digital tools and machines. However, it takes more than just that to use the notes its full capacity and make something out of them. With all of the methods we have now to preserve even the most miscellanies of notes, we must also consider accessibility and agency. Not everyone has the ability to read, interpret, and develop/carry forward important information. We have digital archival tools like the WaybackMachine and DH projects such as the bookshelf of W. Ross Ashby’s Journey that try their best to capture at least some of our history digitally, but are these methods of preservation enough?

The article left me with these questions: Are we doing our best to preserve important records to be used by others later? Most importantly, who is in charge of preserving these, and what is considered “worthy” of archiving? Whose notes are we allowed to read, and who’s being educated/trained to read and transcribe these notes? And lastly, are we thinking too much in the future instead of taking note of what’s happening now and repairing our systems before forging ahead?

Timeless Anxieties and Associative thinking

We tend to have such high hopes for the future. The Vannevar Bush piece is a good example of “exponential future-thinking” where the present status is just extended into the future. We don’t do these kinds of thought experiments anymore, unless you work in a Graphics Cards or are trying to predict the size of the next iphone, which for all of Bush’s talk of things getting smaller and more company, could he have predicted the demands for larger iPhones? 

The Professor mentioned that for all our general hopes for the future, it’s difficult to think beyond 2020. That’s because future-talk tends to cover the topics that Bush selects as essential talking-points: 1. Ways of getting beyond automation and 2. Speeding up our selection process. The first point was one which dominated discussions about the role of AI in the workforce, but with record levels of unemployment, people aren’t so worried about “robots taking over their” jobs, as having one in the first place. As to the second, well, this problem is always by our side: it has merely changed form. How do we now select truth from falsity, how do we keep our social lives and select the correct object of attention when we are being tugged at every which way by technology, finally how do we select our “notes” of thought when our digital selves are spread between so many platforms?

2 Comments from the class got me thinking about “Associative” knowledge that is mentioned in the Bush piece: “The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.”

The first is Matt’s note in the chat about not having recognizable handwriting when writing notes. Matt continued that it wasn’t so important that they be readable, but recognizable. I feel the same way about my own handwriting, it is a series of symbols which I can’t make out, but rather they bring me back to a point in time in which I wrote them. It’s more visual than linguistic, very interesting.

The second was Maggi’s comment about relying on a range of notepads in all shapes and sizes. It acted as a mnemonic device I believe she mentioned. The Blair pieces mentions mnemonics as well: “Medieval notes are best preserved in the margins of manuscripts, whether made by thereader directly or by a professional reader to aid the reading of another.They served primarily as mnemonic or meditative aids or to enhance the ordinatio of the text, but occasionally they also took a self-reflexive or potentially dissenting tone.” In Maggi’s case, she has formal elements of note-taking which act as mnemonics, I wonder if there have been any studies of historical note-taking practices which emphasis the structure of the practice beyond the materials used? Essentially is there any emphasis on difference in writing the notes which depended on the subject of the note, rather than simply tossing everything in a Quarto or tablet? I think I may have an answer. If visual elements are the key to a successful mnemonic in writing then perhaps the ornate calligraphy that I’ve seen on decorated bibles would go far in helping people remember elements of a story from the Testament. What kind of equivalent is there for note-taking? I tend to think of them in stodgy terms, but maybe that’s not generous enough.

A Different Sort of Computer Graveyard

Elyse Graham’s Joyce and the Graveyard of Digital Empires drew my attention from the title alone – I correctly assumed that it was referencing James Joyce, and my house has a small “computer graveyard” in the basement where we keep in-tact but heavily outmoded computer equipment from yester-decade. Upon actually reading it, I found that Graham had quite a few unfamiliar, but certainly striking ideas, many of which connected to my studies in the realm of Deleuzian rhizomatics.

Graham writes that as opposed to “page-bound [texts]” of the physical variety, which “lead the reader along branching rather than linear paths, hypertexts construct such paths “into the physical architecture of the text, whereas page-bound texts do not; nonetheless.” This brought to mind many fictional pieces I’ve read that are littered with footnotes that present the reader with contextual information – for instance, when I studied Dante’s Divine Comedy, the editions of the books I used had a very large section at the back that would inform the reader of the origins of some of the references Dante makes. This also made me think about my own experiences with hypertexts. If one counts SCP Foundation as a hypertext, many of the entries on it link to other entries in order to fill the reader in. Indeed, I’ve found myself reading very brief articles that would then link me to longer-form pieces tens of thousands of words long.

Later on, she discusses Amanda Visconti’s Infinite Ulysses, which in my eyes, is a particularly sharp sort of double edged sword. Graham describes it as an “interactive edition of the text emphasizing the sharing, curating, and ranking of annotation,” but goes on to mention that “users must employ their existing Facebook and Twitter accounts to engage with the text and each other.” On one hand, this encourages collaboration and is almost artistically beautiful, as it brings the “twenty-first-century triumph of social media platforms” into conversation with the rest of what the project offers. On the other hand, in a way, it’s needlessly confining – Facebook and Twitter are probably the two most popular conventional social networks out there. If I wanted to take part in this project, the presupposition is that I would have an account, and the reality is that I would have to make an account if I didn’t already have one. Maybe I’m too much of a skeptic, or maybe I’m just lazy, but I’m really not a fan of websites where you have to register by way of another website, despite the almost-rhizomatic nature of such a registration.

Finally, Graham comments on a time she sat in on a panel featuring Jonathan Reeve and others: she asked the panel “about the relationship between Joyce and hypertext; the response was a matter-of-course agreement from the panelists that Ulysses is a form of proto-hypertext.” While I’m not entirely sure sure whether I agree that Ulysses is a “proto-hypertext” (although I do lean towards agreement on the subject), this did cause me to consider other “proto-hypertexts.” Is Divine Comedy a “proto-hypertext?” Could a review of a movie be considered a “proto-hypertext?” And perhaps, most self-indulgently, is A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia perhaps a valid guide for those looking to learn more about hypertexts, both “proto” and otherwise?

Annotation in the wild

I really enjoyed your spontaneous presentations of examples of annotation–for scholars, for students, for laypeople–from the wilds of the web. Here is a messy list of what you came up with:

From Work, to Text, from Annotation, to Annotations

(Apologies for not putting this up earlier, I sort of confabulated the blog post attached to the audiobook project with what seems to be called Blog Post #3.)

As a major proponent of Barthes, I was excited to read From Work to Text, which is in fact a piece of his I’ve never read. While I’ve never been a particularly large fan of annotation, the current work in this course has caused my mind to fixation on the subject lately, which had a degree of effect on my reading. Early on, Barthes lists “method, genres, signs, plurality, filiation, reading and pleasure” as a set of propositions, and establishes that these are propositions meant to be “to be understood more in a grammatical than in a logical sense.” That is, rather than proposals to be supported or refuted, his propositions serve the purpose of existing primarily to support themselves – “[remaining] metaphorical.” I think these propositions, while not created with annotation necessarily in mind, can be used to examine annotation and annotations just as they are used to examine the “work” and the “text.”

I want to focus primarily on the propositions of “methods,” “reading,” and “pleasure.” In the case of the first of these, Barthes refers to the “text” as “a methodological field,” or something that exists only in method, or largely in an non-physical state, or, as he puts it, as something that is closer to embodying “demonstration” more than anything else. I feel like this holds a lot in common with the idea of annotation, especially the idea of virtual annotation. Annotation, at least in my own mind, is something very much grounded in method and non-physicality – however, one could very much argue that the result of the process of annotation, the annotations themselves, are closer to Barthes’ idea of the “work” as opposed to the “text.”

Thinking about “reading,” the process of annotation presupposes that one has engaged in reading the piece that is being annotated. In fact, one could argue that annotation intrinsically requires reading, or at the very least, interacting with a piece in a way contextually equivalent to reading, such as watching a play or movie, viewing a painting or photograph, or playing a game. Barthes remarks that “the [t]ext requires that one try to abolish (or at the very least to diminish) the distance between writing and reading, in no way by intensifying the projection of the reader into the work but by joining them in a single signifying practice” – I think this could be seen in the relationship between annotation and annotations. When I think about Barthes’ assertion, I think about how writing requires reading, but reading doesn’t require writing – however, annotation requires both reading and writing, which produces annotations, which rely on the process of annotation.

Finally, “pleasure.” A key point Barthes makes here is that “if [one] can read [an author], [one] also [knows] that [one] cannot re-write them.” This almost lends itself too well to the parallels relating to annotation and annotations – I would argue that the closest, at least in some terms or senses, at least without delving into plagiarism or turning to fanwork, one could come to rewriting a work is through annotating that work. While it’s not truly rewriting it, it could certainly be seen as a form of self-produced augmentation or addition to the work, which is at least related to the concept of rewriting.

Group Project #2: Creating an annotated “edition” (due Thursday, 10/22)

Cane CaneJean Toomer; Harper & Row 1969WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

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 Toomer’s Cane. 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:

  • two roughly equal groups will each create an edition: each group selected a relatively narrow “frame” for the edition. Whereas a printed “Norton Critical Edition” of a literary text, for example, aims to tell a “general reader” everything they need to know to feel oriented to the text, our editions will focus on a narrower (but more novel) issue:
    • group one (ADD NAMES) will create an edition focusing on popular and “folk” culture represented and reworked in the text.
    • group two (ADD NAMES ) will create an edition that links the text to its “reception history,” embedding quotes and links that give readers a sense of how Cane has been read, focusing on the 1920s and perhaps its revival in the 1970s in conjunction with the “Black Arts Movement” and the rise of African American Studies in the academy.
  • 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 1920s reception of the text, or it might add “reception history” only to the “Kabnis” section. Be realistic and follow your interests where they go.
    • Here is a Zotero group I hacked together to collate Cane resources. I’ve already linked to the Modernist Journals Project and a couple of scholarly works linking Cane to music; feel free to add your own. If you’re interested in joining so you can add resources and collaborate with your team on the Zotero group, let me know and I’ll add you.
  • instead of formal presentations like last time, we will have an informal discussion of the process/product on 10/22, though you still might want to designate a spokesperson for your group as one of the “jobs.” 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?

The Audiodacity (sic) of the Melville’s Bartleby as a Harbinger of Modernity

I had quickly read Bartleby the Scrivener many years ago during a summer vacation in high school.  Although I have always enjoyed reading literature, I have to confess I read it to get a taste of Melville without having to take on Moby Dick just yet.  I don’t think I appreciated Bartleby at that first reading.  While I found the description of aspects of mid-19th century life in New York interesting, I thought it was an odd work, very gloomy and Dickensian (in all the worst ways).  Since that time, I have had the good fortune to read Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Flannery O’Connor’s The Displaced Person, and to have read/heard/seen presentations of Samuel Beckett’s stage and radio plays.  When I first got the text for this course and downloaded it as a pdf, I gave it a cursory reading.  Then I tried a different approach which I have been using a lot lately with assigned readings in DH and Linguistics courses, namely using the pdf Read Aloud function.  While this has been very helpful with extracting enriched understanding of complex journal articles when my attention is flagging, it was not particularly effective with Bartleby for me.  The Read Aloud function is just too chopped/clipped and monotone even for a work like Bartleby. 

However, when I listened to Georgette’s abridged audio edition read by Matt and produced by Martin and Lola, it was an entirely different experience.  Matt’s excellent interpretations of the various characters gave shape and color to the text, while the timbre of his voice reading Bartleby’s lines provided a contrast which brought home to me the lostness and anomie of Bartleby the office drone.  Furthermore, although I comprehend the concept of alienation in modernity, the timbre of Matt’s voice strongly conjured up the images of the displaced person (although O’Connor’s example was for more industrious than Bartleby) who does not fit in at his work place, and of the disability and strange otherness of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis.  In particular, Matt’s audio presentation reminded me of the alienation and paralytic stasis of the characters in Beckett’s stage and radio plays. 

In the early group discussions, we played with the idea of how to exploit the concept of “pandemic chic” to maximum dramatic effect.  I am certainly very aware of modern adaptations of historic works, such as those of Shakespeare.  However, it was not until I started developing a script to curate the abridged reading that I really saw the full potential of developing the concept of the impact of a pandemic on a socio-economically obscure person such as Bartleby.  What really surprised me was how the Lawyer’s narrative could be used to illustrate aspects of white privilege and white guilt. 

My major takeaways are the great potential for audiobooks to enrich the consumer’s/audience’s/reader’s experience and how prescient Melville was concerning aspects of alienation in modernity.

Lastly, in group projects I have often in the past become the group organizer.  Due to a mistake with the registrar, I joined the class a week late, and was assigned a role.  This was a good experience for me and I got a lot out of my assigned role. 

Polyphonic Text

Counterpoint is an important musical composition style which involves playing two or more melodies alongside each other in related keys, and it was especially popular in the Baroque period. While we don’t have the ability to read two texts at the same time, it is possible to listen to two texts at once. What does his kind of experience reveal? To hear two narrators speak at the same time would be nonsensical, so an experiment involving playing two audio books at once would be a miserable failure. But I argue that the sometimes caustic recording that I put together which plays the Dickens short story narrated by our Reader interspersed with sound clips from News related to current events, achieves a kind of polyphony of sounds and contrapuntal elegance. 

The intent here is to force inspiration. When we read we are alone with the author. No thoughts can emerge which are not a product of the two. Once we include a third stream of ideas the ability to inspire is increased exponentially. We may interact with the sound sample in relation to a word from the spoken text, or we may instead focus our attention on the narrative of the text picking up a phrase or two of the sound samples as our attention to it wavers. Why don’t these stacked sounds simply melt into a mess of unknowability? In the same way that a viola and violin, piano and voice, or mandolin and bassoon carry explicitly different tones, the introduction of a lead aesthetic sample of Narration which runs through the recording acclimates us to its conditions. The sound samples are different enough in kind for our brain to separate the two. 

The Presidential debate of September 29 was a great example of how two voices talking over each other results in a distracted miasma of sound. The case was that it was two elderly male voices. When the Narrator of Bartleby mentioned “respect” and “decency”, at that moment I played the clip of AOC berating Rep Ted Yoho for his crude comments toward her. The two audio clips play alongside each other, and I would put forth that because of significant differences in their aesthetics qualities (male vs female, close vs reverby sound, moderate vs impassioned speech) the brain is able to compartmentalize them and make sense of the two at the same time. The aesthetics of our audio project are more closely aligned with collage art, which are meant to force an inspiration out of the viewer and their relation between two or more artistic elements. Again, this is less a relationship between the reader and the author and instead places the reader (listener) in the position of a conduit or channel through which novelty is found in the juxtaposition of presented ideas.

In the below picture, the visual layout of the clips can be seen. An outline of where the clips lay is as follows: Channels 1, 2, and 4 are News Clips which play at intervals and have about 2 minutes between them. Channel 3 is a 3 minutes audio sample of an office environment which plays almost the entire duration of the recording. Channel 5 is the stitched together narration of the book.