Widening the Big Tent: Amateurs and the “Failure of the Digital Humanities”

July 19, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F

The Failure of the Digital Humanities

Mark Sample’s “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities” argues that post-1922 literary texts are being left behind as a part of the Digital Humanities (Sample 2012). This is a direct result of the Sonny Bono, or “Mickey Mouse,” Copyright Term Extension Act, another apparent move towards perpetual copyright. These difficulties are compounded by other obstacles including closed access or disorganised archives, insufficient preservation tools for early computer usage, and authors who simply refuse to embrace the digital. Without the necessary permissions or archival material, scholars of these twentieth century scholars are becoming increasingly envious of their colleagues, who develop tools that would equally aid interpretation of these more recent authors. Mid-twentieth century literature is of particular relevance to Digital Humanities research, since many frequently cited precursors of electronic literature including Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones (originally published c.1960s), are still protected by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Many of the theoretical issues that have been teased out of these texts — especially early hypertext theory (see Landow 1992; Bolter 1991; Joyce 2002) — perhaps can only truly be tested once many of these texts have been the subject of digital experimentation. This paper argues that although these projects are often not being carried out by faculty members, the need and potential uses for such tools among non-academic readers is demonstrated through the samizdat distribution of online versions and tools readily available for all those who wish to conduct a Google search. The launch of the first authorized Pynchon e-books (Flood 2012) was met with dismissive claims that better samizdat copies had been in circulation for many years beforehand. These projects are coming into fruition externally to traditional (digital) humanities departments, spreading out to computer scientists’ extracurricular projects or the work of those outside of the academy who build digital tools and resources for the love of the original literary artefact. A few examples of the diverse work being undertaken includes wikis (for authors such as Thomas Pynchon (Ware 2006) and Terry Pratchett (Anon. 2005)) databases (Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury (FWEET)) (Slepon 2005), interpretations of literary texts through social media on both a single platform, and a dense and complex ecosystem of literary engagement and reception (such as the recently organized group read of William Gaddis’s JR centralised around the Twitter hashtag #occupygaddis) and many other forms that demonstrate potential platforms for further research and development.

Literature Review

This study fits into a wider field of readership and reception studies, an interdisciplinary research subject, which has had some crossover within the Digital Humanities. Anouk Lang’s edited collection, From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, which includes chapters on how reader recommendation systems are changing in the digital age (Wright 2012), the community of LibraryThing (Pinder 2012), and the network of reader reviews on Amazon (Finn 2012). Furthermore, the present study runs parallel to crowdsourcing in the Digital Humanities, most recently exemplified by the Transcribe Bentham Project (Causer and Wallace 2012), as many projects involve large numbers of volunteers to organize materials. Moreover, as Henry Jenkins et al. have recently suggested, the easy transmission and manipulability of media in the early twenty-first century is essential to ensure the text’s viability, and the evidence of fan communities exploring literary texts suggests a desire for these more of these platforms. (Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013) There have also been more specific papers exploring the use of particular social network platforms for literary reception (see Schroeder and den Besten 2009; Ketzan 2012) and how the use of these tools reflect the development of underlying software through the way users build on the platform (Howison and Crowston 2011).

Do “Amateurs” Fit into the Big Tent of the Digital Humanities?

There has been a considerable debate concerning the purview of the Digital Humanities, particularly the extent to which building tools is essential to being described as Digital Humanities. (Svensson 2012) This paper asserts that the Big Tent should be widened to include a broader spectrum of scholars, amateur or professional, who engage with the transformational nature of digital tools, whether engaging with new methods of collaborating and presenting interpretive data or building databases to explore the manipulable nature of the original texts. These pockets of activity demonstrate a potential audience for these tools and push the boundaries of what counts as fair use in ways that academic institutions typically shy away from for fear of lawsuits. The deformative acts (Samuels and McGann 1999) these projects often engage in can thus reveal the ways in which these texts reflect a Digital Humanities agenda despite their marginalized status as both amateur projects and remediated texts (Bolter and Grusin 2000) still protected by copyright. Furthermore, there is evidence of the acceptance of these projects through examining the number of citations to some of the most prominent projects such as FWEET, which has been cited as both an exemplar of hypertextuality (Krapp 2005) and a reference guide for Joyce’s enigmatic text comparable to Roland McHugh’s authoritative Annotations to Finnegans Wake. (Conley 2007) Thus, we can witness how these projects engage with the academy.

Case Studies

The present study focuses on two case studies to illustrate the range of productivity that has engaged the non-Digital Humanities community for two twentieth-century authors: James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. These two authors represent polar opposites regarding their respective estates’ view of intellectual property rights and digital media. The Joyce estate has been involved in a couple of high profile copyright disputes leading to the dissolution of some major digital editions of Joyce’s work, most prominently, Michael Groden’s “Digital Ulysses.” On the other hand, FWEET, maintained by Raphel Slepon, a former medical researcher and programmer, runs counter to the usually aggressive policies of the Joyce estate. FWEET collates allusions from McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake (1980) and other major reference guides to Joyce’s novel, as well as material collected from a range of independent contributors, into a database which allows the user to sift through a taxonomy of references, view all the noted allusions on a line-by-line basis, or search for particular tropes. The original text is obfuscated by the database’s interface and thus the website acts as a reference guide primarily rather than a readable digital edition of the text.

Meanwhile, the Nabokov estate has occasionally granted the use of his texts for digital work despite taking an aggressive policy towards intellectual property rights in post-Soviet Russia. Two digital Nabokov projects have been sanctioned since 1967: Ted Nelson’s demonstration of Pale Fire as a hypertext in the late 1960s and Brian Boyd’s Ada Online. Alongside these official projects, there have been a plethora of hypertext experiments with the whole or parts of Pale Fire. These examples of remediation begin to explore the generative network of Nabokov’s most complex novel and demonstrate the novel’s effectiveness as a precursor of hypertext literature. Both case studies highlight how two respected authors’ works are being transformed by digital media without the intervention of digital humanists. Through careful study of the digital reception of the texts, we can not only learn how these texts are being transmitted and circulated by a popular audience, but also start to understand how these texts, currently protected by strict copyright laws, can and will be part of a wider Digital Humanities ecology.


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