A Guerrilla Digital Humanities

August 14th, 2013 § Comments Off on A Guerrilla Digital Humanities § permalink

N.B. This is a revised version of my presentation at Digital humanities 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-163.html

Mark Sample’s “Unseen and Unremarked Upon” laments the lost years of digital humanities research from texts that exist on the wrong side of the copyright divide. Sample constructs a satirical counterfactual history of digital humanities studies of Don DeLellio, an author who he posits is central to the digital humanities canon. (Sample) This concern is serious, since there is much to be gained from critical projects examining the mirroring of computer culture’s rise in twentieth century fiction.

The B© distinction (Kirschenbaum) has recently been supplanted by the dawn of ADMCA (Anno Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Conceptualized in 1995, around the time of mainstream adoption of the Web, and passed as legislation in 1998, the peak of the Dot.Com boom (Hilderbrand 103), ADMCA awkwardly heralded the age of digital copyright in an antiquated and hybrid manner. Although the DMCA has proved controversial, it has also allowed for guerrilla activity online. Since the owners of servers are not directly responsible for the material uploaded to them under the safe-harbour provisions, risks can be taken with the distribution of content before take-down, exemplified by user-generated content on YouTube. (Hilderbrand 242) This has led to a detection arms race where users flip remix videos and pitch-shift vocals in order to avoid algorithmic detection.

The countercultural space the DMCA safe-harbour provisions afford YouTube reflects the older phenomenon of Napster, another platform that permanently altered modes of transmission. Napster demonstrates the tensions between two histories of the success of a format (in this case, the MP3): the corporate history that celebrates the coming of the Device, often coupled with a “Killer App,” and the guerrilla history that celebrates the counterculture that developed around a more democratic form of sharing media. Lucas Hilderbrand suggests often the countercultural history predates the commercial one and is a vital part of a medium’s success (Hilderbrand 78). Jonathan Sterne has framed this as the Napster versus iPod moments (Sterne).

Within the same debate, Kenneth Goldsmith has argued that we have not yet had a Napster moment for literature, as texts are not bootlegged to the same degree as music and video (Goldsmith 82). Goldsmith, such a pivotal player in pushing the boundaries of copyright through his conceptual poetry – particularly in its latest manifestation in the Printing the Internet project – highlights a useful distinction in understanding how online media sharing differs from the dreaded term, piracy. If Adrian Johns introduction to Piracy reaches its apex with the revelation of a pirate corporation mirroring the entire structure of NEC, producing counterfeit goods purely for profit (Johns 1), bootlegging is the best way of describing online sharing activity other than a few outliers. This may appear to be an ideological choice, akin to the terrorist-freedom fighter binary, but as Hilderbrand suggests, “bootlegging functions to fill in the gaps of market failure… archival omissions… and personal collections.” (Hilderbrand 22–23)

The bootlegging of literature is starting to take place with literature in recent years. William Gibson’s aphorism “the streets finds its own uses for things” rings true. Both amateurs and digital humanists have in recent years been undertaking guerrilla digital humanities, a phenomenon made possible in ADMCA. Guerrilla digital humanities can be broadly defined as the application of methods associated with digital humanities to texts still protected by copyright laws. As these projects must be covert and rarely are affiliated with institutions or grant funding, this underground activity can be equated to the Napster moment of contemporary literature.

There is an important caveat to this activity. Aaron Swartz’s mass download of public domain journal articles from JSTOR through MIT’s network and subsequent arrest ended tragically. Swartz’s operation fit well within the bounds of bootlegging given the articles were in the public domain and the method was an exemplar of guerrilla activity. The case demonstrates a divide that still exists and must be carefully toed by guerrilla digital humanists. Although it is unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, it is clear that a facsimile or representation of the original work is out-of-bounds in most cases.

Deformance (Samuels & McGann) such as visualization, mapping and other creative endeavours moves away from this. We are unlikely to be able to explore free scholarly critical editions of Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre in the near future, but deformative interpretations built on digital tools as guerrilla movements are likely to flourish. This is because “copyright actually insists on aesthetics and recognizes the importance of tangibility or interfaces: the law does not protect ideas, only expressions in fixed forms.” (Hilderbrand 82) New expressions in new forms at least one deformance removed from the original have the best chance of surviving.

Swartz’s case serves as a warning though, that guerrilla activity may come at the risk of the openness of the community. Digital humanities thrives on sharing, resharing and forking, but to undertake such work, guerrilla digital humanists must conduct their methods under a sleight of hand to avoid detection. The final result must be published in a samizdat culture, as official channels will be too public.

The blueprint for this form of activity is in uncreative or conceptual writing, an activity most frequently undertaken in print. In this framework, two of the most likely candidates for the Napster moment of text are creative adaptations of literature online. Fan fiction demonstrates the manipulability of thematic devices, while literary Twitterbots explore literature as potential language in oulipian ecstacy. Horse_ebooks provides the template for potential literature on Twitter and many anonymous literary adaptations have appeared of varying quality. The pattern, however, is obvious: Twitter is to text as YouTube is to video. Twitter provides a space for relatively low-risk experimentation in guerrilla activity.

In more recent years, Twitterbot auteurs have emerged, with Darius Kazemi and Mark Sample probably being the two most prolific. Generative versions of pithy William Carlos Williams’s poems, Bruno Latour meets swag culture, and My Favourite Things now explore the potential of Twitter literature. The constraint of 140 characters is oulipian on its own, but when connected with selective use of remixed source material, these bots produce mixed results but with some glorious moments of serendipity closing in on what appears to be self-consciousness. Equally, as Ian Bogost states in Alien Phenomenology, carpentry of this unfiltered sort can often lead to offensive moments unless strict filters regulate the underlying code. (Bogost 97–100) Post-publication filtering through retweets enables the cream of the crop to be shared with a wider audience.

Sample has also engaged in more extensive guerrilla activity online. House of Leaves Of Grass (HoLoG) works through several layers of ADMCA deformations. HoLoG builds on Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s Sea and Spar Between, a textual mash-up of Emily Dickinson’s poetry with Moby Dick, instantly recognisable due to the clash in typographic and lexical content, further remediated through a schizophrenic interface that disrupts the reading experience. Sample’s guerrilla operation is to transpose the subject of remix to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – yes, freely available in the public domain – with Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a text published in 2000 and still subject to copyright law. This remix survives ADMCA as long as it remains a guerrilla publication.

Guerrilla digital humanities is not limited to remediation and editions, Joyce scholarship is fraught with examples of those who have attempted unsuccessfully to explore digital applications of Joyce. FWEET approaches the problem differently by re-appropriating Finnegans Wake as a database, turning every line into a series of possibilities and connections other parts of the text in various different forms.

Playing on Lev Manovich’s Narrative-Database dichotomy (Manovich), FWEET disrupts the text on a narrative level and requires the reader to engage with the database connections that emerge within the text. Although this makes it difficult to read the text in its original form, it is possible to extract the text. FWEET works as a guerrilla publication on two levels. Firstly, it remediates a text whose copyright situation is still providing to be problematic, but more interestingly, most of the annotations are sourced from scholarly texts still protected by copyright.

A further interesting example can be found in the work of Vladimir Nabokov. The digital humanities link to Nabokov runs back to Ted Nelson’s apocryphal demonstration of Pale Fire for the Hypertext Editing System back in the late 1960s, for which Nelson received permission from G. P. Putnan & Sons, Nabokov’s US publisher at the time. In more recent years, Brian Boyd’s Ada Online has offered an annotated version of Nabokov’s later work, Ada, or Ardor, for free online with permission of Dmitri Nabokov. Dmitri appeared to be open to digital editions, suggesting that his father’s last unfinished novel would work well as a digital edition.

 It is hard to tell how far this could go, but if we don’t ask, how do we know what the answer is? If we don’t work within the permitted boundaries of the DMCA, how can we know what is possible? As Bielstein states, “permissions are hard to avoid, but in principle you don’t want to ask permission” – asking permissions sets a precedent (Bielstein 10). Working towards integrating contemporary texts into the digital humanities can continue in the covert way as guerrilla digital humanities or it could equally push for permissions and set a precedent for what creative interpretations of literary texts are possible under fair-use. The only way forward is to test the waters.

Works Cited

Bielstein, Susan M. Permissions: A Survival Guide, Blunt Talk About Art as Intellectual Property. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.

Johns, Adrian. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013) : n. pag. . <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000151/000151.html>.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Sample, Mark. “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 187–201. Print.

Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999) : 25–56. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.

Translating Zembla; Or, How to Finish Pale Fire

August 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In a conversation with René Alladaye about his brilliant new book (The Darker Side of Pale Fire – the best introduction to Pale Fire currently available, although it’s only available through Amazon.fr currently) at the recent Nabokov & France conference, the question of translating the Index came up. In most languages, this is not a problem, because the final entry, “Zembla, a distant northern land.” (PF, 315), which works as a fitting conclusion to the narrative, will naturally come last as “Z” is the last letter of the alphabet.

In non-Latin scripts, this is more problematic, most prominently in Nabokov’s native tongue, Russian, where “З” or “Z” is ninth of 33 characters. Véra Nabokov’s translation of Pale Fire for Ardis Press works round this by rephrasing the entry:
ЯЧЕЙКА яшмы, Зембля, далекая северная страна.
[Orbicle of jasp, Zembla, a far northern country]
Я [ya] is the last letter of the Russian alphabet. This raises a further question of what “orbicle of jasp” – a quotation from line 558, “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp” (PF, 54) – is doing in front of Zembla to retain its position? I don’t have any immediate answers, but a deeper analysis of the differences between the English and Russian index will surely help. Ultimately, the flow of the narrative is more important than the index’s order, indicating the importance in the Nabokovs’s collective mind of having the Zembla entry of the index close the text.

Thanks to Marina Savina for helping translating the Russian and finding the reference to “orbicle of jasp” in the poem.

V. Nabokov. 1962. Pale Fire. New York: GP Putnam’s & Son.
V. Nabokov. 1983. Бледныĭ огонь [Pale Fire]. trans. by Véra Nabokov. Ann Arbor: Ardis Press.

A counterfactual history of digital editions of Pale Fire

July 14th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Pale Fire is one of several texts still protected under copyright laws that reflects trends in computing at the time of composition. The novel was published in 1962, a time period in which Ted Nelson was undertaking his initial forays into what we now know as hypertext. Unlike many of the other texts that could be drawn upon for such a comparative critical history, Pale Fire was almost a part of early computing history when Nelson obtained permission for and created a prototype hypertext version of Pale Fire. Unfortunately, the prototype was never publicly demonstrated and is the first in a chain of apocryphal digital versions of Pale Fire. While there are several web adaptations that have appropriated the fundamentals of the hypertext network of Pale Fire, some of the most intriguing remediations of the novel only exist as proposals or private undertakings.


c.1969: Hypertext Editing System (HES) implementation

Nelson’s demonstration utilised Pale Fire in several ways. The computer-based hypertext was not complete, featuring only part of the first Canto and corresponding commentary. This was, after all, a demonstration of a hypertext system and Nabokov’s novel was an example of a hypertext alongside the system’s manual and Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think.” The poster of the demonstration would feature print copies of the book for those interested in exploring the network further. The performance of the demonstration would be augmented by a tape recording of excerpts from Shade’s poem, not to demonstrate the system’s multimedia capabilities but rather to enliven the presentation.


1994-2001: non-Web hypertext adaptations

Jimmy Guterman, Nabokov hypertexts. Alt.hypertext. 28 March 1994; John Lavagnino, Nabokov in cyberspace. Posting to NABOKV-L. 15 May 1995; and Charles Cave. Creating a hypertext version of Pale Fire. Posting to NABOKV-L, 8 May 2001.

Although these follow a standard template, the methods vary depending on the popular software at the time and the experience of the author. Implementations have been proposed or undertaken on platforms such as Storyspace as well as programmed in Perl. Many of the proposals suggest that the author wants to replicate a variety of conditions including a frequent obedience with Kinbote’s description of the index cards. Although there are many extant web-based hypertexts, these proposals explore fertile territory outside of web adaptations.


2006: Pale Fire Wiki

Jerry Friedman, “Pale Fire Wiki?” Posting to NABOKV-L. 12 October 2006

A post on the Nabokov mailing list proposed a transformative wiki edition of the text, presumably using MediaWiki, to not only to construct the explicit linking network but also add extra-textual commentary akin to Kinbote’s original design that would eventually overrun the main text. The value of such a proposal does not lie in its archival value as a site for annotations, but rather in the ways in which allowing a read-writable version of Pale Fire allows for new creative interpretations of Kinbote’s role as commentator and editor.


2006: Augmented edition


The most ambitious proposal for an electronic edition of Pale Fire engages with digital media to supplement the print copy rather than replace it entirely. One of the major problems with previous hypertext editions of Pale Fire is that any linking mechanism disrupts the distinction between explicit and implicit links in the novel. This proposed augmented edition with two-dimensional barcodes, annotations and track-backs separates the mechanics from the text allowing readers to opt-in to any extra-textual content, as well as generating a record of the reader’s traversals that would offer invaluable evidence to assess claims that Pale Fire is a novel that requires rereading.


2009: Videogame

This proposal offers very little details of the final content and represents the greatest departure from the text as a textless game. It is difficult to speculate how the novel’s themes can be mapped over to a videogame (Escape from Zembla, perhaps?) and there are certainly more apt candidates in the Nabokov corpus (Laughter in the Dark and Lolita would be good source material for Interactive Fiction). Nonetheless, this proposal exemplifies the excitement for digital editions of Pale Fire and one of the potential futures for the digital humanities and Nabokov.

PRESENTATION: Pre-Historic Hypertext

November 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Simon Rowberry. ”Pre-Historic Hypertext.” Invited Talk Narrative Research Group. November 2012. University of Bournemouth

PRESENTATION: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the Problem of Interface

September 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) has a long and complex history of remediation dating back to Ted Nelson’s apocryphal early hypertext demonstration using Pale Fire in 1969, as well as being the subject of two artist’s books and a radio play. In the last 20 years, several unauthorized versions of Nabokov’s text have been produced for the Web in both English and Russian, as well as a couple of more recent authorized e-book editions and several experiments that were only publically acknowledged, but not shared. The one constant amongst these digitization projects was the feeling that here was a novel that cried out to become an electronic hypertext. This paper will trace the novel’s history of digital remediation with a particular focus on the use of interface by the amateurs, and a handful of professionals, who are trying to reproduce and enhance the network present in Nabokov’s novel. Through doing so, they have not used scholarly mark-up such as the TEI standards, but rather present the text through a variety of linking mechanisms approximating the possibilities of a digital edition of the text. Since Nabokov’s works are still protected by copyright, these editions represent the best current chance to understand how one of the most frequently cited print-based hypertexts can be translated into the digital medium. Much of the paratextual complexity of Pale Fire has been undermined through these remediations and this paper will question to what extent it is possible to represent this complexity on the screen.

Simon Rowberry. ”Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the Problem of Interface.” Digital Humanities Congress. September 2012. University of Sheffield

PRESENTATION: What is Hypertext?

June 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Literary hypertext theory has petered out in the last decade, giving way to studies on narrative in computer games, and narrative generation through social media outlets. With the current mass digitalization of texts into proprietary databases such as Google Books, ECCO, and EEBO, it is time to reconsider what it means for a text to be hypertextual, in order to turn digitization into something useful above being a representation of paper on screen. This paper will explore a new methodology for approaching hypertext and how this can facilitate our understanding of literary texts.

Simon Rowberry. ”What is Hypertext?: A Literary Perspective.” Research Student Symposium. June 2011. University of Winchester

POSTER: Pale Fire as Hypertextual Network.

June 10th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) [3] is often seen as the gold standard to which all other print-based literary hypertexts are compared [see 1 and 2 for two examples of the admiration of Pale Fire from the literary hypertext community]. It was also a point of inspiration for Ted Nelson while developing his early hypertext systems. Although frequently referenced, the underlying network has never successfully been mapped or explored beyond a surface level. This poster posits a single model for representing the connections made throughout the novel, color-coded, so one can see which parts represent the poem, commentary and index (figure 1).


Nabokov’s Do-It-Yourself Didacticism: Hypertext in Lolita and Pale Fire

May 2nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Lolita and Pale Fire are two of Nabokov’s most morally challenging novels and in an – likely vain – attempt to distinguish himself from the narrator and thus, the moral difficulty in the text, Nabokov distances himself from the text by employing hypertextual tropes including hyperlinks and transclusion, that is layering of one text within another. In both texts, Nabokov uses these tropes in order to subvert the usual cause and effect model that influences one’s idea of morality, in particular the proclamation of death far before the cause and motive, thereby complicating the issue of morality in the text and bypassing a straightforward didactic reading. Pale Fire’s hypertextuality is well documented as the discourse between Shade’s poem, Kinbote’s commentary and meta-commentary, and Nabokov’s select few hints to reader as to how to read the novel. In Lolita, Nabokov uses the framing device of John Ray Jr.’s foreword, Nabokov’s afterword, and hypertextual layering within the text to dislocate the spatio-temporal aspects of the text, revealing the novel’s conclusion in a fictional foreword. Nabokov uses this hypertextuality not only to subvert cause and effect but also to make the texts irresolvable and thus add ambiguity and plurality into the text. For example, recent discourse on Lolita highlights that the reader does not know Lolita’s true name. If one cannot even resolve the most basic signifiers in the text, such as a central character’s name, then it becomes more difficult to make profound moral judgements regarding the text without effort and consideration. Thus, although Nabokov uses hypertext to distance himself from didacticism, he empowers the reader to choose his or her own moral position in relation to these difficult texts.

Simon Rowberry, ”Nabokov’s Do-It-Yourself Didacticism: Hypertext in Lolita and Pale Fire.” Nabokov and Morality. May 2011. University of Strathclyde