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: The Possible Worlds of Pale Fire

July 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Arguably the greatest debate in Pale Fire scholarship has been the problem of the internal authorship of the poem and commentary. The proposed solutions to this puzzle range from either John Shade or Charles Kinbote as the author of the entire text to more recent models involving influences from the afterlife proposed by Brian Boyd and René Alladaye. Nabokov’s own responses to the indeterminate nature of the authorship suggest an unclear position as he posits two conflicting opinions in different interviews, thus denying the traditional authorized single solution often associated with many of his other works. The literature on the internal authorship of Pale Fire has focused on using these fractures to propose a solution, this paper instead analyses the faultlines in the narrative world as sites of indeterminacy. Is there a limit to the number of characters we can claim as author? Where are the places at which this indeterminacy flourishes? These internal debates can be formally analysed by use of Possible Worlds Theory, introduced to literary studies by Thomas Pavel and Lubomír Doležel and more recently expanded by Marie-Laure Ryan, who, in Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory suggests Pale Fire represents a destabilised Textual Actual World, whereby the reader is required to reconstruct the narrative’s internal consistency from what little concrete information we can garner from the text. Possible Worlds Theory formalizes the worlds in which the narrative works and can demonstrate the ontological dissonance in Kinbote’s assertions throughout the commentary which have led to many hypotheses regarding the novel’s content. Through this theoretical approach, the worlds of Pale Fire’s potential authorship can be analysed with regards to their stability. The method demonstrates the extent to which authorship attribution can be justified and why there will be no definitive solution emerging in forthcoming Nabokov scholarship.

Forthcoming ”The Possible Worlds of Pale Fire.” Indeterminacy in Nabokov Panel. MLA. January 2014. Chicago

PRESENTATION: Authorized Fan Culture and the Kindle

July 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: The Kindle has been strongly established as one of the market leaders in e-reading technology since its launch in 2008. This has been facilitated by both Amazon’s existing market base and the willingness to allow their proprietary book format to be read on multiple devices, as long as the reader uses Amazon’s proprietary Kindle app. As with the book, readers were offered a space to annotate their texts and highlight interesting passages. While these annotations were traditionally only shared in print very slowly through passing books around, the Kindle offered an amplification of this process, allowing popular highlights to be seen by any interested party. More recently, Amazon’s acquisition of the “editable book encyclopaedia,” Shelfari, has begun to transform the authorized interactions one can have on an e-reader, making e-books a more explicitly social object. This shift towards the social has always been part of Amazon’s plans for the Kindle, since one has always been able to connect to annotations from Wikipedia or the Oxford Dictionary of English, resources built through collaboration. There is also a chance to tweet quotes or post them on Facebook. All these interfaces explicate social connections that have previously been invisible and offer rich new resources for the empirical study of reading.

Despite the potential benefits for these new integrated interfaces, this paper will question how they transform and potentially limit the ways in which people engage with literature and the (e-)book. The user annotations are easy to use and appear to be authorized through their appearance in the official Kindle app. Therefore, to what degree are users going to want to engage with further reading outside of official app? To what extent will these annotations be verified for truth, rather than being checked for being non-offensive? The margins of the E-Book, as exemplified by the Kindle is a deeply contested space, where a lot of promise of the early hypertext movement could finally be realised, but much depends on the potential hegemony of systems such as the Kindle’s integration of Shelfari annotations.

“Authorized Fan Culture and the Kindle.” Resurrecting the Book. November 2013. Library of Birmingham

PRESENTATION: Widening the Big Tent: Amateurs and the ’Failure of the Digital Humanities’

July 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

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 (McHugh 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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Finn, Ed. (2012). New Literary Cultures: Mapping the Digital Networks of Toni Morrison. In From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Anouk Lang, 177–202. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
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”Widening the Big Tent: Amateurs and the ’Failure of the Digital Humanities.”’ Digital Humanities 2013. July 2013. University of Lincoln-Nebraska.

Simon rowberry Widening the Digital Humanities from sprowberry