NOVEMBER 27, 2017
“GRAB THE CLOSEST BOOK to you, turn to page 56 and post the 5th sentence as your status. Don’t mention the title. Copy the rules as part of your status.” This is the prompt issued by International Book Week, an unmanned internet meme that careens through social media once a year. Operating without institutional backing or support, International Book Week has captured the imagination of a global community of readers through its instructions alone, which ask us to practice a mode of reading that is very different from that which we learn in school. Here, books are imagined in all their materiality and proximity — we live among them. Reach out your arm and heave to your lap the first text your fingertips graze. Vault now past the acknowledgments and the table of contents, the preface and the introduction, until your eyes rest on a single line of text. Pluck it from its place there on the page, type it into Facebook or Twitter, and click to share with your friends or followers.
The constraint that powers the International Book Week prompt — page 56, fifth sentence — recalls the language play of avant-garde movements like surrealism and Oulipo, which used arbitrary rules as a means of reinvigorating readers’ relationships to language and literature. The surrealist game of exquisite corpse, for example, requires players to add a single word to a sheet of paper before folding the sheet and passing it along to the next player. Depending on their seated order, the player is limited to adding either a noun, an adjective, a verb, an adverb, or an object. The result is an absurd sentence that, precisely because it has been detached from any intentional process of making meaning, is free to accumulate its own curious sense. Still, André Breton and his friends played their word games behind the closed door of a Parisian apartment, limited to pen, paper, and a select group of friends. By contrast, International Book Week flourishes in the mass sociality of Facebook, where users from across the globe excise fragments from print and post them onto the web — cited and not, canonical and not, in English and not. The result is a digital mosaic of fractured language laid out at a scale unseen before in human history. The recombinant play never ends.
Some strange alchemy occurs in the moment a sentence becomes a fragment — it simultaneously gains both heft and dexterity. No matter which sentence you select, it will speak to you in some oblique way, to your current project or your current romance. The pleasure of creating fragments comes from the dawning realization that, as Eve Sedgwick puts it, “[A] sentence may be actually inexhaustible.” Because we are taught to swallow books whole, we tend to think of individual clauses as mechanical parts that work together to advance a plot or an argument. As a digital scrap, detached from its material form, the sentence-turned-fragment becomes dexterous, sticky, promiscuous. It hurtles itself toward other fragments, combining and recombining to create new relations between and across texts.
The World Wide Web — that grand, ongoing experiment in open source textual production — urges us to acknowledge the fragment’s role in generating texts. Viewed from the vantage point of the partial, the old idea that books are written in solitude by great authors is dislodged and gives way to a new understanding of creative production as a reflexive process that takes place at the thresholds between readers, writers, texts, and technologies. The increased cultural importance of the fragment, then, demands a new understanding of collaborative authorship. Look to the comments section of your International Book Week post and watch as bits of books amass to create a collective digital constellation written in real time. Where do we locate the author in this unbounded performance, this endlessly generative text?
The Anglophone humanities, and literary studies in particular, have been asking and answering this question since French philosophers killed the author in the late 1960s. “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture,” wrote Roland Barthes in 1967; thus the “creative act becomes a dispersion of self,” added DJ Spooky several decades later, updating poststructuralist theory for the hip-hop vernacular of sampling and remix. We now accept that all writing is an ensemble piece, crafted in conversation with a multitude of remembered voices, ideas, and experiences. We know and have always known this. In Latin, the verb for reading, legere, means to pluck, gather, and choose; it is a verb that models reading and writing as a series of active engagements, evident in the famous Senecan metaphor of the bee who makes literary honey by flitting desirously from text to text. Early humanist scholars of the Renaissance adapted this classical figure to cast reading and writing as a pleasurable gustation and digestion of ideas — a practice made material in commonplace books, where writers copied fragments of text under topic headers for future use.
Over the last 50 years, then, book historians, philosophers, and literary theorists have forged a textured theory of reading and writing as collaboration. In the ’90s, many of these thinkers hoped networked digital media would be the horizon beyond which there would be no more authors, no more canons, only endlessly recombinant texts. And yet, two decades later, the printed book still squats at the heart of modern academia. Because the forms and genres that our work may take are rigidly “book-based and book-sustained,” as Laura Mandell puts it, training to be a scholar in the humanities is in large part learning to fit one’s ideas within the bounded pages of the printed monograph. We shorten our focus and strip away the bits that fall outside the increasingly narrow range of our expertise. We resist documenting our tentative encounters with other texts and instead use them as ballast for our own claims — it is our name on the cover of this book, after all. In signaling our influences and interlocutors, we heed to MLA style’s directive to excise any lengthier notes that might “distract” from our work, and use annotative mechanisms such as footnotes and endnotes purely as labels for bibliographic information. In burying evidence of the creative process, we forget that it may be in the meandering tangent or the personal aside that a reader is able to latch onto the rhythms of our thought. Confronted with “plain prose,” the reader’s role is restricted to receiving and judging parcels of information, rather than actively moving along with the rollicking contours of a work.
What’s needed, then, is not a new theory of authorship so much as a renewed commitment to the fundamentally collaborative nature of all reading and writing. If we took the idea of the text as a “tissue of quotations” or creativity as a “dispersion of self” seriously — if we really believed that this is what texts today are — we would be forced to abandon academic citational practices as we know them, as well as the cults of prestige, genius, and academic celebrity that uphold them. We would be forced to give up the notion of our work as ever being fully our own and own up to the collaborative, improvisational, and partial qualities of all interpretive work. And we would need to affirm that it is precisely here, in the plural, that the value of the humanities resides. Digital networks have made such changes imminently possible, as examples like the International Book Week teach us. They alone, though, are not the agents of change we seek. It remains up to us to build technologies and communities of practice that will enact a gestalt shift in the humanities, away from the individual and toward the collective.
Such community building begins with a thoughtful consideration of what we mean when we say collaboration. Like interdisciplinary, the word is much bandied about as a signpost for innovation, especially in higher-education administration. But what forms can collaboration take, and are all these forms of equal measure and value? On Wikipedia, for instance, to “collaborate” means to dissolve the heterogeneous swoop and swirl of many voices into a singular, Siri-like stream of data diligently stripped of any individual points of view. As an experiment in mass knowledge collection, Wikipedia inspires awe. It is not, however, the model for the future of writing in the humanities that we envision. The site has long been plagued with problems of representation, as its pages still — even after explicit interventions by feminists, black scholars, and activists — tend to default to the white male perspectives of the majority of its editors. Indeed, the stylistic strip-down of Wikipedia resembles the single-author print monograph more than it does the carnivalesque text of International Book Week.
By contrast, the Shelley-Godwin Archive (SGA) models collaborative writing as the bringing together of discrete and distinctly voiced fragments of text. Unlike most print editions, the SGA has digitized and made available the manuscripts of a family of writers, all of whom read and annotated one another’s work. A major task of this ambitious project was to invent a system of encoding, representing, and digitally disarticulating each text’s tissue of difference. For example, in its digital edition of Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein, the reader can toggle back and forth between Mary Shelley’s text and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s alterations, highlighting one or the other. This feature deliberately makes visible the text as an ensemble piece and, in so doing, encourages literary historians to recognize Mary Shelley’s novel as a process document that was written in the midst of a particular community at a particular moment in time. Yet — and this caveat is important — it does so by reducing the ambiguous, fuzzy data of the collectively authored manuscript to the rigid binary of a markup language; this fragment of text is either his or hers, never both, or neither.
If we want to build better worlds — worlds that are open to and desirous of difference — we must join projects like this in a concerted effort to understand how the practices of collaboration intersect with the protocols of the technologies we build. We see such thoughtfulness in the network of feminist thinkers and technologists known as FemTechNet, especially its Distributed Open Content Course (DOCC), an open repository for learning and teaching. We see it also in scholar-led publishing initiatives ranging from the curated blog African Diaspora, PhD, to open access imprints like Punctum Books. The new Radical Open Access Collective gathers many of these projects into a community of mutual support, what the collective describes as an “alternative open access ecosystem.” The rapid growth of such spaces is a testament to the very real needs they service. In the spirit of these efforts, we have co-founded thresholds, a new digital journal for creative/critical writing. Each author or group of authors contributes a larger piece of writing (an essay, project description, poem, or short fiction), as well as the textual fragments that inspired and propelled their work. We the editors then collaborate closely with each contributor to make of their materials a dynamic web text. After completing this work, we stitch these singular artifacts into a patchwork tapestry that the reader navigates by bumping horizontally across and among pieces. Although each contribution can stand alone, the intentional design of our platform makes them a part of something bigger: a tangle of text and image and movement where the seams between each individual work become as important as the texts themselves.
In developing this project, we have come to see the threshold as a powerful metaphor for reorienting the humanities. Our ways of working are deeply structured by the spaces we occupy: the disciplines, departments, and universities that house us; and the offices, libraries, and classrooms in which we conduct our work. While these spaces can feel siloed and silent, stitching them together are a series of thresholds. They are the doorsteps we cross over or the hallways and stairwells where we commingle with others known and not yet known. The function of these spaces is variable and subject to change; they can serve as an exit, a passage, or a waiting area, depending. Caught on the cusp, we are loosed from our habits and are able, just for a moment, to lean toward something other. Pausing here together, what will we become?
As we think about thresholds, and thresholds, we keep returning to a sentence by the architect Lebbeus Woods, spoken of his speculative, near-uninhabitable structures. “You can’t bring your old habits here,” he says. “If you want to participate, you will have to reinvent yourself.” Stepping outside our familiar routines of reading, writing, and publishing breeds uncertainty, to be sure. However, such moments of precarity — including the very real precarity of defunding — contain opportunities to reinvent ourselves and reimagine the architectures that structure our work. The project of the humanities is not to scrabble up the sides of ivory towers until we reach a pinnacle point where all that is human may be seen, splayed at our feet. Rather, the purpose of our work is to “stay with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway has recently put it. We conceive of writing and reading as threshold activities. To do so is to recognize texts as sites of communal entanglement where we might practice holding ourselves open to the possibility of difference. Co-laboring together in this makeshift between, we make contact with one another as so many sticky fragments: the fifth sentence of page 56 of a book.
Frances McDonald is a scholar of 20th-century American literature, critical theory, affect studies, and film. She is assistant professor of English at the University of Louisville, and the co-editor of thresholds, a digital journal for creative/critical scholarship.
Whitney Trettien has co-edited the forthcoming volume Digital Sound Studies: A Provocation (Duke University Press) and is the co-editor of thresholds. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and previously taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.