June 24, 2013 by Amanda Visconti

Infinite Ulysses: What if we build a digital edition and everyone shows up?

I successfully defended my digital humanities doctoral dissertation in Spring 2015. The now-available Infinite Ulysses social+digital reading platform is part of that project; come read with us!

Digital humanities productions are increasingly sites of broader participation in textual interpretation, with how to evoke and harness "meaningful" crowdsourcing becoming an increasingly urgent question to scholars seeking a more public humanities.

First slide from my presentation on the Infinite Ulysses project. (CC BY-NC Amanda Visconti)

In a previous post, I discussed how borrowing the HCI idea of "participatory design" can help DH practitioners and their public audiences to mutual intellectual gain. As we use the Web to open the texts we study to a wider community of discussion, bringing in diverse knowledges and interpretive biases, I’m interested in how we can usefully structure the overabundance of information proceeding from public contextual (Contextual annotation = notes that give a context for a word, phrase, or other chunk of text, ranging from definitions of advanced vocabulary to more interpretive annotations) annotation of literary texts. That is: my "Infinite Ulysses" project is conceived as an idealistic speculative or thought experiment: what if we build an edition and everyone shows up and adds their annotations to the text? When this quantity of voices is combined with an unusually complex text such as James Joyce's Ulysses, how might we create a critical experience that adeptly handles not only issues of contextual annotation quantity but also quality?

I've previously blogged about the overarching plans for my digital dissertation: about how I'm empirically testing both current and personal theories about textuality through code and design, and how I'm designing this building-as-scholarship towards helping everyone—textual scholars and the lay person—participate in our love for the nuances of a text’s materiality, history, and meaning. This post is about the first of my dissertation's three coding projects: designing and coding an interface that allows a participatory, vibrant, contextualizing conversation around complex Modernist texts, with Ulysses being my main focus. Packed into one sentence, my research question for this first project is: What might we learn from crafting an interface to usefully curate quantity and quality of contextual annotation for complex Modernist digital editions (such as Ulysses), where the critical conversation is opened to the public? That's a long sentence covering both more abstract and more concrete critical work, and I'll be breaking it into manageable chunks with the rest of this post and those to follow.

“Infinite” annotations.

While there isn’t a complete digital edition of Ulysses yet published, that hasn’t kept Joycean scholars from anticipating issues that might arise with the eventual migration to digital space. Where the limitations of print space have in the past kept annotations of the text in check, what will happen when a digital platform allows the addition and navigation of infinite annotations? Can we migrate complex print hypertexts such as Ulysses to a digital space with socially multiplied annotations without, as Mark Marino wonders, "diminish[ing] the force of the book" (Mark C. Marino, "Ulysses on Web 2.0: Towards a Hypermedia Parallax Engine"):

Assuming it were possible, would the creation of a system that automatically makes available all the allusions, unravels all the riddles, and translates foreign languages normalize Joyce's text? (Marino)

In Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History, Derek Attridge similarly sees a risk in Ulysses' hypertextualization:

[Ulysses'] cultural supremacy, and the scholarly efforts which reflect and promote that supremacy, have turned it into a text that confirms us in our satisfied certainties instead of one that startles and defies is and thus opens new avenues for thought and pleasure. It now reassures us of our place in what might otherwise seem a chaotic universe, or it provides a model of coherence to take a refuge in, a satisfying structure where the details all make sense… a spurious sense of rich complexity by reducing differences and distinctions (Derek Attridge, Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History, 185)

Yet Attridge sees space for promise in the digital development of the text as well:

The very magnitude of the encyclopedic Joycean hypertext can itself be unsettling… and it may be possible to produce a hypermedia version of Ulysses that is anything but reassuring—one that revives, in new ways, the provocations and disturbances of the original publication... The best teachers (like the best critics) are those who find ways to sustain the disruptive force of Ulysses even while they do their necessary work of explaining and demystifying (Derek Attridge, Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History, 186-188)

Despite there being no full digital edition of Ulysses against which to test these fears and assumptions, we already have some questions about what happens to a complex Modernist text when “everyone shows up”, and I’m hoping that by creating a site that experiments with allowing “infinite” contextual annotation of Ulysses (that’s where the “Infinite Ulysses” title of my project comes from), we can get a more realistic picture of what extreme annotation actually does to our experience of the text. When even Ulysses editor Hans Walter Gabler can still learn new things about Ulysses (Digital Ulysses Master Class with Hans Gabler, June 2013) , I'm confident that Ulysses will persist as always partially unfixed, always giving back more.

Quantity and quality, signal and noise.

While the final effect of unlimited space to discuss and interpret the text remains to be seen, the "Infinite Ulysses" project will also tackle two more immediate problems: quality and quantity of annotation. If everyone’s submitting annotations to a digital edition, how can we automate the massive task of curation and moderation so that it occurs in a timely and unbiased manner? And once we’ve separated the wheat of critical yet diverse annotations from the chaff of repetitions, spam, and under-substantiated suggestions, how do we make the still-plentiful remaining material accessible to the users it would best serve? That is, how do we separate the signal from the noise when the “signal” of pertinent contextual annotations means different things for different reader needs?

So: what happens to a complex Modernist text when we allow "infinite" annotations on it, and how do we work with "infinite" annotations to filter, order, and display those annotations best suited to a given reader? Tomorrow's post will explain the specific features I'm coding into my interface to approach these questions.