Writing in the Margins

New River Journal of Digital Writing and Art has just published a stand-alone version of “Marginalia in the Library of Babel.” [See the original WRT description and the “Live” version.] At the same time, the James Joyce Quarterly is preparing to publish my examination of annotation systems for Ulysses. These two events have made me realize how long Internet annotation has been of personal interest. Moreover, it calls attention to fictions that examine the critical enterprise.
“Marginalia in the Library of Babel”

This short story presents a metafiction written as annotations to web pages. Marginalia was inspired by Borges’ own metafictions, which often give us the original texts only by implication or exegesis. That is the economy of Borges’ genius. (In my own fictions, I tend to side more with the poets of excess, the Danielewskis, the Melvilles.) One can’t help but think that Borges’ annotation fiction comes from his own commentaries on other writers, just as his pacing the halls of the library led to his vision of Babel. For Borges, it seems, all texts were possible environs for fiction. Borges’ biographer, Edwin Williamson, explains Borges’ perspective on narrative:

Nothing was proof against the spell of fiction–a book review, an obituary, a scholarly essay or a footnote could just as soon be touched by the magic of the story teller. (viii)

Somewhere in here, I see the WRT ethos.

  1. You engage and object (a text or a piece of software or a programming language) by using it or reading it or commenting on it
  2. You consider what that interaction with the object looks like to someone else and what it says about you
  3. You write a fiction out of an imaginary you performing that same activity.

It’s a very natural recursion for the neurotic mind — as well as for the person who is always looking for more spaces in which to tell stories.
Of course, Calvino should also be mentioned here in this meta-pantheon. Calvino’s genius is to offer an incredibly tight set of interlocking puzzles, each of which exceeds the bounds of the larger work. Call it incipient genius.
Of course, this is the literary genre populated by Pale Fire, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest, Kiss of the Spider Woman, among others. (Here is a truly wonderful review of metafictions by Tin.) LibraryThing has about 200 titles already. For this post, I’d like to focus primarily on metafictions written in the footnotes, endnotes, or, possibly, paratexts (though I admit that last admission offers a wide fudge factor). Such works go back as far as Don Quixote describing the Arabian edition of the tale and not doubt go back to The Canterbury tales and that moment in the Tale of Gilgamesh when the narrating voice stops to comment on the other version of the couple in the garden.

“Marginalia” tells its story through online annotations of Internet pages. The previous version used Diigo’s social annotation software. Consequently, these notes appear on live web pages. However, that version is not entirely stable as Diigo is still developing their software. Jeremy recommended creating a stand-alone version that wouldn’t rely on web pages that might disappear. This seemed slightly antithetical to a story predicated on annotating the live web, but of course Jeremy was right with regard to the larger issues of publishing, distributing, and archiving in our our Internet Library of Babel.
James Bunke’s Contortions

The first feature in Bunk Magazine was published in November 1998 (see this 1999 page from the Wayback Machine), but already circulating in cocktail napkin release in 1996, was a parody of James Burke’s television series Connections. In Contortions, our character, James Bunk drew associative links from everything from cankoba gum (a palliative gum with a hint of cannabis) to a pair of steam-powered stilts. There were three contortive paths that consisted of a middle frame with the main page and a side panel with the commentary.

The third path featured live web pages, including an Alyssa Milano tribute page (which was no doubt ahead of the curve. Just try a google of her name.) Of course, this was pre-Charmed. James Burke hear commented on these pages and drew connections.

The commercial Internet was young in 1998 and ripe for parody. Yet it was already taking shape. In our parody, we had cat-fetish pages, terrible corporate pages (with outsourcing jokes), and other miscellany. Similar to “Marginalia,” this piece allowed us to create a thread of web pages, producing a first level of commentary through association. The second level came from our fictional James Bunk, perhaps more in the Mystery Science Theater approach, as has been suggested elsewhere. Again the piece gave us a chance to reflect on our web-surfing practices and on our internal monologues of criticisms of the very pages we pursue.

Of course, it is not surprise that the Internet and annotation go hand in hand. For on some level, what is the Internet, but one page linked to another. Sometimes that links acts as sequence, sometimes movement through a tree, sometimes action and consequence, but often (as in the world of blogs) page and commentary, or commentary and object.

James Joyce Quarterly: Ulysses and Web 2.0

>In the forthcoming issue of the James Joyce Quarterly, I offer a review of some of the annotation systems developed by various scholars, most notably Michael Groden. The essay is a study in interface design even as it is an analysis of the difficulties in developing annotative apparati, questioning the very status of the annotations in relation to the text. Unfortunately, many of these efforts to produce an electronic annotated edition have been obstructed by Joyce’s estate. I think Borges’ Pierre Menard might find this conundrum amusing.
Marginalia Software: Shift-Space

The annotative possibilities have been increasing, with the advent of social annotation sites such as Diigo. Comment Press offers another opportunity to add further annotation to the already call-and-response format of weblogging. A new project, Shift-Space, offers a way for everyone to write tale like “Marginalia in the Library of Babel” without jumping through quite so many hoops. This system, created in conjunction with Turbulence.org, allows people to create “curated” paths through the Internet via “an open source layer above any webpage.” Now we can create our own mix tapes of the web or, to quote Roberto Leni again, use the Internet for our palette, whether annotating to inform or to reflect on our own process of annotating all that we encounter.
Williamson, Edwin. Borges: a Life. New York: Viking, 2004.

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