Practices of writing-as-reading, though often disregarded in studies on the actual act of reading, nevertheless demonstrate a wealth of interaction between the text and the individual receiving and appropriating it. Annotation, as a means of appropriation, allows readers to add to their immediate reception of the work a layer of meaning stemming from their encyclopaedia, their perceptual and emotional background, as well as their personal experiences. Through iconic symbols, words repeated or associated with a given passage, as well as comments added in the margins, annotation draws the text into the reader's universe. It is, in fact, very often viewed as a final step in the process: once the work has been conceived, written, and released, readers consume it, reconstructing its meaning, and adding their own impulses to write. This however downplays the very existence of the literary work in its social dimension. It disregards the circulation of texts (and of their parasitic annotations), their re-use in different mediums or in other works, and even intertextuality, namely the borrowing of the material in order to inject it into a later text—a sort of reading in action of the earlier text.
Considering annotation as the work's terminus ad quem also tends to confine the practice to the solitary act of one individual. Too frequently, we overlook the obvious fact that writers are themselves readers, but also re-readers and specialized annotators. When they invoke men and women of letters' vast personal libraries, search for marginal annotations in their books, or comment on their contemporaries or on classical works, writers plainly show that they belong to this cultural realm (think of Jorge Luis Borges and his reading practices, see Rosato and Alvarez 2010, and of the intimate relationship between reading and writing in Pessoa's work, see Ferrari 2011). But they also—and above all—demonstrate their role as actual readers of literature. A rather early example of this would be Petrarch's annotations in the margins of Livy's texts (see Tesnière 1999), as well as a few centuries later, the Romantics were known to lend particular importance to reading within their writing process (see Jackson 2005). Further, we should not disregard the central aspect of the personal act of writing, namely that it is a constant dialogue with self-reading, re-writing, and a compulsion to re-read. The completed work that passes into the readers' hands, moving thus from the private to the public sphere, materially embodies the result of this process, from the comments in the margins of history's great works of literature to the stylistic hesitations found in the manuscripts and preliminary versions. The published work however conceals this process (with a few exceptions), as the smoothed surface of the text erases the traces, threads, and successive versions.
The digital realm quickly seized on the opportunity to transpose the annotative practices of readers, be they academic reading notes, or the personal markings of lay readers. The many computerized academic annotation projects, as well as the annotation features included in eReaders and tablets (Kindle, iPhone/iPad)—where the practice takes on a social dimension through the act of sharing—mark the current expansion of digital culture to a significant portion of individuals who read. In this perspective, the study of current digital writing practices reveals that transposing annotations is only one aspect of the materialized act of reading. These practices rely on a transverse development of the writing process that is not a simple virtualization of the medium. On a technical level, they mobilize the web's features; they rely on hyperlinks, as witnessed from the earliest digital experiments—such as hyperfiction (see Aarseth 2007; Landow 2006; Van Looy and Baetens 2003). Online writing gives these techniques a rather singular scope, insofar as they act as a sort of internal commentary on the work as it unfolds in the digital medium. What is referred to here goes beyond simple metatextuality, or an awareness of the medium within the creative process; it involves the writing of marginal annotations into the very body of the work, as a manner of engaging that additional dimension made possible by the virtuality of the digital medium. Thus, the annotative function becomes embedded in the writing itself—this is the hypothesis we propose to evaluate here—allowing the work to be both literary project and active commentary, each retaining its own separate dynamic.
This paper focuses on the various manifestations and uses of embedded annotation within digital works of literature. These works, without belonging to the category of hypermedia, explicitly use hyperlinks in order to develop a web of internal references and commentary. Three ranges of use will be discussed here as are examined emblematic examples of these writing practices (but not per se representative examples of digital literature's actual trends). The first concerns a mediated reading of one's own work. Guillaume Vissac's Accident de personne, published as a twitter feed in 2010, has since been edited as a (digital) whole by digital editor publie.net. The author uses hyperlinks to reinforce patterns of similarity between characters and specific circumstances. The second use of semantic links combines essayistic and fictional discourse, as exemplified in François Bon's Tiers livre, a tentacular work characterized by a web of cross-linking and a discursive ground rooted in the social and literary environment of the writer. The third range of use covers works of writing-as-reading, where links enact an ongoing commentary, and become a means of rewriting an earlier text. Philippe De Jonckheere's site, Désordre.net, and more specifically his project entitled "Tentative d'épuisement de Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien" de Georges Perec, builds on this idea. This project takes Perec's own reading of an urban space, in which the author attempted to exhaust the real world by describing the space completely, and adds a layer of hyperlinks, thus offering its own reading of the reality depicted by Perec. These three uses show how literary writing in a digital context inherits from the tradition of marginal annotation by merging it with the most basic function of electronic publication, that is, linking. In this perspective, links appear as a way to build a multidimensional textuality no longer based on the 2-D space of the page, but rather on the depth of a virtual network.
The practice of literary writing is, without a doubt, characterized by an internal increase in complexity and semantic layering, as a result of successive rewritings, and constant revisions and adjustments—at least until a stabilized version is achieved, and released. However, aside from the genetic accounts that hold fascination for few writers, or the scholarly reconstructions based on different manuscript states, this work remains relatively hidden. It is certainly openly recognized, yet proven implicitly based on various clues and deductions. To this aspect of literary writing, digital works can offer a different approach that mobilizes in a new way two parameters of textuality: its stability and its internal referencing potential. Any work can be subject to multiple editions in which are witnessed substantial variations, just like any work can link certain of its own passages (via explicit allusion, or footnotes). It is clear, however, that the digital medium facilitates, and even encourages this internal diffraction of the work. Guillaume Vissac's Accident de personne appears to be a perfect example of this.
In the introductory text to the work published online by publie.net (Vissac 2011), Vissac recounts the genesis of his writing project. Struck, during his daily trips on Paris's trains and metros, by the number of stops and service interruptions due to "people accidents" (suicide attempts and other accidents involving users of public transit), he began to record details concerning the incidents on his smartphone, and more importantly to invent micro-tales inspired by the accidents: voices, words, circumstances. The images are powerful, and reinforced by concise formulation: "seeking sick flesh of attractive suicidal for photo report: urgent, please contact me before attempt" ("cherche viande malade de suicidaire plastique pour reportage photo: urgent me contacter avant passage à l'acte" – 24). Vissac was aware of the potential of these fragments: "I understood right away that this thing was made for twitter. I did not tweet live: I am a bit wary of posting on the spot, and I had to organize it, and clean it up." ("J'ai vu de suite que c'était un truc fait pour twitter. Je n'ai pas twitté en live: j'ai un peu peur de l'instantané, et puis il fallait l'organiser, faire le ménage." – 7) Having gathered a sufficient amount of material, he decided to create a twitter account (https://twitter.com/apersonne), and, throughout November of 2010, during rush hour in public transit, he posted approximately 160 tweets relaying the assembled stories and anecdotes.
Based on this initial state of the work, openly accessible to the public, Vissac decided to create an additional version in which he reuses, rewrites and organizes his fragments. In the resulting piece, Accident de personne, the figures emerging from the various accidents are grouped under different designations, such as: "He who… knows how to put on a show,""Those who… drive,""She who… interviews the dead" ("Celui qui... a le sens de la mise en scène,""Ceux qui... conduisent,""Celle qui... interviewe les morts"). Seventy-five such titles each include one to fifteen entries, based on a similarity of position or circumstance—the witness's gaze, the suicidal individual's internal discourse, the hesitations of certain individuals: "my jump onto the rails and fender is a test: who will extend a hand this time? who will nail me to the ground?" ("mon saut contre les rails & pare-choc est un test: qui me tendra la main cette fois? qui me plaquera au sol?" – 63) This classification, though it structures and sheds light on the content, is nevertheless restrictive, as it reduces the number of possible connections.
In an attempt to prolong the wandering reader's experience, and to counter this narrowing down of possibilities, Vissac added notes. These gloss on certain entries, comment on a word or phrase, establish a dialog. To the words "this one is the last," the note responds: "As we always say to ourselves. And then, next morning something still missing, and then…" ("celle-ci est la dernière" / "On se le dit toujours. Et puis, lendemain matin manque encore quelque chose et puis..." – 101) To the phrase "all the flashes glimpsed are planted guns," the note responds by developing the story: "Please let me leave, I will give you everything I have, please. If I miss this train, I am dead, literally. And if I catch it, well, I may finally die." ("tous les flash entr'aperçus sont des flingues collés" / "S'il vous plaît laissez-moi partir, je vous donnerai tout ce que j'ai, s'il vous plaît. Si je loupe ce train littéralement je suis mort. Et si je l'attrape, et bien, je pourrais enfin l'être." – 97) By using conversation, and playing on words, the notes and fragments bring the story to another level, one that could only be hinted at by the Twitter entries. Brought to the text in a subsequent time from its initial release, the network of notes unfolds fleeting universes revolving around a possibility, or a potential situation. These notes, however, do more than shatter the coherence of the book as a whole; they also create links towards other fragments, and other titles. In the epub and pdf versions of the book, hyperlinks are added to each of the notes, in order to allow the reader to "bounce from one story to another," ("rebondir d'une fiction à l'autre" – 9) as the author suggests. Two hundred and seventy-one links are thus added to the hundred pages of the book, offering a diffracted portrayal of the human jungle that is public transit. This play on reading from the margins in Accident de personne calls to mind our own hypertextual navigation through the web, and its famous ancestor, Julio Cortázar's Rayuela. However, the book's motifs—trains and metros—and themes—accidents and fortuitous encounters—evoke, rather, a 1990s hyperfictional experiment by Geoff Ryman, the "novel" 253, or Tube Theatre. In Ryman's work, the 253 passengers of a London metro train heading towards its destiny—an accident at the end of the line—each appear in their own individual file, and the reader navigates through the piece via a network of links contained within the files: connections are established between neighbours or employees of a company; when another passenger is mentioned in a given file, the link leads to that person's own file… The result is a fictional social network, and a portrayal of our individual curiosity about the people around us in a context of close proximity. In contrast, Accident de personne focuses instead on internal dialogs, singular circumstances and words caught on the fly, which are shown via the footnote commentary to be sadly common within the average anonymous urban crowd.
The author's recourse to this internal referencing technique moves the text into a distinct—as in both other and different—state, shifting its semantic range through the use of notes that introduce links to other portions of the piece. Accident de personne relies on the marginal note's exegetic function while applying it to a more personal approach that expands on the text's fabulation impulse. Moving beyond the simple random aspect of hypertextual navigation, Vissac invests the link with semantic weight, using it as an ongoing commentary on the interconnections between inventoried figures and the general coherence of the book.
A prominent French author since the 1980s, François Bon has monitored closely the evolution of literary practices and the possibilities offered for literature by technological tools. He is not, however, tempted by hypermedia writing: in his work, the text remains front and centre, although he maintains that our understanding of text today must take into account the mediums that convey current discourse. Which is why he was among the first to jump onto the digital bandwagon: having launched a personal webpage in 1997, he went on in 2001 to create a collaborative website devoted to contemporary literature, entitled remue.net (which is still active, though currently edited by a collective to which Bon is loosely associated), and finally, after a few experiments, he developed in early 2005 the site he continues to run, entitled Tiers livre (Third Book, a name chosen as a tribute to François Rabelais; see Audet and Brousseau 2011).
From the outset, Bon views his site as a workspace and not simply as a means of showcasing his writing; it is a notebook containing notes and versions of his texts: "I remember spending time in the hospital in December of 2004, and that the idea of the name Tiers livre kept coming back to me, to say, simply: this, this website, is a book, a work in the process of development, and not a means of conveying the work of Bon François, author." ("Je me souviens en décembre 2004 d'un passage hôpital, et que cette idée du nom Tiers livre me venait avec force pour dire, tout simplement: ceci, ce site Web, est un livre, une œuvre en développement par elle-même, et non pas la médiation du travail de Bon François, auteur." Bon 2010) Reading (and exploring) the site clearly confirms this. Entries have been posted on Tiers livre almost daily since the moment of its genesis. These articles fill what appears to be a highly heterogeneous electronic notebook. In it, we find many essays and talks, offering Bon's views on literature, the book's ecosystem, or digital literature. These texts are placed under different headings: "Reading & workshops," "Internet & the Book," "Arts & Photography" ("Lire & ateliers," "Le livre & internet," "Arts & photo")… The notebook also contains fiction written entirely in a digital context: from "A Journey through Buffalo" ("Une traversée de Buffalo"), a piece based on screen captures from Google Maps, to "Forms of a War" ("Formes d'une guerre") and "Autobiography of objects" ("Autobiographie des objets," published in print by Seuil in 2012), the texts constitute a collection of clusters of fiction assembling a variable number of fragments (Bon 2014). To these two broad categories are added every statement he has made concerning his involvement in the digital publishing house he launched (publie.net), as well as retrospective digital editions of his books initially published in print.
His site is his main writer's notebook: it is quite literally his creative workshop. It is not meant as a place to publish his work, but rather as a medium for writing. The application used to develop the website (the SPIP CMS) was chosen after careful consideration: its "back room" ("arrière-boutique," a favourite term of his) allows him to leave certain texts, certain projects on hold, until they are added to a series or transformed from a few scribbled notes into continuous text. SPIP's flexibility is also a huge advantage when it comes to managing the publication of the various articles. It allows him to counter the effect of rapid obsolescence characteristic of blog content, where each new entry displaces the last, which then gets lost in the site's archives—lost, and therefore invisible. Describing it as a "tar pit" ("fosse à bitume," Bon 2007), Bon attempts to counteract this basic characteristic of blog structure by carefully managing his "archives." His texts are sorted under headings and subheadings, therefore setting aside order of publication in favour of thematic proximity. For example, under the heading "Tunnel of strange writings" ("Tunnel des écritures étranges"), we find the subheading "Oddities concerning cities" ("Étrangetés concernant les villes"), which contains eleven articles; these were written between 2007 and 2012, and are not listed in chronological order. The new collection of texts constitutes a rereading by the author of his own production, producing thus a sort of anthology of his writings. This type of intervention is constant in Tiers livre, as its author periodically remodels the site's architecture (this approach to shaping the writing space is named "toposyntaxe" by Saemmer 2007), and uses the raw material contained within the site to rebuild different combinations of text—proof is given by Bon editing constantly its sections headings mentioned in the two paragraphs above, headings being already outdated at the very moment of publishing of this paper.
To these manipulations of the site's structure—a sort of underground writing—are added more explicit signs of annotation and commentary. These are of two types. First, in his entries, Bon combines different places and spaces. To the central body of text is commonly added a preliminary note, as a means of putting the writing into context by placing it within a thematic or historical framework. In one entry about the early adopters of the Net (in the literary domain), the preliminary note provides indications regarding successive versions: initially published online on January 15th, 2005 (as indicated at the end of the text), the entry was updated in September of 2006, as revealed and explained in the preliminary note, and further modified on March 11th, 2011, reaching its stabilized form on March 25th, 2011 (as indicated at the end of the text). These preliminary notes are almost universal on Tiers livre. Subsequent annotations of texts they curiously precede, they create the conditions that allow the author to speak more freely, acting as a sort of counterpoint to the final section of the pages in which appear the readers' (often numerous) comments.
It is mainly though not exclusively in the notes and comments around the articles that we find the second explicit sign of annotation, that is, the use of hyperlinks. Passages appearing in bold type signal the presence of links, which occasionally lead the reader to pages outside the website, but most often point towards earlier or associated pages (within a same heading, or in other sections of the site). The list of the one hundred important books of the 20th century—presented by the author in cautious terms—is a telling example, as it contains a profusion of links: 60 of the 100 titles point toward previous entries on the website. The connections established with other content provide illustrations, previous formulations of an idea, or evoke an earlier reading or a question previously discussed. The links, implicitly semantic, take on the role of relay associated with Bon's writing; they act at times as extensions of meaning, and at other times as veiled references or asides—hence, a page about the role played by word processing becomes the opportunity to recall, through a link, the importance attached by Flaubert to the size of his goose quills. The act of recovering earlier entries is not pure vanity; it is an intimate weaving of the threads of deep reflection developed over time:
Digital writing embodies, using a technique all its own, i.e., the hyperlink, the constant interplay between stability and flux. It is, in fact, an imaginary of depth—hence, the relatively early dismissal of the term 'to surf' that implies an imaginary of the surface—, which, alongside the verticality of the poem and the syntagmatic horizontality of the story, pokes holes in the surface-screen to reveal the geological strata.
L'écriture numérique vient incarner sous une modalité qui lui est propre, en l'occurrence le lien hypertexte, cette constante négociation du flux et du fixe. C'est en effet un imaginaire de la profondeur – de là l'abandon finalement rapide du terme 'surfer,' porteur d'un imaginaire de la surface – qui vient, aux côtés de la verticalité du poème et de l'horizontalité syntagmatique du récit, trouer la surface-écran pour en donner à voir les strates géologiques. (Bonnet 2012, 245-246)
François Bon's implicit and explicit annotations form the subtext to an initial proposal, and assert the depth contained within the text through the very act of revealing its many layers. Despite the accumulated strata that bury earlier contributions, Bon's writing favours its own constant enhancement, never negating the passing of time, but rather constantly reassessing the issues that determine Bon's course as an author and a literary figure.
Digital writing sets the stage for various manifestations of the reading process, the most readily perceptible form being intertextuality—evidenced by the borrowing of passages from other texts, or references made to other works via hyperlinks. The Web's natural connectivity favours and even encourages this approach, as such operations are inherent to the code that makes text circulation possible. It is indeed their singular response to the medium's invitation that makes certain projects particularly stimulating. Philippe De Jonckheere, writer and multidisciplinary artist, has for many years been collecting on his website, Désordre.net, various artistic experiments that rely on the possibilities afforded by digital technology. An open though mazelike workshop, De Jonckheere's site demonstrates a hyperawareness of computer code, as well as the sensation of being "lost in hyperspace," which is both portrayed and discussed. One of the artis's projects appears to be a particularly compelling illustration of the issues at play when literature and the Web come together. The piece is closely connected with a book by writer Georges Perec, entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien). Published in 1975, the book literally seeks to exhaust a reality, that of the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris, through factual and meticulous description of all that may be seen there. Perec combines the constraint (that of OULIPO, the group of which he is a member) with his own quest to capture everyday life and the infra-ordinary. Philippe De Jonckheere seizes this artistic premise, while attempting to take it a little further, using the Web's own methods.
His "Attempt at Exhausting An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec" ("Tentative d'épuisement de Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien de Georges Perec", 2010) places itself in a metatextual position, but does not enter into any such discourse. De Jonckheere literally copied Perec's work onto a long page of his website. His piece takes Perec's desire to capture reality through language one step further, by transposing the relationship to the referent based on its new context: the Web. He achieves this by pursuing Perec's work. The opening lines of part 1, for example, are as follows:
The date: October 18, 1974
The time 10:30 AM
The place Tabac Saint-Sulpice
The weather: Dry cold. Grey sky. A few sunny breaks.
(La date : 18 octobre 1974
L'heure 10 h. 30
Le lieu Tabac Saint-Sulpice
Le temps : Froid sec. Ciel gris. Quelques éclaircies.)
Between Perec's and De Jonckheere's texts, there is one half-concealed difference: the presence of hyperlinks. The words "18 octobre 1974," appearing in bold print as they would in François Bon's work, are linked with a document summarizing the conclusions of a symposium hosted by the Association of the Councils of State and Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions of the Member States of the European Communities, which took place on October 17th and 18th, 1974. The line indicating the time is linked with a Web application that provides the current date and time. The words "The weather" lead to "Météo France" site. The text continues in the same manner, with De Jonckheere adding 705 links to Perec's recopied text. With a few exceptions (less than 10), all the links lead to sites outside of Désordre.net, thus adding a layer of reality to that exhausted by Perec—a new window, tagged target="_blank", systematically appears on top of De Jonckheere's page. These Web realities, though generally associated in a literal way to the elements of reality described by Perec, sometimes act as images or metaphors: a police agent's identification number, 5976, leads to a message number in a Yahoo forum about Web programming (tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/http-wg/message/5976). De Jonckheere thus transposes the ludic nature of the Oulipo writer's work.
In this way, Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is not only reproduced—remediated so to speak—, it is also absorbed by De Jonckheere's own "Attempt at Exhausting." His remediation project embodies Perec's ideal, insofar as it offers a mediated representation of reality as provided by the web (Bolter and Grusin 1999). The intrinsically porous nature of the digital medium encourages this type of capture (evidenced in the art of remixing, using other materials). In this particular project, the rereading and annotations underpin the writer's intervention, which remains however in phase with Perec's approach. The process of describing and naming reality rests on two principles: accumulation—collecting as many notes on reality as possible – and cross-linking—connecting the various realities and descriptions. De Jonckheere's approach rests upon the very nature of the Web, an unanticipated embodiment of the Borgesian ideal, as the author hyperlinks Perec's realities with those issuing from the countless websites we visit on the Internet. This alignment between Perec's work and De Jonckheere's web-based approach also becomes evident on another level. From his readers' perspective, the reality depicted by Perec quickly proved to be subject to an inevitable disappearance: the fleeting nature of the singular event (the presence of a particular bus, a child running with his dog), the relative instability of urban parameters (a given bus line's specific route), and even the disappearance of certain commercial products (the Citroën DS taken off the market in 1975) all contribute to the impression that there is within reality an inevitable obsolescence. Perec may have managed to capture reality in one very specific instant, yet his text bears witness to the irreversible passing of time. The same goes for De Jonckheere's version (though updates may allow to cheat the process), as the author's external referents are unstable and can become obsolete. Addresses associated with a modified document hierarchy cause the reader to be redirected to the website's main page (the best-case scenario) or to that well-known dead end, the 404 error page (hence, the word "bench" leads to a now inaccessible personal Web page (perso.club-internet.fr/shashi), thus inevitably eliminating the link's semantic potential). By transposing Perec's text and reproducing its mechanisms by which words substitute for reality, Philippe De Jonckheere manages to comment on and annotate Georges Perec's project from within Perec's own writing, allowing it to be more widely read, while reviving the Oulipian writer's fundamental meditation on literature's power over reality.
The three digital writing projects analyzed in this paper each inherit from everyday and scholarly practices of rereading and annotation, using them to explore various discursive and literary avenues with the help of a common device, i.e., the hyperlink. Links may well be widespread and banal, yet they become here a means for writers to explore innovative approaches to their material. Guillaume Vissac uses the various states of his collection of short fragments in order to create a composite version of a worldview built on fleeting glimpses of death as it happens. The footnotes and links bring to life a community of suicidal individuals, thus giving free rein to the writer's "fabulatory" imagination. In Tiers livre, François Bon develops a discursive web, both critical and fictional, that centers on the hypertextual function, from the peripheral annotations added to his texts to the internal links that seek to build a reflective coherence. Philippe De Jonckheere pursues Perec's project, not only mimicking the singular nature of his descriptive approach, but also remediating the relationship between reality and its representation: links are traces of a reality that gradually disappears, making immediate perception a prisoner of words and links that lose their meaning. These three projects are persuasive examples of how the development of writing methods within a digital context leads to novel approaches to textuality. They all are using annotation (thought as a means of metatextuality) as a creative device integral to the composition of a given work. More recent works of digital literature or digital art build on similar semiotic aggregation of techniques that reinforces the semantic scope of their content. This conception of complex composition certainly needs to be investigated to better understand the poetics of internal linking and auto-annotation in works of contemporary artists. Nevertheless, Vissac's, Bon's, and De Jonckheere's works remain in the immediate realm of text. Through the practice of digital writing, the surface of the page is there projected into the depth of a virtual network; this expands the range of the literary process, offering both a more dynamic portrait of the writer in this process of writing, and a hybrid and complex representation of reality.
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