Re: Re-networking House of Leaves, AMillionBluePages.net and Finding an Audience
Your phrases and their respondent images still keep within me. The cold water lapping at your ankles, threatening to pull you down into “Freezing meadows stretched to the horizon like a million blue pages”
This epigraph is a quote from House of Leaves, a book in which a complex and maze-like self-referentiality unpacks the indexicality of the sign and the reliabality of signification. It is a book where authenticity, voice, and context matter, so some context for this epigraph may help at least orient the types of inquiry that a reading into this book proposes. Page 608 resides in Appendix II, section E, a crucial paratext which readers may arrive at through one of at least two routes: either by following the Editor's advice of footnote 78 (on page 72), or by arriving simply (though not so simply) as a subsequent to Appendix II-D. This is not an insignificant choice -- the route a reader chooses stands to significantly alter her interpretation of the intervening 514 pages -- but as summaries of the novel's fictive conceit and ontological implications are readily available, I'll simply point out that the quote above comes in a letter from Pelafina Lievré, the barely-mentioned but always-present mother of Johnny Truant, whose editing, compilation, and Kinbotean commentary frame one narrative level of the novel, an academic criticim on a documentary film about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Johnny's Appendix includes his father's obituary (Appendix II-D) and his mother's letters, in which she is responding to and occasionally quoting from letters she has supposedly received from her son. Whether she has actually received these letters is unclear because Johnny does not provide them as such and because Pelafina, writing from a mental institution, is a tragically unreliable narrator.
I start with this narrative framework both to convey the convolution of this novel to anyone reading this who might not be familiar with it and also to ground the discussion that will follow. I am writing this blog post about A Million Blue Pages, a platform I've been developing for a multi-institutional teaching collaboration. This project and this post about are also a contribution to UMW's Digital Scholars Institute (a pilot by UMW's excellent Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation). In this post, I want to describe the history and current state of the project and invite feedback, suggestion, criticism, and anything else. In particular, one question I've been thinking on lately is audience -- who is this project for, and how do I design it in order to best meet the needs and expectations of whoever that is? Among my DSI cohort, I've been impressed with Susan Fernsebner's post on developing a project for her methods class. I admire how clearly she's focused on the impact of the project instead of the technical intricacies of pulling it together -- a place I often get bogged down in.
I'll start with a description of what AMillionBluePages.net is right now. A process begins whenever someone, (a student in my class or one of my collaborators' classes), creates something -- an image, video, audio, text, tweet, GIF -- that relates to a specific page of House of Leaves. ("Relates to" is a vague word, but I'm deliberating avoiding specific options like "illustrates" because that presupposes a certain kind of relationship.) After creating that object, she shares it through Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram or Vine, tagging it #hol14 and #p___ filling in the blank with the page number in question. I have several scrapers running every few minutes that look for content tagged in this way, and when they find something new, they add a reference to that content to a database. That database can be accessed with a top-down view organized by page at amillionbluepages.net/view.shtml. There, visitors can view thumbnails of about 425 items covering about 232 of House of Leaves' 743 pages, and if you're interested in viewing a certain subset, you can hit the Use Filters checkbox to expose various options, such as the ability to view only videos.
Spreading 425 items across 232 out of 743 pages leaves many pages as yet uncovered. Expose these empty slots with the "Hide Empty Pages" checkbox. Where pages have multiple items (page 110 with 7 thumbnails is currently the most popular), viewers can click that page number and view larger, embedded versions of those items side-by-side, as well as leave comments on that page. (No one has used the commenting feature so far.) As you can hopefully see with some browsing, the work students are completing for this project is already pretty amazing. The depth and scope of the work expresses the complexity of the novel, but the intimacy and nuance of some of the creative projects also start to reveal the complex and sometimes very intense relationships readers of this novel tend to have with its story.
The current form of this project has a history going back to 2011 when a group of us coalesced following a blog entry by Mark Sample in which he proposed that the logical subsequent to Jessica Pressman's influential analysis of House of Leaves as a "networked" novel was simply to "re-network" the novel. For Mark (then of GMU), me, Brian Croxall (Emory), Erin Templeton (Converse) and Paul Benzon (Temple), that re-networking took the form of a collaborative class project and assignment in which we attempted to re-create the messageboard at which readers of House of Leaves first gathered in order to collectively solve its various puzzles. Our version, at thisisnotfor.us was, I think, an extremely productive and engaged experience for our students. Where I think it may have suffered from some flatness was in the nature and asynchronous timing of our students' reading schedule, as well as a sense of contrivance endemic to the unavoidable fact that, whatever we tell our students about deconstructed identity and rhetorical situations, they're still writing for us.
The title of our re-networked forum, "ThisIsNotFor.Us", was a reference to Johnny Truant's foreword to the novel, which is simply the sentence, "This is not for you.", and the question of who the book is actually for can be an hermeneutic quilting point in certain readings of the novel's generic pretenses. But in a pedagogical context, the "who" this is for is an important framing question, especially for a large-scale collaborative project like this one. And that's something I don't think we've yet articulated for this 2014 re-re-networking where my students are working alongside (sort of) students from up to 7 other schools as well as, really, anyone else in the world who wants to contribute. I truly think students are doing some amazing creative and critical work with this project, and I'm anxious to build it in ways that get other people excited about it, too.
The platform we've arrived at took shape over email, a Google Hangout or two, and a couple of Skype conversations. Through one of those Skype chats, Brian and I hit upon the idea of doing something like what artist Zak Smith completed in illustrating each page of Gravity's Rainbow, but for us, it was important to decouple the assumptions behind "illustration" and let the openness of other associations situate House of Leaves in its contemporary networks. To put it another way, our 2011 forum was a networked pastiche of another network, but A Million Blue Pages is its own archive, a right-now network in its own terms that only exists while the artifacts that currently comprise it continue to exist. Deleting a post from Tumblr also removes its link from AMillionBluePages, so its thumbnails are always a view of the current state of its network.
There is much more I could say about all this, but I think if you've read this far you can see how drawn I am to the technical aspects of this project and how invested I am in that side of things. I don't know off-hand how much code I've written, but I've cloned the website in Github if you're interested in seeing how any of that side works.) But more importantly, by bringing this project to my blog and by sharing this post with my Digital Scholars Institute fellows, I'm really appreciating this opportunity to articulate who this is for, perhaps with implications for assignment design, user interface, or anything in between. To put it simply, these are the questions that I think characterize where I am with this project:
- Who is the audience for this website?
- What does that audience need or expect?
- What should I change, add, or subtract to better meet the needs and expectations of that audience?
- And how do I know when or if that's been accomplished?
I imagine these are questions difficult to answer for anyone unfamiliar with the book, but I think my intimacy of connection to the project likewise makes it hard for me to see how others will be interacting with it. So perhaps if you don't feel you can speak to who the project should be for, who is communicating to and for right now?