The following is an examination of a large scale Digital Humanities project, Pynchon Wiki, a Mediawiki dedicated to the works of Thomas Pynchon.
PynchonWiki (PW) is the host site dedicated to Wikis annotating Thomas Pynchon’s (TP) eight novels. Launched in 2006, the website is designed and curated by Tim Ware, who’s company, HyperArts, also maintains ThomasPynchon.com. PW is designed with MediaWiki software and annotations regarding TP’s works are made by anonymously registered users. PW’s intended audience includes both scholars and casual TP fans alike. Since the creation of the Wiki associated with Pynchon’s most recent novels, Inherent Vice (2009) and Bleeding Edge (2013), PW has received approximately one edit per every fifty visitors, which might indicate that its visitors are most likely college students using the site as a quick-reference guide rather than a comprehensive source of critical review (Rowberry). No information regarding funding could be located, however it’s likely that Ware funds the project himself.
PynchonWiki is created by Tim Ware and has become one of the largest literary wiki resources with over twenty-thousand edits since it was launched in 2006 (Rowberry 1). According to the Tim Ware Wikipedia page, Ware (b. 1948) “is an American composer and musician, born in Sacramento, California” and he is “the owner of HyperArts (“HyperArts Web Design), a web design and development company” fittingly located in the Jack London Square district of Oakland, CA (“Tim Ware”).
Ware’s music is very much like that of Béla Fleck or Pat Metheny– prolific, and crosses many genres (“Tim Ware Group”). It’s no wonder, then, that his scholarly and professional achievements are just as prolific as his creative endeavors. In addition to PW, Ware created the Infinite Jest Wiki, Finnegan’s Web (which has since migrated to a different server and curator), and he has also worked with Erik Ketzan to co-creat of the an Umberto Eco Wiki for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (“The Mysterious Flame”), as well as Literary Wiki (“LiteraryWiki.org”), which is a site designed to allow anyone to create a Wiki for a literary text (Rowberry 1).
During the creation of PW, Ware received help from David Morris Kipen who is a writer, editor, and broadcaster and who from 2005 to 2010 served as the Director for the National Endowment of the Arts (“David Morris Kipen”). Ware also consulted Minnesota State University Professor of English, Donald Larsson, who had previously created the website A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion (Larsson), which launched in 2000 (“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About”).
For the Vinland Wiki, Ware integrated work from another website, Babies of Wackiness: A Reader’s Guide to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, by John Diebold and Michael Goodwin, which was launched back at the dawning of the web in 1990 (Diebold and Goodwin). In terms of the logistical side of PW, according to the “about” page of PW, the site “runs on MediaWiki, a wiki software package licensed under the GNU General Public License. It is written in PHP and uses either the MySQL or PostgreSQL relational database management system” (“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About”).
PynchonWiki and DH:
I would love to see a larger website like PW dedicated to contemporary avant garde and experimental writers. Such a project could be a complex and massive network of hypertext annotations that cross-reference works by Pynchon, Barth, Joyce, Fowles, Danielewski and Tomasula, among many others. Because these works use intra- and intertextual references as a stylistic element, the sheer volume of hyperlinks within each annotation would be daunting for any one person or small group of people. However, using the Wiki, or user-edited format, such a project could be nearly complete in a short time. However, while I think PW is very user friendly and intuitive in terms of its site-map, I also think that it’s a bit dated in terms of its aesthetic quality. Each page of annotations looks like it was designed in web 1.0 html, giving it an almost flimsy quality. Each clickable link seems like it’s guaranteed to navigate to an “Error 404” page. Also, each header level is clearly visible the same way that the waistline of a guy’s underwear is visible when he bends down to pick something up, or for that matter, an exposed bra strap. This older style is fine for the sake of clarity, where there is a 1:1 ratio of 1 Page in the book to 1 section of annotations. The issue, though, is that the eyes easily wander because of the repetitive nature and length of each chapter’s-worth of annotations. Every time a user creates or edits an annotation, the page length expands, causing each individual annotation to get lost in the endless pattern of “Page” header and “note” body text. In other words, each annotation loses its value in a labyrinth of information, which defeats the purpose of the annotations. As Rowberry suggests, PW is not a “paradigm shift for the use of Wikis” partly because it “does not fully depart from traditional forms of interpretation,” and thus ignores “the multimodality and multidmedial aspects of Wiki” (Rowberry 1).
Quite frankly, too, Pynchon fans–who came up in the age of television and media boom–are likely to be finely attuned to the visual and graphic arts and well versed in other art mediums (“Thomas Pynchon”). In this case it might be worth providing adequate space along with the annotations so that the visual references in the novels could be represented in some other way than an image gallery at the bottom of the page. Though, considering that the site is maintained by HyperArts, who clearly have the technical ability to create a more streamlined website, I think that the archaic aesthetic of PW is by design, or intended.
The sheer gravity–pun intended–of annotating Pynchon’s work presents a unique set of issues with regard to the field of DH. Wiki software has made it easy for one or two people to compile the same amount of material that it might otherwise take a whole team of people to research simply because the curators of the project appeal to the mass Pynchon audience for help and input. As noted on the website, Ware used material from earlier websites to establish and build upon the annotations in PW. Then, anonymous editors who are registered to the site filled in the nooks and crannies of referential minutia in each sentence from TPs novels.
The criticism regarding PW focuses on the “Quantity v. Quality” issue where traditional, more academic Pynchon critics question the verisimilitude, or credibility of the annotations collected in the Wiki. These critics make the point that “substantial criticism”–academic articles–appear three to four years after the novel is published “due to the lengthy peer-review process” which ensures that the article is filtered through rigorous scrutiny so that the information is verified and the arguments are concise (4). This peer-review process is a “considered reaction,” protecting criticism with the interest of qualitative research, in contrast “to the knee jerk from the web.” Rowberry goes on to say that “what is lost in prestige is gained in scale and speed, thus facilitating a larger and faster feedback loop.” However, there is also the argument that web-based annotation format actually facilitates research rather than allows amateur scholars to blithely rush through the material without regard to qualitative concerns. Lisa Spiro makes the point that the format of the Wiki annotation process is collaborative rather than singular and critical as in the the more traditional academic article: “scientific research often requires scientists to collaborate with each other, whereas humanities scholars typically need only something to write with and about” (Spiro). Pynchon audiences, among all the literarily inclined, are methodical and almost scientifically minded when it comes to reading a Pynchon novel; they have to be. This in mind, the registered editors of PW have joined a larger, more accessible, but focused community of Pynchonites to create a database of intertextual references within their favorite novels.
Contrary to what the traditional academic establishment might argue about the lack of qualitative research in the Wiki format, the PW community aids in the proliferation of “more comprehensive, more accurate” information” because “many people are checking the information,” and even produce the information faster, “it only took 3 months for the wiki to cover every page [for one] of Pynchon’s [novels].” Spiro also points out that a more traditional book of supplementary annotation and criticism authored by a single person–the example in this case being Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion–“is fixed,” unchanging and unable to adapt to newer, more informed analyses of Pynchon’s work, “while the wiki is open-ended and expansive.” For any one person to take on the solitary process of sifting through every possible annotation may, in fact, be a terminal endeavor in terms of sheer volume of personal resources and time. Spiro echos the research of a TextGrid project describing “how 3 different editors attempted to create a critical edition of the massive ‘so-called pseudo-capitulars supposedly written by a Benedictus Levita,’ dying before they could complete their work.” The suggestion, here, is that scholars no longer have to fear keeling over, their bodies eventually collecting dust and cobwebs while attempting to pan for gold flakes in an ocean of Pynchon’s jovial mind and literary interplay, for this is “much easier now that a team of scholars is collaborating to create the edition, increasing their chances of completion by sharing the labor.”
To further address concerns about the quality of the research, the element of illegitimate, or unsubstantiated annotations must, of course, be acknowledged.
Daniel Cohen discusses issues of quality in a DH project he had put together at one point, called Syllabus Finder. He talks about the limitations of API and KWIC in extracting information from a scanned document. He mentions that he had attempted to retrieve information regarding George W. Bush: “it may come as a surprise that the encyclopedia entries scanned to create such lists do not have to be perfect– only fairly reliable and openly available on the Internet” (Cohen). In other words, he is acknowledging that quantitative material doesn’t equate 1:1 with its qualitative measurement. “Indeed,” he continues, “the reference source I used for this experiment was Wikipedia, the democratically written encyclopedia much disparaged by publishers and professors. Despite its flaws, however, Wikipedia will probably do just as well for basic KWIC profiling of document classes as the Encyclopædia Britannica.” In short, Cohen is saying that the Wiki is a more accurate resource than traditional, more trusted print sources which have been scanned into databases (such as Google’s library scanning project) when using API and KWIC filters when data-mining for specific information. This is because “one can instruct a program to download the entire” Wiki page “and then subject that corpus to more advanced manipulations.”
There are, however, clear examples of qualitative issues that need to be addressed in PW. Because of the informal nature of the Wiki and a general obscurity about ethical practices on the web (though, the last decade has seen a shift towards more standard ethical practices), misunderstanding of the Wiki’s “rules have led to a community that can add knowledge to the Wiki in either great depth, or just superficial additions that can be expanded” endlessly by other users (Rowberry 9). These superficial additions are actually on verge of being a distraction. It’s not hard to find annotations within PW that are either totally blasé, biased, or entirely uninformative. For example, in the Bleeding Edge Wiki for chapter 23 the following annotations are made:
“He meets her gaze and then sits staring at her, as if she’s some kind of screen…” Crap. More Lacan references, only now Maxine’s a TV with a difference: instead of tubeside, Avi is Maxiside.
“…Avi pretends to be absorbed in the television.” Told ya. (“Bleeding Edge Wiki”)
I was simply curious to see if I could find any annotations that, having not yet read any of Pynchon’s work, would stand out to me as careless or sophomoric. I found these annotations almost immediately with only a 15 second search, which must mean that this kind of annotation must be rampant throughout PW. Honestly, though, I almost prefer its conversational tone. Because I don’t know the voice or the identity of the editor, I am free to project some sort of Bakhtinian dialogic conversation onto my experience of any of the PWs. “Crap. More Lacan references,” says one of my selves. “I wouldn’t have thought of that, but, ugh! come on! Why does everything have to be about the Other?” says another of my selves; still a third self says “The TV acts as both mirror and a conduit for power/knowledge,” to which the first two reply, “No! No more Foucault!” In other words, the anonymity of the edits, coupled with the less formal style of the internet community allows for my personal experience to be one of process, where a single line of text from the novel is offered many options of interpretation.
Here, in my opinion, is the crux of the argument about the qualitative measurement of the Wiki– process. The more traditionalist, or academic position is concerned with upholding the standardized final product of the annotation supplement as well as the peer-reviewed, critical article. On the other hand, much like Gertrude Stein believed that the creative process was as important, if not more important than the final product, the Wiki is in a constant state of flux. It is an on-going process as users add or delete content, begin threads of theoretical conversations within a single annotation, and adopt emerging critical views of some aspect of the novel:
The contributors to the Pynchon Wiki have tended to be more interested in annotating new material rather than improvising existing content. This is likely due to the synchronous editing process and the sense of community revolving around exploring new ground rather than retreading material in a slightly more daunting context of Pynchon’s older novels and their impressive range of scholarship (Rowberry 10)
Ironically, the more traditional–borderline elitist–Pynchon scholars who would disregard the Wiki argue against what is arguably a key manifestation of the very post-modern world which is also a constant process, unstable. The value of PW is in its compatibility and open sourcing– it is a source for databasing much larger bibliographies and intertextual references than the print (analogue) world could ever assume to be. Cohen says,”resources that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better” (Cohen). This suggests that, because qualitative measurement is subjective, the value of PW comes down to an aesthetic preference for the user. In that sense, PW’s “output has not been substantially different to expectations of the [traditional] Pynchon critical industry” (Rowberry 5). Because of the democratizing nature of the internet, the academy is losing it’s control over information as it once appeared in a hierarchical form. Now the information is removed from that hierarchy and has taken on a different aesthetic. It’s no wonder, then, that the younger generations of online interpretive communities have “gained traction in a third of the time the academic community have achieved the same thing.”
My suggestion on the matter– use or use not; keel over and collect cobwebs in your search through the Pynchon labyrinth, or join the community of Pynchon enthusiasts to turn that lonely labyrinth into a bustling metropolis.
“Bleeding Edge Wiki.” Pynchon Wiki. 1 Oct. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.<http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Chapter_23>
Cohen, Daniel J.. “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=40>
“David Morris Kipen.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 15 Sept. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Diebold, John, Michael Goodwin. “Babies of Wackiness: A Reader’s Guide to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland.” N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://www.mindspring.com/~shadow88/>
Diebold, John. “Senior Research Scientist John Diebold.” Columbia. N. p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. <http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~johnd/>
Larsson, Donald F.. “A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion.” N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. < http://www.english2.mnsu.edu/larsson/grnotes.html>
“LiteraryWiki.org.” Literary Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. <http://literarywiki.org/index.php?title=Main_Page>
“HyperArts Web Design.” HyperArts Web Design & Social Media. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. < http://www.hyperarts.com/>
Rowberry, Simon. “Reassessing the Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon Wiki: a new research paradigm?.” Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon [Online], 1.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. <https://www.pynchon.net/owap/article/view/24/70>
“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” Literary Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://literarywiki.org/index.php?title=The_Mysterious_Flame_of_Queen_Loana>
“Thomas Pynchon.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 20 Oct. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About.” Pynchon Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.<http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Thomas_Pynchon_Wiki:About>
“Tim Ware.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 24 Aug. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
“Tim Ware Group.” The Tim Ware Group. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Spiro, Lisa. “Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. N. p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.