ISSN special session at the MLA Convention 2011

141. New Thresholds of Interpretation? Paratexts in the Digital Age,

5:15–6:30 p.m. on Thursday 06-JAN-11 in Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott

The concept of “paratext” has, since its introduction in Genette’s eponymous study, provided a theoretical basis for many fruitful discussions of the way in which a text’s “relations with the public are organized.” An especially interesting thread of research is concerned with the question of how Genette’s framework can be applied to new forms of texts and textuality, and with them, new kinds and functions of paratexts. With the spread of phenomena like dvd special features and mobile storytelling, the distinction between text and paratext has become ever more precarious. New kinds of paratexts may extend fictional universes and thus arguably become part of the text (e.g. backstories, deleted scenes, mobisodes) or circumscribe these universes by foregrounding the artificiality of works (e.g. “making of”, bloopers, director’s commentary). In this panel, we ask: how do we need to extend Genette’s framework in order to account for and analyze the forms and functions of such new paratexts?

Chaired by: Dorothee Birke (University of Freiburg) and Birte Christ (University of Giessen)


Bootleg Paratextuality and Media Aesthetics: Decay and Distortion in the Borat DVD

(Paul Benzon, Temple University)

The recent proliferation of paratextual content on commercially sold DVDs reshapes the boundaries of the traditional cinematic text not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of economic relations with contemporary media consumers. In supplementing cinematic texts with paratextual features, film studios and distributors exploit the possibilities of the digital as a medium and a mode of storage, yet they do so in direct (if unstated) competition with the countless other options in a constantly expanding and fracturing global media ecology, attempting to retain market share by offering the public “more” content within the same format and for the same price.

In this paper, I offer a counternarrative to this mainstream political economy of the digital paratext through a consideration of the media aesthetics of the bootleg. I argue that bootleg DVDs radically reverse the mainstream DVD market’s paratextual excess, offering less rather than more and replacing the apparatus that usually surrounds legitimate films with visual, sonic, and operational distortion and decay. The bootleg’s paratextual deformation throws into relief the technological, sociopolitical, and economic conditions of possibility that shape the current landscape of digital media.

After a theoretical consideration of bootleg paratextuality, I turn to the 2007 DVD release of the film Borat as an example of the cultural implications of this form. With its mockumentary tale of a Kazakh journalist stalking global media icon Pamela Anderson, Borat is a commentary at the level of narrative on the global circulation of visual media. The paratextually degraded materiality of the DVD, with its “blank” disc, its seemingly badly photocopied sleeve, and its static-y, stuttering menus, extends this conceit into the realm of the paratext. Tracing the ways the Borat DVD negotiates between bootleg and mainstream media aesthetics, I suggest that the paratextual idiosyncrasies of bootleg video allow us to see geopolitical and narrative instabilities that are often otherwise elided within the mainstream economy of digital media.

The Amazon Phenomenon: New Contextual Paratexts of Historiographic Narratives

(Julia Lippert, Halle University)

Today, history writing is a cross-medial and cross-generic phenomenon. As a result, scholars of literature and media have been trying to come up with categories for the textual analysis of historical discourse that pay tribute to its particular idiosyncracies such as the reference to real world events, the identity of author and narrator, and the use of a perigraphic apparatus. But with the increase of different medial realisations of historical discourse the paratexts (in Genette’s terms) that accompany such texts and direct their perception by the audience have also been diversified in terms of their media format. While for most of the second half of the 20th century book and DVD covers, exhibition flyers, film posters, or trailers of TV-programs, mainly influenced the way the audience perceived and understood the history texts and the historical facts they contained, there has been a shift towards digital paratexts, with Amazon reviews taking the lead, since the turn of the century. As a consequence, not only the textual but also the paratextual analysis of history writing has to incorporate digital forms of mediation in its analytical concept.

In my paper, I shall propose a functional typology for the paratexts of historiographic discourse that is applicable across genres and media. For that purpose, I am going to draw a distinction between paratexts that occur in the same material form as the texts on the one hand and contextual metatexts such as reviews, interviews or film trailers that occur separately on the other hand. My typology is based on Genette’s concept of paratexts in conjunction with Goffman’s frame theory of social interaction, and Werner Wolf’s formal and functional typology for ‘framing borders’. Finally, in order to demonstrate the fecundity and validity of my model concerning the analysis of digital paratexts, I shall provide two case studies on the digital paratexts that accompany two audiovisual works about the 18th century British monarch George III, i.e. The Madness of King George (feature film, 1994) and David Starkey’s Monarchy Series (TV, DVD, 2007).

Peritexts and Epitexts in Transitional Electronic Literature: Readers and Paratextual Engagement on Kindles, I-Pods, and Netbooks

(Ellen McCracken, University of California, Santa Barbara)

This paper examines the modes in which readers perform centrifugal and centripetal movement when engaging with the new paratexts of portable electronic reading devices (Kindle, netbook, I-Touch, I-Phone, I-Pad, among others). This transitional literature between print and digital forms is distinct from both print textuality and from original forms of electronic literature that employs hypertext and other rhizomatic techniques. Unlike DVDs which provide many paratexts adjacent to the main text and easily available on the menu, literature on portable electronic devices often requires readers to perform outside work through other vehicles to access important paratextual material. The color images of the front cover, for example, are absent on the Kindle and must be accessed online, whereas smaller digitized versions of the original full-color covers are viewable on the other e-reading devices. The easy portability and diminished size of the new e-reading devices situates large numbers of readers in new public and private locations that affect the act of reading, introducing new contextual centrifugal modalities that alter the story’s reception.

Whereas Genette argued that paratexts were neither exterior nor interior to the print text, rather on the threshold (seuil), several of the new paratexts involved in portable electronic reading have migrated outside the electronic texts, functioning as what Genette would term epitexts. These paratexts propel readers centrifugally away from the text before, during, or after the reading process, preparing, interrupting, or extending the story. They consist of scattered references to specific texts in blogs about e-reading; readers’ reviews posted on the point-of-sale sites of web merchants; dedicated author web pages; personalized algorithmic recommendations to readers based on their browsing history on such websites as Amazon; along with traditional reviews in print media, author interviews on television, YouTube, and other advertising media. Amazon makes free samples of e-texts available on e-readers, hoping to convince potential readers to buy the entire book. These paratexts bring the textual excerpt outside its original context to a distinct reading situation of partiality. An additional new peritextual element is the price of the e-text, as many readers spend time and work searching for free or low-priced bargains before buying an electronic book, and fierce battles currently rage about price points between publishers and e-device makers. Readers and potential readers must often perform work to access these new paratexts. To what extent do these peritexts continue to function as cognitive thresholds of the reading experience, as Genette argued? What replaces the diminished role of the front cover, for example, for readers who have to engage in extra work to view even a small image of it on a computer screen or I-pod, rather than seeing it every time they pick up the book?

New forms of epitexts also exist within the electronic text, drawing readers into activity along centripetal paths. These elements include: the text’s formatting (which often at this early stage includes errors); the text’s appearance on the electronic screen (e.g., brightness, horizontal or vertical orientation);  numbering according to “locations” as opposed to page numbers; easily accessed dictionary definitions of words along with origins; word and phrase searching ability; enlarged or reduced font at the reader’s discretion; the reader’s ability to highlight and excerpt passages; and alternative modes of consumption such as “text-to-speech.” Most e-readers including the Kindle and the I-Pod e-reader applications set up downloaded texts to immediately open to the first page of the novel or story collection, forcing readers to push the back button several times or turn virtual pages back to see the front matter and table of contents–important paratexts. Postmodern writers often play with reality and fiction in the dedication or epigraph which may remain hidden if the reader does not turn back the pages to the front matter. Most egregiously, the footnotes on many Kindle texts are unavailable as one reads, without jumping back to the table of contents and paging through all of the endnotes. This is especially damaging in the case of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), in which the extensive footnotes have been removed from the bottom of the page and made difficult to access. As I have argued elsewhere, Díaz’s footnotes engage in a rhetorical strategy of non-paratextuality-an integral continuation of the main narrative and essential to the reading process, but nonetheless have been excised from this continuum in the electronic version of the novel.

In tracing the centrifugal and centripetal paratextual paths that readers are invited (or forced) to pursue in transitional electronic texts, we can chart the ways in which the narrative is both enriched and impeded in this new experimental form. Paratextual paths that make a dictionary almost instantly available enrich the reading experience, while briefly impeding on narrative flow. In contrast, removing footnotes from their intended position at the foot of the page and burying them within a series of key strokes that the reader is forced to perform in order to see them, effectively erases them from the linear reading process, destroying the original text and sabotaging the author’s complete narrative utterances.

Biographical information on panelists and chairs:

Paul Benzon received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and teaches contemporary literature, media studies, and critical writing at Temple University. His essays have recently appeared in PMLA and electronic book review. He is currently at work on a project tentatively titled Archival Fictions: Materiality, Form, and Media History in Contemporary Literature.

Dorothee Birke is junior fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She studied English and German literature at the University of Freiburg and at Trinity College, Dublin, and earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Giessen in 2007. From 2005 to 2007 she was manager of the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC) at Giessen. Dorothee has published a book titled Memory’s Fragile Power: Crises of Memory, Identity and Narrative in Contemporary British Novels, and is currently co-editing a volume on counterfactual thinking and writing in various disciplines. Her current book project, which sparked her interest in paratexts, focuses on representations of reading in English novels from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

Birte Christ is assistant professor at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Giessen, Germany. She has previously studied and taught at the University of Freiburg, the University of Texas at Austin, Yale University, and the University of Bonn. In Modern Domestic Fiction: Popular Feminism, Mass-Market Magazines, and Middle-Class Culture, 1905-1925, a manuscript which she is currently preparing for publication, she studies women’s serial novels with attention to their magazine-specific paratexts such as illustrations, cover announcements, or synopses. Her next book project focuses on representations of capital punishment in U.S. American literature and film. Birte has co-edited a volume of essays on directions in American Studies, American Studies/Shifting Gears (2010).

Sabrina Kusche is currently doing her PhD on the mediatization of literature in English and German Studies with a focus on literary e-mail novels at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany and Stockholm University in Sweden. Since March 2009 she has been holder of a scholarship in the LOEWE-Project (Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz), working on cultural techniques and their mediatization. She is also a member of the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, the International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies” and the European PhD Network. In Giessen, where she studied English and German Literature, she works as a graduate assistant at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture.

Julia Lippert is executive director at the Centre for United States Studies and assistant lecturer for pedagogy at the English Department at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. Her main research interests are in cognitive narratology across genres and media, theories of the mind, adaptation studies, film analysis and postmodern literature. She successfully defended her PhD thesis on the presentation of George III in the British media of the last 20 years in August 2009. She received a state-funded graduate scholarship for her PhD and a research fellowship from the German Historical Institute London in 2006. Julia was a visiting student at the Columbus State University (Ohio, US) and at the University of Wales in Swansea and worked as teaching assistant in Mulhouse (France). She was an undergraduate and graduate student of English and American Studies and Media and Communications at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg and also holds a certificate of German as a Foreign Language.

Ellen McCracken is Professor of Latin American and comparative U.S. Latino literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include semiotics, narrative theory, and cultural studies. Her books include: Decoding Women’s Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. (1992), New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity (1999), and The Life and Writing of Fray Angelico Chavez: A New Mexico Renaissance Man (2009). She is at work on a book on transitional electronic literature and literary theory.