handwritten sticky notes, highlighted document pages, and grainy photographs rub against one another, forming dense and shifting thickets. the blank spaces between once-distinct districts become cluttered and close. geographically distant realms ache to converge. the bookcase furiously semaphores toward the far corner of the room. thin lines of colored paper arrive to splay across sections. the wall bursts at every seam.
Whether it be real or virtual, every project has its own “wall”: the irrepressibly interdisciplinary network that inspires and propels the work. Populating this capharnaum are the ideas, images, sentences, scenes, and characters that “stick to us,” to use Lara Farina’s evocative phrase (Farina, 2014). They are the “encounters” that Deleuze describes as the impetus toward work, the things that “strike” us, as Benjamin puts it, like a hammer to unknown inner chords (Deleuze, 1988; Benjamin, 1999). This affective principle of collection (what strikes you) means that the wall is an intensely personal artifact. Its unique architecture springs from a thinker’s nomadic wanderings through and amidst a cultural and aesthetic landscape, whose dimensions are stretched beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to include anything that clings to us, whether it be Werner Heisenberg’s letters or an episode of Breaking Bad.
Although instrumental to every humanities project, the wall has a brutally short lifespan. The writer strives to reassert control over its borders and boundaries by whittling down its undisciplined excesses; indeed, training to be a scholar is in large part learning to compress and contain the wall’s licentious sprawl. We shorten our focus to a single period, place, or author; excise those fragments that fall outside the increasingly narrow range of our “expertise”; and briskly sever any loose ends that refuse to be tied. These regulatory measures help align our work with the temporal, geographic, and aesthetic boundaries of our disciplinary arbiters: the journals and university presses that publish our work, the departments that hire and tenure us. In an increasingly tight academic marketplace, where the qualified scholars, articles, and projects far outnumber the available positions, deviation from the standard model can seem like risky business indeed.
Even as entrenched structures dictate compression and containment in scholarly writing, the open networks of the web have enabled a publication model based on public sharing and collaboration, spurring a turn to process across the humanities. It has become normal for scholars of all fields to share their incipient, in-progress research on blogs and wikis, and look to the comments sections for peer review. On a larger scale, these moves toward a collaborative process of knowledge-making are visible in the editing policies of Wikipedia; in Femtechnet’s Distributed Open Content Course (DOCC), an open repository for course materials; and in new open access imprints like the Dead Letter Office of Punctum Books, which publishes abandoned scholarly projects (to name just a few examples among many). This turn to process has put pressure on the gatekeeping mechanisms described above, as many scholars yearn for a less rigid publishing model that foments the networked creativity of the wall.
Advocating for the transformative effect of a process-oriented model of digital publication, this short paper asks: how can digital humanities not only embrace process rhetorically, but in fact accrete tangible value to the more piecemeal, contingent aspects of knowledge creation? How can we make it the wall’s scholarly sprawl “count” within systems that still rely on the trimmed and trussed-up products of research? How can we not only laud conceptually but help to build materially critical practices that eschew disciplinary (and disciplining) boundaries in favor of openings and traversals?
After a brief survey of existing digital journals and other publishing initiatives, including Hyperrhiz, Scalar, and Electric Press, we turn to our own incipient venture, titled thresholds. thresholds is a web-based digital publishing platform for creative scholarship, stitched together from existing digital humanities tools. By sketching the primary design features of thresholds – both their theoretical motivations and technical solutions, described in brief below – this short paper argues for a capacious digital publishing model that negotiates, without dissolving, the shifting edges between reading and writing, process and product, the fragment and the collective.
The primary design feature of thresholds is the split screen. On the webpage’s virtual verso are short critical essays that exceed disciplinary boundaries, whether it be in content, style, or approach. We solicit work that a traditional academic journal may deem unfinished, unseemly, or otherwise unbound, but which discovers precisely in its unboundedness new and oblique critical perspectives. Along with her essay, the author submits the textual, visual, and audible fragments that provoked and surreptitiously steered her work. These are published on the right side of the screen and scroll in tandem with the corresponding essay. These scraps are not explicitly harnessed to the work’s main body, but instead lie beside it to create provocative juxtapositions; it is left to the reader to forge lines of connection between recto and verso.
Reinforcing its commitment to process and material form, thresholds further provides a digital toolkit for readerly making. These tools assign names and haptic functions to those critical traversals that a reader makes through and against a text. As the author’s fragments scroll up the right-hand side of the screen, the reader can anchor a piece, holding it in place for future reference, or join one scrap to another to generate new patterns and co-movements. She can also import new material, either by copying text over from the essay on the verso or by composing additional fragments that leak new texts, artists, or ideas into the system. At the end of any given reading session, then, the reader will have generated her own “wall,” plucking, amassing, and recomposing the author’s fragments to create her own annotative assemblage.
At any time, the reader can capture and conserve the “constellation” that she has produced—that is, the current arrangement of the fragments that she has chosen to lock and join together. Although every user has access to the same firmament of texts that cycle through thresholds, each constellation will be singular; their unique spatial architecture will attest to the creative and critical value in visualizing the relations between fragments and texts, readers and authors, and readers and texts. Readers who choose to publically share their work will be able to see how their own creation fits into a galaxy of all other users’ constellations, mapping their own choices against that of a collective readership. By enabling the reader to place herself in relation to both the author’s text and all other readers of the site, thresholds models criticism as an intimate yet communal activity that inheres in the delicate links we build in the spaces between each other, as much as between the texts themselves.
To ensure that this intervention is not only conceptually provocative but also formally useful, thresholds endows each fragment with a flexible markup language. Readers can download their constellations, receiving a file listing all texts, objects, and art cited therein. This file can then be imported into citation software or shared with others. This underlying information architecture, not immediately present to visitors but baked into the structure of the site, plugs the swirl of scraps that make up any given constellation into the existing citational infrastructure of the humanities. In so doing, it allows thresholds to negotiate the gap between that which is in-progress and incomplete within our reading practices—the stray underline, the forgotten marginal note—and more formalized and prescriptive methods for incorporating others’ work into our own. There is a place, thresholds implicitly argues, for the fragmentary in our collecting and collective practices; for the wall’s sprawl within the more regimented systems that order our work.