The Silent History: A Digital Incunable

A little less than a year ago, I was privileged to participate in the Textual Machines symposium cohosted by the Digital Arts Library and the Symposium on the Book at the University of Georgia (yes, Bulldogs, I envy you). My paper considered a curious case of reversal: a novel originally distributed via app that later reappeared in print.  Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have taught us to talk about how print novels are “remediated” in other media. Garrett Stewart has coined demediation for artistic endeavors that render books unreadable (producing “bookworks”). But what was this?

I’ve posted my paper below for those who are interested to read it in full. I’ll go ahead and ruin the ending, though, for those who don’t: I concluded then, and continue to believe now, that when The Silent History was picked up by FSG not that much changed actually, especially since at the point the creators had concluded their serialized distribution of the narrative via the App Store. Scholars have suggested that ours is the Digital Incunable Era. The term “incunable” has also been applied by Geof Huth to bp Nichol’s early e-poetry created with an Apple II. Since the presentation, I’ve come to see “incunable” as the ideal way to describe the app, which in several formal and procedural respects remains a print novel despite its digital dressings. Its one genuine, and so untranslatable, new media element (as we’ll see) was never central to the project, and thus was easy enough to set aside when a New York print publisher called.

 

“Locating The Silent History in Theory, Practice, and Media”

The creators of The Silent History app—writers Eli Horowtiz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett and the app developer Russell Quinn—declare their work “innovative,” “a bold storytelling experiment,” and (as seen above) a “new kind of novel.” While, of course, braggadocio is common in marketing fiction, and is, in turn, often easily dismissed, in this case the creators’ promotion of their work deserves to be taken seriously (and here I mean seriously enough to be weighed by critics) because it has been repeatedly endorsed, if not directly echoed, in glowing reviews published in major periodicals, encomiums on social media, and awards for literary innovation. Whitney Matheson, writing for the USA Today blog Pop Candy asked, “Will ‘The Slent History’ change the way we read?” The app’s promotional website cites an unlinked Wired review that calls the app “entirely revolutionary.”

What’s so “revolutionary” about The Silent History? According to its developers, its innovation lies in its savvy use of the affordances of mobile devices for the purpose of storytelling. Here’s how the work is described on the “What is this?” page of the promotional site: “The Silent History is a groundbreaking novel, written and designed specially for iPad and iPhone, that uses serialization, exploration, and collaboration to tell the story of a generation of unusual children.” In numerous epitextual spots, particularly interviews, its creators also describe it as an “interactive” departure from the e-book, a quality, moreover, that granted it Finalist status for a South by Southwest Interactive Innovation Award in 2013.

Does The Silent History live up to this billing? Is it really an “interactive” departure from the e-book? Is it a bona fide work of electronic literature? In what follows, I will assay the app’s handling of the user’s position and ability to interact with the app, focusing the issues of exploration and collaboration, and setting aside the matter of serialization, that last issue having been considered, albeit not exhaustively, elsewhere, such as in Kate Marshall’s review of the novel published in the Iowa Review in 2014.

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A very brief introduction to the storyworld is likely to prove welcome to the uninitiated at this moment. Set between 2011 and 2043, the novel chronicles an unusual epidemic of “emergent phasic resistance” among children, the condition defined within the work as “a congenital disorder characterized by the inability to generate or comprehend language of any kind.” As these children, dubbed “silents,” don’t speak and the work does not employ an extradiegetic perspective with admission to their minds, the narration of their experiences falls to a variety of observers across the United States—parents, teachers, physicians, cult leaders, and others.

The app includes three preliminary materials: voice-over narrated directions disguised as a guide to “the archive,” a “prologue” composed by the archive’s executive director, and a video of a brief Powerpoint-style presentation on the condition prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Together, these pieces explain that the chunks of text, let’s call them lexias, that the reader will encounter are transcriptions of oral performances, whether interviews or, starting in 2021, remarks culled from “Memo, an ambient dictation system that allows key subjects to record testimonials at their convenience” (9). In other words, The Silent History purports to be oral history, suggesting that the reading experience, in turn, is archival research. There are, in turn, two sources of these oral histories:

  1. The so-called “testimonials” displayed as spokes around six textual wheels [show slide]; these are all composed by Horowitz, Derby, and Moffett; and
  2. “Field Reports” created by that trio of writers as well as readers, which can only be accessed when standing within 10 meters of the report’s GPS location.

Readers of The Silent History, then, are not offered a single account but allowed opportunities to review multiple and, in turn, piece them together to form a larger narrative arc.

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The prologue, in fact, closes by emphasizing the reader’s responsibility over the outcome of the work. After noting the archival character of the “document,” the executive director notes the mounting questions that new discoveries about the “silents” pose, and then waxes philosophical about the relationship between human identity and language. The prologue then concludes as follows: “Each of us must find our own path through these questions. We enter and leave the world in silence, after all, and everything else is simply how we walk that middle passage” (9; emphasis mine).

In this emphasis on the reader’s contribution, the invocation of the reader’s “path,” as well as on the “explorative” nature of the work, The Silent History’s creators—perhaps unknowingly—frame their work on familiar terms within the criticism of electronic literature. I’m speaking of course of Espen Aarseth’s 1997 Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Whether or not such alignment is accidental, I want to argue that Cybertext’s categories and sensibility are indeed particularly useful for analyzing The Silent History, for, as we will see, cybertextual analysis reveals competing impulses between the work’s two parts.

There are numerous striking passages from Cybertext that we might consider now, but given the swiftly passing time, I’ll limit myself to two. First, on page one, Aarseth explains his core concept of ergodicity as follows:

During this cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this SELECTIVE movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of “reading” do not account for. This phenomenon I call ERGODIC, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ERGON and HODOS, meaning “WORK” and “PATH.” In ergodic literature, NONTRIVIAL effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. (1; emphasis mine)

The second passage appears in the often-cited chapter on “Textonomy,” where Aarseth explains his notion of the “user function,” one of the variables that affect the user’s mode of traversing a text:

Beside the interpretive function of the user, which is present in all texts, the use of some texts may be described in terms of additional functions: the EXPLORATIVE function, in which the user must decide which path to take, and the CONFIGURATIVE function, in which scriptons are in part chosen or created by the user. (64; emphasis mine)

With these remarks in mind, I want to consider the user’s relation to The Silent History’s Testimonials and Field Reports.

As I have already noted, the testimonials are displayed as spokes on wheels. The user accesses them sequentially, and in chronological order, moving clockwise around the wheel as each lexia is completed. During the work’s serial publication from October 2012 to April 2013, one new lexia was added each business day. In that context, of course, the user submitted to the limitations imposed on his or her ability to move as a matter of course; the only lexias one could see other than the current day’s would be those of previous ones. The current sequential mode of traversing the text appears to be a remnant of the serialization process. In our present context, though, there is no clear rationale for the considerable restraints placed on the user’s ability to browse access or to search out later lexias. We should mark the contrast, in this respect, between the app and a print book, which is, as Aarseth well puts it, by its nature, “free access.” We can say, furthermore, that the reading experience of the Testimonials is unicursal: there’s only one path forward. We can thus say, in turn, that there’s no work—in the Aarsethian sense—for the user to do.

These constraints seem to me to contradict the terms on which the Testimonials are offered. The Silent History’s creators take great pains, as I have already noted, to suggest that we are accessing the characters remarks without the mediation of an authorial or narratorial governor. We encounter the lexias as files within an archive, which, and here we might recall Lev Manovich’s remarks on the contrast between narrative and database, suggests exactly that freedom to browse that the sequential experience precludes. Indeed, in light of these conditions, the “archive” might be better called an “anthology,” a term that implies selection and ordering.

The management of the testimonials betrays not only the presence of an ordering hand but an anxiety about allowing the reader too much space for decision, such as, for example, to ignore certain voices or to skip around in pursuit of some question or issue that is not strictly chronological. (Here we might contrast this constraint with the “archival narratives” Paul Booth describes in Digital Fandom (2010). In Booth’s account, archival narratives involve participants extract and sharing narrative threads (in his example based on cult serial TV shows) and then arranging, rearranging and adding to and subtracting from them, often in concert with others, thereby constructing multiple, and permanently flexible, larger narrative trajectories.

The key point is this: By calling this component an archive, the app creates a façade of readerly freedom and, in turn, the possibility of path-finding or –making. Yet the app’s design actually prevents exploration and does not entertain the possibility of collaboration. Not only does this element of The Silent History fail to meet the cybertext threshold of involvement, since the reader’s effort is trivial, it also seems somewhat dubious as a hypertext. Though navigating the testimonials requires a certain amount of pressing and scrolling, one is hard-pressed to describe this element of the work as genuinely interactive.

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Now to the Field Reports. As I have already noted, Field Reports are site-specific, meaning they invoke the unique qualities—physical, social, and historical—of the locations in which they are set. The directions for Field Reports issued by the app’s creators include these dicta:

A successful field report integrates the setting in creative and enriching ways, earning the reader’s trip to the location; in fact, field reports should feel incomplete if read anywhere else. To restate that more negatively: a field report that can be understood and appreciated while read at home (eg, “Okay, I get it, this happens at a zoo”) is not a successful field report.

The setting should be utilized more than described; there’s no need to list the facts that will already be obvious to a reader/viewer standing in that spot. Instead, the location serves as a parallel source of information, accompanying your written narrative; the two sources can subtly support and amplify each other to deepen the authenticity of the incident being described. The setting can also be driving the action, an active force in the story.

The idea is to wed the scene that the user immediately perceives with the story world, and, in turn, to use the story world to give meaning to elements of the scene unlikely to be noticed at first.

Here indeed The Silent History is collaborative and exploratory. For, of course, the would-be field reporter must engage in a certain amount of local exploration in order to determine a location suitable for the project. Upon having his or her contribution accepted, the field reporter’s piece is, in turn, made available for other users. Here the Aarsethian emphasis on the production as well as consumption of verbal signs is germane, since this element of the app is designed to encourage both. The Silent History is now, in other words, starting to look like a textual machine.

This point is further evident when we consider the position of users who pursue the Field Reports. As previously stated, one can only access field reports when standing near (within ten meters is the official suggestion) of the GPS coordinates of the location where they are set. One discovers these locations by sharing one’s own location with the app, and that location appears at the bottom of the screen, underneath the testimonial wheel. This will show the user when a Field Report location is near. The user also has the ability to expand the map in order to see the locations of reports worldwide.

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Both Rita Raley and Scott Ruston in their respective writings about (and here we’ll use Ruston’s terminology) “mobile narrative experiences” stress that not only the creator of site-specific narrative content but also the user are involved in realizing the scene. Raley, in fact, rejects the language of user—which she takes from Aarseth—and replaces it with “participant,” since the participant—the one holding the mobile device—often plays a considerable role not only in reaching the site but also in determining the vantage by which it should be viewed as well as interacting with it. (Note: Some Field Reports involve finding or rearranging elements.)

As Markku Eskelinen observes in his Cybertext Poetics, locative media don’t show up in Aarseth’s analysis; it’s a later genre, whose rise can be attributed to the ever-increasing computer power of mobile devices and to popularization of GPS. As Eskelinen argues, locative and other physically active emerging genres of electronic literature reveal the degree to which Aarseth’s original paradigm implies that the operator of his textual machine is engaged in “mere clicking.” Eskelinen thus adds “user position” to the list of variables affecting the user’s traversal of the text and, in turn, suggests that movement is a consideration here.

Mobile narrative experiences provide opportunities for significantly more active, even athletic, forms of engagement. If, following Aarseth, the text is a machine for the production and consumption of verbal signs, now the producer and consumer must navigate a potentially wide physical terrain not just a screen. This has the possibility, in turn, to expand our notion of cybertextual traversal. In Aarseth’s use, the “traversal” is metaphorical, the “nontrivial” effort cognitive.

With a textual machine like The Silent History, however, traversal is an embodied activity. In his article “The Affordances and Constraints of Mobile Locative Narratives,” Jeff Ritchie argues that mobile narratives require “really nontrivial effort” on the parts of their users because users must “successfully navigate two different spaces (digital and physical), negotiating these two systems in order to gather together and then make any sense of these different elements.” Ritchie’s point, like Aarseth’s, relates to cognition; the nontrivial effort falls to the mind. Isn’t it equally, if not more, appropriate, though, to apply Ritchie’s phrase to the actual movement, the real world-navigation that mobile storytelling requires? To return to Aarseth’s discussion of the “explorative function” above, we can observe now that The Silent History indeed makes the question of which path a participant might take not only a live but also a momentous one. And, as the creators of The Silent History observe, “No single reader will be able to visit all the reports,” meaning that the particular grouping of Field Reports that users visit will differ considerably and thus create a range of textual experiences.

So have we reached a happy ending? Is this evidence not sufficient grounds that the app really is more than an e-book? That it should qualify as a work of e-lit (bearing in mind the ELO’s stress on the fact that “literary aspects” of the piece “take advantage” of the possibilities computers create)?

In view, the answer to at least the last question is a qualified no. I mentioned Scott Ruston’s work on “mobile narrative experiences” above. Ruston offers a helpful perspective on the role of the Field Reports when he explains that with truly interactive mobile narrative experiences the project’s creators construct a “core narrative,” which participants can then work off of in creating “additional narrative trajectory.” In this kind of project, participants can spin a narrative web, new pieces and possibilities radiating out from the center offered by the project’s designers.

The Silent History‘s creators, by contrast. strive to keep the Field reports peripheral to the “central narrative” of the Testimonials (discussed above). From the Frequent Asked Questions page:

Are the Field Reports necessary for enjoying the central narrative?

No. The Testimonials function as an entirely self-contained, fully-realized narrative, roughly the length of a 500-page book. The Field Reports are designed for readers who would like to explore the phenomenon in more depth or breadth. No single reader will be able to visit all the reports, and many people will choose to focus primarily on the Testimonials. (emphasis mine)

The directions for Field Reporters expand this theme:

Field reports should not attempt to shape or redirect the larger facts and narrative, but rather can explore unexamined implications of the central phenomenon. The relevant testimonials should be read closely before writing any field reports; if a report doesn’t cohere with the currently existing testimonials, it cannot be used. For example: an account of a tall tree in which a silent child hid after his first day at school is fine; an account of a tall tree that a silent child cut down by shooting lasers from his eyes is not fine. It’s best to avoid referencing the speakers recorded in the testimonials; instead, the field reports are an opportunity to establish new voices and settings, investigating more deeply the scientific/medical/societal/personal implications that the testimonials address only superficially. (emphasis mine)

Three issues stand out to me here in light of my earlier observations:

  1. The creators are obviously concerned about the integrity of their work. These directions attempt to constrain what the field reporters can offer so as to preserve the plotline of the Testimonials and the creators’ characterizations of the Testimony-givers. The Silent History is no fan-wiki of the sort that Booth analyzes, in which multiple plotlines can coexist, each one progressing according to its contributors’ input.
  2. This strict and obviously vigilantly policed boundary between Testimonials and field reports serves to maintain the creators’ status as authors; there is no real opportunity for collaboration between the creators and the field reporters.
  3. Implicitly, the restrictions on the field reporters show the creators’ acknowledgment of the potentially disruptive nature of readers’ contributions.

I noted at the start that the makers of The Silent History bill it as a “groundbreaking novel” due to its allowances for “exploration” and “collaboration.” My analysis amounts to this: in regard to each of these issues, The Silent History seems to me less groundbreaking than at odds with itself, perhaps even at odds with its medium. The app version fails to capitalize on either issue because the creators are willing to cede such a small amount of control to readers, whether within the navigation of what I have called the “anthology” of Testimonials or in the submission of field reports.

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BACK TO 2016: The presentation ended with a few remarks on what I called the “curious case of reversal” above: the novel’s reappearance in June of 2014 in print under the FSG Originals imprint. The snazzy cover design (which may have won an award) appears below. In wrapping up the presentation, I made two observations about the print version. The first was that my analysis seconded Kate Marshall’s  conclusion that “the novel achieves the transition to print book well, but perhaps that because that’s what it was becoming all along,” which is actually less damning in its original context than when quoted in mine. The creators’ description of the Testimonials as “entirely self-contained, fully-realized narrative, roughly the length of a 500-page book” seems to me now a clear advertisement of their hopes for the end of the project. That language of “digital incunable” is so helpful in characterizing such a project: the way that the reader experiences it and that its author lays claim to it all belong to the protocols of print. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being a clever take on the ebook, which is, as you’ve likely sensed, what I think that the app version is.

The second point had to do with the way in which the print version relates to its app forebear. Not only did the print version (unsuprisingly) make no mention of the field reports (again, confirming my argument that they were peripheral to the project all along) but also of the text’s earlier existence as an app. This is a bibliographic question–and perhaps a legal one as well–that, based on my very limited research, has been overlooked. There is important work to be done on the fate of paratext in an age where texts shuttle (or are pirated?) between galaxies…

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One Thought to “The Silent History: A Digital Incunable”

  1. Geoffrey Hagberg

    Regarding the core of the Silent History as an archival narrative, I wonder if their introduction/frame of the archive and recorded history acts more like the front material of a gothic novel than as a thematic or narratological guide for the text that follows–basically, the introduction is there to justify the kind of texts collected, rather than offer a perspective on or means of reading such texts. In this case particularly, the archive of recorded oral history gives the authors an easy justification for a multi-focal, multi-generational, first-person, observational narrative; but in doing so, it perhaps isn’t intended to give the reader a multi-pathed means through that narrative.

    Though, given that they did emphasize, in advertising the app, the exploratory aspect of reading the lexia, perhaps they do fall short of intention.

    Additionally, and this is more a request for further reading than a critique of The Silent History specifically, but it occurred to me that for a narrative to be truly “archival” and navigated on the level that one would navigate an archive, the narrative has to have some sort of meaningful internal indexing, does it not? The reader has to be able to read topically, or be able to follow a particular piece of information through various pieces of text, or search for relevant sections/lexia by specific variables. Those, at least, would seem to constitute the most archival forms of textual navigation I’m aware of. The Silent History does this somewhat, once the whole narrative has been unlocked, the app does allow for easily tracking the narrative of a particular character through the history, though the opportunity is a bit lost when the feature is backgrounded as it is. That in mind, are there good examples of archival narratives, or archival texts which allow this kind of navigation by means of some internal indices?

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