“Lord Peter’s England,” and reflections thereupon

Bedraggled in appearance and crestfallen in aspect, I amble pathetically o’er the finish line of this particular semester, proffering a website and my reflections on the creation of same. My consolation in this is that my two favorite Lord Peter Wimsey books, Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night sit on my bedside table, ready to be read and mined for the historical insights they offer on, respectively, the role of advertising in the rise of a consumer culture in the early 20th century and the cultural attitudes surrounding women’s role in academia during the same time period. Yes, heartened by the promise of free time, I eagerly look forward to writing more for Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars; for now, I will reflect on the process of creating the website as it presently stands.

Project goals

My central task in creating my website was to use the Lord Peter Wimsey novels as a window into the cultural history of Britain during the interbellum years. My goals for the site were and are as follows:

  • First and foremost: to interpret historical lessons about the social, cultural, political, and economic situation in Britain between World War I and World War II, as seen through the Lord Peter Wimsey novels
  • To model historical literary analysis and to show the site’s visitors how period literature can serve as a primary source for understanding history
  • To promote the Lord Peter Wimsey books in general, as they are very good and deserve to be read more widely in the modern era, but their online footprint is at this point very minor

As this project is ongoing, I don’t feel it appropriate to evaluate how well these goals have been achieved at this time; I am still in the process of achieving them. However, I have so far engaged in historical interpretation of the reintroduction of shell-shocked soldiers into society following the Great War and how that reintroduction varied in difficulty across socioeconomic lines, as well as of the ways in which the world had changed (and had not changed) for women during the same period. To the ends of the second goal, a page on the site, “Reading Literature for Historical Content,” contains an explicit discussion and modeling of historical literary analysis, and each post models more of the same. And as for the third, I have linked to the full texts of each Lord Peter Wimsey novel as they are available online and hope to implicitly make the case through each post on the site that the books are worthy of continued readership.

Writing a post for Lord Peter’s England

It’s taken a few outings of writing content for the blog for me to determine exactly how I plan to carry on with it; what follows is an outline of the formula as it stands.

Determining a topic

Naturally, I have read all the Lord Peter Wimsey books before, and the first step in writing about any of them involves thinking back to my cherished memories of each one and considering what historical topic looms largest in the book.

Reading the book, with attention to the topic

With my subject chosen, I go forward with carefully reading the book anew and looking for that topic. I note when references to the topic appear. Rereading rather than simply thinking back to when a topic came up is helpful for catching, for example, minor instances of social commentary, or throwaway lines that point to a larger truth.

Drawing excerpts from the book

Using the online versions of the book, I find the passages I’d noted while reading and gather them.

Secondary source research

This is one of the major ways in which my approach has changed from the beginning. In my first post, I cited a small number of scholarly journal articles that I had found through AU’s library search portal. However, upon consideration of what we’ve discussed in connection with so many of the readings in this class, I have realized the value of choosing sources that are widely accessible over sources available only to a restricted audience. If a reader with AU’s proxy set up on their computer to allow them access to scholarly journals wishes to look into the secondary sources, they can do so, but anyone who doesn’t have that access is shut off from further reading if I only use these academic sources.

Moving forward, I intend to focus more on the types of sources included in the “Strong Poison and a changing world for women” post: websites from reputable publishers that any reader can access. I’d like to be able to connect people to historical resources they can actually use, thus ensuring that they can engage with additional sources without having to have any special credentials or permissions at all.

Writing and publishing a post

This all gets condensed into a post of about 2,500 words, which I’m increasingly trying to break into digestible pieces with headings and such to facilitate reading. My earliest version of the first post was more along the lines of what I’d submit as an academic essay in its structure and formatting, but from what we’ve read and the resources we’ve viewed in this course, I’m increasingly convinced that this isn’t suitable for a public digital history project. Each post includes a short bibliographical section.

Reflections and Lord Peter’s future

As the above process section would indicate, my thinking on this project has evolved through working on it, and I expect that it will continue to do so as I continue to create posts. We’ve repeatedly discussed throughout this semester the difficulty of deciding when a digital project is “done,” and I now understand completely why that’s the case—once you’ve put something up, it only becomes easier to go, “Well, that’s probably not the best way to do that, is it?” The perpetual editability of a digital project provides the opportunity (both ameliorative and deleterious) to revise one’s approach. I’d like to think I’m at a place now where I’ll just sally forth with the approach I’ve devised, but I imagine I’ll still have some course-correcting to do. I only hope that the mission creep will be minor.

In addition to continuing on with the formula for content posts I’ve been using, I’m planning to incorporate some additional ideas. First, as it was suggested to me at our poster session last week, the opportunities for doing some macroanalysis of the text using Voyant Tools and the like are very promising. The corpus is readily available as the full texts of all books are online, so it’s really just up to me to unlock that potential at any time. Second, I’d like to do a bit more contextual work as well, discussing, for example, what about the cultural situation in Britain led to the rise of the detective novel genre during Dorothy L. Sayers’ time.

There are a lot of great directions in which I can take this project, and I’m excited to keep moving forward with it. I have a long ways to go before I’ll feel comfortable passing this along to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, but this is something of a passion project for me, so I’m ready to put the work in.

Thanks for a lovely semester, everybody—H.A.G.S., K.I.T., &c.

The undead scholarly monograph and avoiding obsolescence

In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, she put forward the argument that the claims people and groups make about the obsolescence of certain cultural forms ultimately reflect more on the people making the claim than they do on the reality of the situation, that these claims typically serve certain political and ideological goals. After going through a traditional peer review process and revising her manuscript, Fitzpatrick submitted it to the scholarly press that she had been working with—and they informed her that they would not be publishing the book. It was through no fault of hers, they explained, just that the marketing department didn’t think they could sell enough copies even to return the book’s cost.

Her reflections on this experience appear throughout Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, in which she details the changes necessary in academic publishing to adapt to new technology and to avoid obsolescence. Fitzpatrick refers to the scholarly monograph as being “undead”: it’s no longer a viable mode of communication from a financial standpoint, but it’s still the gold standard in the academy, the most important form of output by which a scholar’s contributions are judged. The changes needed to keep the field of academic publishing alive, she argues, are not only technological, but also institutional, social, and intellectual, and she details what she thinks needs to happen and why it will work in the rest of the book.

Reforming peer review

Fitzpatrick jumps right in with urging change in the peer review system, which she acknowledges is seen as one of the most important institutions within the field of academic publishing. She takes issue with several facets of the current system and proposes far-reaching changes, mostly involving a new system of “peer-to-peer review.” In this system, as Fitzpatrick models it with various case studies, authors put their manuscripts online and make them available for open commenting. In contrasting the current peer review system with this open review system, she addresses a variety of issues, including:

  • The anonymity of reviewers. Fitzpatrick acknowledges that this anonymity is supposed to enable reviewers to share their true thoughts on a manuscript without hesitation, but points out that when a name is attached to a comment, you have a better sense of what that comment is worth to you. If it’s coming from a peer whose advice on a topic you specifically value, it’s enormously helpful to know that.
  • The number of reviewers. In the traditional peer review system that Fitzpatrick describes, you receive two or three anonymous reviews. In the case studies that she details of authors putting their manuscripts online for open review and commenting (including when she did this on her own blog, with the manuscript for Planned Obsolescence), she finds that these manuscripts receive a much greater breadth of reviewers. This means that the author hears more opinions and can get a better sense of whether something seriously doesn’t work or whether it just rubbed one person the wrong way.
  • The opportunity to respond. As Fitzpatrick describes it, the traditional peer review process is not a conversation—it’s closed and compartmentalized. With open review, the author has the opportunity to act on people’s feedback more directly, responding to them and discussing it with them. This allows for a more collaborative process (and it’s this emphasis on collaboration that leads Fitzpatrick to spend her second chapter destabilizing the importance of individual authorship in the academy) and for more meaningful feedback.

Community focus

Something that comes up repeatedly throughout Fitzpatrick’s book is the importance of establishing communities for academic publishing. Her open review system depends on the establishment of a community of scholars willing to comment on each other’s manuscripts. Her arguments about challenging the notion of individual authorship in favor of supporting a wider scholarly network promote community and conversation over the idea of the scholarly monograph as something that enters the world as a finished product. Her arguments about digital preservation, about staving off the physical question of obsolescence, center around establishing a community that sets standards, stores metadata, and ensures continued accessibility of texts.

Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s response to the looming threat of obsolescence for academic publishing is that the academy as a whole needs a substantial overhaul. She’s challenging a culture that she calls “We Have Never Done It That Way Before,” both by historicizing such venerated ideas as peer review and individual authorship and showing that things have not always been the way they are now and by proposing profound changes to the system. One of the common threads between these proposals is that they all involve working together and building a stronger community. When discussing preservation, Fitzpatrick emphasizes the importance of forming these social systems, encouraging scholars to “take advantage of the number of individuals and institutions facing the same challenges and seeking the same goals.” This advice would seem to apply to academic publishing as a whole, given Fitzpatrick’s proposals.

Considering the future

Fitzpatrick’s recommendations are myriad and diffuse, but the broader strokes of her argument can be summed up as follows:

  • Adapt the current system of closed peer reviews, utilizing an open, peer-to-peer review system instead that allows for more meaningful dialogue and collaboration
  • Revise our understanding of individual authorship to acknowledge that texts arise from conversation and collaboration
  • Change existing publishing structures to reposition texts as jumping-off points for further conversation and collaboration, rather than as solitary works
  • Cultivate communities to distribute and preserve these texts
  • Reevaluate the system of university presses—how they work with their institutions, how they work with their institutions’ faculty, and what their ultimate aims are, putting aside the question of financial success

Obviously, these are pretty big goals, and there are plenty of questions to be asked about how any of these can be achieved. (Fitzpatrick seems to think that changes will occur as they must when the system simply can’t hold itself together anymore.) She shares a number of “looming unanswered questions” at the end of the book, but the one that I’d like to discuss here relates back to her continued emphasis on building communities:

“How can we get scholars to accept and participate in these new publishing and review processes?”

How, if we are to build these communities, can we secure buy-in from a field so committed to its culture of We Have Never Done It That Way Before? How can we convince scholars, for instance, to share their unfinished works online for peer-to-peer review, in light of the omnipresent fear of “scooping,” in light of the rigidly upheld standards of individual authorship? On what level do we begin to reform the system? Fitzpatrick has worked to establish mechanisms that can introduce these ideas as the co-editor of MediaCommons, but how can we get scholars to accept them as valid? Is it possible? Surely it is, right?

Project draft: “Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars”

Extraordinarily good site header by my sister, Laura McCauley, who was kind enough to help me out

Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars is up and running on WordPress.com. The site currently features its first content post, an examination of what the first Lord Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, can tell us about how shell-shock was viewed culturally and socially in British society in the early 1920s, as well as a host of informational pages to orientate users to the site and its purpose.:

  • About this site: This is a brief introduction to why the site was made and what its purpose is, as well as to the author of the site (that is to say, me.)
  • About Lord Peter Wimsey: Whilst writing the first content post for the site I realized that I didn’t really provide any sort of introduction to the series that makes it clear why reading it is worthwhile beyond its historical contents, which runs somewhat contra to one of my intentions for the site, which is that reading old books is entertaining and enjoyable and that gleaning valuable historical insights from them is a kind of bonus. I wanted to foreground that these books, on top of the didactic purpose they can serve, are tremendously fun to read, so I added this page introducing Lord Peter Wimsey as a character.
  • The Dorothy L. Sayers Society: This links out to the Society’s webpage, which is what is typically listed on published copies of Lord Peter Wimsey books as the main resource for learning more about Sayers’ life and work.
  • Reading literature for historical content: This was a page for the site that I had planned to include in my proposal, as in addition to doing my own historical literary criticism in the content posts on the blog, I wanted to demonstrate for the site’s readers how they can engage in similar practices while reading. This page briefly discusses historical criticism and New Historicism before suggesting some questions to keep in mind while reading in order to carry out such analysis. These sections are followed by an excerpt from the very beginning of the first Lord Peter Wimsey book and a demonstration, using that passage, of the sort of historical subtext that one can glean while reading.
  • Where to read: As I had mentioned in my original proposal, the Lord Peter Wimsey books have entered the Canadian public domain and as such are available to read online. In order to encourage site users to read them, I’ve provided the links to these texts on this page.
  • Site directory: This page will be updated with each new content post—it’s essentially serving as a table of contents for the site, organized by the different books in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I’ve linked the content post that’s currently up, and I’ve listed the posts that I’m planning to write.

The content post that’s currently up, “Whose Body? and shell-shock,” exists to serve as a proof-of-concept for what the rest of the site will eventually be. This post combines excerpts from the novel with analysis and some historical research to discuss the portrayal of shell-shock in Whose Body? and what that portrayal tells us about British culture at the time that it was written.

With the site’s framework set up and the first post published, I’d love the opportunity to get some feedback now before publishing more posts along the same lines. The site directory page includes the titles of several other planned posts, which constitute my next orders of business. Each post is quite an undertaking as it requires me to reread a book while looking out for a specific topic that I remember as having been a salient part of that particular story, then carrying out close readings of passages that relate to that topic, and then doing some additional background reading, so I’m aiming to have up perhaps three more by the end of the semester.

I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer about the usability and the usefulness of the site, and of anything that you think might improve it!

Exploring interactive storytelling with Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs

How well do you remember your earliest encounters with digital interactive storytelling? Rhizome, a website that preserves and celebrates born-digital art, and the New Museum have put some of the earliest examples of this art form up online as part of the exhibition First Look: New Art Online. Among these are Theresa Duncan’s 1990s CD-ROMs—per Rhizome, “three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.”

Thanks to the use of an embedded emulator, these three games—1995’s Chop Suey, 1996’s Smarty, and 1997’s Zero Zero—are available to play online now. Studying them reveals [something].

The webpage discusses the origins of these CD-ROMs, which began as the products of a partnership between Theresa Duncan and Monica Lynn Gesue while the pair were working at Magnet Interactive here in Georgetown. Gesue had been inspired by Richard Scarry’s Busytown, a CD-ROM game that I also played as a kid and which I personally still think about on an almost-daily basis (specifically the ship-building game that you can watch in the video I just linked, still the peak of gaming for me) to use the CD-ROM medium to create a “moving storybook.” After Chop Suey, Duncan and Gesue’s collaboration ended, but Duncan went on to work with other developers to create Smarty and Zero Zero, which are in a very similar vein as their predecessor, artistically and story-wise.

The games themselves are best studied as pieces of art, rather than as video games by modern standards. Playing Chop Suey today, you can sense a lineage between it and the narrative-heavy, aesthetically rich, and strategy-light genre pejoratively referred to as the “walking simulator.” In a typical modern game, like Skyrim, you’re completing quests and progressing on a storyline that requires you to do magic and shoot arrows and fight bears and that sort of thing. In a “walking simulator,” you’re…walking. There’s a narrative arc, but you’re not making it, you’re discovering it. Rather than playing an active and decisive role in the story, you’re exploring the world of the game and letting the developer tell you a story. “Walking simulator” isn’t a term that gets used by people who like this type of experience; make of this what you will, but many gamer-types will charge that they aren’t really games.

Looking back at video game history with games like Theresa Duncan’s establishes an important continuity for these kinds of artistic storytelling experiences in video games. A more recent entry into this lineage, 2013’s Gone Home, in which players simply explore the protagonist’s family’s home and use the things they find to piece together an understanding of what has recently gone on with the family, was denigrated by some as a “walking simulator,” because really, you’re just walking through a house and opening drawers and such. But Gone Home also sparked a critical discussion of video games as art for its rich, complex, and layered narrative. Playing Chop Suey, I came to see it as something of a forebear to Gone Home and games like it—sure, you don’t get to build a ship like you do in Busy Town, but the game offers you a storybook and the opportunity to explore it however you like, to have a subjective and nuanced aesthetic and narrative experience. Imagine if you could crawl inside a painting. It’s more like that.

Beyond their legacy in modern video game development, there’s a lot to be said about Theresa Duncan’s games. All three feature female protagonists and were made mainly for young girls—generally not the most catered-to demographic in the games industry. They’re also magnificently inventive and more than a bit bizarre. Rhizome’s writeup of the games discusses this surrealism in the games’ visuals and audio cues quite extensively, but it’s kind of hard to really get it until you give the games a try for yourself. In my playthrough of Chop Suey, the following things happened to me.

I innocently clicked on a bush and was greeted by this beatnik firefly, who recited a bug-centric parody of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” There is not an option to get out of this situation once you are in it. You are just listening to the bug poem now. His audience is invisible but receptive.
I innocently clicked on a photo and was greeted by a dreamlike, cereal-centric, recursive smorgasbord of figurative language.
I innocently clicked on a house (sensing a pattern?) and was greeted by this completely non-interactive tableau of a seedy-looking witch stirring a stew of frankly unbothered child in a cauldron.

The games are just like this. You get to explore, and what you find is generally quite otherworldly and at times confusing. Of course, that’s entirely the fun of it, and that’s also part of what makes it hold up so well. We’ve found a million ways to improve on Mystery House—we have better graphics, the opportunity to tell more robust stories and the space to do it in, inventive mechanics for crafting better mystery games, and at the very least, we have capabilities for writing text adventures that recognize a greater wealth of commands and objects. If you want a better horror game or if you want a better mystery, there are now myriad options that you will find significantly less frustrating; people playing Mystery House now are more likely doing it for the novelty of it or for its historic value. But games like Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero hold up well because they can be enjoyed precisely as they once were meant to be enjoyed: as fantastical storybooks open to the player’s exploration.

Playing Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROM games today isn’t just a thought-provoking look into the history of video games or a look at the lineage of video games as art and the “walking simulator” genre. It’s also a means to a fun, aesthetically rich, and surreal interactive storytelling experience! Do give them a go. It’s wonderful that they’ve been preserved for play using the emulators on Rhizome’s site—keeping that little bit of video game history accessible is crucial for keeping it alive.

Time for a deep dive into file formats

If your oral history project includes the creation of any sort of digital audio or video files—and it almost definitely will—you are going to need to make some informed decisions about what file formats you are going to use to store your data.

Kara Van Malssen’s article, “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History,” offers a highly practical introduction to how you might begin to make those decisions. If Van Malssen leaves you wondering what the big deal is about formats anyway, the “Format Theory” chapter of Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format offers an interesting historical look at what formats mean and how they develop.

Digital video preservation

When you’re creating digital video files, it’s not great form to just pick up a camera and jet off to the races. The decisions that you make in the earliest stages of a video’s creation have lasting implications for its preservation later on.

Van Malssen provides a very helpful in-depth look at these decisions, but for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll content ourselves with understanding some basic information about file formats and reviewing some of Van Malssen’s overall recommendations.

Anatomy of a video file

The important components of a digital video file are the file wrapper and the encoded video and audio tracks.

The file wrapper dictates what we’d think of as the format, which gets represented as an extension. The file wrapper binds the video and the audio tracks together and stores metadata. Some common extensions for video files include:

  • .mov
  • .avi
  • .mpg
  • .wmv

When we talk about encoded tracks, we’re acknowledging that within the file wrapper, the audio and video tracks are created using different codecs. These codecs encode the tracks for storage and then decode them at the moment of playback.

Van Malssen offers several examples of popular codecs:

  • H.263
  • DV (Digital Video)
  • Apple ProRes
  • MPEG-2
  • MPEG-4

Understanding the makeup of your digital files is key to preserving them.  Now, let’s review some of Van Malssen’s best practices for preserving your files.

Recommendations for digital video preservation

  • Choosing a recording device: Get one that uses one of the codecs listed above (others might be hard to support, and may not even be playable one day) and that produces video at the highest bit rate you can possibly support.  You can always compress your video to reduce its file size, but you can never restore bits that weren’t recorded in the first place.  It’s like the opposite of seasoning while cooking.
  • Transcoding: Transcoding is moving a file from one encoding format to another.  It always results in a loss of quality, so transcode judiciously!  What does that look like?  Basically, make sure you keep different versions of your file for your different purposes.
    • Creating a preservation master file: The point of a preservation master is to keep your original footage intact at the highest possible resolution.  You can use it to create new versions of your file, but you want to preserve the original file’s integrity as much as possible.  Store this safely, and don’t replace it with any of your edits!
    • Creating a mezzanine file: This will be your working copy, which you use to create new edits and proxies as you need them.  If you don’t need to make any dramatic changes to your file size, you may not need a mezzanine.
    • Creating a proxy file: This is your low-resolution file that you use for distribution, especially online.
  • File naming: Use a clear, consistent file name convention to make managing your collection easier.
  • Metadata: Similarly, use consistent, descriptive metadata.  Van Malssen recommends using a tool like MediaInfo to collect technical metadata output attached to your files, and to use standards such as the Library of Congress’ VideoMD or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s PBCore to keep it consistent.
  • Storage: Store at least two copies of your preservation master in two different storage locations, even in two separate geographic locations.  Your files can degrade over time as your storage material decays, and having more than one copy of your master on more than one storage medium is a good way to safeguard against that!  Storing smaller mezzanine or proxy files in the cloud can be a good idea, but your preservation masters should be stored on hard drives, data tapes, or both.
  • Preservation planning: Use open-source, standard file formats and codecs, like those listed above, to keep your files accessible long-term.  Keep up with the technological landscape so that you know if the file formats you’re using are at risk of becoming obsolete, and keep your original files in as high of quality as possible to ensure for the best possible outcome if you do need to transcode them.

Format theory

After all that discussion of the practical implications of formats, Jonathan Sterne’s “Format Theory” chapter interrogates the idea of a format.  The MP3 is the most common audio storage format used today, but, as anyone who’s ever spoken to a person who really cares about headphones knows, it’s certainly not the audio storage format that allows for the highest quality.  So what gives?

Put simply, the MP3 is small.  It compresses recorded audio and uses significantly less bandwidth than other formats, which is ideal for transferring files and communicating.  In contrast with Van Malssen’s advice to keep your files in the largest format you can, the proliferation of the MP3—a super-compressed, lossy format—puts a premium on distribution over preservation of quality.

Sterne explains this by contextualizing the MP3 within a history of compression.  “As people and institutions have developed new media and new forms of representation, they have also sought out ways to build additional efficiencies into channels and to economize communication in the service of facilitating greater mobility,” he writes.  Over the course of time, so many of our attempts to make media more widespread and easier to share have resulted in compressing the media.

When he argues for the importance of format theory, Sterne encourages us to view formats as a part of history, entrenched in a context that reflects the cultural moment in which they become popular, as well as the operational and industrial needs of that moment. 

Both of these pieces of context inform which formats become popular.  Culturally, in the case of the MP3, many people prefer distorted audio over verisimilitude, and many prize easily sharable audio over very high-quality audio.  In terms of operational needs, I remember an instance years back, in which a friend shared an album with me in AAC format, which allows for higher-quality sound at about the same bandwidth as an MP3 file, and I was frustrated because I wanted to burn a CD to listen to in my car, but the software I had available would not let me burn AAC files to a disc. 

Considering this outside context complicates the idea of formats progressing in a linear fashion to higher and higher quality and explains why some formats succeed and others don’t.

How does understanding format theory enhance our understanding of digital file preservation?  What are the implications of the proliferation of the MP3 on the prospect of preserving modern files?