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Pinterest and the Crisis of Paratext - Handout


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"Pinterest and the Crisis of Paratext".
Handout accompanying the paper given at the international conference "Media Mutations 5. Ephemeral Media. Time, Persistence and Transience in Contemporary Screen Culture." Bologna 21-22 May 2013. By Italo Marconi and Luca Rosati

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Pinterest and the Crisis of Paratext - Handout

  1. 1. Media Mutations 5 - Bologna 21-22 May 2013 Pinterest and the Crisis of Paratext Italo Marconi, Luca Rosati Abstract The term paratext implies a hierarchical relationship between the various components of a system where one or more items are central (text) while others are peripheral (paratext). Gray and other scholars from the field of media studies maintain that remediation causes an alteration in this hierarchy: through a process of re-appropriation, the paratext loses its subaltern role. This paper attempts to propose a critical appraisal of the concept of paratext: the evolution of new media forces us to reassess some of the categories of narratology (Innocenti and Pescatore 2012), as well as to reexamine the notion of paratext. By focusing on “image boards” like Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, our analysis suggests that these open lists (Eco 2009) deconstruct traditional distinctions between text and paratext. We aim to show that image lists trigger a sublimation of their constituent elements (the images), whose outcome is a synthesis endowed with richer meanings. In the artifact of the board, images lose their original textual or paratextual role in order to take on new significance. In the context of the image list, hierarchical relationships become blurred, and the list itself derives meaning from the complex associative dynamics of its component parts. Even if the development of the image list and its relational hermeneutics (Cometa 2012) is closely linked to the spread of new media, its origins lie in the Renaissance Theatre of Memory and in the wunderkammer (Bruno 2002 and 2007, Eco 2009). The creation of image lists initially involved small circles of scholars, but it then became widely established in twentieth-century literature (Benjamin, Calvino), art (Dadaists, Surrealists, Rauschenberg and Richter) and aesthetics (Warburg). In the history of the image list, the software and the World Wide Web play a pivotal role: such technologies enhance the possibilities of montage (Bruno 2007). Image lists may be considered as one of the practices of remix that characterize contemporary culture (Manovich 2010). The image board, the Japanese chan, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are just a few examples of dynamic databases (Manovich 2007) that, by means of the interface of the image board, have the power to re-shape the original meaning of the single items, and break down any clear-cut distinctions between text and paratext. In order to overtake the limits of traditional approaches, this first attempt towards a critique of the image list suggests to look at such objects as interfaces rather than texts (Bisoni 2011, Innocenti and Pescatore 2012). Pinterest and other similar artifacts are examples of complex digital environments based on the image boards: they are software interfaces that allow us to reshape visual elements coming from heterogeneous sources in a dynamic and open way within a database. This shifts the focus from the single elements to the whole or, in other words, from a discrete object to the interaction with a complex system which implies renegotiating the relationship between text and paratext. Narratology and cross-media artefacts The weaknesses of the principles of narratology become clear if one employs them for the study of complex artefacts in the post-media age. Such phenomena are interpreted by narratology as discrete objects that possess clear boundaries, while they are, in fact, complex systems with a rhizomatic and unpredictable structure (Innocenti and Pescatore 2012). In this paper we use the terms “complex” and “system” according to their meaning in complexity science. The basic concepts of narratology can be applied to the study of cross-media artefacts as long as these are interpreted as aggregates of discrete items rather than as a system. In other words, the paradigms of narratology are effective if applied at a “local” level, but they clearly reveal their limits when applied at a “global” (systemic) level . In Escher’s drawings, the rules of Euclidean geometry seem to work when taking into account only one portion of the image, but as soon as the focus shifts to the whole they fail. Benefits of information architecture 1
  2. 2. In order to overcome the limitations of traditional approaches, we have decided to adopt a different perspective of analysis. Librarianship and information science - and information architecture in particular - can be a viable alternative: their assumptions are independent of the medium of data storage (paper, digital etc.) or the channel. These areas are cross-disciplinary and cross-boundary. Information architecture can be defined as the structural design of shared information spaces, whether physical, digital or operational as in the case of information flows inside an organization or service (Information Architecture Institute 2013). The concept of “information space” shifts the focus from the medium, text or product to a broader and more complex concept, that of the environment as a space where exchanges and experiences occur. For the purpose of our analysis, this represents a clear benefit. Information architecture cannot indeed be considered as a discipline tout court: it is instead a hybrid field of research and practice which was created at the intersection of old and new disciplines (architecture, librarianship, linguistics; cognitive and behavioural sciences; human-computer interaction, user experience and service design). This is why information architecture may be a precious tool for the investigation of cross-media phenomena. During the previous editions of Media Mutations, some first attempts were made at applying methods and concepts from information architecture to the field of media studies – as well as to usability and interaction design (see for instance Bisoni 2011, Innocenti and Pescatore 2012, Resmini and Rosati 2013). Lists, pile cabinets, boards As regards Pinterest, the adoption of the point of view of information classification allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Lists are a basic form of classification: “list-making is a foundational activity for most other (more complex) ways of representing taxonomies. We make lists all the time: when we are going shopping, when we are figuring out how to plan our day, when we want to sort things out or make important decisions” (Lambe 2007, 14). Donald Norman has coined the expression “pile cabinet” (file cabinet through piles): “a ‘pile cabinet’ consists of horizontal shelves with piles of folders and papers. Pile cabinets lack efficient organizational aids. In the language of organizational structure, file cabinets provide deep, hierarchical representational structures, whereas pile cabinets allow only a shallow, fIat structure with just one level of organization: the name of each pile” (Norman 1994, 167). Thus Pinterest is a recent (but not novel) example of pile cabinets: each board can be considered as a pile archive – the difference being that on our desktop the piles are real piles (due to space issues), while in Pinterest they are displayed just like boards. Also in some operating systems (Mac OS X, from Leopard onwards) folder items or groups of items in the dock are often displayed like piles or boards. The two sides of Pinterest 1: list and ecosystem To a superficial eye Pinterest might appear as a rather elementary artefact, whose study can be approached through traditional analytical tools. However, when it comes to the complex network of relationships that the pins establish among one another and with their original sources (the websites that originally hosted them, “repins” created by other users and so on), then the list as a model seems too simple again. Umberto Eco’s concept of “open-ended list” or “enumerated list” (2009) helps us build a bridge between the notion of list itself and that of ecosystem. Even if open-ended lists share (at first sight) some kind of familiarity with the simpler “closed” lists (the first and more basic form of classification), their openended structure reveals indeed a deep connection with both the rhizome and the ecosystem. What open lists, rhizomes and ecosystems have in common is the unpredictability of the shape, behaviour and evolution of such objects. In such complex artifacts the single items lose their original meaning in favour of the whole. 1 That is to say that Pinterest (and other similar phenomena) has two sides: List – as an artefact it appears like a list with clear boundaries 2
  3. 3. 2 Ecosystem – as a network of relationships among the items of a complex system that has no clear boundaries and whose behaviour is unpredictable The two sides of Pinterest 2: tableau (canvas) and table (plate) While Pinterest is in many ways similar to pile cabinets, the overall user experience is based on the metaphor of the board. Pinterest boards are multimedia objects composed of text, images, audio and video. Pinterest is like an atlas with an indefinite number of boards. This list of images is not however the sum of the collected objects, nor is it just an inventory. It is rather built upon the relationships between them as well as on the ways in which the objects have been assembled randomly by the users. Paraphrasing Benjamin’s words from his seminal text of 1934 The Author as Producer, the atlas becomes a ‘reader as producer’, i.e. a reading tool, a reading machine. To build an atlas involves cutting, framing, assembling and editing. Through the atlas, the interpretation of reality becomes a truly creative act. Similarly, when one reads an atlas he or she creates an interpretation, makes choices, frames the images contained in each board, precisely as Aby Warburg did with the images of his unfinished and unpublished dispositif: the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (Huberman 2011). In an atlas, the montage produces knowledge based on the assembling of images. The stages are montage, demontage and remontage. In this respect, the board (table) differs from the canvas (tableau), which is characterised by visual unity and temporal immobility, in the following features: - a complex system - a space of meetings and connections - a space of dissections - a space of de-finitions - a space of permutations - as an open-ended, dynamic and indefinite space - as an exhibition of dis-order - as a re-volution of the traditional forms of classification. References Benjamin, W. (2005) The Author as Producer. Selected Writings. Volume 2. Part 2. Harvard University Press. Bisoni, C. (2011). La logica dei recaps: dal riassunto all'interfaccia [Recaps: From the Summary to the Interface). Media Mutations 3: Ecosistemi narrativi: Spazi strumenti, modelli, Bologna, 24-25 maggio. Bruno, G. (2002). Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. Verso. Bruno, G. (2007). Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts. The MIT Press. Cometa, M. (2012). La scrittura delle immagini [The Writing of Images]. Raffaello Cortina Editore. Didi-Huberman, G. (2011). L'oeil de l'histoire: Tome 3, Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet. Les Editions de Minuit. Didi-Huberman, G. (2010). Atlas: How to carry the world on one's back. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, November 26, 2010-March 28,2011; ZKM, Museum fur Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe, May, 7-August 28, 2010; Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburgo, September 24-November 27, 2011. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. 3
  4. 4. Eco, U. (2009). The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. Rizzoli. Gray, J. (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York University Press. Information Architecture Institute (2013). What is IA? what_is_ia.php Innocenti, V., Pescatore, G. (2012 forthcoming). Information Architecture of Television Series. Journal of Information Architecture 4(1-2), Lambe, P. (2007). Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness. Neal-Schuman Publishers. Manovich, L. (2007). Cultural Analytics: Analysis and Visualization of Large Cultural Data Sets. http:// Manovich, L. (2010). Software Culture. Edizioni Olivares. Mitchell, W.J.T. (1995). Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. University of Chicago Press. Norman, D. (1994). Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine. Basic Books. Resmini, A.; Rosati, L. (2011). Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences. Morgan Kaufmann. Resmini, A.; Rosati, L. (2013). Oltre Flatlandia: dal prodotto all’ecosistema. In Bisoni, C.; Innocenti, V. (a cura di). Media Mutations: Gli ecosistemi narrativi nello scenario mediale contemporaneo. Spazi, modelli, usi sociali. Stem Mucchi. 4