Thinking Paratextually: Making Meaning from Paradigm Shifts in the Age of Digital Culture

Abstract (in English): 

Based on the dual perspective of looking back and moving forward, this talk will explore the
underlying tensions in recent work on paratextual theory and on elements that may – or not – fall
under an evolving definition of what constitutes digital paratext.
Gérard Genette’s paratext theory, presented in this book Seuils (1987; translated and published as Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation in 1997), is rooted in print culture and both text- and book-centric – that much is undisputed. As the theory grew in popularity, other types of texts, such as scientific journal articles (namely through the work of Blaise Cronin; see for example Cronin & Franks, 2006) or bibliographic records (Andersen, 2002; Paling, 2002) were thrown into the paratextual ring. Applications of the framework for the analysis of film (Gray, 2010), games (e.g. Burk, 2009), and other cultural products are now well established. This high regard notwithstanding, the recent experience of co-editing the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture (with Daniel Apollon and due to be published in July 2014) has shown that scholars from various disciplines assess the value, potential uses, and adaptation of paratextual theory to digital culture quite differently. A mapping of the book’s content will illustrate how paratextual theory finds meaning, first, in studies that position and define digital paratextual elements lato sensu, using the digital shift as background and, one might say, explanation enough; and, second, in research where the stricto sensu definitions of digital paratext, epitext, and peritext are at the core of the debate as scholars explore the tension between the known and the new (often as the printed and the digital, but not always). Although no consensus was reached, the book, in itself, offers data on how scholars from various disciplines view, define, explore, and use the paradigms of paratextual theory in their study of digital culture – whether they perceive the latter as a context, a shift, an evolution, or a rupture. Given this landscape and context, some avenues for further research and collaborations across disciplines will be discussed.
Furthermore, by harnessing content from current research projects, the interest of using
paratextual theory in information science, and more specifically in the study of information
behaviour, will be presented. These projects pertain to the fields of cultural and scientific
production, broadly defined, and use conceptual frameworks drawn from Genette but also from
the works of Robert Darnton (1982) and Robert Bourdieu (1992; 1996). They concern three
major players of the cultural realm: writers (of both scholarly texts and fiction), readers (who now
produce what is at times controversially called user-generated paratexts and who testify openly to their reading experience), and information professionals (who act as facilitators between the two former groups, whether for reference or leisure purposes). The digital age has also made it very clear that these groups are extremely permeable. An overview of preliminary analyses from three different projects will be used to illustrate the relationship between the “content” and the “wrapping”: a group of writers’ views, collected through direct inquiry; the use of acknowledgements in the study of authorship in scholarly communication; and the analysis of
user-generated tags in the virtual cataloguing site Goodreads. The goal is not to create a coherent model at this point, but rather to show how each of these research angles can be supported by thinking “paratextually” about digital culture.

(Source: Author's Abstract)

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Alvaro Seica