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  • Paratext and Digitized Narrative:Mapping the Field
  • Dorothee Birke (bio) and Birte Christ (bio)

Gérard Genette's concept of the "paratext," first introduced in Palimpsestes (1982) and elaborated in Seuils (1987), has enjoyed a tremendously successful career in literary studies over the past two decades. Inquiries into forms and functions of the literary paratext abound, especially since Seuils' German and English translations in 1989 and 1997, and the distinction between text and paratext is now one of the basic analytical tools taught in textbook introductions to the study of narrative and explicated in handbooks on literary analysis.2 The concept of the paratext has since also been productively applied to other media, especially audiovisual forms, such as film and television—although Genette used a narrow definition of "text," based his concept of paratext on an analysis of literary narrative materialized in the form of the printed book, and can be said to have consciously avoided the question of other media (Stanitzek, "Texts and Paratexts" 35).3

This cluster of articles explores the potential and limits of the concept for describing medial change, at a time when both the printed book and the celluloid film are supplemented—and maybe even supplanted—by new media and delivery technologies. More specifically, we are interested in the processes of digitization, that is, in the shifts that take place when originally analogue texts are rendered in digital [End Page 65] formats. For the analysis of such digitized texts, the fact that the concept of paratext was developed for the printed book is not only a challenge but also a benefit. This is because the digital phenomena we are concerned with are not entirely novel. They do not revolutionize reading and viewing habits in an instant but are part of a long process of development that is in close dialogue with the printed book as the long-term cultural paradigm. In this introduction to the cluster, we argue that paratext is not only a concept that elucidates the conditions of a "text's presence in the world" (Genette, Paratexts 1), but that—transferred from the print book to audiovisual and digitized narrative—it can be a highly productive tool for the analysis of medial difference and medial change.4 Thus, our primary interest in paratext does not center on resolving its classificatory problems and improving its differential exactness, but on making use of the concept as "a treasure trove of questions" in Genette's spirit (Palimpsests 4). The concept's prime achievement, we would like to suggest, is that it focuses attention on how an abstract entity like a text is always presented in a specific form, which is affected by historically and socially determined modes of production and reception. It brings into view the question of how readings are circumscribed by factors that are usually seen as marginal (or even external) to the text, and it supplies a vocabulary to talk about these aspects.

The articles by Paul Benzon and Ellen McCracken demonstrate this point by focusing on two different strands of the larger process of digitization. In "Bootleg Paratextuality and Digital Temporality: Towards an Alternate Present of the DVD," Paul Benzon looks at the paratext as negotiating the DVD's role as a transient phenomenon within the larger process of the digitization of film. Using the DVD of Borat as a case study, Benzon analyzes how the paratext is used for a meta-reflection on the status of the DVD in a fast-changing medial world. He focuses on how the paratext reacts to and reflects both commercial and technological developments. While Benzon is concerned with a phenomenon that he sees as already on its way out, Ellen McCracken looks at an up-and-coming technology: e-readers and tablet computers that are used to display previously printed literary texts. In her article "Expanding Genette's Epitext/Peritext Model for Transitional Electronic Literature: Centrifugal and Centripetal Vectors on Kindles and iPads," she explores the question what difference it makes when a text written for print is encountered in digital form, as displayed on a Kindle or iPad. The paratext, she argues, negotiates between old reading habits and new medial developments and may serve...


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