Annotation expresses power. Connecting historical uses of annotation with contemporary and viral art, we look at how annotation elevates counternarratives as well as silences dissenting voice. Looking across contexts, we consider who gets to annotate and under what circumstances.
I’m revealing another point of view that isn’t often considered. That’s what a counternarrative is. I also want to show how these little tiny changes tip the scale, and can fully change perspectives.
—Alexandra Bell, interview with New York Magazine, 20171
Alexandra Bell creates larger-than-life posters that revise and reimagine articles from The New York Times. Annotation is her method. By “deploying marginalia, obscuring whole passages with fat black ink, and rewriting headlines, captions, and other text,”2 Bell challenges the newspaper’s use and proliferation of racial stereotypes. In her 2017 public exhibit “Counternarratives,” Bell’s posters appeared throughout the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens affixed to the walls of buildings and plastered near subway entrances.3 In addition to annotated headlines and articles, the posters are a material and multimodal annotation of the built environment.
Bell wields annotation as an intentional and political resource. Through authoring counternarratives - atop and through the original words, images, and designs of The New York Times’ texts - Bell’s annotation highlights and magnifies representation, voice, and prejudice. Annotation, for Bell, is a practice of power. In reflecting on her process, Bell describes the work as an effort to “tip the scale” toward justice.
Alexandra Bell’s posters illustrate how annotation expresses power. In this chapter we illustrate how digital and analog annotation practices can shape and contest power. We begin with Bell’s posters to demonstrate how powerful counternarratives - or annotation that “can fully change perspectives” - are by no means hewed tightly or exclusively to the digital domain. From Martin Luther’s theses posted in 1517 to the door of the Wittenberg Church, to Wei Jingsheng’s The Fifth Modernization which appeared on Beijing’s Democracy Wall in 1978, to Bell’s contemporary work, forms of handwritten, plastered, and public annotation have sought to change minds and actions in global and local settings.
Annotation can amplify marginal voices - in literal and symbolic contexts - as an attempt to shift perspective or compel change. And yet, the power expressed by annotation is not solely exercised on behalf of or in solidarity with the plight of oppressed or marginalized communities. As a resource that may be authored and leveraged across texts and social settings, annotation expresses power on behalf of myriad constituencies and for various ideological ends. While we have provided examples throughout this book of opportunities for annotation to complement the activities of diverse communities, annotation itself can neither suppress nor liberate. Rather, annotation can help to shape who communicates, with what texts and tools, how points of view are articulated, and what voices rise to the surface within any given context.
Annotation expresses power but it does not wield it in and of itself. Annotation - like a megaphone, a viral tweet, a baton, a can of paint, or a poster - is a tool. To further clarify how the tool of annotation expresses power we’ll return, briefly, to the Roman Empire.
The word annotation is derived from the Latin annotatio meaning to “remark” or “note down.” And yes, we’ve intentionally waited to introduce this etymology until our fifth chapter because annotatio was more than a general term describing a type of writing. Annotatio were a specific means of exercising imperial law in post-Augustan Rome throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. Annotation was a genuine mark of power.
Annotatio were imperial replies, also referred to as rescripts, handwritten in response to a deliberative process or a consultation. Roman emperors authored annotatio in purple ink to designate a ruling, or grant some authority, or convey a new privilege. Once authored by the emperor, annotatio were subsequently conveyed to the Roman public and recorded as law in compilations of rescripts like the Codex Theodosianus completed in 438. Annotatio were “imperial responses to stimuli which were largely external [and] did not necessarily reflect the preferences of emperors,” suggesting these marks of power were interpreted and negotiated among legislative councils, local governors, and among “a government consistently preoccupied with seeking to systematise and to simplify the process of government.”4
According to medievalist scholar Stephen Nichols, the practice of annotatio “originated in the very centers of power… had judicial consequences, was philosophically pragmatic, and intervened in all aspects of social and political life. Annotation was a cultural construction that may be studied as a sociology of imperial legislative practices.”5 As a remark of imperial power permanently anchored in a text, annotatio were intended to influence decision-making and legislation. In many instances, this note of political power was conveyed to a court as a means of presenting the emperor’s presence, will, and “imperial dignity.”6
Annotatio resonate with much of what we’ve previously discussed. These rescripts provided information, shared expert commentary about a particular circumstance, and were a social form of writing intended for a public audience that contributed to a conversation, such as a legal or legislative deliberation. This origin of annotation further underscores how such handwritten remarks were imbued with expressions of power and had political repercussions.
The echoes of annotatio appear, millennia later, in the annotation of another royal. Following his abdication in 2004, Norodom Sihanouk, the former King of Cambodia, began to share his remarks in a rather creative way. Sihanouk established a website which, despite his passing in 2012, remains updated and well-organized to this day.7 The archive includes selections of Sihanouk’s personal correspondences, handwritten recipes, musical compositions, and film commentary. It also includes many annotated newspaper and magazine articles.
An article about government loan debt from The Cambodia Daily is heavily underlined, includes a prominent question mark in one margin, and features multiple double brackets to emphasize importance. Sihanouk’s annotation also included frequent commentary - in French, English, and Khmer - about topics ranging from World Cup controversies to the ills of environmental degradation: “Our ‘Democracy’ should stop favoring companies and businessmen to the detriment of the Little People.” Annotation, for Sihanouk, served as a way to widely share his opinions and knowledge; as he once wrote, “Every Cambodian... including the King has the right to express freely their view.”8
From Roman courts to the King of Cambodia to artists like Alexandra Bell authoring counternarratives, annotation has long been - and continues to be - a means to express power.
How might we characterize a teacher’s authority when copyediting a student’s essay? When New York Magazine re-published an annotated version of “The Uninhabitable Earth” because of a Climate Feedback peer review, how might we describe the value of scientists’ expertise? And would a hip hop fan question, much less downvote, a “verified” Genius annotation authored by Kendrick Lamar that explains the meaning behind his music? Authority, expertise, and knowledge are all important qualities of annotation, as are these qualities also indicators of power. If annotation expresses power, as with these and other examples discussed throughout our book, what do we mean by power?
To appreciate the significance of annotation expressing power, it’s necessary that we introduce an understanding of power as something more than “bad,” as something both complex and perhaps even constructive. A useful starting point, for many scholars and those interested in society and culture, is the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. During a series of interviews, in 1977, Foucault was asked to clarify how his thinking about ideas like ideology and repression had developed. His response, perhaps inevitably, turned to a discussion about power. Foucault observed:
What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.9
Foucault’s stance is useful as we consider the relationship between annotation and power. Power is a productive force, creating both discourse and knowledge. Moreover, the productive effects of power are a “network” which is social, dispersed, and active - indeed, power “runs through” the body politic. The 17 scientists who collectively authored an annotated post-publication peer review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” produced a convincing form of public discourse and established a more scientifically accurate form of knowledge. And thanks to the network of the web, the power of these scientists was able to “hold good” and become “accepted.” Power, in this instance, was much more than a negative or repressive function. Indeed, the power of Climate Feedback’s annotation resulted in more credible journalism.
Of course, scientists who contribute to Climate Feedback have years of disciplinary training, work as researchers, and are regarded (by many, though not all) as experts. To further demonstrate Foucault’s stance toward the productive, knowledge-producing, and networked function of power, let’s consider another type of annotation, written by a single author, and in response to a very different though equally important social and political circumstance.
Isobel O’Hare is an award-winning Irish and American poet. During the amplification of #MeToo in 2017, O’Hare utilized the popularity of blackout poetry10 and the annotation practice of redaction to convert public sexual assault apologies into counternarratives. The result is O’Hare’s recent book all this can be yours. As O’Hare explains, the book:
began as a cathartic exercise in erasure. In the midst of sexual assault allegations against high-profile men, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion by both the accounts of victims (#MeToo) and the statements/apologies by the perpetrators. I printed out those statements and sat down with a Sharpie to reveal what I felt they were really saying about themselves, their privilege, and their willful oblivion to the consequences of their actions.11
O’Hare’s annotation turns page-long apologies into concise, witty, and troubling remarks. For instance, after Harvey Weinstein, the former Hollywood producer, sent The New York Times a public statement in October of 2017,12 O’Hare used annotation to transform his apology into her poem “a culture of demons.” Selectively redacting Weinstein’s words, O’Hare’s entire poem reads: “I came of age in a culture of demons I respect more than women.”13 A review of all this can be yours, published in Harper’s Magazine, celebrated O’Hare for exercising “the timeless art of strategic Sharpie redaction to bring this dissembling into starker relief.”14
By erasing words, O’Hare’s annotation and poetry evokes the well-known Quaker principle of speaking truth to power.15 And drawing further upon Foucault’s stance, we can read how O’Hare’s intentional redaction, like Alexandra Bell’s poster counternarratives, “produces things” - things like resistance, a critique of privilege, and the value of alternative perspectives. Perhaps not surprisingly, O’Hare’s poetry went viral thanks to the “productive networks” of ubiquitous digital media, suggesting her messages resonated with a broader “social body” and helped to further “produce discourse” about #MeToo.
Art by O’Hare and Bell highlight - both visually and conceptually - the dialogic quality of annotation expressing power. As we discussed in Chapter 1, annotation is always dialogic because annotation - like annotatio - is responsive to other people, texts, and ideas. Throughout this chapter, we approach the relationship between annotation and power from a dialogic perspective. Both artists, through annotation, have produced new forms of public dialogue in response to other people (like Harvey Weinstein), texts (The New York Times), and ideas (sexual assault and racial bias) that are of broad social and political consequence.
Moreover, the dialogic quality of annotation expressing power is bolstered through the ways in which other people access, read, interpret, and ultimately respond to Bell and O’Hare’s new discourses. We contend that it is impossible to read these examples of annotation as isolated from either prominent people - as with Bell’s counternarrative about Michael Brown, the man killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri - or as separate from ongoing public conversation mediated by social network hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #TimesUp. When Bell notes that counternarratives can galvanize “little tiny changes,” she may be suggesting a receptiveness on the part of readers to perceive and appreciate annotation.
Whether annotation expresses power for social critique, academic assertion, or personal provocation, the dialogic features of annotation position readers - like you, and among various public audiences - to respond with empathy, or anger, or disagreement, or confusion. Divergent responses to annotation demonstrate what Foucault means by power running through the whole social body. As we discuss additional examples of annotation expressing power, we suggest it’s imperative to foreground these qualities of power and appreciate how annotation expressing power can be productive for new knowledge and discourse.
Alexandra Bell didn’t receive permission from The New York Times to annotate certain articles prior to posting her work around New York City. Nor did Isobel O’Hare ask Harvey Weinstein - or any of the men whose statements she redacted - to proof her #MeToo poetry. Speaking truth to power does not - and should not - require consent from the more powerful or privileged.
In discussing power, we must recognize the complexity of authorship and authority, narrative and counternarrative, and consent to annotate. While quite serious, such dynamics can be rather humorous, too, as when the author Philip Roth penned “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” in The New Yorker about inaccurate claims associated his novel The Human Stain.16 Roth wanted to contest claims noted on his novel’s Wikipedia page. When new information is added to a Wikipedia entry, the encyclopedia requires that a fact be verified somewhere else using another source. In other words, while Roth authored The Human Stain - and, ostensibly, can make the only irrefutable claims about the intention of authorship and the novel - his statements could not be included on Wikipedia without an additional citation. Hence Roth’s open letter, a very public counternarrative to Wikipedia and, ironically, the missing reference.
Perhaps Roth should have used a digital tool to annotate, rather than attempt to directly edit, the contested Wikipedia page. And would Roth have needed consent to author such annotation? Various digital annotation technologies now allow readers to markup web pages and online documents at will. Whereas publications like newspapers and blogs can chose how to moderate online commentary, and whereas Wikipedia edits are reviewed and ultimately approved by editors, certain annotation technologies circumvent such processes. Which means that annotation can, under certain circumstances, be used to cause harm. There are important differences between a reader using a digital annotation tool to express viewpoints in response to an article in The Economist, and a troll who targets an individual with annotation as an act of harassment. What about a bot that automatically annotates a web page to add metadata; is consent required and, if so, how? Should authors of online content be notified when their writing is annotated and, again, how might that happen given a plethora of annotation technologies?
The complexities of authorship, consent, intent, and effect - all of which are endemic to how annotation expresses power - collectively raise an important question: Can I annotate that?
To be honest, we’re not sure. We cannot prescribe an appropriate response that is relevant to and respectful of all the unique instances of annotation across the entire web and as mediated by an ever-growing number of digital technologies and attendant social practices.
However, we do know where you can gain useful guidance on better understanding and approaching such issues of power. The web annotation organization Hypothesis has facilitated conversations about “Consent and Abuse in Annotation Systems,” with recommendations that include developing opt-out technologies for authors and strategies that balance author preferences with the public interest.17 The journalist and digital pioneer Esther Dyson has spoken about the need to respect both authors’ ability to control how their content is annotated and the freedom of speech that protects annotation. Ultimately, Dyson has suggested “moderating entities” should work to restrict harmful (digital) speech and foster productive annotation that helps to circulate new discourses and knowledge.18 And Michael Caulfield, an educator who has written extensively about misinformation, media literacy, and the importance of online “info-environmentalism,”19 distilled concern with online annotation to a pressing social question:
It’s your [web] browser, and you’re allowed to annotate anything you want with it. But the separate question is what should be encouraged by the design of our technology. People want to turn this into a legal debate, but it’s not. It’s a tools debate, and the main product of a builder of social tools is not the tool itself but the culture that it creates. So what sort of society do you want to create?20
Debate about online annotation technologies and practices will continue. We are hopeful that those with power and influence in these debates avoid technocratic fixes to complex social challenges and, rather, respond by creating socially responsible solutions to technical problems.
Accompanying the dynamics of consent, and whether a note may or may not be added to a text, questioning who gets to write annotation is another important consideration of power and how power is expressed. Throughout our book, we’ve explored various purposes of annotation, the intent motivating how notes are authored, and the way annotation may be interpreted and shared. As we further examine dimensions of power that are expressed by annotation, we must also consider who gets to annotate and how annotation inscribes power.
Historically, books have been expensive to produce and, for many, difficult to access. Until annotation became a more ubiquitous practice in the 1500s, the privilege and knowledge required to annotate a book was afforded to select groups of individuals, such as scribes, apprentices, or religious leaders. Throughout much of the development of print culture, manuscript and book annotation was an opportunity granted by those in power to people who, henceforth, were empowered. The philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan has suggested that texts can transform a society.21 In his assessment, the book - and, more generally, print culture - has played a singular role communicating to mass audiences, crafting national identities, and also exerting state power over the individual. Texts are technologies that have, for centuries, expressed power across societal scales. We can read annotation in a similar way.
Yes, annotation is an act of individual agency - as we discussed in our first chapter. However, the relationship between agency and power is complicated if not also contested, suggesting the question of who gets to annotate, under what circumstances, and for what purposes is complex. We might, for example, read annotation as civic media, or a type of note authored for and communicating with a particular community in service of that group’s social practices and political values. From this perspective, we can read Alexandra Bell’s annotated newspapers as civic media that both advocates for Black lives while also critiquing institutional bias and media stereotypes. Alternatively, we might also read annotation as a technology of control given, for instance, the labor of data labelers (whom we discussed in Chapter 2), working predominantly in developing nations, and whose notes are tediously authored for the profit of multinational corporations. There is no neutral or single correct way to read annotation, especially when annotation is perceived as a technology that can express - and help inscribe - power in society.
Annotation, in this respect, can also be practiced as a gatekeeper, or as a tool further designating whose texts, voices, and forms of knowledge are acceptable in certain contexts. Within many scholarly traditions, annotation has functioned as the “proof” justifying claims and codifying what “counts” as knowledge.22 To this day, research is predominantly a written product, published as various forms of manuscripts, and substantiated by the presumed authority of an annotation. Importantly, there is necessary debate about the exclusion of oral traditions and folk knowledge from conventional scholarly practices, as well as resistance to the privileging of Western forms of knowledge acquisition and accumulation.23 And efforts like #CiteBlackWomen are a reminder that when a note is added to a text for the purposes of reference and evidence, the resulting network and intellectual dialogue can inadvertently or quite intentionally exclude particular scholars, works, and ways of knowing.24 Annotation cannot be read as an impartial scholarly practice when, historically, it has helped to inscribe preference and power across texts and contexts. Then again, annotation can also be leveraged to strategically include and help to expand the bounds of authority and expertise.
In this chapter, we’ve argued that annotation expresses power in ways that are productive, networked, and situated in social contexts. Annotation may be a counternarrative, speaking truth to power. Annotation is an unresolved question of consent that varies by circumstance. And annotation is not neutral as it has helped to inscribe the power of accepted knowledge within books and scholarship for centuries. Knowing that we can view annotation in this way, that authority becomes more contested and complex because of annotation, we’ll conclude our discussion by returning to an example of commentary we mentioned in Chapter 3 - the online review. How might we read such annotation through a lens that foregrounds power?
San Quentin State Prison is the oldest prison in California and, among its rather dubious distinctions, includes the largest death row for male inmates in America. It has also been described as a “Quaint historic hostel.”25 While the Yelp review that opens with that particular phrase drips in irony, and while many reviewers have used Yelp to satirize a consumer culture obsessed with public ranking and evaluation, there are many other reviews that leverage this particular form of annotation for critique. A 2010 TechCrunch article highlighted a number of these Yelp reviews: “Stay away. The food is horrible.”26 One review, in particular, exemplifies the value of reading annotation as a counternarrative that draws from personal experience to convey social critique:
In 1989 when I was 17 I made the mistake of borrowing a strangers car without their permission & after many months of courtroom banter I was sentenced to the California Youth Authority.
Unbeknownst to me, California has a “scared straight” program for youthful offenders where they take unwitting sentenced juveniles to the hardest state prisons & .....
Well they let you think this is where you have been sent ..possibly by mistake.
The 4 days I spent here were miserable. We all arrive on the grey goose & are schackled and escorted to a main pen to be counted & dispersed.
This place is cold & damp and just like every prison movie -(the green mile) you have ever seen depiciting a shit hole prison. [sic]27
We can read such annotation as criticism of both the prison and, more broadly, an indictment of America’s criminal justice system. In the decade since these Yelp reviews were first brought to broader public attention, the page for San Quentin State Prison has become crowded with dozens of reviews that may be interpreted in multiple ways; as parody, as a sincere assessment of the guided tours, and as debate about the carceral state. Similar types of review appear on many other Yelp pages, as with Mammy’s Cupboard, a “traditional” restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi, that is physically shaped like a domestic worker from yesteryear and that celebrates imagery, relics, and cultural stereotypes that many find explicitly racist and sexist.28 These reviews - as a type of annotation that expresses power - intentionally transcend the expected purpose of Yelp and alter how a review platform can host divergent viewpoints and disagreement. As such, we can read Yelp and similar review sites as curated collections of texts that provide annotators with a public and networked opportunity to express their truth and author counternarratives.
We began this chapter with a quote from Alexandra Bell in which she explains how her redacted and revised articles featuring annotation can reveal “another point of view that isn’t often considered.” Annotation is a tool that can reveal another valuable perspective not represented in a newspaper, blog post, scholarly manuscript, or online review - and annotation can tell us why that alternative view matters. With this potential social function, we are reminded that annotation is not neutral as it helps those who add notes to texts produce new discourses and knowledge. And to consider further – from yet another point of view - how annotation, discourse, and knowledge can be productive, we next turn to the field education to account for the ways in which annotation aids learning.