Annotation | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University


Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia

The MIT Press, Essential Knowledge Series, Cambridge, MA, 2021
232 pp. Paper, $15.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-53992-0.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
January 2023

One cannot praise enough The MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series, which offers “accessible, concise, beautifully produced pocket-size books on topics of current interest.” Annotation is an outstanding example of the relevance of this type of publications that help understand the hidden mechanisms and larger cultural stakes of ubiquitous but often unnoticed concepts, actions, objects, ideas, technologies, and, above all, the links between all these elements.

The authors of this book start by making a sharp distinction between annotations as concrete marks made by users and annotation as a genre. Given the relative wealth of material already available on specific types of annotations (Kalir and Garcia pay thus a well-deserved tribute to for instance H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia. Readers Writing in Books, Yale UP, 2001), it is the latter that is here at the heart of the analysis, conceptually as well as functionally. The authors first explain annotation by defining it in itself, regardless of its functions, as “a note added to a text”, a definition which gives them the opportunity to further detail what they mean by “note” (here enlarged to various kinds of multimodal inscriptions), “adding” (supposing a certain agency, contrary to certain forms of paratext and metadata, which can be annotations but which in certain cases lack the specific kind of agency that transforms a mark into a real note) and eventually “text” (here defined with the help of three main features: author, message, and structure). This definition is followed by a discussion of what Kalir and Garcia consider the five main functions of annotation: providing information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, expressing power, and aiding learning. Their conceptual and functional analysis is at the same time precise and open. Kalir and Garcia give clear descriptions, with excellent contemporary and historical examples and great suggestions for further reading. However, they systematically insist on the difficulty of neatly distinguishing annotation from other practices while also stressing the complex underpinnings of the genre’s functions, which cannot fully examine outside the material and cultural contacts that may twist its various forms and meanings. The editorial history of this book, whose draft versions have been collectively discussed on a public review platform (MIT’s PubPub forum) but also the final invitation of Kalir and Garcia to annotate their work and to constructively change it are two proofs of the radical openness of their approach, which is part of the achievement of Annotation.

In this spirit, I would like to add three small observations or questions, which I hope will prove helpful to the public afterlife of a truly inspiring work.

One: what about the negative aspects of annotation? The authors rightly emphasize the value and importance of constructive annotation, and this is obviously the logical counterpart of their overall positive approach of the genre’s functions. Kalir and Garcia are however not blind to the issues of power that underlie annotation, although rhetorically speaking is not a coincidence that the chapter on “power”, where some darker elements of disciplinarization appear, comes before that on “aiding learning”, where the brightness of the world of annotation must come for some readers as a relief. Yet we all know that annotation can also be a practice of vandalizing texts, of shattering a text’s meaning and structure and of destroying an authorial effort and position, certainly in the case of digital texts, even more vulnerable to dismemberment than texts in print or why not in stone. Annotation then comes close to the dangers of superficial reading and perhaps even nonreading as diagnosed by Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004. Granted, annotation can be a tool to better grasp the meaning of a text, but it can also be a way of radically dissolving it. This flipside of annotation is alas hardly taken into consideration here.

Two: what about non-annotation, which also deserves close as well as distant reading? What does it mean to avoid adding notes to a text? Does this gesture, for it is one after all, disclose a cultural habit or constraint or something else? In some countries and traditions, annotating a book is “not done”. I am thinking for instance of the reading of literary works in French culture, where some scholars continue to buy two copies of a book, one meant to be annotated and the other one to be kept as the real thing (and if one only buys one copy, notes will be taken in a separate notebook). But what is the meaning of such a tradition? Is it a sign of respect? A legal constraint, stating for instance that it is forbidden to write in the margins of a book that one does not own oneself, as in the case of a library book? Or is it a sign of approval, a symptom of the fact that one agrees with the text and fully understands it?

Three: is annotation really a single genre or is it a practice that cannot be separated from the various genres it may accompany? Kalir and Garcia are working in the field of education, and they have a strong and perfectly understandable interest in journalism in the age of fake news. But not all their analyses fully apply to what happens in the field of literature where the notion of authorship for example definitely functions in other ways. How can an “author” be accountable for what she or he is saying in a word of fiction? What about ideas on the “death of the author”?. Similar remarks could be made on the way one defines “message” and “structure” (the two other features, with that of the “author”, of Annotation’s definition of what a text is supposed to have or to be). Author, message, and structure are less self-evident than in certain types of nonliterary writing.

The collaborative and open structure of this book, which is also a work in progress, will certainly bring many other questions to the fore, and it is the great merit of Kalir and Garcia to have written a book that will be actively annotated and creatively superseded by many readers.