On the Creatively Mundane Artefacts of Digital Culture

That we live in an age in which anyone can contribute to the cultural compost heap is by now a fairly well-worn observation of a consequence of digital culture. Whether said compost heap represents a self-sustaining source of creative fertility fed by the collaborative efforts of increasingly multi-disciplinary networks, or an indiscriminate pile of decay, is down to you. I’m repeatedly tempted to see a weird, restless joy in it.

I was struck by this as I came across Emoji Dick, a sentence-by-sentence translation of Herman Melville’s towering novel-cum-whale encyclopaedia into emoji. Initially, I thought it was ridiculous – having encountered it through a recent essay by Lisa Gitelman as I was mulling over a far more serious piece about the importance of nurturing into-English literary translation as an art form. After the momentary waft of cultural decay had passed and a well-placed hyperlink harpooned me over to Emoji Dick’s website, its ridiculousness started to fascinate me.

A crowd funded project, each of the book’s approximately ten thousand sentences were translated three times by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers and then voted on by another set of workers, with the most popular version of each sentence making it into the book. The sheer rigour of this mountainously absurd process began to warm me to it.

The quotes made it even better. One from The Telegraph celebrates the book’s innovative use of the internet’s labour pool, below it sits: “That’s astoundingly useless.”. Damion Searls, a Harvard educated translator of Western European literature, simply says: “Emoji Dick doesn’t seem very interesting”.

Finally, I noticed the price – a prohibitively expensive $200 for the hardback (cover: plain white gloss with a heavily pixelated whale emoji dead centre) – which was the cherry on top.

That Emoji Dick is an elaborate joke, an exercise in meaninglessness that isn’t intended to be read, is clear. But it’s also an artefact that consciously challenges how we view the ‘compost heap’ of digital culture; deliberately offsetting a view of the book as an innovative use of the remote digital labour force against one that sees it as something astoundingly useless. It’s hard to see how the book is useful, but I do think it’s interesting.

If we consider that it was edited and compiled by Fred Benenson, author of How to Speak Emoji, published by PRH’s imprint Ebury Press, we can start to understand Emoji Dick as something which pokes at a perceived gap in value between print and digital cultures, and between art and entertainment. Is a novelty book on speaking emoji more valid than an unreadable emoji rendering of a Great American Novel?

Taken purely at price point the answer is clear. How to Speak Emoji comes in at an accessible £7.79 on Amazon and, crucially, has a clear market where Emoji Dick’s pompously priced $200 hardback wilfully rejects one. Nonetheless, there’s a playful reversal taking place when it’s the ‘gimmicky’ book that finds its home in a mainstream publisher’s catalogue and the translation of a famous work of Western literature is an oddity in a corner of the web.

Conceptually, then, Emoji Dick has some clear merit. What remains a little more opaque is the point to its pointlessness. A New Yorker article by Kenneth Goldsmith groups Emoji Dick with projects such as a library scientist’s conversion of Ulysses into QR barcodes, working from Darren Wershler’s term “conceptualism in the wild”. This essentially argues that these are all extensions of the challenge to artistic genius in the vein of Duchamp’s urinal. There’s certainly something to be said for this line of interpretation, most evident in Benenson’s democratic employment of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to produce a literary translation.

What also deserves consideration is Emoji Dick’s place amongst what I want to call the deliberately mundane outputs of digital culture. By ‘mundane’ I mean a couple of things here. In part, I’m referring to digital culture’s love of bringing things back to the everyday: this ranges from the flippancy of memes, the wit and nuance of the Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto and extends to Emoji Dick as it turns a dense work of literature that many feel they should read into something light-hearted that I doubt many ever will.

I am also referring to the inverse of this, where our everyday media are used in surprising ways. Things such as Twitter bots that randomly generate often nonsensical fake news headlines, tweet the number of ‘bongs’ made by Big Ben every hour, or generate images of imagined moths, complete with Latin names; anything which blurs the lines between algorithm, nonsense and entertainment. Part of our fascination with these things is their ability to produce something surprising, funny, even beautiful out of what should be relentlessly dull and so seemingly removed from human creativity.

The choice of Moby Dick, partly famous for its lengthy digressions into the whaling business, as source text is also interesting here. Melville’s novel is a highly experimental collision of writing styles: literary, dramatic and scientific. It is also, in parts, hugely tedious and hard to read. Taking mundane to simply mean dull, there’s a clear link to what I can only imagine the reading experience of Emoji Dick to be like.

Part of this tediousness is what makes Moby Dick an archetype of the encyclopaedic novel, defined by Edward Mendelson as an “attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge”. That this resonates with the way the Web is viewed as a platform to store, generate and share all past and future knowledge is very telling. Moby Dick, in its tediousness, arguably pushes at its physical form’s cultural limitations – at the printed book’s complex relationship to knowledge, art and entertainment.

Emoji Dick, conceptually, does this too. Its mundaneness makes us question its function. Its absurd price pokes gently at the way we elevate the printed book in response to a digital world and the quotes gathered around it draw attention to a need to celebrate or denigrate anything shaped by this new context. Benenson’s use of a worldwide cohort of anonymous workers makes it a project both towering and trivial, and the idea of the author gives way to that of the compiler.

The temptation to scour its vast sea of vaguely applied emoji for something surprising and profound remains slim.

Mundaneness may be interesting, but it’s not my white whale.

Ben Farmer