Month: August 2014

Why Genius may struggle to annotate the world

Genius began life as a website that helped explain what rap lyrics meant. I remember the first time I used it; I wanted to understand what ‘dun-ta-duns’ were, and so I checked: “Dun-ta-duns, are tighty-whities that have super heroes on ‘em. They’re called ‘dun-ta-duns’ because that’s the sound that accompanies the entrance of a superhero”

Some of the explanations are somewhat more esoteric. When Nas speaks about “sleep [being] the cousin of death”, Genius tells me the line is ‘perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us that sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e. “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)’.

Others are an excellent insight into popular culture. When Eminem says he’s as ‘Rude as Jude’ in Drug Ballad, Genius explains that ‘Rude Jude was a feature on the Jenny Jones Show. One of his main roles was to make fun of people who were once ugly and grew up to be pretty’. In the same song, there is even a reference to something Mark Wahlberg once said to Eminem under his breath on Total Request Live.

Needless to say, Genius is a hugely successful site; it’s a wonderful concept, brilliantly designed, and is used by increasingly huge numbers of people. It got into a bit of trouble with Google last year, and again when one of its founders did something very bizarre, but on the whole it’s doing well. It’s also got big ideas. When Andreessen-Horowitz invested $15 million about a year ago, Marc Andreessen wrote that rap lyrics were just the beginning: “Rap Genius has a much bigger idea and a much broader mission than that. Which is: Generalize out to many other categories of text… annotate the world… be the knowledge about the knowledge… create the Internet Talmud.”

Step one, as Marc wrote, was to “generalize out to many other categories of text”. As it happened, this included literary favorites such as Shakespeare and the Bible, as well as famous speeches in history. (Bizarrely, the company also decided to include as literature the rambling and incoherent manifestoes of real-life serial killers as well ‘famous’ suicide-notes – but for the most part, we are dealing with ‘proper’ literature.)

While the texts may be new, the format is the same as before: if you go to the page on Hamlet, for example, you’re presented with the text where certain words and phrases are linked to helpful comments. When you click on the word ‘Elsinore’, for example, you’re told: ‘Elsinore is the English spelling of Helsingor, a city in Denmark on the northeast coast of the island of Zealand. This is where the play is set’

This is all rather helpful, of course, though some comments are a little wider of the mark. When Horatio says ‘Friends to this ground’, for example, we’re told: ‘The guards are defending the physical embodiment of the Danish land… This is ceremonially represented in Britain, where the Royal Guard “protects” Windsor Castle from enemies”.

Later, when the same Horatio answers Bernardo’s question (‘What, is Horatio there?’) with ‘A piece of him’, we’re told: ‘[This is] an allusion to Horace ode 3.30 in which Horace says that whilst he may die, his literary works will live on. Horace’s Latin name was Horatius, which as you can probably tell, is pretty close to Horatio’.

To me, there is something a bit off about these second two comments; do we really think of the Royal Guard at Windsor when reading the first scene of Hamlet? Do the words ‘A piece of him’ really evoke this particular ode of Horace? Maybe so, but the insistence that there is indeed an allusion here reveals something important about annotation as a means of explaining what a text means.

Annotations work particularly well in two contexts; first, when explaining the meaning of a single word; and second, when explaining where a reference comes from. In the second case, it’s essential that the reference is made in a relatively short compass – preferably in no more than a couple of words, and certainly in no more than a sentence – and that the reference is definitely a reference(!)

In my version of The Killing of Abel, a Medieval Mystery Play that is part of the Towneley Cycle, the line-by-line commentary is full of glosses of difficult words; dwill is devil, for example, ianglis is chatters, war oute is wake up, and so on. In most line-by-line commentaries on Shakespeare, too, a fair proportion of the annotations involve explaining the meaning of single words or phrases. In the New Swan Shakespeare version of Hamlet, for example, we are told that ground means country, fantasy means imagination, and so on.

Things get slightly more interesting with the second context in which annotations work well, i.e. when you’re explaining a reference. This is the kind of thing we’ve already seen with Genius’ explanation of that line of Nas on ‘sleep [being] the cousin of death’. But there are lots and lots instances in the literary canon.

In Moby Dick, for example, the phrase ‘… mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, signifying nothing’ is clearly a reference to Macbeth’s Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow speech, which ends: ‘It is a tale | Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury | Signifying nothing”.

Similarly, there can be no doubt that the title of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a pretty uncontroversial reference to this same speech in Macbeth (‘full of sound and fury’) in the same way that the title of Huxley’s Brave New World is clearly a reference to The Tempest (‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!) (In fact, if you read Brave New World, this reference is actually made explicit)

Going back a few thousand years, the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid (arma virumque cano) might fairly be said to refer to the openings of the two Homeric epics, the Iliad (which is a poem about war, arma) and the Odyssey (which is a poem about a man, virum), though this reference might be said to be a little more oblique than the others.

But here’s the nub: some texts are written in a language that requires a great many words to be explained (particularly those written a long time ago), while others are chock-full of the kind of short references to other texts that we just saw in Moby Dick and Virgil’s Aeneid. Some texts – mostly those which are deliberately difficult – have both, such as Joyce’s later works (Ulysses or Finnegans Wake) or the self-consciously ‘clever’ poetry of people like Catullus and Propertius.

I would also put in this category rap music, a genre which in many cases features a very high number of references to other ‘texts’ – and which just so happens to be the genre with which Genius made its name.

The problem for Genius is that most texts are not difficult or allusive in the very particular way that works for annotations. In some cases, the reference is spread over an entire work, rather than being contained in a sentence. The plot of Aristophanes’ Frogs alludes to the traditional katabasis of the Greek hero, but it’s hard to see how this allusion could be linked to just a few words.

Other texts are simply not very allusive, or least lack the kind of obsessive allusiveness that you find in something like Joyce’s Ulysses or (I would argue) rap music. While much of Shakespeare’s vocabulary needs glossing for a modern reader, for instance, he doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly allusive writer. As we’ve already noted, line-by-line commentaries of his plays tend to gloss the meanings of words, rather than highlighting references to other authors or texts.

I would argue, then, that annotation as a way of explaining a text is perfect for certain kinds of literature – but this literature represents only a tiny proportion of what is out there. Indeed, if we’re being uncharitable, we might say that Genius got lucky in choosing one of the few literary genres that annotation really works for – rap lyrics. Annotation will work brilliantly for some works, but once you get to texts that don’t go out of their way to be clever and allusive – which is most of them, by the way – the appropriateness and usefulness of annotations declines rapidly. And this is where Genius starts talking about the Royal Guard at Windsor, or claiming that a certain line of Horatio’s refers to a particular ode of Horace; there is an attempt, I think, to shoe-horn allusions into a text that may not be there at all, simply because this is the kind of text with which Genius works best.

As I said at the beginning, I love Genius. But they should think carefully about the appropriateness of annotations for anything other than a very small group of texts. They should be aware of how uniquely appropriate rap lyrics are for this kind of exegesis. It’s a noble ambition to want to “annotate the world”, but ask people who have been ‘annotating’ these kind of texts for years – the academics who have written commentaries on canonical texts – and you may find that line-by-line exegesis is not always the best way to get to grips with a text.