Alea–A Digital Remixing Tool for Students and Scholars

Shuffling Büchner

ale·a·to·ry (adjective)

1. of or relating to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable

2. employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.

Overview


Alea is a tool for reordering and rearranging pre-existing texts. Inspired by the cut-up, découpé techniques of the Dadaists, Alea invites users to drag and drop elements of a larger text in order to generate their own desired sequence of elements, thereby producing new causal, thematic, and temporal connections through deliberate or random experimentation. Each individual re-sequencing involves users in a struggle to explore how the ordering of specific parts of texts contribute to their overall structure, meaning, and aesthetic impact. Simultaneously, users will question their own modes of reading while questioning traditional critical perspectives and editing objectives. Once complete, Alea will foster both pedagogical use and scholarly exploration.

Origin


The tool’s concept emerged after more than fifteen years of engaging with the Woyzeck corpus, a dramatic fragment comprised of a series of seemingly unrelated scenes that form only a shadow of a plot: Franz Woyzeck, a soldier, father, and experimental subject, eventually resolves to kill his common-law wife, Marie, after a series of emotional injustices, social inequities, and underlying psychological issues drive him insane. Before the work’s author Georg Büchner could finish a definitive version of the play, he died from typhus at the age of 23. In an attempt to make sense of Büchner’s posthumous work, his family and editors deciphered, revised, and modified the 25 episodic scenes that the author left scattered across four separate, incomplete drafts.

While exploring Büchner’s drama with students at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany and the University of Virginia, I noticed that they tended to struggle with or underperform on one critical thinking assignment: after discussing how a New York theater company once performed the play by drawing scenes randomly from a hat and found that the play invariably “worked” in whatever sequence emerged, students were asked to create and analyze their own reordering of the scenes. At first, students were reluctant, apparently unwilling or unable to experiment more with the corpus. I believe approaching Woyzeck in a printed format primed the students to perform weakly. Despite classroom discussions of Woyzeck’s editorial history, some students nevertheless seemed to believe that the printed order of the scenes was the infallible, immutable order so they were unwilling to explore the possibilities. Similarly, the printed format caused other students to struggle with conceptualizing each scene as a separate component with no fixed place in the order. This rich exercise and its full benefit were ultimately stymied by the corpus in a physical, printed format. Thus, a digital tool like Alea is necessary and can offer support as a pedagogic tool.

Future Directions


There are many possible directions for this project:

  • At the click of a button, Alea will present a random, computer-generated arrangement of the Woyzeck corpus. Given that the 25 scenes can be ordered in literally trillions of ways (25! or 1.551121e+25, to be exact), each click will offer new, never-before-seen possibilities.
  • Users will be able to create, save, and curate their own re-sequencings.
  • Users will be able to export their sequences as an .xml file that they can then use with a visualizing tool like Voyant to analyze the effects of the new sequence against more conventionally edited versions.
  • Users will be able to insert their own textual fragments into the Alea interface before remixing.
  • Users will be able to insert various media files, including text documents, audio files, and short videos, to create a multimedial collage.

Screenshots of Current Build (click to enlarge)


Alea's current interface is very utilitarian. Each blue bar bears the title of a scene from Woyzeck.
Alea’s current interface is very utilitarian. Each blue bar bears the title of a scene from Woyzeck.

 

Clicking on a scene's blue bar causes that scene's full text to expand below. Future builds will provide "collapse all" and "expand all" buttons to make rearranging and reading easier.
Clicking on a scene’s blue bar causes that scene’s full text to expand below. Future builds will provide “collapse all” and “expand all” buttons to make rearranging and reading easier.

 

Users can click and drag each blue bar into a new arrangement of their choice. In this image, only the first few scenes have been reordered. Future builds will feature a "randomize order" button that will rearrange the bars in an unpredictable manner.
Users can click and drag each blue bar into a new arrangement of their choice. In this image, only the first few scenes have been reordered. Future builds will feature a “randomize order” button that will rearrange the bars in an unpredictable manner.