Why Using a Machine to Study Literature Isn’t as Heretical as it Sounds

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by Mae Capozzi

Of the backlash against the Digital Humanities, (of which there is plenty, I assure you), the most interesting to me is the fear that if we begin to use computers to read, we will irrevocably lose the humanistic aspect of reading. For many, reading is a sensory experience. Readers want to touch and smell the book––they want to feel something. Many scholars just don’t want to fully quantify what they view as a wonderfully qualitative experience. It is one thing to theorize based on a close reading of hundreds of texts over the course of a lifetime; it is another thing entirely to analyze thousands of texts in just a few hours using a computer program like MALLET.

Franco Moretti, in “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” explains that “if we set today’s canon of nineteenth-century British novels at two hundred titles (which is a very high figure), they would still be only about 0.5 per cent of all published novels.” So here we have a task that is only solvable with the help of a computer––it would take thousands of lifetimes to read the other 99.5% of nineteenth-century British novels. How about all of the other novels written in the nineteenth-century in the Western world, or the non-Western world, or in other centuries? I could go on and on. The sheer massiveness of this project makes it seem wrong not to take advantage of this technology, (or to at least give it a whirl).

starter

While I locate myself firmly within the contra-canon camp, there is always the pro-canon argument that the canon consists of the best books ever written and anything outside of the canon is not worth serious literary study. The latter group can certainly argue that because only the canon is worthwhile, why take the time to read the other 99.5% of texts? While scholars may never reconcile on this point, I believe that even supporters of the traditional canon can get behind DH, because by allowing us to read outside of the canon, we can garner a deeper understanding of why canonical texts are not “sent to the slaughterhouse” with the other 99.5%.

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Re:Humanities Conference at Haverford College

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by Mae Capozzi

Play. Power. Production.

 

In April 2014, I brought a very preliminary version of this research to the Re:Humanities Conference at Haverford College. As the only undergraduate digital humanities conference in the U.S., I was excited to participate. The experience exceeded my expectations. Every student came with duly researched projects regarding topics from video game design to archive building.

The two-day conference began with a keynote speech entitled “The Political Power of Play” by Adeline Koh. Koh is the Director of DH@Stockton, Assistant Professor of Literature at Richard Stockton College, and cofounder of #DHPoco.

The students involved in the conference were split into two separate groups; each group presented on different days. The first group included titles such as: Narrative and Gameplay: Adapting Physical Narratives to a Digital Medium by Hannah Weissmann from Haverford College, An Algorithm for Serendipity: An Inquiry of Online Dating for Emotional Beings in a Digital Age by Shireen Saxena from Bryn Mawr College, and Imagining the Straight(?) Gate: Messiah, Utopia, and Queer Internet Parody by Benjamin Bernard-Herman and Dylan Hillerbrand from Swarthmore College.

On the second day, we saw mostly thesis presentations from seniors. These projects included: Poetry as a Complex System by Bronwen Hudson from the University of Vermont, The Lightning of Possible Storms: Critical Theory, Interactive Fiction, and the Pedagogy of Narrative Ludology in Bioshock Infinite by Marissa Koors at Emerson College, and Trauma, Enslavement, Embodiment, and Freedom: A New Media Approach to Narratives of Enslavement by Elizabeth Alexander at Amherst College.

The conference concluded with a keynote speech by Mary Flanagan called “Humanist Design.” Flanagan is the author of Critical Play and is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College.

I found it particularly exciting that the conference was at an undergraduate level, because it seems as though DH is the next step for disciplines like literary studies, social history, etc. I would be surprised if 90% of the students involved in this conference did not continue onto graduate school to become the next wave of humanists. Thus, I think it is necessary for undergraduates to hone their skills and have the opportunity to share their research with a larger audience than just their home institutions.

Furthermore, one of the beautiful aspects of DH is its “shareability.” Although each scholar recognized that their research could just as easily been shared online, it was exciting to attend a traditional conference. This type of multifaceted symposium allowed students to share new, digital projects while practicing real-time presentation and discussion skills.

Another interesting aspect of this conference was that we were encouraged to live tweet during presentations (#rehum14). It was a strange feeling to have my iPhone in hand during presentations at first, but I soon warmed up to the new sensation. In fact, it brought on a new sense of engagement with the presenter, as I could summarize or question an argument moments after it was mentioned. This aspect of the conference, once again, added to the “shareability” of DH as a discipline. I look forward to Re:Humanities ’15 in the spring.

Introduction

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“The United States is the country of close reading, so I don’t expect this idea to be particularly popular. But the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premise by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And if you want to look beyond the canon…close reading will not do it. It’s not designed to do it, it’s designed to do the opposite. At bottom, it’s a theological exercise––very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously––whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them”(Moretti 48).

Hello internet. Welcome to our blog!

The goal of this blog is to create a record of our application of Moretti’s concept of Distant Reading using topic modeling to eighteenth and nineteenth-century British texts. Reductively, distant reading is the opposite of close reading; the scholar examines many texts on a macro scale rather than one text on a micro scale. While some theorists have embraced Moretti’s idea, others are appalled by the suggestion that distant reading is somehow better than the more traditional method. We certainly do not believe distant reading should ever replace real human reading of texts. Rather, we assert that it can (and should) be used as a supplement to close reading.

Because of the newness of this field of inquiry, we are unsure of exactly how this project will look. Preliminarily, we are interested in looking for unexpected connections between genres and exploring different types of visualizations.  Ultimately, we feel as though it is important to share our research with other DH scholars, especially because the field is, as of yet, so unexamined.

More on all of this later…

 

Feel free to read through our “About” page by pressing the “+” button at the bottom of the page.

 

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013. Print.