Archive | February, 2013

Graphs and Code

11 Feb

The promised follow-up to my previous post on Paratexts will have to happen on a later date.  For now, some thoughts on someone else’s thoughts on quantitative data and the history of literature

One thing that continues to dazzle me about the humanities generally is its seemingly limitless capacity for appropriation.  It would seem no discipline is safe from students and scholars of literature.  Freud, Foucault, Marx, every manner of philosopher, sociologist, linguist, psychologist, anthropologist and cultural critic has had their ideas incorporated into critical inquiries into every type of cultural object by people in English departments in universities around the world.  I must admit, Thomas Kuhn is one of the last philosophers I expected to see name-dropped in an essay about the history of the novel.  What is more impressive is that said name-dropping was not at all gratuitous or misplaced, as near as I can tell.

Franco Moretti is conscious of the gap between text and interpretation to a refreshing degree.  In his chapter “Graphs” from his book Graphs Maps Trees he foregrounds three models of historical inquiry (philosophy of history is a major theme of his book as it is principally concerned with the now-neglected field of systematic literary history) as well as one of the three models of information that make up the title of his book.  The three models of history are Event, cycle, and longue durée.  Event refers to the focus on the specific, individual-centered historical occurrence, while longue durée is principally concerned with, in Moretti’s words, “the very long span of nearly unchanging structures.”  He posits that literary studies have been comfortable with these two historical models generally, and that they figure prominently in literary scholars’ work since the Event model is helpful in isolating the specific circumstances of the production of studied texts and the longue durée is applicable to more ‘theoretical’ inquiries that allow scholars to track long-term and cross-textual and cross-cultural patterns.  The middle-ground Cycle model has been largely neglected.  The Cycle model can probably best be understood- again, quoting Moretti himself- as “temporary structures within the historic flow.”  It is a model which can be used to quantify phenomena that last for a certain period of time but then cease.  The best way to exhibit such phenomena is, of course, via a graph.  This is where Moretti makes a crucial observation- that quantification and interpretation are separate and distinct tasks, and the graph is is only conducive to the former.  I have often been struck by what many consider the central dilemma in the Digital Humanities- The Humanities is principally concerned with interpretation, and it is still not entirely certain how digital technology has altered the process of interpretations, either for literary critics and scholars or people in general.  It is possible that digital technology is merely a tool, one that can be used to gather and quantify information for the student or scholar, but something that does not fundamentally alter his principal task of interpretation.  The precise nature of the epistemological shift brought on by the digital revolution is still being debated, meaning any person working within the field of the digital humanities is essentially required to perform multiple projects simultaneously.  S/he needs to demonstrate the efficacy of digital technology in the study of literature and culture, contribute to the ongoing discussion about the epistemic shift that has occurred as a result of the digital revolution and information technology, and define the parameters of a new literary paradigm vis-à-vis digital technology.  Moretti’s project does not address these problems as such, but can still be counted as an important contribution to the discussion for the simple reason that it addresses the field’s problem with information, the gap between the data and the interpretation of the data.  Principally concerned with the latter, those involved with the humanities occasionally fail to recognize the autonomy of the former.  

In “Graphs” Moretti utilizes his Cycle model for a consideration of the history of the novel, from the 18th century through the 19th.  He discovers that different ‘genres’ (which he persuasively defines as ‘temporary structures’) would appear on the scene, last for a period of 10-30 years, and then be replaced with other genres.  He speculates that the disappearance of one genre and its replacement by another reflects changes in the needs of the culture at a particular historical moment- some genres are more effective at communicating and eliciting certain emotional states than others, and some emotional states are more desired than others at specific points in time.  Anxious times often increase the demand for anxious writings, and so on.  Similarly, Moretti posits that the sudden disappearance of a large number of literary genres is probably the result of the passing of a generation of readers. This is where Moretti’s inventive use of Thomas Kuhn comes in.  These generic shifts- very much contingent on who is producing literature and for whom- result in temporarily stable but contingent literary paradigms that shift when new creative models intrude onto the scene and effectively force out old genres that no longer fulfill the culture’s desires.  Thanks to the tool of the graph, this phenomenon can actually be quantified  to some extent.  And who knows?  Perhaps predictions could be made.  A much larger body of data would need to be amassed for such an endeavor though, and perhaps only an advanced computer program would be up to the task of quantifying all the pertinent data.

Another essay which recently came into my purview was “The Esthetics of Hidden Things” by Scott Dexter, available in the anthology Understanding Digital Humanities.  It is primarily interested with exploring how computer code has altered (or perhaps only revealed) human conceptions of textuality, and by extension, human conceptions of information.  The rhetoric of concealment and revelation figured prominently throughout, and the thrust of the piece seemed to be that the distinction between the hidden and the revealed is very unstable in the digital world.  Because this essay is grounded in a technical literacy I simply do not possess, I do not feel very confident speculating about the merits of Dexter’s argument.  One thing I do find quite remarkable however, is the implication an unstable hidden/revealed distinction may have for the task of interpretation more generally.  It would force any would-be interpreter to abandon the notion of approaching a text in search of ‘hidden’ patterns or motivations.                 

Much else could be said, but time, as they say, is a-wasting.  For now, enjoy some Pere Ubu.   


Paratexts (Different from Intertexts)- Part 1

5 Feb

Gerard Genette would seem to be the latest in a long line of French post-structuralist philosophers and intellectuals whose work is being applied to recent Anglo-American critical endeavors in ways that they could not have possibly anticipated.  Foucault never dreamed of applying his theories to literature; and yet, there they are, splattered all over the American university’s English department like so many globules of paint from a Jackson Pollock painting.  Genette is a less surprising addition to the pantheon in many respects, though.  His project has always been concerned with literature, and I would like to take some time to examine some of his ideas involving paratexts.  The phenomenon of the paratext is perhaps more worthy of the technical French approach to critical analysis and its penchant for semiotics than many other broadly ‘literary’ forms.  The term refers to, in the words of Richard Macksey, those textual devices that “comprise those liminal devices and conventions, both within the book (peritext) and outside it (epitext), that mediate the book to the reader: titles and subtitles, pseudonyms, forewords, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, intertitles, notes, epilogues, and afterwords…”  It is a concept that is curiously medium-specific.  As Genette himself put it, “…the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to the readers…”  And yet, he also asserts that “a text without a paratext does not exist and never has existed.”  I am inclined to understand his position as basically being that paratexts are the textual elements that mediate a text to the reading public.  Paratexts shift with the medium of presentation, since the medium determines how the reader will engage the text and therefor how the text will need to be mediated.  It is quite intuitive to understand the paratext as a chiefly functional element that serves a practical purpose, and indeed, Genette clearly states that that is his position on the matter.  However, such an understanding does not preclude aesthetic or otherwise non-functional purposes for paratexts.  How paratexts relate to the ‘main’ texts they mediate has been a subject that has engaged authors of literature for quite some time, perhaps most famously Laurence Sterne.  

The medium that most concerned Genette at the time he was formulating his ideas was the printed book.  With the advent of the onset of the digital revolution and the personal computer, conceptions of paratextuality have broadened, if not shifted considerably, and for obvious reasons those with an interest in the Digital Humanities have turned their astute critical gaze on to recent re-formulations of the paratext.    

More to come in Part 2!

A DH Double Whammy- Part 2

4 Feb

The promised follow-up! Rejoice!

When considering Janelle Jenstad’s ambitious and ongoing online project, The Map of Early Modern London, it is tempting to get carried away by the novelty. To re-create a certain place of a certain time, to play time-traveler as it were, has an inevitably romantic flavor, and that flavor can be all the more potent when the time and place in question is the culturally and historically rich landscape of Early Modern London.

Have a look.

The Map of Early Modern London

One should not succumb to the novelty though, as Jenstad’s work serves a very practical scholarly purpose. As she outlines in her essay “Using Early Modern Maps in Literary Studies” gaining a thorough understanding of the landscape of early modern London can enable a student to better comprehend references to location, and the dramatic significance of location, in contemporaneous literary texts. When a comic character in an Elizabethan drama, for example, describes a series of unconnected city landmarks as if they were adjacent to one another to a foreigner as part of a practical joke, an uniformed reader may not understand what, if anything, is supposed to be funny. A handy map clarifies everything. In a more abstract sense, such a tool encourages students to embrace a unique sort of intertextuality- a consideration of the relationship between complex literary texts and more ‘practical’, utilitarian texts like maps. For make no mistake, Jenstad conceptualize the map, correctly I think, as a kind of text. She writes,

“The map has served well as the platform for a library and digital encyclopedia of London, but it is also a text in its own right. To a scholar trained to read for fissures, inconsitencies, representational strategies, agendas, and imbrication of early modern literature in culture, the Agas map [A map of London produced in the 1560’s that served as the baseline for Jenstad’s online map] demands analysis and interpretation. Early maps are what Jess Edwards has called ‘a noisily rhetorical art,’ with multiple signifying strategies that serve various ideological functions.”

The textuality of maps is not something I was inclined to consider before I read about Jenstad’s project. Thinking of maps as texts has caused me to reconsider the underlying assumptions I have been making about textuality itself. I was, and still somewhat am, tempted to think of texts principally in terms of language, and I think of language as a form of representation. I understand maps as a form of representation as well, but I think the lack of an overt linguistic element made me place them in a somewhat separate category as that of literary texts. To perceive them in a more literary fashion and to draw connections to literary texts is, for me, to focus attention on the role played by physical space in both formats, since setting is the most obvious feature a map and a story share in common. The rhetorical strategies that govern space would obviously manifest themselves in notably different ways in the hands of a dramatist and in the hands of a cartographer. Comparing how the two parties manage space, and manage their environment for themselves and their ‘readers,’ is a potentially fruitful route of inquiry that I had not previously considered.