“Words, words, words”: But what else are you reading?

This week we looked at both alternate modes of presenting scholarship (with a few short films) and with Mark Sample’s blog post on the essay; and then considered some work using techniques of “media visualization” to apply digital tools to non-linguistic materials.

Many of this week’s posts end up looking towards many of the questions next week’s readings will address more explicitly.

Also, prepare from an inscursion moving in the opposite direction when, this coming week, the good folks to our East comment on our blogs.

  • Joe finds in Manovich’s visualizations of movemment something unique. These composite images, which capture (or visualize or perhaps simply smear) the motion of a shot in a film within a single image, “have the potential,” Joe writes, “to tell us something we did not know, and to beg further questions, rather than, as Manovich often freely admits, verify claims. The image apprehends something itself of the shot beyond the algorithm used to generate it.” Though, in a comment Peter K asks Joe what his own post seems to be asking more broadly: what exactly are these new questions?
  • Jesse reflects on Ramsay’s reflections on live-coding, that is, on something like live-commentary (the critic as announcer?)1, and on “Critical Code Studies.” Jesse suggests that CCS seems interested in “the pre-output process rather than the final product,” which, you’ll no doubt recall, echoes Kirschenbaum’s own attitude to “screen essentialism.” More black boxes; more peering inside.
  • Jordan begins by responding to Andrew Sorensen’s livecoding (that Stephen Ramsay discusses), before adapting the demands of the TOLAP manifesto to the current state of academia (by way of Alan Liu, of whom–and from whom–more anon). He ends with a wonderfully synthetic summing up: “Manovich’s work on visualization, Moretti’s graphs, maps, and trees, McGann’s acts of deformance, and Wilkens’ cartography all adopt some aspect of data-based investigation. These are, I’m becoming more and more convinced, valuable in their own right. However, perhaps they are each barking up, if not the wrong tree, then not quite the right one. The live coders show us what our lesson from STEM ought to be: down with obscurantism.”
  • In a bravura bit of hands on work, Peter D walks us through a Manovich style visualization of 2001: A Space Odyssey, using freely available tools to first reduce a film to a series of stills and then uses ImageJ to create a Manovich style montage.2
  • Peter K, meanwhile, suggests that there is something formalist, or even show-and-tell-y, about some of the work we read this week—that it lacks sufficient argument (about which claim I point you to this post from Tom Scheindfeldt) and is insufficiently attentive to questions of politics, ideology, and so on (about which claim, I point you to next week, in the syllabus). One might ask of Peter D’s montage of 2001, precisely, what is your argument?
  • Chris’s post wonders whether “the media visualization techniques that Manovich is interested in also help ‘globalize’ the humanities in new ways”? This question opens onto a larger discussion about scholarship and its public(s), as well as questions of the so-called “digital divide.” And, indeed, these very questions will be returning next week.
  1. Which raises the delightful counter-proposition of the announcer as a sort of hermeneut of athletics. One thinks of those writers, like Marianne Moore, who has been obsessed by sports. []
  2. Something I wish we had discussed at greater length is the odd status these montage images have as texts to be read; they adapt the almost invisible convention of left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading from print, in the way that they preserve the film’s order… There is something to say about this, I think. []

Wait… they don’t love you like I love you: Reading Maps

  • EM, who last time discovered something insipid in Moretti’s titular graphs and trees, highlights Moretti’s preference for geometry over geography in his discussion of maps (invoking, by way of contrast I imagine, Auden’s praise of an actual landscape1 ).
  • Matt Wilkens’s essay on mapping inspires in Jordan a reverie about a two-track English department (a “traditional” track, and a data-driven track); Jordan quickly stops day-dreaming though, in order to look more closely at the differences in the spatial approach offered by Moretti and Wilkens. That difference (and the broader difference about the “great unread” of which distant reading promises some glimpse), for Jordan, has a political/critical edge: “Wilkens’ question has less to do with a hunch about the nature of the texts and more to do with the conviction that these other texts that lie outside the purview of canonization are indeed worth investigation.”.
  • An ambivalence motivates Staci’s response to maps, at once interested and skeptical. She asks what relation these maps have to older literary maps—like the map of Yoknapatawpha County added by Faulkner to Absalom, Absalom!. Staci too notes that there is actually a rather broad diversity of method parading under the banner of “mapping” (admittedly, a banner I have created): “What Moretti does in the Maps section of Graphs, Maps, Trees seems worlds apart from what Matthew Wilkens does in ‘Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method’ in which he plots the geographical locations mentioned in 40ish novels of 1851, 1852, and 1874.” So, is mapping a “method” at all? Or is there, at best, a family resemblance between these various interests in space.
  • Updated:Adam entertains Jordan’s fantasy of a split English department, but sees no reason to be either frightened by the proposition, or to necessarily change what he is doing: “even those uninterested or unschooled in the DH can benefit from the results of distant reading.” Let, as they say, a thousand flowers bloom?
  1. Here is Auden reading the poem. It is wonderful. []

Week 7: Crunchy

via wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blackbox.svg

via wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blackbox.svg

This week things get crunchy; lots of nGrams follow. We’ll try to tighten up people’s grasp of topic modelling in class.

  • Joseph’s post plumbs the space between signal and noise, to think about using machine learning techniques without simply turning them into confirmation engines. Bringing together Schmidt’s reservations about LDA with Heuser and Le-Khac’s concern that provocative data may too quickly be dismissed as erroneous, Joesph’s post ends with the question: mightn’t these sorts of apparent hiccups in the data be a spur not to better algorithms, but to closer reading?
  • This week Peter gets excited about Victorian pets and martial arts, before getting disappointed on both counts. Along the way he gets frustrated by processor architectures, statistics, and has a great picture connecting suffragism and Jiu-Jitsu. Peter’s post nicely tries to balance the challenges of borrowing our methods from elsewhere with the excitement of new methods.
    (I might have borrowed his concluding metaphor from his other area of concern in this post: pet ownership. Is training a classifier like training a puppy?) The comments thread here is already quite excellent.
  • Chris Barnes is interested in space. His post wonders about what attention to space can contribute to our understanding of texts and of space in texts. We’ll be spending more time with maps next week.
  • Jesse Menn worries about black boxes and data. When we start querying these sorts of databses, do we make a fetish of data we do not understand?
  • Peter D uses nGrams to consider capitalism and communism, in both English and French. The results are provocative, but for Peter, doubts remain. “I remain unconvinced that quantitative methods will necessarily produce more reliable information about history (literary or otherwise).” Is more reliable information what we’re looking for?

Week 4: Algorithmic Criticism

This week we discuss Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines as well as Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie’s essay, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing.” Initial responses (including one of my own comments) have managed to get tangled up (maybe bogged down?) in arguing about Derrida. We’ll try to get back to the texts first tomorrow (and to the algorithms).

  • Jesse finds himself surprised by how much he enjoyed Ramsay’s Algorithmic Criticism; and it leads to him propose a formalization of a deconstruction-inspired style of reading.
  • Peter G’s post seems likewise enthusiastic about the possibilities of an “algorithmic criticism,” particularly to keep the project of criticism going a little (a lot?) longer: “There are only so many post-colonial readings of Heart of Darkness–at some point they will all have been written. Algorithmic theories, if properly engineered, can be infinite.” But this brings me back to a more basic question: why are we offering readings again? There is a moral force behind those postcolonial readings; what is the goal that is achieved by the possibility/spectre/burden of engineering infinite readings? (And I’m pretty sure I’ve recall someone else talk about “An infinite task” that must be “begun over and over again”… the name is on the tip of my langue).1
  • Chris B is not quite sold, remaining skeptical that the algorithmic approaches Ramsay describes will ever produce much more than was put into them.
  • Joseph pursues Ramsay’s distinction between “a text that describes a relationship and one that can perform the relationships it describes” (66) to (who else) Derrida and, in the process, asks whether the borders between “algorithmic” criticism and its others are entirely stable.
  • Peter K’s post mentions Derrida (!?)2, but its heart lies with Nicastro and Owren’s groundbreaking work on “Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalization by naive and experienced human listeners” (!?!?!). Like other folks writing this week, Peter is interested in the broader methodological questions Ramsay’s text asks, and so uses Ramsay’s argument as the occasion for reflection about his interests, concluding: “Marrying Darwin and the digital reshapes literature as a series of affective algorithms; the affects are infinitely heterogeneous, always in flux, but still predictable probabilities.”
  1. Yeah, that’s right: Derrida. []
  2. All this Derrida, and no one talks about the one place where Ramsay invokes Derrida! [Ramsay 77] []

Move 1: Wait a minute, what’s this book about?

This week we look at McGann’s Radiant Textuality, a book now more than decade old; returning to the book this week, I must say I was struck chiefly by how relevant it remains in many regards. Other readers, though, noted some other things—some were attracted/fascinated by the IVANHOE game, others by questions of interpretation and deformance; and others found that decade’s distance a more profound gulf:

  • Adam offers some reflections on the lamented (by McGann) divide between “critics” and “editors”, before launching into an IVANHOE game of his own. (Will anyone play?) Adam intervenes in the IVANHOE game collected in the appendix of Radiant Textuality, in the character of ” John Booby. The descendent of the much famed Squire Booby who acted as a model for Fielding’s character of the same name, John is a red-faced, coursing gentleman who can run down texts with hart-like tenacity.” While Adam wonders “is what I did the IVANHOE game, or have I missed the point and written fan fiction”? (Are those categories mutually exclusive?) He certainly seems to have the spirit of the thing…
  • Staci wonders whether the decade since the publication of Radiant Textuality might not have complicated the (enormous? inflated?) opportunities hypertext offers for literary study (that is, for the state of literature after the world wide web). Does the diversity of platforms available on today’s web beyond hypertext (can I say Web 2.0? or would I thereby have branded myself a charlatan foreverafter? or merely as a relic of an era now five years gone?) complicate (or even undermine?) the possibilities that McGann explores and seems to extol? Does an age of transmedia (and Staci here invokes Henry Jenkins) mean that literature’s textuality isn’t quite so radiant?
  • In a dizzying post which capitalizes on and continues the most dizzying flights of abstraction in McGann’s book (questions about “what is text” and “what is interpretation”), EM presses on the relationship between interpretation and deformance; between the text as incarnation and the text as vehicle; between the intelligible and the sensible. (The post also features the use of the word caboose as a verb. This is no small achievement.)
  • Jordan happily notes, in McGann’s book, a tendency that moves in a contrary direction from the focus on quasi-scientific, statistically grounded data crunching that we might associate with DH: “despite all the apparent scientific rigor of digital experimentation, there is something delightful, almost Proustian, about the kinds of accidental aesthetic discoveries that newly mechanized recombinations of analog works, whether literary or otherwise, might enable. There is something refreshingly serendipitous about the whole affair.” For all that, however, he notes how very far McGann’s proposed game, IVANHOE, is from the world of video games available to us now. What should we make of this gap?

Blog Round Up 2: Would you like to read Moby Dick on easy, medium, or hard?

Last week we spoke in broad terms about media and remediation; this week those broad concerns are given a more local habitation and home, in questions of text encoding and markup.

  • Chris does a nice job connecting last week’s readings to this weeks, before asking some questions about the purposes and uses of encoded texts—and how such encodings, and indeed digital texts in general, may provide an illusion of democratized knowledge.
  • Jesse expresses skepticism about the value of markup; agreeing often in spirit (if not always in letter)1 with David Golumbia’s comments on “linguistic computationalism.” Jesse asks, doesn’t TEI reify a notion of the “text itself”?
  • Joseph wonders about the limits of text without semantic markup; he offers, as an instance of Cummings’s point about the multiplicity of versions which a single marked-up text can afford, an imagined edition of Moby Dick and asks, I think quite wonderfully, “would you like to read Moby Dick on easy, medium or hard?” This strikes me as a rather savvy converge of the possibilities of markup and of traditions of the video game. (And, as a bonus, Joseph’s post includes a nice link to a Radiolab story featuring a good example of text analysis; if you haven’t heard that story, I recommend it!).
  • Peter K’s post brings together questions of markup and literary theory (and his anecdote of theory being itself a formalization, not so far from quantification, might be worthy of discussion) and imagines an experiment too. “Search this text,” he writes, “and mark up all the places where someone could do a reading with Theory X.” Perhaps the key phrase here is “quantification of the subjective”. (Hmm… has he been looking at Prism?).
  • Peter D expresses skepticism about David Golumbia’s concerns about the monolingualism (and concomitant asymmetries of power) of the Web. At the heart of this question seems to be a relatively fundamental question about the separability of a technology from its effects; Peter invokes Saussure in the course of trying to separate computer “languages” which bear some relationship to English. We’ll see…
  1. Please, please, please, tell me that the salience of this metaphor, and its failure, is not lost here. Please. []

Blog Round Up 1: Bibliotics, Verve, Hypertext, and Aura

We are beginning the semester by trying to think through the question of digital textuality. In concrete terms, we might imagine ourselves wondering: how does the fact of digitization change our study of works of literature (and, indeed, culture more broadly—a breadth worth remaining sensitive to, especially for you folks interested in film, new media, and visual culture)? Does it? This is a question most appropriate to media studies and we might fairly wonder if it is relevant to works of literature (etc) at all. After all, we don’t study paper, do we? (And here, students of book history and bibliography should already be on high alert).

In our first set of blog posts we find folks picking up discussions from our first meeting as well as venturing into (and off from) the essays and chapters we’re reading this week; the discussions are sufficiently numerous that I’ll leave the potential for cross-pollination until class meets.

In this week’s posts:

  • Adam Kozaczka follows a footnote from Kirschenbaum in order to explore nineteenth century textual materiality and forensics as practiced by Persifor Frazer. In Frazer, Adam finds: “a kind of inter, extra, meta (and maybe even hyper) –textual[ity]. Adding a nineteenth century voice to the ‘is literature data?’ debate, Bibliotics expands the concept of ‘text’ by locating the technical aspects of writing as evidence.”
  • EM pleasantly amplifies a note from our first meeting by tracing Stephen Marche’s fascination with Macbeth‘s “rooky wood” to Empson, in order to tease out a more sensitive reading of the relationship between “literature” and “data.” Along the way he suggests something potentially scandalous: “The goodness or badness or literary scholarship is a question, simply, of verve.” I’ll reserve my own scandalized response for the comment thread.
  • Staci ruminates on remediation and wonders about the contradictions inherent in the model of relation between media Bolter & Grusin’s account. She focuses in particular on their description of hypertext and their claim that “replacement is the essence of hypertext,” wondering to what extent this description falls into the trap Kirschenbaum describes, of treating new media as fleeting and ephemeral.
  • Jordan’s post treats of sacred cows and petting zoos, in order to find, in Latour and Lowe’s rejection of Waler Benjamin’s famous account of aura a lingering (and, to Jordan I take it, pernicious) residue of auratic conservatism. At the heart of this critque is Jordan’s insistence: “Interpretation != replication.” I take it that Jordan (in the spirit of Benjamin?) wants to preserve the progressive tendency of the former against the conservative tendency of the latter—and doing so requires us to not, as Latour & Lowe do, so easily collapse them.

I’ll see you folks tomorrow evening.

Blogging Requirement for 630

As part of this class, you will be required to maintain a blog where you will post short (500 words)1 weekly responses to the reading we’re doing, and where you will be expected2 to comment on the posts of your peers.

The benefits of this process will be, I hope, many. For one thing, I believe interacting regularly in writing will deepen our intellectual engagement with the material we study and (at risk of sounding saccharine) with one another. Beginning our discussions online will enrich our discussions in class.

Such public writing also invites the possibility of comments from the world outside, from people not in the class. All classrooms are always implicitly engaged with the world beyond their walls. The material we read, the assumptions we make, and the arguments we have are all made with at least implicit reference to standards, norms, and realities which have their origin elsewhere. By blogging, in public, the implicit engagement of the seminar classroom can, at least in a minor way, become explicit; that world outside can, at least potentially, talk back.3

In addition to the benefits I hope the blog will bring to the class, there is another, more pragmatic benefit (for you) which is less tied to this class. By asking you to develop an online presence, and to build that presence with (some really excellent) writing, you will be well on your way to creating an online professional identity which has at least the possibility of benefiting you later. Indeed, the reason I am asking everyone to start their own blog (to which this blog will link) is so that the work you do has the possibility of benefiting you.4 For some additional reflections on the value of creating an professional presence online (and some practical tips), this article is excellent and collects some fantastic links.

If you already have a weblog (that archaic origin of the term "blog" may inspire a snicker) that you’d feel comfortable using, great5 If not, you will need to set one up. How you do this is up to you. If you’re feeling adventurous, you may want to host your own blog.6 The easier route is to create a free, hosted blog on a service like WordPress.com or Blogger (a once independent blog publishing service, now owned by Google). Looking into this sooner, rather than later, is strongly advised. We will discuss the logistics of posting and commenting for class at our first meeting; but your blog should be up and running by our second class meeting (i.e. Thursday, January 24).

This doesn’t seem like the sort of post likely to elicit comments or discussion… but feel free to do so. Also don’t hesitate to send me an email about course blogging or any other aspect of the class.

  1. I will try to enforce this limit as a protection of everyone’s time. []
  2. Ahem, required. []
  3. Note: If you are profoundly uncomfortable writing in public in this way, speak to me and we will try to set up something which will you allow you to meet the requirements of the class; I think, though, you will most benefit from the class if you give it a try. []
  4. Call this "not alienating you from your labor" if you’re a Marxist; call it allowing you to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" if you’re of another persuasion. []
  5. You might carefully consider whether you want to use an existing blog for this class; your identity online is a complex and multiform thing, and it might make sense to preserve that diversity in some way; if you have a “personal” blog, it might make sense to separate it from a “professional” blog. []
  6. This would entail purchasing a domain and web hosting—I’m happy to talk with you about this sort of minutiae if you’re interested []