Monthly Archives: February 2013

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?