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] []

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