Culture Magazine

On Deck: Getting Organized (as Always) – Lit Crit, #DH, Identity, Cultural Evolution

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
When I did this a week-and-a-half ago I listed five to-do items. I’ve done three of them: Two are not yet done:
  • How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’): But I’m working toward it. I want to get some other things posted first.
  • An article with the working title, Description and Form in Literary Analysis: The Case of Heart of Darkness: This is a major task and will be ongoing until it’s done.
I’ve added the following items to the agenda:
Virtual reading: This is a development from the post, In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]. I’d tacked these short paragraphs onto the end of that post a day or two after I’d originally posted it:
Consider the connected graph for the emblem phrase. It should be easy enough to calculate a central point for the phrase, no? But then, couldn’t we do that for any sentence or phrase? So, start at the beginning of the text and move sequentially through the text with a moving window of suitable length. Calculate the central point for the phrase within the window and trace the movement of successive centers through the text from beginning to end.
Such a “reading” would not, of course, yield the computer anything like an understanding of the text. That’s not why it interests me. I’m interested in the form the trajectory traces through the space. For example, how does it move with respect to the center of the emblem? What about the volume spanned by the subgraph within this moving window? How does it expand and contract. And so forth.
In looking around on my hard-drive I came across a 2010 article on more or less just that: E. Alvarez-Lacalle, B. Dorow, J.-P. Eckmann, and E. Moses. Hierarchical structures induce long-range dynamical correlations in written texts. PNAS Vol. 103 no. 21. May 23, 2006: 7956–7961. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0510673103
I’m sure I hadn’t read the article, but I certainly must have skimmed it. The idea for this post is to say something about this article and then elaborate on the idea of virtual reading.
Reply to a ‘traditional’ critic: I’d sent the small world post to a number of critics. One of them, a digital critical, asked: What would you say to a critic who asserts that, after all, the centrality of that emblematic phrase ('My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘) is “accessible to direct inspection by a reader?” After all, that’s how identified it and argued centrality in that post. My basic response: There’s really nothing to say to such a critic. But...from my point of view such critics suffer from an impoverished intellectual imagination and so cannot see beyond literary criticism as it currently exists. There are, in fact, other issues to be investigated, emerging from a different intellectual background. And then I elaborate. The post on virtual reading would contribute to this.
Lit Crit, Identity, & the Curriculum in the 21st Century: Perhaps one or two posts here. One of the reasons given for ‘close reading’ in the middle of the last century is that it could be taught to students with relatively little background. That in turn was important because we’re teaching literature to undergraduates in order to inculcate in them what they need to be good citizens. Three decades after that, what had happened? With the development of feminist criticism and African-American studies identity had emerged as a major issue. And this led to the so-called canon wars and the Culture War. That is, an intellectual regime that had been introduced to help promulgate a sense of uniform American identity and led to the opposite, a splintering of identity. What’s going to come of that?
Open letter to John Lawler about Cultural Evolution: Lawler is a linguistic I met almost two decades ago at one of Haj Ross’s conferences in Denton, Texas. He’s heard that folks are interested in studying cultural change using biological evolution as a model. And he’s skeptical, in part because some Procrustean work has been done on language change. I want to convince him that things aren’t quite so bad. This is an opportunity for me to think through my current ideas about cultural evolution in a quick and dirty way. While I’ll publish this is a blog post, I expect it to be a bit longer than most of my blog posts, as my open letters have been in the past.

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