The New Past, and a Speculative Future, of Literature: A Brief Discussion of Two Text Analysis Tools

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Published on April 21, 2014

Author: NatGustafsonSundell



This presentation consists of three sections: (1) a brief description of the work of Franco Moretti and Matthew Jockers to exemplify how past literature can be seen anew using text analysis tools, (2) a brief description of Voyant and TMT in the context of text analysis generally, (3) a science fiction extrapolation describing text creation tools as the obverse of text analysis tools. One might imagine a new future literature in which text artists build texts by combining words at a distance. One might imagine an obverse to Voyant: a “text creation system” which allows users to add numbers of words to a text and to define the proximity of those words to each other using network visualizations and other tools. The construction of such texts could be imagined to be every bit as complex as writing a novel, as artists might manipulate webs of words to differentiate and potentiate shades of meaning.

The New Past, and a Speculative Future, of Literature: A Brief Discussion of Two Text Analysis Tools Nat Gustafson-Sundell Minnesota State University, Mankato 1

Franco Moretti “Writing about comparative social history, Marc Bloch once coined a lovely ‘slogan,’ as he himself called it: ‘years of analysis for a day of synthesis’; and if you read Braudel or Wallerstein you immediately see what Bloch had in mind. The text which is strictly Wallerstein’s, his ‘day of synthesis’, occupies one-third of a page … the rest are quotations … Years of analysis; other people’s analysis, which Wallerstein’s page synthesizes into a system. Note, if we take this model seriously, the study of world literature will somehow have to reproduce this ‘page’ – which is to say: this relationship between analysis and synthesis – for the literary field. But in that case, literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become ‘second hand’: a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading. Still ambitious, and actually even more so than before (world literature!); but the ambition is now directly proportional to the distance from the text: the more ambitious the project, the greater must the distance be.” (Moretti 47-8, 2000) “Distant reading: where distance … is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. It we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something…” (Moretti 48-9, 2000) 2

Matthew Jockers “The literary scholar of the twenty-first century can no longer be content with anecdotal evidence, with random ‘things’ generated from a few , even ‘representative’ texts. We must strive to understand these things in the context of everything else, including a mass of possibly ‘uninteresting’ texts.” (Jockers 8) “At the macro scale , we see evidence of time and gender influences on theme and style. By superimposing these two network snapshots in our minds, we can begin to imagine a larger context in which to read and study nineteenth-century literature. What is clear is that the books we have traditionally studied are not isolated books. The canonical greats are not even outliers: they are books that are similar to other books…” (Jockers 168) “It is the exact interplay between the macro and micro scale that promises a new, enhanced, and perhaps even better understanding of the literary record. The two approaches work in tandem and inform each other. Human interpretation of the ‘data,’ whether it be mined at the macro or micro level, remains essential … The most fundamental and important difference in the two approaches is that the macroanalytic approach reveals details about texts that are for all intents and purposes unavailable to close-readers of the texts.” (Jockers online) 3

“The value of the computer-mediated exercises is that they enable readers to readily perceive and appreciate features that are not obvious in a conventional reading of a printed text.” (Irizarry 155, 1996) “The computer is, among other things, an instrument uniquely suited to play activities ...” (Irizarry 156, 1996) “Assembling and disassembling a text, like playing with blocks of Lego, may not necessarily contribute immediately to its understanding, but it is likely to contribute to the aggregate experience of the text in valuable ways. … I am suggesting that play is an integral part of a humanist’s interpretive activities…” (Sinclair 181, 2003) “Playful experimentation is a pragmatic approach of trying something, seeing if you obtain interesting results, and if you do, then trying to theorize why those results are interesting rather than starting from articulated principles.” (Rockwell 214, 2003) Play 4 5

Word Trends 6

Johnny Johnny, Dave, Doris Johnny, Dave, Doris, Mildred, Arrow Collocate Clusters 7

Johnny, Dave, Doris, Thought Johnny, Dave, Doris, Thought, Strange Collocate Clusters 8

Topic Modeling (Blei 78) 9 10

Topics in Documents: % of Topics in All 390 Documents 11

For Topic 1: Top 25 Documents in Topic 1 In the arrangement of poems, what is the topic trend? What can we learn about arrangement in this book? How often is this topic the “dominant” topic? What topics are most common across documents, or most rare? What topics tend to dominate? What topics tend to be subordinate? Does this topic relate to certain topics more than others? 12

Imagine Texts Constructed Only To Be Read At A Distance Imagine Texts Topic In Doc 1 Reading 55% Distance 38% Imagine texts constructed only to be read at a distance. Read 13

14 SP11_SeaandSparBetween/index.html Read Read 15

16 Works Cited Blei, David. "Probabilistic Topic Models." Communications of the ACM 55.4 (2012): 77-84. Web. Brett, Megan. "Topic Modeling: A Basic Introduction." Journal of Digital Humanities 2.1 (2012): 12-16. Web. Irizarry, Estelle. "Tampering with the Text to Increase Awareness of poetry’s Art: Theory and Practice with a Hispanic Perspective." Literary and Linguistic Computing 11 (1996): 155-162. Print. Jockers, Matthew Lee. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. University of Illinois Press, 2013. Print. Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013. Print. Rockwell, Geoffrey. "What is Text Analysis, really?" Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 209-19. Web. Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. "Deformance and Interpretation." New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25-56. Web. Sinclair, Stefan. "Computer-Assisted Reading: Reconceiving Text Analysis." Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 175-84. Web.

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