Monday, April 21, 2014

Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 1: Discourse and Conceptual Topology

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

... it is precisely because we are talking about ordinary language that we need to adopt a notation as different from ordinary language as possible, to keep us from getting lost in confusion between the object of description and the means of description.
–Sydney Lamb


Worlds within worlds – that’s how Tim Perper, my friend and colleague, described biology. At the smallest scale we have individual molecules, with DNA being of prime importance. At the largest scale we have the earth as a whole, with all living beings interacting in a single ecosystem over billions of years. In between we have cells, tissues, and organs of various sizes, autonomous organisms, populations of organisms on various scales from the invisible to continent-spanning, and interactions among populations of organisms on various scales.

Literature too is like that, from single figures and tropes, even single words (think of Joyce’s portmanteaus) through complete works of various sizes, from haiku to oral epics, from short stories through multi-volume novels, onto whole bodies of literature circulating locally, regionally, across continents and between them, from weeks and years to centuries and millennia. Somehow we as humanists and literary critics must comprehend it all. Breathtaking, no?

In this essay I sketch a potential computational historicism operating at multiple scales, both in time and textual extent. In the first part I consider network models on three scale: 1) topic models at the macroscale, 2) Moretti’s plot networks at the mesoscale, and 3) cognitive networks, taken from computational linguistics, at the microscale. I give examples of each and conclude by sketching relationships among them. I open the second part by presenting an account of abstraction given by David Hays in the early 1970s; in this model abstract concepts are defined over stories. I then move on to Hauser and Le-Khac on 19th Century novels, Stephen Greenblatt on self and person, and consider several texts, Amleth, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Wuthering Heights, and Heart of Darkness.

Graphs and Networks

To the mathematician the image below depicts a topological object called a graph. Civilians tend to call such objects networks. The nodes or vertices, as they are called, are connected by arcs or edges.

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Such graphs can be used to represent many different kinds of phenomena, a road map is an obvious example, a kinship tree is another, sentence structure is a third example. The point is that such graphs are signs of phenomena, notations. They are not the phenomena itself.

Renewal: Taken on Easter Sunday

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Three cheers for the liberal arts

Tom Friedman to Laszlo Bock, head of hiring at Google:
Are the liberal arts still important?

They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”



Trees: Their use in visualization

Lima’s book is a history of hierarchical visualizations, most frequently as trees, and often representing branches of knowledge. He roots his narrative in trees themselves, describing how their symbolism has touched religions and cultures for millennia. The narrative weaves through Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, makes a few stops outside of the West and winds its way to the present day. Subsequent chapters are divided into types of tree visualizations: figurative, vertical, horizontal, multidirectional, radial, hyperbolic, rectangular, voronoi, circular, sunbursts, and icicles. Each chapter presents a chronological set of beautiful examples embodying that type.

Literary Studies in the Current Era (the Machinic and post-Apocalyptic Anthropocene)


In December 2013, after I’d been working on Latour and pluralism for awhile, I published a revised version in which I replaced Object Oriented Ontology from the first version with Ethical Criticism: The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure.

No doubt there will be a third version, perhaps soon, or perhaps a little later. In any event I offer this diagram by way of making the obvious point that the divisions I imagine aren’t exclusive.

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For those who haven’t read either of the earlier documents I note two things: 1) I give description separate billing because I believe that we MUST get better descriptive control over our materials. Description as I have come to understand it encompasses both somewhat revised approaches to “close” reading and “distant” reading. 2) Ethical criticism encompasses hermeneutics and critique while naturalist criticism can accommodate cognitive and evolutionary approaches.

I took more or less the first version of Key to the Treasure, added some philosophical reflection, and posted a working paper to SSRN in September 2012: Working Paper: Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World. Here’s the abstract:
At the most abstract philosophical level the cosmos is best conceptualized as containing various Realms of Being interacting with one another. Each Realm contains a broad class of objects sharing the same general body of processes and laws. In such a conception the human world consists of many different Realms of Being, with more emerging as human cultures become more sophisticated and internally differentiated. Common Sense knowledge forms one Realm while Literary experience is another. Being immersed in a literary work is not at all the same as going about one's daily life. Formal Literary Criticism is yet another Realm, distinct from both Common Sense and Literary Experience. Literary Criticism is in the process of differentiating into two different Realms, that of Ethical Criticism, concerned with matters of value, and that of Naturalist Criticism, concerned with the objective study of psychological, social, and historical processes.

From Yesterday's Catch

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Irving Geis: He Saw Molecules

Well, not directly. No one can do that, they’re too small. They’re so small that you can’t even see them with the most powerful light microscope. They’re dimensions are less than the wavelengths of visible light. In effect, light misses them.

So you zap them with a tightly focused x-ray beam – much shorter wavelengths – and the beam scatters onto a photographic emulsion or, these days I guess, on to some micro-electronic detector and get an image. Which looks like a smudge. But, from such smudges you can deduce what the thing must look like.

That’s where Geis came in. He takes those deductions, which have been rendered as sketches of some sort, and turns them into useful and elegant images, images that make sense to the naked eye. These images are at once true to the molecule and to the eye, but they are also fictions. Because, as I said, they’re way too small to be visible themselves. So Geis had to come up with plausible visualization.

Many others have painted molecules, but Geis was the first. You can find nice appreciations at L2Molecule and at Brain Pickings, which covers some of his other scientific visualizations. This Google query pulls up a bunch of images.

Here’s a couple of passages about Geis from an article* I wrote on visual thinking:
In a personal interview, Geis indicated that, in studying a molecule's structure, he uses an exercise derived from his training as an architect. Instead of taking an imaginary walk through a building, the architectural exercise, he takes an imaginary walk through the molecule. This allows him to visualize the molecule from many points of view and to develop a kinesthetic sense, in addition to a visual sense, of the molecule's structure. Geis finds this kinesthetic sense so important that he has entertained the idea of building a huge model of a molecule, one large enough that people could enter it and move around, thereby gaining insight into its structure. Geis has pointed out that biochemists, as well as illustrators, must do this kind of thinking. To understand a molecule's functional structure biochemists will imagine various sight lines through the image they are examining. If they have a three-dimensional image on a CRT, they can direct the computer to display the molecule from various orientations. It is not enough to understand the molecule's shape from one point of view. In order intuitively to understand it's three-dimensional shape one must be able to visualize the molecule from several points of view.
Think about that for a minute. In order to visualize a single tiny molecule, Geis used his entire body.

* * * * *

* William Benzon. Visual Thinking. Allen Kent and James G. Williams, Eds. Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology. Volume 23, Supplement 8. New York; Basel: Marcel Dekker, Inc. (1990) 411-427.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Solar in the Suburbs

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The Only Game in Town: Remarks on Alan Liu and Digital Humanities

I've collected five posts on Alan Liu into a single PDF. You can download it from my SSRN page: Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities, A Working Paper. Abstract and introduction below.


* * * * *

Abstract: Alan Liu has been organizing and conceptualizing digital humanities (DH) for two decades. I consider a major essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” two interviews, one with Katherine Hayles and the other with Scott Pound, and a major blog post in which Liu engages Stephen Ramsay. Other investigators included: Willard McCarty and Franco Moretti. Some of Liu’s themes: DH as symbolic of the future of the humanities, the need for theory as well as practical projects, the role of DH in enlarging the scope of the “thinkable,” the importance of an engineering mindset, and the need for a long-term effort in revivifying the humanities.

* * * * *

Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study. The time has come, to make them explicit.

–Franco Moretti

I first heard about Alan Liu back in the late 1990s, when he was working on Voice of the Shuttle. I may or may not have submitted some links, I don’t really remember, but if so, that would have been it. Since then I gather that he’s been acting as a Johnny Appleseed for what has come to be called digital humanities, an ambassador, or in the corporate jargon of Apple Inc., an evangelist.

But it wasn’t until early in 2012 that I started to focus on the so-called digital humanities (aka DH). To be sure, Matt Kirschenbaum showed up at The Valve (alas, now dormant) for the Moretti book event (Graphs, Maps, Trees) and, for that matter, Moretti himself put in a few appearances. I snagged a promising book reference from Kirschenbaum (Dominic Widdows, Geometry and Meaning), but for me that event was about Moretti, not DH. It took Stanley Fish to get me thinking about DH. He’d gone to the MLA convention, attended some DH sessions, and blogged about it in January, 2012: Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation. Of my posts tagged “digital humanities”, only a bit less than a quarter of them were written before Fish. The rest come after.

Sometime in the wake of Fish I came across anxiety within the DH community about the lack of Theory, with Alan Liu prominent among the worriers. Now I was irritated. On the one hand, it seems to me that Theory has lost most of its energy – for what it's worth, it was an examination of that morbidity that had attracted me to The Valve (the discussions of Theory’s Empire) in the summer of 2005. On the other hand, there’s a rich body of theory around computation, language, the mind, and evolutionary process (read: history) which is relevant, it seemed to me, to DH and yet which has been for the most part neglected. There is more to theorizing humanity than is dreamt of in Theory.

Finally, in March of this year I saw a video of Liu’s Meaning of the Humanities talk at NYU. I watched it, liked it, and contacted Alan. He responded by sending me a PDF of his PMLA article of the same title (“The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”, PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423). That prompted me to write the first of the blog posts I’ve collected here: Computer as Symbol and Model: On reading Alan Liu.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A digital humanist was walking to Damascus...

I’m wondering how many digital humanists set out to do one thing and ended up realizing they were doing something else, something they don’t quite understand. Some texts...

* * *

We who have been working in the field know that the digital humanities can provide better resources for scholarship and better access to them. We know that in the process of designing and constructing these resources our collaborators often undergo significant growth in understanding of digital tools and methods, and that this sometimes, perhaps even in a significant majority of cases, fosters insight into the originating scholarly questions. Sometimes secular metanoia is not too strong a term to describe the experience.

Willard McCarty, A Telescope for the Mind?

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Rude and Crude

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To Capture Infinity in a Bottle: The Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism

The Gist: The only way the digital humanities are going to develop a cultural analytics that is sui generis is by thinking about the nature of computation itself in relation to human minds, as embodied in human brains, and as developing though interaction with other minds through various media and in groups of varying size and social structure. Otherwise the digital humanities will have no choice by to borrow its cultural concepts from other discourses, as it is now doing.

* * * * *

Let has start from some passages. First up, Alan Liu, from “Why I’m In It” x 2 – Antiphonal Response to Stephan Ramsay on Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism (September 13, 2013):
The digital humanities can only take on their full importance when they are seen to serve the larger humanities (and arts, with affiliated social sciences) in helping them maintain their ability to contribute to the making of the full wealth of society, where “wealth” here has its older, classic sense of “well-being” or the good life woven together with the life of good.
Compare that with Willard McCarty, A telescope for the mind? (Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): “What can the digital humanities can do for the humanities as a whole that helps these disciplines improve the well-being of us all?”

Back to Liu:
It seems to me that digital humanists can and should evolve a mode of cultural criticism that is uniquely their own and not a mere echo of fading humanist cultural criticism by treating their immediate objects of inquiry (academically-oriented technologies and methods) as always also “mediate objects of inquiry” bearing on the way the human beings they wish their students could become (and they themselves could be on their best days) can really engage meaningfully with larger social agents and forces....The goal is to do research, to teach, and to live as if humanities technology is constantly intertwined with, reacts to, and acts on the way the links are now being forged between individuals (starting with those in the academy where we teach and conduct research) and the social-economic-political-technological constitution of contemporary society.

What it comes down to is that the digital humanities need both to work on tools and methods in their own institutional place (the academy) and to develop a capable imagination of the relation of that unique institutional place (or family of variant institutional spaces) to the other major institutions that play a part in enabling or thwarting the passageway from private human subjectivity to public social sensibility.
It seems that Liu is imagining a cultural criticism centered on institutions and society, one that treats computers and minds as black boxes whose inner workings remain unexamined. In this practice it seems to me that the ideas about culture and society would likely come from already existing bodies of work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Contrail

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As Greece Founders, Athens Becomes Graffiti Mecca

From the NYTimes:
Graffiti in Athens, as in other cities the world over, has flourished for decades. But in a country where the adversity of wars and military dictatorship already has shaped the national psyche, the five-year economic collapse has spawned a new burst of creative energy that has turned Athens into a contemporary mecca for street art in Europe.

Denounced as thuggish vandalism by some observers, but hailed by others as artistic and innovative, tags, bubble letters and stylized paint work long have blanketed this city’s walls, trains, cars, banks, kiosks, crumbling buildings — and even some ruins of the Acropolis. But in the past several years, the anguish of the times has increasingly crept into the elaborate stencil work and multitude of large, colorful murals found all over the city, as Greece’s throngs of unemployed and underemployed young people have ample time to express their malaise.
And a dentist has turned to graff:
Recently, under cover of darkness, a Greek dentist whose business has been all but wiped out by the crisis reached into a tote bag and grabbed a can of spray paint and a stencil he had cut in his spare time using a cavity drill. Stopping at a crumbling wall, he quickly painted an image not typically associated with his profession: a masked man hurling a firebomb.

“The middle class and the working class in Greece have been ruined,” said the dentist, who goes by the street handle Mapet, declining to give his real name. “My goal is to deliver social and political counterpropaganda, and make people think.”
Athens School of Fine Arts has courses in street painting.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Gojira Papers

While I've got some more thinking to do about Gojira, I'm currently preoccupied with other things. So I've to decided to take what I've got so far and wrap it up into a working paper. Here's the link to the SSRN page. Abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract : Gojira (1954) is a Japanese film with two intertwined plots: 1) a monster plot about a prehistoric beast angered by atomic testing, and 2) a love plot structured around a conflict between traditional arranged marriage and modern marriage by couple’s choice. The film exhibits ring-composition (A B C D C’ D’ A’) as a device linking the two apparently independent plots together. Nationalist sentiment plays an important role in that linkage. the paper ends with a 6-page table detailing the actions in the film from beginning to end.