Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Regression Progression




Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 3: Abstraction at the Time Scale of History

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the first post in this series, Discourse and Conceptual Topology, I reviewed network models on three scales, micro, meso, and macro. In the second post, From History to Abstraction, I moved to the micro scale and argued that the mechanism of abstraction proposed by David Hays gives us a way of thinking about how a historical process can lead to subsequent abstraction and illustrated the model through an examination of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. In this post I examine Heuser and Le-Khac on the 19th Century British novel and undertake a formal comparison of The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights in which I argue that Brontë had the advantage of conceptual machinery unavailable to Shakespeare, though in some way anticipated by him. I hope to conclude this series with a fourth post in which I return to purely theoretical and methodological matters.

History: Showing and Telling

As we all know, one of the major problems of literary studies up to now is that it has concentrated its attentions on a relatively small body of texts, the so-called canon, and has allowed the examination of those texts to stand as a proxy for all of literary history. The assumption is either that, because of their quality, those are the only texts that matter or, perhaps, their quality allows them to “stand-in” for the rest. The widespread availability of powerful computers now allows as to put these assumptions to the test or, rather, simply to abandon them.

Sister disciplines have developed techniques for analyzing large bodies of texts, corpus linguistics, and literary critics are applying these to newly available digital text collections. I want to examine one such study, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4, May 2012; HERE is an older post on this study). Their corpus included almost 3000 British novels spanning the period from 1785 to 1900. What they discovered, roughly speaking, is a shift from abstract terms to concrete, which they characterize as shift from telling (abstract terminology) showing (concrete terms). They read this shift through Raymond Williams (The Country and the City) as reflecting a population shift from small rural closely-knit communities to large urban communities where people are constantly amid strangers.

Here is how Heuser and Le-Khac characterize the texts toward the beginning of the period (p. 35):
Thinking in terms of the abstract values, the tight social spaces in the novels at the left of the spectrum are communities where values of conduct and social norms are central. Values like those encompassed by the abstract values fields organize the social structure, influence social position, and set the standards by which individuals are known and their behavior judged. Small, constrained social spaces can be thought of as what Raymond Williams calls “knowable communities,” a model of social organization typified in representations of country and village life, which offer readers “people and their relationships in essentially knowable and communicable ways” (Country 165). The knowable community is a sphere of face-to-face contacts “within which we can find and value the real substance of personal relationships” (Country 165). What’s important in this social space is the legibility of people, their relationships, and their positions within the community.
Toward the end of the period writers wrote and readers read texts Ryan and Le-Khac characterize like this (p. 36):
If this is how the abstract values fields are linked to a specific kind of social space, then we can make sense of their decline over the century and across the spectrum. The observed movement to wider, less constrained social spaces means opening out to more variability of values and norms. A wider social space, a rapidly growing city for instance, encompass- es more competing systems of value. This, combined with the sheer density of people, contributes to the feeling of the city’s unordered diversity and randomness. This multiplicity creates a messier, more ambiguous, and more complex landscape of social values, in effect, a less knowable community... The sense of a shared set of values and standards giving cohesion and legibility to this collective dissipates. So we can understand the decline of the abstract values fields—these clear systems of social values organized into neat polarizations—as a reflection of their inadequacy and obsolescence in the face of the radically new kind of society that novels were attempting to represent.
The upshot (p. 36): “Alienation, disconnection, dissolution—all are common reactions to the new experience of the city.”

I have no problems with this, as far as it goes. But, in light of Hays mechanism of abstraction, where abstract terms are defined over terms, I want to suggest that something else might be going on. Perhaps all those concrete terms in the later novels are components of abstract patterns, patterns defining terms which may not even be named in the text (or elsewhere).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Philological mysteries

I have long known that my discipline is descended from philology, but I've never had a very firm sense of just what philology is other than the study of language with a historical emphasis. Language Log has taken up the quest. Mark Liberman, for whom philology means "an old term for linguistic analysis, and especially comparative and historical linguistics as applied to analyzing and understanding texts in dead languages such as Old English and Middle English", starts off with a post wondering just what Paul de Man meant by philology when he urged a return to philology in one of his late essays. Liberman cites a number of dictionary definitions of the term and his commenters have quite a bit to say on the matter. 

He adds another post, based on remarks by one of his commenters, Omri Ceren, and himself notes "the supreme intellectual prestige of 'philology' in Europe through the middle of the 19th century, and to some extent until WW I." He closes with a publisher's blurb for James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014):
Many today do not recognize the word, but "philology" was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archaeology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology, the first history of Western humanistic learning as a connected whole ever published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.
The redoubtable Victor Mair weighs in with on Philology and Sinology, explaining that:
a Sinologist is a philologist who specializes on matters pertaining to China. To which [people] will generally ask, "Huh, what's that?" Whereupon I will say, "A philologist is someone who studies ancient texts for the purpose of understanding the languages and cultures of the times in which they were written."

I definitely think of myself as a philologist specializing in Sinology. Disciplines parallel to Sinology are Indology, Japanology, Semitology, and so forth. For the majority of scholars, these have now morphed into Indian Studies, Japanese Studies, Semitic Studies, and so on, but I'm old fashioned and still cling to the old ideals and old methods of Sinology, though happily assisted now by modern technology and techniques (computers, data bases, online resources, etc.).



Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 2: From History to Abstraction

I examined three different uses of network vizualizations, topic models, Moretti’s plot diagrams, and cognitive networks in first part of this essay, Discourse and Conceptual Topology. When I posted that I imagined only a second part. In the writing, though, that second part grew and grew, so I cut it in two.

In this part I pose the problem of time and discuss two essays by Stephen Greenblatt, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” and “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture” and then compare Amleth (Saxo-Grammaticus) with Hamlet (Shakespeare). I then move back to cognitive networks and talk about Hays’s concept of metalingual defintion and conclude with more Shakespeare, Sonnet 129. I’ll get to Heuser and Le-Khac in Part 3: Prophesy.

Time and History

For physics, I understand, time presents a problem. It seems to have a direction, as some processes are irreversible. Why? If you drop a small quantity of ink into a tumbler of water – as I did in A Primer on Self-Organization: With some tabletop physics you can do at home – it diffuses, irreversibly so. The ink particles never collect together into the compact volume they had when first dropped into the water. Why?


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.


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



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.


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




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.

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* 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


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.

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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.

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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...

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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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