Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ring Composition in Alan Liu’s Essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”

I would like to conclude Alan Liu week at New Savanna by returning to the point where I began, his essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423). As I was writing my original post I was struck by a paragraph-opening sentence near the end: “It is not accidental, I can now reveal, that at the beginning of this essay I alluded to Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology.” The sentence clearly states that Liu did something at the beginning of the essay so as to set us up for something coming at the end. There’s nothing unusual in that; skillful, and even not so skillful, writers do that sort of thing all the time.

But Liu’s telling us about his rhetorical slight of hand? Why? I don’t know and, to be honest, that particular question only just now occurred to me as I’m writing this post.

What struck me a week ago when I pasted that sentence into my post and then reread it was the possibility that Liu’s article was an example of ring-composition – which, you may know, is one of my interests. While I first learned about ring forms in a 1976 article by R. G. Peterson, Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature (PMLA 91, 3: 367-375) it was the late Mary Douglas who got me to think seriously about ring-forms; she devoted her final book to them, Thinking in Rings: An Essay in Ring Composition (Yale 2007).

But that was about literary texts of one sort or another. Douglas was particularly interested in Old Testament texts, but had also worked on Tristram Shandy; others were interested in the Homeric texts; I’ve been most interested in films, most recently Gojira (Godzilla), a 1954 Japanese film. But Liu’s essay is not a literary text, nor a religious one. No one to my knowledge has investigated ring composition in expository prose.

So, why would such a question arise in the case of Liu’s essay? Well, consider what is generally meant by ring-form. Such texts generally a form like this: A, B, … X … B’, A’. So, let us substitute “Levi-Strauss” for A in that structural pattern:

Lévi-Strauss, B, … X … B’, Lévi-Strauss’

If Liu’s essay follows that pattern then I need to find something that’s structurally central and at least one pair of elements that are closely related to one another where one comes before and the other after the structural center.

It wasn’t difficult to meet those conditions. Once Liu had concluded a survey of the intellectual environs of the digital humanities, conduced under the aegis of Lévi-Strauss, he devoted the long middle-stretch of the essay to analyzing a particular example, a pamphlet by Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac. In the process of explaining their method, he mentions that it involved “an important adjustment step” which he’s going to skip at the moment, but which he’ll return to later. So:

Lévi-Strauss, adjustment, … X … adjustment’, Lévi-Strauss

Now all we need is X. And that’s obvious: “ important, general digital humanities goal that might be called tabula rasa interpretation—the initiation of interpretation through the hypothesis-free discovery of phenomena.” So we have:

Lévi-Strauss, adjustment, tabula rasa, adjustment’, Lévi-Strauss

The importance of the so-called tabula rasa interpretation is that it is innocent of human intervention. The computer is finding something in the text unmediated by human desire. However, Liu observes (p. 414):
However, tabula rasa interpretation puts in question Heuser and Le-Khac’s ultimate goal, which is to get from numbers to humanistic meaning...

Thus the immense importance of the adjustment step in Heuser and Le-Khac’s method that I earlier elided. In fact, Heuser and Le-Khac used Correlator by itself to produce only initial word cohorts and not finished semantic fields because they realized that they needed to ensure that their cohorts had a semantic consistency that quantitative correlation alone could not offer.
Liu then goes on to explain that adjustment step (p. 415):
They turned to the remarkable Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009; hereafter HTOED), which had just been published, and borrowed its historical semantic classifications through what they call “a dialogic method that drew on both quantitative historical data and qualitative semantic rubrics to construct semantic fields with precision and nuance...”

...the HTOED required human beings over decades to write down individual words from the OED on paper slips with meanings, usage dates, and sparse metadata, then to sort, bundle, and file the slips in conceptual groupings and hierarchies.
In other words, this project has been mediated by human intervention through and through. As Liu goes on to note (p. 415):
By installing the HTOED as what amounts to a plug-in for Correlator, Heuser and Le-Khac sowed their hermeneutical process with a coseed of human semantic interpretation. They thus “solved” the meaning problem only by deftly turning the aporia between tabula rasa quantitative interpretation and humanly meaningful qualitative interpretation into its own apparent solution...
The fact that Heuser and Le-Khac’s tabula isn’t in fact rasa is not something that Liu sees as problematic. On the contrary, Liu tells us, it is precisely because the slate was never blank that we can read meaningful results from it.

That takes care of the apparent ontological difference between numbers and meaning. In Liu’s reading “digital humanities method — converging with, but also sometimes diverging from, scientific method — consists in repeatedly coadjusting human concepts and machine technologies until ... the two stabilize each other in temporary postures of truth that neither by itself could sustain.” The rhetorical point of putting the notion of a tabula rasa interpretation at the essay’s structural center is to put the problematic of man and machine in its starkest form, one where man is effectively replaced or displaced by the machine. When he then shows us that what actually happens isn’t as it had seemed we are relieved. Perhaps these digital humanists aren’t so different from us after all.

What then of pulling Lévi-Strauss out of the hat at the end? Just before doing so and by way of moving away from his meditation on Heuser and Le-Khac, Liu quotes a passage from Katherine Hayles:
The further one goes along the spectrum that ends with “machine reading,” the more one implicitly accepts the belief that large-scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces interacting simultaneously, many of which are nonhuman. . . . If events occur at a magnitude far exceeding individual actors and far surpassing the ability of humans to absorb the relevant in- formation, however, “machine reading” might be a first pass toward making visible patterns that human reading could then interpret.
That, of course, is just what we’ve seen in Heuser and Le-Khac’s analysis of almost 3000 British novels spread out over the 19th century – not only all those books, but all the people who read them and the people they interacted with and the various organizations, institutions, and states (not just Great Britain) associated with them. Heuser and Le-Khac used computing to find a pattern in that collection of texts and then interpreted that pattern in terms they found in Raymond Williams.

So, Liu has used Hayles to provide a general gloss on an example he’s studied in some detail and now, in the next paragraph he invokes Lévi-Strauss to contextualize Hayles. First he reminds us that he opened with essay with Lévi-Strauss (p. 418) “It is not accidental, I can now reveal, that at the beginning of this essay I alluded to Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology.” Then he tells us why Lévi-Strauss is important: “Structuralism is a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system...” That, of course, is where we are now. We’re some distance along that path; we understand the world as the complex interaction of intersecting systems. That understanding, Liu continues (p. 419), “has forced the progressive side of the humanities to split off from earlier humanities of the human spirit (Geist) and human self to adopt a worldview in which, as Hayles says, “large-scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces ... many of which are nonhuman.”

There it is: Hayles’ observation has inserted Heuser and Le-Khac into the stream of progressive humanistic scholarship that followed upon the insights of Lévi-Strauss, the structuralists in general and, of course, post-structuralists. That research isn’t a deviation or a diversion, it’s a continuation.

From there to the end of the essay Liu briefly glosses the institutional challenges facing the humanities – instructional methods and media, jobs for humanists and digital humanists – which are driven, in part, by digital technology.

* * * * *

What then is the point, not of Liu’s essay, but of this particular treatment of it? The point, I suppose, is simply to show how it works as a piece of language, as a text that grabs our attention and then works with and through it. That Liu has adopted a structural technique that is usually associated with fictions, that is interesting.

But there is a specific point at issue in the technique he’s adopted, ring-composition. That is this pesky business of authorial intention. Did Liu intend to write in this form, or did it just happen? Intention, of course, is a tricky business. In this case I’m interested in conscious intention. Do authors of ring-form texts consciously set out to create ring-form symmetry or does it just happen as a side-effect of whatever it is that they do consciously intend?

For the most part I’m inclined to the latter view (while Mary Douglas opts for the former in Thinking in Circles). I don’t know what Liu had in mind when he wrote this essay, or how it developed over time, from one draft to another, from one presentation to another, but, if I had to guess, I’d guess that he didn’t set out to create a ring-form. Though I have no intention of trying to guess at what he did think, it makes to me that his ring-form should be a side-effect of more local and specific deliberations. It seems natural that he would want to embedded a specific well-considered example within more general discussions before and after:

A B A’

It also seems natural that he would want to organize that central discussion around a proposition that follows from the first part of the discussion but which, in the second part, is shown to be inadequate. We do that sort of thing all the time. Thus:

A B C B’ A’

And we have our ring.

Who knows, if I think about THAT enough perhaps Gojira will become more comprehensible.

* * * * *

Earlier posts in Alan Liu week:

Meaning of the Digital Humanities – Alan Liu

Computer as Symbol and Model: On reading Alan Liu

The Thinkable and the Interesting: Katherine Hayles Interviews Alan Liu

Alan Liu: Reengaging the Humanities

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