Friday, August 22, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 7.1: Visualizing the Geist of 19th Century Anglo-American Literary Culture

Last year Alan Liu published a remarkable essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423), in which he argued that the most recent work in digital humanities has come within hailing distance of operationalizing the vague humanistic notion of the human spirit conceived as a collective entity operating in and through world history. To be sure, that’s not quite what he said and did, but that’s what his discussion of Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels (May 2012, 68 page PDF), amounts to. In effect their corpus is a proxy for the 19th Century British Geist, making their analysis of that corpus an analysis of that Geist.

We find this paragraph near the end of his essay (pp. 418-419):
It is not accidental, I can now reveal, that at the beginning of this essay I alluded to Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology. Structuralism is a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system (e.g., as modes of production; Weberian bureaucracy; Saussurean language; mass, media, and corporate society; neoliberalism; and so on) that 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.” This is the backdrop against which we can see how the meaning problem in the digital humanities registers today’s general crisis of the meaningfulness of the humanities. The general crisis is that humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity—must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, workplace, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or, even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co-opt humanistic meaning.
Those “large-scale multicausal events” are, in effect, the workings of Geist. The fact that we can now visualize proxies for that collective spirit, that Geist, and do so in an explicit and rigorous way means that we are now in a position to recoup that older humanistic learning, albeit in a new and strange register.

In the final analytic chapter of Macroanalysis Jockers presents two visualizations of the Geist of 19th Century Anglo-American literary culture. Here’s one of them:


Though it is difficult to see at this crude resolution, that cloud is in fact a graph with 3,346 nodes and 165,770 edges. Each node represents one of the texts in Jockers’ corpus and the edges represent a measure of similarity between nodes. Each text has been scored on 578 stylistic and thematic features and similarity computed accordingly.

That means, of course, that each of those nodes is a point in a 578 dimensional (hyper)space, making it a very strange object indeed, one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects. The visualization we see in that image is thus a two-dimensional projection of the object, this 19th Century Anglo-American literary Geist. This particular image has been colored according to date, with the oldest in what looks like grey and newest in magenta. Other projections and colorings are possible; and it is obvious that this is an impoverished way to examine the visualization. You want a large monitor with the capacity to interact with the image, to zoom in on specific regions for closer inspection. And you want to be able to click on a node and see what text it represents.

There are lots of things you might want to do when you get your hands on this visualization, and others like it. All in due time, I hope.

Some might quail at my so matter-of-fact equation between that image and that by now classical term, Geist. I understand. It is not an equation I make lightly. Nor is it one I understand well. I make it because it is a starting point for new investigations.

I have no idea how many person-years of work went into that visualization. Not only do we have Jockers’ time over a decade or more, but also that of his many direct collaborators. But we also have, for example, the many volunteers of Project Gutenberg, where Jockers got many of the texts in his corpus. Thus we’ve got a cast of thousands streaming out in social space and historical time from that visualization.

What they did is explicit and open to investigation and modification. We can work with it, change it, make it better. We can discover and learn.

Dare I say it? We can boldly do where no scholar has gone before.

* * * * *

I expect to write three more posts in this series, though that, of course, is subject to change. I should get around to that next week and the week after–other obligations are pressing and I’ve got to go attend to them.

One post will conclude my investigation of the “Theme” chapter. I’ll look at what Jockers himself has done with his topic models and link that with what I’ve done in posts 6.1 and 6.2. I’ll then write a concluding post in which I talk about recasting this enterprise in terms of cultural evolution where texts are phenotypic objects, genres are species-like, and words are gene-like; topics then are bundles of gene-like entities that tend to occur together in texts (phenotypic entities). Finally, I’ll tie the whole pile together and write a general introduction.

At least that’s the plan.

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