Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis: Notes on the Evolution of Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Literary Culture

Matthew L. Jockers. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. University of Illinois Press, 2013. x + 192 pp. ISBN 978-0252-07907-8

I've compiled all the posts into a working paper. HERE's the SSRN link. Abstract and introduction below.

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Abstract: Macroanalysis is a statistical study of a corpus of 3346 19th Century American, British, Irish, and Scottish novels. Jockers investigates metatdata; the stylometrics of authorship, gender, genre, and national origin; themes, using a 500 item topic model; and influence, developing a graph model of the entire corpus in a 578 dimensional feature space. I recast his model in terms of cultural evolution where the dynamics are those of blind variation and selective retention. Texts become phenotypical objects, words become genetic objects, and genres become species-like objects. The genetic elements combine and recombine in authors' minds but they are substantially blind to audience preferences. Audiences determine whether or not a text remains alive in society.

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Introduction: Get in the Driver’s Seat

I knew it was going to be good. But not THIS good. A better formulation: I didn’t know it would good in THIS way, that it would put me in driver’s seat, if only in a limited way.

The driver’s seat, you ask, what do you mean? In this case it means that I could actively work with the data. When, for example, I read Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, I read it as I do pretty much any book, though this one had a bunch of charts and diagrams, which is unusual for literary criticism. There wasn’t anything for me to do other than just read.

If I didn’t have ready access to the web, reading Macroanalysis would have been the same. But I do have web access and I use it all the time. So, when I got to Chapter 8, “Theme,” I also accessed the topic browser that Jockers had put on the web. Through this browser I could explore the topic model Jockers used in the book and, in particular, I could use it to investigate matters that Jockers hadn’t considered.

So I moved from thinking about Jockers’ work to using his work for my own intellectual ends. I ended up writing four posts (6.1 – 6.4) on that material totaling almost 12,000 words and I don’t know how many charts and graphs, all of which I got from Jockers’ web site. Once I’d worked through an initial curiosity about a spike that looked like Call of the Wild (but wasn’t, because that text isn’t in the database) I settled into some explorations framed by Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Edward Said’s anxiety on behalf of the autonomous existence of the aesthetic realm.

Data is Independent of Interpretations

You can do that as well, or whatever you wish. While the web browser gives you only limited access to Jockers’ corpus, that access is real and useful. A lot of work in digital criticism, and digital humanities in general, is like that. It produces ‘knowledge utilities’ that are generally useful, not just the private preserves of the original investigator.

There is an important epistemological point here as well. Jockers was led to this work by a certain set of intellectual concerns. Some of those concerns are quite general–about literature and the novel–while others are more specific–he has a particular interest in Irish and Irish-American literature. But I had no trouble putting his results to use in service of my own somewhat different interests.

Good empirical work is like that. Even if you don’t agree with an investigator’s interpretation of the data, the data themselves are useful. You can, if you wish, interpret them otherwise. And that’s what I did with some of Jockers’ work on Irish American literature (in “2.1: Metadata and the Emperor’s New Clothes” and “2.2: How do we make inferences from patterns in collections of books to patterns in populations of readers?”) and his treatment of large-scale influence (in “7.1: Influence, or the evolving dynamic integrity of the aesthetic sphere”).

Moreoever, though Jockers alludes to evolution here and there, he is unwilling to commit to an evolutionary interpretation of his data. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about literature in evolutionary terms for years and pretty much assumed that his data would be intepretable in that framework. Thus, in my first post (“1: Framing: Hyperobjects, Objectification, and Evolution”), even before considering the book in any detail, I set out to dispell some misgivings Jockers expressed about evolution. And I concluded my reflections on Macroanlaysis with a long post framing Jockers’ whole pile of data and patterns in evolutionary terms (“8. Macroanalysis and Cultural Evolution”).

I could do this, and do it easily, because his data and the patterns he found in it are largely independent of any particular literary hypotheses and models framing his thought. This is quite different from the situation literary criticism found itself in back in the 1960s. Back then the most sophisticated critics had begun to suspect that what you find in a text is largely determined by what you’re looking for and that therefore interpretive objectivity was impossible. That question was debated fiercely for over a decade before being abandoned. Deconstruction and post-structuralism carried the day, sorta. Meaning was indeterminate, and still is. But there’s more to criticism than meaning.

Back then literary criticism was carried on by close reading of one sort or another. In close reading there is no clean distinction between data and interpretation. The critic picked quotations to bear out his or he interpretative hypotheses and summaries were crafted to order.

The world of macroanalysis is quite different. While it is certainly not the case that Jockers approaches his texts in a naïve or theory-free way, the framework that bears directly on how he works with the texts is about the statistical distribution of words in texts. It is conceptually separate from what he thinks about literary matters such as Irish American literature or authorial influence. It is that separation between the domain of analysis and description and the domain of interpretation that is new to literary study.

That separation will allow us to transform our disciplines.

The Mesh of Readers and Authors

My work with Jockers’ book goes well beyond the proper bounds of even the essay review. I have ended up reframing the Jockers’ discussion in cultural evolutionary terms. While I made remarks along those lines in my very first post, “1: Framing: Hyperobjects, Objectification, and Evolution,” the work didn’t begin in earnest until my third post, “2.1: How do we make inferences from patterns in collections of books to patterns in populations of readers?” There I talked about the large meshwork of interpersonal transactions that forms the basic substance of literary culture. I return to that meshwork in the sections on influence, 7.1, 7.3, and 7.4.

Most of the transactions involve readers, readers and texts, readers and other readers, readers and non-readers, and the occasional transaction between readers and authors. The texts live in this meshwork of transactions; without circulation in the texts are just mute marks on paper. Readers select the texts which will be most influential in the culture.

For the most part, these transactions are lost to scholarship–though in today’s networked world, a lot more transactions are available, at least in principle. But then that is the case with biology as well. Most of the billions upon billions of transactions among individual oragnisms are lost. All that’s left are a few fossils here and there and the cumulative effect of those transactions in living species. For literary culture we have the texts.

From a certain point of view, then, authors are merely portals through which texts enter the world. It’s the readers that determine the fate of those texts. But that point of view is only partial. For it is authors who mix and remix the vast array of cultural materials that go to make up any given text. Furthermore, Jockers demonstrates, once again, that authorial signatures are surprisingly robust.

An evolutionary framing of literary history thus allows readers and authors that agency of which Theory deprived them. The vast systems of signs and power beloved of Theory don’t disappear in the evolutionary conspectus, but they don’t dominate the conceptual roost. Evolutionary thinking is more fluid and flexible that the critical machines of Theory.

Who knows, it may even be more liberating as well.

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0: Introduction: Get in the Driver’s Seat
1: Framing: Hyperobjects, Objectification, and Evolution
2.1: Metadata and the Emperor’s New Clothes
2.2: How do we make inferences from patterns in collections of books to patterns in populations of readers?
3.1: Style, or the Author Comes Back from the Dead
3.2: Style, or Measuring the Autonomous Aesthetic Realm
4: On the matter of “the”
5: An Interlude on Scale: Micro, Meso, and Macro
6.1: Theme–Dogs, Gold, Slavery, and Awakening
6.2: Theme, Moby Dick in the Context of Literary Culture
6.3: DOGS and BIRDS, or, the hermeneutics of screwing around
6.4: Themes and how they evolve over time
7.1: Influence, or the evolving dynamic integrity of the aesthetic sphere
7.2: Visualizing the Geist of 19th Century Anglo-American Literary Culture
7.3: Hyperobjects and Large Finitude
7.4: Style, Genre, Time, and Influence
8: Macroanalysis and Cultural Evolution

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