Tuesday, January 8, 2013

“Xanadu” on the Digital Tip

Now that digital humanities is the coming thing in literary studies—Ho! Ho! Ho!—I thought I’d did out at old—well, not that old—working paper: One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme. It’s rather different in spirit and technique from the text mining/corpus linguistics techniques that are currently raising the bar in computational humanities. But it is computationally intensive. It’s just that the intensity is not on my desktop, it’s in Google’s servers. I used Google to troll the web for “Xanadu” and identified two contexts, other than the Coleridge’s poem, where I got a lot of hits.

Here’s the abstract:
I treat a single word 'xanadu', as a 'meme' and follow it from a 17th century book, to a 19th century poem (Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"), into the 20th century where it was picked up by a classic movie ("Citizen Kane"), an ongoing software development project (Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu), and another movie and hit song, Olivia Newton-John's Xanadu. The aggregate result can be seen when you google the word, you get 6 million hits. What is interesting about those hits is that, while some of them are directly related to Coleridge's poem, more seem to be related to Nelson's software project, Olivia Newton-John's film and song, and (indirectly) to Welles' movie. Thus one cluster of Xanadu sites is high tech while another is about luxury and excess (and then there's the Manchester Swingers Club Xanadu).
We can call the first cluster of sites the cybernetic context while the second is the sybaritic context. This simple diagram shows the evolution:

Xanadu Cladogram

The Citizen Kane line is, of course, the sybaritic one, while the Ted Nelson line is the cybernetic one.

My point is simple and, I hope, obvious. That this one term, “Xanadu,” has taken on two different valences, which are active in two different contexts. The cybernetic doesn’t seem to exist in Coleridge’s text at all. Ted Nelson created that when he provided a new context for the poem by making it the inspiration for his hypertext system. Though it wasn’t the poem that was the context as much as it was Coleridge’s alleged inability to remember the whole thing. Nelson imagined his hypertext system as one where nothing would ever get lost.

The sybaritic context, however, is there in the poem—“pleasure dome,” “demon lover,” “damsel with a dulcimer” and so on. Welles’ film, in effect, stripped the rest of the poem away and then magnified the cultural presence sybaritic element by putting it on the motion picture screen. If we examine the historical record more closely, though, we have hints that that job had started before Welles made his film. Prior to 1940 The New York Times, for example, makes mentions a yacht, or perhaps two, named “Xanadu.”

Now, imagine contexts for thousands of words in thousands of documents. That’s what is examined in topic analysis. Documents provide contexts for topics, and topics provide contexts for works. Algorithms for topic analysis examine words in large collections of documents and infer the topics in which they belong.

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