Sunday, August 30, 2015

Signifiers, the Material Text, and the Digital Critic

Why do I find digital criticism so congenial? It’s true that I studied computational linguistics early in my year and developed a computational semantics model that I used in analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. Thus, I’m not computer phobic, but that’s just baseline stuff. And digital critics have little to no interest in the computer as a model for the (mind), which is what I was up to back then, and still am.

However, in computational linguistics you take language as signifiers and actually do stuff, with the “dumb” signifiers themselves. While I never actually programmed such models, I learned quite a bit about how the worked and became comfortable thinking about the ‘machinery’ required to computer over those mere signifieds.

It’s one thing to know that language involves phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. It’s another thing to see such systems worked out in detail and linked together into working software. When you’ve seen that the linguistic mind becomes REAL in a way that it otherwise isn’t.

Once the linguistic mind is REAL, then so is literary form, the shape of the text. For you see the shape, not simply as a physical shape, but a computational shape, the direct trace of mind. That’s what I see when I describe literary form in terms of the ‘dumb’ signifiers.

THAT’s where I meet digital critics. For they too work with the ‘dumb’ signifiers. That’s all their programs ‘know’ about, just the word tokens. Their programs can count them, compare then, sort them, group them, and so forth, all without knowing what any of them mean.

And so I can describe a text and be (provisionally) content with the description. I know there’s a mechanism behind it, and I want to understand that mechanism. But I’ve learned patience. I can wait for that understanding. The description is sufficient in the here and now. I know that the pattern captured in the description is significant because it was made by a mind.

The digital critic knows that they patterns they find in a corpus are significant because that corpus was created by thousands of people or more over decades or more. We have the direct creators, the writers, but we must also recognize the readers even if we know nothing directly about their actions. For it is their reading that ‘draws the texts’ from the writers over the decades. So a given corpus will reflect that.

What I have in common with digital critics is that I seek patterns in ‘dumb’ signifiers. Our methods are different and the patterns we discover are different. But we read them as traces of mind.

Other critics, I’ll call them ‘conventional’ critics somewhat tendentiously, other critics talk about signifiers, and the gap between signifiers and signifieds, but in the end they’re more interested in the gap than the signifiers.

When I argue that digital criticism is The Only Game in Town, that’s why. They’re the only group of critics committed to the signifier, to the text. They’re the only critics committed to a material understanding of literary phenomena. They may be skittish about computation-as-a-model of the (literary) mind, but in the long run that’s the only way they’re going to come to terms with the results they getting.

No comments:

Post a Comment