Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Deck: Getting Organized (as always) – Lit Crit, #DH, Identity, Cultural Evolution [Ramble 6]

When I did this a week-and-a-half ago I listed five to-do items. I’ve done three of them:
Two are not yet done:
  • How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’): But I’m working toward it. I want to get some other things posted first.
  • An article with the working title, Description and Form in Literary Analysis: The Case of Heart of Darkness: This is a major task and will be ongoing until it’s done.
I’ve added the following items to the agenda:

Virtual reading: This is a development from the post, In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]. I’d tacked these short paragraphs onto the end of that post a day or two after I’d originally posted it:
Consider the connected graph for the emblem phrase. It should be easy enough to calculate a central point for the phrase, no? But then, couldn’t we do that for any sentence or phrase? So, start at the beginning of the text and move sequentially through the text with a moving window of suitable length. Calculate the central point for the phrase within the window and trace the movement of successive centers through the text from beginning to end.

Such a “reading” would not, of course, yield the computer anything like an understanding of the text. That’s not why it interests me. I’m interested in the form the trajectory traces through the space. For example, how does it move with respect to the center of the emblem? What about the volume spanned by the subgraph within this moving window? How does it expand and contract. And so forth.
In looking around on my hard-drive I came across a 2010 article on more or less just that: E. Alvarez-Lacalle, B. Dorow, J.-P. Eckmann, and E. Moses. Hierarchical structures induce long-range dynamical correlations in written texts. PNAS Vol. 103 no. 21. May 23, 2006: 7956–7961. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0510673103

I’m sure I hadn’t read the article, but I certainly must have skimmed it. The idea for this post is to say something about this article and then elaborate on the idea of virtual reading.

Reply to a ‘traditional’ critic: I’d sent the small world post to a number of critics. One of them, a digital critical, asked: What would you say to a critic who asserts that, after all, the centrality of that emblematic phrase ('My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘) is “accessible to direct inspection by a reader?” After all, that’s how identified it and argued centrality in that post. My basic response: There’s really nothing to say to such a critic. But...from my point of view such critics suffer from an impoverished intellectual imagination and so cannot see beyond literary criticism as it currently exists. There are, in fact, other issues to be investigated, emerging from a different intellectual background. And then I elaborate. The post on virtual reading would contribute to this.

Lit Crit, Identity, & the Curriculum in the 21st Century: Perhaps one or two posts here. One of the reasons given for ‘close reading’ in the middle of the last century is that it could be taught to students with relatively little background. That in turn was important because we’re teaching literature to undergraduates in order to inculcate in them what they need to be good citizens. Three decades after that, what had happened? With the development of feminist criticism and African-American studies identity had emerged as a major issue. And this led to the so-called canon wars and the Culture War. That is, an intellectual regime that had been introduced to help promulgate a sense of uniform American identity and led to the opposite, a splintering of identity. What’s going to come of that?

Open letter to John Lawler about Cultural Evolution: Lawler is a linguist I met almost two decades ago at one of Haj Ross’s conferences in Denton, Texas. He’s been hearing that folks are interested in studying cultural change using biological evolution as a model. And he’s skeptical, in part because some Procrustean work has been done on language change. I want to convince him that things aren’t quite so bad. This is an opportunity for me to think through my current ideas about cultural evolution in a quick and dirty way. While I’ll publish this is a blog post, I expect it to be a bit longer than most of my blog posts, as my open letters have been in the past.


  1. "the centrality of that emblematic phrase"

    I don't understand what that means their are four very different inflections in the line that make it move and alter.

    1. I don't understand your question. From my POV what makes the phrase 'central' to the 'semantic space' of the book are the meanings of the words, their contrasts with one another. My question: What does that mean, central? From the POV of standard lit crit, the argument I made in that post is fine, maybe it needs a little elaboration, but that's easy enough to supply. But there are other ways of thinking about these things. If you aren't going to think of a text as a container with an inside, an outside, a center, and a periphery, if you abandon that highly metaphorical, and very vague, construction, how do you think about that phrase and the role it plays in the book?

  2. I had huge difficulty understanding the post or what you were attempting to do. Made little sense.

    I have never studied lit. crit. The way I read is to make sense of the rhythm and sound not to focus on meaning which is not relevant. Its how I was taught to read.

    My comments of late would have made little sense read from a perspective like this, its such an unusual way to think from my P.O.V.

    1. I'm moving rather far from tradition lit crit. & even that has little to do with reading texts out loud, not even dramatic texts. To be sure, there are critics interested in, for example, the performance of Shakespeare plays, but what an actor does to perform a role, how the actor sounds while performing a role, that's not at the center of Shakespeare criticism, for better or worse.

      Heart of Darkness is interesting, though, in the context of vocal performance, because it is told through double narration. Marlow is the main narrator. He's a ship's captain who's gone in search of Kurtz (the man who utters that phrase). But we don't get the story directly from him. Rather, he tells the story to someone else, and that someone else speaks to us. Does the voice actor change voice between the frame narrator, who opens and closes the tale, and shows up now and again during the course, and Marlow?

  3. From the small amount I have read. That is the interesting part. You do not need to alter youre voice (at least at first). You can do that with the inflection and the pacing of it.

    my-everything. You can leave no gap here and alter the tone and inflection so it's diffrently from the rest of the sentance. Its an interesting affect (highly dramatic) and leaves you with a range of options.

    I would have to read more to see if that inflection pattern holds for the rest of the text.

    But at least in this small part it provides all the
    drama, you do not really have to think about the the phrase, its clear how it should sound, just a case of practise, familiarity with the rhythm from which a final sense will come.

    Its alarming to note just how differently things are read. As you are writing in part for an audiance that reads in this way a part of what you are doing is non-translatable for me.

    In the 70's some of the classsical instructors from my school worked on a project with the local universty. It did not end well. Mutual incomprhension.

    I feel it at the moment, the discovery that alien life forms exist. How do you communicate with them or do they seek to eradicate life as you know it?

    1. That reading was uploaded to the web in segments. The book itself is broken into three chapters or sections (as it was originally serialized). If you start at the beginning of Section II, Part 3 (of 3), you'll hear the phrase almost 7 minutes in. There's a brief pause at c. 2:24 and we shift from Marlow to the (unnamed) frame narrator; back to Marlow at 2:56; frame narrator at 4:30 for a short remark ("He was silent for a long time."), then back to Marlow at 4:36. That begins paragraph 103, the one I've called The Nexus. This paragraph is the structural center of the text. The phrase is at 6:42.

      There's lots to say about what's going on here. In that interval between the two interruptions by the frame narrator, Marlow talks about Kurtz and says this: "Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense." The voice, and that's what this story is, a succession of voices.