Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Windows on the world, a quick thought about critical illusion [#counting #DH]

Michael Gavin has an interesting article in Critical Analytics, Is there a text in my data? (Part 1): On Counting Words (09.17.19). Coming up on the end of his prefatory remarks we find this paragraph:
This essay is the first in a two-part series. In this first installment, "On Counting Words," I'll respond to a single comment made almost in passing in Nan Z. Da's original piece. She says that "all the things that appear in [computational literary studies]—network analysis, digital mapping, linear and nonlinear regressions, topic modeling, topology, entropy—are just fancier ways of talking about word frequency changes."[13] This comment is wrong in little ways that won't matter to most literature scholars. Much of what happens in network analysis and digital mapping, in particular, has nothing to do with word counts. But Da is not completely off the mark. To be honest, I spend an embarrassingly large amount of my time trying to think up fancy ways to talk about word counts, and that's exactly what I'll do in this essay. I invite you to think along with me about a few very basic questions: What does it mean to count words in a text? What happen to the text, and to our understanding of it, when we decompose it into a series of word counts? What relation exists between the textual domain and its numerical image?
Gavin then goes to show that while, yes, there is a lot of counting going on, it’s not mere counting. And the results of that counting does bear on meaning, if only indirectly.

And, really, is that so different from so-called “close reading”? The critic who is reading closely is not, in those moments, during those acts, immersed in the text that is the object of their contemplation. They aren’t actually reading the primary text, in the ordinary sense of the term (reading), they’re writing their own text, one that exists in relation to that primary text, but is most definitely not identical to it.

Once upon a time critics may have believed that, by reading closely, they would be able to happen upon the real, the true, the unmediated meaning. But those illusions were shattered in the 1960s (along with many other things). There are no unmediated readings, just interpretations.

The close critic may well have their nose pressed tightly to the window, palms firmly pressing the glass, eyes focused longingly on the prize, but the candy is still on the other side of the window. I ask you, is it so bad that some of us construct our windows out of numbers rather than in addition to words?

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