Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 3: Abstraction at the Time Scale of History

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the first post in this series, Discourse and Conceptual Topology, I reviewed network models on three scales, micro, meso, and macro. In the second post, From History to Abstraction, I moved to the micro scale and argued that the mechanism of abstraction proposed by David Hays gives us a way of thinking about how a historical process can lead to subsequent abstraction and illustrated the model through an examination of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. In this post I examine Heuser and Le-Khac on the 19th Century British novel and undertake a formal comparison of The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights in which I argue that Brontë had the advantage of conceptual machinery unavailable to Shakespeare, though in some way anticipated by him. I hope to conclude this series with a fourth post in which I return to purely theoretical and methodological matters.

History: Showing and Telling

As we all know, one of the major problems of literary studies up to now is that it has concentrated its attentions on a relatively small body of texts, the so-called canon, and has allowed the examination of those texts to stand as a proxy for all of literary history. The assumption is either that, because of their quality, those are the only texts that matter or, perhaps, their quality allows them to “stand-in” for the rest. The widespread availability of powerful computers now allows as to put these assumptions to the test or, rather, simply to abandon them.

Sister disciplines have developed techniques for analyzing large bodies of texts, corpus linguistics, and literary critics are applying these to newly available digital text collections. I want to examine one such study, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4, May 2012; HERE is an older post on this study). Their corpus included almost 3000 British novels spanning the period from 1785 to 1900. What they discovered, roughly speaking, is a shift from abstract terms to concrete, which they characterize as shift from telling (abstract terminology) showing (concrete terms). They read this shift through Raymond Williams (The Country and the City) as reflecting a population shift from small rural closely-knit communities to large urban communities where people are constantly amid strangers. Continue reading


Toward a Computational Historicism. Part II: From History to Abstraction

I examined three different uses of network vizualizations, topic models, Moretti’s plot diagrams, and cognitive networks in first part of this essay, Discourse and Conceptual Topology. When I posted that I imagined only a second part. In the writing, though, that second part grew and grew, so I cut it in two.

In this part I pose the problem of time and discuss two essays by Stephen Greenblatt, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” and “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture” and then compare Amleth (Saxo-Grammaticus) with Hamlet (Shakespeare). I then move back to cognitive networks and talk about Hays’s concept of metalingual defintion and conclude with more Shakespeare, Sonnet 129. I’ll get to Heuser and Le-Khac in Part 3: Prophesy.

Time and History

For physics, I understand, time presents a problem. It seems to have a direction, as some processes are irreversible. Why? If you drop a small quantity of ink into a tumbler of water – as I did in A Primer on Self-Organization: With some tabletop physics you can do at home – it diffuses, irreversibly so. The ink particles never collect together into the compact volume they had when first dropped into the water. Why?

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Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 1: Discourse and Conceptual Topology

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

… it is precisely because we are talking about ordinary language that we need to adopt a notation as different from ordinary language as possible, to keep us from getting lost in confusion between the object of description and the means of description.
¬–Sydney Lamb

Worlds within worlds – that’s how Tim Perper, my friend and colleague, described biology. At the smallest scale we have individual molecules, with DNA being of prime importance. At the largest scale we have the earth as a whole, with all living beings interacting in a single ecosystem over billions of years. In between we have cells, tissues, and organs of various sizes, autonomous organisms, populations of organisms on various scales from the invisible to continent-spanning, and interactions among populations of organisms on various scales.

Literature too is like that, from single figures and tropes, even single words (think of Joyce’s portmanteaus) through complete works of various sizes, from haiku to oral epics, from short stories through multi-volume novels, onto whole bodies of literature circulating locally, regionally, across continents and between them, from weeks and years to centuries and millennia. Somehow we as humanists and literary critics must comprehend it all. Breathtaking, no?

In this essay I sketch a potential computational historicism operating at multiple scales, both in time and textual extent. In the first part I consider network models on three scale: 1) topic models at the macroscale, 2) Moretti’s plot networks at the mesoscale, and 3) cognitive networks, taken from computational linguistics, at the microscale. I give examples of each and conclude by sketching relationships among them. I open the second part by presenting an account of abstraction given by David Hays in the early 1970s; in this model abstract concepts are defined over stories. I then move on to Hauser and Le-Khac on 19th Century novels, Stephen Greenblatt on self and person, and consider several texts, Amleth, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Wuthering Heights, and Heart of Darkness.

Graphs and Networks

To the mathematician the image below depicts a topological object called a graph. Civilians tend to call such objects networks. The nodes or vertices, as they are called, are connected by arcs or edges.


Such graphs can be used to represent many different kinds of phenomena, a road map is an obvious example, a kinship tree is another, sentence structure is a third example. The point is that such graphs are signs of phenomena, notations. They are not the phenomena itself. Continue reading


The Only Game in Town: Remarks on Alan Liu and Digital Humanities

I’ve collected five New Savanna posts on Alan Liu into a single PDF; you can download it from my SSRN page, Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities,
A Working Paper
. Abstract and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: Alan Liu has been organizing and conceptualizing digital humanities (DH) for two decades. I consider a major essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” two interviews, one with Katherine Hayles and the other with Scott Pound, and a major blog post in which Liu engages Stephen Ramsay. Other investigators included: Willard McCarty and Franco Moretti. Some of Liu’s themes: DH as symbolic of the future of the humanities, the need for theory as well as practical projects, the role of DH in enlarging the scope of the “thinkable,” the importance of an engineering mindset, and the need for a long-term effort in revivifying the humanities.

* * * * *

Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study. The time has come, to make them explicit.
–Franco Moretti

I first heard about Alan Liu back in the late 1990s, when he was working on Voice of the Shuttle. I may or may not have submitted some links, I don’t really remember, but if so, that would have been it. Since then I gather that he’s been acting as a Johnny Appleseed for what has come to be called digital humanities, an ambassador, or in the corporate jargon of Apple Inc., an evangelist.

But it wasn’t until early in 2012 that I started to focus on the so-called digital humanities (aka DH). To be sure, Matt Kirschenbaum showed up at The Valve (alas, now dormant) for the Moretti book event (Graphs, Maps, Trees) and, for that matter, Moretti himself put in a few appearances. I snagged a promising book reference from Kirschenbaum (Dominic Widdows, Geometry and Meaning), but for me that event was about Moretti, not DH. It took Stanley Fish to get me thinking about DH. He’d gone to the MLA convention, attended some DH sessions, and blogged about it in January, 2012: Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation. Of my posts tagged “digital humanities”, only a bit less than a quarter of them were written before Fish. The rest come after.

Sometime in the wake of Fish I came across anxiety within the DH community about the lack of Theory, with Alan Liu prominent among the worriers. Now I was irritated. On the one hand, it seems to me that Theory has lost most of its energy – for what it’s worth, it was an examination of that morbidity that had attracted me to The Valve (the discussions of Theory’s Empire) in the summer of 2005. On the other hand, there’s a rich body of theory around computation, language, the mind, and evolutionary process (read: history) which is relevant, it seemed to me, to DH and yet which has been for the most part neglected. There is more to theorizing humanity than is dreamt of in Theory.

Finally, in March of this year I saw a video of Liu’s Meaning of the Humanities talk at NYU. I watched it, liked it, and contacted Alan. He responded by sending me a PDF of his PMLA article of the same title (“The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”, PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423). That prompted me to write the first of the blog posts I’ve collected here: Computer as Symbol and Model: On reading Alan Liu.

Liu begins and ends his PMLA article with the figure of Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose structuralism was “a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system” (p. 418). If understanding world as system is included in the remit of DH, then I’m on board. In between his invocations of Lévi-Strauss Liu manages to argue against the notion that “there are immaculately separate human and machinic orders” (p. 416). I’m down with that too. Continue reading


Call for papers: The University of Edinburgh’s LEL Postgraduate Conference, 28th – 30th May 2014

Every year postgraduate linguists at the University of Edinburgh get together and run a conference. The deadline for submissions is fast approaching (15th April, 2014), but it’s only 500 words, so I’m sure you’ll be able to cobble something together. For more information, visit the website: .

Here’s the call for papers (lifted from the website):

The University of Edinburgh Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference in is an annual event where postgraduates present ongoing work and discuss their research with their peers and the LEL faculty. This year’s conference will be held on 28th-30th May 2014. We will be celebrating the 20th year of the conference, and we would like to invite all students of Linguistics, English Language and related disciplines to join us for this special occasion.

The conference offers a great opportunity to refine thoughts, share concerns and receive constructive criticism in a supportive and convivial environment. Additionally, it’s a great way to gain experience in conference presentation and find out about some of the exciting things going on in LEL!

We are now accepting submissions for oral presentations and posters. The standard length of a talk will be 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions. Any papers relevant to Linguistics and English Language are welcome and submissions by both University of Edinburgh and external students are highly encouraged. Tea and coffee will be provided on all three days, and there will also be a conference dinner in the evening of the 28th May (details to follow).

To apply, please submit an abstract (maximum 500 words in .doc, .docx, .tex or .rtf format; bibliographies do not count toward the word limit) by email to, no later than 23:55 on 15th April 2014. Please indicate whether you would prefer to be considered for a talk or a poster.

New Evidence for Neanderthal Language Announced (on April 1st…)

In keeping with Sean’s previous Evolang Preview some Neanderthal&language evolution-related news:

As Andrew Lamont writes on the official LINGUIST List Blog:

The controversy over whether Neanderthals possessed a capacity for language may have been resolved. After years of speculation by evolutionary anthropologists and geneticists, a group of linguists has announced today that they have uncovered written evidence proving the Neanderthal capacity for language.


Schmaltz’ team was able to identify and translate two texts left by Neanderthals. The first, a recent discovery in Spain, is a fragment of a teenager’s diary. It reads oog.oog.oog and has been translated as ‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’.”

Read the whole thing here.

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EvoLang Preview: Detecting differences between the languages of humans and Neandertals

This year’s EvoLang is busy – around 100 talks in 4 parallel sessions and 40 posters.  Replicated Typo is hosting a series of EvoLang previews to help people decide on what to go and see.  If you’d like to post a preview of your own presentation, please get in touch with

Roberts, Dediu & Levinson.  Detecting differences between the languages of Neanderthals and modern humans.  Thursday, 17:45, session A.

Recently, Dediu & Levinson (2013) argued that, given recent genetic and archaeological evidence, the default assumption should be that Neandertals spoke modern languages (not protolanguages).  Dediu will be giving a talk on this work in the same session.  My talk will discuss whether there are methods that can test these ideas.  Is there any way to estimate what Neandertal languages were like?  It’s a  controversial topic, but could have big implications for the field.

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Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia

It finally happened! A press release from PLOS landed in my inbox with the words “Language Evolution” in the title!

The paper’s “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia” by Sicoli and Holton. Given that PLOS have released this as a press release, the media may well pick it up, so I’ve made a quick and easy-to-read list of details which probably won’t reach the papers:

What? Phylogenetic models applied to linguistic data to make inferences about human migration into and out of North America.
Why? Hypothesis testing/model fitting an Out-of-Beringia (to Asia) hypothesis compared to an Out-of-Central Asia (to North America) hypothesis.
Languages? North American languages and Central Siberia languages – about 40 languages (2 Yeniseian languages, 37 Na-Dene languages and Haida (isolate))
What’s the data? Binary coded 116 typological features (26 of which were excluded later for being “uninformative”). Data from Sherzer’s An areal-typological study of American Indian languages north of Mexico, the Alaska Native Language Archive and other grammars
Methods? Bayesian likelihood modelling (using Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods in MrBayes) and neighbour joining distance methods (using NeighborNet and SplitsTree4)
Results? The  Out-of-Beringia model fits better (the results section is massive, you should go and read it if you’re interested in the details). This model supports the story that there was a back-migration into Asia from Beringia, which is in contrast to recent arguments that the connections between Na-Dene languages and Yeniseian languages show that the Native Americans migrated from Central Asia.


This seems to be a reasonably solid piece of work, though I should leave it to someone else to assess the legitimacy of the statistical analysis/results. It’s nice to see also that the press release does state that: “the authors cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, and state that this study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia, it at the very least indicates that migration may not have been a one-way trip.” Back-migration is rarely considered when testing hypotheses using models for serial-founder effects – and I think this must happen more than we often assume in linguistic phylogenies.

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The great language game: Confusing languages

This is a guest post by Hedvig Skirgård.

The Great Language Game, have you heard of it? It’s an online game where players compete in matching audio clips to the correct language. The game was created by Lars Yencken earlier this year and has become very popular. Data generated by the game can be used to map what languages the players find hardest to tell apart and support what we’ve known all along: Portuguese does sound a bit slavic!

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Writing and speech as chicken and egg

This is a guest post by Tim Gorichanaz

Evolutionary linguistics seeks to explain the origins and evolution of spoken language, but it tends not to consider written language. Perhaps rightly so: Writing is different from speech, and trying to consider both at once might only cloud things up. Still, given that writing is a symbolic representation of human thought—just as speech is—I believe analyzing the development of written language can be helpful in fleshing out the holistic story of the evolution of language.

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Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween