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

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

Description Redux, Again: On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams

Broadly considered, description is how phenomena are brought into intellectual discourse. Such discourse is thereby bounded by the scope of the descriptive powers at its disposal. What descriptive techniques are at the disposal of the literary critic?

The question is a real one, and has real answers, but I ask it rhetorically. Whatever those techniques are, diagrams do not figure prominently in them. One can read pages and pages and pages of first class literary criticism and never encounter a diagram.

The argument of this essay is that we’ve gone as far as we can go down those various paths. If we are to create a new literary criticism for this new millennium, then we must have some new conceptual tools, and some of those must be visual. The diagrams I imagine, not to mention the diagrams I have been doing for the last four decades, are tools to think with. They are not mere aids to thought, they are the substance of thought itself. Not all thought, of course, but some thought.

These diagrams are descriptive tools. Some describe texts and textual phenomena, while others describe the mental machinery underlying texts. The distinction is critical, and will occupy much of this essay.

* * * * *

Diagrams of various kinds are central to objectification, which we can consider a particular mode of description. The aim of objectification is to make a sharp distinction – as sharp as possible – between the things we are talking about, aka the objects under discussion, and our means of talking about them.

As my principal concern is with naturalist literary criticism, I have to consider the difficulties of talking about language. On the one hand, we do it all the time. Recall that in Jakobson’s well-known characterization of the speech situation metalingually is one of the functions of language. But such usage is casual and does not aim at understanding of language itself.

Nor, for that matter, does literary analysis aim at understanding language itself. Yes, it aims at the understanding of language, as literature is in part constructed of language. That is the most ‘visible’ aspect of the literary work, it’s ‘skin’ so to speak. But works of literary art are also constructed of feelings, perceptions, ideas, emotions, desires, dreams, and so forth, none completely assimilable by language. We must be as clear as possible in our descriptions so that we may be in a position better to keep track of what we’re talking about.

I begin by outlining the ambiguous states the concept of the “text” has within literary criticism, though I don’t come anywhere near the idea that all the world is a text, which is slipped in under the far reaches of the ambiguity I look at. From there I offer a few words about scientific description, ending with the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule. From there I go to literary description, the text proper, and the description of conceptual structures, mental machinery behind the text.

The Ambiguity of “Text”

What do literary critics mean when we refer to “the text”? there are times, of course, when we mean the physical thing, whether written or spoken, e.g. when analyzing the a poem’s rhyme scheme. But generally we mean to indicate something more diffuse, something anchored in that physical text, those marks on paper or waves in the air, but going beyond them. Just what that “something more” is, that’s not so clear.

Thus, as used in literary critical discourse, the concept of the text is ambiguous as between the physical signifiers and the signifieds, the concepts linked to those signifiers via linguistic convention. When we talk about the text, we generally mean to include the ordinary process of reading exclusive of any secondary exegesis or explication.

Within computational linguistics, however, there is a sharp distinction between the physical sign, whether written or oral, and the literary critic’s text, as I’ve defined it above. Optical character recognition (OCR) takes a written text as input and produces a machine-readable text as output. OCR software works very well for typed and typeset text; errors will be made, but they are relatively few. OCR software works poorly for text written in cursive script. Whatever the source text, OCR software makes no attempt to “understand” the text, but text understanding – in some sense of the word – is of enormous interest and practical value. It is also very difficult to do, and I’m talking about text understanding merely at the literal level. Feed the computer a news story about, say, the recent typhoon in the Philippines and ask it simple questions: What city was hit hardest? How many people have died so far? That’s simple basic stuff, for a human. Not so simple for a computer, though still basic.

When I get to talking about ways of describing literary texts I will be interested in techniques that are sensitive to the distinction between the physical texts, the signifiers, and the process of understanding the meaning of those signifiers at the most basic level, the level without which more sophisticated understanding – if such is called for – is not possible. Continue reading “Description Redux, Again: On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams”

The Ring-Form Challenge

The Ring-Form Challenge

The challenge is simple: for any given text – poem, drama, novel, film, what have you – is it a ring or not? That is, does it have the form:

A, B, … C … B’, A’


A, B, … C, C’, … B’, A’

The question seems fairly straightforward, and, yes, the QUESTION is. But answering it may not be. I speak from experience.

Note that the question is about form, not meaning, and that answering the question requires that you describe the text, not that you figure out what it means. You will, however, have to pay attention to meaning to determine, say, whether or not two elements function in parallel. But comparing the meanings of elements within a text is quite different from translating meanings into some theoretical discourse.

I think we need to know, for any text we wish to study, whether or not it has a ring form. And if not a ring, then what? Why should we know this? Because form is important, it guides our apprehension of the text.

What I REALLY think is that if enough people set out in search of ring forms, by the time, say, that a 100 new ring form texts have been identified, a new mode of literary study will be emerging, one that can be commensurate with the new psychologies, but which is not subordinate to any other discipline or body of knowledge.

Mary Douglas on Rings

The study of ring forms is not new. I first learned about ring forms in a 1976 article in PMLA: R. G. Peterson, Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature (PMLA 91, 3: 367-375). He was reporting on a literature that was two decades old by that time, though it was mostly about classical and biblical texts. Beyond verifying the chiasmus in Dylan Thomas’ “Author’s Prologue”, however, I did nothing with the article. I simply filed the topic away in my mind.

I didn’t begin to think about rings until Mary Douglas brought them to my attention earlier in the decade. She had been kind enough to blurb my book – Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture – and my editor put me in touch with her after the book came out. She’d been working on the topic for some time and had published books on two Old Testment texts: Leviticus As Literature (Oxford 1999), In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (Oxford 2001). She believed that rings are fundamental to human thought. Continue reading “The Ring-Form Challenge”

The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science

I have now collected a series of posts on William Carlos Williams’ poem, “To a Solitary Disciple”, and associated discussions into a single working paper having the above title. You may download it from my SSRN page.

The abstract is immediately below, followed by the introduction and then the table of contents.

Abstract: In More Than Cool Reason Lakoff and Turner offer a global reading of “To a Solitary Disciple” (by William Carlos Williams) in terms of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT). The reading itself is independent of CMT; any competent literary critic could have done it. Their attempt to explain the relationship between that reading and the poem using CMT is at best problematic and does not seem to be metaphoric as specified by the terms of CMT. Rather, their reading takes the form of little narrative that has the same form as one they attribute to the poem. Beyond the critique of Lakoff and Turner, this paper makes some observations about the poem and suggests that it has a ring form: A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’. Two sentences by Hemingway and a poem by Dylan Thomas are discussed in counterpoint with “To a Solitary Disciple.” Two appendices discuss ontological cognition in relation to Williams’ Paterson, Book V and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

Introduction: The Poverty of Cognitivism for Literary Criticism

This working paper consists of things and stuff. I drafted some drafted over a decade ago and wrote others on the day or on the day before I posted them.

Several things are going on, but the central thread is an examination of the third chapter of George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason, which is an analysis of “To a Solitary Disciple” by William Carlos Williams. That book is certainly one of the founding texts of cognitive poetics, which is a major school of thought within a broader engagement between literary criticism and cognitive science. As such, that Lakoff and Turner on Williams is a paradigmatic example in this engagement: If you want to use cognitive metaphor theory in the analysis of literary texts, this is how you do it.

It may very well be a good example of the application of cognitive metaphor theory, but it’s an inadequate example of literary analysis. While I have quite a bit to say about their analysis – in A Leak in Cool Reason, Beyond Metaphor: Pattern Matching, and What’s a Global Reading for Anyhow? – my major argument on this point – that it’s inadequate as literary analysis – is presented in The Disciple Revisited and Revived. There I comment on the poem in some detail, but without bringing any particular body of theoretical material to bear on the text, not their theory, not mine, not anyone else’s. To this I would add my discussions of two sentences from Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and of the chiasmus governing Dylan Thomas’ “Author’s Prologue”.

Alas, I do not know how to explain what I found in “To a Solitary Disciple”. Nor do I know of any body of theory that can do so. That is to say, I am unaware of any set of principles of mental functioning that explain why poems are LIKE THAT. They just are. Some of them. This one appears to have ring-form – A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’. No one knows how to explain them. Maybe one day cognitive science will be up to that task. But it isn’t now. Continue reading “The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science”

Narrative and Abstraction: Some Problems with Cognitive Metaphor

I’ve had problems with cognitive metaphor theory (CMT) since Lakoff and Johnson published Metaphors We Live By (1981) – well, not since then, because I didn’t read the book until a couple of years after original publication. It’s not that I didn’t believe that language and cognition where thick with metaphor, much of it flying below the radar screen of explicit awareness. I had no trouble with that, nor with the idea that metaphor is an important mechanism for abstract thinking.

But it’s not the only mechanism.

During the 1970s I had studied with David Hays in the Linguistics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He had developed a somewhat different account of abstract thought in which abstract ideas are derived from narrative – which I’ll explain below. I was reminded of this yesterday when Per Aage Brandt made the following remark in response to my critique of Lakoff and Turner on “To a Solitary Disciple”:

Instead, the text sketches out a little narrative. The lines run upwards, the ornament tries to stop them, they converge and now guard, contain and protect the flower/moon. This little story can then become a larger story of cult and divinity in the interpretation by a sort of allegorical projection. All narratives can project allegorically in a similar way.

Precisely so, a little narrative. Narratives too support abstraction.

My basic problem with cognitive metaphor theory, then, is that it claims too much. There’s more than one mechanism for constructing abstract concepts. David Hays and I outlined four in The Evolution of Cognition (1990): metaphor, metalingual definition and rationalization, theorization, and model building. There’s no reason to believe that those are the only existing or the only possible mechanisms for constructing abstract concepts.

In the rest of this note I want to sketch out Hays’s old notion of abstraction, point out how it somewhat resembles CMT and then I dig up some old notes that express further reservations about CMT.

Narrative and Metalingual Definition

The fact that various episodes can exhibit highly similar patterns of events and participants is the basis of Hays’s (1973) original approach to abstraction. He called it metalingual definition, after Roman Jakobson’s notion of language’s metalingual function. While Hays’ notion is different from CMT of Lakoff and Johnson, I do not see it as an alternative except in the sense that perhaps some of the cases they handle with conceptual metaphor might better be explicated by Hay’s metalingual account. But that is a secondary matter. Both mechanisms are needed, and, as I’ve indicated above, a few others as well. Continue reading “Narrative and Abstraction: Some Problems with Cognitive Metaphor”

Two Disciplines in Search of Love

That’s a guest post I’ve contributed to Language Log. The disciplines are literary criticism on the one hand, and computational linguistics on the other. Here’s an abstract:

Though computational linguistics (CL) dates back to the first efforts in machine translation in the mid 1950s, it is only in the last decade or so that it has had a substantial impact on literary studies through the statistical techniques of corpus linguistics and data mining (know as natural language processing, NLP). In this essay I briefly review the history of computational linguistics, from its early days involving symbolic computing to current developments in NLP, and set that in relationship to academic literary study. In particular, I discuss the deeply problematic struggle that literary study has had with the question of evaluation: What makes good literature? I argue that literary studies should own up to this tension and recognize a distinction between ethical criticism, which is explicitly concerned with values, and naturalist criticism, which sidesteps questions of value in favor of understanding how literature works in the mind and in culture. I then argue that the primary relationship between CL and NLP and literary studies should be through naturalist criticism. I conclude by discussing the relative roles of CL and NLP in a large-scale and long-term investigation of romantic love.

Corpus Linguistics, Literary Studies, and Description

One of my main hobbyhorses these days is description. Literary studies has to get a lot more sophisticated about description, which is mostly taken for granted and so is not done very rigorously. There isn’t even a sense that there’s something there to be rigorous about. Perhaps corpus linguistics is a way to open up that conversation.
The crucial insight is this: What makes a statement descriptive IS NOT how one arrives at it, but the role it plays in the larger intellectual enterprise.

A Little Background Music

Back in the 1950s there was this notion that the process of aesthetic criticism took the form of a pipeline that started with description, moved on to analysis, then interpretation and finally evaluation. Academic literary practice simply dropped evaluation altogether and concentrated its efforts on interpretation. There were attempts to side-step the difficulties of interpretation by asserting that one is simply describing what’s there. To this Stanley Fish has replied (“What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” in Is There a Text in This Class?, Harvard 1980, p. 353):


The basic gesture then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text: but it actually is a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all.


And that takes care of that.
Except that it doesn’t. Fish is correct in asserting that there’s no such thing as a theory-free description. Literary texts are rich and complicated objects. When the critic picks this or that feature for discussion those choices are done with something in mind. They aren’t innocent.
But, as Michael Bérubé has pointed out in “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser” (in Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, eds. Postmodern Sophistries, SUNY Press 2004, pp. 11-26) there is interpretation and there is interpretation and they’re not alike. The process by which the mind’s eye makes out letters and punctuation marks from ink smudges is interpretive, for example, but it’s rather different from throwing Marx and Freud at a text and coming up with meaning.
Thus I take it that the existence of some kind of interpretive component to any description need not imply that the necessity of interpretation implies that it is impossible to descriptively carve literary texts at their joints. And that’s one of the things that I want from description, to carve texts at their joints.
Of course, one has to know how to do that. And THAT, it would seem, is far from obvious.