Digital Criticism and the Search for Patterns •••••
William L. Benzon July 2014 Abstract: Literary critics seek patterns, whether patterns in individual texts or patterns in large collections of texts. Valid patterns are taken as indices of causal mechanisms of one sort or another. Most abstractly, a pattern emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment. An ecological niche is a pattern “traced” by an organism in its environment. Literary texts are themselves patterns traced by writers (and readers) through their life worlds. Patterns are frequently described through visualizations. The concept of pattern thus dissolves the apparent conflict between quantification and meaning, for quantification is but a means to describing a pattern. It is up to the critic to determine whether or not a pattern is meaningful by identifying the mechanism that produced the pattern. Examples from Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad.
Introduction: Patterns and Descriptions ........................................................................................... 1 From Quantification to Patterns in Digital Criticism ....................................................................... 4 Rens Bod on Patterns........................................................................................................................ 8 Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond................................................................................. 9 Epiphenomena? Ramsay on Patterns, Again .................................................................................. 16 “Pattern” as a Term of Art .............................................................................................................. 18 Patterns as Epistemological Objects ............................................................................................... 20 Patterns and Literature .................................................................................................................... 25
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Introduction: Patterns and Descriptions
There is a sense, of course, in which I’ve been aware of and have been perceiving and thinking about patterns all my life. They are ubiquitous after all. But it wasn’t until I began studying cognitive science with the late David Hays that “pattern” became a term of art. Hays and his students were developing a network model of cognitive structure – such models became common in the 1970s. Such networks admit of two general kinds of computational process, path tracing and pattern recognition. Path tracing is computationally easy, while the pattern recognition is not. Human beings, however, are very good at perceiving and recognizing patterns. What put the idea before me as something demanding specific thought, though, are remarks Franco Moretti made in coming to grips with his work on the network analysis of plot structure. In Network Theory, Plot Analysis (Literary Lab Pamphlet 2, 2011, p. 11) Moretti noted that he “did not need network theory; but I probably needed networks.... What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization.” We then examine the visualizations to determine whether or not they indicate patterns that are worth further exploration. That, it seems to me, should put to rest fears about the incommensurability of numbers and meaning or, even worse, anxiety about infecting humanistic inquiry with quantitative evil. It’s not about numbers and counting. It’s about patterns. Numerical work is subordinate to and in service of looking for patterns, whether patterns in individual texts, as Moretti was doing in his work on plot structures, or patterns in collections of hundreds and thousands of texts spanning decades or more of historical time. But, just what IS a pattern anyhow? How do we tell the difference between patterns and, well, non-patterns? Those are tricky questions, questions I pursue in the posts that make up this working paper. If what we’re looking for is some a priori way of specifying what patterns are so that we can then theorize about patterns in a general way, then I think we’re in trouble. In the sections, “Pattern” as a Term of Art and Patterns as Epistemological Objects, I suggest that there is no such thing. What emerges from those discussions is something like this: A pattern is something that emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment in which it either survives or fails – where the italicized terms are understood in a very general and abstract sense. Thus understood, patterns are relations between machines and environments. The level of abstraction and generalization I have in mind is that which is typical of theoretical computer science, a set of disciplines in which I am by no means expert. Nonetheless I will hazard a few remarks. Consider the opening of the Wikipedia’s entry on computational complexity: Computational complexity theory is a branch of the theory of computation in theoretical computer science and mathematics that focuses on classifying computational problems according to their inherent difficulty, and relating those classes to each other. A computational problem is understood to be a task that is in principle amenable to being solved by a computer, which is equivalent to stating that the problem may be solved by mechanical application of mathematical steps, such as an algorithm. A problem is regarded as inherently difficult if its solution requires significant resources, whatever the algorithm used. The theory formalizes this intuition, by introducing mathematical models of computation to study these problems and quantifying the amount of resources needed to solve them, such as time and storage. Other complexity measures are also used, such as the amount of 1
communication (used in communication complexity), the number of gates in a circuit (used in circuit complexity) and the number of processors (used in parallel computing).1 It is the second paragraph we need to think about, for it is about resources. Pattern recognition isn’t the only kind of problem that is computationally difficult, but it is one of them. And, of course, not all computational operations are particularly demanding. My thought then, is this, if patterns are computationally difficult, and computational difficulty is about resources – time, storage, communication lines, processors – then patterns are things that exist for, are defined by, computers – abstractly understood in the most general case, but by actual computational devices in some specific cases. No wonder thinking about them is difficult! Now, in digital criticism, pattern recognition is being done by the critics, not by the computer. Computing of the “big data” kind requires a fair bit of computational horsepower, but much of it is well within in the range available in current laptop machines. The number crunching is not, in fact, computationally complex. It’s relatively straightforward but simply requires a lot of CPU cycles and a fair amount of storage to keep track of the data and of intermediate results. Pattern recognition, on the other hand, typically leads to what is called combinatorial explosion in which intermediate results multiply as the computation proceeds and there is no guarantee that, at some point, the intermediate results will become “absorbed” into the ongoing work and finally disappear, leaving you with a sure result – either a recognized pattern, or the certainty that no pattern is there. People do that kind of thing relatively well – lots of resources in the form of processors, where each neuron in the nervous system is considered to be a processor, giving us 100 billion processors. So, while patterns are what digital criticism is about, the computers aren’t being used to recognize the patterns. They’re being used to create the information displays, the visualizations, in which we recognize patterns. I note as well that this is true whether one is looking for patterns in individual texts or in large collections of texts. And, I warrant it is true even if you aren’t using computers at all. I’ve been writing a great deal about ring-composition over the past few years, but I’ve not been using computers to help me identify ring-forms – except in the trivial sense that I using word-processing software and I make tables and charts to help in the search. What I end up with are descriptions, another frequent blogging topic.2 A description is a description, whether it is created by hand or with computer aids. The visualizations so common in digital criticism are descriptive in kind. And so, I believe, we need to think explicitly about description: How do we formulate descriptions? What are the roles of verbal description, visualization, and even mathematical and logical formalism? What are we describing? Patterns, or at any rate, possible patterns. Whether those patterns are real or not, that is, whether or not they indicate some causal process at work in the world, that’s something we have to determine. Just how we do that, well...we’ve got new disciplines to create, do we not?
❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ This working paper consists of the following posts from New Savanna:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_complexity_theory I’ve used the tag “description” to label these posts. Click on it in the tag cloud at New Savanna (in the right-hand column) and you’ll get all the posts about description. 2
From Quantification to Patterns in Digital Criticism: Here I take up the general question of computation and quantification as set forth by several investigators and assert that patterns is what we’re seeking through the use of computers, not numbers. Rens Bod on Patterns: This is an abstract of a paper Bod gave on patterns, with the link to the paper. Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond: In which I examine an essay in which Ramsay uses network diagrams to describe patterns of scene locations in Shakespeare plays and in which he wonders: What are these patterns good for? Epiphenomena? Ramsay on Patterns, Again: I look at a more recent Ramsay piece in which he again foregrounds the notion of pattern, suggesting that they are “emergent textual epiphenomenal”. Emergent, perhaps. Epiphenomenal, no. “They’re the main event.” “Pattern” as a Term of Art: This is where I introduce the idea of a pattern as a relationship between a machine and its environment. I draw this conclusion by thinking about the ecological niche, where the machine is an organism and its environment is its life world. To this I have appended the abstract for an article David Hays and I wrote on evolution and complexity. Patterns as Epistemological Objects: Now I develop that idea, this time using examples from human cognition and reasoning. As a specific example I consider paragraph length in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which exhibits a remarkable pattern. But is it real? Patterns and Literature: Literature itself is a means of tracing patterns through the world. Hermeneutical methodologies attempt to explicate the patterns that given texts trace in the world; the more sophisticated methodologies grapple with the fact that those texts, after all, exist in the world and so are components of the paths they trace. The naturalist critic, however, “takes a step back” from the text and concentrates on describing the formal patterns in the text itself, the patterns through which the text imposes itself on life.
❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ Let me suggest, finally, that as I have, following others, recently sketched out an ontology based on objects,3 I am now approaching an epistemology based on patterns. Pattern-oriented epistemology anyone?
Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2197108 3
From Quantification to Patterns in Digital Criticism
I would like to continue the examination of fundamental presuppositions, conceptual matrices, which I began in The Fate of Reading and Theory.4 That post was concerned with how, in the context of academic literary criticism, 1) “reading” elides the distinction between (merely) reading some text – for enjoyment, edification, whatever – and writing up an interpretation of that text and 2) how “literary theory” became the use of theory in interpreting literary texts. This post is about the common sense association between computers and computing on the one hand and numbers and mathematics on the other. I conclude by suggesting that numbers are subordinate to pattern, that it is patterns that are the object of literary computing. ***** Let’s start with a couple of sentences from one of the pamphlets published by Stanford’s Literary Lab, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 NineteenthCentury British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (May 2012, 68 page PDF)5: The general methodological problem of the digital humanities can be bluntly stated: How do we get from numbers to meaning? The objects being tracked, the evidence collected, the ways they’re analyzed—all of these are quantitative. How to move from this kind of evidence and object to qualitative arguments and insights about humanistic subjects—culture, literature, art, etc.—is not clear. There we have it, numbers on the one hand and meaning on the other. It’s presented is a gulf which the digital humanities must somehow cross. When I first read that pamphlet most likely I thought nothing of that statement. It states, after all, a commonplace notion. But when I read those words in the context of writing a post6 about Alan Liu’s essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423) I came up short. “That’s not quite right,” I said to myself, it’s wrong to so casually identify computers and computing with numbers.” *****
Now let’s take a look at an essay by Kari Krauss, Conjectural Criticism: Computing Past and Future Texts (DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, 2009, Volume 3 Number 4).7 Here’s her opening paragraph: In an essay published in the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies, Stephen Ramsay argues that efforts to legitimate humanities computing within the larger discipline of literature have met with resistance because well-meaning advocates have tried too hard to brand their work as "scientific," a word whose positivistic associations conflict with traditional humanistic values of ambiguity, 4 5 6 7
http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-fate-of-reading-and-theory.html http://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet4.pdf http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/03/computer-as-symbol-and-model-on-reading.html http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/4/000069/000069.html# 4
open-endedness, and indeterminacy [Ramsay 2007]. If, as Ramsay notes, the computer is perceived primarily as an instrument for quantizing, verifying, counting, and measuring, then what purpose does it serve in those disciplines committed to a view of knowledge that admits of no incorrigible truth somehow insulated from subjective interpretation and imaginative intervention [Ramsay 2007, 479–482]? Though I’ve got reservations about Ramsay’s proposals (see A Hothouse Manifesto: Does Stephen Ramsay Sell Literary Criticism Short?8) I certainly have no problem with dissolving the bond that common sense has forged between the idea of the computer and those of numbers and math. Later on Krauss notes: The essay develops a computational model of textuality, one that better supports conjectural reasoning, as a counterweight to the material model of textuality that now predominates. Computation is here broadly understood to mean the systematic manipulation of discrete units of information, which, in the case of language, entails the grammatical processing of strings rather than the mathematical calculation of numbers to create puns, anagrams, word ladders, and other word games. The essay thus proposes that a textual scholar endeavoring to recover a prior version of a text, a diviner attempting to decipher an oracle by signs, and a poet exploiting the combinatorial play of language collectively draw on the same library of semiotic operations, which are amenable to algorithmic expression and simulation. Here Krauss explicitly asserts that computers can operate on strings of linguistic characters as well as on numbers. Her corrective, however, isn’t forceful enough. When Alan Turing formalized the concept of computation as the operation of an abstract machine – we now talk of Turing machines – he talked of that machine as reading symbols from and writing them to a paper tape according to a set of rules. He didn’t specify what those symbols meant or how, if at all, they were related to objects and events in the external world. His conception was very abstract and general: the machine processed symbols. That’s it. Historically, the task of translating from one natural language to another is one of the problems on which the modern disciplines of computer science and engineering were founded. Research on machine translation began in the 1950s almost as soon as there were digital computers with the requisite capacity. That task is not about number crunching. It begins and ends in language. ***** Let’s conclude with Franco Moretti, Network Theory, Plot Analysis (2011).9 I want to look at a long passage at the end where he starts out talking about quantification and ends up somewhere else (p. 11): The idea behind this study, clearly stated in its opening page, was, very simply, that network theory could offer a way to quantify plot, thus providing an essential piece that was still missing from computational analyses of literature. Once I started working in earnest, though, I soon realized that the machine-gathering of the data, essential to large-scale quantification, was not yet a realistic 8 9
http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-hothouse-manifesto-does-stephen.html http://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet2.pdf 5
possibility...So, from its very first section, the essay drifted from quantification to the qualitative analysis of plot: the advantage of thinking in terms of space rather than time; its segmentation into regions, instead of episodes; the new, nonanthropomorphic idea of the protagonist; or, even, the “undoing” of narrative structures occasioned by the removal of specific vertices in the network. Looking back at the work done, I wouldn’t call this change of direction a mistake: after all, network theory does help us redefine some key aspects of the theory of plot, which is an important aspect of literary study. This is not the theory’s original aim, of course, but then again, a change of purpose – a “refunctionalization”, as the Russian Formalists called it – is often what happens to a system of thought traveling from one discipline to another.... No, I did not need network theory; but I probably needed networks.... What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization: the possibility of extracting characters and interactions from a dramatic structure, and turning them into a set of signs that I could see at a glance, in a two-dimensional space. Moretti started with quantification and ended with visualization, and visualization is ubiquitous in the analytical work of digital humanists. It’s necessary to get conceptual purchase on the data. Here’s a pair of visualizations from Moretti’s most recent pamphlet, “Operationalizing”: or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory (December 2013, p. 7).10
The top visualization is an ordinary bar chart. The length of a bar is proportional to the size of a character’s “word-space” in Antigone. While one could express this information verbally – Creon spoke 28.7% of the words; the chorus has 19.8%, etc. – that’s not a very good way of presenting the information. 10
The bottom visualization is even more resistant to verbal formulation. Sure, you could do it, but the pile of words would be big and it would be all but impossible to get the synoptic view you have in a single glance at the graph – as mathematicians call such network objects. The nodes in the graph represent characters in Antigone, the same characters as in the bar chart, while the links (also called edges or arcs) indicate relationship between the characters. The older pamphlet had over 50 such diagrams, though without the arrows and variable line weight. It’s those diagrams that Moretti discovered on the way to quantification. What are those diagrams about? Let me suggest that they are about patterns. Yes, I know, the word is absurdly general, but hear me out. That bar chart depicts a pattern of quantitative relationships, and does so better and more usefully than a bunch of verbal statements. You look at it and see the pattern. The pattern in the network diagram is harder to characterize. It’s a pattern of relationship among characters. What kind of relationships? Dramatic relationships? That, I admit, is weak. But if you read Moretti’s pamphlet, you’ll see what’s going on. The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis. And that is my point: patterns. As far as I know Moretti did not use a computer to discover those network patterns. He used a computer to draw them, given human input, but he didn’t feed texts into a computer and it then “read” them and compiled the diagrams automatically. Moretti read the texts, identified the characters, and drew the diagrams by hand, which were then redrawn using computer tools. It seems to me that the automatic generation of such diagrams from textual input may be within the capacity of current computing technology, but that’s beside the point. Those diagrams are very much in the spirit, if you will, of computing. ***** You might want to look at these posts: Computing = Math, NOT http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2013/01/computing-math-not.html Of Lists and Litanies http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/06/of-lists-and-litanies.html The first dispels the notion that computing is equivalent to numerical calculation while the second is about, at least in part, certain kinds of objects, lists, that are subject to computational manipulation.
Rens Bod on Patterns
WHO'S AFRAID OF PATTERNS?: THE PARTICULAR VERSUS THE UNIVERSAL AND THE MEANING OF HUMANITIES 3.0. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review. Vol. 128, No. 4, 2013, 171-180.11 Rens Bod RN:NBN:NL:UI:10-1-110030 Abstract: The advent of Digital Humanities has enabled scholars to identify previously unknown patterns in the arts and letters; but the notion of pattern has also been subject to debate. In my response to the authors of this Forum, I argue that ‘pattern’ should not be confused with universal pattern. The term pattern itself is neutral with respect to being either particular or universal. Yet the testing and discovery of patterns – be they local or global – is greatly aided by digital tools. While such tools have been beneficial for the humanities, numerous scholars lack a sufficient grasp of the underlying assumptions and methods of these tools. I argue that in order to criticise and interpret the results of digital humanities properly, scholars must acquire a good working knowledge of the underlying tools and methods. Only then can digital humanities be fully integrated (humanities 3.0) with time-honoured (humanities 1.0) tools of hermeneutics and criticism. What I'm wondering is whether or not pattern is emerging as a fundamental epistemological/ontological entity. I've broached this idea in an earlier post focused on Moretti, From Quantification to Patterns in Digital Criticism. As I already said, the idea of patterns is very general. But that doesn’t make it useless. On the contrary, that generality makes the idea useful and powerful. As I noted in the introduction, It is a commonplace in the cognitive science that the human mind (and brain) is very good at pattern recognition. But digital computers are not so good at it. I note also that the notion of design patterns has been popular in computer programming,12 which got it from the notion of pattern language13 articulated by the architect, Christopher Alexander.14
http://www.bmgn-lchr.nl/index.php/bmgn/article/view/RN%3ANBN%3ANL%3AUI%3A10-1110030 12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_design_pattern 13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_language 14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander 8
Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond
I was looking though the syllabus for one of Alan Liu’s courses, Literature + (New Media & Literary Interpretation: Close, Distant, and Other Reading)15 and came across an older (2005), and fascinating, paper by Stephen Ramsay, In Praise of Patterns, TEXT Technology, Number 2, 2005, pp. 177-19016 (with accompanying figures17). It’s an interesting piece of work, both for what it says about Shakespeare and for what it says about methodology. Methodologically, Ramsay tells us he began playing around with network diagrams of Shakespeare plays because, well, he was interested in such diagrams and wanted to see what would show up. After a fair amount of work, including a presentation to some mathematicians and collaboration with some data miners, something very interesting showed up. But, alas, Ramsay doesn’t know quite what to make of those diagrams and yet, despite the mystery, they remain intellectually compelling. And that’s just fine. That’s the kind of world we’re in. We have the capacity to find interesting things, but once found, explaining them is a problem. If we can’t figure out how to operate in that world – this is me speaking now – we’re not going to get very far with digital humanities. Whatever digital humanities is, it is not a positivistic haven of certain knowledge (I’ve now returned to Ramsay). This post is going to be a long one, over 2K words. First I present Ramsay’s work, then I present some work I did on Shakespeare some time ago, work that speaks to genre by looking at a comedy (Much Ado About Nothing), a tragedy (Othello), and a romance (The Winter’s Tale). I conclude by suggesting that we’ve left the world defined by existing methods of hermeneutic analysis and exegesis.
Patterns of Loci and Scenes Ramsay looked at how Shakespeare’s plays moved from place to place as they moved from one scene to the next. Here’s the graph he produced for The Comedy of Errors:
15 16 17
http://english236s2012.pbworks.com/w/page/49237967/Schedule http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/englishfacpubs/57/ http://texttechnology.humanities.mcmaster.ca/ramsay_figures/ 9
By standard mathematical convention such a diagram is called a graph; the ovals are called nodes and the arrows are called edges or arcs. Each node in one of Ramsay’s diagrams indicates a locus (my term) where a scene takes place and is labeled with a name or phrase designating that place. The edges indicate the transition from one scene to the following scene; the label on the edge indicates the following scene. It follows from the labeling convention that there will not be any edge labeled “1.1” as that is the first scene in any play and, as such, does not follow any other scene. At the top of this diagram we see a locus called “A hall in Duke Solinus’s place.” It has one edge coming from it and directed to a locus called “The Mart.” That edge is labeled “1.2.” We now know that the first scene of the first act must take place in that hall in the palace. By following the edges in act-scene order from node to node we can trace the course of the play through space (the loci) and time (act-scene order). Notice the locus at the lower right, “A street before a Priory.” As there is no edge pointing from it, it must be the locus of the last scene in the play. To the upper left of that locus we see a locus designated “Before the house of Antipholus of Ephesus.” At the right side of that node edge 3.2 loops back to the same node, indicating that two successive scenes (3.1 and 3.2) are set at that locus. In the middle of the diagram we can see that a number of scenes shift back and forth among loci. Those are the kinds of features that attracted Ramsay’s interest. It turns out the graphs for the various plays look markedly different.18 The graph for Julius Caesar, for example, is very linear, while that for King Lear is linear for a while and then becomes more richly structured. Antony and Cleopatra is still more richly structured. The question that Ramsay then asked is this: Are the graphs for the four traditional types – comedy, history, tragedy, and romance – much alike within the genre but different from those of other genres? It turns out that they are, though Ramsay did not determine this by visual 18
http://texttechnology.humanities.mcmaster.ca/ramsay_figures/ I’ve appended these graphs to this section. They are, alas, rather small, but the overall shape is obvious. Still, you might want a closer look at them. Therefore I’ve also given links to the diagrams on the web. 10
inspection. First he characterized each play in terms of features of its associated locus-scene graph (p. 186): 1) the number of distinct loci, 2) the total number of scenes, 3) the number of “single-instance” scenes (I assume this means loci with only one scene), 4) the number of loops, where successive scenes occur at the same locus, and 5) the number of switches, where a string of scenes alternates between some one locus and one or more other loci. With the help of Bei Yu, a graduate student at the University of Illinois who worked with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, he used Baysian methods to classify the patterns of Shakespeare’s plays as indicated by the above five features. It took a bit of work to figure out how to conduct the analysis, but they came up with something that worked (p. 188): The comedies are, for the most part, clustering together, and the tragedies are, for the most part, clustering together. There are several curious anomalies, but the clear cases seem to have been adjudicated properly. Moreover, the curious anomalies appear to conform to some of the more famous critical statements about the plays. For example, one very influential critic has argued that both Othello and Romeo and Juliet resemble comedy, without making any mention of “low-level” structural features (such as scene loops and switches).
The remarkable thing is that this classification scheme worked at all. It’s not at all perfect, but it’s good enough that we have some serious thinking to do. Why should such simple and apparently purely formal features turn out to be reasonable indicators of genre, at least within Shakespeare’s corpus? I don’t know, though I’ll have something to say in that direction in the next section of this post, and neither does Ramsay. But, for my money, he evades the issue, or rather, he doesn’t seem to know how to face it squarely. Here’s the paragraph that follows the previously quoted passage: One is tempted—almost behooved—to make sense of the entire arrangement. Indeed, we might almost convince ourselves that such matters as “number of scenes” and “number or loops” prove something essential about Shakespeare’s genres. But this, of course, is nonsense. These methods and visualizations prove nothing at all. Indeed, to assert that these extremely low-level features are somehow constitutive of genre would be to perpetrate a ham-fisted abuse of statistics and a grotesque parody of scientific method simultaneously. But what, then, does all of this do?
Here’s what bothers me: But this, of course, is nonsense. These methods and visualizations prove nothing at all. That denial is too strong, and in misleading terms. It’s not a matter of proving anything or of being “constitutive of genre.” Ramsay comes closer to the mark at the end of the next paragraph: It forces us to move our eyes over Shakespeare’s plays as Euler’s eye must once have moved over the bridges of Königsberg. I have never thought (at least in structural terms) of the ways in which The Tempest resembles comedy, the ways that All’s Well that Ends Well (one of the infamous “problem comedies”) resembles (of all things) history, or the ways in which Henry V resembles tragedy. The fact that I’m being led in such directions by low-level structural features—some of which barely register in one’s consciousness during the ordinary act of reading—raises an obvious question: How do the low-level matters of dramaturgy relate to the high-level matters of genre?
That’s the question we must ask ourselves. Ramsay has a bit more to say in this article, but he doesn’t propose an answer to that question. I don’t have an answer either, but I have done some work on Shakespeare that overlaps with some of Ramsay’s passing observations.
More Shakespearean Patterns, of a Different Kind Ramsay’s graphs, and the five features he derives from them, are descriptions. One of the things Ramsay has gotten from those graphs is the realization that this or that play, which is normally classified as X, is also rather like Y. So, Othello is like a comedy, Henry V is like a tragedy, and so forth (and he lists more examples in the article than I’ve quoted above). At several points in his Anatomy of Criticism Northrup Frye has observed that, in effect, a tragedy is a comedy where the last sequence (of three sequences), the reconciliation, has gone missing (see my post Frye on Comedy and Tragedy).19 That is to say, and to put it crudely, there is a “deep play” that is expressed variously as a comedy or a tragedy or a history, whatever, depending on “circumstances.” That is, depending on those circumstances, the deep play will require either this or that pattern of locations and scenes to get from the opening state to the final state. What are these deep plays and what are the circumstances that allow/force them to be expressed in one form or another? Before we get to that, however, I want to note first of all, that in the comedies there is typically a physical setting or settings where a comedy’s middle sequence takes place, e.g. the forest of Arden. Thus the loci where scenes are set are thematically active. For the comedies, then, one would like to know how these loci are positioned Ramsay’s locus-scene graphs. Returning to the larger issue, that of Shakespeare’s “deep plays,” It turns out that Shakespeare has undertaken a “natural experiment” that affords us some clues on this, one I’ve examined in At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation?20 (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 21(3): 259-279, 1998). In each of Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy, Othello, a tragedy, and The Winter's Tale, a romance, we find a protagonist who mistakenly believes the woman he loves to be unfaithful—in Much Ado I’m talking about Claudio-Hero plot. In the comedy the male protagonist makes the mistake during courtship; in the tragedy the mistake happens shortly after marriage; and in the romance, the mistake occurs well into the marriage. If we examine the relationships between the characters, we find that it gets closer as we move from one play to the next. And that's not all. There seem to be systematic differences among the configuration of characters in these plays. And that has led me to wonder whether or not those differences are related to the fact that we are dealing with three different genres, comedy, tragedy, and romance. Are these configurations merely incidental features of the plays or are they intrinsic to the different genres? With this in mind, consider the following table, in which the first column names the function a given character takes in the play: Protagonist Mentor Deceiver Paramour Beloved
Much Ado Claudio Don Pedro Don John Borachio Hero
Winter's Tale Leontes
Iago Cassio Desdemona
Does this table depict something for which an explanation is necessary or does it depict a merely contingent set of relationships between these plays? If an explanation is necessary, what kind? What that table suggests to me is that we have three different ways of “mapping” a single mind—Shakespeare’s, the reader’s, whatever–onto the multiple characters of a play. Claudio, Othello, and Leontes each has different capabilities; and so they draw on different capabilities within the reader.
http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2013/12/frye-on-comedy-and-tragedy.html http://ssrn.com/abstract=1507240 12
Neither Othello nor Leontes has a mentor comparable to Claudio's Don Pedro. Don Pedro talked with Hero's father, Leonato, and arranged the marriage. We see that happen in the play. We must infer that Othello arranged his marriage to Desdemona, whose father didn't even know about the marriage. We know nothing about how Leontes managed his marriage to Hermione, but he doesn't have anyone associated with him who could be called his mentor. Further, there is no deceiver in The Winter's Tale comparable to Don John or Iago. Leontes deceives himself. Iago, Othello's deceiver, is closer to Othello than Don John is to Claudio. Among the presumed paramours, Cassio is closer to Othello than Borachio is to Claudio. Polixenes and Leontes have known one another since boyhood; they are so closely identified that we can consider them doubles. Thus relationships between key characters and the protagonist become more intimate as we move from the comedy to the tragedy to the romance—and some characters, mentor and deceiver, seem to disappear. Note also that the protagonist becomes more powerful as we move through the sequence of plays. Claudio is a youth just beginning to make his way in the world. Othello is a mature man, a seasoned general at the height of his career; but there are men who have authority over him. Leontes is king (and father); there is no mundane authority higher than his. Perhaps this increase in power is correlated with the apparent “absorption” of functions into the protagonist. The absorption of functions increases the behavioral range of the protagonist. And this increased range is symbolized by higher social status. Finally, notice that as we move from the comedy, to the tragedy, to the romance, the deception moves further into a marriage sequence that begins with falling in love, moves to betrothal, then to the marriage ceremony, the subsequent consummation, and finally to settled married life. In the comedy the deception falls between the betrothal and the ceremony. It is between the ceremony and the consummation in the tragedy while it happens well into married life in the romance. What have we got so far? That table depicts a pattern, but one defined over relationships among plays rather than a pattern confined to a single play–a mode of analysis inspired by Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth. I’ve justified giving that pattern particular attention by the fact that the characters in each of the plays are involved in the same situation–a man is deceived about the actions of his beloved. Given how that common situation aligns the characters, other terms of comparison emerge: capabilities, position in the social system, and “distance” into the marriage sequence. All these things seem bound together, but I still don’t see a causal model emerging from this pattern. It’s just a description, albeit an interesting one. In that Franco Moretti has been interested in configurations of characters in a variety of texts, including Shakespeare’s plays, we can think of this pattern as existing in or at least being in touch with the territory he’s been investigating with his graphs (in the second pamphlet from the Literary Lab Network Theory, Plot Analysis, 2011).21 This pattern thus establishes some kind of oblique connection between Moretti’s graphs and Ramsay’s giving us three related sets of patterns.
But Where’s an Explanation? But how do we get an explanatory account out of these patterns? I don’t know. In my Shakespeare article (At the Edge of the Modern) I introduce quite a bit of psychology to deal with the deception plot: some psychoanalysis, some of what is now called evolutionary psychology (the term hadn’t been coined when I drafted the article), and some work on maturation during the life cycle. But it still doesn’t add up to a causal model for Shakespeare’s deployment of genre.
What it is, is speculation, albeit interesting and suggestive speculation. Nor do I see much hope of arriving at some kind of casual explanation without more speculation and more fishing expeditions in search of suggestive patterns. Given what I’ve said about Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, one obvious next step would be to examine Ramsay’s graphs for those three plays (which aren’t among the figures for his article) and see what turns up. Think of it as a fishing expedition of narrow scope. There’s no specific agenda, we’re not looking for anything in particular, but who knows, something interesting might show up–though we might have to do more than simply look for loops and count loci. We’ll probably want to look at what happens in each scene, and THAT’s likely to be a messy job. Assume that something interesting does show up. What then? That’s only three plays out of over thirty. How do we extend those results to the rest of Shakespeare’s oeuvre? The only thing I’m fairly sure about is that we’re not going to solve these problems by looking for models within the existing repertoire of hermeneutic strategies, for none of them were created to solve these kinds of problem. These aren’t hermeneutic problems. They aren’t about what the plays mean, they’re about the mechanisms and processes whereby they are constructed. Is the profession ready to address such questions?
Appendix: Three Plays, Three Patterns Julius Caesar: http://texttechnology.humanities.mcmaster.ca/ramsay_figures/plate_10.jpg
King Lear: http://texttechnology.humanities.mcmaster.ca/ramsay_figures/plate_11.jpg
Anthony and Cleopatra: http://texttechnology.humanities.mcmaster.ca/ramsay_figures/plate_6.jpg
Epiphenomena? Ramsay on Patterns, Again
About a month ago I posted on Ramsay’s article about patterns in the scene structure of Shakespeare’s plays. Now I’m looking at a more recent piece, The Meandering through Textuality Challenge,22 from a 2011 MLA panel, “Digging into Data.” Patterns come up again: I have many times suggested “pattern” as the treasure sought by humanistic inquiry: which is to say, an order, a regularity, a connection, a resonance. I continue to insist that this is, in the end, what humanists in general, and literary critics in particular, are always looking for, whether they’re new critics, new historicists, new atheists, new faculty, or New Englanders... This would be a banal observation ... were it not for the fact that (like these worn phrases, once upon a time) it encourages us see a connection that might otherwise be obscured. For if humanistic inquiry is about pattern, then it isn’t completely crazy to suggest that computers might be useful tools for humanistic inquiry. Because long before computation is about YouTube or Twitter or Google, it is about pattern transduction.
So far so good. I especially like that last bit, that computation is about pattern transduction. I’m not entirely sure what that means, nor am I at all disturbed by that. Whatever it means, it draws the reader’s attention away calculation and number, which is a good thing. Ramsay goes on to say: ... we do not present the task of literary criticism or historiography as the process of finding some intact, but buried object beneath the surface. That’s because we have for a very long time now conceived of the patterns we’re looking for not as “out there,” but as “in here” — not as preexisting ontological formations, but as emergent textual epiphenomena.
Again I’m not so sure, but I want to think about this uncertainty, just a bit. When I go looking for patterns in texts as far as I can tell I’m looking for something that’s “out there” in the sense that I am not, as a critic, projecting that pattern onto the text. Ringcomposition really is there, whether in the Japanese film Gojira,23 or in Heart of Darkness,24 or elsewhere (Coleridge, Tezuka, Coppola)25. Now I understand that those texts, considered as inscriptions on some surface (whether ink on a page, emulsion on celluloid, or a pattern of light on some surface) must be “read” by a mind in order for the phenomenon to be fully manifest, but that certainly doesn’t make them epiphenomenal. Textual patterns are not side-effects (“emergent textual epiphenomena”). They’re the main event. They are as real (“preexisting ontological formations”?) as the ink splotches or pixels that constitute them. That is, they are real if WE are. If, we’re not real, then… Perhaps that’s what one gets from using computation as a model for mental process, a way of thinking about “texts” as a thinkable unity of sign and process (cf. the post, Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects26). As long as and to the extent that digital critics confine their computational thinking to matters of “back office support” for the “real” work of reading they’re stuck with the existing roster of hermeneutic systems and their attendant mysteries and mystifications.
22 23 24 25 26
http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/06/the-meandering-through-textuality-challenge/ http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2013/12/ring-form-opportunity-no-4-gojira-is.html http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/07/heart-of-heart-of-darkness.html http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2013/12/center-point-construction-coleridge.html http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/03/texts-traces-and-hyperobjects.html 16
Ramsay ends his piece by suggesting that digital criticism “might be more revolutionary than anything that has happened in literary study in fifty years.” But that revolution will be still-born unless Ramsay and his colleagues can come up with some way to think of textual patterns as something more substantial than “emergent textual epiphenomena.” If they don’t want to think of the mind as, in some sense, computational in kind, well then, give me another conceptualization. But somehow we’ve got to get across the barrier that critics cobbled together27 between hermeneutics on the one hand and linguistics, cognition, and neuroscience. Downing that barrier does not mean we get to enter a happy land of positivist truth. Nothing of the kind. As far as I can tell, it means, among other things, that we must devote enormous effort to cobbling together descriptions of textual phenomena (“patterns”) without the immediate prospect of explaining them. We need the descriptions so that we know what it is we’re trying to explain.
The Critic's Will to Meaning over the Resistance of the Text, http://newsavanna.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-critics-will-to-meaning-over.html 17
“Pattern” as a Term of Art
In continuing to think about pattern I remembered some old notes I’d made about the concept of a biological niche. I’d decided that a niche was a pattern that some organism “traced” or “inscribed” in an environment. Back THEN I was the concept of pattern to explicate the concept of niche. In this current context, the focus, of course, is on pattern. That is, I am developing “pattern” as a term of art and so I want to recast the ordinary notion just a bit. The ordinary notion of patterns is that, well, they’re everywhere. The ordinary notion is indifferent to how patterns are identified. The means of identification is off stage; it’s not even implicit; it’s simply not there. I’ve decided that that won’t do for my purposes. As a term of art the concept of pattern is inherently relational. As a tentative formulation, a PATTERN can be said to be inscribed in a matrix by a vehicle. In the case of a biological niche, the organism is the vehicle, the environment is the matrix, and adaptation (or perhaps merely living) is the means of inscription. What I like about the niche discussion is that it isn’t about humans. The niche is not a pattern conceived by humans. That’s one thing. The other is that patterns emerge as the result of a process. Niches emerge as organisms live and become adapted to their environment. The patterns I’m interested in are the result of human perception and cognition. Here are my old notes, from 1988, somewhat edited. ***** The last time I looked (in the 1970s) I was unable to find a clean definition of the niche, and of correlative terms such as environment and habitat. Environments are complex and so are organisms. The niche seems to be a pattern which exists only in the relationship between an organism and its environment. There are biologists who talk about a niche as existing independently of any organism. The niche exists and the organism moves into it. This really isn't satisfactory. For there is a sense in which organisms create niches. And I’m not thinking of the concept of niche construction, where an animal actively modifies its environment by building nests and trails and so forth, though that is obviously as aspect of the process. One can think of an organism as a set of capacities. Given some pre-existing organism, it creates a niche when placed into the appropriate environment, namely, an environment whose structure corresponds to the organism's capacities. But, in fact, there is no such thing as a pre-existing organism. Organisms always exist in environments, to which they are always (more or less) adapted. In the abstract we can imagine talking about the material, energetic, and informatic patterns which are such that organisms, perhaps of a specific chemistry (such as one based on carbon and oxygen), are evolved to exploit them. Consider the following definition (which presupposes the arguments in A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity28): A niche is a collection environmental phenomena in which low energy utilization of information allows an organism economically to obtain the energy and materials it needs to maintain its life. 28
As far as I can tell they only way to identify such a collection of environmental phenomena is to design and an organism which can successfully exploit them. And the best way to “design” such an organism is to evolve it. I take it then that there is no way to identify a pattern of environmental affordances (to borrow a term from J. J. Gibson) independently of identifying an organism that utilizes them. To be sure, you may read a biologist talking about such things as “a niche for two kilogram night foraging herbivore,” but that’s only because they know that such creatures exist and have one in mind when writing those words. Such formulations sound like the biologist is simply looking at an environment and spelling out a niche pattern based on general theoretical notions. But those theoretical notions are based the examination of real organisms in real environments. It’s irreducible: Niches are patterns, and those patterns are “identified” by the organisms that occupy the niches. That’s the simplest way. And it’s not very simple. The universe is irreducibly complex. ***** This account of patterns, and my opening remarks about computing, suggests that the following article is a useful extension of the above remarks. If I am not mistaken, though, those I made the above remarks after Hays and I had at least finished a draft of this article. William L. Benzon and David G. Hays. A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13: 33-40, 1990.29 Abstract: While science has accepted biological evolution through natural selection, there is no generally agreed explanation for why evolution leads to ever more complex organisms. Evolution yields organismic complexity because the universe is, in its very fabric, inherently complex, as suggested by Ilya Prigogine's work on dissipative structures. Because the universe is complex, increments in organismic complexity yield survival benefits: (1) more efficient extraction of energy and matter, (2) more flexible response to vicissitudes, (3) more effective search. J.J. Gibson's ecological psychology provides a clue to the advantages of sophisticated information processing while the lore of computational theory suggests that a complex computer is needed efficiently to perform complex computations (i.e. sophisticated information processing).
Patterns as Epistemological Objects
When I posted From Quantification to Patterns in Digital Criticism I was thinking out loud. I’ve been thinking about patterns for years, and about pattern-matching as a computational process. I had this shoot-from-the-hip notion that patterns, as general as the concept is, deserve some kind of special standing in methodological thinking about so-called digital humanities – likely other things as well, but certainly digital humanities. And then I discovered that Rens Bod was thinking about patterns30 as well. And his thinking is independent of mine, as is Stephen Ramsay’s.31 So now we have three independent lines of thought converging on the idea of patterns. Perhaps there’s something there. But what? It’s not as though there’s anything new in the idea of patterns. It’s a perfectly ordinary idea. THAT’s not a disqualification, but I think we need something more if we want to use the idea of pattern as a fundamental epistemological concept
From Niche to Pattern In my previous patterns post, “Pattern” as a Term of Art, I argued that the biological niche is a pattern in the sense we need. It’s a pattern that arises between a species and its sustaining environment. Organisms define niches. While biologists sometimes talk of niches pre-existing the organisms that come to occupy them, that just a rhetorical convenience. That example is important because it puts patterns “out there” in the world rather than them being something that humans perceive in the world. But now it’s the human case that interests me, patterns that humans see in the world. But we don’t necessarily regard all the patterns we see as being “real”, that is, as existing independently of our perception. When we look at a cloud and see an elephant we don’t conclude that an elephant is up there in the sky, or that the cloud decided to take on an elephant-like form. We know that the cloud has its own dynamics, whatever they might be, and we realize that the elephant form is something we are projecting onto the world. But that is something we learn. It’s not given in the perception itself. And that learning is guided by cultural conventions. We see all kinds of things in the world. Not only does the mind perceive patterns, it seeks them out. What happens when we start to interact with the phenomena we perceive? That’s when we learn whether or not the elephant we saw is real or a projection. With this in mind, consider this provisional formulation: An observer defines a pattern over objects. The parallel formulation for ecological niche would be: A species defines a niche over the environment. The pattern, the niche, exists in the relationship between a supporting matrix (the environment, an array of objects) and the organizing vehicle (the species, the observer). Just as there’s no way of identifying an ecological niche independently of specifying an organism occupying the niche, so there’s no way of specifying a (perceptual or cognitive) pattern independently of specifying a mind the charts the pattern. 30
http://www.bmgn-lchr.nl/index.php/bmgn/article/view/RN%3ANBN%3ANL%3AUI%3A101-110030 31 http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/englishfacpubs/57/ 20
As a practical matter, of course, we often talk of patterns simply as being there, in the world, in the data. And our ability to understand how the mind captures patterns is still somewhat limited. But if we want to understand how patterns function as epistemological primitives, then we must somehow take the perceiving mind into account. The point of this formulation is to finesse the question of just what characteristic of some collection of objects makes them a suitable candidate for bearing a pattern. We can understand how patterns function as epistemological primitives without having to specify, as part of our inquiry, what characteristics an ensemble must have to warrant treatment as a pattern. We as epistemologists are not in the business of making that determination. That’s the job of a perceptual-cognitive system. Our job is to understand how such systems come to accept some patterns as real while rejecting others. How does that happen? Through interaction, and the nature of that interaction is specific to the patterns involved.
Two Simple Examples: Animals and Stars Let us consider some simple examples. Consider the patterns a hunter must use to track an animal, footprints, disturbed vegetation, sounds of animal movement, and so forth. The causal relationship between the animal and the signs in the pattern is obvious enough; the signs are produced by animal motion. The hunter knows that the pattern is real when the animal is spotted. Of course, the animal may not always be spotted, yet the pattern is real. In the case of failure the hunter must make a judgment about whether the pattern was real, but the animal simply got away, or whether the perceived pattern was simply mistaken. Constellations of stars in the sky are a somewhat more complex example. That a certain group of stars is seen as Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper, is certainly a projection of the human mind onto the sky. The set of stars in a given constellation do not form a group organized by internal causal forces in the way that a planetary system does. The planets in such a system are held there by mutual gravitational attraction. The gravitational force of the central star would be the largest component in the field, with the planets exerting lesser force in the system. But the stars in the Big Dipper are not held in that pattern by their mutual gravitational forces. Whatever that pattern is, it is not evidence of a local gravitational system among the constituents of the pattern. Rather, that pattern depends on the relationship between the observer and those objects. An observer at a different place in the universe, near one of the stars, for example, wouldn’t be able to perceive that pattern. And yet the stars have the same positions relative to one another and to the rest of the (nearby) universe. Our knowledge of constellations is quite different from the hunter’s knowledge of tracking lore. One cannot interact with constellations in the way one interacts with animals. While one can pursue and capture or kill animals, one can’t do anything to constellations. They are beyond our reach. But we can observe them and note their positions in the sky. And we can use them to orient ourselves in the world and thus discover that they serve as reliable indicators of our position in geographic space. These two patterns attain reality in a different way. The forces that make the animal’s trail a real pattern are local ones having to do with the interaction between the animal and its immediate surrounding. The forces “behind” the constellations are those of the large-scale dynamics of the universe as “projected” onto the point from which the pattern is viewed.
A Case from the Humanities Now let’s consider an example that’s closer to the digital humanities. Look at the following figure:
The red triangle is the pattern and I am defining it over the vertical bars. That is, I examined the bars and decided that they’re approximating a triangle, which I then superimposed on those bars. The bars preexisted the triangle. I also created those bars, but through a process that is different and separate from that for the triangular pattern. Each bar represents a paragraph in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; the length of the bar is proportional to the number of words in the paragraph. The leftmost bar represents the first paragraph in the text while the rightmost bar represents that last paragraph in the text. The other bars represent the other paragraphs, in textual order from left to right. The bars vary quite a bit in length. The shortest paragraph in the text is only two words long while the longest is, I believe, 1502 words long. In any given run of, say, twenty paragraphs, paragraph lengths vary considerably, though there isn’t a single paragraph over 200 words long in the final 30 paragraphs or so. But why, when the distribution of paragraph lengths is so irregular, am I asserting the overall distribution has the form of a triangle? What I’m asserting is that that is the envelope of the distribution. There are a few paragraphs outside the envelope, but great majority are inside it. The significant point, though, is that there is one longest paragraph and it is more or less in the middle. That paragraph is considerably longer (by over 300 words) than the next longest paragraphs, which are relatively close to it. The paragraphs toward the beginning and the end, the end especially, tend to be short. What we’d like to know, though, is whether this distribution is an accident, and so of little interest, or whether it is a sign of a real process. In the first place I observe that, in my experience, paragraphs over 500 words long are relatively rare – this is the kind of thing that can be easily checked with the large text databases we now have. Single paragraphs of over 1000 words must be very rare indeed. And that longest pattern is quite special. It is very strongly marked. If you know Conrad’s story, then you know it centers on two men, Kurtz, a trader in the Congo, and Marlow, the captain of a boat sent to retrieve him. Marlow narrates the story, but it isn’t until we’re well into the story that Kurtz is even mentioned. And then we don’t learn much about him, just that he’s a trader deep in the interior and he hasn’t been heard from in a long time. That longest paragraph is the first time we learn much about Kurtz. It’s a précis of his story. The circumstances in which Marlow gives us this précis are extraordinary.
His narrative technique is simple; he tells events in the order in which they happened – his need for a job, how he got that particular job, his arrival at the mouth of the Congo River, and so forth. With that longest paragraph, however, Marlow deviates from chronological order. He introduces this information about Kurtz as a digression from the story of his journey up the Congo River to Kurtz’s trading station. Some of what he tells us about Kurtz happened long before Marlow set even sail; and some of what we learn happened after the point in Marlow’s journey where he introduces this paragraph as a digression. What brought on this digression? Well, Marlow’s boat was about a day’s journey from Kurtz’s camp when they were attacked from the shore. The helmsman was speared through the chest and fell bleeding to the deck. It’s at THAT point that Marlow interrupts his narrative to tell us about the remarkable Mr. Kurtz – whom he had yet to meet. Once he finishes this most important digression he returns to his bleeding helmsman and throws him overboard, dead. Just before he does so he tells us that he doesn’t think Kurtz’s life was worth that of the helmsman who died trying to retrieve him. That paragraph – its length, content, and position in the text – is no accident. That statement, of course, is a judgement, only based only on my experience and knowledge as a critic, which have been shaped by the discipline of academic literary criticism. But it’s not an unreasonable judgement; it is of a piece with the thousands of such judgements woven into the fabric of our discipline. Conrad may not have consciously planned to convey that information in the longest paragraph in the text, and to position that paragraph in the middle of his text, but whatever unconscious cognitive and affective considerations were driving his craft, they put that information in that place in the text and at that length. The apex of that triangle is real, not merely in the sense that the paragraph is that long, but in the deeper sense that it is a clue about the psychodynamic forces shaping the text. Just what are those psychodynamic forces? I don’t know. The hunter can tell us in great detail about how the animal left traces of its movement over the land. Astronomers and astrophysicists can tell us about constellations in great detail. But the pattern of paragraph lengths in Heart of Darkness is a mystery. ***** Why do I consider this example at such length? For one thing, I’m interested in texts. Patterns in text are thus what most interest me. Secondly, that example makes the point that description is one thing, explanation another. I’ve described the pattern, but I’ve not explained it. Nor do I have any clear idea of how to go about explaining it. There’s a lot of that going around in the digital humanities. Patterns have been found, but we don’t know how to explain them. We may not even know whether or not the pattern reflects something “real” about the world or is simply an artifact of data processing. Third, whereas much of the work in digital humanities involves data mining procedures that are difficult to understand, this is not like that. Counting the number of words in a paragraph is simple and straightforward, if tedious (even with some crude computational help). And yet the result is strange and a bit mysterious. Who’d have thought? Note that I distinguish between the bar chart that displays the word counts and the pattern I, as analyst, impose on it. When I say that the envelope of paragraph length distribution is triangular, I’m making a judgement. That judgement didn’t come out of the word count itself. And when I say that that pattern is real, I’m also making a judgement, one that I’ve justified – if only partially – by discussing what happens in that longest paragraph and that paragraphs position in the text as a whole.
My sense of these matters is that, going forward, we’re going to have to get comfortable with identifying patterns we don’t know how to explain. We need to start thinking about, theorizing if you will, what patterns are and how to identify them. ***** I’ve written a good many posts on Heart of Darkness: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/search/label/heart%20darkness I discuss paragraph length in two different posts. http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/07/distribution-of-paragraph-lengths-whats.html http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/07/hd7-digital-humanities-sandbox-goes-to.html I’ve called that central sentence the nexus and discuss its position in the text: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/07/heart-of-heart-of-darkness.html In this post I annotate the nexus, adding commentary every two or three sentences: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/07/heart-of-darkness-6-some-informal-notes.html Here’s a downloadable working paper that covers these and other aspects of the text. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1910279
Patterns and Literature
So, patterns. Some patterns operate on the time and scale of sensory perception; we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things in the course of everyday life. But other patterns require more time and deliberation. That our solar system consists of planets and asteroids in transit about the sun is a pattern, but it’s not one given in sensory perception. Rather, it’s one that can be inscribed on a surface (where on can see it at human scale) and that emerged through thousands upon thousands of observations made by hundreds of individuals conversing over the course of centuries. Literary texts (and films) are a bit like that. They are devices for capturing patterns of (mostly, generally) human life. Depending on the text, the reading may take only minutes or hours, perhaps over the course of days, but the writing likely took longer. Each text rests on a history of texts from which it draws and against which it reacts, and a body of texts requires a community to keep it in circulation.
Lifeways and Literature Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) would say that these textual patterns embody virtual experience. Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) talks of literature as a way of “trying out” modes of life, while more recently, Keith Oatley (Such Stuff as Dreams) writes of literary experience as simulation. We can say that these patterns are meant to be taken up by one’s whole psyche, one’s whole being – even that they are meant to facilitate unity of being. Kenneth Burke writes of this in “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298): ... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.” Finally, it is not, after all, as though life happens OVER THERE, while literature takes place in a separate space IN HERE such that literature is completely external to life. It’s not that simple. Literature takes place in and reacts on life.
Interpretive Criticism Provisionally, we can say that a text represents certain states of affairs in the world; call that content. Texts use various devices to organize their contents; call that form. In Oatley’s terms the content is the world simulated while the form is the “machinery” used to run the simulation. In critical practice, distinguishing form and content can be difficult. Ordinary literary criticism, mainstream literary criticism, is focused on interpretation. As far as I can tell, that seems to be an exercise in re-stating the lifeways captured in a text in a different kind of language. Such interpretations are always partial; they always leave some aspects of a text untouched. And while hermeneutic criticism takes note of textual
devices, of formal matters, that is not its focus. It attends to form as a way of explicating meaning, of retracing the lifeways originally traced in the text. I would further say that such criticism strives to keep in touch with the “ordinary” practice of reading and “taking up” literature. Hence it is common to talk of an interpretation as a reading of the text. The introduction of technical and quasi-technical concepts and vocabulary tends to get in the way of such reading and hence is problematic. On the one hand we hear calls for critics to drop the scientism, as this is thought to be, and write in ordinary language. On the other hand, critics themselves feel and express anxiety about their activity, thinking of it as somehow parasitic on primary texts and not an activity unto itself – I’m thinking here of the anxieties Geoffrey Hartman expresses in The Fate of Reading. But it can be parasitic only if it is (seen as) doing the same thing as literature; it the aim is to do something different, well then, it’s no longer parasitic. Biology, for example, needs living things as its objects of investigation; but no one would think of biology as parasitic upon life. And so literary criticism needs texts as objects of investigation. It is only to the extent that criticism aims, not at the texts, but through the texts to life itself, that it can be parasitic. Naturalist Criticism Insofar as possible, I want to separate the investigation of form from the investigation of content and, further, to focus on form. I’m not interested in what a text means; I’m not primarily concerned about what it exhibits about human lifeways. I want to examine how the exhibit is structured, how the simulation is run. When I write of the importance of description, I’m mean the description of formal patterns. Until we know what those patterns are, we cannot hope to understand the mechanisms behind them. As a practical matter, our sense of what to look for may be informed by our intuitions, and even models, of those mechanisms. But the emphasis is on describing the form. In my own work ring-form or center point construction has emerged as a central concern – I suspect that is because its linear symmetry works against, cuts across, the cumulative effects of textual progression, but that’s a digression. In all those texts – “Kubla Khan”, Heart of Darkness, Metropolis, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Gojira, etc. – the formal pattern is cleanly separable from the context. Their subject matter is quite different but, to a first approximation, their form is the same. How does that form work? The form is a pattern that we, as critics, see in the text. What mechanisms are responsible for that pattern? Obviously we cannot even begin to answer the question until we’ve described the pattern. I am tempted to assert that, in the long run, we can treat such patterns as real only if we can find a mechanism to explain them. Yet I don’t quite believe that. It is because I believe the patterns are real that I search for mechanisms that explain them.
An Ethical Imperative Finally, while the goal of naturalist criticism is not interpretive, much less ethical, there is an ethical dimension to the activity itself. Let us once again consider Edward Said’s lament (“Globalizing Literary Study,” PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1, 2001, pp. 64-68): I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, 26
and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernican transformation in the common understanding of it. If there is any hope of recovering a robust sense of that autonomous aesthetic realm, it is though an understanding of the devices of literary form. The content of literary works is tied to and anchored in “history, politics, social structures, and the like.” But the way the context is captured and presented is anchored in the inherent powers of the human mind. The formal patterns of texts are the traces of those powers. It follows that the way to understand those powers is to understand literary form. The formalists WERE right in believing that form conferred (a degree of) autonomy on texts. But they were wrong in thinking that that autonomy applied to the meaning in a way that lifted it outside of history. The achievements of form are more limited. Form confers upon the reader the power of using literature to establish a critical distance from his/her historical moment and thereby to resist it, to work against it. The reader does this, not by apprehending a preexisting eternal meaning, but by giving an order to his/her experience that it does not have in the context of daily life. What the reader then does with that order, that is his/her free choice, as free as any choice we have. I conclude by observing that, to the extent that a robust understanding of literary form needs to be based on an appropriate idea of computation, the ethical imperative behind a naturalist criticism is compatible with, if not inherent in, digital criticism.