DH09 Thursday, session 2: computational stylistics, Memmott, Pynchon

in DigiLib BLog
June 25th, 2009

Louisa Connors is up first; “Complementary critical tradition and Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam.”

Proposition: a computational stylistic analysis of function words in two sets of texts from the same period and related genres can support more traditional approaches to literary analysis of those texts.

Computational stylistics — issues: lack of interest by traditional humanists; appears to sacrifice contextual and social elements in favor of formal and llinguistic properties; no disciplined way of interpreting what the extracted language data mean, when they’re out of context.

Quantitative approaches look at tendencies and not at absolutes; so how do you study attribution in that context? Using cognitive linguistics and function words, we can think about how attribution works and why.

Louisa’s study is of 60 tragedies, 1580-1641, 48 for the stage and 12 closet tragedies from the Sidney circle. The sample size is approximately 1m words. She regulated spelling, expanded contracted forms, and did not tag homographs.

Using Intelligent Archive, she extracted word frequencies within and across plays, and transferred the data into SPSS for further function word analysis.

About closet plays: they were written for private circulation withiun an elite literary culture, intellectually superior to and more politically radical than commercial drama. Women writers present in closet drama! Stage plays, on the other hand, are Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe.

In commercial plays, we see a lot of personal interaction (thee, thou, him, me), and in closet plays the language is much more discursive. In general, stage plays draw the participants into the discourse world, and closet drama is more about ideas, not action.

Mariam is the most theatrical of the closet plays: frequent use of pronouns, particularly anaphoric pronouns, emphasizing shared nature of discourse space and creating a certain intimacy. Mariam, in a soliloquy, refers to herself several times by name, in third person, placing the conception of “Mariam” on the metaphorical stage shared between speaker and addressee: there’s an implied conceptual distance. It’s as though she is observing herself from an outside position.

Concluding, the role of function words is primarily said to be a matter of construal: an expression’s meaning isn’t just the concept it evokes; it’s equally important how that content is construed. [vz: If this doesn't make sense, I apologize: this is another talk that went over my head.]


Elizabeth Anne Swanstrom is next, presenting “‘Terminal Hopscotch’: Nativating Networked Space in Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia.” [vz: N.B.: LtP reportedly breaks Firefox. Oddly enough, use IE instead. If you're not familiar with the work, be prepared to be overwhelmed and disoriented. But persist, and you will be richly rewarded.]

Are reading practices in flux as a result of recent technological innovation? Is deep reading on a computer impossible? Liz says, no. Deep absorption doesn’t only happen with the printed word, ink, paper.

NYT Paper Cuts blog, 4.21.09, asks: “Who’s Killing ‘Deep-Focus Reading’?” The answer seems to be Kindle. But, Liz says, the medium doesn’t preclude deep reading, and LtP requires both of the reader: a deep reading, and the ability to browse, or “hopscotch” (Memmott’s term).

LtP: created in 2000, four large sections, each very very dense, combining snippets of code, text and images. DHTML and JavaScript. Starts out deceptively simple; mouseovers trigger complex layers. Intriguing use of space.

Earlier interpretations primarily focus LtP’s linguistic elements; Liz is analyzing the use of space and its role in identity.

Bachelard: house provides a shelter for the I, the non-I that maintains and protects the I. LtP’s lack of home and hearth forces the reader into continual motion. Though patient clicking transports you to Ka-space, which is experienced differently from LtP’s manifesto-like spaces. There we can rest; there’s not so much dispersion.

Spatial characteristics of the network don’t fit easily into the strategic layering Memmott does. He layers code over text, and the story of Echo and Narcissus over the work.

Layered grids, which Memmott uses, are emblems of the modern in art. Memmott, though, uses grids as perspectival and dislocating: we aren’t given reference points. Memmott says he thinks of them as something of a visual anchor; as screen becomes more complex, grids add noise but also don’t change.

Multiple points of focus on every screen. Can read in many directions, incl. diagonal. Many points of transition and hidden passageways. Until the reader becomes very familiar with the text, she is subject to its processes. Initially disorienting, the grid actually provides straight lines along which to measure navigation.

Beginning of “Exe.Termination”, last part of LtP: beginning is calm and simple, gradually building up to a frenzy that loops and never ends. The climactic point of the text never really ends; there’s no closure. We’re left moving, the feeling of terminal hopscotch persists.


Ed Finn follows, with “Cultural Capital in the Digital Era: Mapping the Success of Thomas Pynchon.”

This is Ed’s dissertation research, and is ongoing, so put away your weapons, y’all [he requests].

What is it that allows commercially *and* literarily successful authors succeed in both of these spheres, each of which seems to aim to exclude the other?

Cultural capital: a set of tools or signs that participants in a field must master to interpret and engage cultural products in context. (Bourdieu) Compelling metaphor, but not the best one for Ed’s work, because it puts focus on heavy philosophical issues (like value), and ultimately we spin off into an untenable debates. You can’t spend it or trade it.

Instead, let’s talk about ideational networks: webs of ideas, interactions as cultural passageways.

Reading is a social act: we make cultural choices, have conversations, experience the lives of others around reading. This is especially true online: email, blogs, commenting, sharing.

Ed’s data: book reviews of Pynchon’s works 1963-2008, both professional and Amazon reader reviews; recommendations on LibraryThing and Amazon’s recommendation engine; PMLA citations; and book availability as reflected in WorldCat, Amazon and LibraryThing.

Why Pynchon? Well, he has this postmodern, anonymous fame. He’s the most famous active anonymous author in the U.S. His only officially sanctioned photo is his bag-over-head cameo on The Simpsons. He hasn’t retreated into rural seclusion mode; he lives in Manhattan, does what other people do, lunches with authors, has net presence — he’s just cultivated an aura where people willingly read his stuff without a bio or known personality.

Another reason: his style of the paranoid sublime. He writes about the challenges of intersubjectivity; communication and noise; and consumerism as anxiety of connection [advertisements --> purchases].

Finally, Pynchon is interesting because he trains readers to question causality, history, social norms of temporality, and to seek connections everywhere — to adopt our own paranoid style. His novels are posthistorical metafiction.

Ed presents two Wordle images — one of professional reviews of Gravity’s Rainbow, the other — of Amazon reviews. I’ll try to find the images.

Pynchon MLA citations graph: citations started taking off after Gravity’s Rainbow. After he started publishing, there’s been a consistent level of annual attention, though also peaks and valleys (that follow similar timeframes between books).

A bunch of other graphs; I wonder if Ed’s slides will be online. Some surprises with Amazon recommendations: Pynchon novels clump with other Pynchon novels; but, for example, Toni Morisson’s novels don’t clump with other works by her. Also: Amazon thinks that people who buy Gravity’s Rainbow tend to also buy Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. This implies a strong cultural connection, and if you believe this rhetoric, then this is evidence of cultural capital in action.

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One Comment on DH09 Thursday, session 2: computational stylistics, Memmott, Pynchon

  • Thanks for this writeup! I should clarify that there are a few well-known pictures of Pynchon out there, but nothing for the past several decades.

    I’ve put my slides up here: http://is.gd/1dgge

    None of my Wordle or other images are available elsewhere, so if you’d like to check them out, please download the PowerPoint. If you’d like to check out my Java map toy on your own, please email or drop me a line via blog/Twitter. I look forward to any feedback you’d like to share.

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