[Humanist] 31.223 how we are read

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Aug 3 10:05:13 CEST 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 223.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 3 Aug 2017 06:57:30 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: e-mail and text-analysis

In the New York Review of Books for 24 July, staff writer Nathan Heller 
offers us sobering but not surprising reflections on deluges of e-mail, 
and from that subject to the hyped powers of computational methods to 
bring quicker understanding from large bodies of text and ideas about 
them. (His particular focus is the corpus of Enron corporate e-mails.) 
On the analysis of corpora he writes as follows:

> The limits of corpus analysis, in other words, are human; in the gap
> between data and knowledge, we fall back on our social understandings
> of the world. This recourse can help computers with complex use
> cases, such as "pretty." But when help is supposed to flow from
> machine to human, we can end up gazing into a mirror, not a
> clarifying lens. Like the work of the midcentury structuralist
> anthropologists, corpus analysis purports to pattern-seek
> dispassionately. The endeavor, though, requires focussing on certain
> patterns over others, and imbuing them with a relational logic based
> on what's already known. We learn as much about our social selves in
> the act of interpreting the Enron corpus as we do in the e-mails
> themselves. Behind the meaning of the commons, there's an author
> still.

I found out about this article because a kind colleague spotted a 
mention of me and thought I might have missed it, as I had. Here's 
what Heller wrote:

> A field known as digital humanities has emerged around text-crunching
> analysis in its modern form. A key advocate of the method, Willard
> McCarty, touted computers' virtues as "modelling machines": they can
> test and discard working theories without years of exploratory work.

An interesting verb, 'tout'. What Heller probably meant was,

> (a) To importune (a person) in a touting manner;  (b) to solicit
> custom for (a thing), to try to sell; also (U.S.) in extended sense,
> to recommend. (OED, v1, 3b)

Do I tout? Anyhow, I've never argued that computers "can test and 
discard working theories without years of exploratory work" -- except 
to quote Northrop Frye's ironically hopeful remark along those lines. 
If only! And to get back to the key paragraph above, of course humans 
are always involved. Why is it that we forget the person, forget that 
the machine does nothing alone, nothing that does not involve us, 
before, after and normally during? 

The major point from the analytic side, which he seems to have missed, 
is, I'd think, in the difference, in what we get and the digital method 
misses -- and that these blur in the act of modelling as we use it to 
create meaning.

Too bad Heller also missed the lesson from Humanist: that a curated, 
edited operation can be as much worth reading as any disciplined 
conversation. True?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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