[Humanist] 31.492 Moretti et al and a real revolution in literary studies

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 29 12:25:45 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 492.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 28 Dec 2017 13:31:26 -0500
        From: "William L. Benzon" <bbenzon at mindspring.com>
        Subject: From Canon/Archive to a REAL REVOLUTION in literary studies

Dear Willard et. al.,

As you know, last November Franco Moretti and a number of his students published a book consisting of a number of pamphlets from the Literary Lab. I reviewed this book, Canon/Archive: Studies in Quantitative Formalism, for 3 Quarks Daily, and then made it the center of a working paper which I posted at Academia and SSRN (links, abstract, and TOC below). I added an appendix in which I argued that Jakobson’s poetic function extends beyond poetry to non-poetic narrative forms (which as ring-composition) and can be considered a principle of computational form. And I added a long introduction in which I argued at some length that what was really important about computational criticism, as Moretti now calls it, is that it is the only form of literary criticism that focuses strictly on the string of word forms, the Saussurian signifiers.

When I say computational criticism I mean just that and only that, certainly not digital humanities in general, nor forms of literary computation such as indexes, concordances, or digital editions. I’m interested in the kinds of work you find in Canon/Archive and, of course, in many other places as well.

My argument on that point has to do with the concept of the text as it is used in literary criticism, which it is rather vague. Just as “salt” and “NaCl” are conceptually different (in different conceptual ontologies) – the first is defined by its sensory characteristics while the second is defined in terms of modern atomic theory of matter  – so I assert that the archival, interpretable, and the semiotic  text are conceptually different, though the archival and the semiotic text are physically pretty much the same (as are salt and NaCl).

The interpretable text, however, is a different beast. This is the text that is subject to “close” reading to discover “hidden” meanings. This is the conception of the text operative in academic literary criticism but, as I point out in the article, it is never explicitly accounted for. One never learns just how meanings are hidden or just how close is close; one simply absorbs the meaning of these terms by learning to do criticism.

The real importance of computational criticism then is that it is necessarily about the same text that linguists study, a physical object, the semiotic text, albeit one of a rather subtle and enigmatic kind. The literary critic’s interpretable text, however, is more metaphysical than physical and critics argue constantly over just what is this text that they're interpreting. To be blunt, it is whatever the critic needs it to be in order to advance interpretive claims. Computational critics can't do that.

* * * * *

From Canon/Archive to a REAL REVOLUTION in literary studies

> Academia: https://www.academia.edu/35486902/From_Canon_Archive_to_a_REAL_REVOLUTION_in_literary_studies 

SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=3091816  http://ssrn.com/abstract=3091816

Abstract: Canon/Archive straddles the border between the standard interpretive literary criticism that has been in place since World War II and a new naturalist literary study in which literary texts and phenomena are treated as phenomena of the natural world, like language, without prejudice. This naturalist investigation takes the careful analytic description of texts, considered as strings of word forms, as its starting point. Canon/Archive exemplifies a so-called computational criticism in which computers are tools used for analyzing texts, often taken as a corpus of 10s, 100s, or 1000s of texts. Naturalist investigation also includes a computational approach in which computation is seen as the process linking word forms to semantic structures, expression to meaning. I examine two chapters from Canon/Archive, showing how that work can be supplemented by this other approach in which computation is a model for a mental process.

“Revolution”  2

The real revolution is in attending rigorously to the signifiers in the text  3

Computational Criticism in Context  3

Word and Text  6

Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab: Computational criticism in two senses and the prospect of a new approach to literary studies  10

The Collaboratory  10

The text, which text? 12

Topics and paragraphs 14

The direction of literary history 18

What are the institutional possibilities of a new criticism, a deeply computational one? 20

Appendix 1: Jakobson’s poetic function and the text taken as a string of word forms  23

Literary Form 23

The poetic function as a computational principle 24

Appendix 2: From distant reading to computational criticism: Canon/Archive 26

Bill Benzon
bbenzon at mindspring.com


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