At Stanford

The Taxonomy of Titles in the 18th Century Literary Marketplace

This project investigates the relationship between title and text in eighteenth-century fiction. Is it merely a convention of the literary marketplace that certain books are labeled as “novel”, “romance” or “tale” – or do these terms point to formal and thematic features of the texts themselves? And how do these self-applied 18th century genre labels relate to the categories of contemporary criticism? Our use of the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online has given us access to a much wider range of texts than previously available, allowing to trace the emergence of fictional genres from the milieu of eighteenth-century writing. Our study of the shifts in meaning and function of the individual labels seeks to both question the “rise of the novel” narratives still current in literary history, and to problematize the idea of eighteenth-century “genres” of writing.

Participants: Mark Algee-Hewitt, Laura Eidem, Ryan Heuser, Anita Law and Tanya Llewellyn

Trans-Historical Poetry Project

The goal of the Trans-Historical Poetry Project is to trace the variation of poetic form over a large corpus of English-language poetry, combining the insights of prosodic and metrical analysis with the methods of phonetics, natural language processing, and statistics. While using computational techniques for handling large corpora, we remain faithful to the aims and questions of traditional prosody: what kind of refinement, for instance, can we add to current theories of meter by being able to examine long historical series of poems? Can algorithms reliably recognize complex metrical schemes – and what patterns will emerge from the histories of those schemes? Our work on variation in line and poem length between 1500 and 1900 has already yielded results, and is now moving towards a more comprehensive analysis of poetic form that includes features such as stress, rhyme, and metrical form.

Participants: Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, J.D. Porter, Jonathan Sensenbaugh, Justin Tackett

Modeling Dramatic Networks

This project arises from a systematic comparison of hundreds of dramatic networks from a dozen different literatures and historical periods. At this stage, we are using computer models to identify the fundamental properties of dramatic networks – with particular attention to the correspondence between genres and patterns of growth – and reflect on the relationship between modeling parameters and aesthetico-critical categories.

Participants: Zephyr Frank, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti

The Emotions of London

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels are notoriously brimming with emotions of all kinds. But where, exactly, do their characters feel anger, sadness, fear, surprise, and so on? Combining the resources of literary geography, and the potentialities of digital crowdsourcing, “The Emotions of London” is creating an emotional map of the English metropolis, charting the affective significance of the thousands of place-names mentioned in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels.

Participants: Ryan Heuser, Zephyr Frank, Franco Moretti


The most typical visualizations produced by the digital humanities are based on a coexistence of the very small and the very large which challenges the traditional focus of literary study on the middle of the scale: an intermediate dimension – text, or excerpt, or memorable quotation – commensurate to our capacity to understand, retell, memorize, and judge. Digital humanities have broken with this “human” and readerly scale, replacing it with the radical discontinuity of Micro and Mega: a change of landscape that is incredibly promising, but for which we haven’t yet found the right categories. This project is an empirical investigation and conceptual reflection of this new state of affairs.

Participants: Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti

Between Canon and Corpus: The Twentieth Century Novel in English

Of the tens of thousands of novels published in English in the 20th century, which subset would represent a reasonable, interesting, and useful representation of the whole? In this project, as the Lab begins to construct a corpus of 20th century fiction, we reflect upon the criteria of selection used in such an endeavor, super-imposing lists of works deemed worthy of attention by various sources of authority (both expert and popular) and analyzing their inter-relation. Once the corpus has been thus constituted, we will be able to conduct studies that remain sensitive to its internal differentiation, pursuing links between literary form and the divergent social destinies of texts.

Participants: Mark Algee-Hewitt, Mark McGurl

Suspense: Language, Narrative, Affect

This project seeks to bridge the gap between the experience of suspense as it is felt by the reader in anticipation of impending events, and the formal features that may be responsible for producing this feeling. Does suspense work in the same way in every period and genre, and for all types of readers – or is it a highly individual reaction, promoted by techniques that vary according to time and place? The diverse group of researchers involved in this project are exploring these central questions – which lie at the intersection of language, narrative and psychology – via a detailed comparative analysis of “suspenseful” texts from 1750 to the present day.

Participants:Mark Algee-Hewitt, Chelsea Davis, Abigail Droge, Tasha Eccles, Laura Eidem, Morgan Frank, J. D. Porter, Andrew Shepherd, Hannah Walser


The World according to the Bank: the Language of World Bank Reports, 1946-2010

In collaboration with the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Like the post-world-war-II capitalism which it contributed to reorganize and transform, the World Bank has gone through two fundamental periods: the age of reconstruction and infrastructure – the “Trente Glorieuses” from the end of the war to the mid-Seventies – and the phase of neo-liberal market-driven globalization, from 1980 to the present. “The World according to the Bank” assumes the World Bank’s economic policies as a given background, focusing for its part on the discursive sections of the yearly reports, in order to highlight how they communicate and legitimize its actions. Through a study of selected keywords – “trade”, “private/public”, “poverty reduction”, “governance” and more – this project brings to light the semantic fields and rhetorical strategies that have been typical of the World Bank’s discourse.

Participants: Dominique Pestre [EHESS]; Franco Moretti [Literary Lab]

Canon, Archive, Literary History

In collaboration with the Sorbonne, Paris; the Max Planck Institute, Frankfurt, and Loyola University New Orleans

Among the novelties introduced by digitization in the study of literature, the most significant consists probably in the – enormous – size of the archive it has placed at our disposal. The gift has however been followed by the inevitable question: and now that we can analyze thousands and thousands of novels, have we found in them anything that makes a difference to our knowledge of literature? Combining empirical investigations, a variety of computational techniques, and conceptual reflection, this project suggests that the new digital archive has brought to light the “fossil record” for a Darwinian literary history.

Participants: Didier Alexandre, Alexandre Gefen, Véronique Gély [Sorbonne]; Sarah Allison [LUNO]; Marissa Gemma [MPI]; Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti, Hannah Walser [Literary Lab]

“Literature”: history of a word

In collaboration with the Sorbonne, Paris; the Max Planck Institute, Frankfurt; and Loyola University New Orleans

There is still no empirical and comparative history of the use of the word “literature” in different languages, including those – English and French – which exerted such a key influence on the historiography of the 19th century. In this project, the history of the concept of literature will make use of broad lexicographical research, and be based on solid quantitative evidence from both the French and the English tradition. The genealogy of the term that emerges from the study follows its transformations through all the disagreements, controversies, and variations typical of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Participants: Didier Alexandre, Alexandre Gefen, Véronique Gély [Sorbonne]; Sarah Allison [LUNO]; Marissa Gemma [MPI]; Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti [Literary Lab]

What the Supreme Court talks about when it talks about environmental law

In collaboration with the Roger Williams University School of Law

Based on the corpus of environmental law cases decided by the Supreme Court since the early 1970s, this study examines the role played by two fundamental and conflicting articulations of the Court’s rationale: what we are preliminarily calling “substantive environmental consciousness”, or “environmentality,” and the counterpoint provided – with increasing strength after the 1984 decision in Chevron vs. NRDC – by deference owed to administrative agencies. “What the Sucpreme Court talks about…” traces the clash between these two principles to the linguistic texture of the Court’s decisions, following the changing balance between keywords and turns of phrase that were and are typical of environmental discussions, the growing presence of specific citations to key cases, and comparable strategies that are both specific to legal discourse and more broadly applicable. Like other projects on post-war discourses, this is a study in how a changing political, social and cultural climate creates such a thick linguistic atmosphere that its choices appear perfectly natural, and perhaps even inevitable.

Participants: Michael Burger [Roger Williams University School of Law]; Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti [Literary Lab]

Affective Tones: Investigating the Relationship between Sound Shape and Meaning in Poetry

In collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, Frankfurt

This project is the dissertation project of Maria Kraxenberger’s – a visiting PhD Candidate from the Cluster Languages of Emotion, Freie Universität Berlin – and addresses questions such as the following: Is the emotional expression of a poem only determined by its content or can the sound shape also be an influencing factor? What makes us “feel” that a poem is sad or happy – and can we tell the difference even if we don’t understand the language it is written in?

“Affective Tones” aims at gaining new insights into the potential relationship between sound shape and emotional content, while attempting to ascertain if phonetic iconicity is a cross-language phenomena. In the course of the research we will develop suitable criteria and instruments for the analyses of emotions in literary texts by describing and classifying the phonetic expression of emotions in German poems from the 19th to the 21st century. Ultimately, we will try to combine three interpretive approaches to textual semantic: a detailed, statistical analysis of the sound shape; a parallel poetic analysis; and empirical studies based on readers’ surveys.

Participants: Maria Kraxenberger [FU], Ryan Heuser [Literary Lab]

Climate Change, Language Change

In collaboration with Medialab, Sciences Politiques, Paris

An analysis of twenty years of official publications devoted to the description of climate change and of the policies that should address it. Combining the scientific expertise of Medialab, and the rhetorical framework of the Literary Lab, the study follows the evolution of ecological discourse in a variety of publications – scientific papers, general information literature, and official inter-state agreements – paying particular attention to the shift from the notion of “mitigation” to that of “adaptation”, and to the temporal scales evoked [or avoided] in thinking about the future.

“Climate Change, Language Change” foregrounds the elusive encounter of scientific research and economic decisions: a language – or more precisely, a “diplomatico-scientific rhetoric” – where it is not easy to disentangle the need for a realistic assessment of reality from the secret wish to obfuscate it, and to postpone all decisions as long as humanly possible – if not even longer…

Participants: Nicolas Baya Laffite, Ian Gray, Tommaso Venturini [Medialab]; Mark Algee-Hewitt, Zephyr Frank, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti [Literary Lab]

20th Century Swahili Newspaper Poetry from Tanzania

In collaboration with the Departments of Anthropology and of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan

By the 1910s, Swahili-language newspapers in what was then Deutsch-Ostafrika featured poetry as a mainstay of the newspaper form. Contributed by readers from all corners of the colony and typically written in accordance with compositional rules of classical Swahili verse, newspaper poetry greatly increased in popularity after independence in 1961 and has remained a standard element of Tanzanian newspapers today. Many newspapers feature dedicated sections for Wasemavyo Washairi (“What the Poets Say”) wherein poems address topics found discussed in prose elsewhere in the same papers: commentary on current events; praises for politicians and community leaders; obituaries; moralizing diatribes; ‘Dear-Abby’-like calls for advice; personal ads seeking a spouse; and opinions/complaints about local, national and international politics. Newspaper poetry also features elements less typical of the newspaper format, such as poems of thanks to God for prayers answered, poems extolling artisanal affiliation as poets, love poems, and enigma poems (in which a conundrum is posed and poetically-minded readers challenged to resolve it). This project will, firstly, analyze the range of subgenres, themes, structures, linguistic devices, metaphors, poets and public personae produced in/by these poems and, secondly, compare and contrast them to a corpus of Barua za Wasomaji (“Letters to the Editor”) drawn from the same selection of newspapers to determine overall differences in form.

Participants: Kelly Askew, Kristen Sukraw, and Nyambura Mpesha [University of Michigan]; Ryan Heuser and Franco Moretti [Literary Lab]