Projects

At Stanford


The Taxonomy of Titles in the 18th Century Literary Marketplace

In this project, we investigate 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 a “novel”, “romance” or “tale”, or do these labels point to formal, thematic or conceptual differences within the texts themselves? And how do these self-applied 18th century labels relate to our own descriptions of the “genres” of the period within contemporary criticism? Our use of the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online archive offers our project a much wider range of self-labeled texts than previously available and marks the first attempt to quantitatively analyze this database. This study traces the emergence of the genres of contemporary fiction as they are organized within the milieu of eighteenth-century writing, paying careful attention to the shifts in meaning and work of the individual labels across the century. Through our research we seek to both complicate the “rise of the novel” narratives that dominate literary history and put pressure on the idea of eighteenth-century “genres” of writing.

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

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 constituted on these grounds, we will be able to conduct studies of the fabricated whole that remain sensitive to its internal differentiation, pursuing links between literary form and the divergent social destinies of texts.

Participants: Mark McGurl, Mark Algee-Hewitt

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, both across historical time and within given periods, modes, schemes, or forms. Our investigation seeks to combine the insights of prosodic and metrical analysis with methods of analysis drawn from phonetics, natural language processing, and statistics. We wish to put forward questions that are able to take advantage of computational techniques for handling large corpora, while still remaining faithful to the aims of traditional prosody. What kind of refinement, for instance, can we add to current theories of meter by being able to scan entire periods of poems? Can machine-learning algorithms reliably recognize complex metrical schemes? What patterns will we reveal when we unfold the histories of those schemes? What sort of poetics emerges when the object of analysis is not a poem or an author’s oeuvre, but an entire literary period? Our work thus far on variation in line length and poem length in poetry written between 1500 and 1900 has already yielded results, and we hope to build upon this foundation as we press on towards a more comprehensive analysis of poetic form that will include features such as stress, rhyme, metrical form, diction, consonance and assonance, syntactic inversion, and semantic change.

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

Network Theory and Dramatic Structure: a Comparative Exploration

This project will compare the dramatic networks emerging from over 300 plays from ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance England and France, 18th-century Germany, and 19th-century Norway. We are mostly interested in identifying the general properties of dramatic networks – their breadth, density, patterns of growth – and how they change according to genre [tragedy, comedy, historical play] and historical setting [ancient city state and empire, Renaissance court, modern nation-state].

Participants: Franco Moretti, Zephyr Frank, Elisabetta Sibilio, Holst Katsma, Ryan Heuser

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” will create an emotional map of the English metropolis, charting the affective significance of all the place-names mentioned in our archive of novels.

Participants: Ryan Heuser, Zephyr Frank, Franco Moretti, Matthew Jockers [University of Nebraska, Lincoln]

Loudness in the Novel

Some novels feel louder than others, yet reading is typically a silent process. From this paradox arises this exploration of a text’s ability to be loud or quiet (and thereby exhibit dynamic variation). As a starting point, we will attempt to quantify textual loudness by studying the words that tend to occur within loud dialogue – dialogue that is cried, exclaimed, shouted, roared, or screamed. When, for instance, in Alice in Wonderland we encounter the sentence, ‘“Are their heads off?” shouted the Queen’, we will focus on the words and punctuation inside the quotations (“Are,” “their,” “heads,” “off,” and the question mark) as typical of the semantics of loudness. The project will make use of the Literary Lab’s corpus of 19th century English novels to generate a large sample of loud dialogue and vehement exclamations in order to ask questions such as: Does loud dialogue have its own unique lexicon? What does this lexicon say about loudness and English culture, and how does it change over time? Does it occur most densely within dialogue, or narration – or dramatic scripts? As these questions demonstrate, literary loudness naturally taps into issues of literary form, affect, and historical change.

Participants: Holst Katsma, Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti, Sianne Ngai


Collaborations


Climate Change, Language Change

In collaboration with Medialab, Sciences Po, 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].

The World Bank: a Dyptich

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

Like the post-world-war-II capitalism which it contributed to reorganize and transform, the World Bank seems to have 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 Bank: a Dyptich” assumes the World Bank’s economic policies as a given background, but it focuses on the discursive sections of the yearly reports, in order to highlight how this primum movens of contemporary globalisation communicates and legitimizes its actions: a “public discourse” that has increased its relevance over the years, as if the Bank’s strictly economic function needed to be complemented by the symbolic establishment of a sort of “atmosphere of economic liberalism”.

Through a study of selected keywords – “trade”, “private/public”, “poverty”, “environment” and more – our project brings to light the semantic fields constitutive of the World Bank’s “rhetoric of globalization”: from the geography of the contemporary world-system to the “knowledge” whereby the Bank justifies its policies, to the ever-expanding semantic network associated to the notions of “loan” and of “debt”.

Participants: Fabien Moll-François and Dominique Pestre [EHESS], Ryan Heuser and 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 and 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]

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

In collaboration with the research group “Language of Emotions”, Freie Universität, Berlin

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]