5. Style at the Scale of the Sentence
… But could the different frequencies of “she” and “you” and “the” really be called “style”? On this, we disagreed. Some of us claimed that, though all styles do indeed entail linguistic choices, not all linguistic choices are however enough to speak of a style; others countered this argument by stating that, once an author or a genre opts for a certain linguistic choice, this is really all we need for our analysis, as a style follows necessarily from this fundamental level. This was the genuinely reductionist position – style as nothing but its components – and the more logically consistent one; the other position admitted that it couldn’t specify the exact difference, or the precise moment when a “linguistic choice” turned into a “style”, but it insisted nonetheless that reducing style to a strictly functional dimension missed the very point of the concept, which lay in its capacity to hint, however hazily, at something that went beyond functionality. Our job should consist in removing the haze, not in disregarding the hint.
4. A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method
The nineteenth century in Britain saw tumultuous changes that reshaped the fabric of society and altered the course of modernization. It also saw the rise of the novel to the height of its cultural power as the most important literary form of the period. This paper reports on a long-term experiment in tracing such macroscopic changes in the novel during this crucial period. Specifically, we present findings on two interrelated transformations in novelistic language that reveal a systemic concretization in language and fundamental change in the social spaces of the novel. We show how these shifts have consequences for setting, characterization, and narration as well as implications for the responsiveness of the novel to the dramatic changes in British society.
This paper has a second strand as well. This project was simultaneously an experiment in developing quantitative and computational methods for tracing changes in literary language. We wanted to see how far quantifiable features such as word usage could be pushed toward the investigation of literary history. Could we leverage quantitative methods in ways that respect the nuance and complexity we value in the humanities? To this end, we present a second set of results, the techniques and methodological lessons gained in the course of designing and running this project.
3. Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception
If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.
2. Network Theory, Plot Analysis
In the last few years, literary studies have experienced what we could call the rise of quantitative evidence. This had happened before of course, without producing lasting effects, but this time it’s probably going to be different, because this time we have digital databases, and automated data retrieval. As Michel’s and Lieberman’s recent article on “Culturomics” made clear, the width of the corpus and the speed of the search have increased beyond all expectations: today, we can replicate in a few minutes investigations that took a giant like Leo Spitzer months and years of work. When it comes to phenomena of language and style, we can do things that previous generations could only dream of.
When it comes to language and style. But if you work on novels or plays, style is only part of the picture. What about plot – how can that be quantified? This paper is the beginning of an answer, and the beginning of the beginning is network theory.
1. Quantitative Formalism: an Experiment
This paper is the report of a study conducted by five people – four at Stanford, and one at the University of Wisconsin – which tried to establish whether computer-generated algorithms could “recognize” literary genres. You take David Copperfield, run it through a program without any human input – “unsupervised”, as the expression goes – and … can the program figure out whether it’s a gothic novel or a Bildungsroman? The answer is, fundamentally, Yes: but a Yes with so many complications that make it necessary to look at the entire process of our study. These are new methods we are using, and with new methods the process is almost as important as the results.