The Telling of History and its Absences

Encountering the readings–Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality and David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs, and James A. Berlin’s “Writing Instruction in School and College English”–I was thinking about the role that history plays. As someone who is new to the discipline, the past few readings have been helpful at giving some definitions and names. And with a few of them under my belt, I can start making connections and noticing absences.

But more broadly, I was thinking of these histories along four different frameworks: as genealogy, progress story, hagiography, and catalog.

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Narrative Numbers

[T]hey fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind , another opportunity , and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modeled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe.

-Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, 985b

Much of what interests me in data mapping and data extraction in light of network maps, concept modeling, vector space modelling, etc., is that they are not only methods, but also metaphysics.

Dealing with a corpus is a bit like the Pre-Socratics trying to find the underlying something that comprises reality.  The big ideas–or Big Idea–that connects or threads the works together. The corpus may have alcoves and pockets, islands and peninsulas, but unity and commonality exists. Patterns exist.

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When I first grew self-conscious that friends come and go–breakups, fights, forgotten phone calls a part of life–I found Nietzsche’s short aphorism in The Gay Science called “Star Friendship” helpful. In it, possibly alluding to his rift with Wagner, Nietzsche describes, “We were friends and have become estranged.” Even more, they are now “earth enemies.”

Yet, as Nietzsche also writes, “There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path — let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.”

So it’s a question of scale. At the one level, chance meetings, fights, or enduring partnerships exist in a certain way. We experience and name them with a certain vocabulary. But further up, in some “invisible stellar orbit,” these connections gain a different timbre or pattern. Like looking at a character map of Middlemarch, certain once-tangled relationships and social shifts emerge  with network forces affecting broader social cohesion.

For example, a meeting may bring together two distinct groups that were independent before, forming a “huge component” to use the language of Easley and Kleinberg. Or, as Merton describes, the “Matthew effect” might shift the circulation of a text, with a well-known scientist getting more coverage than a newbie simply through his or her tug in a network.

And with current technology, both in terms of data mining and visualization, we can get a better sense of that “stellar” perspective. I think the question remains, however, with what to do with it and how we understand it. In particular, I think it should shift the way we look at agency, moving it from an egosystem to an ecosystem, i.e. thinking of ways that we fit into broader networks and can influence them in a networked way and not in a purely self-based way.

I guess a way you could phrase it is this: how much agency do I have as a node and a collection of nodes?

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Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

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