Friday, December 3, 2010

Google & the Lit Crits

I recall attending a Southern Literature seminar at Lehigh University that focused on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  The professor had a keen interest in exploring the difference between the original text that was serialized in The New Yorker and the final novel. In fact, one of our assignments was to track, weigh and evaluate these changes. What seemed like detective work then now, after I have written and edited a dozen books, now seems kind of silly. Well, if not silly, a little laborious.

Much literary criticism entails this kind of work. At Lehigh my disseration was entitled: "Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Francois Mauriac, Graham Green and Flannery O'Connor." A friend wrote a dissertation on the medical imagery in John Donne, probably over a weekend. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of such dissertations, both pompous and narrow, that have searched endlessly for themes, language patterns and clusters, keys words and Freud's slips of the tongue.

This was always lonely work with monk-like devotion to the text and rapt attention to the journals that were the academic version of the playbook for Monday night football. The key was finding an angle, a metaphor, a new insight that had not appeared in that scruffy journal called Notes & Queries. I can't make too much of this. I know dozens of associates who have gained tenure for noticing--when no one else had, that a particular heroine had crossed her legs enough times to be divisible by three. 

In July of this year Google awarded grants for a new digital humanities research program. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that this was Google's first formal foray into supporting humanities text-mining research on its corpus of more than 12 million digitized books.

Welcome to the world of literary metadata!

I think this is a wonderful development.  After all, literary criticism as an academic discipline has long tried to position itself as a by-product of scientific inquiry. New Criticism, developed in the South by John Crowe Ranson, Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren after World War I, strove for a kind of linguistic exactness and stripped-down language. This school of criticism would be at home in the world of meta-data.

Literary critics have long poked through texts during their long, idle afternoons looking for word patterns and phrases that indicate narrative intent and the psychological inclination of characters. Now they have a reason for coming to work. 

The New York times reported today that scholars at George Mason University, with a Google grant, are scouring every 19th century British book for keywords and phrases that might offer fresh insights into the minds of the Victorians.  So far they have charted more than two dozen words, including: God, love, work, science and industrial. I assume they'll get around to sex.

No offense meant but it wouldn't be a bad idea if this new generation of digital tools would put some literary critics out of work or at least send them back to the classroom to teach Johnny how to write a Hemingway-worthy sentence, at least before Google does that too.

I'm applying for a Google Humanities grant to help codify this work. I hope once and for all, as Google is my witness, to finally vanguish the phrase "hidden meaning."

No comments:

Post a Comment