My Talk at Re:Hum ’15

Presentation Slides

Digital Distant Reading

This presentation is the result of over a year of research. I actually brought a very early version of this research to Re:Humanities last year and presented during the poster session. That project was called “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Texts.” I worked on a more in-depth version of that project last summer alongside Professor Scott Enderle called “A Distant Reading of Empire,” in which we topic modelled a corpus of 2,500 Eighteenth-Century British texts.

I have spent the past few months blogging about the Digital Humanities both on my joint blog with Professor Enderle called “Reading from a Distance” and on my own blog that I run as a NY6 ThinkTank Fellow. I noticed that while a lot of conversations about the digital humanities revolve around undergraduate work, there is an obvious lack of undergraduate voices in the discourse.

It has been a challenge to condense a year’s worth of research and investment into ten minutes, and this presentation has taken many forms since I first proposed it.

This presentation addresses my own ontological formulation and its implications for the relationship between the computer and the human. I will give a brief background of vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and cyborg theory as well as an overview of topic modeling and my own digital humanities work.

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Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage to describe the complex relationships between “things.” The assemblage is central to my philosophical formulation. Bennett also argues that “agency…is distributed across a mosaic” (Bennett 38). In other words, there is no “sole actant” in an assemblage. Rather, agency is shared equally between things. I will read Bennett’s call to arms because it has provided the space for me to present my own argument about the relationship between the computer and the human:

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We need…to devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions. (Bennett 108)

I seek to do just that when I discuss the way humans can interact with computers, particularly in a digital humanities context.

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In Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2012) Ian Bogost seconds Bennett’s notion. He resists hierarchy in his ontology, suggesting that “there is no ur-thing” (Bogost 12). Instead “a posthuman ontology is one in which humans are no longer monarchs of being, but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings” (Bogost 17). He calls this type of system flat ontology. He also presents a call-to-arms similar to that of Jane Bennett:

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As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways…Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger. (Bogost 34)

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The cyborg is a wonderful example of an object we can make hum in a credible way. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,”  Donna Haraway builds an “ironic political myth” based on the cyborg, which she describes as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 1). I perceive of the cyborg as an assemblage consisting of the human and the computer, in which both the human and the computer provide different skills, and are equally important as actants. The idea that humans do not necessarily control computers, and that computers also affect the way that humans think is a controversial opinion, although not, perhaps, in this room.

This idea stems from N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of distributed cognition, which, according to her, may replace autonomous will in the posthuman. This, to me, means that our thinking will occur within the assemblage between human and computer, rather than merely as a product of the human mind. I will use this presentation as an example. I began by making this Prezi, which took many different forms before I finally settled on this one. I then worked on a separate paper for another class, which I planned using pen and paper, but mostly created using Google Docs. I then decided to use that argument in this presentation, so I opened another document window, and began writing, using both my prezi and the other paper. I feel confident in saying that, had a written this presentation on pen and paper, it would have been very different. I needed the help of the computer to formulate my thoughts, just as the computer needs me to use it.

I think that distributed cognition instills a lot of anxiety in more conservative English departments. There is a fear that something will be lost by the introduction of technology to English departments. What those critics may not realize is that today’s undergraduates are already undeniably shaped by the technology they use, as I suggested above. In my opinion, distributed cognition is actually a major advantage for digital humanists, because they can perceive ideas in unexpected ways.

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Now that I have presented an ontological basis for how to situate the digital humanities, I will provide a more concrete example. I have spent the last year working with a computer program called MALLET, which is a tool often used by digital humanists to create topic models of a corpus of text files. I think that the very notion of the corpus represents the way that computers change the way that humans think, and how the assemblage of computers and humans presents new possibilities for both entities.

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A corpus is a randomly selected, large group of texts that the computer then “reads.” To fully understand the corpus it is important to conceptualize Franco Moretti’s “distant reading.” Distant reading is the practice of reading a large quantity of texts without much focus on detail, and then applying broad knowledge to particular texts. It is the opposite of close reading. I conceive of the corpus as an assemblage of random texts that have no proximity or thematic connection but that, when placed in a corpus, interact in new and surprising ways.

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A topic is a similar idea – all of these words come together from random texts in a random corpus to create new meaning. The computer is able to pull together all of this different information into a new aggregation, to which the human mind can then assign meaning. That work between the human mind and the computer is valuable and fascinating, and in no way takes away from the inherent value of both of these entities separately. I’ll let you take a look at this topic, from a topic model of 2,500 eighteenth-century, randomly selected texts. Try to pull together what you think relates the words in this topic. [WAIT] We have called this particular topic “public revenue,” which I am sure many of you thought as well, seeing as those are the first two words in the topic. Not all topics are this obvious, and some are meaningless, but by doing this kind of work we can begin to understand the “trending topics,” so to speak, of a period.

I have given these examples to argue that computers have changed, and will continue to change the way that we think. This does not mean that computers are destroying us, but rather that the assemblage that makes up our world is changing and shifting. For that reason, I think that the humanities should embrace technology rather than fear it. Computers allow us to put ideas together in randomly generated ways that produce results we never expected and I cannot help but see that as beneficial, and in its own particular way, quite beautiful.

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