I’ve been invited to submit an initial position paper for the Arguing with Digital History workshop, to be held at The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in September 2017. Following Michelle Moravec’s lead, I’d like to offer my response publicly, most especially because of the ways these thoughts were written alongside and intertwine with Zoe LeBlanc’s provocative questions on Twitter and the valuable thread of responses to them from the community. We have been asked to come to the workshop prepared to modify our views as a result of the discussion, so I’d like to be clear that these are initial and deliberately provocative thoughts which are very open to amendment or even wholesale rethinking. Also, we were asked to keep these position papers to two pages, which I’m already a bit over, so I apologize if some lines of thought feel truncated. There is so much more to say about…well…about all of this.
Argumentation for digital history stumbles over the ontology of its evidence. I’m writing here about corpus-scale analysis, the digital methodology I know best from my work on the Viral Texts project, and variously named by terms like “distant reading” or “cultural analytics.” Though the specifics of these methods are hotly debated, we might gather them under the sign of scale, a notion of “reading”—and I’d like to make that word do more work than perhaps it should—across wider sets of materials than was typical for humanists prior to computational methods.
Recently in literary-historical circles, Katherine Bode has inspired a much-needed discussion about the corpora on which computational analyses are based. Drawing on traditions of book history and textual scholarship, Bode critiques Moretti and Jockers, in particular, as metonymies for distant reading approaches:
Moretti and Jockers construct literary systems as comprised of singular and stable entities, while also imagining that they capture the complexity of such systems in the process. In fact, because their datasets miss most historical relationships between literary works, their analyses are forced to rely upon basic features of new literary production to constitute both the literary phenomenon requiring explanation, and the explanation for it.[^Bode]
Most incisively, Bode shows how much “distant reading” work reconstitutes the primary assumption of close reading: “the dematerialized and depopulated understanding of literature in Jockers’s work enacts the New Criticism’s neglect of context, in a manner rendered only more abstract by the large number of ‘texts’ under consideration.” The problem may be, in other words, not that computational analysis departs from analog methods, but that we interpret the results of corpus-level analysis too much like we interpret individual texts. To be provocative, I might rephrase to say that we don’t yet as a field understand precisely how corpus-scale phenomena make their meaning, or how those meanings relate back to codex-scale artifacts.
I can pick on myself to clarify what I mean (and here I’m paraphrasing some points I make in “Scale as Deformance”. In the Viral Texts project, we have developed sophisticated methods for identifying reprinted pieces across nineteenth-century newspaper corpora. When we find, say, a popular science article that was reprinted 150 times around the world, that cluster of texts can help us think about circulation, genre, and networks of influence among editors in the period. When compared with other texts circulating around the same time, it can teach us something about the concerns, interests, and priorities of readers and editors as well. But a textual cluster is not singular—it is in fact defined by its multiplicity—and the meaning of its reprinting does not evenly distribute across the 150 individual witnesses that make up the cluster. Some of the nineteenth century editors who reprinted a given piece, and some of the nineteenth century readers who read it, would have known it was “making the rounds,” and may have had a sense of its wide reach. However, no nineteenth-century person had the corpus-scale perspective on a given cluster that we do from the wild surmise of a CSV file. An article embedded in a complex textual system signifies in both networked and highly local ways, but we cannot easily extrapolate from the meanings we assign a cluster (among many other clusters) to the meanings of its constituent texts, much less the readers of those texts.
There has been much written (including by me!) about the need for zoomable, scalable, or macroscopic reading that puts insights drawn from distinct scales in conversation. However, I would argue that thus far digital (literary) history has not adequately theorized the middle ground between corpus and codex, or developed methods that can meaningfully relate corpus-scale patterns to individual texts without pretending that patterns at each scale can be understood under the same interpretive paradigm. I would go so far as suggesting the macroscope is not the most useful metaphor for structuring digital historical arguments, as it implies a seamless movement between scales that the realities of analysis belie. Perhaps new metaphors are needed for expressing the continuities and disjunctures between analyses at distinct scales.
Why do scholarly metaphors matter to argument in digital history? We have been so insistent on seamless movement between scales—and so resistant to appearing like positivists or cliometricians—that we have failed to develop field-specific paradigms for interpreting the results of corpus-scale text analyses. What standards we have are imported from other fields such as corpus linguistics, but as such they must be rearticulated and renegotiated for every article, website, or book we publish. More importantly, as Scott Weingart has shown, “methodology appropriation is dangerous“ and, frankly, our colleagues are right to look with skepticism on methods imported wholesale from other disciplines. Ted Underwood’s recent “A Genealogy of Distant Reading” offers important context here, noting that, “linguistics may be looming a little too large in the foreground of contemporary narratives about distant reading, so much that it blocks our view of other things,” including forebears in humanities fields prior to computation. We needn’t impugn the practices of disciplines from which we could indeed learn much, but we should insist that imported methodologies be understood, examined, and reimagined to meet the specific needs of literary or historical research.
To cite a specific example, computational historical arguments require models for effective sampling, which might help clarify how analyses at distinct scales relate to one another. To put it bluntly, we have no idea what an effective sample from a literary or historical corpus should look like. What random sample of novels (or newspaper pages, or museum artifact descriptions) could I topic model from a given corpus with some confidence it can represent the larger collection? As humanists we are well prepared to nuance notions of “representativeness,” but those necessary caveats cannot leave us with the answer that sampling must be reinvented anew for every corpus and every study, which would indeed leave us explicating data in much the same way Cleanth Brooks explicated “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” We also cannot default to the answer that humanists can only sample in the same way that sociologists or political scientists or linguists do. My point is: we lack even rough guidelines around which to debate, but we could have those conversations.
I will end with a too-brief reflection on significance: a word with quite specific meanings in quantitative fields that we cannot port entire into literature or history. In the Viral Texts project, there are certain features of nineteenth-century newspapers we can only study—at least as of yet—through their presence, which makes their statistical significance difficult to gauge. When I write, for instance, that “information literature” is an interesting feature of widely-reprinted newspaper texts in the nineteenth century, my standard of significance comes from codex-scale work. I have read a lot of nineteenth century newspapers and so understand these genres in the context of their medium. From that starting point, information literature seems more common in those pieces we identify as widely reprinted than I would expect. But I cannot estimate the presence of “information literature” in articles that were not reprinted, while the fragmentary coverage of our corpora—to return to Bode—ensures that many reprinted pieces are not identified as such, as their source newspapers are either not digitized or are included in other corpora to which we do not have access.
While I mostly agree with Weingart’s more recent claims that “[c]omputational history has gotten away with a lot of context-free presentations of fact,” I would insist that comparative statistics are not the only—or often the most compelling—method for building such context. When I write about “information literature” as significant don’t mean that it appears more often than it would in some theoretical null corpus. I am not talking about a p-value. As Weingart mentions, however, we might look also toward other kinds of “deviations from expectations,” including expectations set by previous field literature. I note the prevalence of reprinted information literature as conspicuous given the dearth of critical attention paid to information literature in prior literary-historical criticism. Very few scholars have attended seriously to short, popular science; trivia; recipes; household tips; listicles; and related genres despite the fact that they filled newspapers and circulated around the globe. There might be a reason to work toward measuring the statistical significance of information literature. We could train a classifier using our extracted information literature, for instance, and then attempt to discern how many non-reprinted newspaper texts are information literature. From there we could compare the proportion of the genres in reprints to their proportion in the larger corpus. But if our goal is to make arguments that will impact literary or historical criticism, it is far more essential that the patterns we trace computationally speak to significant questions or gaps of attention in our disciplines. There is nothing wrong with using statistical measures as evidence, but such measures cannot be the extent of our accounts.
For corpus-scale analyses to resonate with humanities scholars, we must be “more ambitious,” as Miriam Posner has urged, in “rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic” of exclusion and marginalization embedded into computational tools. Posner worries that digital humanists “seem happy to flatten the world into known data structures” to which I would add that we seem likewise happy to flatten our data mining to methods and measures established in other disciplines. Part of rebuilding the machinery requires us to articulate discipline-specific models for relating text and corpus without collapsing them into each other. I am drawn again and again to Lauren Klein’s description of topic modeling as “a technique that stirs the archive,” and such stirring remains to my mind the most compelling use for computational analyses in literary-historical corpora. But we need a better vocabulary for describing the composition of our archives, the outcomes of our archival remixing, and the interpretive space in between.
Recently I was in my colleague Ben Schmidt’s office and spotted a weighty tome I’d not seen before: Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Ben told me that the book has been the focus of much discussion in history of science circles over the past few years. History of science is not a field I’m well versed in, though I’ve been dipping into its literature recently, and so I ordered a copy of Objectivity and began (slowly, as other work allows) reading. Almost immediately upon beginning the book I began recommending it to colleagues and graduate students, so much so that a group of us decided it would make sense to start a summer reading group around it rather than all approaching the book independently. As we read and that group meets, I plan to document some of my thoughts about the book here, in large part because the book seems to be mostly unknown within DH scholarship. I recently asked NU Ph.D. student Gregory Palermo to help me determine how often the book has been cited in DHQ, for instance, and he found precisely one citation.
I was drawn to read Objectivity as part of my growing interest, following the work of scholars such as Lauren Klein or Jacqueline Wernimont, in pre-histories of computing: around ideas of information, data, programming, quantification, or visualization. I am drawn to such work because I believe deep historicization can help build a more robust and integrative digital humanities. In such a DH computation—and in this post that word is, admittedly, doing too much work, but—in such a DH computation would not be simply a powerful modern tool applied to the past or, equally simply, an impoverished neoliberal framework incommensurate with the nuances of the past. Instead, computation would be both subject and methodology, both of history and capable of dialogue with history. More robust historical contextualization can, I believe, assist on all sides of the DH debates, mitigating both the millennial and apocalyptic rhetoric swirling around the field. Continue reading →
Note: since drafting this I’ve come across an interview with Emily St. Mandel in which she calls the line that gives me my title “almost the thesis statement of the entire novel.” Her interview resonates in many lovely ways with what I write below; if I revise this I’ll weave some of her comments into my ruminations.
Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, for a class this semester, I am struck by the motto of the novel’s Traveling Symphony: “Because survival is insufficient.” This motto—and the symphony itself—are reasons I believe this book’s post-apocalypse more than most—and I have read, watched, and played many post-apocalyptic narratives (I wrote my dissertation on nineteenth-century American apocalyptic thinking, and the larger genre remains one I cannot resist). After the end, art would survive. Some decency would survive. I don’t think that’s naive. Human history has been often brutal and yet, in every era: some art, some decency.
More immediately, however, the ringing truth of this motto speaks to why I’m continually horrified by calls to shut down arts and humanities departments, cut music and arts programs in primary education, or defund institutions like the NEA or the NEH. These moves are often masked under calls for “fiscal responsibility,” though the budgets for such programs pale by comparison to just about anything else: fractions of fragments, that in cutting one barely moves the needle. When politicians argue for such cuts, they usually aren’t, actually, doing so for fiscal reasons. I don’t distrust the motives of local school boards in the same way, but when arts and humanities are first to be cut it does say a great deal about our collective psyche, about how we weigh mere survival against thriving.
What I see in such calls are impoverished notions of human lives and human flourishing. I see claims that survival alone is sufficient. That education can only be vocational training. That the highest good is keeping the current economy tick, tick, ticking away. That we cannot bring ourselves to imagine better, or fairer, or more beautiful.
As both a professor and a parent, I’m keenly aware of a paradox in the way parents think about these things. When our children are children, we push them towards the arts—music lessons, drama camp, creative writing classes—and revel in their burgeoning creativity, beaming through cacophonous recitals and school plays, lavishing praise on varicolored paintings and lopsided sculptures. We brag about how much they read, and how young they started. We’re all a little jealous of that parent whose kid is more excited by Perseus than by Pokémon. When our children are children we grasp, almost intuitively, that imaginative and intellectual engagements are not simply nice embellishments, but central to them becoming fully alive in the world. We know that the screech of their violin signals new-firing synapses, that it will pay dividends we may not be able to fully account.
But if a kid is still excited about Perseus in college, then we start to get nervous: shouldn’t she be putting away childish things? If he still spends all day reading, we begin to suggest that maybe some coding would balance things out. We push them to track, to professionalize, to be practical. At this point, defenders of the arts and humanities might feel inclined to mention someone like Mark Cuban claiming liberal arts graduates are the future, to make an argument that broad education is actually the best training for an uncertain but changing marketplace. I think Cuban is right in this instance, and he echoes a long chain of business and technology leaders making similar claims.
Maybe such arguments convince a few nervous students or parents. I suspect they don’t convince many parents, though, who will remain firmly convinced—contrary to much evidence—that computer science or business are sure tickets to economic security. And there’s nothing wrong with, say, coding. I do a lot of it myself, and even teach it to English students. But the reason I teach coding isn’t to help students secure tech jobs. I do it to introduce new ways of thinking about problems, and ultimately to give them new avenues for creativity. The fact is that there is no sure educational track toward economic security, but more importantly, there is no sure link between economic security and happiness, or fulfillment. I’m not here arguing that students would be happier and more fulfilled as English teachers than as investment bankers, I’m arguing that both English teachers and investment bankers might be happier and more fulfilled in a society suffused by history, literature, music, and art. I’m arguing that the novelties of such a world would spark both innovation and joy, in ways we cannot predict a priori.
There’s a foundational defense of the arts and humanities that we ignore when we concede economics as the only premise to the argument. Discovery is intrinsic to human flourishing. This is to my mind the best reason to defend—and to fund—the arts, the humanities, or, for that matter, space exploration. We are never content with “that’s just how it was,” “that’s just how it is,” or “that’s just how it will be.” We are a curious species. We want to see more, to learn more, to understand more, and—yes—to make use of more. That latter clause signals how this human drive plays out in both good and bad ways, but we cannot ignore it.
In the sciences, “pure research” never guarantees immediate, tangible economic or societal benefits: it is by definition exploratory and incremental. Nevertheless, pure research very often results in the most unexpected and transformative discoveries, those that a more presentist, pragmatic approach never would have considered. To construct a scientific research paradigm around only those studies that seem immediately, economically useful would be to commit ourselves to living only in our present. Settling on a science without risk, we would forfeit our future. When a politician derides supposedly abstruse or useless scientific studies to justify budget cuts, we should not hear an indictment of the scientists they denigrate. Instead, we should hear that politician delineating the narrow boundaries of his imagination.
The final passage of Station Eleven makes the link between the species of imagination clear. One character, Clark, has taken up the role of curator of “the Museum of Civilization,” and attempts to convey the history of a civilization lost to children who never knew it. The novel ends with Clark’s ruminations:
He has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.
Here “symphonies and newspapers” become catalysts for imaging a more humane world of discovery, knowledge, and curiosity. By their mere existence, they allow Clark to think more capaciously than he otherwise could. Re-discovering the past makes possible a different and better future.
Our collective future should not be foreshortened to the bounds of a few politicians’ stunted imaginations. Arts and humanities enlarge the imagination: they help us consider other people, other cultures, and other possibilities for ourselves. We think with and through our histories, with and through our stories. Arts and humanities enrich not—always, or only—our coffers, but our culture, and this is a fundamental good worth defending. They do this for those who make their careers working in the arts, but they do this too for people who make their careers in science and technology. They do this for people who believe their lives should comprise more than work. They do this for people who want the work they do to be meaningful and to persist beyond their short lives. They do this for people who want to live, not merely survive. Because survival is insufficient.
When Louis F. Anderson took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, he admitted that he was “not…very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,'” but assured his new readers that “our pen will not lead us into difficulty” because “our ‘principal assistant,’ the scissors, will be called into frequent requisition—believing as we do, that a good selection is always preferable to a bad editorial” (June 28, 1856). Thus, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In the antebellum US context, circulation often substituted for authorship; the authority of the newspaper rested on networks of information exchange that underlay its production. “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes, describing circulation as a technology—like the rail and telegraph—compressing space and time, linking individuals around the nation by “talk[ing] to you briefly every day of the common weal” (111). In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects. Continue reading →
The following is a short response article that will appear in Amerikastudien/American Studies 61.3 (2016). Thanks to their very generous copyright policy (in brief: authors keep rights) I am glad to share the piece here as well. Obviously I cannot reproduce Alex Dunst’s article, to which I am responding, on my personal research blog, but hopefully my general points of agreement and divergence will be clear enough to readers without access to Amerikastudien/American Studies. With limited space I could not be as capacious as I might otherwise be describing intriguing current research in digital American Studies. I restricted myself to more computational work not because I see it as constituting the boundaries of the field—as I hope this piece does make very clear—but instead to show that even within the subfields of computational text and image analysis we are seeing projects bloom that defy any dichotomy—offered in praise or condemnation—between empirical or theoretical analyses. Side note: for this journal I had to use in MLA style, which I haven’t done in awhile and feel weird about.
By abandoning our conception of the computer as merely a mechanical clerk suited mostly to repetitive routine operations, by learning to know its features, uses, limitations, and possibilities—its nature, in short—we shall be properly re-organizing our thinking for the new age. What the computer will enable us to do in our humanistic tasks has hardly been imagined yet. Even immoderate speculation tends to fall behind the new reality.
Louis T. Milic, “The Next Step” (1966)
The digital humanities are large; they contain multitudes: a rewriting of Whitman that can read equally as commendation or condemnation. To cite a specific example, it might surprise that scholars who devote their work to the textually minute processes of editing and encoding digital scholarly editions rightly consider themselves members of the same field as scholars who develop algorithms for classifying data across millions of works. Yet both of these things are digital humanities (DH). Continue reading →
Let’s begin with a short video, an advertisement for the Polish online auction website Allegro—think eBay—that circulated around the international web about one month ago. As of this past Saturday, it had been viewed more than 13.2 million times on YouTube.
I came across this video in the Facebook feed of a friend who regularly posts a “Weepy of the Day.” As she wrote in a message (in which she also gave her permission for me to show her feed in this presentation), “some are happy weepies and some are sad,” but all are expected to elicit tears. This video elicits tears of surprise, as we suddenly understand the man’s tenacious commitment to language learning, as well as recognition of the deep love of parents and grandparents that subordinates the self to the beloved child. I suspect viewers’ precise emotions differ based on their ages and life experiences, but overall the video provokes strong reactions and, if the comments on YouTube and in my friends’ feeds are to be believed, almost universally tears.
Discussions of internet culture often center on the detached sarcasm of internet memes or the viciousness of online commenting, but browsing the front page of Buzzfeed (or most Facebook feeds, tbh) reveals another powerful force driving the circulation of content online: sentiment. Hashtags such as the one that gives our panel its title, #AllTheFeels, simultaneously claim ownership of online sincerity while explicitly labeling—and thereby containing—such expressions. The hashtag asserts an ironic distance between the sharing subject and their feelings through the performance of metadata. Doubly ironically, as metadata a hashtag connects any individual expression of feeling to a larger network of feeling. The sentimental hashtag acknowledges the embarrassment of emotions in order to perform—at least—a moment of raw emotional response in community.
In an online context, we often think of “viral media” as driven by technological platforms: content “goes viral,” as if of its own accord. In reality, of course, it is people sharing that drives virality, and the desire to share is often tied to affective response and attachment. While modern readers might look back in bemusement at nineteenth-century readers weeping over the trials of Ellen Montgomery or the death of Little Eva, they like, retweet, and yes, even weep over videos of deployed soldiers returning home to surprise their families, ill children meeting their heroes, elaborately staged wedding proposals, or even advertisements that dramatize moments of family intimacy or human generosity. This talk draws from both nineteenth-century newspapers and twenty-first-century internet memes to explore the link between affect and circulation.
The modern individual who wishes to “see to it that they feel right,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe urged her readers in 1852, does so by confessing to the world precisely what conjured “all the feels” and inviting others to participate in their emotional response to a shared cultural artifact. As my friend noted, those artifacts sometimes invoke “happy weepies,” as when they invite us to nostalgia, affection, or romance.
Consider, for instance, the marriage proposal flash mob. The “elaborate staged proposal” video is common enough to be singled out as an online genre, but I present here one of the genre’s prototypical examples. Why are people drawn to watch and share other people’s proposals? Reading the comments—I know, I know—we can spot some themes. First, readers own their tears, sometimes directly—”I cry every time. I luv it”—and sometimes indirectly—”who the hell is cutting onions this time of night?” There’s a disturbing share of sexist commentary on the appearance of the women in the video: because the internet. Digging a little deeper, though, we find statements of aspiration or longing: “why can’t boys be like this… Creative and Kind?” or “Any time I DREAM my boyfriend…will propose to me, I watch this video.” Occasionally, we read readers’ nostalgia about their own proposals. A video such as this serves as wish fulfillment, a projection.
As a text, videos like this one are difficult for literary scholars because, to overgeneralize, we distrust happy tears. We can certainly read manifestations of patriarchy and traditional sexual roles here. However, we can identify quite a different source of distrust in a sub-strain of the video’s comments, as viewers dismiss the piece as cheesy; suggest the couple is no longer together; speculate on secret, commercial motives; or make even darker predictions (again: the internet). Such an event seems, in short, too good to be true; it smacks of inauthenticity. These skeptical takes constitute a minority of responses for this and similar videos, however, and in this talk I want to attempt to understand the motivations of both those who distrust and those who watch, weep over, and share this and similar videos. Indeed, these poles of response are essential for understanding virality, which is often driven as much by negative response as positive: debate drives conversation and maintains attention on particular cultural artifacts over others.
Certainly YouTube viewers are not the first to share or weep over a swain’s clever wooing. Clever, “too good to be true” vignettes were prevalent in the nineteenth-century newspaper exchanges system. In the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University we are using computational methods to surface “viral” texts of all kinds from the newspapers of the period.
Textual morsels like “A Religious Courtship,” (you can read one of at least 319 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of this story in the Piney Woods Planter of 20 April 1839) in which a young man woos in church by highlighting passages in his Bible that make his feelings plain, are common among the most widely reprinted vignettes we have thus far identified. We can certainly imagine nineteenth century readers projecting both idealized hopes and wary skepticism on a “meet cute” story such as this one, which circled the globe in newspapers, magazines, scrapbooks, and related media.
The sentiment of such pieces is perhaps muted, appearing “not so much a genre as an operation or a set of actions within discursive models of affect and identification.” By echoing in taut, abbreviated strokes the tropes of other sentimental genres, such a piece evokes “the aesthetics of sentiment” familiar from “advice books, statues, photographs, pamphlets, lyric poems, fashion advertisements, and novels” and “situates the the reader or viewer” as a “sentimental subject.”1 It is this more diffuse “aesthetics of sentiment” that can help us understand the pervasiveness of sentimental identification in driving virality, whether in nineteenth-century media or online. The sentimental mode insists that human beings can share the emotions prompted by scenes of affection, devotion, or even loss. Sentimentalism, in other words, requires fellow feeling, requires community, requires circulation.
Perhaps the most iconic scene of nineteenth-century sentimentalism is the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which a the angelic child “dies well”: which is to say peacefully and piously, while instructing those around her through her example. Eva accepts her fate joyfully, and thus becomes a typological Christian to her family, her family’s enslaved servants, and the novel’s readers. In allowing “a little child to lead them,” Stowe both enacts a powerful trope of nineteenth century evangelical faith and of sentimental discourse. While less individually famous, the trope of the angelic child (or wife) instructing through death pervades the period’s literature. In temperance tracts, plays, and novels, for instance, it is typically the death of a long suffering wife or daughter that finally pushes the tale’s drunkard to confront his failures and turn toward reform.2 Just as the #AllTheFeels hashtag immediately connects an individual expression of emotion to a larger stream of sentimental discourse, the trope of the dying child immediately connects any single example of nineteenth-century sentimental writing to the network of sentimentalism.
The reprinted texts of the nineteenth century newspaper—poetry, especially—are preoccupied with mortality, and in particular the mortality of children. In the poem “Tired Mothers,” for instance, a bereaved mother urges others to recognize the “blessedness” of even “dull” and “thankless” moments with their children, which she longs for now that “My singing birdling from its nest has flown / The little boy I used to kiss is dead!” (you can read one of at least 275 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “Tired Mothers” in the Vermont Phœnix of 6 September 1872).
The poem “Little Boy Blue” takes as its central metaphor a departed child’s abandoned toys, who “wonder, as waiting these long years through… / What has become of our Little Boy Blue” (you can read one of at least 143 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “Our Little Boy Blue” in the St. Paul Daily Globe of 22 April 1888).3 In these two examples the sentimental appeal seeks again to remind readers of the ways everyday life is taken for granted, even wished away, by those without the perspective of loss.
It is often difficult for my students to wrap their minds around the frequent depiction of child death in nineteenth-century literature. In my classes, we spend awhile discussing mortality rates, the omnipresence of death in most of the period’s households. As models of “affect and identification,” sentimental pieces about the death of children provided a vector for commiseration. Their deaths are made instructive for those left behind: reminders of mortality, spurs to better action during life, and assurances of religious truths.
Without (I hope) being callous, I want to argue that similar portrayals of death as emotionally instructive pervade contemporary viral media as well.
Quite recently, for instance, the story of Tijn Kolsteren went viral far outside of his native Netherlands. The 6-year-old with terminal brain cancer challenged people to paint their nails and contribute to charity, a campaign that ultimately raised more than €2.5 million and involved a host of celebrities and politicians, including the Dutch Prime Minister. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of this event, but only to cite it as emblematic of more recent online versions of the “good death”: the terminal patient who resists despair and instead contributes to the world he or she is leaving. These events are not always grounded in a religious sensibility—though this does depend greatly on your own social media bubble—but do evoke tears of gratitude or inspiration. Rather than attempting to work through a common, shared experience, these media employ sentiment to connect people with an atypical and rhetorically heightened human experience. The sentimental figure—and I use figure to refer not to the real person, but to the representation of that person in viral media—becomes a kind of cipher, able to focus the attention of others on otherwise overlooked beauties or opportunities in the world. By foregrounding the selfless work of those facing death, such pieces challenge viewers or readers with the privileges of health to reconsider their own actions in the world.
The contemporary sentimental child is, as it was in the nineteenth century, a figure of projection. Consider Batkid—or Miles Scott—who you might remember from your social media feeds in late 2015 and whose story is now being made into a documentary. Through the MakeAWish foundation, tens of thousands of people came together online and in reality to turn San Francisco into Gotham City and allow Miles to live out his dream of being Batman for a day. Through enacting Miles’ fantasy—at, frankly, an epic scale—participants report feeling moved, emotional, inspired. As Hans Zimmer says during his interview for the movie, “he gave everyone license to be a little absurd, and live their little dreams for a little bit.” Chris Taylor echoes this idea, claiming, “in helping him to live his dream, we were saving ourselves.” Miles’ accentuated mortality reminds viewers of their own; in his fulfilled dreams they find hope that their own farfetched aspirations might be realized.
Batkid serves as an emotional surrogate for the viewers who support his wish, but in that concept of surrogacy we can spot the darker elements of sentimentalism, particularly when it coheres around an actual human being. In Miles’ case this potential darkness is obviated by his survival; as of this moment he seems to have beaten his disease, so his story has both a metaphorical and literal happy ending. In other cases, however, the sympathetic tears of viewers stop at the moment of inspiration. Viral events centered on people facing mortality rarely persist to the pain of death itself, leaving those around the central figure to deal with the stark realities obviated in the uplifting message. But: I do not want to entirely negate the power of these stories, to look at them only through a hermeneutics of suspicion. To say that these contemporary sentimental figures are ciphers or projections risks deflating people’s emotional experiences and replicating the same modes of dismissal that prevented scholars taking nineteenth-century sentimentalism seriously for far too long.
To bring a personal inflection to this presentation, I remember crying as the Batkid story unfolded, and I (attention blog readers: please imagine the deeply self deprecating tone with which I will read this line) am a doctor of English language and literature, presenting my important research at the Modern Language Association Convention. What was Batkid to me? Risking cheesiness, I recall being deeply moved that, in a world so often defined by pain, conflict, and violence, a large group of people would come together in service of another person, and a deeply vulnerable person at that. In the moment—future major motion picture aside—the event seemed to unfold outside of commerce and outside of partisanship. It seemed pure, and that apparent purity constituted no small part of my emotional response to it. No doubt some of the people involved were drawn to the media spectacle more than to Miles’ story, but at some essential level it didn’t matter: the outcome conquered any mixed motives of those who contributed.
In closing, I want to focus on one of a more marked attempt to leverage the circulation of viral sentimentality toward identification across racial, class, or generational lines. Again, we can mark important precursors in the nineteenth-century. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe drew on her own experience losing a child to depict the forced rupture of families through slavery. When the fugitive Eliza asks Mrs. Bird and her husband if they have lost a child, her question prompts a painful memory for many of Stowe’s readers as well as the most pervasive trope of sentimental fiction and poetry. By comparing Eliza’s losses to those of the Birds and, by extension, Stowe’s readers, Stowe asks those readers to identify with the slave mother.
That identification, in turn, is expected to lead to action on behalf of the slave. It is here that critics most forcefully reject the political efficacy of sentimentalism. I do not have time to review that literature in this talk, but in short, critics understand sentimental literature as a kind of “slacktism,” to borrow another internet term: a generalized feeling of moral rectitude that comes from feeling strongly and sharing media, but not taking more substantive political action. Slactivism begins and ends with clicking a button on Twitter or Facebook, just as the activism of many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin likely began and ended with their tears over Eliza’s plight.
Nevertheless for Stowe and many of her readers, “feeling right” is a necessary step to acting right, and indeed can override the moral compromises of the commercial and political spheres. In talking with her husband, who as a senator has just voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, Mrs. Bird insists he “can talk all night, but you wouldn’t do it. I put it to you, John,” she asks “would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?” When the senator attempts to reason with her, Mrs. Bird presses the issue, “I hate reasoning, John,—especially reasoning on such subjects. There’s a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don’t believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice. I know you well enough, John. You don’t believe it’s right any more than I do; and you wouldn’t do it any sooner than I.” Here right feeling is the basis of right action, and the ultimate marker of morality. In seeking to bring her readers to identify with the slave, Stowe attempts to leverage the unique power of sentiment to push people toward right action.
We can identify a similar sentimental impulse in a project like Humans of New York, which rose to international prominence largely through viral engagement. I’m not sure how anyone here could have completely missed HONY—it has been pervasive—but in brief, the project pairs intimate photographs of people with brief stories that give insight into their histories and lived experiences. Initially these stories all came from New Yorkers—hence the project’s name—but more recently the author, Brandon Stanton, has expanded his purview. In general, HONY doesn’t advocate for any specific political cause, but does prompts readers to empathize with people from diverse racial, national, ethnic, and class backgrounds through personal stories of loss, of suffering, or endurance that resonate emotionally. This story of a sold violin, for instance, is a typical example from the site insofar as it attempts to inculcate general human sympathy. The paired picture and story encourage readers to imagine that the guy bagging their groceries just might be a talented musician, frustrated by economic exigencies. In other words, HONY helps readers imagine the interiority of other people, to feel in common with them and thus become more sympathetic individuals. The viral success of HONY—the wide and rapid circulation of nearly every post on the site—speaks to the hunger of readers for such moments of identification, and their conviction that others within their social circle would benefit from experiencing these media.
Most readers of HONY are (relatively) young, and so posts like this one about a man losing his wife to dementia seek to bridge generational divides through sentiment. To return to Samuels’ definition of sentimentalism, this text clearly becomes a “discursive model…of affect and identification that effect[s] connections” across ages rather than other markers of difference. Here we might identify another meditation on loss, in which the sentimental inspiration comes not from the person dying, but instead from the long suffering husband left behind. Here again is an aspirational example, of fidelity and love, that sets readers’ own relationships in relief.
Here again we might invoke nineteenth century precedents, such as “A Dying Wife to Her Husband,” a widely-reprinted “most touching fragment of a Letter from a dying Wife to her Husband…found by him, some months after her death” and which “was literally dim with tear-marks” (you can read one of at least 181 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “A Dying Wife to Her Husband” in the Abbeville Banner of 26 April 1851). Leaving aside this early example of the internet “literally,” we read about the husband that “Yours is the privilege of watching, through long and dreary nights, for the spirit’s final flight, and of transferring my sinking head from your breast to the Saviour’s bosom!” She assures him that “you shall share my last thought; the last faint pressure of hand, and the last feeble kiss.” Though separated by nearly 175 years, it is difficult not to see echoes of the HONY subject’s claim of caring for his dying wife, “I don’t see this as a curse. It’s an honor. This is what the Lord has given me to do. She has served this family her entire life. And now it’s my turn to serve her.” Such pieces circulated in nineteenth century newspapers and online because they speak to reader’s highest ideals around the marital bond, offering an example of how we hope we would conduct ourselves—but fear we would not—in similar circumstances.
I want to end with one final example from HONY, from a more overtly activist series created in 2015, as tensions rose in Europe and the US around the refugee crisis. Stanton traveled to refugee camps across Europe, following the same picture-and-brief-narrative format of his other posts. Here, however, the posts have an edge that cannot but recall Stowe’s depictions of enslaved mothers. This picture of a father and daughter emphasizes their normalcy and humanity through their smiles, and the girl’s affectionate petting of the cat. The horror of their story jars with their obvious humanity, and imagining the girl witnessing her mother’s death forces readers to consider the absolute inhumanity of their experiences. These pictures and stories force Western readers to identify with the refugees, with the hopes that such identification will stymie demonization. These media seek to help readers and viewers “feel right” and thus act on behalf of refugees. Whether such sentimental appeals are effective is a matter of fervent debate, even now, but certainly while I was living in Germany last year I saw the impact of such media in shaping public debate around refugees, even as many echoed Senator Bird in urging reason over feeling.
What seems undeniable is that internet culture is deeply affective, and that grappling with the aesthetics of sentimentality will be necessary for understanding the ways that viral media circulate among—or even constitute—communities online. I have not in this talk addressed the sentimentality of the 2016 election, if only because I have not had time to fully process the overlap of feeling and our new political discourse. “Fake news” too thrives on emotion: stories can be for readers emotionally true even when factually bankrupt. Here again is a bleaker valence of sentimentality that scholars must take seriously in the coming years. Current debates about filter bubbles and confirmation bias are in many ways attempts to understand the emotional underpinnings of how we separate truth from fiction. This notion of emotional truth is not new to the world, as I hope my examples from the nineteenth century help clarify. While it’s likely mostly mythology that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the book that started the Civil War, it seems equally likely that the book helped mobilize support for abolition that did not exist before its publication. The online medium—and its real world effects—bring a pointed urgency to the question of how we might both “feel right” and act right in the digital public sphere. “Weepies of the Day” are not going anywhere: tears constitute communities and drive circulation. Our task is to better understand how sentiment operates and how it might serve education rather than misinformation.
Shirley Samuels, “Introduction,” The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 6 ↩
For more on this trope in temperance, abolitionist, and anti-abolitionist literature, see my article, Ryan Cordell, “‘Enslaving You, Body and Soul‘: The Uses of Temperance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and ‘Anti-Tom’ Fiction,” Studies in American Fiction 36.1 (Spring 2008). ↩
As a brief aside: in this particular image, I cannot help but remember my own parental bawling response to the movie Toy Story 3, which employs the same central forgotten-toys metaphor, but to mediate of the loss of children grown, gone in another sense. ↩
When: Saturday, 7 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m.
Where: Franklin 8, Philadelphia Marriott
Since the rise of feminist criticism in the 1970s, “the sentimental” has become an important category of historical investigation and literary critique. Cultural historians have noted the immense influence of sentimental literature on eighteenth-century Britain and nineteenth-century America, while literary critics have debated whether sentimentalism indulged readers or informed them, eviscerated intellect or enabled it. June Howard notes that calling a text, film, utterance, or image sentimental “mark[s] a moment when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible” (Howard 76). While theorists including Lauren Berlant have examined the “unfinished business” of sentimentalism—the way sentimental rhetoric continues to inform American political, social, and artistic life—little has been written about the sentimentalism of internet culture. And yet students and other media consumers participate daily in sentimental exchanges facilitated by the rapid movement of texts and images across the internet. This panel seeks to extend the study of sentimentalism into the twenty-first century by examining how genres of text, image, and video made possible and easily reproducible by the rise of the world wide web—Tumblr posts, viral memes, and fanfiction—continue the cultural work performed by the sentimental, including the work of connection and cultural cohesion.
Ashley Reed begins the panel by examining the unique (but not unprecedented) affective modes that characterize online communication. Her paper “Tumblr Sentimentalism: Affect and Ironic Distance in Internet Culture” explores the emotional exchanges that take place on the blogging site Tumblr, in which bloggers comment on images and videos using short, textual posts that then travel across various platforms, including Facebook pages and Buzzfeed listicles. The media are freighted with nostalgic weight: Tumblr users remediate screen shots and video clips of the Harry Potter movies, Nickelodeon television shows, and Justin Bieber videos. Meanwhile, the texts that accompany these media perform sentimental attachment while also proclaiming ironic distance: the hashtag #AllTheFeels that forms the title of our panel proclaims that the poster is overwhelmed with emotion while simultaneously detached from it. Reed argues that the “emo kids” of Tumblr and other internet sharing sites have developed a new mode of sentimentalism that is the default affective stance of internet culture: a sentimentalism that enfolds irony by acknowledging the “uncoolness” of strong emotion while succumbing to those emotions’ undeniable power.
Sentimentalism is not merely about the expression of emotion but about its circulation; sentimental texts and images seek connection with the reader or viewer through mutual emotional identification. The term “going viral” that describes the rapid movement of particular memes and videos across internet platforms diagnoses the sometimes unwilling or even unconscious affects of internet culture. Ryan Cordell’s “The Sentiment of Circulation” examines sentimental virality in both the nineteenth century and today. While twenty-first-century readers might look back in bemusement at nineteenth-century readers weeping over the trials of Ellen Montgomery or the death of Little Eva, they like, retweet, and weep over videos of deployed soldiers returning home to surprise their families, elaborately staged wedding proposals, or even advertisements that dramatize moments of family intimacy or human generosity. A project like Humans of New York (HONY)—which rose to international prominence largely through viral engagement—echoes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental appeal to the readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to “see to it that they feel right.” Cordell draws from both nineteenth-century newspapers and twenty-first-century internet memes to explore the essential link between affect and circulation, arguing that shared emotional responses constitute communities through which cultural artifacts can circulate, and that those communities reconstitute (or subvert) other social or political communities.
The acts of viral identification that undergird sentimental engagement can prompt readers and viewers not only to feel with fictional characters and faraway individuals but to participate imaginatively in their lives. This impulse finds its online outlet in the phenomenon of fanfiction, in which readers or viewers rewrite, revise, or extend the diegetic details of beloved films or books. While fanfiction is often considered to be a uniquely postmodern genre brought into being by the internet, Candace Cunard’s “Rewriting Richardson’s Clarissa: Sentimentalism and the AU Impulse” demonstrates that sentimental texts have long inspired readers to reimagine them. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady (1747-8) was one of the first sentimental novels of the eighteenth century and also, Cunard argues, one of the first to generate substantial rewritings of the type labeled by contemporary fanfiction authors as “alternate universe” (AU). Cunard examines Lady Elizabeth Echlin’s rewriting of the third installment of Clarissa and argues that it is “alternate universe” in more ways than one: Echlin imagines, not just an alternate ending to the novel, but fundamental changes to the novel’s patriarchal universe that must occur if women like Clarissa are to be protected from misogynist violence. Such “alternate universe thinking” is embedded in sentimentalism across the centuries and is akin to the practices Eve Sedgwick identifies as “reparative reading,” in which detailed visions of a better world help readers cope with the insufficiencies of this one.
Rather than a relic of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century past, then, sentimentalism continues to undergird cultural interactions—interactions now facilitated by quick and constant online communication. During the discussion portion of the session, audience members will be invited to supplement, complement, or complicate the examples set forth by Reed, Cordell, and Cunard, and also to consider sentimental insufficiences: virtual sites where identification and circulation break down. Participants might consider, for instance, the relationship between the ironic sentimentalism posited by Reed and the internet’s other dominant affective stance: rage. Audience members might also discuss the gender of internet culture: since sentimentalism is a category historically associated with women and with the private sphere, how does a public, male-authored project like HONY challenge our understanding of sentimentalism? Our three-person panel leaves plenty of time for approaching these and other questions.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008
Howard, June. “What Is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11.1 (1999): 63-81.
Today we’ll be learning the following. I’ve outlined a rough schedule just below this paragraph, but it will vary depending on both human and technical variables. At any stage, feel free to let me know whether we should slow down, speed up, define, redefine, and so forth. I want to make sure you come away confident in your ability to use Omeka and (just as important!) to teach students to use Omeka. I’m just fine with detours, so long as they contribute to your projects and your teaching. Continue reading →
In previous work in American Literary History, I argued that reprinted nineteenth-century newspaper selections should be considered as authored by the network of periodicals exchanges. Such texts were assemblages, defined by circulation and mutability, that cannot cohere around a single, stable author. As part of this argument, I demonstrated how social network analysis (SNA) methods might employ large-scale data about reprinting to illuminate lines of influence among newspapers during the period. In that early network modeling, I represented individual newspapers from our reprinting data—at the time drawn primarily from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection—as nodes, connected by edges that represented texts printed in common between papers. Those edges were weighted by frequency of shared reprints. The working assumptions behind those models were these: 1.) the fact that two newspapers reprint this or that text in common says very little about their relationship, or lack thereof, during the period and 2.) that when two newspaper printed hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of texts in common, this fact is a strong signal of a potential relationship between them.
Our data about reprinting in the Viral Texts Project is organized around “clusters”: these are, essentially, enumerative bibliographies of particular texts that circulated in nineteenth-century newspapers, derived computationally through a reprint detection algorithm that we describe more fully in previous publications.1 From these chronologically-ordered lists of witnesses, we derive network structures by tallying how often publications appear in the same clusters. When two publications appear together in a particular cluster, they are considered linked, with an edge of weight 1. Each subsequent time those same publications appear together in other clusters, the weight of their edge increases by 1; ten shared reprints results in a weight of 10, one hundred shared reprints in a weight of 100. Thus the final network data shows strong links between publications that often print the same texts and weaker links between publications that occasionally print the same texts. Continue reading →
I regularly run workshops on humanities network analysis. For participants, I’ve compiled some starting instructions, sample data files, and suggested reading below.
First and foremost, I would highly recommend reading Scott Weingart’s ongoing blog series, “Demystifying Networks”. Weingart does an excellent job explaining both how networks are structured and identifying what humanists need to understand deeply to use network methods well.
For a more practical introduction to the specific tool Gephi, see Amanda Visconti’s posts on using Gephi for information visualization.
If you are running Windows with Microsoft Excel installed, Node XL aims to make generating network graphs from an Excel spreadsheet as easy as creating a pie chart. Unfortunately Node XL is incompatible with Mac versions of Excel.
And of course, if you’re comfortable with programming languages there are plenty of methods for generating network graphs by hand. Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton write about using R for network analysis in Humanities Data in R and Lincoln Mullen has a growing resource in Digital History Methods in R, including an in-progress chapter on networks.
This Workshop: Gephi
For this workshop, we will be using Gephi, one of the most widely-used tools for network analysis and visualization. You will need to download and install the application before we can get started. If you find it runs slowly (or not at all) you might need to update Java on your system.
Note: this is a peer reviewed, uncopyedited post-print of an article that appears in American Periodicals 26.1 (2016), which is now available at Project Muse. It is part of a phenomenal forum on Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies that includes essential pieces (in order of appearance) by Elizabeth Hopwood, Benjamin Fagan, Kim Gallon, Jeffrey Drouin, and Amanda Gailey.
What has digitization meant for periodical studies, and what might it mean in the future? We should first consider how the digital archive changes notions of access, both political and practical. James Mussell notes that “the conditions that permitted newspapers and periodicals” to become the central medium of discourse in the nineteenth century—“their seriality, abundance, ephemerality, diversity, heterogeneity—posed problems for those who wanted to access their contents” in print forms. The periodicals archive is vast and largely unindexed. In ways so basic and fully transformative that we easily overlook them, digitization and its attendant technology, keyword search, have already changed periodicals scholarship entirely, allowing researchers to easily identify topics of interest across swathes of newspapers, magazines, and related materials, and to just as easily incorporate those media as evidence for historical, literary, or other claims. As Ted Underwood reminds us, “[a]lgorithmic mining of large electronic databases has been quietly central to the humanities for two decades. We call this practice ‘search,’ but ‘search’ is a deceptively modest name for a complex technology that has come to play an evidentiary role in scholarship.” Though other forms of computational analysis will certainly influence periodicals research in the near future, the most dramatic methodological shift has already happened.