Because Survival is Insufficient

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.

Hawthorne Article Published at DHQ

Cross-posted from my “Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad: A Publication History” development blog at http://ryan.cordells.us/crr/hawthorne-article-published-at-dhq/

While I apologize for the slow updates here of late, I am pleased to report that my article on the reprinting history of “The Celestial Railroad” has been published in the latest issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly. This is a special issue on “The Literary,” and is well worth perusing in full.

Grad Proseminar Guest Talk: Not Reading

The idea for this activity was stolen from my colleague Paul Fyfe of Florida State University; I first saw Prof. Fyfe present his assignment at MLA 2012. Prof. Fyfe describes his version of the assignment in “How Not to Read a Victorian Novel,” Journal of Victorian Culture 16, no. 1 (April 2011). Here’s how Paul introduces the assignment for his students:

Franco Moretti was dissatisfied with how literary scholars accept just a handful of possible texts as representative of cultural eras. Even if those texts are diverse and interesting, how can they possibly represent broader trends at scale? Moretti wants to change our sense of literary history by enlarging it, or by increasing our critical distance from it. He coined the phrase “distant reading” as an approach to analyzing lots and lots of texts instead of an unrepresentative few. Distant reading uses other modes of analysis and models of interpretation than the “close reading” we are familiar with. In his own work, Moretti compiles textual information from lots and lots of novels into maps, graphs, and logical trees. Seen this way, texts can reveal new patterns and language trends than we could otherwise discover close up. An array of digital visualization and text analysis tools now make Moretti’s methods more accessible to the casual user. The first paper will be an experiment in using these tools. We will consider “distance” not only as the subject of our course but also as a potential mode of reading and interpretation. What does literary criticism and analysis look like if we accept distance “as a condition of knowledge”?

Distance is a pretty good approach to the Victorian novel, considering that 40,000+ books of prose fiction were published in the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century. No one can read them all. But perhaps we can learn how to not read them. As Moretti and others have demonstrated, digital technology provides lots of interesting ways of doing this. Using some selected tools, you will analyze a big Victorian novel and then write a paper explaining your questions and insights. There’s one catch: it has to be a book you have never read.

English classes more typically emphasize close reading than “not reading.” This exercise will be new to many of you. So will the technology and the interfaces. The paper requires thinking about texts in a very different way than you might be used to. There may be dead ends; on the other hand, there will be no wrong answers. This preludes two important points:

  • Play. Experiment. This assignment is as much about testing the methods as it is learning about the text. The goal here is not to reconstruct a missing story, but to “read” the novel in a fundamentally different way, and to think about the implications of doing so.
  • Ask for help. Please don’t struggle with the technology, or tear hair in confusion about the assignment. Visit my office hours or email for an appointment if you’d like to go over this, work out a problem, or discuss how to talk about your results.
  • Use frustration creatively. This is perhaps the hardest and most essential trick. If you hit a dead end, feel frustrated, or get null results, how can you use that to learn? In other words, what might be the values of that frustration or failure in thinking about your critical approach? Try to take any moment of frustration as instead an opportunity to reflect on the kinds of questions you are asking and how you might change them.

Ready to get started?

Okay—got all that? Here’s how we’ll be engaging in the kinds of experimentation and play that Prof. Fyfe describes in today’s proseminar:

 

  1. Choose a work to not read.

    Remember that you must choose something you’ve never read before. I recommend that you choose a text you know is closely related to the key work you’ve been studying throughout the proseminar: e.g. an influencing work; another work by the same author; a work by someone in your author’s literary, political, or social circle; a work that shares themes with your key work; a work that critics of your key work often cite in their analyses. You must either choose a text that you can find the entire text for online, perhaps on Project Gutenberg, or you must scan and OCR (we’ll discuss this in class) the work before analyzing it.

    Download the “plain text” (.txt) version of the text to your computer. Open that file in a plain text editor—TextEdit on the Mac or Wordpad on Windows—and delete all of the text at the front and back of the file that aren’t the text itself. You want to file to include only the words of the novel itself, not any of the legal language or the metadata. Save the file as a plain text (.txt) file.

  2. Make some predictions

    What do you think this work is about? How do you think it relates to your key work? Can you list some predicted themes, characters, plot elements, or stylistic characteristics of the text before reading a word of it? Write your ideas down in a document you can refer back to later.

  3. Make word clouds

    When provided with a bunch of text, tag cloud or word cloud engines will return you a graphical representation of the most common words: the more frequently a word appears in the text, the larger it appears relative to other words on the screen. On the ProfHacker blog, Julie Meloni called word clouds a “gateway drug” to textual analysis. Wordle is nice for making word clouds because, once your word cloud gets generated, you can toggle common English words (e.g. and, the, if) on or off, and you can customize or even “randomize” the display, allowing you different visualizations of the data. Using the text of your chosen work, experiment with Wordle until you get comfortable with the interface. Then run a couple of different tests with Wordle, making notes of your observations along the way:

    • Generate a cloud for the whole text. How you might “read” this? Come up with a few different observations. What kinds of words are there? Are there patterns or in/consistencies in the words? In what is relatively more or less frequent?
    • Try breaking the book into chapters or sections. Paste individual sections in, generate word clouds, and see what you can regenerate from a “distant” perspective.
    • Play with stoplists: in Wordle, toggle on/off the common English words. (You can also create your own custom stoplist, which is a little more advanced.)
  4. Reveal your texts

    Word clouds are a first step. Next, we will run (slightly) more sophisticated text analysis software on the file using tools provided by Voyant (Voyant has had server troubles lately; if that link doesn’t work, use this link to the software on another server. Upload the plain text version of your chosen novel and click “reveal.” Initially Voyant’s results will look much like Wordle’s. You’ll see a word cloud in the top left corner of the screen (You can turn on stoplists for the wordcloud by clicking the gear icon at the top of the wordcloud window), a summary of results below it, and the full text of your chosen work in the center. If you click “more…” in the summary window, however, another window will open below it showing the “words in the entire corpus.” “Corpus” means “a collection of written works,” and Voyant can be used to analyze many texts together; in this case, however, your corpus is one work.

    Look at the words by frequency. You might have to scroll through a few pages before you get past common words such as “the,” “and,” and so on. What are the first few less common words that appear most frequently in your novel? Double click one of the words listed, and a new set of tools will open on the right side of the window. You can look at “word trends,” which plots the relative frequency of words at different points in your novel. Below this you can click to open “Keywords in context,” which shows the words that appear around the word you’re analyzing within the text. If you look at the text in the center of the window, you’ll see that there’s now a “heat map” running along its left-hand margin which shows where your chosen word appears most frequently within the text. Jot down some notes about this word, and then compare those results with several other words in the “Words in the Entire Corpus” menu.

    Some questions to consider as you play with Voyant: does more focused attention to word frequency change your opinions about your book? What about scarce or infrequent words? What still don’t you know? In other words, what additional information might you need to gain insights? What insights, if any, do these tools provide? What keywords or patterns did you pursue and why? What might you suspect are the values and/or limitations of “not reading” this way? Where might it be useful in future research projects or in analyzing other kinds of texts?

  5. Explore the wonderful world of Ngrams

    Google’s Ngram Viewer displays the frequency of worlds over time by drawing on the massive Google Books corpus, which includes the text of more than 15 million books. For more on Ngrams, check out the Culturomics site. Choose several of the words you’ve concentrated on in your previous analyses and enter them into the Ngram viewer. Look at the frequency of those words through time, paying particular attention to their frequency when your chosen novel was published. Do any of them stand out, either as particularly common words during their time or, perhaps as interestingly, as particularly uncommon words during their time. Try a few more words from the frequency lists you generated in Voyant earlier. Then, try comparing some of the keywords from your chosen work with some keywords from your key work—do any interesting comparisons emerge? The big question here: can a tool like the Ngrams viewer, which analyzes so many texts, help you understand anything about the historical place of a book you’ve never read?

  6. Rerun your analyses incorporating your key work

    Next, return to Voyant with the text of your key work. Run the same experiments with it that you ran with the work you’d never read. What textual trends emerge from your analysis of the key work? Does Voyant reveal anything about your key work that surprises you—a word or phrase you would not have predicted to be as prominent as it is, perhaps? Try running both texts through Voyant together (a corpus of two works). What does analyzing the texts together reveal?

During the upcoming week…

  1. Read the first chapter

    Now that you’ve not read the entire work, go back and actually read its first chapter or section. Did the textual analyses you performed prepare you to understand the themes, character, setting, or any other aspects of this first chapter? Are there ideas you expected to encounter based on your textual analysis, but didn’t? Were there ideas in the first chapter that seem entirely unrelated to the analyses you performed beforehand? If you have time, read further, keeping the same questions in mind.

  2. Write a Short Reflection

    Finally, you’ll write a paper about what you did and what you learned. Please keep the emphasis on what you learned: a) about your chosen text, b.) about your key work, and b) about this kind of “distant reading.” I’m interested in your speculations, your thoughtful reflections on text analysis. Grades will be based on how thoughtfully you engage with the assignment and how clearly those thoughts are expressed in prose. You do not need a central argument (although it’s fine if you have one.) The goal of this assignment is to ruminate on what kinds of knowledge a distant reading can or cannot produce. In other words, it encourages you to think about how textual analysis changes our attention to texts. A good paper can have lots of unanswered questions. Good questions are evidence of thoughtfulness.

“John Keats, Asked to Type in a Word Verification, Fears That He May Cease to Be” by Chuck Rybak

Last Thursday Chuck Rybak, a colleague from UWGB, read some of his poetry at the St. Norbert College English Discipline’s literary awards event. His poetry was wonderful: honestly attentive to the small realities of adult life, and often genuinely funny—which is not a phrase we get to apply to poetry often enough.

One of Chuck’s poems, however, stood out as something the digital humanities community would enjoy. It’s a remix of John Keats using CAPTCHA words. The result is absurd but funny and oddly insightful into our lives on the web. I asked Chuck if I could share it, and he generously sent it to me and said to consider it “open source.”

I hope you enjoy as much as I did:

John Keats, Asked to Type in a Word Verification, Fears That He May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before I’ve typed doedwat or sesessto,
Before high-plahsi closps, in preaderi,
Hold like rich cuchcomb the full mittaloo;
When I behold, upon the hork’s starred bushmer,
Huge woresmick caties of a high grubnit,
And think that I may never live to kaxber
Their mearshmee, with the nullfu hand of squilt;
And when I feel, fair saphan of a fuggi,
That I shall never boxynalp thee more,
Never have cocta in the valoggi
Of vocutebob love—then on the splnor
Of the wide whiza I stand oovicks, and think,
Till flesh and blood to cursorness do sink.

Chuck Rybak |1136 Hill Drive | Oneida, WI 54155 | rybakc@uwgb.edu

CRR Comparison Sets on Juxta Web

Cross-posted from my “Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad: A Publication History” development blog at http://ryan.cordells.us/crr/crr-comparison-sets-on-juxta-web/

A few weeks ago Juxta released a new beta that brings the wonderful textual collation software online, allowing users to upload their comparison sets for others to see. I’ve been playing with the software for a few months as a beta tester, and I’m excited to be able to share some of the most significantly edited versions of “The Celestial Railroad.”. You can view the complete comparison set at http://juxta.performantsoftware.com/shares/4ea02e611ca74cf0917e467b33010fdb/view?mode=heatmap&base=1104. Check out some of my favorite comparisons:

I look forward to the continued development of Juxta’s web service. In particular, I hope they develop a way for scholars to embed the tool in their project sites. I would love for visitors to this website to access my comparison sets directly.

New job at Northeastern University

I’m happy to announce that I will join the Northeastern University English Department in the Fall of 2012. I deeply appreciate the support I’ve received from my colleagues at St. Norbert College over the past two years. I will miss them and this institution, which truly lives its mission of communio and has made our family so welcome in De Pere.

Though leaving St. Norbert is bittersweet, I am excited about this move for several reasons, both professional and personal:

  1. At Northeastern I will join a group of faculty who will plan and found a new Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Social Sciences. The new Center will have a physical space on campus as early as this fall—in which case my office will be in the Center, along with those of several other affiliated faculty members. Since leaving Virginia, I’ve missed the rich, collaborative community of its Scholars Lab. I hope to help foster the growth of such a community at Northeastern, and to join the larger community of digital humanists in the Boston area.
  2. I’ll teach more digital humanities courses. Approximately half of my teaching will be allocated to Center-related courses, and I should teach both a graduate and undergraduate DH course next year. I’ve greatly enjoyed teaching “Technologies of Text” this semester, and I’m thrilled by the chance to teach DH courses more regularly at Northeastern.
  3. I look forward to delving into Boston’s amazing archives. My scholarship depends heavily on archival research, and for a scholar of nineteenth-century American literature and culture, there are few (if any) better places to work than New England. I look forward to working at places like the Boston Public Library, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Harvard Library.
  4. On a more personal note, our family is eager to move back East and closer to grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s been tougher than we expected living two day’s drive—or one very expensive plane flight—from family. In Boston, we’ll be only one day’s drive from my parents, and more easily connected by plane or train to other relatives on the East Coast. The kids, of course, also can’t wait to explore Boston: its museums, zoo, aquarium, Red Sox games, and myriad other activities.

This summer will be a busy one. We plan to spend much of it in Virginia, making occasional excursions up to Boston to tour neighborhoods and find a place to live. If you’re in the Boston area and can help us with that endeavor, please let me know!

Thanks, Greg.

I’ve been moving through today slowly. I learned yesterday—first through Twitter, and then through several emails—that Greg Colomb, the Director of UVA’s Writing Program, passed away in his sleep. Judging by the reactions of friends in Charlottesville, this news was sudden and shocking. Several wrote on Facebook of meeting with Greg only days ago. They wrote that he was in those meetings his typical, jovial self. I was certainly surprised. I met Greg for coffee when I was in Charlottesville this summer. We spoke on the phone only a few weeks ago, planning a panel we were supposed to present together at CCCC this March. In those meetings he was full of life, full of energy, full of ideas. He was, in other words, Greg. Continue reading