Objectivity and Distant Reading


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.

Images and Objectivity

Objectivity attempts to trace the emergence of scientific objectivity as a concept, ideal, and moral framework for researchers during the nineteenth century. In particular, the book focuses on shifting ideas about scientific images during the period. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Daston and Galison argue, the scientific ideal was “truth-to-nature,” in which particular examples are primarily useful for the ways in which they reflect and help construct an ideal type: not this leaf, specifically, but this type of leaf. Under this regime scientific illustrations did not attempt to reconstruct individual, imperfect specimens, but instead to generalize from specimens and portray a perfect type.

Objectivity shows how, as the nineteenth century progressed and new image technologies such as photography shifted the possibilities for scientific imagery, truth-to-nature fell out of favor, while objectivity rose to prominence. There’s much to unpack in Daston and Galison’s description of this objectivity (and how it contrasts with earlier uses of that same word), but in this post I want to focus on what they call “mechanical objectivity,” which arises with new scientific tools and inheres in their ideas about those tools. I think there’s a salient point embedded here that might help us think through how recent computational research in the humanities has been discussed, and particularly in how an ideas about objectivity complicate those discussions, either explicitly or implicitly.

Consider Daston and Galison’s description of the virtues of nineteenth century machines, which I will quote at some length:

[I]t was a nineteenth-century commmonplace that machines were paragons of certain human virtues. Cief among these were those associated with work: patient, indefatigable, ever-alert machiens would relieve human workers whose attention wandered, whose pace slackened, whose hand trembled…In addition to the sheer industriousness of machines, there was more: levers and gears did not succumb to temptation…the fact that machines had no choice but to be virtuous struck scientists distrustful of their own powers of self-discipline as a distinct advantage. Instead of freedom of will, machines offered freedom from will—from willful interventions that had come to be seen as the most dangerous aspects of subjectivity (123).

In debates about the virtues of illustration versus photography, for instance, illustration was touted as superior to the relative primitivism of photography—technologies such as drawing and engraving simply allowed finer detail than blurry nineteenth century photography could. Nevertheless photography increasingly dominated scientific images because it was seen as less susceptible to manipulation, less dependent on the imagination of the artist (or, indeed, of the scientist).

It is this internal struggle to control the will that imparted to mechanical objectivity its high moral tone…One type of mechanical image, the photograph, became the emblem for all aspects of noninterventionist objectivity…This was not because the photograph was more obviously faithful to nature than handmade images—many paintings bore a closer resemblance to their subject matter than early photographs, if only because they used color—but because the camera apparently eliminated human agency. (187)

For scientists increasingly worried that their own stubborn wills would sully the truth of their findings, mechanical means of image production offered a way out. There are echoes here of original sin, a seeking for a tool that can circumvent human fallenness.

Objectivity and Distant Reading

I want to ask whether there is a version of this objectivity moral lurking in discussions of computation in the humanities, even when particular works disclaim objectivity as their goal. Consider Moretti in the article that coined the “distant reading” term:

the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premiss by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter…At bottom, it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them. Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems.

In this article and much of the related literature, computation is invoked as a solution to problems of will that are quite familiar from decades of humanistic scholarship. We all know that the canon of English literature was shaped as much by the identities of its gatekeepers as by the inherent virtues of the books it includes. Feminist, postcolonial, and other theoretical schools have taught us that our biases limit our critical horizons and result in atrophied canons that do not adequately represent human identities or literatures.

We might argue that methods such as distant reading or macroanalysis seek to bypass the human will that constructed such canons through a kind of mechanical objectivity. While human beings choose what to focus on for all kinds of reasons, many of them suspect, the computer will look for patterns unencumbered any of those reasons. The machine is less susceptible to the social, political, or identity manipulations of canon formation. There’s much to say about the role of the machine in this formulation, and the human beings that write its programs—both of which perhaps I’ll discuss in future posts. And I’m neither claiming that this ethics of objectivity is objective nor that it would be desirable for it to be so.

My aims here are more modest: simply to posit a rhetorical undertone informing discussions of computational humanities work.

I can point to my own writing about Viral Texts, in fact, as in my article in American Literary History:

The blinders of search access prove surprisingly crippling because they tend to reinforce existing suppositions—on, say, the dominance of a text that is canonical today—while leaving undiscovered more popular texts that might reveal precisely what we have failed to understand about popular opinion, readings habits, and public debate in the period…Repetition—and circulation is a kind of textual repetition with a difference—is a salient pattern that the digitized archive makes more readily discernible. If the primary challenge facing scholars interested in nineteenth-century reprinting is that the newspapers and magazines are “unindexed,” then an algorithm can help build indices useful for approaching these materials.

We might mark a tension in such formulations: while the problem of will motivating such studies often stems from thoroughly humanistic convictions, perhaps the appeal to mechanization (or automation or computation) necessarily invokes an ethics of objectivity. In my own case, I likely would have disclaimed objectivity as my ideal or objective—and still would—but perhaps at some level I must acknowledge its echoes. My aim here is not to disparage computational research—far from it. I do believe that the kind of pattern recognition we take up in Viral Texts, for instance, helps us expand our critical purview well outside the typical canon of nineteenth century literary study, and that such expansion is a generative and salutary outcome.

I would suggest, however, that understanding how computational criticism implicitly evokes objectivity even without explicitly claiming objectivity might help us advance conversations rather than talk past each other. I will certainly have more to say on this subject as our group reading of Objectivity continues through this summer.

A Larger View of Digital American Studies

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

The Sentiment of Circulation

Below is the paper I will deliver at the 2017 Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, as part of the panel “#AllTheFeels: Sentimentalism Then and Now.” I have not included the slides but have included links, embedded video, and images that should give blog readers a clear sense of what I’m talking about in each section of the talk.

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.

The same ad as a "Weepy of the Day" on the Facebook feed of my friend, Jennifer Seidel.
The same ad as a “Weepy of the Day” on the Facebook feed of my friend, Jennifer Seidel.

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.

Text of "Religious Courtship" from the <em>Piney Woods Planter</em> of 20 April 1839.
in the Piney Woods Planter (20 April 1839).

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.

"Tired Mothers" in the Vermont Phœnix of 6 September 1872
“Tired Mothers” in the Vermont Phœnix (6 September 1872)

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).

"Our Little Boy Blue" in the St. Paul Daily Globe (22 April 1888)
“Our Little Boy Blue” in the St. Paul Daily Globe (22 April 1888)

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.

"A Dying Wife to Her Husband" in the Abbeville Banner (26 April 1851)
“A Dying Wife to Her Husband” in the Abbeville Banner (26 April 1851)

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.

  1. Shirley Samuels, “Introduction,” The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 6 
  2. 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). 
  3. 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. 

MLA 2017 Session: “#AllTheFeels: Sentimentalism Then and Now”

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.

Works Cited

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.

Two (of Three) Ways of Looking at C19 Newspaper Exchange Networks

I wrote the following as part of my preparation for next week’s second meeting of the NHC Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies next week. The post assumes a modest working understanding of network graphs and their terminology. For a primer on humanities network analysis, see the links for my network analysis workshop or, more specifically, see Scott Weingart’s ongoing series Demystifying Networks, beginning, appropriately enough with his introduction, his second post about degree, and possibly his post on communities.


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.

A selection from a single cluster in the Viral Data. Each line represents a specific reprint from the larger cluster, which is identified by the ID in the first column. You can browse the cluster data I used for these experiments. These are themselves experimental clusters using a new version of the reprint-detection algorithm, and are not yet suitable for formal publication.

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

Network Analysis Workshop

I regularly run workshops on humanities network analysis. For participants, I’ve compiled some starting instructions, sample data files, and suggested reading below.

Recommended Reading

Tools for Network Analysis

There are many options at various skill levels for humanists interested in network analysis. Here are just a few:

  • If you’re looking for an especially straightforward platform for basic network analyses, you might check out Palladio which adapts the platform designed for Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project for other scholars’ use. Martin Düring’s tutorial at the Programming Historian focuses on extracting network data from unstructured text and visualizing it in Palladio, and Miriam Posner’s “Getting Started with Palladio” introduces the tool’s network functionalities (along with much else).
  • You can also create basic network graphs using Fusion Tables.
  • 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.

Workshop Data

Sample data can be found in this folder. You can download them all as a zip file or download files separately as we need them.

What Has the Digital Meant to American Periodicals Scholarship?

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.[1] 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.”[2] Though other forms of computational analysis will certainly influence periodicals research in the near future, the most dramatic methodological shift has already happened.

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‘Q i-jtb the Raven’: Taking Dirty OCR Seriously

The following is a talk I will deliver on January 9, 2016 for the Bibliography and Scholarly Editing Forum’s panel at MLA 2016. It is part of a longer article in progress.

On November 28, 1849 the Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer published one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer
The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer

The Lewisburg Chronicle’s “Raven” is one version among many printed after Poe’s death in 1849—“By Edgar A. Poe, dec’d”—interesting as a small signal of the poem’s circulation and reception. It is just such reprinting that we are tracing in the Viral Texts project, in which we use computational methods to automatically surface patterns of reprinting across nineteenth-century newspaper archives.

And so this version of the poem also becomes interesting as a digitized object in the twenty-first century, in which at least one iteration of the poem’s famous refrain is rendered by optical character recognition as, “Q i-jtb the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” (OCR is a term for computer programs that identify machine-readable words from a scanned page image, and is the source for most of the searchable data in large-scale digital archives). What is this text—this digital artifact I access in 2016? Where did it come from, and how did it come to be?
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Clouds Like the Locusts

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 10.17.48 PM He would never suggest the immigrants should be prevented from coming to America, would the famous preacher. To say that, of course, would be un-American. This is a nation of immigrants, after all: a free market of ideas political and religious. Though the famous preacher must bravely say what, after all, must be said: these immigrants are different. Their minds are shackled to institutions too unlike our own. They are “un-accustomed to self-government” and would only be pawns for those seeking to undermine our democracy. Indeed, the very tenants of these immigrants’ faith virtually forces them to do their clerics’ bidding and be “easily embodied and wielded by sinister design.” Speaking bluntly (though of course objectively, and resignedly), the famous preacher notes their religion is fundamentally “adverse to liberty.” These immigrants could simply never assimilate to American culture. It’s almost unfair of us to let them try, isn’t it? And while he would never write anything remotely prejudiced, would the famous preacher, isn’t it concerning how the laws of a foreign religion seem to be taking over America? It happened in Boston, he heard. And to be historical for a moment, the famous preacher muses, “the world has never witnessed such a rush of dark minded population from one country to another.” The famous preacher means “dark minded” as “ignorant” or “malicious,” of course: which are just facts, not bigotry. But really aren’t these immigrants “Clouds like the locusts of Egypt…rising from the hills and plains” of foreign lands “to settle down upon our fair fields?” I’m just saying, the famous preacher insists, I’m just saying.

These Catholics have got to be stopped.

Scale as Deformance

When I was ten years old my parents bought me a microscope set for Christmas. I spent the next weeks eagerly testing everything I could under its lens, beginning with the many samples provided in the box. I could not bring myself to apply the kit’s scalpel to the fully-preserved butterfly—which is intact still in the microscope box in my parents’ attic—but soon I had exhausted all of the pre-made slides: sections of leaves, insect wings, crystalline minerals, scales from fish or lizard skin. The kit also included the supplies to create new slides. I wanted to see blood—my blood. And so with my mom’s help I pricked the tip of my finger with a very thin needle, so I could squeeze a single drop of blood onto the thin glass slide. I remember how it smeared as I applied the plastic coverslip to the top of the slide, and I remember the sense of wonder as I first saw my own blood through the microscope’s lens. Gone was the uniform red liquid, replaced by a bustling ecosystem of red and white cells, walls and enormous spaces where none had been when I was looking with my unaided eye.

Looking at my blood through a microscope, I learned something new and true about it, but that micro view was not more true than familiar macro images. My blood is red and white cells jostling in clear plasma; my blood is also a red liquid that will run in bright-red rivulets from a pin-prick, or clot in dun-red patches over a wound. At micro-scales beyond the power of my children’s microscope, we could focus on the proteins that comprise the membrane of a red blood cell; at even more macro-scales we might consider a blood bank, organizing bags of blood by type for use in emergency rooms.

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