Voyant Assignment

I used screenshots, even though I would have much preferred to embed the links, but I couldn’t figure out how.  The screenshots don’t really show everything I discovered, especially with “Bubbles” but I will summarize below.



Using the “Trends” tool we played with in class, I traced the usage of the words father, mother, and child in the 1818 version of Frankenstein.  (I used the asterisk* to include all endings on these words and set the graph at 12 divisions).  I was interested in this trend because much of the feminist criticism of this novel focuses on motherhood and childbirth as themes– this graph shows that the term “father” is much favored over both “mother” and “child” which may be further evidence that by creating his monster, Victor is trying to supplant the role of the mother in creation.  The biggest spike occurs towards the end of the novel which may coincide with both Victor’s reunion with his father and his fear of the monster returning to destroy him.



I used the same terms in the “Links” tool to deepen my understanding of how these words are used in the text.  The most interesting findings from this tool were the links between “child” and “dead” and the links between “mother” and “death”.  So I made another web using mother*, child* and dea* (a less than ideal choice because it includes dearest, dear, etc, but I wanted to include both “dead” and “death”) and found that while the links between both mother and child and “dea*” remained strong, there was no link between mother and child.


Finally, I played around with the “Bubbles” tool, but it really needs to be viewed in motion and does not show much as a screenshot.  You can’t really customize it to search for specific terms (at least I couldn’t figure out how to) but you can speed it up or slow it down to show how different words trend in frequency across the span of the book.  One observation I made is the word “believe” pops up in the beginning, disappears throughout the middle, and then reappears at the end.  I think this is due to the strange narration of the text.  In the beginning, both Walton and Victor are urging their listeners to “believe” the truth of this tale.  I’m wondering how/why it reappears at the end– is it the narrative frame resolving itself or does it come in when the monster is trying to make Victor “believe” his threats will come true?



Gender and Generation

In his interpretation of the 44 genres that rise and fall during the history of the British novel from 1760-1900, Franco Moretti theorizes that it is the audience which accounts for the shifts in genre, that it is generational shifts in taste that has a direct effect on the style of novels being published. I find this analysis interesting because its logic seems to play out and be continued throughout multiple art forms and business models. Advertising lives by this idea, sometimes quite directly and literally with slogans like “the choice of a new generation” but what Moretti is describing is something more subtle and below the surface. I have a few questions about these findings–

1. Where do the authors fall generationally? For someone like Dickens who was prolific for a long enough career to please several generations of readers — was he a savvy businessman studying the changing demographics or was he simply swept into the prevailing zeitgeist unaware?

2. How would this method of inquiry play out in other art forms? I was intrigued by the one map that looked at success of American comedic film overseas. The conclusion drawn by the author was that jokes don’t translate, but I couldn’t help but notice that Serbia topped the list of countries not laughing at American humor during a time that directly coincided with great political upheaval and genocide in their country– an idea mentioned earlier with novels changing during periods of upheaval and revolution.

3. Finally, the gender shift in novels was interesting to me because I don’t think other art forms included female artists in quite the same way. Could we find a similar swing of the pendulum in painting from the same time period? Music composition? Or film direction of the last 100 years? Why are those forms so dominated by men but novels have included women writers in more equal fashion?

Macroanalysis and New Criticism

At first glance, “macroanalysis” as defined by Matthew L. Jockers would seem to be at direct odds with New Criticism.  Macroanalysis focuses on the widest possible breadth of reading using computer technology to amass large amounts of data, while New Criticism focuses on the close reading of an individual text in an isolated vacuum where one is to ignore the outside presence of literary history/biography.  However, where they intersect is in their search for “the facts.”  In the case of macroanalysis, these facts can only be discovered through a thorough search and compilation of all available data; in the case of New Criticism, the facts are what is present on the page with no permissible deviation into speculation as to what the author “meant.” These are not such dissimilar approaches– what is dissimilar, perhaps, is “the tools that make them possible” (31).  In other words, the New Critics hadn’t yet conceived of a technology that makes macroanalysis possible, and so  it makes perfect sense that their focus was microanalysis.  Faced with the problem of not ever really being able to answer the question, “What was the author trying to say?”, New Critics wisely decided that this question is irrelevant and unimportant.  With the addition of the digital humanities into literary studies, we can now broaden our scope of understanding in ways that the New Critics couldn’t yet imagine.  That said, we are still not trying to answer the “What did the author mean?” questions, but rather “How does this text fit into the larger social, historical, artistic framework?”  This is definitely outside the New Critic wheelhouse, but, to me anyway, a truly important aspect of literary study.

Yes, computers can help us count up how many times Jane Austen used the word “the”, but why on earth would we want to do that?  The series of bullet points on p. 28 highlight why such a trend has such groundbreaking possibilities. To be able to draw the lens back from the tiniest word in a 19th century English drawing room all the way to global implications like “whether literary trends correlate with historical events” and “whether factors such as gender, ethnicity, and nationality directly influence style and content in literature” is really exciting stuff.  In my first blog post I wrote that I was back in school to brush up on the latest in literary studies– this essay has me very excited for the kinds of projects we will be looking at/participating in during this last unit.

The Anxiety of Language: A Call to Action!

Last week’s recap reading “Post-structuralism and deconstruction” cleared up what was for me a big lurking question– “So what?”  I have been carefully (sometimes painfully) following the philosophical paths from linguistics to deconstruction– sign= signifier+signified, language is arbitrary, text is boundless, etc. but I was struggling with why this is important or what can we do with this information.

The very beginning of this reading hit me with an idea that has been bugging me since the first day of my return to the undergraduate classroom– the plague of “like”, “you know”, and “you know what I’m saying?” that peppers the language of what otherwise seemed to me as very bright capable young people.  First, let me acknowledge and apologize for my “kids these days” tone.  I don’t mean it.  I love young people and have willingly chosen to spend my days surrounded by high school students.  I don’t think I’m any smarter than you all and in fact have learned quite a bit from my classmates. What’s disturbing to me about the “like, you know” disease is that it seems to be more of an issue for the young women in our class than the young men.  And, oh does this make my feminist heart bleed.  Because you girls are so smart!  (So are you guys, no offense.) But you apologize for your brilliance or stammer through it in a way that sometimes totally clouds your meaning.  So when you ask, “you know what I mean?” I can’t say that I do.

Last week’s readings both offered possible reasons for this fracture between the ideas in my classmates’ heads and their methods of explaining them.  In “Post-structuralism and deconstruction”, Barry explains this language anxiety as “pervasive whenever we have to use language at any level beyond that of casual daily exchange with people we know very well and whose status is the same as our own” (62).  Is it because males have been socialized to perceive themselves as a higher status that they don’t suffer quite as much from the “like, you know” problem?  It seems to me that the young men in our class either speak their minds succinctly or stay silent, where the young women all participate fairly actively, but rarely without explaining themselves, apologizing for being wrong, or adding many throat clearing interjections throughout their speech.  I’m sure they don’t even realize they are doing it, and I’m hoping that my little rant here will encourage them to be bold and speak their brilliant minds without hesitation!

But, perhaps, to bring in the other reading from last week, they are permanently stuck in this loop– like Mary Shelley trying to write an autobiography using only “male” language and male form, their language is bound to take on monstrous dimensions because they have been relegated to the underprivileged space in the gender binary.  And maybe the only reason I’m a little better at it is because I’ve had more practice.  I have a feeling I have apologized and “liked” my way through many a speech– maybe I still do and am not even aware of it?  Looking back over my blog I can see my need to apologize haunting me (“I love young people!”  And “You guys are smart too!”).  Perhaps it is an inescapable loop– you know what I mean?

The Gender Binary

The other class I am taking this semester is Prof Hugh English’s Topics in Genders and Sexualities, so today, right before finishing this reading, I was engaged in a class discussion of Christine Jorgensen’s A Personal Autobiography. (Jorgensen was the first male-to-female transsexual who underwent sexual reassignment surgery in the United States).  This is one of several case studies, novels, and memoirs we have read on this topic this semester, and while I consider myself extremely open-minded and tolerant of people’s rights to express their genders/sexuality in whatever ways they please, many of these readings left me troubled and even offended by their blatant sexism.

For, if one is to accept the idea that one can be a “woman trapped in a  man’s body” as the cliche goes, then one must accept the idea that “woman” is a state of being that can be identified without the physical markers of vagina, uterus, ovaries and sadly, in many of these works those non-physical gender markers are simplistic and sexist– dolls, make-up, skirts.  This trouble arises because of what deconstructionists identified as the system of binary operations.  Man/Woman is one of the most basic binary systems at work in a logocentric culture, and in English, the supplementation is clear even in the words themselves (Woman=womb+man).  Man is privileged, woman inferior, and even when the subject is trying to reverse this relationship within themselves– turning from man to woman, at least as close as they can come physically using modern medical science– they cannot escape the binary. Instead of becoming women and moving “woman” to the privileged space in the binary, Jorgensen and Jan Morris (another 20th century MTF transsexual) willingly put themselves in the inferior role, all the time acknowledging the privilege of “man” while rejecting it for themselves.


Sign Language

I will freely admit that I found the Saussure essay “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” very dense and difficult to follow.  The part I feel I’ve grasped is what we discussed in class (and read about in Culler) is Saussure’s proposition that the “linguistic sign is arbitrary” (843).  In other words, it doesn’t matter if we call the thing with pointy ears and fur a “cat” or a “crocodile”, the relation of the sign to the thing signified is a product of repetition, culture, and practice, not something intrinsic in the relationship of the object and the word.

Saussure makes a point of showing how this is true across languages (he mentions Latin, Greek, French, English, German, and Russian in this essay) but he does not mention sign language.  I have currently been dabbling in learning a little sign language, both because I’ve read that it’s a useful tool to communicate with pre-verbal infants and because my babysitter is profoundly deaf and has been since birth.  Unlike spoken language, I would argue that American Sign Language (ASL), which uses gestures instead of phonemes or sound-images, does use signs that are not arbitrary in nature but in fact have a direct relationship to the thing being signified.

Take, for example, the sign for “eat” (which is also almost identical to the sign for “food”):


I would not call this an arbitrary sign– it mimics pretty directly the action of eating, and subsequently implies that there is food present as well.  Not all ASL signs are so obvious, of course, and many are just as arbitrary as “cat” or “crocodile”.  But enough signs mimic actions or nouns in order that with some helpful context, I can generally understand my babysitter and communicate back to her using my limited knowledge and signs I invent on the spot.  It’s also been interesting to me to observe my babysitter’s relationship with language in general.  When I hired her, I figured it would be very easy to communicate via text (I’ll use this moment to apologize for checking my phone in class!) but her texting habits are as visual as the way she communicates in person.  While I know she is literate, and definitely understands what I write to her, she is more likely to answer me with a photograph of what is going on (most memorably my daughter’s full diaper) then she is of writing out a complete sentence.


What difference does it make who is speaking?

In Foucault’s discussion of the author’s name as one aspect of the “author function” (in “What is an Author?”), he states, “it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function.  Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (210).  This immediately brought to mind the Shelleys, both Mary and Percy, and what the name “Shelley” does to categorize their writing.  Additionally, what status does Mary Shelley automatically gain simply through the privilege of her married name?  Her text isn’t simply grouped together with other texts published under the name “Mary Shelley” but also those published under the name “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” Although, in her case, had she published using the last name of her father (Godwin) or her mother (Wollstonecraft) she would have been accorded similar privileged status. This is because a Name has particular coded problems associated with gender that Foucault does not mention in this essay, although we can easily apply his theory to this problem.

If the author’s name “seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text” and “indicates the status of this discourse within a society and culture”, then surely the implied sex of the author’s name matters.  In my very traditional undergraduate study, professors routinely referred to all male authors by their last names (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Hemingway, etc.) but often used first names with the women, most memorably “Emily” for Dickinson.  I felt this was in some ways to slight her importance but in others to continually remind the readers that this was a woman, that her author function must always be present in order for us to properly “read” her.  And, I can’t help make the leap here to Hilary Rodham Clinton– The name Hilary Rodham had achievement as a lawyer in her own right, under her own name, but because we have grouped her together with her husband, she has risen to great heights politically, only to be commonly referred to simply as “Hilary.”  If we say “Clinton”, we automatically think of her husband.

It also brings to mind the tradition of women publishing under men’s names– George Sand and George Eliot, the Bronte sisters and their masculine pseudonyms– this may have been a practical consideration in a time where a female name would have limited the audience or possible revenue, but what implications does it bring to the text itself?  How did it change the reading?  How would the discourse change again when the true gender of the author was revealed?

French vs. English (tangent?)

(Once or twice I felt like bringing up this idea in class but was afraid it would take us away from the main points we were trying to understand in the readings so I saved it.  I’m still not sure it’s relevant, but I’ll throw it out there and see if anyone else is interested.)

When discussing the puns and plays on language Barthes makes, Prof. Ferguson said we should just “pretend this was written in English” and I agree that, for practical purposes this makes the most sense.  But, it was originally written in French and that does have an impact on issues of word choice and language play.  One of the reasons English is such a challenging language for people to learn is that it is a large, ranging language with vocabulary and spelling and grammar rules from many other languages.  However, the advantage English has over other languages is because it is so large, we are afforded choices in shades of meaning (and instruments for word play) that would be harder to come by in other languages.

More specifically, to compare English and French– French has about 100,000 words in common use and English 200,000 (Source: The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson).  In the US, where English is the most commonly spoken language we have not made it an “official” language, nor do we place restrictions on what can be an “official word” or the kinds of names one can give one’s child.  Compare to the Académie Française with its tight control over the French language, down to the list of state-approved names for French children.

Ok, so my point in connection to Barthes?  If the language is smaller, then the chance that one word means many different things is higher.  My French is pretty limited, but take the verb parler for example.  In English, this means to speak or to talk.  In English we say, “I speak French” but “I talked to my mother this weekend.”  (If you “spoke” to your mother, it implies something a bit more serious than a friendly chat.)  So I’m wondering if this makes plays on words like “jouissance” a little easier to pull off in French than it would be in English– and perhaps we are missing a million other such puns in the text?

The Changing Role of the Author

What was most interesting about Pease’s essay “Author” is the way he traces the role of the author across time/culture, drawing a line from the “auctor” of the ancient world and the Middle Ages, through the 20th century “genius” and into today’s “authorless subject.”  “Authorship” is an idea that is so common sense that we generally overlook its implications and this analysis offers an historical perspective of changes in the role of the artist that can be used to further explore how this role is continuing to change throughout various media and genres.

While not really mentioned in this essay, the concept of authorship is different from genre to genre.  Tennessee Williams famously changed the role of Stanley Kowalski in order to cast young, handsome, virile Marlon Brando in the role (the original script called for Stanley to be old, fat and ugly) drastically changing the whole tenor of the play by making his antagonist more likable than his protagonist.  This is just one small but powerful example of the kind of ensemble work that must go into any work of drama (maybe with the exception of a one-man show, but even that requires a director, set design, etc).  Shakespeare, one of the original “authors” mentioned in Pease’s essay most definitely relied on not only his acting troupe but widely varied source material from history to mythology.

While there is still an active theater culture today, it has most definitely taken a backseat as a mode of popular entertainment to movies and television, both of which have followed along a similar shift in authorship to what has happened in literature.  Early film and tv followed what had been set up before by filming plays which would have been seen as “auctors” of a type. Then, innovators in the media began creating a new language, using the medium of film in ways that were inherent to the art form– these would be the “authors” and the “geniuses”.  Television, being the newest of these forms, I feel is just hitting the “genius” era today (or for about the last ten years or so) with the emergence of the “showrunner”– the Matthew Weiners, David Chases, and Shonda Rhimes who are poised to become fodder for the critics in the next “game” of academic study.