English 738T, Spring 2015
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Useful prosthetics, pretty metaphors? (and more on DH tools)

Posted by Amanda Visconti on Friday, March 23rd, 2012 at 3:42 pm

“Metaphors will be called home for good. There will be no more likeness, only identity.”

Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl

Some interrelated thoughts on cyborgs/metaphors/prosthetics. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), bringing into a work already quite aware of the mimicries between body and text the idea of blason, the style of poetry that praises but pieces individual pieces of the loved one’s anatomy through metaphor (“she goes on”). Ever since I encountered the etching above, with its parodic response to such blason conceits as eyes like suns darting rays, cheeks like roses, and teeth like pearls, I’ve been unable to read that form of poetry as intended (i.e. describing a harmonious whole); the etching questions whether we can fashion the ideal from constituent ideals. Victor Frankenstein describes his Creature as an almost-functional blason figure (“I had selected his features as beautiful”), but precedes this claim by admitting another qualifier on his choices for materials: “His limbs were in proportion”. As with the etching, the Creature’s monstrosity comes partly from the failure of these parts, beautiful and proportionate as they may be, to coexist.

I’ve been thinking about extending these questions of the harmony and juxtaposition of parts of a whole (text/body) to prosthetics, whether these prosthetics are more metaphorical (e.g. prosthetics of memory) or physical additions like our cyborg mobile devices. When my group was developing a Cyborg’s Definition of “Women”, we identified “that species” as a group that faced extinction after failing to make use of certain prosthetics/tools; for Wollestonecraft, the tool in question was education. Success through the use of prosthetics was a mark of cyborghood.

With the addition of prosthetics, we’re facing (as with blason) the juxtaposition of disparate parts–except in this case, the metaphors by which we’re extending our bodies aren’t pulling us apart into unbalanced monsters. Certainly they can go either way, but I’m seeing a pattern where metaphors applied onto figures can create monsters like the one in the etching, and metaphors growing out of or chosen by a figure have greater harmony and utility. Perhaps prosthetics are a way of marking these piece-making bodily metaphors not as even more-idealized (and thus less utilizable?) objects, but as tools defined by their individual uses and qualities? I’d be interested in listing and comparing the Creature’s bodily parts with the Patchwork Girl’s; given their gender difference, it’s interesting to see the Creature’s parts as typical of blason inutility (lustrous black hair!) while the Patchwork Girl’s parts are defined (sometimes indirectly via anecdote) by their abilities to dance, dissemble, act.

Read on for more on distant reading…

DH Tools. I’d intended to write my next blog post as a follow-up on my discussion of DH tools, using a few of these tools to ask questions about Frankenstein while pointing out the limits and specifics of what the digital tools’ answers actually say. I didn’t get around to that… but I thought I’d share some tips for distant reading work I’ve used with my English 295 students:

  1. Look for outliers. Is there anything in the visualization that doesn’t look the way you expected? Or, if everything looks the way you expected, what does that say about the text?
  2. Can you imagine a visualization of the text that you’d like to make, but can’t find an appropriate tool to do so? Describe this imagined tool and what you would expect to discover about your text with it. Why do you think such a tool doesn’t exist yet? What would a computer need to be able to do–and if computers would need to do something “more human” than they can now, can you think of a way to train a computer to achieve that? (Think about topic modeling and sentiment analysis.)
  3. It’s okay to ask questions with no previous expectations, questions based on hunches of what you might see, or questions where you there’s a tiny possibility of an interesting result, but you want to check for it anyway. When I was thinking about demoing how to work with the TextVoyeur tool, for example, I was planning on tracking the incidence of references to different body parts–face, arms, eyes–throughout Frankenstein, and trying to make sense of how these different terms were distributed throughout the novel. In a book concerned with the manufacture of bodies, would a distant reading show us that the placement of references to parts of the body reflected any deeper meanings, e.g. might we see more references to certain areas of the body grouped in areas of the novel with corresponding emphases on the display, observation, and action? A correlation in the frequency and placement of anatomical terms with Frankenstein‘s narrative structure felt unlikely (so unlikely that I haven’t run my test yet, and I’m not saving the idea for a paper!), but if had been lurking in Shelley’s writing choices, TextVoyeur would have made such a technique more visible.
  4. Think carefully about what a visualization means. For example, I wanted to make a visualization of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield; the protagonist is given a name change about halfway through the novel, and I wanted to track what other changes co-occured with this name change and see whether there was a pattern in the characters who used the new name over those who stuck with the old name. This problem is a great candidate for a graph showing name frequency (“David”, the old name, versus “Trotwood”, the new name). Using the TextVoyeur tool, I was able to quickly create graphs of when the two names occurred through the novel:
    (Note that TextVoyeur lets you overlay multiple word frequency graphs, something I didn’t realize a year ago when I made these images. I’d have run a new graph for this post, but both instances of TextVoyeur/Voyant have been non-functional for the past two days… so be aware that the y-axes are slightly different in the two graphs… also that TextVoyeur is a fantastic tool, but sometimes unavailable when you’re hoping to use it.) There are issues, of course, with just accepting a visualization made by dropping the text into a distant reading tool. “David” was both the protagonist’s name and the name of his father; some characters used nicknames for David instead of his given name, etc.: these issues meant that I needed to be careful about what I could claim when reading a visualization of the protagonist’s naming. If I were marking up a transcription of David Copperfield for use in a project concerned with questions of naming and appellation, I’d want to consider tags that let me search for and count names by their speaker, meaning (is a diminutive used lovingly or condescendingly?), and other nuances. I’d also want to read the data I’m focusing on against other, similar data; for example, do other names (e.g. Betsy, Agnes) also occur less frequently in the second half of the book, perhaps because of changes in the monologue style or the physical location of the protagonist? A distant reading visualization should always be accompanied by a careful description of what it does and doesn’t show.

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9 Responses

  • Neil says:

    Your argument about blazons and prosthetics is provocative, particularly in the way it seems to invoke the value of “prosthetic choice” and something like a new take on Romantic Organicism, the artificially organic.

  • Philip Stewart says:

    That’s some scary blason artwork! (and an interesting analysis of monster construction).

    The Jackson quotation is characteristically interesting: “Metaphors will be called home for good. There will be no more likeness, only identity.” I’m trying to think about the kinds of worlds or representations this would be possible in. Coleridge is keen on the uniting of disparate and opposed ideas (something I.A. Richards questions on the basis of a finite granularity of representation, I think in Imagination in Coleridge. One way to look at “no more likeness, only identity” is to see it as a kind of “each in all.” (Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this kind of thing, time to actually write it, that is, in a blog post, so I’ll lay off of further analysis for this response.) But another is to see a kind of entirely punctate, separate world of things that are only self-identical, and radically incomparable to other things. In the latter conception, there would be no terms of similarity.

    For complication — and a real mental stretch if anyone wants to entertain it — there is Donald Davidson’s piece on “What Metaphors Mean” in Critical Inquiry‘s special edition On Metaphor Autumn 1978, Vol. 5, No. 1. Davidson conjectures that metaphors mean just what they say — as paradoxical as that might sound. My first reaction to Davidson’s argument is to reject it like a bad transplant, with my whole immune system. But bending to see what Davidson could be getting at is pretty interesting.

    So what about the interstitial parts of things, the suture-points in our minds where we bring them together? Daniel Dennett, the philosopher of mind, has raised provocative arguments about whether the mind actually does enact what is implied in metaphors of “finding out” and “filling in” — giving a lecture on this subject at the 1992 Eastern Psychological Association conference, but for which, for the moment, I can’t seem to find a reference. (The same subject is addressed later in The Behavioral and Brain Sciences: Pessoa, L., Thompson, E., and Noë, A. (1998). Finding out and filling-in: A guide to perceptual completion for visual science and the philosophy of perception. Behavioral and Brain Science, 21, 723–802. ) A circular saw and various other implements of world-maintenance are operating just outside my window right now in a way that will cut this response short whether finished or not. But for now:

    Googling “Dennett” and “finding out and filling in,” I found the following (search in page for “Dennett”)–only to discover my own little echo chamber (please excuse typos and really really bad ideas expressed within it, since it was composed at the speed of a Manpower Secretarial Typing Exam:

    Basically, Patricia Smith Churchland and V.S. Ramachandran dispute Dennett’s claim that the metaphors of “finding out” and “filling in” refer to illusory processes, by reference to actual psychophysical experimentation, in “Filling In: Why Dennett is Wrong,” Chapter 12 of Paul M. & Patricia S. Churchland’s On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997.

    Part of the way we perceive a whole is the way we perceive or fail to perceive the gaps within it.

    But “no likeness, only identity.” … The saws outside now operate on me with the force of an ejection seat. Maybe more in a separate post.

    • Phil, this article sounds really interesting–I want to read more of this kind of overlap of science and literary study. Stanislaus Dehaene’s _Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read_ is on my exams lists, and promises to cover similar overlaps of cogsci and language/literature/meaning (http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Brain-Science-Read-ebook/dp/B002SR2Q2I). Your comment reminds me I want to respond to your earlier post on a similar theme (what we recognize as organic wholeness).
      P.S. I can’t help but read your comments on the circular saw as Kinbotean interjections (“There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings”) :)

      • Philip Stewart says:

        Okay, I’ve got to read that book.

        I am about to make a post that, seeing that citation, I realize is probably wickedly superannuated by now — but up it will go, “on spec.”

        I will be combing it with intense interest to see if anyone has instruments of investigation that will solve some of the problems I have been trying to. Especially interesting to me: metaphor and Coleridgean organicism. I have a mathematical tool I developed for this almost as soon as I caught the enthusiasm for the (maddeningly fragmentary) Coleridgean way of looking at things ***, and which I see some other people have got in use elsewhere — and for which I have no contact (yet) with empirical realities of texts.

        Metaphor is going better. What’s interesting is to see the whole sweep of NLP methods applied to it — something I am itching to play with, just to get a feel for how the methods work. It is amazing to see the sheer volume of high-quality thought, from really capable people, poured into this subject, considering the results. I feel a certain apprehension for the moment that cusp of comprehension comes, when the lightning that is figurative comprehension gets bottled and set to work in a machine. I don’t underestimate the task, or overestimate the proximity of true machine language comprehension. But it won’t happen without figurative comprehension. That would be a turnaround from about a hundred years of particularly influential philosophical thinking about language. (That’s a rough number of years, with a pretty big error bar on it, probably.)

        Another post talked about trajectories. I’m interested in trajectories and orbits. One thing I wonder is what an organic reading or perception looks like in a neural state space.

        The construction workers have scattered and presumably are sleeping; soon enough they won’t be, and they will be disassembling the world and reassembling it in terms of “fixities and definites,” and hammers.

        *** filtering, as it does, a number of influences reputedly under-credited by Coleridge, and very, very oddly disconnected, incomplete and inexplicit in places that make it very frustrating as philosophy)

  • Philip Stewart says:

    Dennett: actually Spring 1993 Eastern Psychological Association conference. Sigh. Proper reference to the work it appears in still not found.

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