Art and Science as Complementary Opposites

I was very drawn to the argument Ramsay puts forth in Reading Machines. This might be because out of all of the readings thus far (okay, only two week’s worth of reading, but last week had a good amount of material . . .), Ramsay most willingly acknowledges the divide between humanistic inquiry and computational method. Indeed, as Ramsay argues, while each contains a kernel of the other, algorithmic criticism seeks definitive answers, while literary criticism seeks unanswerable questions.

In this blog post I will try to focus only on “Preconditions” and the first chapter, “An Algorithmic Criticism,” of Ramsay’s book, perhaps setting my own constraints for myself. I do this to save the rest of my thoughts for class on Wednesday, and I will use this post as a jumping-off point for discussion.

It is difficult to explain why the pairing of two opposing modes of inquiry fascinates me. This discussion reminds me of the interests of early science fiction writers, who, influenced by the Romantic period, used the very methods of rationalism and science as a form of critique. Ramsay nearly states exactly this in his discussion of art and science:

“Art has very often sought either to parody science or to diminish its claims to truth.”

With this ever-present tension, how could we possibly use text analysis to aid literary criticism in a way that does not remove the basic tenets of humanistic inquiry? Ramsay has a few answers to this. Computer-based tools represent a limitation that allows us to reorganize and understand a text in new ways. While text analysis can only concern itself with verifiable facts, the user is left to decide what to do with these “facts.”

In other words, computer-based tools like text analysis often act as a form of provocation, a starting point for us to delve deeper into an issue. I certainly encountered this in my own limited/crude experiment with Woodchipper, a topic modeling tool. The fear that comes with using many of these tools—and here I might break my own constraint and reach into the other chapters—is that they can only tell us what we already know. This might be a problem with methodology, as Ramsay points out. The more worthwhile experiments are the ones that tell you things that suggest the opposite of what you believe. Certainly as computer-based tools grow more complex and sophisticated, they will be able to give us answers to questions we previously believed only humans could address. But Ramsay is more interested in discourse rather than methodology:

“. . . we can refocus the hermeneutical problem away from the nature and limits of computation (which is mostly a matter of methodology) and move it toward consideration of the nature of the discourse in which text analysis bids participation.”

Another issue which Ramsay may or may not address is that while you can produce results using text analysis (and other tools) without having read the text in question, you may not be able to interpret those results. This is certainly true for Ramsay’s experiment with The Waves. As Ramsay points out after running an equation regarding the speakers in the novel,

“Few readers of The Waves would fail to see some emergence of pattern in this list.”

But what if you haven’t read The Waves? It is a short book, and one you would certainly be expected to have read if you decided to publish anything, including an experiment with text analysis, on the novel. But this issue becomes a problem when we consider “distant reading,” which purports not to require any general or specific knowledge of the text. In fact, distant reading discourages it.

But if you cannot interpret the results unless you have read the book in question, how are we supposed to approach the topic: “How to Read a Million Books.”? Even when we consider a hundred or a thousand books at once (or millions, as described in the TED talk video), it might be helpful to know at least a few things about each one, like the fact that The Waves features six speakers.

Here is where methodology asserts its importance once again. Only when a computer-based tool becomes sophisticated enough to allow for interpretive analysis without engaging with the text directly can these tools usurp the primacy of the reader. Perhaps we have reached this stage already, but I cannot help but cling to the importance of close reading, even as we compare a work to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others.

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