As a starting exercise, I’ll take the professor’s kind bait and compare two online text toys.  These would be Voyant, which I have not seen before the professor suggested it, and Wordle, which I’d had the misfortune of discovering in a class last fall.  For anyone who hasn’t come across either site / toy, these are essentially text boxes where you can copy and paste a spate of verbiage, and the toy will produce for you an image of the words in the text, arranged haphazardly in a blob, with the words that appear most frequently written larger than those that appear maybe once or twice.  I suppose like other toys, it’s all for good fun.  And as I enjoy fun, I thought I’d put in a choice bit of the old MD (Moby Dick) and see what happens.

It seems, not much.  With either site you get essentially what I’ve described: a blob or words. You play by taking what a thoughtful human mind took hours to assemble and instantly disassemble it, prioritizing words as you would integers in a crude code.  Ah yes, that big one in the middle there appears… the most.  Glad we checked.

Wordle lost me the moment I tried to use it and ran into issues with Java.  Crash, bang, install, reboot, fail, try-on-another-browser, and I got the toy to finally work.  I was rewarded by big words in the middle: ‘whenever’ ‘get’ ‘nothing’ ‘little’ ‘time’ ‘find’.  So glad I didn’t bother reading the text as sentences with subjects, verbs, and predicates, never mind voice, tone, pace, etc.  There are options to change the look of your word cloud, if you didn’t initially appreciate the text vomit the algorithm gave you.  I like mine in blue.

Voyant adds a nice level of importance by referring to their word cloud as ‘cirrus’.  Cute.  Voyant on the whole does have a more utilitarian feel to it, as if the user is expected to put in lots and lots of text for analysis.  It’s probably the case that my one paragraph yields unimpressive results because it’s so small.  Maybe I should try whole chapters of Moby Dick, or the whole novel.  While Wordle seems content to be a toy, Voyant dares you to really take it for a spin.

So I put in the whole chapter.  This is where Voyant really shines.  You can click on a word in the text, and instantly get a frequency line graph to show you how often and where your chosen word appears.  I’ll admit it’s fancy.  It looks like I could use this toy more like a tool, to, as the tag read, “see through your text”.  Tempting.

Or I could read it.  I can read the words in the order in which the author intended them to fall.  I could pleasurably speak the sentences softly as I read, noticing how different American english was back in the mid 19th century.  I could dive deep into the gloom of this massive paean to American genius and hubris.

I know, I know.  I should give this stuff a chance.  It’s easy to poke fun, and for all I know there’s a lot to unpack by analyzing text like it was computer code.  It’s a bit like holding and x-ray machine to a airline passenger and seeing his flab: it’s a neat trick, but it’s not really necessary, is it?



2 thoughts on “Loomings

  1. Hi Sam,

    Thank you for your candid comments. Think of the DH tools as another way of understanding the text, the images, etc. that is not apparent by reading in a linear fashion. Noticing patterns of words, their use, their use with nearby words in the text, their frequency, etc. may expose or underscore further research topics. problems, etc. that allow the reader to understand the text differently.

  2. Well, this is going to get back to New Criticism and the Intentional Fallacy, both of which are currently pretty en vogue right now, and neither of which are very interesting for me w/r/t literature. I suppose I’ve always thought of a literary text as a human author trying her or his best to communicate directly with readers using any and all literary devices possible, and that that is and remains the whole point. Of course one can read and elucidate the horrors of racism and post-colonialism in Heart of Darkness, but, if you’ve read the book, it seems like that’s only a piece of what the author is intending to convey. I suppose your point is that there are many ways to skin a cat. You’re right; there are. But if you want to understand what another human being was trying to communicate, however wild or opaque, it just seems to be that the best thing to do is to read the book, sentence by sentence, in sequential order.

    How would word patterns help me to get at Conrad’s meaning? I still don’t understand what the upshot to most of this is. I know I’m being thick.

    I suppose I’m asking the wrong question and insisting on the wrong (outdated) vantage. Authorship has been dead and buried in literary criticism for a while now.

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