Monthly Archives: December 2010

Humanities 2.0: The Masses Help Scholars Transcribe Manuscripts

Jeremy Bentham’s prodigious archive meets… crowd sourcing here. [Insert panopticonic editorial supervision quip here.]

What’s Culturomics . . . without magazines?

At this point you’ve likely seen the Times article on Google Labs’ Books Ngrams Viewer.  If not, the short version is that a couple of postdocs at Harvard saw the potential of Google Books early on and started working on a way to track the frequency with which words appear in books over time.  They published their results today in Science.  Using a corpus of 5,195,769 books published between 1500 and 2000 (approximately 4 percent of all books ever published), including 361 billion English words, they calculated the  frequency of usage by dividing the number of instances of a word (an n-gram) in a given year by the total number of words in the corpus in that year, which gives a funny way of thinking about word usage.  Who would have thought that “damn” would account for just under .0008% of the words appearing in English books in 1920? (Click images for a larger view)

There’s good reason to be sort of suspicious of the data.  First, we’re talking about Google Books, which has a host of problems, chief among them its unsophisticated understanding of the book itself.  It gets publication dates wrong all the time, doesn’t seem to know what an edition is, and often counts bound volumes of magazines as books.  So, the numbers have to be off.

Second, from what I can tell, it’s counting all appearances of words as independent events, rather than as incidents within a text, and not adjusting for hyper-usage in books that might skew the count.  It’s once again the problem with Google’s “bag-of-words” approach and lack of metadata–it’s counting items in the bag rather than thinking about the ways those items are sorted and what role the sorting might play.  For instance, what happens to the count for “motherfucker” in 1989 when Miles Davis’s autobiography Miles comes out, with its 160 pages containing “motherfucker,” most of those pages with more than one “motherfucker” per page? There’s no major spike for the word in 1989 (although there is growth), so even Miles’s prodigious use of the word didn’t throw off the graph, but would the subtraction of that book from 1989 (and 1990, which is also listed as a year of publication in Google Books, sigh–so, it’s being double-counted?) make a big difference?  Conversely, might the bio’s appearance have liberated writers and publishers to let their “motherfuckers” free?  To be fair, the authors have released their data sets, so it would be possible to see just how much a couple hundred “motherfuckers” in one book could skew the results.  Anyone downloaded the data-set with “motherfucker” in it?

Third, and I quote from the Science article, “Periodicals were excluded.”  That is the single mention of periodicals in the article.  There is no explanation for the exclusion of periodicals.  Here’s another quotation:  “‘Culturomics’ extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.”  Periodicals remain outside those boundaries, although they represent a huge portion of the printed material of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Recall Peter Stallybrass’s claim that books account for only 13% of printed matter).  Since books take much longer to produce and cost more, encouraging a conservative attitude toward cultural change, they provide a less accurate index of cultural change than periodicals do.  Or, at least, periodicals typically reflect a stronger impulse to reflect short-term change than books do.  In the Times article, Louis Menand laments the lack of humanists among the authors of the Science, noting the absence of an historian of the book.  Maybe, going forward, they’ll get a periodical specialist too.

Having said all that, this is pretty cool stuff, and as the authors of the paper acjknowledge, the quant work is not enough; we need interpretation.  That’s our challenge–that and getting Google Books to realize magazines exist as their own category.

For now, here’s some screen-shots of some searches I did on the Ngrams site.

"Modernism" 1500-2000

"Magazine" 1500-2000

So, you can see that the action really begins in 1880 or so, as both graphs begin a steady climb.  Let’s zero in on those years.

"Magazine" "Modernism" 1880-2000

The growth of “modernism” looks positively anemic in comparison, but that’s in part a question of scale.  So, here’s what “modernism” looks like by itself.

"Modernism" 1880-2000

Two things stand out to me here.

1. The boom in appearances of the word “modernism” starting in 1978 or so–a reflection of academic publication, which Google Books is long on, no?  Other interpretations?

2.  The slight dip and then recovery from 1940-60.  This looks surprising, given this is just the moment that the word “modernism” gains serious leverage in and out of the academy as a term designating a phenomenon in the arts and architecture. It’s the moment when Eliot, Corbusier, Berg, etc. start routinely getting called modernists.  So why the decline?  Could it be the fading of modernism from another discourse–theology?  This is where looking at the actual texts matters.

Finally, recalling Eurie Dahn’s post about mentions of magazines in literature, here’s what the site gives us for mentions of “magazine” and of “modernism” in fiction in English.

"Magazine" and "Modernism" in Fiction, 1880-2000


Magazines and (m)LA, 2011

Well, it ain’t MSA anymore. The magazine slate at MLA is a lot less full than we saw in Victoria, but there’s a nicely diverse group, from Victorian reviews to Love and Rockets and from Irish journalism to Australian avant-garde poetry websites, reminding us of the many, many forms periodicals studies can and should take. Many of the panels have links to descriptions of the papers or panels.  If we’ve missed something, please let us know.

Thursday, 06 January

8. Serial Narrative: Theory and Practice

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Olympic I, J. W. Marriott

A special session.  Description here.

Presiding: Steven J. Venturino, Loyola Univ., Chicago Continue reading

Having My Cake and Eating It Too: A Reply to the MagMods Book Club

The final installment of the MagMods Book Club reading of Playing Smart comes from the author herself, Catherine Keyser, assistant professor of English at the University of South Carolina.  It has been a tremendous pleasure hosting this book club reading and we are deeply grateful to all the participants but Catherine in particular, who exhibited such grace and fortitude from start to finish.

I’d like to begin my remarks on a personal note rather than a scholarly one.  It was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience to read such thoughtful and eloquent posts from the book club participants responding to Playing Smart.  The generosity of these intellectual explorations, the contextualization and conceptualization of magazine culture and humor that each contributor shared, is an embarrassment of riches.  I offer my deepest thanks, not only for your feedback on my work but also for the delightful experience of reading your blog posts—each one witty, expert, and provocative.

The seven posts fell into three major categories that I will tackle here (though there is much more that I could say and write about in reply to such rich posts): the humor and style of these smart writers and how (or whether) they produce cultural critique; the challenge of defining a periodical context; and the role of irony in modern and contemporary media. Continue reading

Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The seventh installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Robert Scholes, Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Professor Emeritus of English, Comparative Literature, and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.  Along with making major contributions to the study of Joyce, narrative, structuralism, and modernism, Professor Scholes is one of the leading figures in modern periodical studies.  He is the founder and director of  the Modernist Journals Project, the co-author with Sean Latham of the influential 2006 PMLA article “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” and the co-author with Cliff Wulfman of the invaluable book Modernism in the Magazines (2010).

I liked Catherine Keyser’s book a lot, because I learned a lot from it–both about writers I knew pretty well, like Mary McCarthy and about others I should have known more about but didn’t, like Dawn Powell.  I am not sure, however, that, if pressed, I could neatly summarize the thesis of the book as a whole: something about smartness as a two-edged weapon for women, I suppose, enabling them and wounding them at the same time. What I learned, however, beyond the elegant close readings of a variety of texts, was something about the way that magazine culture worked from the twenties through the sixties. This book doesn’t just read magazines, it reads the way magazines play roles in the lives and in the fictions of the writers that are discussed. The smart magazine–whether socially, culturally, or politically smart–mattered in that world. I don’t know if any print medium matters that much in our own day, though I rather think television has largely replaced the magazine, now, and digital social networks may be getting ready to challenge television. What I wonder, then, is whether smartness is tied to that world. It seems less visible in our own. I suspect that smartness and the magazines of modernism are tightly linked–a message and a medium that belonged together, so that we really need to understand one to understand the other. Anyway, I am grateful to Catherine Keyser for what she has taught me and for what she has led me to think about, as I read her book over the last couple of weeks.

Word Count

The latest installment of the Times Humanities 2.0 is up, and its a good one:  it’s all about Dan Cohen and Fed Gibbs’s work at George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, where they’re using a Google digital humanities grant to count words in Victorian books the titles of 1,681,161 books that were published in English in the UK in the long nineteenth century, 1789-1914, tracking, for instance, the decline of “universal” and the rise of “science.”  I have a few compunctions about this kind of analysis, particularly when it comes to single works; it’s never just count but context (e.g., a word cloud of Portrait of the Artist would probably put “unconscious” and “smithy” at the near invisible level) that makes meaning.  At the same time, this strikes me as vital work for modern periodical studies, which won’t really get off the ground if all it does is just more close reading of articles and issues.  We need loads of data and good ways to analyze and synthesize it, and Cohen and Gibbs’ study of Victorian books looks promising for magazines.  Indeed, one hopes that they’ll extend their study to magazines, since I would argue periodicals provide a much better index to historical transformation than books do.  Of course, counting periodical titles won’t get us too far. The problem has always been that there’s been too much to read.  That’s still a big problem, but this kind of quantification makes it a little smaller.  Here’s a link to a post about the conference paper discussed in the Times article; it’s from  Dan Cohen’s own blog, as is the image above.

The Codex Helpdesk

I’m sure plenty of you have seen this already, but I thought it made a nice (funny!) commentary on our approach toward the other side of the codex model:

Scholes and Wulfman in Harpers

Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman’s Modernism in the Magazines makes a powerful case for reading beyond the little magazine in order to understand modernism.  It’s fitting, then, that one of the few extant mainstream magazines to feature modernist writers, Harpers, returns the favor in its latest issue with a review of the book.