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Tonra, Justin
"Forcing Serendipity: Computing and Literary Criticism"
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computing literary criticism serendipity hermeneutics digital humanities algorithms
Literary criticism, and academia generally, has often marshalled the serendipitous discovery in the service of constructing an argument or a critical judgment. Since I will be talking about Romantic Orientalism in this paper, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 provides an appropriate example of this phenomenon. The deciphering and publication of its hieroglyphics twenty years later is generally considered to mark the beginning of the academic discipline of Egyptology (Saglia 467). We may also look to the influence of a dream on James Watson’s conception of the double-helix structure of DNA, and, perhaps closer to home, we are familiar with that typical specimen, the manuscript found in the dusty attic. Such serendipity can take material or cognitive form, and provide the raw materials for analysis and conjecture. In literary criticism, arguments are generally based upon evidence gleaned from close reading in support of a hypothesis, but can the literary text yield evidence that is not immediately discernable to the human eye for a similar interpretive purpose? Computers have produced such data in the form of concordances and word-frequency lists for about half a century, but with the greater availability of tools for these purposes, the scholarly value of these tasks alone is diminished. How can we use the discoveries of such computing processes for literary criticism, for articulating the meaning in a text? Can literary criticism and computing enrich one another, or are the practices irreconcilable? Is algorithmic criticism—criticism derived from algorithmic manipulation of text (Ramsay 2)—possible?
An Foras Feasa Digital Humanities Research Seminar, NUI Maynooth
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