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Is a picture worth 10,175 Australian novels?

Ensor, J.D. (2010) Is a picture worth 10,175 Australian novels? In: Bode, K. and Dixon, R., (eds.) Resourceful reading: The new empiricism, eResearch and Australian literary culture. Sydney University Press, Sydney, Australia, pp. 240-273.

Abstract

“[S]cience … is rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power. Such persuasions must take account of the structure of facts and artifacts, as well as of language-mediated actors in the knowledge game.”[1]

“If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.”[2]

Drawing on an internet software development background where I was formerly a PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor)[3] and MySQL (Structured Query Language)[4] programmer, over the past two years it has been possible for me to engage with AustLit tagged-text data along the lines of enquiry suggested by Franco Moretti and William St Clair. In the absence of proprietary software suiting my research needs, this has meant building functions that enact specific analytical outcomes. These outcomes, presented within the context of ‘new empiricism’ at ASAL[5] and mini-ASAL conferences during 2007 and 2008, represent many hours of data mining, function programming and … rendering. I deliberately use the word ‘rendering’ because I wish to suggest early on the practice of 3D computer graphic modelling and animation where an underlying mesh, in this case a vast resource of publication data legitimately downloaded from the AustLit website, is worked through a series of hand-made, hand-coded tools to generate useable representations for academic debate. As these representations do not wear their underlying design on their sleeve, the resulting images of statistical analysis, deployed in my research for the purposes of discussing publication trends in Australian literary history, tend to elide their links with the technological labour that preceded their creation. In this sense, one might say – with apologies to Van Maanen who is writing about ethnography – that the ‘fieldworker, having finished the job of collecting data, simply vanished behind a steady descriptive narrative justified largely by the respectable image and ideology of … [new empiricist] practice’.[6] Which is to say, like the commonplace computer desktop or laptop screen, in using computer technologies to facilitate interpretive work my statistical graphs placed ‘a premium on surface manipulation and thinking in ignorance of [their] underlying mechanism’.[7] Essentially, it asked viewers to suspend disbelief and become absorbed in, even seduced by, a ‘certain kind of secular magic’ that was being performed on the screen.[8] As Martyn Jessop claims, ‘Images are seductive and there is a natural tendency to instinctively believe whatever one sees with one’s own eyes but in the case of digital visualisations what is seen is entirely a constructed object’.[9]

This is an important observation because ‘new empiricism’ and its related practices capitalise on the notion of computers employing neutral, carefully structured logic with an absence of poetics and felt emotion. Indeed, it is the ways that computers ‘think’ which is taken to be ‘their most culturally important characteristic’[10] and contemporary social rhetoric surrounding technology encourages us to view computers as communicating (or ‘thinking’) in a logic that proceeds towards very specific ends. New empiricism, in denoting precise rational procedures linked with computing, seeks to be an expression of those ends and is connected with the production of digitally based visual texts, like my own statistical graphs, that seemingly ‘speak for themselves’ about Australian literary history. This might be because ‘the kind of knowledge the computer encourages is rationalist, linear and analytic, mimicking the public communication of science’[11] and the possibility of objectivity, of which the humanities secretly desires.[12]

Yet information systems and information use are also highly ‘socio-technical in nature [:] … they develop their own personality as determined through the initial design of the system and its ongoing human interface, and they reflect the politics of the organisational structure and its human actors’.[13] Perhaps new empiricism, in its perceived relevance to Australian literature and the humanities in general, is a system of analysis that represents what Fredric Jameson lamented as the ‘depthlessness’ of postmodernism,[14] privileging the consumption of visual images over deeper, critical forms of thinking? Indeed, does the move from ‘close’ reading to ‘distant’ reading parallel the loss of the felt authenticity of emotion and the rise of simulation and surface? Such questions are beyond the scope of this essay. However, if changes in ‘technologies do not just expedite … knowledge transmission, but deliver it in alternative ways which require different interpretive and behavioural skills’,[15] then by considering the embodiment of the disciplinary space of Australian literature on a computer screen (through AustLit) as a type of ‘cultural work’, we might begin to take account of ‘the representational logic of the [computer] medium’ in discussions of empiricism and modern-day forms of Australian literary knowledge production.[16]

This essay will explore the work behind the charting. This will include the necessary apologetics and methodological uncertainties that contextualise analytic labour, and it will put forward an alternative reading of new empiricism which suggests that internet and computing technologies are shaping the cultural grammar of the domain of Australian literature in ways yet to be fully understood but in ways which need to be corralled methodologically. It will propose that in the contemporary humanities environment new empiricism should continue to provide important ‘reference points from which qualitative data can be understood’[17] and as a way for literary scholars to visualise quantitative research but from within the framework of an Australian Charter for the Computer-Based Representation of Literary History. In so doing, I will draw upon standards from The London Charter. Established in relation to Cultural History, The London Charter has argued that ‘computer-based visualisation methods’ should be ‘applied with scholarly rigour, and that the outcomes of research that include computer-based visualisation should accurately convey to users the status of the knowledge that they represent, such as distinctions between evidence and hypothesis, and between different levels of probability’.[18] This is not to adjudicate what shape and form an Australian Charter might take but rather to raise the possibility of an in-built scholarly apparatus for empiricism in Australian literary history.[19] It should also be noted that The London Charter is not the only feasible template: the Text Encoding Initiative (for scholarly editors) and the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative are other possible models for collective standards …[20]

Publication Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Media, Communication and Culture
Publisher: Sydney University Press
Publishers Website: http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/sup/9781920899455
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/13738
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