April 12, 2012 by Amanda Visconti

Useful prosthetics, pretty metaphors? (and more on DH tools)

(Cross-posted from the Technoromanticism seminar blog.)

"Metaphors will be called home for good. There will be no more likeness, only identity."

Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl

Some interrelated thoughts on cyborgs/metaphors/prosthetics. Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl quotes Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 (“my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), bringing into a work already quite aware of the mimicries between body and text the idea of blason, the style of poetry that praises but pieces individual pieces of the loved one's anatomy through metaphor ("she goes on"). Ever since I encountered the etching above, with its parodic response to such blason conceits as eyes like suns darting rays, cheeks like roses, and teeth like pearls, I've been unable to read that form of poetry as intended (i.e. describing a harmonious whole); the etching questions whether we can fashion the ideal from constituent ideals. Victor Frankenstein describes his Creature as an almost-functional blason figure ("I had selected his features as beautiful"), but precedes this claim by admitting another qualifier on his choices for materials: "His limbs were in proportion". As with the etching, the Creature's monstrosity comes partly from the failure of these parts, beautiful and proportionate as they may be, to coexist.

I've been thinking about extending these questions of the harmony and juxtaposition of parts of a whole (text/body) to prosthetics, whether these prosthetics are more metaphorical (e.g. prosthetics of memory) or physical additions like our cyborg mobile devices. When my group was developing a Cyborg's Definition of "Women", we identified "that species" as a group that faced extinction after failing to make use of certain prosthetics/tools; for Wollestonecraft, the tool in question was education. Success through the use of prosthetics was a mark of cyborghood.

With the addition of prosthetics, we're facing (as with blason) the juxtaposition of disparate parts--except in this case, the metaphors by which we're extending our bodies aren't pulling us apart into unbalanced monsters. Certainly they can go either way, but I'm seeing a pattern where metaphors applied onto figures can create monsters like the one in the etching, and metaphors growing out of or chosen by a figure have greater harmony and utility. Perhaps prosthetics are a way of marking these piece-making bodily metaphors not as even more-idealized (and thus less utilizable?) objects, but as tools defined by their individual uses and qualities? I'd be interested in listing and comparing the Creature's bodily parts with the Patchwork Girl's; given their gender difference, it's interesting to see the Creature's parts as typical of blason inutility (lustrous black hair!) while the Patchwork Girl's parts are defined (sometimes indirectly via anecdote) by their abilities to dance, dissemble, act.

DH Tools. I'd intended to write my next Technoromanticism seminar blog post as a follow-up on my discussion of DH tools, using a few of these tools to ask questions about Frankenstein while pointing out the limits and specifics of what the digital tools' answers actually say. I didn't get around to that... but I thought I'd share some tips for distant reading work I've used with my English 295 students:

  1. Look for outliers. Is there anything in the visualization that doesn’t look the way you expected? Or, if everything looks the way you expected, what does that say about the text?
  2. Can you imagine a visualization of the text that you’d like to make, but can’t find an appropriate tool to do so? Describe this imagined tool and what you would expect to discover about your text with it. Why do you think such a tool doesn’t exist yet? What would a computer need to be able to do--and if computers would need to do something "more human" than they can now, can you think of a way to train a computer to achieve that? (Think about topic modeling and sentiment analysis.)
  3. It's okay to ask questions with no previous expectations, questions based on hunches of what you might see, or questions where you there's a tiny possibility of an interesting result, but you want to check for it anyway. When I was thinking about demoing how to work with the TextVoyeur tool, for example, I was planning on tracking the incidence of references to different body parts--face, arms, eyes--throughout Frankenstein, and trying to make sense of how these different terms were distributed throughout the novel. In a book concerned with the manufacture of bodies, would a distant reading show us that the placement of references to parts of the body reflected any deeper meanings, e.g. might we see more references to certain areas of the body grouped in areas of the novel with corresponding emphases on the display, observation, and action? A correlation in the frequency and placement of anatomical terms with Frankenstein's narrative structure felt unlikely (so unlikely that I haven't run my test yet, and I'm not saving the idea for a paper!), but if had been lurking in Shelley's writing choices, TextVoyeur would have made such a technique more visible.
  4. Think carefully about what a visualization means. For example, I wanted to make a visualization of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield; the protagonist is given a name change about halfway through the novel, and I wanted to track what other changes co-occured with this name change and see whether there was a pattern in the characters who used the new name over those who stuck with the old name. This problem is a great candidate for a graph showing name frequency (“David”, the old name, versus “Trotwood”, the new name). Using the TextVoyeur tool, I was able to quickly create graphs of when the two names occurred through the novel:
    (Note that TextVoyeur lets you overlay multiple word frequency graphs, something I didn't realize a year ago when I made these images. I'd have run a new graph for this post, but both instances of TextVoyeur/Voyant have been non-functional for the past two days... so be aware that the y-axes are slightly different in the two graphs... also that TextVoyeur is a fantastic tool, but sometimes unavailable when you're hoping to use it.) There are issues, of course, with just accepting a visualization made by dropping the text into a distant reading tool. “David” was both the protagonist’s name and the name of his father; some characters used nicknames for David instead of his given name, etc.: these issues meant that I needed to be careful about what I could claim when reading a visualization of the protagonist’s naming. If I were marking up a transcription of David Copperfield for use in a project concerned with questions of naming and appellation, I'd want to consider tags that let me search for and count names by their speaker, meaning (is a diminutive used lovingly or condescendingly?), and other nuances. I'd also want to read the data I'm focusing on against other, similar data; for example, do other names (e.g. Betsy, Agnes) also occur less frequently in the second half of the book, perhaps because of changes in the monologue style or the physical location of the protagonist? A distant reading visualization should always be accompanied by a careful description of what it does and doesn't show.