CRITICISM COLLAPSE: How the Stanford Literary Lab is changing READING and LITERARY THEORY…

Now I’m not a big believer in any attempt at a totalizing theory, let alone one endeavoring to tackle all of WORLD LITERATURE, but FRANCO MORETTI, and his researchers at the Stanford Literary Lab have been up to something fascinating since 2010, and their newest project (funded by crowd-sourcing, which seems to be the only way to do ANYTHING EXPERIMENTAL these days) caught the attention of The New York Times.

Moretti has created a new form of literary science that encompasses historiography, cognitive mapping (emphasis on the MAPS), and evolutionary theory, all harnessed to the power of data analytics. Moretti posits that we should look for patterns not from CLOSE READING (because you can never read ENOUGH to be TRULY informed about a subject, there’s just too much), but from a VAST HARNESSING of words from a specific time frame (say Feudal Japan), and then try and identify historical and aesthetic patterns.

Moretti’s Marxist roots sometimes show through; there’s a lot of HISTORY to go with the aesthetics, but some of his findings would never have come into existence (not even as a thought-experiment), if not for his method: a grand software culling, teasing out the patterns, and then mapping the data, which can sometimes having a haunting abstract poetry in its own right.

One reason in particular his method excites me: his maps are extremely insightful when it comes to mapping trends in GENRE history. In his essay collection,”Distant Reading“, Moretti scanned through hundreds and hundreds of 18th century mystery texts, and pinpointed how Conan Doyle birthed Agatha Christie: the innovation of inserting CLUES into the story. That’s the power of this kind of analytics. In fact, I wonder sometimes if Moretti’s analytical system isn’t BEST SUITED to GENRE research. The long history of genre work would provide a seemingly unending reservoir of metadata.

Come to think of it, maybe I do believe in a theory of totality, as long as machinic and human consciousness are working in tandem.

The Stanford Literary Lab just posted a new experiment in deep analysis online, and it’s called “Mapping Emotions in Victorian London“. Check it to see today’s most exciting literary explorers and excavators in action…

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