I’ve a short story, entitled ‘Paddy Likes to Know’ which has found a home in a publication put out by the Marrowbone bookshop in Dublin.
I’m very happy about this. The story has gone through many different versions over, god, the five years that I’ve been trying to write in earnest
You can get the book itself here https://www.marrowbone.ie/shop and if you’ve never been, Marrowbone also happens to be one of the best bookshops going in Dublin, and if you’re in a position to go there, you should
So, first off I’ll disclaim a lot of what appears below. I’m doing this analysis primarily because it’s frivolous exercise and I’m interested in the results rather than because I think that they reveal anything substantive about Marxism or politics. I’ve read and enjoyed most of these texts and since my doctoral research to some degree orbits the Marxism and stylistics I thought I’d see what sort of emotive words turn up in Marxian polemics, because a lot of what draws us to these texts are their sarcasm, rudeness and nastiness, as long as these are enlisted in a legitimate spirit of criticism. Though also sometimes also when it isn’t.
I wasn’t systematic about my approach here, I’d be interested to see what someone who scraped New Left Review or marxists.org turned up, instead I copy and pasted associatively through marxists.org until I got a list which included works written by Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Marx, Trotsky and Thompson, about 25 texts in total. I know Thompson is sort of the odd one out here, but if you’ve read any of his polemics you’ll have some sense of why I’m including him, sadly Kolakowski’s ‘My Correct Views on Everything’ is not available in plain text format anywhere.
As I’ve already suggested I took a bit of a rough and ready approach, using text mining to remove numbers, punctuation, white space, turning everything into lower case, removing stopwords and stemming our words. We then turn it into tidydata to render it more easily manipulated. We are using a lexicon approach to sentiment analysis, meaning that we have a pre-annotated set of words which are all taken to signify or indicate a particular emotion, you don’t have to be a literary critic to know this has its problems and sentiment is something which depends on context, but, as I said, rough and ready is the order of the day here. I opted for ‘nrc’ because it returned the most number of words, broken down into categories such as ‘trust’, ‘positive’, ‘joy’, ‘anticipation’, ‘surprise’, ‘anger’, ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘fear’, ‘sadness’ and ‘disgust’.
I then grouped the mean frequency each of these authors use words belonging to each of these categories. This left us with each six authors and eleven values. I decided I wanted a principal components analysis of these stylistic profiles as they provide some of the most readily interpretable visualisations, and the result appears below
So as we see, the majority of language used by Marxists is in fact not polemic or emotive at all, but objective enough to not be read in any significant way by a sentiment analysis library. Trotsky and Engels are by far the outliers here in terms of the degree to which their works are composed of emotive terms and we can see there is a distinct difference between even these two, with Trotsky tending more towards the negative end of the spectrum, Engels being more aspirational.
What else could be going on here, why is Marx more like Engels than everyone else if as we might hypothesise, scientific or economic terminology underpins this divergence? I went back to our categories and pulled out the top five most frequently occurring words associated with each category. These appear below. ‘Trust’ incorporates words like nation, law, labor, fact and money, ‘positive’ (civil, actual, labor, capitalist, develop), ‘joy’ (labor, money, organ, present, content), ‘anticipation’ (time, labour, develop, dictatorship, organ) ‘surprise’ (labour, betray, money, present, good) ‘anger’ (strike, dictatorship, socialist, betray, money) ‘positive’, (civil, actual, labour, capitalist, develop) ‘negative’ (strike, dictatorship, communist, socialist, war) ‘fear’ (dictatorship, socialist, war, case, rule), ‘sadness’ (socialist, dictatorship, betray, case), and ‘disgust’ (dictatorship, socialist, betray, bureaucrat).
It will not have gone unnoticed that there are some pretty severe value judgements in place here, words like capitalism and development are read as unambiguously positive and words associated with socialism and communism are read as unambiguously negative, most of Trotsky’s ouevre which appears here addresses itself directly to issues associated with actually existing socialism, as well as bureaucracy, so this is probably why he scores so highly for all these disgusting things right-minded people never consider for very long. Marx and Engels probably score so highly for positive, more utopian values because of the degree to which these works are concerned with things as they actually are and the attempt to move beyond appearance, (‘actual’, ‘content’) not to mention how much more concerned their writings are in general with spelling out capitalism’s laws as opposed to speculating on the nature of some other mode of production.
It’s a shame that these categories are so categorical, I understand that they do serve a purpose, but a reading of ‘labour’ as unambiguously positive (hard labour? forced labour?) or money as signifying trust makes such macro analyses difficult to justify, on a micro level they are utterly laughable.
As the results of the British general election have made clear, there will be no Labour government in England. Despite inequality rising under the Tories, along with infant mortality, the increasing likelihood that the national health service will be privatised, there is seemingly no appetite for a Labour government in England. For the foreseeable future, there is no end in sight for the horrors the current regime are visiting upon asylum seekers and the poor. To make things worse, the notion that any future leader of the Labour party will have anything like Corbyn’s record on supporting anti-imperialist and anti-racist causes — support for Palestine, opposition to apartheid, statements in support of a United Ireland — is far from assured. But, the activists which have changed the direction of the Labour party have not gone anywhere, and in this sense, the future of Corbynism is yet to be written. Now is a time for stock-taking and adjustment of strategy but before the new common sense has taken shape, it is necessary to identify some deviations among some of Corbyn’s most well-placed cheerleaders, those who will be the theoretical backbone of whatever form struggle now assumes, who have again and again demonstrated their chauvinism and ignorance regarding Ireland and their own countries’ history. Alex Niven’s most recent article in Tribune ‘The Great Unravelling’ is by no means the only example, but nevertheless requires our scrutiny, for its length, prominence within the Corbynist publishing ecosystem and its uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic.
In his article Niven posits that the post-Brexit United Kingdom stands on the brink of breakup into a Four Nations type arrangement, with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland existing as separate polities governed by separate and democratically elected parliaments with executive power in each jurisdiction. Much of Niven’s proposed reforms assume a forthcoming labour-left government marking the defeat of one-nation toryism, allowing the left to settle accounts with many of the issues regarding competing nationalisms within the UK as part of a broader redistribution of wealth within British society. Rather than framing this forthcoming breakup relative to the dynamism of indigenous regional nationalisms that would, presumably, be the motive force behind such a drive in each of these burgeoning nation states — through parties such as Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin or the Scottish National Party — the details behind Niven’s perspective remains firmly Anglocentric. In Niven’s mind, these two objectives dovetail neatly, his account of the historical relationship between socialists in England and regional nationalisms reads as follows:
Many socialists will feel a degree of ambivalence about this nationalist narrative. On the one hand, the tradition of leftist sympathy with Scottish, Irish and Welsh national causes is long running and honourable. It has frequently centred on areas of genuine common cause (think of Irish socialist James Connolly’s heroic struggle against British Imperialism, or, more recently, the 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence, which indirectly prefigured the grassroots radicalism of Labour’s renewal under Jeremy Corbyn).
Niven experiences significant difficulties in his attempts to wed the objectives of English socialism or the British Labour party with those of these regional nationalisms, especially in Ireland. James Connolly might be a well-known or often cited figure for many British socialists, but many Irish socialists will regard the history of British socialism as one characterised not by mutual sympathy so much as murderous antagonism. It will be remembered that it was the British Labour Party who directed the British Army in some of their most brutal reprisals against Irish revolutionaries in Northern Ireland in the sixties and seventies; the fact that many of those involved in the civil rights movement identified their struggle as continuing one partially initiated by Connolly does not seem to have enhanced their standing to any significant extent with British socialists at the time. There is also limited evidence that English socialists were overly concerned about the plight of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence; the first Labour government in 1924 did nothing to help secure a better solution to the imposed border on the island of Ireland and left Northern Ireland under the control of an increasingly reactionary Unionist government. It would take a seriously distorted reading of the historical record to conclude that British socialism has ever regarded their imperialist interests as secondary to the wishes of the Irish when it has counted.
In the first section of his article Niven outlines how London is to be accommodated within his framework:
A good place to start is by remembering that the basic geo-economic pattern of the islands is not especially national in emphasis. Rather than thinking of a monarchical, conservative ‘United Kingdom’, or alternatively of a triad of small nations arrayed in opposition to quasi-imperial ‘England’, we would do well to grasp that the main structural feature of the archipelago — even allowing for partial Irish autonomy post 1922 — is the towering economic and cultural dominance of London and the south-east of England over all other areas
Niven’s posited solution to British inequality then, is to cognitively map the UK and Ireland by way of John Brannigan’s Archipelagic Modernism (2014), positing an alternative and imaginary geography, as a utopian repudiation of the actually-existing, imposed borders and their attendant histories, in favour of London’s south-easterly megalopolis and an archipelagic remainder. As Nevin is not a historian, it would be unfair to expect a thorough engagement with the historiography of Anglo-Irish relations but even a minimal engagement with this literature would indicate that tribal concerns were always at the forefront of these islands’ shared histories. The Norman Invasion created a new nobility which ended the hegemony of the previously regnant Saxon ruling class. The Hundred Years War in part concerned English aspirations to the French throne, a distinctly nationalistic and proto-imperialist enterprise. Taken together with the War of the Roses, we have three examples of events which were to prove formative for the contemporary British state within which national differences were highly significant factors. This third example is particularly important as both factions were based outside of London and the South East, undermining Nevin’s investment in deep and abiding continuities, wherein London, as a centre of capital accumulation and industry, is primarily responsible for contemporary England’s class-based inequality. That London has accumulated significant amounts of political and financial power since the Industrial Revolution is not in dispute, what Niven’s analysis overlooks is how much of this accumulation has been by dispossession or expropriation of surrounding territories and how much of this cultural dominance has been an outgrowth of this plunder and accompanying slaughter. The notion that England at large is somehow subject to a core-periphery dynamic in a similar way that actually colonised nations are is ridiculous, especially when within living memory police units have engaged in counter-insurgency techniques against ‘British’ subjects in Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no recent evidence as far as we are aware, of London-based militias and paramilitary units shooting dissenters in York, Teeside or Newcastle; the dynamics in operation here are clearly very different and have more to do with the recent effects of globalisation, de-industrialisation and neo-liberal economics. All of these should be criticised, but not on the assumption that they culminate in the same separatist dynamics which are present in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. The colonial context is a difference that makes a difference. One which Niven seems wholly ignorant of.
It is one of the more baffling features of Niven’s analysis that he envisions the transition from an ‘outmoded Four Nations’ model to a two nations model as frictionless. We would venture to suggest that from an Irish perspective, the less power London has over the Irish economy, the better. Niven could, if he were so inclined, have identified some of the contradictions surrounding the economic basis of the Irish Republic — a polity nominally committed to Republican values but characterised from independence by agrarian state-based industry, followed by a modernising period characterised the opening up of the state to Foreign Direct Investment, leaving us now subject to a significant extent to the demands of the bond markets and an inscrutable network of democratically unaccountable private shareholders. This is a shame, as such an account might provide some form of roadmap for non-allied blocs of newly independent states coming together in order to develop some fiscal alternative to Anglo-American hegemony, but his reference to Irish independence post-1922 as ‘partial’ is the closest he gets to such an analysis, which is either an awkward reference to partition, an awkward reference to the capture of nation states by financial capital, or ignorance that Ireland is in fact a separate jurisdiction. Niven writes:
While the London-centric unionist establishment propounds the difference-denying fiction of ‘Britishness’, and nationalists counter this by avowing various postmodern dreams of nationhood (from Scottish Independence to more dubious calls to reawaken ‘English identity’), socialist energies would be far better directed at envisioning a completely new civic architecture, one that would emphatically shift the balance of power away from the hypertrophied south-east corner of the islands.
To push all the ideas relating to an independent state into a box labelled ‘post-modernism’ is juvenile and profoundly ignorant. It does an extensive disservice to the history and actually-existing stances of the various parties who argue to varying extents for independence. None of these parliamentary vehicles are in any sense beyond criticism, but to dismiss them as freewheeling semiotic constructs or indeed, to subtly conflate them with contemporary manifestations of British nationalism, without even going to the trouble of providing some sense of their history, the imperatives attached to their emergence within their respective environments, is to wrap oneself in the butcher’s apron, albeit from a spurious ‘left’ position.
Nevin’s solution amounts to the creation of a second urban ‘centre of gravity’ in order to undermine London and the home counties’ predominance. Within this framework, Ireland and the United Kingdom would be re-divided, with jurisdictions of Ireland and the UK becoming a fringe of Northern England, the North-West Triangle, while the South-East Corner would consist of London and the home counties. This culminates in the creation of two new states; that this would necessitate the abrogation of Irish sovereignty goes unmentioned. Niven’s disclaiming this concept as science-fictional also does little to change the fact that were this to be implemented that it would represent one of the most blatantly neo-imperial concepts to emerge from the UK since the end of the British Empire. An English-dominated ‘North-West Triangle’ would merely serve to re-create the same structural imbalances which are now bringing about the break-up of the UK in the first place, such as a gross imbalance between the nationalities, poor infrastructure in the periphery and the overruling of an active nationalism within Ireland and Scotland, both of which would be implacably opposed to this new construct. Niven’s piece also contains no serious attempt to reckon with the existence of the unionist population of Northern Ireland, who view themselves as British, and celebrate their shared history as descendants of an imperialist project to subjugate the indigenous population and expropriate their wealth. How are they to be accommodated within this framework? The prioritisation of English inequality over and above nationalist demands is indicative of Niven’s lack of understanding of English imperialism. Why should Scotland, Wales and Ireland be responsible for English inequality? How would preventing the break-up of the UK by forming new nation states help the plight of the working class, other than if this border was to be an apparatus designed to facilitate further expropriation and subjugation? As he himself notes, due to how populations would be divided by this border, this would be an English-led and dominated union, by default. Leaving aside the myriad of geographic and physical complications to such as questions as to where the border would be or the likelihood of this triggering some kind of armed conflict in certain areas, the fatal assumption here is that the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign, constitutional state would be forced into a ill-fitting coalition of nations and regions willingly. This fundamental lack of awareness that permeates this piece is one of the worst examples of well-meaning Corbyn supporters attempting to devise a third way, when one is not possible, necessary or required. Nevin’s uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic is often striking for the matter-of-fact tone in which it is expressed:
a historically inclined, nostalgic and brute nationalist movement towards independence seems to me far less preferable than a model which attempts to break the back of Westminster Anglocentrism more enduringly, by nurturing the potential of the northern and western parts of the islands to form some new manner of alliance, in which regional-national units work together to create an alternative power base to the south-east.
In concluding, we might consider Niven’s introductory paragraph once again, where we locate his mission statement to devise a ‘third way’ between nationalism and unionism:
Without dismissing the claims of small-nation independence completely, and without succumbing to forms of Anglo-British unionism that will probably always tend towards reaction and imperialism, might there be other, more daring ways of conceptualising the so-called British Isles, beyond resuscitating the imagined national communities of the past?
In simple terms, the answer to this is no. There is no magic solution to centuries of uneven imperium. We might begin with granting nation states the right and the choice to determine their own destinies, even if these are not what residents of the former colonial state wishes. For many in England the past three years have been an eye-opening experience, as they begin to realise that Ireland is not willing to accept English threats in order to save them from themselves.
It is alternately enraging and depressing to see Corbyn supporters celebrate or share this work on its publication in Tribune, or in the form of a book by Repeater essentially move through the same sequence of behaviours, albeit in a hypothetical format. The only advice one can give to these people is to spend more time outside of England and realise that the ‘other’ nations should be allowed to determine their separate futures, without interference and to seriously countenance the notion that Corbynism, whatever form it ultimately takes, might do best by Ireland by leaving it alone.
This postscript was very much influenced by conversations with a couple of people who know who they are and will receive they due credit and citation if they want it
POSTSCRIPT: Getting a handle on Niven’s comprehension of the north of England may require relation back to the intellectual lineage in which he consistently locates himself throughout his book New Model Island, the work of Mark Fisher and those of the labour left who have invoked his name in their cultural diagnoses of the past few years. Fisher’s grasp of the north is best accounted for by looking to his reckoning with The Fall, not to mention Burial, the left-leaning and often quite experimental public-service broadcasting of the seventies in Ghosts of my Life. What comes through here is an attempt to formulate a late proletarian modernism, the emphasis is on the haute-melancholia of the outsider, shoring up resources of hope, holding out the possibility for some future in which their component parts or structures of feeling may prove galvanising against the wreckage produced by the Thatcherite consensus. Likewise Owen Hatherley, we see Pulp’s coded class warfare, social democratic municipal modernism and voices from Mass Observation as against the cultural and material legacies of new Labour: PFI schemes, Britpop, austerity nostalgia. Finally, Joe Kennedy’s emphasis on Italian immigrants bringing a rich history of cultural diversity to the Welsh vallies, readings of the crowd in postwar British literature, the popular modernism of community-based football clubs against the imagining of the British working class as white white van men painting their faces with the St. George’s cross.
These are the vaguest of sketches, and not definitive, but the governing concept and most crucially, the fatal flaw, remains the same. When the confluence of forces, social composition have changed, things around you have moved on and you continue to treat the masses from behind the adopted mediation of ‘culture’, you will make basic errors in your analyses. The potency of Fisher’s hypothesis was its point in time, the there is no alternative to cuts to public spending, privatisation of public services; when the Liberal Democrats had gotten into government and passed student fees perhaps this defeatism was plausible. Perhaps Fisher’s work was required to roll that particular stone up that particular hill, perhaps history overtook him, but I think it’s fair to say that from where we stand now, if administrated austerity and centre-left parties selling out the least socially mobile sections of their voting blocs are all that the future holds we may count ourselves lucky. The utopian and anti-realist position is now definitively in the hands of the right; the world is theirs to shape, for the moment.
The problem with Fisher and the approach his work has given rise to is the problem that besets all utopian thought; it does not present a viable strategy. If the disappearance of the red wall is anything to go by, it seems as though these utopian schemas erected on the north and by extension the working class were not rooted in reality and if they do not serve a strategic import, if it doesn’t get us closer to solving the problem than we were before, we should be asking ourselves the question as to what good are they, really? This putting of the cart before the horse has led to the Labour party left allowing John Harris to win the argument. The necessity and focus should now be on the definitive abandonment of the long march through the institutions, the end of the Corbynism as an offshoot of academia. Return to the places you present yourself as a representative of and begin to organise. if you absolutely must construct theories, leave the resources of hope and choose the resources of action adequate to the moment. How do you organise in a service economy? What have tenants’ unions achieved? What are your rights when you’ve been arrested and when they’re taken from you, what then? These are the questions which need answering and also the question I have seen no left outlet or publisher take on in any significant way and this needs to change.
I initially began my doctorate with an investigation into a literary trend which was at that stage was already beginning to wind down, in favour of the resurgence of a critical theory inflected magical realism, which I would probably argue has now achieved hegemonic status. In and around 2014, five or so Irish and British writers, as well as their critics, were using the word ‘modernism’ to talk about their more recent work, and I’m thinking here in particular of Will Self, Eimear McBride, Anne Enright and Sara Baume. I was interested in investigating whether or not these trends could be detectable on a quantitative level and what words were indicative of the more obvious points of comparison, twentieth century modernism as compared to twenty-first century modernism, as well as the more implicit co-ordinates, such as twentieth-century realism or twenty-first century realism. For various reasons, primarily institutional, my area of study has changed quite significantly, but I feel I would be remiss if I did not in some respect answer the question I began with, now that I am actually equipped to do so from a logistical point of view. The following few paragraphs talk about the adopted method, so if you’re a stranger to some of this stuff or, like me a few years ago, you’re broadly ignorant of statistical and regression methods, feel free to skip to the results section.
The first problem which confronts us in a study such as this is the definition of a baseline of modernist style, against which we can locate our contemporary modernists. Once we’ve done that, we can identify the degree to which any given text deviates from this ‘norm’. The most established means of quantifying the literary style of any given text, is to perform distance clustering on the normalised relative frequencies of a text, i.e., the percentage a particular word commands in the text’s overal length converted into z-scores. Transforming numbers into z-scores involves altering them such that their mean is 0, the standard deviation is 1, and each number basically indicates the number of standard deviations they reside from this mean. Peforming distance clustering on numerical vectors which represent novels is called the ‘Delta’ method and I talk a bit more about it and how well it works here. Below is an image of a frequency table which gives some indication of how these frequencies look.
On the far left we see author, title and date of publication and in each of the cells we see the relative frequency for seven of the most frequent words in our corpus. As we would expect, these are words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, etc. If we look at the figure in the top left, we see that the word ‘the’ appears 3.65 times in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, whereas it appears 4.7 times in Louisa May Alcott’s A Modern Cinderella. As far as the word ‘the’ goes, then, A Modern Cinderella exists at a distance of 1.05 from Agnes Grey (4.7–3.65 = 1.05). Now imagine that this process happens for every word (5000) between every novel in the corpus (1173), divided by the total number of words we extracted (again, 5000). This is what is at the basis of Delta distance.
We have a relatively even spread of nineteenth century fiction (568) versus twentieth century fiction (605). There’s also one eighteenth century text, written by Maria Edgeworth, which I labelled as nineteenth. At an early stage I anticipated trying to divide these two categories into modernist, anti-modernist and proto-modernist as opposed to classical realist versus continuity realism, but given the current state of the discourse, wherein what was revanchist victorianism is now modernism etc., I decided not to, and to adopt time as a less contentious variable instead. Effectively then we are tracing the stylistic change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. This is a slight adjustment to the goal posts in terms of the aim of this study and reflects the assumption that what we trace when we analyse the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century will organically correspond to a modernist signal. As far as the actual contents of the corpus goes, the contents in the image above are symptomatic, I’ve gone for standard bearers of nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, whoever you can name off the top of your head I probably have in there, Woolf, Dickens, Lewis, Barnes, Joyce, Conrad, Mansfield, Stein, Wells, Kipling etc. etc. It is quite skewed towards canonical texts, but in my defense, it’s almost impossible to find digital copies of texts by non-canonical authors.
Since we are interested in the words which come into prominence from one century to the text, one potential method which were considered are t-tests, which are used in order to assess whether or not the mean difference between two numerical vectors are significant. We could loop t-tests along our data, identifying whether from the twentieth century to the nineteenth century the words ‘the’, ‘we’, ‘of’, ‘days’ or ‘thought’ increase in their relative frequencies. We would then identify the words which do manifest a significant change, whether this is an increase or a decrease. However, there are complicating factors here, not least that we don’t have an equal number of samples from the nineteenth century, which is something that t-tests would require. If we are not interested in randomly sampling the twentieth century, we would have to omit them. Large numbers of t-tests also give us back large numbers of false positives, even with a false detection algorithm applied to our results after the fact.
Regression then, seemed to provide the best chance of a result, given that we are dealing with what is effectively an either/or problem; was this novel written in a style more indicative of century a or century b? Regression is a method for investigating the relationship which exists between one variable and another variable. We might, for example, wish to investigate the relationship which exists between the age and the height of fifty people. We plot the results of our data, then we place a regression line through the data. There is a very slight upward slope here, which would seem to indicate that there is a relationship between how old you are and how tall you are.
This is a stupid example of course, but it gives an indication of what regression is supposed to do, namely, investigate the relationship between two variables and fit a line or model which offers the most robust explanation. If you look at how the data points scatter along the regression line, we can see that it makes a decent stab at predicting how 30–45% of the data falls out. It’s really wide of the mark at predicting that there is a 35 year-old in our dataset who is 3 feet tall, there is quite a significant distance there between the predicted value (4′ 10) and the actual observed value. This is called a residual. When all the residuals are summed and squared, they are referred to as the sum of the squared residuals and it is the aim of regression of this type to minimise the value of this figure as much as possible by coming as close as we possibly can to hitting as many of the observed values.
However, before throwing our data into a linear regression, we need to ask ourselves if this really suits the problem. As we can see, age is any number between 18 and 60, making it continuous, whereas our dependent variable is categorical, i.e. it is either ‘nineteenth’ or ‘twentieth’ century. This is an either/or problem, the answer is a probability between zero and one. Logistic regression is therefore the best means of approaching this problem. However again, complications remain. We have a large number of variables here (relative frequencies of about 5000 words) and we don’t know which ones are important and which ones are not. It’s relatively straightforward to regress for a categorical outcome when you have a relatively small sample of variables, but here we have a lot, all of which might be potentially interesting. If we throw thousands and thousands of variables into our logistic regression though, we will get what is referred to as an overfit model. Rather than creating a model which can capture and identify borderline cases, the corpus will separate absolutely into nineteenth and twentieth century, which sounds like it would be a good thing, but would actually result in an overly rigid template unfit to make actual judgements. Therefore we attenuate the influence of particular variables, reducing their value across the board to the same extent; this is called regularisation and the amount by which we regularise each variable is arrived at, again, by minimising the sum of the squared residuals and is embodied in the value attached to our lambda value.
A lot of what I’ve been describing in the previous pararaph functions, for the most part, in the backend of R, most statistical libraries that carry out regularised regressions contain standard implementations. So, this is the type that we use, a cross-validated model obtained from glmnet, such that each variable is made regular according to what minimises our residuals. We can then extract the most significant predictors, the words which are best suited to identifying a text written in the nineteenth century as opposed to the twentieth. Initially we tried to use the predict() function, which would provide us with a figure between zero and one which would give us the certainty of a particular judgement. We would then correlate this vector of numbers with our word frequencies and identify which words are most closely correlated with relative certainty. Unfortunately in this instance there were no high effect sizes, so we looked at our co-efficients given optimal lambda; lambda which reduces the sum of the squared errors. Now, on some level we should be wary of these co-efficients, these are selected almost at random in order to explain the most data variation, but they’re better than nothing and furthermore interesting from the perpspective of content.
It is interesting to note first of all, just how parsimonious this model is; cv.glmnet() manages to reduce us down to just 138 words as opposed to the 5000 we present to the model. Secondly, it is interesting to note that there are far more predictors for the nineteenth century (82) as opposed to the twentieth (56). This suggests that the nineteenth century possesses a far more coherent style, whereas the twentieth century is obviously pulling in too many heterogenous directions to be summarised to the same extent. Before we talk about them in detail, in roughly descending order of importance, I’ll readily admit that yes, how we interpret these can vary, some nouns are verbs, some verbs are nouns, some are both and separating one for the other has everything to do with context, there are broad generalisations here on offer, but this seems to me to be both the fundamental hazard as well as the asset of CLS in general.
The nineteenth century vocabulary breaks down into a few different categories, the first are words to do with emotions, the overwhelming majority of which seem to be on the negative end, between ‘vexation’ , ‘reproach’, ‘despair’ ‘dismal’, ‘misfortune’, ‘sorrow’, ‘spite’ and ‘tears’, only ‘delight’ represents an exception to this rule.
Present-tense verbs, the sort of things most characters in these novels find themselves doing are difficult to synthesise but all seem within the realm of what people in novels spend most of their time doing: ‘entering’, ‘declaring’, ‘noticing’, ‘pointing’, ‘throwing’. We also have the infinitives of ‘resist’, ‘tread’, ‘wish’, ‘allow’, ‘deceive’, ‘fetch’, ‘comprehend’ , ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘lend’ and ‘induce’, all of which seem to suggest the general traffic of social interaction and interchange.
We have some past tense verbs including ‘proposed’, ‘treated’, ‘obtained’, ‘seated’, ‘ascended’, ‘fastened’, ‘obliged’, ‘expressed’, ‘consented’, ‘fancied’, ‘quitted’, ‘cried’, ‘accompanied’, ‘returned’, ‘took’, ‘darted’, ‘promised’ and ‘taken’. We also have ‘retired’, which I found very satisfying, being as it is within the realm of the sorts of verbs Joyce uses in his parodies of nineteenth century writing.
The nouns on offer in nineteenth century writing seem to vary slightly, breaking down into vague references to the immediate environment, with words such as ‘heap’, ‘circumstances’, ‘particulars’, ‘companion(s)’, as well as more clear references to social contracts and milieu ‘occupation’, ‘character’, ‘account’, ‘intellect’, ‘deal’, ‘manner’, ‘fortune’, ‘heir’, ‘prospects’ , ‘promises’ and ‘present.’ The adjectives break down into good: ‘earnest’, ‘good-natured’ and ‘respectable’ against bad: ‘low’. We also see a few more abstract or idealistic nouns associated with otherworldly values such as ‘temptation’.
Nouns to the fore in the twentieth century are far more concrete and seem to foreground a commodity economy, with the nouns less significant and opening up less to broader values with ‘moustache’, ‘electric’, ‘apple’, ‘hat’, ‘chimney’ and ‘wire’. More abstract tendencies are manifested in words like ‘jesus’, ‘adventure’, ‘problem’, ‘response’, ‘comment’, ‘personality’ and ‘humour’ and ‘vision’.
Present-tense verbs drop off quite significantly, and those that remain are far less active in any sense, we get far less moving around in an environment and much more in the way of ‘wearing’ and ‘slipping’. ‘Whistle’ also appears. Past tense verbs like ‘picked’, ‘faced’, ‘slipped’, ‘smiled’, ‘sighed’, ‘protested’, ‘knew’, ‘realised’, all emphasise social interchange, but also seem to point more towards a bit more of an inward focalisation.
Colloquial words like ‘anyhow’, ‘weren’t’ and ‘aren’t’ seem to be predictors here, as well as adjectives which are far more toned down aside from ‘amazing’, which is the exception, we have ‘normal’, ‘decent’, ‘grey’, ‘responsible’, ‘main’, ‘quality’ and ‘different’.
Finally, we have words which make overt references to the passing of time, such as ‘dusk’, ‘later’, ‘latest’ ‘afternoon’ and ‘spring’.
Grouping all these findings impressionistically, it would seem as though twentieth century literature can be defined i) by its attenuated affect, ii) more of an interior disposition iii) a movement away from physical action, iv) a concurrent movement away from the material facts of social relations in toto in favour of their symptoms in the form of a commodities, v) the introduction of colloquial language.
Some of these trends in macro detail on the barplot below:
We then used this model trained in order to prise nineteenth and twentieth century literature apart on the contemporary modernists, the complete works of Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Will Self and Sara Baume (at time of writing) were presented to the model. Now, some of you may have noticed the problem with this approach. We have trained the model to differentiate nineteenth century fiction from twentieth, and therefore it’s hardly well set up to differentiate twenty-first century fiction influenced by modernism from twenty-first century fiction not influenced by modernism. It’s a fair point, and if I were writing my thesis on this subject, training a proper model would be what I was doing here. However, I’m not committing as much of a statistical no-no as might at first be thought. For instance, a key part of my analysis of this modernist resurgence has to do with its status as a revanchist, rather than a revolutionary, modernism. And I do mean this more particularly for Will Self and some of Eimear McBride’s most well-placed, and misinformed, critics, these are the only ones truly on record as saying ‘this is modernism’ ad nauseum. Take Self’s observation that post-modernism offers no classicism from which a truly novel aesthetic can be formulated. This is not an aesthetic which emerges concurrently with a period of social and political revolution which affords some degree of insight into the newly emergent bourgeois individual in the proletarianised urban environment, rather it attempts to scoop up the literary prestige associated with modernist literature, understood as Woolf, Joyce and one or two others, the hegemonic criterion by which literature departments, publishers and literary monthlies assess ‘worth’ and sell it back to you wholesale against YA, Netflix or whatever else it is you have to set yourself against in order to be a serious reader.
I expected that the passage of time would fill the gap and that all these novels would be judged as modernist, but in fact the opposite happened; only Anne Enright’s novel What Are You Like? came back as such. Trying to find out why this was the case, we used glmnet’s predict() function, which gives us a figure between 0 and 1 indicating the level of certainty one way or the other. We then correlated this figure with all the word frequencies we have, in order to identify where this certainty that all the contemporary modernists, are in fact quite traditional in their approach, originates.
Words which were decisive in identifying these texts as nineteenth century in the overwhelming majority of cases include their use of past tense verbs such as ‘walked’, ‘opened’, ‘married’, ‘tried’, ‘liked’, ‘talked’, ‘watched’, ‘decided’, ‘kissed’, ‘lifted’, ‘pushed’, ‘stayed’, ‘slept’, ‘slipped’, ‘ate’, ‘wiped’ and ‘spoiled’.
Adjectives like ‘easy’, ‘middle’, ‘clever’, ‘ordinary’, ‘foolish’, ‘fierce’, ‘sober’, and ‘irish’, pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘herself’ and finally, nouns like ‘side’, ‘dress’, ‘floor’, ‘sorrow’, ‘blame’, ‘cloth’, ‘veil’, ‘rail’ and ‘treasure’.
In conclusion then, we might say that contemporary modernism in fact fails to embody modernism’s stylistic disposition in a key number of ways and in fact harkens back to a pre-modernist stylistic tendency in its investment in action verbs in the past tense. The relative abscence of modern also technology seems to be a feature here too and a more pronounced affective turn also seems to undermine these novels in their aspiration, real or formulated, towards a modernist aesthetic. It is finally interesting to reflect a bit on What Are You Like?, within Enright’s career it reflects a crux from the magical realism of her short stories and The Wig my Father Wore more towards quite an affectless reflection on identity and psychology. I’ll update this post with more examples once I have a copy of the book to hand, for the moment you’ll just have to trust me on that. Interesting to note as well, that towards the end of the novel the main characters’ mother delivers a soliloquoy from hell in a way quite reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, an encouraging parallel within a study of this kind.
“Voices of 1968 around the world: a reading”: next Tuesday 22nd @ 12, Maynooth.
The radical movements of the “long 1968” shook the postwar order from Prague to Paris, Derry to Mexico City, Rome to San Francisco. “Voices of 1968” (Pluto) lets those movements speak in their own words – posters, flyers, graffiti, manifestos, songs, underground texts and more.
We’ve, meaning the doctoral students in Maynooth’s Arts and Humanities Institute, been lucky enough to get access to funding to bring in a speaker that coincides with our overlapping interests, and I’m happy to ‘announce’ that Daniel Finn exists in this overlap. He’ll be talking about his new book out from Verso but if you’re not familiar with his other writings on subjects as diverse as the PKK, Corbynism and the life and work of critic and commentator of Fintan O’Toole, you should be imo
If you happen to be around Maynooth at the advertised time, we’d be very happy to see you there!
There is no better opportunity to announce the closing of The Untranslated than after climbing the K2 of world literature (i. e. Stefano D’Arrigo’s Horcynus Orca), for the place of Mount Everest will always be reserved for Finnegans Wake, whileZettel’s Traum is more like the Mariana Trench. If you have read my fifth-anniversary blog post, this announcement should not come as a complete surprise. Some of my readers have been genuinely puzzled about all the effort that comes into my reviews, and this realisation has finally caught up with me. I would like to find a different use for this energy, preferably more enjoyable and fulfilling for myself. I’ve realised that being a polyglot whizz kid who can read Ulysses-like books in multiple languages and write painstakingly detailed reviews of them is not a thing for…
Né le le 22 janvier 1882 à Marseille. Terrassier à Aubervilliers (Seine). Anarchiste à Aubervilliers et Saint-Denis (Seine), correcteur à l’anarchie.
Petit Journal 23 décembre 1910. Gallica
Marius Beausang aurait participé au début des années 1900 à la colonie L’Essai fondée à Aiglemont (Ardennes) par Fortuné Henry. Beausang était correcteur au journal l’anarchie, selon le Petit parisien.
Il avait subi 5 condamnations.
En 1910, il connut, Jules Lefebvre dit Jully, secrétaire du syndicat des terrassiers de Saint-Denis, dans des réunions syndicales. Ils devinrent amis, Beausang se rendait journellement chez Jules Lefebvre qui vivait depuis deux ans avec Jeanne Gobinet. Beausang finit par en tomber amoureux et avertit Jully de ses sentiments envers Jeanne. Il lui fit remarquer que les principes libertaires admettaient l’amour libre. Jully sembla d’accord et Jeanne devint sa maîtresse. Puis subitement Lefebvre devint jaloux.
She Flies Far From the Land was the first story I wrote when I first started trying to do it properly, it’s been through many many drafts and has been rejected by many many outlets and I’m so glad that its been placed in a journal as good as this un