Category Archives: Uncategorized

Literary Cluster Analysis

I: Introduction

My PhD research will involve arguing that there has been a resurgence of modernist aesthetics in the novels of a number of contemporary authors. These authors are Anne Enright, Will Self, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. All these writers have at various public events and in the course of many interviews, given very different accounts of their specific relation to modernism, and even if the definition of modernism wasn’t totally overdetermined, we could spend the rest of our lives defining the ways in which their writing engages, or does not engage, with the modernist canon. Indeed, if I have my way, this is what I will spend a substantial portion of my life doing.

It is not in the spirit of reaching a methodology of greater objectivity that I propose we analyse these texts through digital methods; having begun my education in statistical and quantitative methodologies in September of last year, I can tell you that these really afford us no *better* a view of any text then just reading them would, but fortunately I intend to do that too.

This cluster dendrogram was generated in R, and owes its existence to Matthew Jockers’ book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, from which I developed a substantial portion of the code that creates the output above.

What the code is attentive to, is the words that these authors use the most. When analysing literature qualitatively, we tend to have a magpie sensibility, zoning in on words which produce more effects or stand out in contrast to the literary matter which surrounds it. As such, the ways in which a writer would use the words ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘a’, or ‘this’, tends to pass us by, but they may be far more indicative of a writer’s style, or at least in the way that a computer would be attentive to; sentences that are ‘pretty’ are generally statistically insignificant.

II: Methodology

Every corpus that you can see in the above image was scanned into R, and then run through a code which counted the number of times every word was used in the text. The resulting figure is called the word’s frequency, and was then reduced down to its relative frequency, by dividing the figure by total number of words, and multiplying the result by 100. Every word with a relative frequency above a certain threshold was put into a matrix, and a function was used to cluster each matrix together based on the similarity of the figures they contained, according to a Euclidean metric I don’t fully understand.

The final matrix was 21 X 57, and compared these 21 corpora on the basis of their relative usage of the words ‘a’, ‘all’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘are’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘had’, ‘have’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘I’, ‘if’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘like’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘now’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘one’, ‘or’, ‘out’, ‘said’, ‘she’, ‘so’, ‘that’, ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘then’, ‘there’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘to’, ‘up’, ‘was’, ‘we’, ‘were’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘with’, ‘would’, and ‘you’.

Anyway, now we can read the dendrogram.

III: Interpretation

Speaking about the dendrogram in broad terms can be difficult for precisely the reason that I indicative above; quantitative/qualitative methodologies for text analysis are totally opposed to one another, but what is obvious is that Eimear McBride and Gertrude Stein are extreme outliers, and comparable only to each other. This is one way unsurprising, because of the brutish, repetitive styles and is in other ways very surprising, because McBride is on record as dismissing her work, for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust have branched off in their own direction, as has Sara Baume, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have formed their own nexus. More comprehensible is the Anne Enright, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, F. Scott FitzGerald and Virginia Woolf cluster; one could make, admittedly sweeping judgements about how this could be said to be modernism’s extreme centre, in which the radical experimentalism of its more revanchiste wing was fused rather harmoniously with nineteenth-century social realism, which produced a kind of indirect discourse, at which I think each of these authors excel.

These revanchistes are well represented in the dendrogram’s right wing, with Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes having clustered together, though I am not quite sure what to make of Ford Madox Ford/Joseph Conrad’s showing at all, being unfamiliar with the work.

IV: Conclusion

The basic rule in interpreting dendrograms is that the closer the ‘leaves’ reach the bottom, the more similar they can be said to be. Therefore, Anne Enright and Will Self are the contemporary modernists most closely aligned to the forebears, if indeed forebears they can be said to be. It would be harder, from a quantitative perspective, to align Sara Baume with this trend in a straightforward manner, and McBride only seems to correlate with Stein because of how inalienably strange their respective prose styles are.

The primary point to take away here, if there is one, is that more investigations are required. The analysis is hardly unproblematic. For one, the corpus sizes vary enormously. Borges’ corpus is around 46 thousand words, whereas Proust reaches somewhere around 1.2 million. In one way, the results are encouraging, Borges and Barnes, two authors with only one texts in their corpus, aren’t prevented from being compared to novelists with serious word counts, but in another way, it is pretty well impossible to derive literary measurements from texts without taking their length into account. The next stage of the analysis will probably involve breaking the corpora up into units of 50 thousand words, so that the results for individual novels can be compared.

Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.

So Enda wrote a poem about homelessness

Automatic Writing

Camden Street, Harcourt Street, George’s Street, Smock Alley.

No bells from the churches, no urban foxes, no first snowflakes.

Just the boom-boom of a bass, somewhere in the distance.

Rats skittering, across sodden blankets, beds of needles.

On our journey, people laughing, having the craic.

Making the most of their night out, under Christmas lights, strung high on streets, over strung-out people.

On Grafton Street, a Gucci sign beams over the remnants of humanity.

(Source)

What does this poem say?

It begins with four street names. A sense of placement and of movement: a short stroll round Dublin’s Southside.

Then three negations: “no… no… no…”. What is missing? Church bells, foxes, winter’s first snows. A Christmas card scene, an idyllic picture of Dublin, present in the form of an absence: a haunting.

Then contrast. A bass throbbing in the distance, no poetic quality, no imagery, just onomatopoeia: “boom boom”. The vulgarity of nightlife…

View original post 886 more words

Logan: In Trump’s America, Men must become mothers

The discourse surrounding Logan has emphasised its quality in contrast to not only the films of the X-Men franchise, but comic book movies in general, for the reason that Hugh Jackman has imbued his character with a heretofore unseen ‘depth’. I agree that there’s a far more substantial emotional pay-off from the film than one might expect but I do think this critical line requires nuancing. Logan has been one of the few well-characterised mutants in the X-Men series, and this has generally been accomplished by laying out his slow, reluctant departure from a strong-silent-Gary-Cooper-type demeanour in favour of a more pliable, loving attitude, usually in the direction of a younger, and mostly female, character. This is the case, not only in relation to his clone-daughter Laura (X-23) in Logan (2017) but also to Rogue in X-Men (2000), and in X2 (2003): the final scene has Wolverine walking away with that kid in his arms who has the power of having a blue tongue that makes noises. This is all to say that the melting away of a gruff exterior is a well-trodden path insofar as Wolverine’s characterisation goes.

This post will argue instead that there is something qualitatively different about Logan’s character in Logan and what it signifies, in presenting a thesis about familial relations in a milieu of economic and ecological precarity.

The strength of the film’s setting is the uniqueness of its dystopic vision; it functions as a slight modification of the present, in the direction of more overt corporatism. There are references to clean water being difficult to come by, there is a scene on a highway which indicates that trucking is now a job carried out via automation (implying, incidentally, that circa ten million people in this vision of a future America have become unemployed), Professor Xavier requires medication that is too expensive to acquire by legal means and most of the countryside seems to be owned by a food-producing conglomerate along the lines of Monsanto, which produces a ubiquitous food ingredient seemingly analogous to high-fructose corn syrup which functions also as an anti-depressant. Finally, it seems as though the only mode of employment is either as a medical worker, a hired enforcer for a corporation, or a casino worker.

A lot of these outcomes are a reality for many people within the United States today, as a result of decisions made by administrations over the past three decades, but by having so much of the plot predicated on the crossing of borders, and an antagonist named Donald, much of this could be seen as a reflection on Trump’s America, the outcome of the sort of policies (shutting down the EPA, repealing the ACA, deregulation of corporate America, etc.) that we can expect from the Trump regime.

The strength of this approach, I think, in comparison to a film such as The Road, is that it displays the failure of doomsday scenarios to bring about an end to capitalism. The market economy is far from incompatible with ‘the apocalypse’; many of the worst disasters of the past twenty years, be they natural or man-made, have proved extremely profitable for moneyed interests and I have confidence that as the anthropocene continues to unfold, that this will continue to be the case.

The X-Men franchise has always been unfortunately strong in its tendencies towards biological determinism — i.e. its emphasis on a reductive, ‘survival of the fittest’ mode of progress. Throughout Logan, that which is insufficiently ‘fit’ to survive, is dispatched, and each death informs us of the film’s stated intention regarding the ‘proper’ mode of familial existence in the anthropocene age. (See Benjamin Kunkel’s very good piece on the term ‘anthropocene’ in the London Review of Books here).

Having Xavier state directly that lionesses are superior to male lions because of the way they use the claws on their feet is as good as having the film state its thesis directly, i.e. the supersession of a defunct, inflexible mode of being, Logan’s, by a superior one, embodied by Laura. Logan’s death seems determined from the film’s outset; it is not novel that his claws or prowess in combat have functioned as phallic signifiers, and as one of them fails to protrude fully, and as he displays an inability to dispatch enemies as effectively as he used to, there is reason to believe that he is insufficiently resilient for whatever struggles will come next. To my mind there is of course nothing wrong with any form of masculinity, as long as it isn’t the toxic kind, but it’s clear that the text regards Logan’s passivity, the ‘bickering couple’ dynamic that exists between him, Charles and Caliban is negative. If we were feeling generous and were to give the film an out, we would say the text here uses conservative examples to further the radicalism of its larger point, which is that the conceptual notion of ‘the family’ will not survive late capitalism.

The claws on Laura’s feet, and her more pliable fighting style makes her more suited for success in 21st century America riven by the effects of climate change and the state as a guarantor of corporate survival. Indeed, x-23 does seem to be a better fighter than Logan is, and towards the end of the film, his choreography becomes more attuned to hers; rather than swinging in a maladroit way with his claws, he begins to put in more high kicks, jumps, etc. Further, despite Logan claiming earlier that he doesn’t ‘like guns,’ he uses one to dispatch Zander Rice. This anthropocene order will require the purging of previously held moral beliefs, or at least their suspension. Though Laura’s graveside oration may problematise this.

The X-Men are referenced briefly, in such a way that suggests that they were all killed by one of Xavier’s telekinetic seizures. What unites the demise of family units in the film is that they are all linked to a single location. The radio report in which we learn of the X-Men’s demise mentions Westchester County and it is obvious that even if the Munsons were not dispatched by the Logan clone, it would have been only a matter of time before they were wiped out by the farming conglomerate’s mercenaries. Their blackness should not be neglected in this discussion, and is emblematic of the ways in which the consequences of capitalism’s entrenchment will fall disproportionately upon communities of colour.

Shortly before he is killed, Xavier delivers a speech to Logan in which he informs him that he still ‘has time’ to create a family. This is the belief that the film is working most strenuously against; Xavier’s belief is naive and, in this current milieu, doomed to failure. What characterised the X-Men’s within the Marvel Universe, was, in Xavier’s mind, their nature as a surrogate family for outcasts, united by their being objects of hatred and fear for the outside world, a misfit family surveyed by a gruff father embodied by Xavier, and a shifting cast of mothers (Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Betsy Braddock, Hope Summers). Their attempt to replicate this conservative and Freudian model which was static, and rooted to one location, when a more flexible, unique one would have been more adaptable or responsive made them vulnerable. Therefore, their model of a family, as providing an in-built horizon of collectivity was insufficient; what form must the family take in these times?

Once Laura’s nurse Gabriella, is murdered, the film is about Logan failing to take on the role of a single parent. Laura chooses the clothes she wants to wear on the basis of two mannequins she sees holding hands in a shop window display and later mimics this behaviour at Xavier’s graveside. Logan only comes to do so in his dying moments, in a battle not against the film’s primary antagonists, but an older incarnation of himself, embodying this insufficient masculinity, a prior self, dispatched with the bullet that Wolverine intended to commit suicide with; his suicide is exteriorised by the act being projected onto an earlier version. We don’t even need to emphasise that it’s a big pointy yoke that kills Logan in the end, so we won’t.

The value system, or the family life that is validated, is that which takes place between the young mutants engineered by Transigen (NB semantic significance), one that is constantly on the move: mobile, nomadic, sustained by imaginative constructs such as the Eden they once saw in an X-Men comic book, or, in Laura’s case, a cowboy monologue in Shane (1957). It is the ethical values that Laura and the Transigen children embody that we should look to, in sustaining ourselves in the construction of a truly progressive society, one that is nomadic, precarious, sustained by the most far-flung imaginative possibilities and almost certainly doomed to failure.

Can a recurrent neural network write good prose?

At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.

I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.

My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.

How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?

There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.

And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.

However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.

The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:

be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.

“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.

“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”

“The advices?”

Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould

has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a

I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.

So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.

— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.

He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.

Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.

She can’t remember her sons either.

Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?

The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.

Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.

Modelling Humanities Data Blog Post #1 Deleuze, Descartes and Data to Knowledge

While dealing with the distinctions between data, knowledge and information in class, a pyramidal hierarchy was proposed, which can be seen on the left. This diagram discloses the process of making data (which have been defined as ‘facts’ which exist in the world), into information, and thereafter knowledge. These shifts from one state to another are not as neat as the diagram might suggest; it is just one interpretation giving shape to a highly dynamic and unsettled process; any movement from one of these levels to another is fraught. It is ‘a bargaining system,’ as every dataset has its limitations and aporias, not to speak of the process of interpretation or subsequent dissemination. This temporal dimension to data, its translation from a brute state is too often neglected within certain fields of study, fields in which data is more often understood as unambiguous, naturally hierarchicalised, and not open to contextualisation or debate.

This blog post aims to consider these issues within the context of a dataset obtained from The Central Statistics Office. The dataset contains information relating to the relative risk of falling into poverty based on one’s level of education between the years 2004 and 2015 inclusive. The data was analysed through use of the statistical analysis interface SPSS.

The purpose of the CSO is to compile and disseminate information relating to economic and social conditions within the state in order to give direction to the government in the formulation of policy. Therefore it was decided that the most pertinent information to be derived from the dataset would be the correlations between level of education and the likelihood of falling into poverty. The results appear below.

Correlation Between Risk of Poverty and Level of Education Achieved

Correlation Between Consistent Poverty (%) and Level of Education Received

Correlation Between Deprivation Rate (%) and Level of Education Received

Poverty Risk Based on Education Level

Deprivation Rate Based on Education Level

Consistent Poverty Rate based on Education Level

It can be seen that there is a very strong negative correlation between one’s level of education and one’s risk of exposure to poverty; the higher one ascends through the education system, the less likely it is one will fall into economic liminality. This is borne out both in the bar charts and the correlation tables, the latter of which yield p-values of .000, underlining the certainty of the finding. It should be noted that both graphing the data, and detecting correlations through use of the Spearman’s rho are elementary statistical procedures, but as the trend revealed here is consistent with more elaborate modelling of the relationship,[1] the parsimonious analysis carried out here is all that is required.

It should not be assumed that just because these graphs are informative that it is impossible to garner information from data in any other way. Even in its primary state, as it appears on the website, one could obtain information from a dataset through qualitative means. It is unlikely that this information will be as coherent as that which that can be gleaned from even the most basic graph, but it is important to emphasise the fact that the border that separates data from information is fluid.

It is unlikely to be a novel finding that those who have a third level education have higher incomes than those who do not; there is a robust body of research detailing the many benefits of attending university. [2] Therefore, can it be said that the visualisation of the dataset above has contributed to knowledge? One would answer this question relative to one’s initial research question, and how the information complicates or advances it. If the causal relationship between exposure to poverty and level of education has been confirmed, and a government agency makes the recommendation that further investment in educational support programmes are necessary, it is somewhere in this process that the boundary separating information from knowledge has been crossed.

The above diagram actualises the temporal nature of data to a greater extent than the pyramid, but in doing so it perpetuates a linearisation of the process, a line along which René Descartes’ notion of thought could be said to align. Descartes understood thought as a positive function which tends towards the good and toward truth. This ‘good sense’, allows us to ‘judge correctly and to distinguish the true from the false’.[3] Gilles Deleuze believes Descartes instantiates a model of thought which is oppressive, and which perceives thinking relative to external needs and values rather than in its actuality: ‘It cannot be regarded as fact that thinking is the natural exercise of a faculty, and that this faculty is possessed of a good nature and a good will.’[4]

In Deleuze’s conception, thought takes on a sensual disposition, reversing the Cartesian notion of mental inquiry beginning from a state of disinterestedness in order to arrive at a moment at which one recognises ‘rightness’. Deleuze argues that there is no such breakthrough moment or established methodology to thought, and argues for regarding it as more invasive, or unwelcome, a point of encounter when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’[5]

Rather than taking the neat, schematic movement from capturing data to modelling to interpreting for granted, Deleuze is engaged by these moments of crisis, points just before or just after the field of our understanding is qualitatively transformed into something different:

How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or know badly?…We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms one into the other.[6]

Deleuze’s comments have direct bearing upon our understanding of data, and how they should be understood within the context of the wider questions we ask of them. Deleuze argues that, ‘problems must be considered not as ‘givens’ (data) but as ideal ‘objecticities’ possessing their own sufficiency and implying acts of constitution and investment in their respective symbolic fields.’[7] While it is possible that Deleuze would risk overstating the case, were we to apply his theories to this dataset, it is nonetheless crucial to recall that data, and the methodologies we use to unpack and present them participate in wider economies of significance, ones with indeterminate horizons.

Notes

[1] Department for Business, Education and Skills, ‘BIS Research Paper №146: The Benefits of Higher Education and Participation for Individuals and Society: Key Findings and Reports’, (Department for Business, Education and Skills: 2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254101/bis-13-1268-benefits-of-higher-education-participation-the-quadrants.pdf

[2] OECD, Education Indicators in Focus, (OECD: 2012) https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/Education%20Indicators%20in%20Focus%207.pdf

[3] Descartes, René, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Gutenberg: 2008), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm

[4] Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition (Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), p.175

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. xviii

[7] Ibid, p.207

Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition (Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), p.175

Department for Business, Education and Skills, ‘BIS Research Paper №146: The Benefits of Higher Education and Participation for Individuals and Society: Key Findings and Reports’, (Department for Business, Education and Skills: 2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254101/bis-13-1268-benefits-of-higher-education-participation-the-quadrants.pdf

Descartes, René, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Gutenberg: 2008), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm

OECD, Education Indicators in Focus, (OECD: 2012) https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/Education%20Indicators%20in%20Focus%207.pdf