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Robert Burns and Big Data; or, Pests of Quantity and Visualization


DOI: 10.1215/00267929-2377721

Wickman, M. “Robert Burns and Big Data; or, Pests of Quantity and Visualization.” Modern Language Quarterly 75.1 (2014): 1–28. Web.

p.2: Data visualization, the form favored by this new history, prompts questions that already worried Frankfurt School critics in the 1930s: Is big data scholarship, presently enamored of new connections across time and new modes of display, destined to reproduce the aesthetic effect of gratuitous novelty (of “shock as a consumer commodity” [Adorno 1974: 236]) that informed but blunted the impact of modern art? -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.4: Franco Moretti’s influential Graphs, Maps, Trees expounds a new method of interpretation —distant reading —on the basis of the visual display of big data. But it is not data per se that lure Moretti as much as mathemat ics, specifically geometry. A “geometrical pattern is too orderly a shape to be the product of chance. It is the sign that something,” some force of history, “is at work here —that something has made the pattern the way it is” -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.4: “We live in the era of number’s despotism,” Badiou (2008: 1) proclaims. “What counts —in the sense of what is valued —is that which is counted” -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.18: This means that the geometric figures that were supposed merely to illustrate algebraic calculations actually became “graphic aid[s]” that helped Newton justify and even purport to solve them. For this reason, Guicciardini (2009: 210) explains, Newton’s calculus was “a matter of art rather than science.” -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.21: But unlike Moretti’s graphs, Burns’s poems underscore the problem with “counting,” or with the status of numbers generally. The Burnsian network —the conjunction of poet, louse, and lady, or of poet, mouse, memory, and prospect —coalesces around failed transferences and the shortcircuiting of information and thus presents itself as a breakdown of sympathy. In this late eighteenthcentury chapter of the long history of quantitative analysis, visualization is a product less of ones and zeroes than of what happens between them. Whereas geometers sketched diagrams as emblems of motion, and thus as intuitive responses to the riddle of infinitesimals, Burns crafted virtual shapes —human “figures” —in the interstices of moral philosophy. But these shapes are of a nature that confounds Moretti’s dream of geometric clarity, demanding the very attention to textual detail that distant reading appears to displace. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.22: As a coda, we might note that creative tension between shape and number would migrate into other mathematical and cultural forms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.22: Similarly to interpretive practices involving big data (in which new input variables produce new textual shapes), topology as Serres (2007: 20) imagines it generally refutes the causalities of grand narra tives, accommodating instead the conviction that history might always be configured otherwise: “History is the locus of full causes without effects, immense effects with futile reasons, strong consequences from insignificant causes, rigorous effects from chance occurrences” (cf. Connor 2004). Here the past consists in a protean field of relations whose agents function as shapeshifters, or forces that rearrange the configuration of the past and thus the meaning we make of it. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.23: At once moralist, louse, and metonym, Burns lends shape to a long history of shapeshifting, a history that today seems taken up most vividly by the visual display of big data, which transforms how we see and understand literary texts and their pasts. Burns’s significance to this revisionist project is less to “count as one” in a statistical graphing of poets than to render informatic relationships between shape and number less transparent. Indeed, in some ways Burns speaks to a peculiar cultural conjunction in history at which the negotiation of shape and number became especially freighted philosophically as well as scientifically, and hence in terms of meaning as well as knowledge. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.24: First, and in accordance with Moretti, history flows in the straight line of traditional causal narratives (of Great Authors and Great Texts) only if we imagine those narratives devoid of accidents —which is to say, of history. Second, a single parasitic intrusion (of numbers, say), if sufficiently forceful (as big data has been), will change the course of how we imagine the past. But third, and most important for my argument, the impact of distant reading on close reading meets with a kind of reciprocal (if not exactly equal but opposite) force from close reading. Texts do not simply open themselves to quantitative techniques for configuring their linguistic and historical networks; they also potentially play a role in how we understand those new techniques and the meanings we derive from them. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014