The Imagery of a Myth: Computer-Assisted Research on Literature

By Finch, Alison M. | Style, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

The Imagery of a Myth: Computer-Assisted Research on Literature


Finch, Alison M., Style


Doubts have often been expressed about computer-assisted research on literature, but until about seven years ago these doubts were voiced mainly by those who did not themselves practice it.(1) Since 1988, however, real worries have increasingly been expressed by specialists in books and periodicals devoted to computer-assisted research on literature (henceforth CARL). They ask questions not only about methods, but, more seriously, about the assumptions behind the methods. These questions are starting to be put with a harshness unprecedented in CARL. Thus Willie van Peer, in a 1989 article in Computers and the Humanities, goes so far as to say that the view of language underlying quantitative studies is "utterly naive" (303), while in 1991, in Literary and Linguistic Computing, Thomas Corns talks of certain hopes for CARL as resembling a "fanatic's dream" (128). These doubts have culminated in a recent special issue of Computers and the Humanities (1993-94) in which contributors call still more urgently for internal revaluation and ask more pressingly than before whether CARL should not be moving in new directions.

During these last seven years, CARL researchers have voiced a special unease about the fact that almost all literary critics of repute ignore the results of CARL investigations. This unease was first highlighted in a colorful and provocative article by Rosanne Potter ("Literary Criticism"), and the recent special issue of Computers and the Humanities once more points out that in its present form CARL is marginalized by most literary critics.(2) The CARL experts who have asked why this should be so have usually provided what is no doubt the correct answer: that the conclusions of most individual CARL projects have simply been too trivial or too obvious to attract attention.(3) A second reason put forward for the marginalization of CARL is the rebarbative presentation of its research; this is a particular concern of Potter's ("Literary Criticism" 91, 94, 97), but others have echoed her.

There may be a third contributory factor, one that has not yet been singled out by any practitioner nor, I believe, by external critics. Some surprising figures of speech infiltrate the critical diction of many CARL analysts - figures of speech that tend to mythologize their own enterprises. This self-mythologization is, perhaps, both a symptom and a cause of the problem. It may have stopped CARL experts evaluating properly the results of their own research, and it cannot but be off-putting to the non-CARL critics they are trying to win over.

It is perhaps natural that some CARL experts should see themselves as pioneers or navigators, going downstream to check information at the confluence of the valleys and fortunately not looking upstream at all the vertiginous tasks ahead:

We therefore had to go back downstream from the Dictionary of Frequencies, and extract information very close to the source, at the foot of the texts, at the confluence of 15 valleys where the raw forms of the 15 chronological sections converged [...] upstream, how many tasks were waiting - tasks which might have made us dizzy if we had looked far enough ahead. Luckily fog swathed our departure.

Or:

[T]he present study constitutes an entree en matiere, a first voyage into the quantitatively uncharted waters of contemporary narratological pragmatics. (Frautschi 280)

But it is rather more surprising to find them as mountaineers:

Will imitators be braver than precursors were - will they follow up the steep slope Gunnel Engwall has embarked on?

Or as horse-riders:

As an experienced rider controls his horse with ever more subtle commands, so the critic may control the exact routines of the computer with more latitude. (Smith 39)

Or as big-game hunters:

[Computer-knowledge is] unrestrained curiosity, drawing people to safaris in the jungles of the unknown. (Busa 71)

They may even share this outdoor life with their chosen authors: certain stylo-statistical tests show that Marlowe is like a "young Olympic quality athlete" who "may dominate the track in all events" (Baker 37). …

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