Newspaper article International New York Times

Literary Lab Maps 'Emotions in Victorian London' ; Stanford Aims to Harness Digital Technology for Cultural Analysis

Newspaper article International New York Times

Literary Lab Maps 'Emotions in Victorian London' ; Stanford Aims to Harness Digital Technology for Cultural Analysis

Article excerpt

An online project is part of a growing movement in the humanities to harness digital technology for cultural analysis -- like treating books as data to create "literary geography."

What lurks behind the literary landmarks of Victorian London? Fear? Joy? Ambiguity?

In a new data mining project, a Stanford University research collective has sought to map the British capital's "emotional geography" by categorizing what feelings or sensations common settings convey in the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, Austen and 738 other mostly 19th-century authors.

The effort, "Mapping Emotions in Victorian London," recently put online, is part of a growing movement in the humanities to harness digital technology for cultural analysis -- like treating books as data to create "literary geography."

For its project, the Stanford Literary Lab, which uses "computational criticism" to analyze literature in a statistical way, asked anonymous participants to judge whether 167 places that are named in 4,363 literary passages in 1,402 books conveyed "Dreadful London," "London in the Light," or "A Day in the Life of Old London," among other categories.

Why? Because, with today's digital technology, it could be done. But a better answer, scholars say, is that it's a way of exploring the computer's nearly limitless possibilities for textual analysis, which will find increasingly valuable future applications.

"It broadly allows for collection of information and empowerment with the public to do research not otherwise possible," said Gabriel Wolfenstein, a Stanford historian on the project.

In one major application of such technology that pointed the way ahead in 1999, Franco Moretti, the director of the Stanford Literary Lab, published "Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900," charting relationships between literature and geography.

In "Mapping Emotions in Victorian London," click, for example, on a digital pin marking the site of the Old Bailey Courthouse, London's central criminal court from 1673 to 1913, and this quotation from Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" of 1859 pops up:

"The dead man disposed of, and the crowd being under the necessity of providing some other entertainment for itself, another brighter genius (or perhaps the same) conceived the humor of impeaching casual passers-by, as Old Bailey spies, and wreaking vengeance on them. …

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