Category Archives: research

Gross National Happiness

Researchers have begun using Facebook as a social dataset for some very interesting research, including the recently released Gross National Happiness Index. The metric tracks aggregate “happiness” (based on the use of words like “happy,” “joy,” “awesome,” etc) on a daily basis.

This is exciting news for me for two reasons. First, it means there are other people out there using these commercial websites to produce real research. It’s validating to see others agree that online mega-sites are turning into social resources in their own right, spaces diverse and vast enough to support (more or less) general population research. Second, it’s led me to LIWC, an intriguing piece of software for measuring different kinds of aggregate themes in texts–positive and negative emotions, for example. There are a number of similar efforts out there, but this one does seem to be fairly comprehensive, and it’s been put to impressive use on the Facebook project. I’m thinking about how to analyze professional and consumer book reviews in more sophisticated ways and this route has some strong appeal.

A Very Finite Summer

Since I’m working on the changing nature of reading and on contemporary American literature, it seemed almost obligatory for me to check out Infinite Summer, a massive blog-based reading group organized around David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. The reading group’s pace is quite reasonable by grad student standards–75 pages a week–but in the true spirit of studentdom I started weeks late and have been struggling to catch up.

That means I haven’t yet really delved into the culture of the online exchange, but I am curious to see how things are going over there. From my brief perusal of the site so far, it seems the basic structure is for a few authors to post on their reading experiences, and the rest of the community is left to hang out in the comments. This works well for your average blog, but it seems a little limiting for a book discussion group, which would really work better with a forum architecture. Maybe there is one and I haven’t found it yet?

The site’s structure does seem to emulate the deceptive orderliness of Infinite Jest, with its footnotes and acronyms.* There are guides and summaries and a schedule, but I find the site disorienting as a whole, as a place to talk about the book, much as Infinite Jest ends up being disorienting. Readers quickly realize that the acronyms are explained inconsistently, at random, in medias res; that they’re thrown in and out of numerous plot-lines like hapless tennis balls; that the end notes and gestures toward structure are deeply satirical and philosophically agnostic about the whole idea of knowledge. Hence, on the site: the conversation goes on through a Twitter tag, comments, Tumblr, Facebook…and I just found the forum. They do have one after all.

I guess this isn’t a bad way to honor Wallace’s passing, but is it a good way to talk about his book? Obviously I’m thinking of a different kind of conversation, one where people lean forward around a table and interrupt each other, whereas Infinite Summer is a beast that can only exist online: an imaginary space full of people zooming in and out, talking about the book or not, employing various means of intellectual transportation.

I love the idea of this online reading group, so my question isn’t meant to be hostile, merely inquisitive. I’ll report back when I’ve learned more (and, say, actually read more than a handful of posts from the various zones of Infinite Summer).

* Acronyms, while cryptic, always imply a bedrock of rational thought, convention and informational structure, however ludicrous that implication might be.

Book Seer

I can’t decide whether to be excited or annoyed that somebody else has come up with the same idea I’ve been playing around with for several months now in my dissertation research. Well, the beauty of the web is that they can slap a quick implementation up overnight, whereas it’s going to be months if not years before I really get my work out into the open. Where my six professional readers can really delve into it.

So while we’re waiting for that glorious day, we can play around with Book Seer, a recommendation site that asks you for a book and then scrapes Amazon and LibraryThing to suggest further reading for you. Neat!

More Culture Maps

The images linked below are two more examples of the material I’m generating for my dissertation. The first is a visualization of the authors and literary references (in proper noun form) made by New York Times reviewers of Pynchon’s books. The second image is the same, only drawn from Amazon customer reviews of Pynchon’s books. Comparing the two, you can see how different sorts of cultural reference (and different levels of density of reference) exist in the sets of text.

Both images were created using the wonderful web gizmo Wordle, which allows users to upload their own data and create custom visualizations.

Culture Map: NYT Reviews

Culture Map: Amazon Reviews

Culture Map #1

I’m trying to work out different ways of mapping out the networks of books, ideas and writers that build up around different novels over time–a concept I’m calling ideational networks. The web is fostering a lot of these networks (think Web 2.0) and at the same time preserving them, allowing me to map some of the connections.

One of the things I’ve been looking at is the ecology of book recommendations and reviews on sites like Amazon and LibraryThing. Below is a map of the book recommendations branching out from LibraryThing, which we can assume is driven largely by the book choices that users of the site have made over time.

As you can see from the image below, the network is fairly diffuse, but with some interesting connection points. Nabokov’s work, particularly Pnin, seems like a major intersection between different cultural sub-networks. I’ll have more to say about this and other maps as I continue working, but for now I thought this might be a cool image to share. If anyone’s interested I’ll share some of the technical details in a future post.

Culture Map 1

Reading : Material Culture :: Chicken : Egg

A few weeks ago Matthew Wilkens posed a question reaching to the heart of my interdisciplinary project:

A question I’m sure you’ve already gotten many times and likely will many more in the future: To what extent is this kind of work meaningfully understood under the rubric “literary criticism” at all, as opposed to literary-themed sociology and/or the business of literature? … [I]t seems to me that the line between the English department and the sociology department or the business school probably falls somewhere around whether you want to explain the features of particular texts by reference to social/cultural/economic factors, or explain socioeconomic effects by way of book-related networks. So … which is it?

As I replied then, the answer is a bit of both, but I think I ought to expand on that a little more. I am particularly interested in literature as a social phenomenon, and not just an individual experience. Reading can have extremely powerful transformative effects on the individual, of course, and those changes can impact whole categories of interaction and cultural thought. I believe that the authors who have been most successful both commercially and critically are particularly gifted at recasting the operations of our reading minds. Not only does reading Pynchon or Morrison enlighten, entertain and at times frustrate, it also changes how we think about fundamental planks in the social structures holding us together, like ideas of race or communication.

That said, I hasten to add that I don’t think of this project as an economic story or a business school case study. I don’t think these authors set out to get rich and decided that writing novels was the way to do it. Nor do I believe that they are motivated by a quest for recognition or a conscious desire to change how people think, though I do think those motivations are intrinsic to almost all of us to some degree.

Instead, I think of this as a literary approach to the question of reading. If the humanities must show their worth, there is no better way to do it than to reveal the structures of connection and thought that define us as cultural beings, to show how those structures are changing, and to consider the many and expanding ways in which we read and write the cultural landscape. Contemporary literature is an exciting, complicated field to work on, and it takes an interdisciplinary approach to map out the connections between different kinds of cultural authority, changing modes of readership/criticism/authorship and the abiding power of literature to convey human experience at a deeper level than any other medium.

In short, I don’t think there’s a one-directional causal force at work here. These ideational networks of texts, ideas and people are messy, provisional things that generally influence us in subtle, if pervasive, ways. I’ll be doing some close reading, and also trying to think about how others do their close reading, and how we read and evaluate culture collectively.

Talking Pynchon at the Digital Humanities Conference

I’m excited to report that my paper on Pynchon was accepted for the annual Digital Humanities Conference in June. It’s provisionally titled “Cultural Capital in the Digital Era: Mapping the Success of Thomas Pynchon” and will be a first run at the Pynchon chapter of my dissertation.

I’m trying to pull together research for the paper now and am hoping to focus on creating some “cultural network” maps of books that have been brought into association in various ways. For instance, professional book critics invariably describe new books in comparison to established ones so readers can get a sort of triangulated idea of what the new thing is like. Sites like Amazon and LibraryThing are much more explicit in the connections they draw, though of course the mathematical models they employ seem even murkier than the brain’s associative engines. So my first objective is to pull together some maps of the books that cluster around Pynchon in these respectively critical, commercial and webby venues.

I’ll post more about these ideas (and hopefully some web-based models for people to play with) once I know more. I’ve spent the past week reigniting the long-dormant Perl modules in my head. Next step: visualizing the data.

Mapping Literature: Cultural Capital in the Digital Era

I’ve been making a lot of progress since I last posted here and I think ti’s time for a more complete description of my dissertation project (yes, be still your racing hearts). Here’s the overview:

In the past fifty years the world of literary publication has experienced a continual revolution of new social structures, business models and textual media. The growth of university writing programs, the birth of the mass-market paperback, the corporate consolidation of publishing houses, the emergence of national mega-bookstores, and the dominance of the Internet are some of the major milestones in this saga. Yet by and large literary critics still approach books published today with the same set of cultural and scholarly expectations as they do works that appeared a century ago. The goal of this dissertation is two-fold: first, to map out these new and still-evolving ecologies of reading and writing in a digital era; second, to articulate a new model for the engines and pathways of literary success in its many contemporary forms.

The structure of the dissertation will address these two goals simultaneously by working through a series of specific examples of contemporary literary success using a case-study model. The relationships between new literary ecologies and authorial success are related in complex and interdependent ways, and the use of diverse case studies will allow us to employ information from a variety of different sources, including literary close readings, analyses of critical responses, and a variety of non-literary sources, such as consumer reviews, citation indexes, sales information, interviews, etc. Many of these evidentiary sources offer a glimpse into parts of our lives as readers that were rarely accessible in the past: book associations (i.e. the “customers who bought this book also bought these other books” feature), customer ratings, reviews, and conversations, and used book availability (as a comparative index of a work’s staying power), for example. It is also important to recognize the roles that many actors play in the process, from literary agents to publicity managers and from booksellers to professional critics. I will also conduct interviews with representatives from these groups in order to map out their varying positions in terms of cultural production. Each case study will face the challenge of integrating disparate empirical evidence with textual readings.

The value of this project lies in the attempt to shift the playing field of literary studies, however incrementally, to adapt to a changing media reality. As the impact of capitalism on cultural life and the world of the university becomes ever more powerful, any honest study of contemporary literature must address the ways in which cultural values and economic interests interact to help determine what, how, and why we read. This project will uncover some of the ways in which these changes affect not just the production of literature but its life after publication. The authors profiled here have all succeeded (or failed interestingly) in creating ideational networks with their books, leading readers to other books and to new ideas, dialogs, and writings of their own. As more readers become critics and writers, the traditional boundaries of publishing are crumbling.1 I will argue for a new understanding of literary fame and the role of authorship in an increasingly collaborative, engaged society, where capitalist consumption increasingly equals cultural production. In this landscape the critical term cultural capital must be overhauled to incorporate the role of ideational networks and the distributed power of millions of cultural producers/consumers. The growing sophistication of cultural production is leading to new scarcities and abundances driven by the resources and capacities of this cultural consumer, a figure now actively engaged in the construction and expansion of ideational networks and in redefining literary production.

More on Bourdieu + Lab Notes

I’m going to drop the Dissertation Update titles in lieu of the “dissertation” tag below. The blogs gets to be even more monotonous than usual when all the titles start off the same.

Today I thought to look up for the first time when Bourdieu died and what sorts of things he was up to in his later life. There’s a deeply cynical side to academic research, one where the news of Bourdieu’s death in 2002 provides a sense of frank relief. After all, what if he was still out there, thinking about all the new media things I’m planning to write about? It’s much easier to work with a fixed body of work, no matter how great (or just controversial) that achievement is. I found a wonderful little obituary for Bourdieu in The Nation, written by Katha Pollitt.

Finally, I’ll add a link to Work Product, a “research diary or lab notebook” put together by Matthew Wilkens, a postdoc at the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Wilkens is doing some very interesting stuff and his blog is a more sophisticated (and consistent) example of what I’m hoping to accomplish here. He’s evaluating Part of Speech taggers right now, which is a major service to us all. Way to go, Matthew!