Prospectus: “Playing Around” with Tristram Shandy

Rob Pope writes that the “best way to understand how a text works . . . is to change it: to play around with it, to intervene in it in some way (large or small), and then to try to account for the exact effect of what you have done” (qtd in Ramsay 33). A bucket full of dashes, sermons, and asterisks, Tristram Shandy is a playful text, and it is because of this playfulness, I think, that Tristram Shandy readily lends itself to computational analysis–especially, to distant reading. Distant reading, Franco Moretti says:

. . . allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. (qtd in Ramsay 77)

For my final assignment, I will ‘play around’ with Laurence Sterne’s text: intervening, using text analysis tools like Voyant and TAPoR, to understand how Sterne’s book works (that is, its themes, plots, and relationships between characters). By running Tristram Shandy through Voyant, I will create a statistical paratext that is more legible than the original: sets of graphs, charts, and diagrams that reveal, more clearly, the subject of Sterne’s novel. I will argue that Tristram Shandy is more effectively (and efficiently) read through future modes of reading or textual analysis; and that the disappearance of Tristram turns less into more. Following Pope’s advice in my conclusion, I will account for the effects of what I have done.

The Hermeneutical Question

In Reading Machines, Stephen Ramsay argues that all literary critical interpretation is a process of deformation: that through reading, we generate an alternative text, and that in order for “a critical argument to succeed, it must present its alternative text as a legitimate counterpart—even consequence—of the original” (56). Running Tristram Shandy through Voyant therefore generates, in Ramsay’s view, a “statistical paratext”: a version of the novel that serves both to compliment and compete with the original (37).

I have already begun using Voyant to generate statistical paratexts of Tristram Shandy: Tristram is mentioned 43 times, while Toby is mentioned 877. Here’s a list of the top word frequencies:

T.S. frequencies

These frequencies make sense when we consider our own, paper-based readings of Sterne–but I want to think about how the data can be used to provoke new readings. Here, for example, is a graph showing the relative frequencies of characters in Tristram Shandy:

Relative Frequencies_TSIt actually doesn’t look all that different from Sterne’s own plot diagrams (though perhaps a bit less wonky):


Can these relative frequencies (the rise of Widow Wadman; the descent of Corporal Trim) tell us whether T.S. is a great love story centred around Widow Wadman, or rather a war story revolving around Uncle Toby’s groin injury? Do statistical paratexts ‘prove’ that Tristram Shandy is not a book about Tristram at all, since the word Tristram is explicitly absent from the data?

The Methodological Question

I will address these questions by running a text file of Tristram Shandy (offered through Project Gutenberg) through the text analysis tool Voyant to generate word frequencies and trends (macroanalysis); I will use TAPoR’s visual collocator to explore relationships between characters in the novel (microscopic reading). My main theoretical texts will be Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. I will also conduct supplementary research:

❧ Siemens’ & Schreibman’s Companion to Digital Literary Studies: basically, everything from the history of reading to textual analysis: David Hoover’s “Quantitative Analysis and Literary Studies” surveys the relation between quantitative and qualitative data. There’s even a section on algorithmic criticism!

❧ Andrew Piper’s Book Was There; as well as Andrew Piper’s Book Was There, for insight into digital reading practices. The Institute for the Future of the Book also has a wealth of secondary sources relating to the future of reading.

❧ Jonathan Hope’s Wine Dark Seato inspire & provoke new questions. See especially the “Ratio of Inked Space to Blank Space”–what if we could do this for Sterne?

❧ Willard McCarty’s Humanities Computing, which provides philosophical, historical, ethnographic, and critical perspectives on computational approaches to the humanities.

About Sarah Hertz

Alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.
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One Response to Prospectus: “Playing Around” with Tristram Shandy

  1. ullyot says:

    A paratext that makes the text more legible is a good notion, though Hoover (and others) will tell you that it always relies on reducing qualities to quantities. And that ultimately means you can only make *certain features* (word frequency, for instance) more legible. So there are important differences between Voyant’s renderings and Sterne’s.

    It’s a very good prospectus; I’ve tweeted it to the Voyant Tools people, though not to (the fake) Tristram Shandy himself.

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