“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. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something” (Moretti 57 quoted in Ramsay). This passage from Ramsay’s Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism gestures towards what seems to be the thrust of computational analysis and algorithmic criticism: namely, the union between minute detail and the wide expanse of a literary corpus. This contradictory movement of zooming in and zooming out (in a scope that is beyond the means of regular reader and his or her reading practices) constitutes a method of activating what Ramsay calls “the potentialities of meaning” in a particular text (57).
The problem rests in the difficulty (impossibility?) of realizing the potential of a text that, as Moretti predicts, disappears in the space between the micro and the macro. The disappearance of the text, however, is not just a problem of degree: it is also a problem of kind. Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism is predicated on the precarious notion of a text that is normalized, standardized, and uniform in its constitutive elements. Despite what algorithmic criticism may suggest, literary texts are not merely words on a page, and to think so would, indeed, result in the text’s disappearance. A text is a weaving, a veritable textile of diverse (sometimes non-linguistic) elements that exceed Ramsay’s relatively narrow conception of what a text could be. In my essay, I will argue that Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is an example par excellence of this heterogeneous notion of the text and highlights the inadequacies of Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism.
The Text is a Voice:
My first argument will circulate around notion of orality in Sterne’s text. Scholars firmly situate Tristram Shandy in the domain of the “conversational style,” which attempts to simulate a certain degree of orality or oral-ness within the text, and Sterne accomplishes this with an inventive deployment of punctuation. In using these in-text signifiers, Sterne creates a particular rhythm, cadence, and musicality that place emphasis on how a particular word or phrase should be read. In short, one must note more than the mere presence of words: one must also note their delivery and timbre. But the rhythm and cadence of a text is easily lost in the algorithmic extraction of words from their typographical environment.
The Text is an Architecture:
My second argument will concern itself with the use of space within Sterne’s text. Not narrative or metaphorical space but rather the actual, material space of the text’s pages. The deliberate manipulation of the page’s space, referred to as the “mise en page,” is an element that finds itself especially conspicuous in Tristram Shandy. As particular words and phrases are separated from the rest of the text by walls of un-inked page, space takes up a particular valence. The pièce de résistance, however, is undoubtedly the blank page reserved for the portrait of Widow Wadman, a space highly charged with meaning. Can an algorithmic criticism account for this productive space without words?
The Text is a Picture:
My third argument will explore the illustrations used throughout Sterne’s text. The black page, marbled page, and narrative diagram are all striking examples of Sterne’s use of illustrations, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as auxiliary or adjacent elements that merely represent the narrative. Instead, I would argue that they participate in the construction of the narrative and operate in tandem with the words of the text, creating an echo chamber in which both textual elements reverberate and resonate with one another. As with the space of the text, the illustrations cannot be quantified or categorized in the same way that words and phrases are in algorithmic criticism. Does this testify to a richness of the text that cannot be captured or circumscribed?
The Text is a ****:
Lastly, I will be looking at Sterne’s use of the asterisks in his text. To be honest, this one is a little unwieldy. The asterisk, as a character, can probably be quantified in a way similar to that of a regular word. But the particular value of the character seems to be indeterminate and unlocatable. At times, Sterne uses the asterisk to signify the absence of a single letter, as in “G**”. At other times, the asterisk becomes dislodged from this usage, as when he writes a whole paragraph using asterisks. Does each one represent a letter? A Word? A Sentence? The reading act enters a state of aporia with his use of the asterisk. In the case of Shandy’s accidental circumcision, the asterisk comes to replace a sort of traumatic, unspeakable event. A bit more thought is needed before I can firmly situate how the asterisk is or isn’t compatible with algorithmic criticism.
Fanning, Christopher. “On Sterne’s Page: Spatial Layout, Spatial Form, and Social Spaces in Tristram Shandy.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10.4 (1998): 429-50. Project Muse. Web. 20 March 2013.
In this article, Fanning explores the material space of the page and what he calls the “mise en page” of Sterne’s text. This will be useful in discussing “extra-textual” elements that may not be compatible with algorithmic criticism.
Flint, Christopher. “In Other Words: Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Ornaments of Print.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14.3-4 (2002): 627-72. Project Muse. Web. 20 March 2013.
Flint’s article is interested in 18th century typographical marks, in particular the use of asterisks, and how they contribute to the generation of meaning and significance. His identification of the asterisk as a source of meaningful indeterminacy could be used as an argument to undermine algorithmic criticism’s ability to account for what is present but not written in the asterisk.
Moss, Roger B. “Sterne’s Punctuation.” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.2 (1981-2): 179-200. JSTOR. 18 Marche 2013.
Despite the somewhat misleading title, Moss’s article interests itself with more than just the punctuation of Sterne’s text: it looks at how the text as object interferes with the text as narrative. His emphasis on the marbled and blackened pages of Sterne’s text is useful for exploring how distinctly non-linguistic visual elements are sutured to “literary” texts.
Vande Berg, Michael. “Pictures of Pronunciation: Typographical Travels Through Tristram Shandy and Jacques le Fataliste.” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 21.1 (1987): 21-47. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.
In his article, Vande Berg investigates how Sterne attempts to reproduce an oral or “conversational” style with his specific use of punctuation. In particular, the sections dealing with rhythm and cadence will be useful in delineating the short-comings of algorithmic criticism.
Voogd, Peter J. “Tristram Shandy as Aesthetic Object.” Ed. Thomas Keymer. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006. Print.
Vood explores both the typographical elements of Sterne’s text as well as the illustrations that appear within it. This article will be helpful in dealing with Sterne’s use of the non-verbal and typography, especially the asterisk.