Prospectus: Possession and Ramsay: putting algorithmic criticism to the test

Please accept my apologies on the lateness of my post. Rest assured this will not happen again!

For this project I am undertaking an exploration of A.S. Byatt’s Possession through a series of digital interventions, particularly algorithmic criticism as proposed by Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines. This essay will be presented as a series of blog posts titled “Abarstic Reading.” Byatt’s novel is critical of the inadequacies that result in  criticism due to habits of collecting and concealing information among scholars. We see every character portrayed collect artifacts, manuscripts and unpublished work from the past possessively, seeking to protect what they have re-imagined from the scattered fragments of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte’s history. Possession thus poses a complex set of queries that as students/scholars we are challenged to respond: to what extent can literary criticism accurately recover the past? Can technologies available to us today ease the tensions that lead to the hoarding of information and artifacts? If so, in what ways?

In this essay, I will argue that digital forms of reading, such as the use of text-analysis tools and algorithms, can in fact be used to effectively to sort through these anxieties. My thesis will be divided in two main sections, starting with an analysis of habits of collection in the scholarly world and the role digitization plays in the formation of strong scholar communities. I will then conduct an “experiment” with Ash and LaMotte’s writings, by classifying each author’s work into published and unpublished, then running them through text analysis tools Voyant and TAPoR and record what how the quantitative results clarify/challenge my readings. Allow me to introduce my arguments into more detail here:

I agree with John J. Su, who affirms that Byatt treats collecting memorabilia optimistically since this “can, in certain instances, help individuals to imagine alternative identities” (685). This tendency of accumulation among scholars, however, prove problematic to our ability to understand a text when they are not properly shared or transmitted. The ending of Possession, which puts all LaMotte and Ash scholars together in a room after a cathartic storm, certainly testifies to the need of communal scholarship.  Though Byatt shows us a wealth of criticism from different ideological and geographical camps, the answers scholars and readers seek to possess do not come clear until all the documentation comes together and creates a link between the two Victorian poets. So in this spirit of free transmission and preservation of texts, would Byatt be opposed to archiving documentation online? I wish to use the evidence from Possession as a call for what Richard Cox calls the “digital challenge or promise.” As archivists look for ways to bring traditional and innovative ways to store information, Anthony Grafton realistically states that “any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously”  (292, qtd. in Cox). In other words, the relationship between material and digital sources must be maintained in intellectual communities not only to promote ties among scholars, but also to adequately continue a dialogue about the role that the digitization of archives can play in the ways we think about texts, or reading.

Once I have grounded my argument in the importance of different approaches to reading Possession, I will conduct an analysis of Ash and LaMotte’s poetry algorithmically. This will be the first time I am using text-analysis tools alongside traditional forms of interpretation, so I am unsure of how I will engage these two. I am hoping that the quantitative results that a program like Voyant Tool yields helps me engage with the qualitative distinctions in Byatt’s novel more effectively. I will admit that, as an English student grounded in certain tradition, the empirical approach to analysis that Ramsay proposes disrupts my tendency to value the discourses that have long thrived in ambiguity. Yet, as I think about Byatt’s satirical portrayal of scholarship in conjunction to algorithmic criticism, I increasingly grow convinced that our reading of LaMotte and Ash would benefit from patterns automatically derived by a computer. This will isolate our understanding of the poems away from the larger plot of Possession, so that we can increase our awareness of what Estelle Irizarry calls the “the unique blend of word, structure and pattern” of each of the authors’ poems (172 qtd. in Ramsay). I hope that the “methodological honesty” (Ramsay 173) of algorithmic tampering will help in clearing up possible discrepancies between our understanding of the text and its message. Byatt is obviously skeptical about our ability to ultimately draw satisfactory conclusions about a text because we disrupt through interpretative interventions. Ramsay’s empirical approach to separate the ‘agreed-upon facts’  and those under debate might, I argue, will yield a better-rounded conclusion about Possession, and quite possibly of my own reading habits.

Annotated list of works cited*

*This not a final list; subject to revision

Cox, Richard J. “Conclusion: A New Kind of Archival Future?” Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations. Duluth: Litwin, 2008. 289-312. UCalgary Ebrary. Web. 20 March 2013.

Cox considers the fate of the personal and professional archives that we accumulate through in the progress of our careers, and how these may be responsibly preserved and transmitted. I use Cox’s text to ground my argument that an accessible, digital grouping of archives is viable and necessary to achieve a fuller understanding of a discourse or a text.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011. UCalgary Ebrary. Web. 20 March 2013.

This text is keenly in touch with the academic anxieties Byatt develops in Possession; Fitzgerald treats challenges of obsolescence optimistically, and thinks of ways that we can integrate alternative research methodologies in order to plan ahead and ensure that conventional and ‘future’ modes of researching and reading can remain in touch as well as viable.

Mitchell, Kate. “(Dis)possessing Knowledge: A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave, 2010. 93-116. DOAB. Web. 20 March 2013.

Mitchell addresses the cultural implications of Possession, as well as the assumptions that different scholarly traditions bring to readings of the texts. This text provides evidence to justify not only the reliability of text analysis tools such as algorithms, but also my call on behalf of communal scholarship (and its possible complications).

Ramsay, Stephen. “An Algorithmic Criticism.” Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism”.  Urbana: Illinois UP, 2011. 1-17. Print.

—. “Special Section: Reconceiving Text Analysis Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.” Literary and Linguistic Computing  18.2 (2003): 167-174. Humanities International Complete. Web. March 2013.

This essay shows an earlier stage of Ramsay’s work on algorithmic criticism. Ramsay effectively addresses concerns over computer-assisted criticism, while putting forth the notion of ‘play’ through deformation, a digital form of reading that allows us to actively participate within the qualities of a given text while simultaneously quantifying patterns that deepen our empirical understanding.

Su, John J. “Fantasies of (Re)collection:Collecting and Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” Contemporary Literature 45.4 (2004): 684-712. Project Muse. Web. February 2013.

This article considers the role that collection of artifacts and documents plays in the formation of identities and awareness of heritage, themes that Su argues Byatt treats optimistically in her novel. I extend Su’s argument in my paper to include academic communities as well, but also problematize it by challenging his thesis with Ramsay’s work: for instance, what if we were to collect information to analyze algorithmically?





About Maria Jaramillo

She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.
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One Response to Prospectus: Possession and Ramsay: putting algorithmic criticism to the test

  1. ullyot says:

    My turn to apologize for the delay, Maria. This is a strong and well-articulated proposal that I think will yield very good results. You might consider ‘testing’ some of the propositions & claims of Byatt’s critics, as Ramsay does of Wallace’s claims in the first chapter. I think as you proceed with this argument, it’ll become more clear what the links are between the hoarding/protection of texts (as Ellen does of Ash’s papers) and the critics’ jealous guarding of interpretive/biographical secrets. Be sure to spell out your methodology carefully, and justify your choice of text-analysis tool.

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