A Brave New (Digital) World

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I am a purist at heart: Old school Rock ‘N’ Roll/ Punk rather than the mainstream music of today, records rather than digital downloads, and books; old, dusty, classic read-with-a-cup-of-tea-while-it-rains-outside books. But we are becoming (or rather, we have become) a digital society. I currently write this ‘blog’ on a computer while connected to the internet and listening to my ipod. My household holds a television for practically every room with DVD players and Blu-ray players as their companions, along with a multitude of game systems, laptops, tablets, and, of course, cell phones that everyone refuses to part with. Communication has shifted from face-to-face time to social media and online profiles accessible by anyone with access to the internet. If everything else has gone digital, moving up to the ‘next best thing’, why wouldn’t literature?  E-readers are becoming common, replacing the feel and smell of actual books (mine sits unloved while I pay attention to a print copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451’.) Our campus library isn’t simply a library: it is a digital library. And now it seems the study of books has moved to the digital. Copy and paste your text into a program and you are instantly handed an analysis on a silver platter (supposedly), rejecting the old close reading method of reading, re-reading, and then re-re-reading with a yellow highlighter and pen while surrounded by a storm of loose leaf paper on which lay your scribbled notes and questions to explore.

Is this the way forward for literary analysis? Are English classes going to be taught by the click of a mouse rather than with the group discussions? In all honesty, I hope not. And to be realistic, I don’t believe so. But you can’t deny it is happening.

I find my thoughts summed up nice and simply in the title of a blog by Michael Kramer: The Fetishation of Data. In reading the blog, my attention is caught by his discussion of the problem of data vs. reality. As Kramer rightly points out, data is not reality, and accepting it as such (this ‘fetishation’) is dangerous. He reminds us that data is not 100% true; it holds inadequacies and faults (after all, machines, much like their creators, make mistakes. Need a reminder? You need only look back at the phase one blogs of my TAPoR group, where frustration with the program was palpable.) Kramer suggests that we have to bring ourselves into the equation and interpret the data we pull. If we simply take the data and present it as fact we are not only misusing it, but we are taken out of the process, allowing the purely qualitative data composed of pretty graphs (or word lists in the case of TAPoR)  to ‘dehumanize’ us. As Kramer rightly states, there are no “bodies, minds, desires, dispositions, and other extraordinarily concrete qualitative realities” captured in that given data, essentially rendering it moot. What is the point of reading and understanding a text when you are not going to look at what the author himself is expressing?

With digital analysis, it is all data, data, data. Everything is concrete and there is no room to break out of bounds. But the human mind is not to be contained. Shakespeare was a genius. His mind was (I can only assume) constantly flickering with ideas that shifted and evolved and begged to be heard. Ideas shift not only in the mind of the creator, but once it is the public’s to interpret once it is in their hands. What Hamlet says to one generation will not be the same as to the next; what he says to one person will not be the same to another. What it being said is the same, yes, but how we interpret it and how we process its meaning is constantly changing. The possibilities in what you can pull from the text are limitless, and the ideas discussed are far to complex for a machine running on 0’s and 1’s to comprehend. This is something I have discussed, briefly, in a previous blog: simply using digital data restrains my mind and forces me to view a text in a narrow frame of view. I find my focus being pulled away, causing me to miss things and unable to grasp the whole of what is being said. To understand the human imagination, a human mind is needed.

And so, going by what Kramer discussed with the need to interpret data, I turn to Hamlet to see what I can pull from the text, and what a machine (and its data I am to interpret) can say.

New Age Digital Analysis vs. Good ‘Ol Fashioned Human Interpretation

 Every time I come back to Hamlet I find myself coming away with new interpretations. In each new reading I find new meanings; I notice more themes; and I discover more layers to the characters. I can finish the play with the inception of new ideas, or the expansion of older ones. When I enter the text into my TAPoR program, however, it will always come out the same. The data I receive will be the same, time and time again. When I ask for a list of the frequent words used in the play (in a hope to find theme or mood, ETC), it will always come out looking like this:

On the surface, this says nothing to me. To pull anything out of the data received, I have to interpret it; I have to pull out what I consider key and relate that to what I already know of the text.

For instance, the most frequent word in Hamlet appears to be ‘Lord’. You would think with so many uses it would be the most important word, but really it is not. The word of focus for many studying the play is ‘madness’, which comes in with only 22 uses (not including lemmas, unfortunately.) Why is madness such an argued topic when discussing the play, when it is lightly touched upon as a frequent word? Because in reading the data, ‘madness’ is a word that may be thought of as having more depth due to the fact that while reading the play, you are able to notice the theme in characters or situations. In the case of Hamlet, you are able to think either ‘yes, he is mad’ or ‘no, he is not, he is playing an act’ based on what you see him say and do.

I personally do not think that Hamlet is mad. I came to this conclusion in my reading of the play and after a comparison between Hamlet’s ‘madness’ and Ophelia’s (which I have discussed in this post.) I compare the madness of the two in act IV because it is this moment in the play where the two instances of madness occur.

In my digital analysis, it does seem Hamlet is mad; I find more references in act IV to him being mad than I do for Ophelia:

Both uses of ‘mad’ are in reference to Hamlet, as are two of the three ‘madness’:

However, in my reading, I find much more references and key phrases of madness used towards Ophelia: Gertrude is told how “She is importunate – indeed, distract”(4.5.2) and how she “says she hears/There’s tricks i’th’ world, and hems and beats her heart,/Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt/That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing.”(4.5.4-8) Claudius also refers to madness as he says she is “Divided from herself and her fair judgement” (4.5.85). Her description of madness is not so blunt as simply being called ‘mad’ like Hamlet, but it is still clear that she is indeed mad.

From what I read in the play, the reason Hamlet is thought of as mad is from other characters referencing him as such. The other characters are entitled to say such a thing. Around them (especially Claudius or Polonius), Hamlet certainly does appear mad as he talks about vague nonsense. This ‘nonsense’ talk is itself a hint to his sanity: while no one may understand completely what he is saying, his ‘nonsense’ is true and makes sense. It especially denies his madness when you think back on his declaration “to put an antic disposition on” (1.5.170) So while around others, Hamlet does appear to be insane. But alone, he is thoughtful. When Hamlet is alone on stage he delivers many soliloquies on his thoughts. His most famous speech, “To be or not to be” (3.1.55) is where he is at his most thoughtful, contemplating life and death. Can someone ‘mad’ be that thoughtful? Ophelia does concern herself with life and death in her madness, but nowhere near the sort of depth Hamlet has.

In my readings I find much to interpret and build up new ideas. My digital analysis, however, does not do such a good job. It may be due to my program’s limit to simply list and look for words, but any data I find seems to lack what I find when I read. And of course, I have to interpret the data I find by myself, meaning I am left to look at a fraction of what I am analysing.

My Time Down the Digital Rabbit Hole

What ENGL 203 has done, if anything, is thrown me down the rabbit hole, so to speak. In signing up for the course, I was drawn to take it based on the work to study. I didn’t understand what the ‘digital humanities’ portion of the course meant, but I was excited to find out and excited to try something new. And my excitement has not faded away. While I still don’t have a full grasp of what the digital humanities are or know the full extent of what it can do for my studies, its unique approach holds my interest. I have been thrown into a world of studies I was unfamiliar with, and who held more possibilities than I knew existed. I have seen that there are other methods of analysing a text apart from my chosen method of close reading. With a click of a button you can chart character speaking frequencies and word distribution; you can break lines down into common words and see what characters concern themselves with in their speech and thoughts, allowing more insight into who they are and what they do. What I find absolutely lovely about the use of digital tools is how fast they act to produce results which may point out details which I may overlook in my initial readings. For instance, I was aware of the references to nature throughout Hamlet, but I never noticed how many times the body or mind was referenced until after I sorted through the word lists my program compiled.

However, no matter what sort of bells and whistles and shiny gadgets the digital analysis offers, the data they offer is somewhat empty. Data is purely qualitative; it means nothing if you do not look at it and think and interpret what it is saying. A graph will be a squiggly line unless you say ‘this means this’. A word frequency list is just a list of words, unless you sort through and pick out key words. Not only this, but the data is stagnant. Machines will pull the same results time and time again, where as new thoughts are incepted and old ideas may be expanded further with the human imagination.

I believe that while others are more suited for a digital analysis of text and the interpretation of data, I am more content and comfortable with a traditional close reading. I would rather form my own ideas than have a machine point it out for me. I would rather wear out a book than wear down my keyboard. And I would rather read a text and experience what was written and expressed so carefully by the author. But to each his own. It’s been fun experiencing a new world.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Ann Thompson, and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006. Print. Third Series.

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