New Perspective via the Integrated Force of Tradition and Digital Tools

Introduction

So, this is my last post for English 203, and instead of sitting here at a loss of words (like I was so often in earlier posts) I find I’ve got so much to say. Digital humanities has enlightened me to so many more possibilities than traditional close reading of texts, giving me new ideas and analyses about and for classical literary texts. But, that doesn’t mean I’m going to completely disregard everything I know about close reading and the pen-in-hand-holding-a-tattered-book method. In contrast, the digital humanities has actually made me appreciate those techniques even more. In my opinion, the traditional and the new should be integrated in order to be most effective, otherwise, I fear the two methods will be locked in their own ways so much that neither will be able to grow. My opinion of this is supported by Metaphorz’s blog post Humanizing Code found on the Digital Humanities Now editor’s choice blog. While he—assuming Metaphorz is a he— discusses using technology and software in accordance with the digital humanities, rather than specifically for designing  digital text analysis tools, the reasons he argues this can be applied to those same tools and their use with close reading skills. Metaphorz blog post highlights that though the digital humanities tools are being created by computers and then given to people, they are not as effective as they could be. He says “there are many differences in our respective theories, and yet, there are bridges opening up” about digital tool designers and digital tool users and their interactions. In his opinion, by keeping software and its tools separate, it prohibits the tool from adapting for the people to better use it. We saw this problem in our class with the way Monk seemed to have been abandoned. In contrast, Aditi’s changes to Wordseer exemplify Metaphorz’s argument for more integration and back and forth between users and designers.

There are “bridges opening up” between readers and digital humanists, just as there are between tool developers and digital humanists. And, similarly, we can see the same issues arising when we try to keep the digital text analysis tools separate from close reading techniques. By using only close reading, a person only gets so far in their analysis, simply because the process is time consuming and strenuous. By using digital tools exclusively, the results we gain are not only incomprehensible, but also hit and miss. Used together, close reading skills and digital tools—like WordHoard—can filter ideas and perspectives towards a unified theme of exploration.

Traditional Method and Hamlet

As I discussed in my earlier post, The Game is Afoot, Hamlet can be read and interpreted as it always has been. In that post, I discuss Ophelia and her apparent suicide, and formulate some ideas about if she is or is not suicidal. To continue to explore this vein of thought using conventional methods, I would have to go back through Hamlet to every scene of Ophelia and determine a change of character within her. Then I would want to compare her behaviour when she is with her father, to her behaviour when he is not around. Using these close readings, I would look at Ophelia’s mind frame and see what type of change there seems to be (assuming of course, there is one, as most people would agree).

Overall, this whole process would be very tedious and use up quite a bit of highlighters and sticky notes and may drive a person into insanity themselves, as I’m sure most people studying English would agree with.

WordHoard and Hamlet

Looking at Hamlet without regard for close reading and just searching randomly on a digital analysis tool, such as WordHoard, give little insight to the play as a whole. For instance, searching “Hamlet” gives 85 results to fish through for what is important/ relevant to what you wish to search. By clicking on each of these entries, you get the context, but not the speaker until you double click and it opens up the whole document of hamlet with your word highlighted. Clicking 85 times would be ridiculous—you could, but it would negate any time saving you gain from using WordHoard rather than by hand.

So, you could randomly click and see who seems to say your word (“Hamlet” in this case) the most frequently, then open a new page in WordHoard to search “Hamlet” again along with that speaker. But this could be misleading if you wanted to see who had the most interaction with Hamlet, so just to be safe, you could search how many times each character says “Hamlet” and then analyse each character’s feelings about Hamlet from there. But getting to this stage purely with digital humanities is difficult, especially if you want to focus on a specific thematic element or event, because, as I’ve already implied, it can be rather hit-and-miss when searching without a solid starting point.

For example, when I open one instance where the word “Hamlet” is said, I get Gertrude saying, “That your good beauties be the happy cause/ Of Hamlet’s wildness” (III, i, 38-39) to Ophelia. This isn’t particularly helpful in figuring out how either Gertrude or Ophelia feel about Hamlet, it only indicates—by the use of the word “wildness”— that by this point (Act 3, scene 1) Hamlet is already going mad, or at least seeming to. Even if a reader had not close read Hamlet before doing this search with WordHoard, I would expect them to already know about Hamlet’s madness. Perhaps it would reveal that the root may have been his love for Ophelia, but I doubt anyone would find this to be accurate if they had read the play.

Another example is in act 4, scene 3 when Claudius is talking to Hamlet about sending him to England. The king says “Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety/ … must send thee hence” (IV, iii, 40-42), and if someone had not read Hamlet, or had just skimmed through it, they may discount this quote as useless, seemingly harmless as it is, or else credit Claudius as having Hamlet’s best interests at heart. This assumption seems quite farfetched, but by only using WordHoard and arbitrary searching and clicking, that is a conclusion someone could draw. Had someone read Hamlet and encountered this quote in a search, they may still disregard it as being unhelpful in determining characters or relationships, but by looking at the context it is in, you can see how Hamlet is in fact playing with the king while the king is attempting to manipulate Hamlet—a much more complicated situation than someone uninformed would believe it to be.

Not only is it a hit-and-miss technique (especially with WordHoard), but it is frustrating to work without a good idea of where you want to go/ what you want to be looking for. Even if it turns out there is nothing to find, it is better to start with an idea than to just plunge into analyzing a text like Hamlet without something to go from, as Dayna discusses in her post Unlocking the Mystery that is WordHoard. I agree with her because, as she says, the design of the digital tool WordHoard is such that you need to know what you’re searching to be able to fill in all the fields and create a more narrow focus of information you receive. Otherwise, as with my earlier search of “Hamlet”, you get too many results to navigate effectively and which take many circuitous routes to narrow down.

Traditional Reading with WordHoard

Through my personal experiences with WordHoard, I have come to the conclusion that it, and the other text analysis tools used in our class, works best when in combination with close reading skills. By employing close reading skills initially, you can best form an idea about what you want to analyze and how you want to do so. As I discussed in my second post, Battle with WordHoard? Challenge Accepted—in agreement with Dayna’s post Unlocking the Mystery that is WordHoard—WordHoard needs specifics to deal with. You have to have read your text close enough to have a formulated idea to explore, as well as a plan for how to explore that idea. WordHoard challenges its user to think about how best to problem solve—you can’t search for tone or metaphor, only words. So you have to have read your text and know what type of language is used in order to be able to search words that appear in the text. WordHoard can isolate specific characters when they speak, and also show you the context and person to whom they are speaking, but it needs a focus to garner meaningful results. This takes WordHoard maybe two minutes to compile—by hand it would take several hours to mark where an individual speaks and then make up a list of what they said and to whom, etc. WordHoard brings this up immediately, allowing you to get more results faster. But then we must to back to close reading to interpret these findings accurately. Again, WordHoard is helpful here because it shows the sentence the word you searched appears in, and allows you to click the sentence to get the exact page to show up so you can read the context before and after. Close reading of this context can not only provide you with other search options/ ideas for exploration, but also allows you to more easily distinguish if results yielded by WordHoard are false positives or negatives. Once you’ve got results (positive or negative) you have to then employ your close reading skills again and check the validity of your results. Perhaps you have false positives and need to double check the context or way in which the word was used—as Shakespearian use of language is different from our own, the word “love” could be used to describe the emotion or a character’s feelings, or merely be used as an expression. Or else, you may have a false negative  if you are searching for words that are synonyms to what are actually used in the text or describe a common metaphor but are not present in that metaphor.

Conclusion

So, as I found in my post The Game is Afoot, traditional close reading of a test like Hamlet only gets you so far and can lead to much frustration because of the time consuming nature of this traditional method. But, using a digital tool such as WordHoard on its own or with minimal close reading employed also gives way to the same limitations. As Metaphorz says in his blog post “Acknowledging our differences, let’s step back and look at our similarities”. While close reading and digital tools encounter similar problems in finding difficulty focusing, they also possess a similarity of purpose. Both are methods of interpreting and analyzing a given text, and can help each other with coming to a conclusion. They work toward a common endpoint with different tools and so complement each other’s findings. What I’m trying to say is that neither close reading or digital tools are infallible in analyzing a text. You need to be able to use them both in conjunction as a give-and-take method to get the best out of each and to (possibly) uncover a new perspective. Both traditional methods and new face the same problem of filtering out extraneous details, but when used together, they complement each other’s weak points and work to narrow searches and ideas into a cohesive point.

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