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Novels Are Made of Words: Moby-Dick, Emotion, and Abridgment
"Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, “But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.” “But my dear Degas,” the poet replied, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.”

Paintings, for that matter, are not made of pretty ballerinas or landscapes: they’re made of paint.

Which brings us to Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s new program that analyzes the words of a novel for their emotional value and graphs the sentimental shape of the book. Dan Piepenbring has explained it all here and here on the Daily, with links to the original postings and the various outcries, some of them in the comments, that have blown up around Jockers.

Many people apparently find Jockers’s research the latest assault of technocratic digitocracy on the citadel of deep humanistic feelings, but that’s not how I see it. What the graphs reveal about potboiler narrative structure versus high-literary arcs, for instance—Dan Brown’s higher average positivity than James Joyce’s, and his more regular cycle of highs and lows to force the reader through the book—is insightful, useful, and great.

In some ways, it’s hard for me to even see what the fuss is about. “It’s not that it’s wrong,” one commenter writes. “It’s just that it’s an extremely poor substitute for reading, enjoying, and discussing literature.” But who said anything about a substitute? Does this commenter not notice that the discussions of the graphs rest on having read the books and seeing how the graphs shed light on them? Another: “Okay, fuck this guy for comparing Dan Brown to James Joyce.” Well, how else can you say Joyce is better and Brown is worse? That’s what’s known as a comparison. Or do you think Joyce can’t take it?

Freak-outs aside, there are substantive rebuttals, too. What seems to be the most rigorous objection is from SUNY professor and fellow digital-humanities scholar Annie Swafford, who points out some failures in the algorithm. “I am extremely happy today” and “There is no happiness left in me,” for example, read as equally positive. And:

Longer sentences may be given greater positivity or negativity than their contents warrant, merely because they have greater number of positive or negative words. For instance, “I am extremely happy!” would have a lower positivity ranking than “Well, I’m not really happy; today, I spilled my delicious, glorious coffee on my favorite shirt and it will never be clean again.”

But let’s actually compare “Well, I’m not really happy; today, I spilled my delicious, glorious coffee on my favorite shirt and it will never be clean again” to “I’m sad.” The positivity or negativity might be the same, assuming there could be some kind of galvanometer or something attached to the emotional nodes of our brain to measure the “pure” “objective” “quantity” of positivity. But the first of those sentences is more emotional—maybe not more positive, but more expressive, more histrionic. Ranking it higher than “I’m sad” or even “I am very happy” makes a certain kind of sense.

“There is no happiness left in me” and “I am all sadness from now on” are the same seven words to a logician or a hypothetical emotiomometer, but not to a novelist or a reader. Everyone in advertising and political wordsmithing knows that people absorb the content of a statement much more than the valence: to say that something “is not horrific and apocalyptic” is a downer, despite the “not.” Or consider: “Gone for eternity is the delight that once filled my heart to overflowing—the sparkle of sun on the fresh morning dew of new experience, soft envelopments of a lover’s thighs, empyrean intellectual bliss, everything that used to give my life its alpenglow of hope and wonder—never again!” and “I’m depressed.” An algorithm that rates the first piece of writing off-the-charts positive is a more useful quantification of the words than one that would rate the emotional value of the two as the same.

Some years back, Orion Books produced a book called Moby-Dick in Half the Time, in a line of Compact Editions “sympathetically edited” to “retain all the elements of the originals: the plot, the characters, the social, historical and local backgrounds and the author’s language and style.” I have nothing against abridgments—I’ve abridged books myself—but I felt that what makes Melville Melville, in particular, is digression, texture, and weirdness. If you only have time to read half the book, which half the time is more worth spending? What elements of the original do we want to abridge for?

Moby-Dick in Half the Time seemed like it would lose something more essential than would Anna Karenina in Half the Time or Vanity Fair in Half the Time or Orion’s other offerings. I decided to find out. So I compiled every chapter, word, and punctuation mark that Orion’s abridger cut from Melville’s original Moby-Dick; or The Whale, and published the result, with its inevitable title, as a book of its own: a lost work by Herman Melville called ; or The Whale.

Half the Time keeps the plot arc of Ahab’s quest, of course, but ; or The Whale arguably turns out closer to the emotional ups and downs of Melville’s novel—and that tells us something about how Melville writes. His linguistic excess erupts at moments of emotional intensity; those moments of intensity, trimmed as excess from Half the Time, are what make up the other semibook. Chapter sixty-two, for example, consists of a single word, “hapless”—the only word Orion’s abridger cut from the chapter, trimming a 105-word sentence to 104, for some reason. That’s a pretty good sentiment analysis of Melville’s chapter as a whole. Reading ; or The Whale is a bit like watching a DVD skip ahead on fast forward, and it gets at something real about Melville’s masterpiece. About the emotion in the words.

So I would defend the automated approach to novelistic sentiment on different grounds than Piepenbring’s. I take plot as seriously as he does, as opposed to valorizing only the style or ineffable poetry of a novel; I also see Béla Tarr movies or early Nicholson Baker novels as having plots, too, just not eventful ones. Jockers’s program is called Syuzhet because of the Russian Formalist distinction between fabula, what happens in chronological order in a story, and syuzhet, the order of things in the telling (diverging from the fabula in flashbacks, for instance, or when information is withheld from the reader). It’s not easy to say how “plot” arises out of the interplay between the two. But having minimal fabula is not the same as having little or no plot.

In any case, fabula is not what Syuzhet is about. Piepenbring summarizes: “algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values [Jockers is] able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening.” This may or may not be true, but novels are not made of things that happen, they are made of words. Again: “When we track ‘positive sentiment,’ we do mean, I think, that things are good for the protagonist or the narrator.” Not necessarily, but we do mean—tautologically—that things are good for the reader in the warm afternoon sunshine of the book’s positive language.

Great writers, along with everything else they are doing, stage a readerly experience and lead their readers through it from first word on first page to last. Mapping out what those paths might look like is as worthy a critical approach as any."
paulvaléry  edgardegas  writing  novels  mobydick  mattherjocker  2015  digital  words  language  hermanmelville  reading  howwewrite  automation  emotions  algorithms  narrative  nicholsonbaker  bélatarr  moby-dick 
april 2018 by robertogreco
Why we should love material things more – Nick Thorpe – Aeon
"For a new materialist, the term ‘inanimate object’ is similarly inadequate to describe the things that we collect and discard. In Vibrant Matter (2010), Bennett writes that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn’t be so careless with our stuff. But the disjointedness of hyper-consumerism conceals the continuing life of objects, built anonymously in distant factories and eventually left to leech chemicals into landfill: ‘How, for example, would patterns of consumption change,’ she asks, ‘if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling”, but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?’

Another name for this is awareness – a spiritual virtue increasingly cultivated in the West through the growing popularity of Buddhism and meditation. By focusing upon a raisin for 15 minutes, as I was once exhorted to do in pursuit of mindfulness, you can find yourself inside a sensory fractal of awe, tracing its tiny life from seed to sap to vine, to sun-baked plumpness, as if on some benign hallucinogenic trip. It’s certainly never ‘just a raisin’ again.

Indeed, it is often the seemingly insignificant objects that tell us most about ourselves. In his celebrated debut novel The Mezzanine (1988), the American cult materialist writer Nicholson Baker feasts with such relish on physical minutiae – the patterns in a recently vacuumed office carpet; a can of soup rotating slowly at the end of a supermarket conveyor belt – that it is impossible not to feel affinity with them. The entire timeframe of the novel spans only the seconds it takes for the narrator to ascend one floor on an escalator, so dense and vivid are the lives and memories that fan outwards from the things he encounters."



"If I’m ever going to respond more consciously to my knee-jerk replacement anxiety, I need a product designed to last."



"The New Economics Foundation predicts that the new materialism will lead to more emphasis in spending on ‘experiences rather than disposable goods’, which means less shopping and more music, film, live performance, sport and socialising: more lasting satisfaction and less of the transitory hit of ownership. This in turn might lead to a proliferation of festivals, sporting competitions and cultural events celebrating the talents we share and occluding the endless proliferation of retail stuff.

Interestingly, this was more or less what changed for Easter Islanders when it became obvious that building totemic tribal monoliths was not going to save them from the ecological abyss. Instead, they evolved a new system of governance based on an annual festival known as the Birdman Rites. This colourful and demanding event pitted the fittest young men against one another in a death-defying swim to an islet a mile offshore. Their goal was to be the one to find the season’s first egg of the migrating sooty tern and bring it back, unbroken, to their tribal sponsor – who then became the ruling ‘birdman’ for the year.

If not an obvious recipe for social stability, at least it focused on an iconic object that did not require unsustainable quarrying or tree-felling: the egg, a thing of fragile beauty, is a universal symbol of rebirth and sustainability.

The Birdman Rite outlasted a rocky period of tit-for-tat statue toppling, and seemingly even suggested a way for the Rapa Nui to recycle and repurpose their ancient stone ancestors for a different age. Look closely at the back of the famous Hoa Hakananai’a moai at the British Museum, and you see much later carvings of birdmen and the sooty tern, whose eggs came to symbolise the true power on Rapa Nui. ‘There is something poignant in this dialogue between the two sides of Hoa Hakananai’a,’ writes McGregor in A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘a sculpted lesson that no way of living or thinking can endure for ever.’

There are many who believe that our own society is in the process of learning a similar lesson. But a more thoughtful commitment to love and cherish what we already have might yet save us, too. And leave us more deeply connected to one another."
objects  materialism  consumerism  nicholsonbaker  2014  nickthorpe  buddhism  rapanui  easterisland  materiality  events  experience  howwelive  cv  disposability  sustainability  ownership  sharing 
march 2014 by robertogreco
Out Loud: Nicholson Baker on Writing and Technology : The New Yorker
"This week on the podcast, Michael Agger talks with Nicholson Baker about writing and technology, including his recent piece on LCD screens. Baker explains his unorthodox writing techniques, what kinds of fiction make for the best dreams, and how he combats “peak attention span” by reading aloud in the morning."
nicholsonbaker  2013  interviews  writing  howwewrite  tools  technology  lcdscreens  attention  readingaloud  reading  tolisten 
august 2013 by robertogreco
SFMOMA | OPEN SPACE » Blog Archive » Do Physical Objects Have the Right to Exist?
"And I think it’s going to start happening in my field (archival film), where professional ethics and historical precedent currently dictate that you don’t throw away original material except in very special circumstances, even though you may have copied it to a more stable format. So while archives used to junk flammable nitrate film after copying it to safety, they now keep the nitrate cool and dry, because emerging technologies may enable us to make better preservation copies in the future. This is both ethical and reasonable. And yet, considering the vast amount of analog film and videotape that’s clogging moving image archives, ethics may be at risk. Only a small fraction of film on the shelves ever gets seen by researchers, scholars, or the public. And only a small fraction of that ever gets reused. The rest sits waiting for a longshot request that might bring it out of obscurity. At the same time the costs of bricks-and-mortar storage, human stewardship, cooling and dehumidification all rise, as the amount of film in storage escalates.

Information is archival capital, but too much information is a liability. I foresee institutions starting to tune their collections more finely as they recalculate the relationship between comprehensiveness and fiscal balance. “Repositories of last resort” may step in to save one or two copies of each physical object after it’s digitized, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Does the obsolescence of physical objects constitute a serious loss? While I would almost never excuse the intentional destruction of cultural materials (don’t ask me to explain “almost,” as this post would then go over limit), I don’t necessarily lament the existence of gaps in the cultural record. Desire to restore what’s missing, to address gaps in the record, can be a powerful motivator of history (and, for that matter, art). Loss can be formative. Much artistic and historical practice today has an archaeological inflection; it’s devoted to chasing forgotten discourses, near-mythical communities, and liminal situations. But archaeology is certainly easier when the evidence hasn’t been thrown away.

What civil rights do we want to grant to physical objects with artistic, cultural, and historical significance? Objects are mute, and each may one day have its own quiet moment of reckoning."
objects  archives  archiving  2013  rickprelinger  nicholsonbaker 
june 2013 by robertogreco
russell davies: big-town folksy
"Scamp has started blogging again. Which is nice.

He's written something thoughtful about capturing 'tone of voice' which reminded me that pithy statements of tone are things I collect.

Here's the latest I've found, from Nicholson Baker's The Way The World Works:

John Updike described the tone of the New Yorker as "big-town folksy".

Isn't that perfect? Big-town folksy."
big-townfolksy  johnupdike  nicholsonbaker  newyorker  writing  tome  russelldavies 
september 2012 by robertogreco
Video games for Xbox and Playstation : The New Yorker
"The second thing I learned about video games is that they are long…not like watching one ninety-minute movie…like watching one whole season of a TV show…in a state of staring, jaw-clenched concentration…

On the other hand, the games can be beautiful."

"The good thing about Halo 3: ODST is…I don’t know. If I was fonder of 1970s cast-concrete architecture, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the experience more…game seemed to me to be both desolate & repetitive, w/ incomprehensible Biblical & race-war undermeanings."

"…best time I had w/ Uncharted 2 was while eating a submarine sandwich & watching the making-of videos that came w/ the game disk, fantasizing about what it would be like to work for Naughty Dog as a late-afternoon-lighting designer or a stony-ledge-placement specialist. These people know how to have fun."

"This list…made w/ my son’s help. He reads video-game Web sites & listens every week…Giant Bombcast…like “Car Talk” but with 4 vastly knowledgeable gamers."
videogames  gaming  games  nicholsonbaker  reviews  gamedesign  2010 
july 2011 by robertogreco
Frank Chimero’s Blog - The Storm and The Line
"…“changer les idées”… to do something different to clear one’s head.…to take a break, to have a rest, but most importantly…an interruption of routine…“to change one’s ideas.” Sometimes…inflicted on us…other times we may choose to do it for ourselves. If the world can be reinvented, we should reassess our presumptions and ideas, especially when we find ourselves in situations that shake us to the core…

…everything we do, everything we make, is not about the beginning or the end of things. We may draw a line, but we are in the thick of life. We make for these middle parts. Every time we sit down to write, draw, design, paint, dance, we do so because we believe there will be a tomorrow. Every movement and each creation says, “The world is not done yet.” To make is to be optimistic. We get to make tomorrow for ourselves and one another, and we are lucky, because we are allowed to be engaged with the world and one another in this way…"
design  culture  writing  language  life  nicholsonbaker  creativity  creating  making  doing  glvo  optimism  change  meaning  meaningmaking  happiness  sadness  emotions  frankchimero  routine  disruption  disruptive  disruptors  action 
june 2011 by robertogreco
Frank Chimero’s Blog - The Storm and The Line
"…“changer les idées”… to do something different to clear one’s head.…to take a break, to have a rest, but most importantly…an interruption of routine…“to change one’s ideas.” Sometimes…inflicted on us…other times we may choose to do it for ourselves. If the world can be reinvented, we should reassess our presumptions and ideas, especially when we find ourselves in situations that shake us to the core…

…everything we do, everything we make, is not about the beginning or the end of things. We may draw a line, but we are in the thick of life. We make for these middle parts. Every time we sit down to write, draw, design, paint, dance, we do so because we believe there will be a tomorrow. Every movement and each creation says, “The world is not done yet.” To make is to be optimistic. We get to make tomorrow for ourselves and one another, and we are lucky, because we are allowed to be engaged with the world and one another in this way…"
design  culture  writing  language  life  nicholsonbaker  creativity  creating  making  doing  glvo  optimism  change  meaning  meaningmaking  happiness  sadness  emotions  frankchimero  routine  disruption  disruptive  disruptors  action 
june 2011 by robertogreco
The New Yorker - publicradiointernational: In which we learn that...
"publicradiointernational: In which we learn that Salman Rushdie is a fan of video games. “I think video games exist to allow children to feel superior to their parents.”<br />
<br />
Salman Rushdie and Nicholson Baker should be friends. They could bond over video games and their feelings about Michiko Kakutani."
salmanrushdie  nicholsonbaker  michikokakutani  writing  writers  videogames  games  gaming 
november 2010 by robertogreco
A Podcast with Nicholson Baker : The New Yorker
via John Naughton via David Smith, http://memex.naughtons.org/archives/2010/08/13/11597 : "“Painkiller Deathstreak” by Nicolson Baker. An extraordinary piece (alas, available only to subscribers to print or digital editions of the New Yorker, so maybe it’s unfair to include it here) about what happens when a gifted and observant writer spends a month of his life playing computer games. I’ve often blanched at the arrogance of adults denouncing ‘mindless’ computer games which (a) they’ve never tried to play, and (b) are actually far too complex for them to master. The result is a chasm between the shared cultural experience of entire generations — and total ignorance on the part of adults. The kids who understand and play games have better things to do than to delineate the contours of this exotic subculture for the benefit of their elders. So it was an extraordinarily good idea to get a sophisticated, observant, articulate writer to have a go."
2010  gaming  games  nicholsonbaker  newyorker  generations  subcultures  videogames  lostintranslation  arrogance  culture  sharedexperience  experience  anthropology  children  youth  gamedesign 
august 2010 by robertogreco
Frank Chimero - Archiving The Anthologist
Just one of the great selections: "At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art."
writing  ideas  elitism  art  culture  frankchimero  nicholsonbaker  theanthologist  life  wisdom  poetry  work  glvo  recognition  starting  howwework 
august 2010 by robertogreco
Blog: Frank Chimero (It’s hard to hold it all in your head. All the...)
"I forgot who said this, but someone once told me that we come to other people’s creative work out of a secret desire and hope that someone understands us better than we understand ourselves. We come to Austen and Kubrick and Basquiat and Aretha under the hopes that they have the same acute feelings, but more able hands and voices that can some how capture that fleeting emotion and crystalize it. We quote, because someone said it better than we can. But, some days I want it all to stop. I can’t keep up." ... "A year with no poems. A week with no news. A day without kerranging. I don’t long for focus. I long for negative space. Pause. Full rest. Declaring a space that is to remain empty, with the presumption that because a portion is left vacant, it makes the whole better. Pause. The world will keep charging and accelerating. But, as my friend Drew said, “There is no catching up.” And because of that, I raise my white flag, and crack another dusty spine."

[Wayback link: http://web.archive.org/web/20100604035146/http://blog.frankchimero.com/post/654094925/its-hard-to-hold-it-all-in-your-head-all-the ]
frankchimero  polymaths  infooverload  time  pause  balance  rest  nicholsonbaker  theanthologist  books 
june 2010 by robertogreco
Robin writes a book (and you get a copy) » The schedule (and some notes on writing) — Kickstarter [see also: http://snarkmarket.com/2009/4044]
"Now, a few notes on writing. ... Long is not a bigger version of short.: So if a short story poses challenges X, Y, and Z, then Annabel Scheme would pose challenges 10X, 10Y, and 10Z, right? Nope. Instead it posed challenges X, Y, and Z... and A, B, and C... and Q6, K(ii), and so on. Totally new challenges. Problems I'd never faced before. ... Writing in your underwear.: I totally aspire to wacky writerly habits; I do not have any yet. ... The risky rewrite.: There's no reason to fear the rewrite. And that's why I like writing better than, say, moviemaking. Even in the endgame, the story stays flexible. Words are cheap! If I want to get rid of that giant robot blimp and replace it with an armada of squid-ships, it takes five minutes. Let's see ILM do that. ... The secret balance: There's a balance, I discovered, between sharing the fun of the process and preserving the fun of the finished product.."
nicholsonbaker  robinsloan  writing  practice  howwework  process  howto  novels  novellas  fiction  experience  tcsnmy 
november 2009 by robertogreco
The Moment The Post-Materialist | Muji Obsession « - T Magazine - New York Times Blog
"William Gibson really nailed its appeal: “It calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn’t really exist, a Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal, reasonably priced.""
japan  culture  design  momus  muji  nicholsonbaker  williamgibson  postmaterialism  materialism 
june 2008 by robertogreco
Author Nicholson Baker on his advanced Wikipedia dependency | Technology | The Guardian
"For researchers it's a place to look stuff up, Vibber said, but for editors "it's almost more like an online game, in that it's a community where you hang out a bit, and do something that's a little bit of fun: you whack some trolls, you build some mater
writing  wikipedia  lifeasgame  culture  nicholsonbaker  games  gaming  play 
april 2008 by robertogreco
The Charms of Wikipedia - The New York Review of Books
"point of convergence for self-taught and expensively educated...cranks had to consort with mainstreamers & hash it all out—and nobody knew who really knew what he/she was talking about...everyone's identity was hidden behind jokey username."
wikipedia  books  encyclopedias  reviews  culture  history  via:russelldavies  education  knowledge  nicholsonbaker  collaboration  writing  language  encyclopedia 
march 2008 by robertogreco

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