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Russian Formalism & the Digital Humanities: Abstracts

 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Stanford Humanities Center

 

 

Opening Remarks (9:30-9:50)
Franco Moretti (Stanford University)


Session One (9:50-12:30): Formalist Literary Analysis Then and Now
Chair: Harsha Ram (University of California, Berkeley)

Galin Tihanov (Queen Mary University of London)
“Shades Of Objectivity: Russian Formalism Before And After The Digital Humanities”

My paper examines the claims to scientific rigour and objectivity that both Russian Formalism (RF) and the Digital Humanities (DH) make. I contextualize these claims historically and try to understand both their common ground and the differences that obtain between RF and DH. I am also interested in revealing the complex ecology of knowledge since the arrival of information technology (with virtual reality, simultaneity, and the suspension of the question of the original as its cornerstones) that inflects our interpretation of RF today and offers access to the (productive) epistemological tensions within DH.

Ilya Kliger (New York University)
“Dynamic Archeology or Distant Reading: Literary Science between Two Formalisms”

In retrospect, it is tempting to see the group of scholars, critics and writers who came to be known as Russian Formalists as sympathetic forebears of the current quantitative turn in literary study.  Evidently, the two movements are guided by similar concerns.  Both claim privileged status for form.  Both hope to grasp literary history as a system rather than a succession of individual authors or works.  At least in statements of method, both show contempt for the canon, embracing the archive; and for interpretation, preferring analysis.  Both see limitations in close reading.   Programmatic similarities at times seem so strong that practitioners of quantitative literary analysis may come to pity their precociously rigorous forerunners for not having had the tools at their disposal – available to us through digitalization – to practice their science properly.  The Formalists in turn, while surely intrigued by the new technology, might have found digital literary study methodologically retrograde, or at any rate, foreign.  What they might fail to recognize in the work of their better-equipped successors are the very meanings of the basic categories of analysis: form, history, method, literature itself.  This presentation is motivated by the premise that, when it comes to the two formalisms here at issue, less is lost in translation than in assuming we don’t need one.

Peter Steiner (University of Pennsylvania)
“Divergence vs. Convergence: Moretti, Tynyanov, Jakobson”

My presentation will focus on Franco Moretti’s provocative application of the Darwinian evolutionary model based on the divergence of biological species and their survival through the mechanism of natural selection to literary history. This approach I will juxtapose to the ideas of the two leading Russian Formalists—Jurii Tynianov and Roman Jakobson—whose explanation of linguistic/literary change was programmatically anti-Darwinian, making conversion (conceived, though, in a very specific way) the cornerstone of their respective historiographies. In doing so, they were reacting to the project of historical poetics advanced by the 19th century Russian Positivist philologist, Aleksandr Veselovskii (1838-1906), whose stated goal was to trace the morphological divergences of texts across time and space.

Glen Worthey (Stanford University)
“How ‘Digital Humanities’ is Made”

This paper is a Formalist- and DH-inspired comparative analysis of Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities as intellectual movements.  I discuss several theoretical and practical commonalities between the two movements as critical schools (that is, their "content"); and likewise compare the historical, social, and institutional contexts in which both of them have arisen and thrived (that is, their "form" and "structure").  I rely on both speculative / interpretative and quantitative / experimental approaches, and will likely ask more questions than I will provide answers.



Session Two (1:30-3:30): Russian Formalist Theory meets Digital Humanities Tools 
Chair: Mike Widner (Stanford University)


Mark Algee-Hewitt (Stanford University)
“The Order of Poetry: Information, Aesthetics and Jakobson’s Theory of Literary Communication”

In his search for the underlying linguistic principles of literary (and particularly poetic) communication, Roman Jakobson, in a short essay from 1960, entitled “Linguistics and Communication Theory” remarks upon the “striking coincidences and convergences between the latest stages of linguistic analysis and the approach to language in the mathematical theory of communication.” In the essay, Jakobson outlines the ways in which Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s  “Mathematical Theory of Communication” can revise our understanding of literary language as a stochastic process that is influenced by hierarchical rules that manifest themselves in the probabilities of word selection. Although promising, his progress stalls because, as he acknowledges, he lacks the computational power to calculate information load at the scale of corpora. In this paper, I return to the questions that Jakobson raises and investigate the work of poetic language through the application of information theory. Here, I move away from the standard uses of information loss as a method to establish abstract distances between individual poems, and instead derive informational metrics as a set of formal characteristics that offer information about the “noisy” process of poetic communication itself. What do metrics like “redundancy” tell us about the ways in which poets communicate information to their audience? Does, as Jakobson argues, the “noise” of poetic language offer a separate method of communication that accompanies, and enhances, the nominal “meaning” of the text? And, taken as a separate linguistic field, does poetry suggest the limits of understanding information transfer mathematically? By calculating a new set of communication-based metrics on a corpus of English poetry, I explore, in this paper, the ways in which contemporary Digital Humanities work can pick up the striking sympathies that Jakobson outlines and offer new ways of understanding aesthetics through information. 

David Birnbaum and Elise Thorsen (University of Pittsburgh)
"Enabling the automated identification and analysis of meter and rhyme in Russian verse"

The quantitative study of meter and rhyme in Russian syllabotonic verse has been well-established as a research method at least since Kiril Taranovski's 1953 Ruski dvodelni ritmovi, and has roots that go back even earlier. Much computer-assisted analysis of Russian meter and rhyme, such as that conducted by J. Thomas Shaw in the latter part of the twentieth century, has used computational tools to manage the data, but the preparation of those data for analysis have traditionally depended on the manual human identification and annotation of the poetic corpus. Manual identification and annotation is not scalable, but machine-assisted alternatives are complicated by the fact that meter and rhyme depend on the place of stress, which is not normally represented in standard Russian orthography. This presentation will discuss the development of new computational tools that overcome those limitations and make it possible to describe and analyze the meter and rhyme of Russian verse on the basis of plain-text input in normal Russian orthography.

Matthew Jockers (University of Nebraska)
“Latent Plot Analysis Using the Syuzhet Package in R”

Jockers will discuss his most recent research charting plot structures in a corpus of 50,000 narratives.  He'll discuss how he leveraged tools and techniques from natural language processing, sentiment analysis, signal processing, and machine learning in order to develop an R package that extracts latent plot arcs from narrative fiction. The presentation will include an overview of the method, and overview of the Syuzhet R package he's developed, and the major conclusions of the research.


 

Session Three (4:00-6:00): Points of Contact - Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities
Chair: Nariman Skakov (Stanford University)


Igor Pil’shchikov (Tallinn University/Moscow State University)
“The Legacy of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the Digital Humanities Today”

The Moscow Linguistic Circle, which has recently started to attract the attention of the researchers, still remains one of the most understudied phenomena in the history of Russian linguistics and poetics. The role that it played in the fields of linguistic poetics, verse studies, exact scientific methods in the humanities, semiotics and philosophy of language has not been investigated properly, because the proceedings and other materials of the MLC still await publication. The Moscow scholars developed a formal statistical approach to the study of literary language which examines all the levels of the poetic text. They concerned themselves with both synchronic and diachronic poetics, as well as literary genesis, evolution and typology. This plan was not implemented in full due to the political difficulties of that time.

Digital and printed publication of the works of the Moscow Linguistic Circle with a detailed commentary and reference apparatus should be included among the priorities for the conservation of the Russian scientific and cultural-historical heritage. Among the unpublished materials of the MLC the most important place should be ascribed to the reports and minutes from the meetings of the Circle, which are now kept at the Vinogradov Institute of Russian Language in Moscow (ca 700 pp.). Another important group of materials includes unpublished papers on general philology, linguistic poetics and verse theory written by the members of the phenomenological wing of the MLC (first and foremost, Maksim Kenigsberg, whose works are preserved in Moscow archives).

Filling these lacunae leads to recalibration of our contemporary vision of Russian formalism, which is less impressionistic, more fundamental, and more philosophically based than we used to think. This will enable us to effectively develop the formalist ideas in the context of the 21st century humanities. With the advent of ICT and DH, some of the statistically-based projects that seemed too large-scale and too tiresome eighty years ago (such as Boris Jarcho’s program of synchronic and diachronic statistical study of all levels of literary texts) are now well within our reach. At the same time, the practical needs, which will emerge in the process of realization of such programs, may very well stimulate the development of DH themselves (as is already the case with the computer study of verse).

Gabriella Safran (Stanford University)
“Victor Shklovsky and Victor Chernov on Effective Words: Toward a Formalist and Quantitative Analysis of Socialist-Revolutionary Rhetoric”

Victor Shklovsky’s ties to the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party – the Bolsheviks’ strongest enemy on the left – color his memoir, Sentimental Journey, and motivated his flight to Berlin during the 1922 SR show trials. His political and literary-theoretical allegiances are linked not only by his rebellious attitude but also by the Formalists’ and the SRs’ shared commitment to understanding what could make language get readers’ or listeners’ attention. This paper reports on an attempt to use quantitative methodology on a corpus of SR rhetoric to test some of the assertions made about effective political speech by the SR leader Victor Chernov, and it reflects on what this experiment suggests about the possibility of using digital techniques to evaluate the validity of Shklovsky’s ideas.

Jessica Merrill (Stanford University)
“The Verbal Mass and the Database: Defining the Text in Formalist Literary Analysis”

The emergence of large corpora of digitalized literary texts has prompted a return to formalism. Digitalization unbinds books, turning texts into a sea of letters or “bags of words.” Faced with this mass of data, scholars have sought to develop tools to search for patterns within this material. This move can be compared to early Russian formalism, whose adherents described their object of study as the “verbal mass” [slovesnaia massa]. The formalists initially approached this material inductively, often setting aside the categories of the ‘author’ and the ‘text.’ In doing so, they drew on nineteenth-century folklore study, which defined its object as a reservoir of traditional, elemental formal units which evolve, migrate, and wax and wane in popularity. This paper asks us to consider whether this folkloristically inspired model might help bridge the gap between the sea of letters and the individual author/text in digital humanities research.