Besides familiar and now-commonplace tasks that computers do all the time, what else are they capable of? Stephen Ramsay's intriguing study of computational text analysis examines how computers can be used as "reading machines" to open up entirely new possibilities for literary critics. Computer-based text analysis has been employed for the past several decades as a way of searching, collating, and indexing texts. Despite this, the digital revolution has not penetrated the core activity of literary studies: interpretive analysis of written texts.
Computers can handle vast amounts of data, allowing for the comparison of texts in ways that were previously too overwhelming for individuals, but they may also assist in enhancing the entirely necessary role of subjectivity in critical interpretation. Reading Machines discusses the importance of this new form of text analysis conducted with the assistance of computers. Ramsay suggests that the rigidity of computation can be enlisted in the project of intuition, subjectivity, and play.
This book is incredibly thought-provoking. Although I'm still unsure how helpful the algorithmic exploration will be for many literary scholars, I have no doubt that it has merit despite its deformational tendencies. As Ramsay points out, all criticism is deformational in some way. I hope that I can one day mess around with some of the software he describes and see what the experience is like, analyzing text using the text's word data alone. I am also thinking this could be a cool thing for a Biblical scholar to look into when comparing the Gospels or the letters of Paul in Greek.
No surprise that this wasn't a favorite of mine. Algorithmic literary criticism is fascinating, but his work leaned so heavily on the assumption that readers would already be familiar with the ins and outs of literary criticism, as well as familiar with a wide array of classic literature. Even as an English graduate student, I still had an incredibly difficult time keeping up with Ramsay. Most of the time, I didn't.
Read this for my Digital Humanities class, and I'm really glad it was assigned. It was basically about the role of humanities computation in literary criticism, but touched on a lot of stuff I like -- Alfred Jarry and Oulipo and textual data and concordances... geeky, but my kind of geeky. And dense, but that was OK. It's a small book. Definitely recommended if you have any interest in the intersection of literary studies and computers -- well written, clear, often very funny.