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Humanist Archives: Jan. 7, 2019, 6:21 a.m. Humanist 32.306 - toward a theory of the corpus

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 306.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Bill Benzon 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.305: toward a theory of the corpus (126)

    [2]    From: Francois Lachance 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.302: toward a theory of the corpus (152)

        Date: 2019-01-07 02:39:58+00:00
        From: Bill Benzon 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.305: toward a theory of the corpus

Comments below.

> On Jan 5, 2019, at 4:23 AM, Humanist  wrote:


> Thanks for your responses, Bill. I realize more detailed answers would just
> require me to read your book, which I hope to do.
> In philosophy, "mind" usually refers to an immaterial object that exists
> after the death of the body, and "brain" is its material counterpart that
> conducts thought within the body. If you reject immaterialism, then we can
> only talk about brain functions. You're defining mind as a kind of brain
> function, so if you do that within the book, that works. Still, any kind of
> mental mapping should have some kind of empirically detectable correlate
> within the brain. We may not know how the correlate works, but it should be
> there.

I understand all that. It may be sufficient for philosophy, but it's not very
helpful in trying to figure out how things work. And it may in some ways be
harmful. It's too easy to simply think of the brain as a static thing with
parts (that somehow does stuff). The brain has parts. Does the mind have parts
the correspond to brain parts? What part of the mind is in the lateral
geniculate nucleus? What about the cingulate gyrus? Those kinds of questions
really don't make sense. It's hard enough to figure out how those things
function without burdening them with some kind of correspondence with what are,
for the most part, folk notions about what the mind does.

The nervous system consists of neurons, which are very complex cells. The human
brain has, I believe, roughly 86 billion neurons. Each is connected to roughly
10,000 other neurons. Some connections are very close by, within microns, others
are millimeters or centimeters away, sometimes more. And there are motor neurons
whose axons extend all the way down the spinal chord. So when neurons fire they
influence 1000s of other neurons all over the place.

We're dealing with words. From a common sense POV words are compact unitary
objects. Considered as something enacted by the nervous system controlling the
motor system and responding to sensory input, they are anything but. There is
the motor schema for speaking a word, which has one aspect for controlling jaw,
lips, and tongue and another aspect for controlling breathing and throat.
There's the auditory schema for decoding sound. There's one motor schema for
writing cursive, another one for printing, and a third for keyboarding.
There's a visual schema for cursive and one for script. And then there's
semantics and syntactic affordances. One word, scattered across a half dozen or
more bits of brain tissue.

I had a fair amount of correspondence with the later Walter Freeman (Berkeley
neuroscientist) over the years. I had this idea that by analyzing neural
response while someone was reading, say, a poem, we could recover binary
oppositions (of the sort structuralists wrote about). I asked him whether it
that it was a crazy idea. His response: "not crazy, but technically

The process I talk about in the working paper is also technically challenging,
but we can do it now. Telling me that it must somehow be done in the brain
isn't telling me anything I don't know, but it's not telling me anything
about how to actually measure it in the brain. If Walter Freeman couldn't
figure out how to do it, I certainly can't. Moreover the working paper has
actual examples of what I have in mind, examples where I reanalyze other peoples

> Literary studies hasn't been concerned only with close reading for decades
> now. Structuralism, for example, rejects the idea of "hidden" meaning
> "inside" a text and asserts that meaning is outside the text.

Frankly, talking about meaning as being inside or outside the text isn't very
useful. It's a loose conceptualization divorced from any possible linguistic
mechanism. If meaning is located anywhere it's located in minds.

As for structuralism, that's a curious case. For one thing, it didn't have
much impact on literary criticism; it was sort of hit and run. Literary
criticism pretty much passed over structuralism on the way to deconstruction and
poststructuralism. About all that lit criticism took away from structuralism was
the general idea of binary opposition. We remember the (in)famous 1966
structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins mainly for the paper Derrida delivered
there in which he critiqued Levi-Strauss and thereby initiated the end of
literary structuralism. Jonathan Culler published his Structuralist Poetics in
1975, but had pretty much given up on structuralism five or ten years later. In
his preface he said this:

> The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not
> be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to
> literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a
> criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which
> strives to define the conditions of meaning. [p. xiv]

That's what interested me about structuralism, a poetics. How these things
(texts) are built and function is something I find more interesting that what
they mean. When you start looking at mechanisms this business of locating
meaning inside or outside the text is irrelevant.

I happened to be an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins when that structuralism
conference took place. Though I didn't attend it, I was certainly in the
structuralism orbit, if you will, studying semiotics, Russian formalism, and
structuralism in various courses. And when the time came to put out a volume of
the papers from that conference I was asked to contribute a comment on one of
the papers, one by Neville Dyson-Hudson, an anthropologist.

I've got a working paper in which I discuss Lévi-Strauss on myth and how I
went from there to cognitive science. The paper also says a bit about the work
Margaret Masterman did on computer-generated haiku.

William Benzon, Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and
Cognition, Working Paper, February 2015,

> And, of
> course, literary studies has been interested in the relationship between
> language, aesthetic effects, and brain structure since at least I.A.
> Richards in the 1920s.

Literary studies has been interested in a lot of things since the 1920s.

Bill Benzon





        Date: 2019-01-06 12:31:30+00:00
        From: Francois Lachance 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.302: toward a theory of the corpus


I detect a hint of admonishment and an invitation to read more in detail
and spend some time getting acquainted with the working paper:

Well, Francois, in the working paper those contrasts come after a dozen or so
pages of explanation and examples. Without that they're pretty empty and
there's really not much I can do in a short email reply.

I have invested some time and found a handsome return. I have now read the
working paper. It is technically inaccurate to claim that the listing of
contrasts comes after "a dozen or so pages of explanation and examples".
They first appear in the introductory material (page 3). The explanation
follows. But that is just one reading. A reading that distinguishes time
of composition from time of exposition.

I think time is of the essence. I turn to the proposed description of the
pairs as compass points on a map.

Think of them as compass points on a complex map. The relations between
the pairs are of various kinds.

When walking through a city or through the bush, one's cognitive map
employs a compass and a chronometer. The cognitive map allows one to
predict that at a given spot and time there is a possibility of
encountering a set of given entities, persons or activities. Of course
with any traversal of bush or city, the map gets updated. The map is
always only provisional.

I propose a leap: the traversal is the map.

This may be a tad too metaphorical for the author of Toward a Theory of
the Corpus

And it's not clear to me how well computational critics have been in
explaining such things. Nor, for that matter, is it at all clear to me how
far such explanations can, in principle, go. Simplification, metaphor, and
patience will take you only so far.

For a counter-view, I point to the gentle good humour Northrop Frye
demonstrates in reminding us of the consequences of embodied being for
cultural production and circulation (see in particular his The
Well-Tempered Critic) .

With kind indulgence, I construct here a mini-corpus of traversals

I turn to Foucault (_The Archaeology of Knowledge_ trans. A.M. Sheridan
Smith) "The a priori of positivities is not only the system of
temporal dispersion, it is itself a transformable group." For "a
priori of positivities" read text or read metaphor or "corpus as
tool".  What I emphasise here is that a temporal perspective invites
notions of becoming.

I return. My question was not just about the relation between the sets of
pairs but also about the very fungibility of the elements that are paired:

> My question: how are these pairs linked? Are they a simple listing without
> any relays between the elements of one pair and the elements of another?
> Or are there relationships e.g. close reading plugged into corpus as
> object? In short do these sets of contrasts represent a stabile
> representation or are they modelling a mobile set of relations?

I am very much plugging 'close reading' into 'corpus as tool'.  I am
thinking in terms of the algebra of matrices. What is list of pairs can be
read as a table of elements.  In reading are there not a number of
traversals that each gain a certain valence from a time series?

Foucault,  again, on functions versus units:

This is not the place to answer the general question of the statement, but
the problem can be clarified: the statement is not the same kind of unit
as the sentence, the proposition, or the speech act; it cannot be referred
therefore to the same criteria; but neither is it the same kind of unit as
a material object, with it limits and independence. In its way of being
unique (neither entirely linguistic, nor exclusively material), it is
indispensable if we want to say whether or not there is a sentence,
proposition, or speech act; and whether the sentence is correct (or
acceptable, or interpretable), whether the proposition is legitimate and
well constructed, whether the speck act fulfils its requirements, and was
in fact carried out. We must not seek in the statement a unit that is
either long or short, strongly and weakly structured, but one that is
caught up, like the others, in a logical, grammatical, locutory nexus. It
is not so much one element among others, a division that can be located at
a certain level of analysis, as a function that operates vertically in
relation to these various units, and which enables one to say of a series
of signs whether or not they are present in it. The statement is not
therefore a structure (that is, a group of relations between variable
elements, thus authorizing a possibly infinite number of concrete models);
it is a function of existence that properly belongs to signs and on the
basis of which one may then decide, through analysis or intuition, whether
or not they 'make sense', according to what rule they follow one another
or are juxtaposed, of what they are the sign, and what sort of act is
carried out by their formation (oral or written). One should not be
surprised, then, if one has failed to find structural criteria of unity
for the statement; this is because it is not in itself a unit, but a
function that cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, and
which reveals them, with concrete contents, in time and space.

Foucault, one more time, on the archive:

Between the _language_ (_langue_) that defines the system of constructing
possible sentences, and the _corpus_ that passively collects the words
that are spoken, the _archive_ defines a particular level: that of a
practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many
regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It
does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the
library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming
oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its
freedom; between tradition and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a
practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular
modification. It is _the general system of the formation and
transformation of statements_.

One additional note: an amusing recreation on metaphors and tools is found
in Phillip Pullman's fictional creation: the alethiometer.
https://hdm.fandom.com/wiki/Alethiometer (Remember this is fiction but of
a truthful sort)

Reading an alethiometer required particular skill and training. Although
Lyra Silvertongue was able to do so intuitively in her youth, after
puberty she had to relearn how to do it. Most scholars made use of
reference books in order to decipher the meanings of the alethiometer's 36
symbols. […] To read the alethiometer, the user first directed three
needles to lie over certain symbols on the face of device to create a
question. Then, the user held this question in their mind, without
grasping at the answer, but being content not to know. At this point, the
fourth needle swung into action, moving from one symbol to another to
create the answer.

Pointing again in a looped structure/composition mode to Frye's _The
Well-Tempered Critic_ which is in part about the determinants of a
literary education.

Francois Lachance

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