Complexity Explorer Santa Few Institute

Foundations & Applications of Humanities Analytics (Spring 2023)

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4.1 Analyzing "Excellence" in the Humanities » Chapter 2 Overview

What you will learn in this chapter 

Using the example of book blurbs, you will begin to understand how a broad and deep research question (in this case "What is excellence in the humanities?") can be addressed by examining a specific corpus (in this case, a corpus of book blurbs) for certain crucial patterns in word usage. In the assignment, you will devise methods for using quantitative findings with regard to word usage in a corpus in order to tell a story, using both written words and visuals, that answers a humanities-centric research question.

Key terms to keep in mind

Blurb   A short quotation, usually on the back of a book, by someone other than the author, usually in a positive and promotional vein. In the academic case, blurbs are often provided by fellow academics with significant reputations in the field, or by “highbrow” newspapers such as the New York Times Book Review, or the Times Literary Supplement. Blurbs can range in length from a single word (e.g., “FANTASTIC — Stephen King”) to an extensive summary of the book.

Rhetoric of excellence (or “encomium”)  In its most general form, “rhetoric” refers to the use of speech (or writing) in a social context; a more restrictive definition confines rhetoric to the particular case of “speech (or writing) designed to persuade”. A lovely sub-discipline in the humanities is the study of rhetorical devices, or “figures of speech”, i.e., a pattern of word use that can be found a variety of semantic contexts — equivalently, a style of speaking that’s somewhat neutral in terms of domain. 

One rhetorical device is sarcasm, for example, a way of using words that can be deployed on the football field just as much as in the operating room. Other devices are more obscure and often have funny and cool names. For example, “zeugma” is the use of the same word in two different senses in the same sentence: “he caught a fish, and a cold”. for the mega list.

The “rhetoric of excellence” is a first pass at defining the question that a blurb study can help answer. Blurbs are full of figures of speech (see below for an example), as well as more domain-specific devices — e.g., consider how the blurbs on the back of the philosophy book appeared to praise the book in part on the basis of how difficult it was to read.

Illumination   A shorthand term we use in the lecture to refer to a particular form of the rhetoric of excellence, where metaphors associated with light are associated with the author or the book. An example might be “the author sheds new light on an old problem”, or (a more sophisticated example) “the author provides a new set of lenses through which to view the French Revolution”, where the (more poetic) metaphor in the second case talks about the book as not shedding light, but altering, refracting, or focusing it. “Brilliant” is another example (depending on context) because of its alternate meaning 

I (Simon) just made this up, by eyeballing patterns, so that we could get a conversation going. In a real analysis that we’ll encounter at the end of the course, we’ll show how a pattern analysis can surface unexpected patterns and rhetorical tropes.

Paratextual genre   Per Wikipedia, “paratext is material that surrounds a published main text (e.g., the story, non-fiction description, poems, etc.) supplied by the authors, editors, printers, and publishers. These added elements form a frame for the main text, and can change the reception of a text or its interpretation by the public”. Blurbs are part of the paratext. 

A question some people in the sciences might be asking: why use a complicated word for something so easy to describe? My (Simon’s) personal experience is that these terms, even when they feel a bit jargony at first, can serve a useful taxonomic purpose, and enable us to see connections we might otherwise miss. For example, if we’re studying the paratext of published books, what are the similarities and differences to, say, the paratext of a piece of fan fiction online. 

It also enables us to connect across time; in the 1850s, for example, books were often sold loose-leaf and bound by a bookbinder’s after sale — so if you’re talking about “the stuff on the back cover”, you’ll be out of luck. If the jargon points to a coherent phenomenon, it can be very useful.

Signal and Sign   A short note: Somewhat unfortunately, I (Simon) use the word signal here in a different sense from the first lecture! This is in part because scientists use the words in a different fashion from more conventional uses. Going forward, we’ll use the technical definition of signal. But, in this lecture:

Signal (informal)   The use of symbols or language, in an intentional fashion, to communicate a message. Consider, for example, a traffic signal: the city sets it up so that “Green” “means” that it is safe for drivers to go. Or, consider, how someone who writes a recommendation letter might say “this person is a terrific scholar in the humanities, in part thanks to studying at FAHA”. One of the things going on here is the intentional use of words to communicate that the person in question is really good at their job.

Sign (informal)   Informally, a more general case of a signal in the informal sense. A sign (like the technical notion of “signal” from the first lecture) is anything that provides information about something else, whether or not it is created with that intention. For example, a “sign” that it is safe to drive through an intersection might be the absence of noises from other cars. Recommendation letters, to take our previous example, are full of signals but also  signs: for example, a recommendation letter that repeatedly misspells the person’s name is giving a sign that the recommender perhaps doesn’t know the person well.

Consilience   A feature of some scientific theories that is particularly valued by scientists. A “consilient” theory is one that draws together different observations under the same conceptual scheme. These observations may well have, previously, seemed distinct and unrelated to each other, but a consilient theory shows how they may be subsumed under the same description, and explained together. Classic examples of consilience in the sciences include the connection of gravitational phenomena on the Earth (falling rocks) to the patterns of motion in the solar system (planets as giant rocks that keep falling into the Sun and missing); the connection between electricity and magentism made at the end of the 19th century; or the “New Synthesis” of Darwinian evolution made possible by molecular biology in the 20th. For more on Consilience see