Algorithmic criticism, Distant Reading and the Edinburgh Review

Benatti, Francesca and King, David (2017). Algorithmic criticism, Distant Reading and the Edinburgh Review. In: BARS (British Association for Romantic Studies) 2017 Romantic Improvement, 27-30 Jul 2017, University of York, UK.


Death of the Human Author, Birth of the Machine Reader?

The centrality of authorship in literary studies has been under attack for the last few decades. Yet Digital Humanities methods such as computational authorship attribution or “stylometry” seem to herald a rebirth of the author as a key interpretative category and can give rise to fears of a corresponding death of the reader, substituted by the machine.

This paper will present a critical interrogation of the use of Digital Humanities methods to study Romantic periodical authorship. It presents a case study based upon the project A Question of Style: individual voices and corporate identity in the Edinburgh Review, 1814-20, funded by a Research Society for Victorian Periodicals Field Development grant.

We assess the claim that nineteenth-century periodicals succeeded in creating, through a “transauthorial discourse” (Klancher 1987), a unified corporate voice that hid individual authors behind an impersonal public text. This paper will examine the following questions:

Can we “operationalise” (Moretti 2013) the practice of authorship in the Edinburgh Review, selecting textual features that can be measured empirically with methods such as stylometry, corpus stylistics and Natural Language Processing?

Which aspects of authorship are brought into focus through such a computational analysis of periodical literature? Which are instead elided, and must be recovered through other methods, such as close reading and archival research?

Finally, can we successfully combine computational methods and literary interpretation in “algorithmic criticism” (Ramsay 2011)? Do these “distant reading” methods represent an improvement, a complement or a distortion of research into Romantic periodicals and their practices?

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