Hidden Authors and Reading Machines: Investigating 19th-century authorship with 21st-century technologies

Benatti, Francesca and King, David (2017). Hidden Authors and Reading Machines: Investigating 19th-century authorship with 21st-century technologies. In: SHARP 2017: Technologies of the book, 9-12 Jul 2017, University of Victoria, Canada.

URL: http://www.sharpweb.org/conferences/2017/


The centrality of authorship in literary studies has been under attack since at least the publication of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and of Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Yet Digital Humanities methods such as computational authorship attribution or “stylometry” seem to give new prominence to authorship as a critical category. There is an understandable unease among book historians and literary scholars about the emergence of these technology-driven methods. Some see the recent rise to prominence of stylometry and other “distant reading” methods as heralding a rebirth of the author as a central interpretive category and a corresponding death of the reader, substituted by the machine.

This paper will present our interrogation of the study of authorship in the era of Digital Humanities through a case study based upon our project A Question of Style: individual voices and corporate identity in the Edinburgh Review, 1814-20, which is funded by a Research Society for Victorian Periodicals Field Development grant.

According to Jon Klancher, nineteenth-century periodicals succeeded in creating, through a “transauthorial discourse”, a unified corporate voice that hid individual authors behind an impersonal public text (Klancher 1987). In our project, we test whether 21st-century digital tools and methods can be used to further evaluate this interpretation of 19th-century authorship and publication practices. Our paper will reflect critically on the following aspects of our research:

Can we, in Franco Moretti’s words, “operationalise” the practice of authorship in the Edinburgh Review, selecting features of its published texts that can be measured empirically with the help of 21st-century technologies such as TEI, Python and R, and of methods such as stylometry, corpus stylistics and Natural Language Processing?

Which aspects of authorship are brought into focus through such a technology-assisted analysis of periodical literature? For example, can Foucault’s concept of the author as “a stylistic uniformity” be studied through stylometry? Do authors in the Edinburgh Review retain an individual style, or are they subsumed in a larger “house style”?

Which aspects of authorship are instead elided through computational analysis, and must be sought through other methods, such as close reading and archival research?

Finally, can we successfully combine the use of computational methods for the empirical measurement of textual features with the synthesis and literary interpretation of these results? Can the resulting “algorithmic criticism” (Ramsay 2011) reveal patterns that enable new readings of the complex practice of authorship within the Edinburgh Review?

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