King or no [King]

I wanted to say a little about a problem we encountered early on when we began counting things in the plays, a problem that gets us into the question of what might be a trivial versus a non-trivial indicator of genre on the microlinguistic level. Several years ago Hope and I began a series of experiments with the plays contained in Shakespeare’s First Folio, feeding them into Docuscope — a text-tagger created at Carnegie Mellon — to see if we could find any ordered groupings in them. The results of that early work were published in the Journal for Early Modern Literary Studies in an article called “The Very Large Textual Object: A Prosthetic Reading of Shakespeare.”  I will say more about Docuscope in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say here that it differs from other text-taggers in that it embodies a phenomenological approach to texts.  (For the creator’s explanation of how it works, see an early online precis here.)  Docuscope, that is, codes words and “strings” of words based on the ways in which they render a world experientially for a reader or listener.  The theory behind how texts do this, and thus the rational for Docuscope’s coding strategy, is derived from Michael Halliday’s systemic-function grammar.  But what is particularly interesting about Docuscope is the human element involved in its creation.  The main architect of the system, a rhetorician named David Kaufer, spent 8 years hand-tagging several million pieces of English according to their rhetorical function, and then expanded out this initial tagging spread with wild-card operators so that Docuscope now classes over 200 million strings of English (1 to 10 words in length) into over 100 distinct categories of use or function.

Obviously there is a lot to say about the program itself, which represents a “built rhetoric” of sorts, one that has emerged through the interplay of one architect, his reading, and the texts he was interested in classifying.  In any event, when Hope and I fed the plays into Docuscope, we had to make some initial decisions, and the first was whether to strip anything out of the plays we had obtained from the Moby online version.  (We were already thinking about the shortcomings of this conflated, edited corpus as opposed to the text of the plays as it exists in various states in the First Folio, but we had to make do since we were not yet ready to modernize the spelling of F and decide among its internal variants.)  So with the Moby text, we had things like Titles, Act and Scene Numbers, and Speech Prefixes (Othello, King Henry, Miranda, etc.).  The speech prefixes created the greatest difficulty, because in the history plays the word “King” is, as you can imagine, used an awful lot — it appears in the speech prefixes of characters over and over.  And because Docuscope tagged “King” as one of its visible tokens (assigning it to the “bucket” named “Common Authority”), this particular category was off the charts in terms of frequency when it came time to do unsupervised factor analysis on the frequency counts obtained from the plays.  (I’ll post more on factor analysis in the future as well.)

Here’s the issue.  In the end, we decided that it was “cheating” to let Docuscope count “King” in the speech prefixes, since this was a dead giveaway for History plays, and we wanted something more structural — something more buried in the coordination of word choices and exclusions — to serve as the basis of our linguistic “recipes” for Shakespeare’s genres.  As the article shows, we were able to find such a recipe without relying on “King” in the speech prefixes.  Indeed, subsequent research has shown that plural first person pronouns combined with a the profusion of concrete, sense objects are really the giveaway for Shakespeare’s histories.  (They are also “missing” certain things that other genres have: this combination makes histories the most “visible” genre, statistically speaking” that he wrote.)   But is it really fair to decide that certain types of tokens — King in the speech prefix, for example — are superficial marks of history as a genre, and so not worth using in an analysis?  Isn’t there a certain interpretive bias here, one that I have and in a sense want to argue for, against the apparatus of the play in favor of something like a deeper set of patterns or stances?  To argue for such an exclusion, I would begin by pointing out that they are an artifact of print and are not “said” (even if they are used) in performance, but there is still something to think about here.  

A Google search algorithm looks for the “shortest vector” or easiest “tell” that identifies a text as this kind or that — even if it is one of a kind.  But those of us who are interested in genre must by definition not be interested in the shortest vector or the easiest tell.  We are looking for the longer path.  The book historian in me, however, says that apparatus is important, and that “accidental” features never really are.  So this is something I want to think more about.

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  • By Winedarksea on October 24, 2010 at 9:48 pm


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