What can Machine Learning do for Literary Critics?

First in a series of posts about artificial intelligence sparked by “The Great AI Awakening,” an article from December 2016 by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the New York Times Magazine. Cross-posted to Michael Ullyot‘s blog.

Can you trust machines to make decisions on your behalf? You’re doing it already, when you trust the results of a search engine or follow directions on your phone or read news on social media that confirms your worldview. It’s so natural that you forget it’s artificial; someone programmed a machine to make it happen. If Arthur C. Clarke is right (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), we’re living in the age of magical thinking.

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Summer Update 2015

With an exciting fall quickly approaching, July is an opportune time to recap and review the ACL’s progress. In the past months, the team has been busily presenting research at conferences, drafting a manuscript on gradatio in early modern drama, strengthening the research team, and laying out the foundations for several new ACL initiatives.

The following outlines the ACL’s progress. Its purpose is to tell you where we are and what problems we’re tackling next. If you have any questions, suggestions, or other comments on these updates (or other activities that match the ACL’s interests), please send us an email

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Artful-Language Processing (ALP)

“For though the poet’s matter nature be,

His art doth give the fashion…

For a good poet’s made, as well as born”.1

In literary studies, we often critique an author’s writing – its stylistic traits, its influences, and its natural universality. When these qualities intertwine intricately, we tend to note it as exceptional. Why? Because it encapsulates the writer’s talent in writing nature and feelings with craft.

William Shakespeare has been noted as such a talent, at the expense of his contemporaries and rivals like Ben Jonson.

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Stratford Ho!

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Next June, Michael will be in Stratford, Ontario, sharing the ACL’s latest research in two papers.

First, at 9 am on June 20, he’ll join colleagues Cass Morris and Janelle Jenstad on a panel called “Mark(up) the Play: Best Practices for Digital Tagging of Rhetorical Devices” at the 2015 Shakespeare Theatre Conference:

Rhetorical Schematics in Theory and Practice

In Figuring Style: The Legacy of Renaissance Rhetoric (2014), Nancy Christiansen describes early modern language as a web of rhetorical figures. This resonates with our experience as readers of that language, particularly in dramatic texts where we encounter self-consciously artful usage. But is that usage necessarily artificial? Might it be, instead, behaviour that reflects the writer’s natural habits of thought? This paper analyzes the output of the Rhetorical Schematics Project‘s custom-built algorithm—an output that includes all 114 instances of gradatio or incrementum from a corpus of 400 early modern plays. These instances are not the definitive set of every instance of this figure in this period, but they get us closer than more selective analysis to understanding the link between convention and cognition, theory and practice. I’ll address these questions and how we plan to publish them as marked-up texts in the Internet Shakespeare Editions and the Digital Renaissance Editions.

Later that evening (5:30–6:30 pm), Michael will participate in the Stratford Festival Free Forum on Augmented Criticism in the Festival Theatre lobby:

Shakespeare and the Problem of Abundance

Shakespeare’s plays and poems are about 865,185 words long. It sounds like a lot, but that number is a fraction of 1% of the billion words that were printed in English before 1700. If you printed those billion words in a 400-page book, Shakespeare’s contribution would be just over a third of a page. And most experts in Renaissance literature could expect to read about four of those pages in their careers.

What do the other pages tell us about Shakespeare’s language? Is it more beautiful, more creative, more sophisticated? Is it exceptional in any intrinsic way, beyond its attribution to a famous writer?

The Rhetorical Schematics Project starts to answer these questions by comparing Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical figures to those of his contemporaries. Consider gradatio, a figure that repeats words at the ends and beginnings of successive clauses, like in the nursery song: “She swallowed the bird to catch the spider, | She swallowed the spider to catch the fly…” How does Shakespeare’s usage differ from wider patterns of usage? I’ll present the results of our study and raise these broader questions about his exceptionality.

What’s in a Name? Introducing the Augmented Criticism Lab

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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” Painting by Laura Wilson Barker (c. 1886). Source: BBC – Your Paintings

“It’s where we take all the important people who visit the university,” Adam told us with a wry smile.

Michael was visiting the University of Waterloo for the “Computers Figuring/Figuring Computers” workshop, hosted by Randy Harris and the gang from RhetFig.

It was the first time that Michael, Adam, and I had been in the same city. The three of us were sitting down to a well-deserved meal a short drive from the university. We had spent the afternoon in Hagey Hall, hammering out research questions in the department library.

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Collaboration Celebration

While wandering (digitally) on tumblr., I found an interesting post by The Getty. It compiled six principles as to why “networked scholarship” in the digital humanities is important.

The post’s principles relate to any digital humanities project as there is an environment where DH projects do conform to ideas like “process and product are inseparable,” “experimentation and collaboration are core values,” and “digital work enables and demands innovative modes of thought and argumentation.” And this got me thinking.

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Introducing Theresa Kenney

[With this, the Zeugmatic welcomes our new research assistant Theresa Kenney, who has guest-blogged for us before. Theresa and Rachel Shabalin will work on different facets of the project, and will blog their discoveries periodically.]

Upon entering university, I pictured what I could learn from my degrees (English and Political Science): grammar, international relations, early 19th century literature, and world domination. They seemed to have matched my interests and were seemingly feasible to learn at the University of Calgary.

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Flowers? … Figures!

[A guest post by Theresa Kenney, rhetorician extraordinaire and current #engl410 student.]

I’ve always been a fan of literary devices. I notice them everywhere, even on twitter. But, George Puttenham was a true fanatic. He attempted to define rhetorical figures in Early-Modern English (he may have not had twitter, but he did have a treatise).

Puttenham argues in The Arte of English Poesy that rhetorical figures are the flowers1 to the colours of argument2 as they attract the reader based “on the natural, already existing predilections of the hearer’s ear and mind”3. He also defines poetry as “an art not only of making but also of imitation”4, therefore suggesting that a poet’s art is of imitating rhetorical devices.

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