Selected text: “The Emotions of London” a Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet by Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti and Erik Steiner. Blog post by: Løvetann Ripoll, MA student English Literature
The project described in the Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet “The Emotions of London” was inspired by an earlier, ultimately incomplete, study. In the original study, a group (including Ryan Heuser, one of the authors of this pamphlet) “decided to use topic modeling to extract geographical information from nineteenth-century novels” (p. 1). This idea was built upon for the project that the pamphlet presents, in which the researchers were asked to conduct a crowd-sourcing experiment. They chose to attempt what they call a “narrative geography” (p.9), in which they looked for topographical indications in English-language novels from 1700-1900. More specifically, they found ways of analyzing the data they collected to identify and categorize emotions in the novels (mainly fear and happiness), tying these emotions to specific locations in London. Said locations were selected based on which areas were named most frequently in the novels used for data collection, and those locations that did not occur often enough were weeded out: Heuser did the programming for the study by “identifying all proper names in the corpus via a Named Entity Recognition program, later removing from the list those terms which had nothing to do with London, like foreign toponyms, character’s names, and the like” (p. 2). The geographical locations included street names, buildings, bridges, parks, and more; some examples were the Tower of London, Whitehall, Drury Lane, Piccadilly, Hide Park, Grosvenor Square and Newgate.
The researchers present the data analysis through seven sets of figures, and for me, some of their methodology and even some of the figures themselves were challenging to understand. Granted, this pamphlet was one of my first encounters with digital humanities. Nonetheless, those figures that were more intuitive, combined with the engaging and accessible style of writing and finally, the findings of the project, made for a highly interesting read. One such finding was that there existed a discrepancy between “real” London and “fictional” London, where, despite the massive growth of the city in the course of the 200 years between 1700 and 1900, fictional London remained relatively stable: “…the only transformation occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the West End became as narratively populated as the City” (p.4). In this way, though “The number of geographical references kept increasing…they remained essentially localized in the City and in the West End: the rest of London – where most of the growth was actually taking place – never really mattered” (p.4). To put it simply; the areas that had captured the imaginations of readers and writers in the 1700s remained, to a high extent, the same. The number of books shot upwards, London grew massively, but apart from that, fictional London changed very little.
The pamphlet describes the ways in which the project developed, reflecting upon how they narrowed down their search criteria in response their readings of other works such as Philip Fisher’s Vehement Passions (p. 2) and how a “long discussion with Matthew Wilkens…prompted us to a final, critical re-examination of the very idea of “narrative geography”” (p. 9). This kind of transparency is refreshing, because it allows for an understanding of how the project progressed, even implying that although some things, such as a “long discussion” with a colleague, can’t be planned for, they can still have a profound effect on a project. The motivation behind this strategy is made clear in the conclusion, where the mantra of “Corroboration, improvement, and discovery” is repeated twice (p.10). This could of come off as pedantic; instead, it reads as a great example of what academia can be. Self-conscious, accessible, with fascinating findings, and a healthy dose of self-critique.
- The Emotions of London (Heuser et al., 2016) Accessed on January 29, 2018 at: https://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet13.pdf