Opening: Narrative Theory and Reading Machines

As the featured speaker at the first Narrating Change seminar several weeks ago, Jerome Brunner talked about narrative.  At one point he explained that when he teaches narrative to his law students, he teaches them how to open narratives, allowing them to cast doubt on the narrative “taking the stand.”  Opening up narratives is also the work of literary criticism, although some still seek that one fixed narrative.  Opening up narratives does not dilute rhetorical readings of narratives.  James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz argue in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates, primarily about narrative fiction, that they “look at narrative primarily as a rhetorical act, rather than an object.”  They argue that narration is a “purposive communication of a certain kind form one person to another (or group of persons) to one or more others” (3).  In other words, they argue that narrative is an intentional act meant to communicate something, and they also posit that narrative is a “multileveled communication” because they consider not just the text, but “the experience of it” as well (3).  Bruner, Phelan, and Rabinowitz share an approach to narrative in that they consider it an open process.  Machine reading supports an open process.


As for machine reading and algorithmic criticism, I think both have a place in humanities scholarship.  Because I work in English literature and rhetoric and composition, I will focus my comments to these two areas.  There are several approaches to research in these areas, including setting out to support an argument and, the method I most often use, bumping into a question you want to answer, a question for which you have no pre-conceived answer.  Algorithmic criticism is especially useful for my preferred research approach because offers me numerous possibilities by, is some way, constraining my focus, and these possibilities continue to shape and refine my original question.  The process of machine reading supports the process of opening, which is a recursive process because as a thing opens we also close the thing in the way we create points on a map or locations on a chart.  It is in “the narrowing forces of constraint . . . [that we] enable the liberating visions of potentiality” (Ramsey 32).  Algorithmic criticism enables research as narrative, and narrative is an intentional act in the hands of people.


I do not think that we need to create and either or approach to literacy criticism and research.  My one concern with Ramsey’s discourse in Machine Reading: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism is the almost formalist word “deformance,” which suggests the one “true” version of the text, much like Plato’s Theory of Forms.  I suggest that there is no one true text much as we never can see one true text in a Bertrand Russell sort of way; what we receive is sense data.  We never “see” anything.  This seems akin to what happens with texts.  There is, however, no one way to engage with texts, and computers are one of the ways we can engage.



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