Reading Machines

Stephen Ramsay

“Algorithmic criticism” sounds for all the world like a set of methods for exploiting the sudden abundance of digital material related to the humanities. If not a method, then perhaps— and this would be better— a methodology for coping with it, handling, it, comprehending it. But in the end, it is simply an attitude toward the relationship between mechanism and meaning that is expansive enough to imagine building as a form of thinking. p. 85.

This is a book about literary text analysis .... But it is more fundamentally a book that tries to locate a hermeneutics at the boundary between mechanism and theory. The “algorithmic criticism” proposed here seeks ... an analogue to the liberating potentialities of art. It proposes that we create tools— practical, instrumental, verifiable mechanisms— that enable critical engagement, interpretation, conversation, and contemplation. It proposes that we channel the heightened objectivity made possible by the machine into the cultivation of those heightened subjectivities necessary for critical work.
[F]or decades the dominant assumption within humanities computing ... has been that if the computer is to be useful to the humanist, its efficacy must necessarily lie in the aptness of the scientific metaphor for humanistic study. This work takes the contrary view and proposes that scientific method and metaphor ... is ... incompatible with the terms of humanistic endeavor. Ramsay, Stephen (2011-11-28). Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Topics in the Digital Humanities) (p. x). Ingram Distribution. Kindle Edition.

for 30 Sep: Reading Machines, part 1

some notes

for 7 Oct: Reading the Machines, intermezzo

Read these.


Each of the works listed below turns something in reading and meaningmaking over to the machine. They might be called, for this exercise, algorithmic literature. Each will yield to deformative procedures.

Choose one from the list above. For a week, read it, explore it, work w/it. Encounter it more than once. Get to know the work. Figure out how it works: derive the algorithm. You may look up background on the work - artist's statements, reviews, critical commentary - but that's not necessary. We're not really interested in what others have to say. We're more interested in what you encountered, what you did, how you proceeded, what you found.

Work with these questions

Come with notes, illustrations, ways of deforming and re-forming.


for 14 Oct: Reading Machines, part 2

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