An Attempt at Quantifying Changes to Genre Medium, cont’d.

Cosine similarity of all written/oral States of the Union is 0.55. A highly ambiguous result, but one that suggests there are likely some differences overlooked by Rule et al. (2015). A change in medium should affect genre features, if only at the margins. The most obvious change is to length, which I pointed out in the last post.

But how to discover lexical differences? One method is naive Bayes classification. Although the method has been described for humanists in a dozen places at this point, I’ll throw my own description into the mix for posterity’s sake.

Naïve Bayes classification occurs in three steps. First, the researcher defines a number of features found in all texts within the corpus, typically a list of the most frequent words. Second, the researcher “shows” the classifier a limited number of texts from the corpus that are labeled according to text type (the training set). Finally, the researcher runs the classifier algorithm on a larger number of texts whose labels are hidden (the test set). Using feature information discovered in the training set, including information about the number of different text types, the classifier attempts to categorize the unknown texts. Another algorithm can then check the classifier’s accuracy rate and return a list of tokens—words, symbols, punctuation—that were most informative in helping the classifier categorize the unknown texts.

More intuitively, the method can be explained with the following example taken from Natural Language Processing with Python. Imagine we have a corpus containing sports texts, automotive texts, and murder mysteries. Figure 2 provides an abstract illustration of the procedure used by the naïve Bayes classifier to categorize the texts according to their features. Loper et al. explain:


In the training corpus, most documents are automotive, so the classifier starts out at a point closer to the “automotive” label. But it then considers the effect of each feature. In this example, the input document contains the word “dark,” which is a weak indicator for murder mysteries, but it also contains the word “football,” which is a strong indicator for sports documents. After every feature has made its contribution, the classifier checks which label it is closest to, and assigns that label to the input.

Each feature influences the classifier; therefore, the number and type of features utilized are important considerations when training a classifier.

Given the SotU corpus’s word count—approximately 2 million words—I decided to use as features the 2,000 most frequent words in the corpus (the top 10%). I ran NLTK’s classifier ten times, randomly shuffling the corpus each time, so the classifier could utilize a new training and test set on each run. The classifier’s average accuracy rate for the ten runs was 86.9%.

After each test run, the classifier returned a list of most informative features, the majority of which were content words, such as ‘authority’ or ‘terrorism’.

However, a problem . . . a direct comparison of these words is not optimal given my goals. I could point out, for example, that ‘authority’ is twice as likely to occur in written than in oral States of the Union; I could also point out that the root ‘terror’ is found almost exclusively in the oral corpus. Nevertheless, these results are unusable for analyzing the effects of media on content. For historical reasons, categorizing the SotU into oral and written addresses is synonymous with coding the texts by century. The vast majority of written addresses were delivered in the nineteenth century; the majority of oral speeches were delivered in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Analyzing lexical differences thus runs the risk of uncovering, not variation between oral and written States of the Union (a function of media) but variation between nineteenth and twentieth century usage (a function of changing style preferences) or differences between political events in each century (a function of history). The word ‘authority’ has likely just gone out of style in political speechmaking; ‘terror’ is a function of twenty-first century foreign affairs. There is nothing about medium that influences the use or neglect of these terms. A lexical comparison of written and oral States of the Union must therefore be reduced to features least likely to have been influenced by historical exigency or shifting usage.

In the lists of informative features returned by the naïve Bayes classifier, pronouns and contraction emerged as two features fitting that requirement.


Relative frequencies of first, second, and third person pronouns


Relative frequencies of select first and second person pronouns


Relative frequencies of apostrophes and negative  contraction

It turns out that pronoun usage is a noticeable locus of difference between written and oral States of the Union. The figures above show relative frequencies of first, second, and third person pronouns in the two text categories (the tallies in the first graph contain all pronomial inflections, including reflexives).

As discovered by the naïve Bayes classifier, first and second person pronouns are much more likely to be found in oral speeches than in written addresses. The second graph above displays particularly disparate pronouns: ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘you’, and to a lesser extent, ‘your’. Third person pronouns, however, surface equally in both delivery mediums.

The third graph shows relative frequency rates of apostrophes in general and negative contractions in particular in the two SotU categories. Contraction is another mark of the oral medium. In contrast, written States of the Union display very little contraction; indeed, the relative frequency of negative contraction in the written SotU corpus is functionally zero (only 3 instances). This stark contrast is not a function of changing usage. Negative contraction is attested as far back as the sixteenth century and was well accepted during the nineteenth century; contraction generally is also well attested in nineteenth century texts (see this post at Language Log). However, both today and in the nineteenth century, prescriptive standards dictate that contractions are to be avoided in formal writing, a norm which Sairio (2010) has traced to Swift and Addison in the early 1700s. Thus, if not the written medium directly, then the cultural standards for the written medium have motivated presidents to avoid contraction when working in that medium. Presidents ignore this arbitrary standard as soon as they find themselves speaking before the public.

The conclusion to be drawn from these results should have been obvious from the beginning. The differences between oral and written States of the Union are pretty clearly a function of a president’s willingness or unwillingness to break the wall between himself and his audience. That wall is frequently broken in oral speeches to the public but rarely broken in written addresses to Congress.

As seen above, plural reference (‘we’, ‘us’) and direct audience address (‘you’, ‘your’) are favored rhetorical devices in oral States of the Union but less used in the written documents. The importance underlying this difference is that both features—plural reference and direct audience address—are deliberate disruptions of the ceremonial distance that exists between president and audience during a formal address. This disruption, in my view, can be observed most explicitly in the use of the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’. The oral medium motivates presidents to construct, with the use of these first person plurals, an intimate identification between themselves and their audience. Plurality, a professed American value, is encoded grammatically with the use of plural pronouns: president and audience are different and many but are referenced in oral speeches as one unit existing in the same subjective space. Also facilitating a decrease in ceremonial distance, as seen above, is the use of second person ‘you’ at much higher rates in oral than in written States of the Union. I would suggest that the oral medium motivates presidents to call direct attention to the audience and its role in shaping the state of the nation. In other cases, second person pronouns may represent an invitation to the audience to share in the president’s experiences.

Contraction is a secondary feature of the oral medium’s attempt at audience identification. If a president’s goal is to build identification with American citizens and to shorten the ceremonial distance between himself and them, then clearly, no president will adopt a formal diction that eschews contraction. Contraction—either negative or subject-verb—is the informality marker par excellence. Non-contraction, on the other hand, though it may sound “normal” in writing, sounds stilted and excessively proper in speech; the amusing effect of this style of diction can be witnessed in the film True Grit. In a nation comprised of working and middle class individuals, this excessively proper diction would work against the goals of shortening ceremonial distance and constructing identification. Many scholars have noted Ronald Reagan’s use of contraction to affect a “conversational” tone in his States of the Union, but contraction appears as an informality marker across multiple oral speeches in the SotU corpus. In contrast, when a president’s address takes the form of a written document, maintaining ceremonial distance seems to be the general tactic, as presidents follow correct written standards and avoid contractions. The president does not go out of his way to construct identification with his audience (Congress) through informal diction. Instead, the goal of the written medium is to report the details of the state of the nation in a professional, distant manner.

What I think these results indicate is that the State of the Union’s primary audience changes from medium to medium. This fact is signaled even by the salutations in the SotU corpus. The majority of oral addresses delivered via radio or television are explicitly addressed to ‘fellow citizens’ or some other term denoting the American public. In written addresses to Congress, however, the salutation is almost always limited to members of the House and the Senate.

Two lexical effects of this shift in audience are pronoun choice and the use or avoidance of contraction. ‘We’, ‘us’, ‘you’—the frequency of these pronouns drops by fifty percent or more when presidents move from the oral to the written medium, from an address to the public to an address to Congress. The same can be said for contraction. Presidents, it seems, feel less need to construct identification through these informality markers, through plural and second person reference, when their audience is Congress alone. In contrast, audience identification becomes an exigent goal when the citizenry takes part in the State of the Union address.

To put the argument another way, the SotU’s change in medium has historically occurred alongside a change in genre participants. These intimately linked changes motivate different rhetorical choices. Does a president choose or not choose to construct a plural identification between himself and his audience (‘we’,’us’) or to call attention to the audience’s role (‘you’) in shaping the state of the nation? Does a president choose or not choose to use obvious informality markers (i.e., contraction)? The answer depends on medium and on the participants reached via that medium—Congress or the American people.


Tomorrow, I’ll post results from two 30-run topic models of the written/oral SotU corpora.

An Attempt at Quantifying Changes to Genre Medium

Rule et al.’s (2015) article on the State of the Union makes the rather bold claim (for literary and rhetorical scholars) that changes to the SotU’s medium of delivery has had no effect on the form of the address, measured as co-occurring word clusters as well as cosine similarity across diachronic document pairs. I’ve just finished an article muddying their results a bit, so here’s the initial data dump. I’ll do it in a series of posts. Full argument to follow, if I can muster enough energy in the coming days to convert an overly complicated argument into a few paragraphs.

First, cosine similarity. Essentially, Rule et al. calculate the cosine similarity between each set of two SotU addresses chronologically—1790 and 1791, 1790 and 1792, 1790, and 1793, and so on—until each address has been compared to all other addresses. They discover high similarity measurements (nearer to 1) across most of the document space prior to 1917 and lower similarity measurements (nearer to 0) afterward, which they interpret as a shift between premodern and modern eras of political discourse. They visualize these measurements in the “transition matrices”—which look like heat maps—in Figure 2 of their article.

Adapting a Python script written by Dennis Muhlestein, I calculated the cosine similarity of States of the Union delivered in both oral and written form in the same year. This occurred in 8 years, a total of 16 texts. FDR in 1945, Eisenhower in 1956, and Nixon in 1973 delivered written messages to Congress as well as public radio addresses summarizing the written messages. Nixon in 1972 and 1974, and Carter in 1978-1980 delivered both written messages and televised speeches. These 8 textual pairs provide a rare opportunity to analyze the same annual address delivered in two mediums, making them particularly appropriate objects of analysis. The texts were cleaned of stopwords and stemmed using the Porter stemming algorithm.


Cosine similarity of oral/written SotU pairs

The results are graphed above (not a lot of numbers, so there’s no point turning them into a color-shaded matrix, as Rule et al. do). The cosine similarity measurements range from 0.67 (a higher similarity) to 0.40 (a lower similarity). The cosine similarity measurement of all written and all oral SotU texts—copied chronologically into two master .txt files—is 0.55, remarkably close to the average of the 8 pairs measured independently.

There is much ambiguity in these measurements. On one hand, they can be interpreted to suggest that Rule et al. overlooked differences between oral and written States of the Union; the measurements invite a deeper analysis of the corpus. On the other hand, the measurements also tell us not to expect substantial variation.

In the article (to take a quick stab at summarizing my argument) I suggest that this metric, among others, reflects a genre whose stability is challenged but not undermined by changes to medium as well as parallel changes initiated by the medial alteration.

But you’re probably wondering what this cosine similarity business is all about.

Without going into too much detail, vector space models (that’s what this method is called) can be simplified with the following intuitive example.

Let’s say we want to compare the following texts:

Text 1: “Mary hates dogs and cats”
Text 2: “Mary loves birds and cows”

One way to quantify the similarity between the texts is to turn their words into matrices, with each row representing one of the texts and each column representing every word that appears in either of the texts. Typically when constructing a vector space model, stop words are removed and remaining words are stemmed, so the complete word list representing Texts 1 and 2 would look like this:

“1, Mary”, “2, hate”, “3, love”, “4, dog”, “5, cat”, “6, bird”, “7, cow”

Each text, however, contains only some of these words. We represent this fact in each text’s matrix. Each word—from the complete word list—that appears in a text is represented as a 1 in the matrix; each word that does not appear in a text is represented as a 0. (In most analyses, frequency scores are used, such as relative frequency or tf-idf.) Keeping things simple, however, the matrices for Texts 1 and 2 would look like this:

Text 1: [1 0 1 1 1 0 0]
Text 2: [1 1 0 0 0 1 1]

Now that we have two matrices, it is a straightforward mathematical operation to treat these matrices as vectors in Euclidean space and calculate the vectors’ cosine similarity with the Euclidean dot product formula, which returns a similarity metric between 0 and 1. (For more info, check out this great blog series; and here’s a handy cosine similarity calculator.)


The cosine similarity of the matrices of Text 1 and Text 2 is 0.25; we could say that the texts are 25% similar. This number makes intuitive sense. Because we’ve removed the stopword ‘and’ from both texts, each text is comprised of four words, with one word shared between them—

Text 1: “Mary hates dogs cats”
Text 2: “Mary loves birds cows”

—thus resulting in the 0.25 measurement. Obviously, when the texts being compared are thousands of words long, it becomes impossible to do the math intuitively, which is why vector space modeling is a valuable tool.


Next, length. Rule et al. use tf-idf scores and thus norm their algorithms to document length. As a result, their study fails to take into account differences in SotU length. However, the most obvious effect of medium on the State of the Union has been a change in raw word count: the average length of all written addresses is 11,057 words; the average length of all oral speeches is 4,818 words. Below, I visualize the trend diachronically. As a rule, written States of the Union are longer than oral States of the Union.


State of the Union word counts, by year and medium

The correlation between medium and length is most obvious in the early twentieth century. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson broke tradition and delivered an oral State of the Union; the corresponding drop in word count is immediate and obvious. However, the effect is not as immediate at other points in the SotU’s history. For example, although Wilson began the oral tradition in 1913, both Coolidge and Hoover returned to the written medium from 1924 – 1932; Wilson’s last two speeches in 1919 and 1920 were also delivered as written messages; nevertheless, these written addresses do not correspond with a sudden rebound in SotU length. None of the early twentieth century written addresses is terribly lengthy, with an average near 5,000.

The initial shift in 1801 from oral to written addresses also fails to correspond with an obvious and immediate change in word count. The original States of the Union were delivered orally, and these early documents are by far the shortest. However, when Thomas Jefferson began the written tradition in 1801, SotU length took several decades to increase to the written mean.

Despite these caveats, the trend remains strong: the oral medium demands a shorter State of the Union, while the written medium tends to produce lengthier documents. To date, the longest address remains Carter’s 1981 written message.


More later. Needless to say, I believe there are formal differences in the SotU corpus (~2 million words) that seem to correlate with medium. However, as I’ll show in a post tomorrow, they’re rather granular and were bound to be overlooked by Rule et al.’s broad-stroke approach.

Some questions about centrality measurements in text networks


This .gif alternates between a text network calculated for betweenness centrality (smaller nodes overall) and one calculated for degree centrality (larger nodes). It’s normal to discover that most nodes in a network possess higher degree than betweenness centrality. However, in the context of human language, what precisely is signified by this variation? And is it significant?

Another way of posing the question is to ask what exactly one discovers about a string of words by applying centrality measurements to each word as though it were a node in a network, with edges between words to the right or left of it. The networks in the .gif visualize variation between two centrality measurements, but there are dozens of others that might have been employed. Which centrality measurements—if any—are best suited for textual analysis? When centrality measurements require the setting of parameters, what should those parameters be, and are they dependent on text size? And ultimately, what literary or rhetorical concept is “centrality” a proxy for? The mathematical core of a centrality measurement is a distance matrix, so what do we learn about a text when calculating word proximity (and frequency of proximity, if calculating edge weight)? Do we learn anything that would have any relevance to anyone since the New Critics?

It is not my goal (yet) to answer these questions but merely to point out that they need answers. DH researchers using networks need to come to terms with the linear algebra that ultimately generates them. Although a positive correlation should theoretically exist between different centrality measurements, differences do remain, and knowing which measurement to utilize in which case should be a matter of critical debate. For those using text networks, a robust defense of network application in general is needed. What is gained by thinking about text as a word network?

In an ideal case, of course, the language of social network theory transfers remarkably well to the language of rhetoric and semantics. Here is Linton C. Freeman discussing the notion of centrality in its most basic form:

Although it has never been explicitly stated, one general intuitive theme seems to have run through all the earlier thinking about point centrality in social networks: the point at the center of a star or the hub of a wheel, like that shown in Figure 2, is the most central possible position. A person located in the center of a star is universally assumed to be structurally more central than any other person in any other position in any other network of similar size. On the face of it, this intuition seems to be natural enough. The center of a star does appear to be in some sort of special position with respect to the overall structure. The problem is, however, to determine the way or ways in which such a position is structurally unique.

Previous attempts to grapple with this problem have come up with three distinct structural properties that are uniquely possessed by the center of a star. That position has the maximum possible degree; it falls on the geodesics between the largest possible number of other points and, since it is located at the minimum distance from all other points, it is maximally close to them. Since these are all structural properties of the center of a star, they compete as the defining property of centrality. All measures have been based more or less directly on one or another of them . . .

Addressing the notions of degree and betweenness centrality, Freeman says the following:

With respect to communication, a point with relatively high degree is somehow “in the thick of things”. We can speculate, therefore, that writers who have defined point centrality in terms of degree are responding to the visibility or the potential for activity in communication of such points.

As the process of communication goes on in a social network, a person who is in a position that permits direct contact with many others should begin to see himself and be seen by those others as a major channel of information. In some sense he is a focal point of communication, at least with respect to the others with whom he is in contact, and he is likely to develop a sense of being in the mainstream of information flow in the network.

At the opposite extreme is a point of low degree. The occupant of such a position is likely to come to see himself and to be seen by others as peripheral. His position isolates him from direct involvement with most of the others in the network and cuts him off from active participation in the ongoing communication process.

The “potential” for a node’s “activity in communication” . . . A “position that permits direct contact” between nodes . . . A “major channel of information” or “focal point of communication” that is “in the mainstream of information flow.” If the nodes we are talking about are words in a text, then it is straightforward (I think) to re-orient our mental model and think in terms of semantic construction rather than interpersonal communication. In other posts, I have attempted to adopt degree and betweenness centrality to a discussion of language by writing that, in a textual network, a word with high degree centrality is essentially a productive creator of bigrams but not a pathway of meaning. A word with high betweenness centrality, on the other hand, is a pathway of meaning: it is a word whose significations potentially slip as it is used first in this and next in that context in a text.

Degree and betweenness centrality—in this ideal formation—are therefore equally interesting measurements of centrality in a text network. Each points you toward interesting aspects of a text’s word usage.

However, most text networks are much messier than the preceding description would lead you to believe. Freeman, again, on the reality of calculating something as seemingly basic as betweenness centrality:

Determining betweenness is simple and straightforward when only one geodesic connects each pair of points, as in the example above. There, the central point can more or less completely control communication between pairs of others. But when there are several geodesics connecting a pair of points, the situation becomes more complicated. A point that falls on some but not all of the geodesics connecting a pair of others has a more limited potential for control.

In the graph of Figure 4, there are two geodesics linking pi with p3, one EJ~U p2 and one via p4. Thus, neither p2 nor p4 is strictly between p, and p3 and neither can control their communication. Both, however, have some potential for control.


Calculating betweenness centrality in this (still simple) case requires recourse to probabilities. A probabilistic centrality measure is not necessarily less valuable; however, the concept should give you an idea of the complexities involved in something as ostensibly straightforward as determining which nodes in a network are most “central.” Put into the context of a text network, a lot of intellectual muscle would need to be exerted to convert such a probability measurement into the language of rhetoric and literature (then again, as I write that . . .).

As I said, there is reading to be done, mathematical concepts to comprehend, and debates to be had. And ultimately, what we are after perhaps isn’t centrality measurements at all but metrics for node (word) influence. For example, if we assume (as I think we can) that betweenness centrality is a better metric of node influence than degree centrality, then the .gif above clearly demonstrates that degree centrality may be a relatively worthless metric—it gives you a skewed sense of which words exert the most control over a text. What’s more, node influence is a concept sensitive to scale. Though centrality measurements may inform us about influential nodes across a whole network, they may underestimate the local or temporal influence of less central nodes. Centrality likely correlates with node influence but I doubt it is determinative in all cases. Accessing text (from both a writer’s and a reader’s perspective) is ultimately a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase phenomenon, so a robust text network analysis needs to consider local influence. A meeting of network analysis and reader response theory may be in order.  Perhaps we are even wrong to expunge functional words from network analysis. As Franco Moretti has demonstrated, analysis of words as seemingly disposable as ‘of’ and ‘the’ can lead to surprising conclusions. We leave these words out of text networks simply because they create messy, spaghetti-monster visualizations. The underlying math, however, will likely be more informative, once we learn how to read it.

Distorting time to deny inevitability

The latest issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly has its authors engaging with “untimely historiography,” which, as near as I can tell, is an attempt to complicate the notion of time as a one-way river of cause and effect. Most of the essays (I’ve read two and skimmed the others) seem to share a common distrust of grand narratives and a distaste for histories that look beyond the contingency of particular events. Cause and effect, linear time—these are human constructs that make sense of distort an otherwise irreducibly complex mess of events.

The chronological anxiety in these essays is of the sort recently addressed by Ted Underwood in Why Literary Periods Mattered. There is of course good reason to be skeptical about grand narratives and historical theories, so I’m sympathetic to much of what is said in these new essays, and I find value in taking a critical look at constructions of linearity in history. However, as genetics blogger Razib Khan notes, acknowledging the dangers of over-generalization presents us with “problems to be grappled with, not a ‘get out of jail’ card to be thrown at any attempts to construct a formal system of interpretation.” Khan’s post is aptly entitled “Human History is Both Contingent and Inevitable,” and I think this both/and worldview is intellectually useful. It makes room for the radical contingency argued for by Michelle Ballif and others without foreclosing on legitimate linear interpretations of history. Thinking about history as both contingent and inevitable leads us to ask where it’s one or the other, to disentangle where it’s more one than the other.

Not everyone would agree with my sentiment, to put it mildly. As an example, I’ll quote from Hans Kellner’s essay “Is History Ever Timely?”*, in which he recounts a talk given by Hayden White:

In 1967, Hayden White . . . journeyed to Colorado to deliver a talk at a conference on biology. At this conference he spoke on the topic “What is a Historical System?” in which he contrasted a historical system with a biological system. In effect, he said that biological—that is, genetic—systems are timely. By this he meant that one’s biological state had been determined in the past by genetic ancestral code. Today we would speak of DNA. But is this true of historical, cultural ancestry? Are we historically determined in the matter of who we are? Is our historical identity as fixed by the timeliness of time and genetic logic as our biological identity is? At that conference, White said, “no.”

A resounding answer, one that, I believe, many scholars in the humanities would echo. It also rejects my olive branch to both sides of the question. It implicitly denies the possibility that culture and history might exhibit large-scale patterns or processes due to the influence of biology, geography, demographics, economics, and so on.

Kellner continues with an example that White used to prove his point: the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred:

Cultural communities are constituted on the basis of a shared agreement about the choice of historical ancestors. There are times, however, when people lose faith in their chosen identities . . . The example White cited at the time was the crisis of the seventh and eighth centuries in Northern Europe, when a Romanized world saw that the source of their identity had been changed beyond recognition, and a new candidate for that identity had emerged in the teachings of Christian missionaries. As White put it, when the Germanic peoples of northern Europe decided that they were no longer the cultural descendants of ancient Romans or of pagan barbarians, and that their cultural ancestors were Palestinian Jews with whom they had no biological connection at all, a new culture was formed. Backwards. This did not need to happen. Just as the pin on which one sat might have never been noticed if the pain had not caused it to exist for us, so the “Christianization” might have never happened . . .

But is it true that Northern Europe switched identities and cultures as effortlessly as Kellner’s gloss implies? It seems to me a highly contested statement. The Holy Roman Empire was a hegemon among Europe’s warring monarchs and tribes for a time, and, as White describes, the Church Fathers went to great lengths to adopt for themselves and for Europe a foreign Jewish culture and history, but to suggest that the Scots, the Anglos, the Franks, and the Iberians stopped being Scots, Anglos, Franks, and Iberians just because they became Christian is a gross overstatement belied by the constant warfare and power-plays that constitute European history (you’d think White and Kellner would be more careful about hasty generalizations!). It’s like saying the Persians stopped being Persian when they were conquered by the Muslims. Culture runs deep, precisely, I think, because it is tied to and influenced by processes much more intransigent than individual human whim. I don’t believe culture is a costume ready to be changed in a generation or two, and any attempts to do so often result in backlashes or corrections. One might even argue that during the middle ages Europe was just waiting for its monarchs to re-assert their power over Rome so they could all go back to fighting one another again. And indeed they did.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the political sensibility from which I think all this emerges—the idea that if history is not inevitable then the future is, to some extent, in our hands, ready to be constructed in a more just and moral way. On the other hand, if the movement of history is inevitable, then humans can have no agency over their (often unjust) cultures and behaviors, no more agency than they have over their genetics. Such is the “Cormac McCarthy” view of the world, McCarthy having famously said that wishing the species could be “improved in some way . . . will make your life vacuous.” It is an antipathy to this view that brings out the poststructuralist and postmodern tendencies in these RSQ essays, whose authors deny inevitability to history by denying the linear shape of time altogether. Get rid of linear time and any notion of inevitability disappears with it.

I grew up watching wildlife documentaries, so I was inured from a young age to the McCarthy view. It probably didn’t help that I read Blood Meridian in tenth grade. Nevertheless, I try not to err in extremes, so although my default position on culture is determinism of all types—genetic, geographic, demographic, historical—I enjoy challenging and often replacing my default assumptions. I think those who err on the other side—no determinism of any type, history is always contingent—should likewise challenge their default assumption. Hopefully we can meet in the middle.

Hayden White asked:  Are we historically determined in the matter of who we are? Is our historical identity as fixed by the timeliness of time and genetic logic as our biological identity is? He answered no, but I think we should answer, Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on what you’re talking about. The intellectual challenge is to figure out what is (or was) contingent and what is (or was) inevitable. Does history exhibit patterns and cycles? What are the large-scale processes which stand outside of but influence cultural expressions? Do certain cultural expressions change according to broadly identifiable patterns, while others exhibit no patterned changes whatsoever? How do irreducibly contingent moments interact with larger historical processes? Interesting questions, in my opinion, ones that the cliodynamicists are trying to answer mathematically. Will they be successful? Maybe, maybe not. But before the fact, I don’t think we should, to quote Khan again, “throw our hands up in the air and assume that all of history is a contingent darkness from which we can’t infer general patterns.”


*Kellner’s essay is a sensible discussion of the ways that texts, films, and images create connections across great gaps of time to re-figure the past in terms of the present. It’s an excellent piece, and I’m simply using these carefully extracted quotes as a foil.

Elliot Rodger’s Manifesto: Text Networks and Corpus Features

Analyzing manifestos is becoming a theme at this blog. Click here for Chris Dorner’s manifesto and here for the Unabomber manifesto.

Manifestos are interesting because they are the most deliberately written and deliberately personal of genres. It’s tenuous to make claims about a person’s psyche based on the linguistic features of his personal emails; it’s far less tenuous to make claims about a person’s psyche based on the linguistic features of his manifesto—especially one written right before he goes on a kill rampage. This one—“My Twisted World,” written by omega male Elliot Rodger—is 140 pages long, and is part manifesto, part autobiography.

I’ve made a lot of text networks over the years—of manifestos, of novels, of poems. Never before have I seen such a long text exhibit this kind of stark, binary division:


This network visualizes the nodes with the highest betweenness centrality. The lower, light blue cluster is Elliot’s domestic language; this is where you’ll find words like “friends”, “school,” “house,” et cetera . . . words describing his life in general. The higher, red cluster is Elliot’s sexually frustrated language; this is where you’ll find words like “girls,” “women,” “sex,” “experience,” “beautiful,” “never”  . . . words describing his relationships with (or lack thereof) the feminine half of our species.

It’s quite startling. Although this text is part manifesto and part autobiography, I wasn’t expecting such a clear division: the language Elliot uses to describe his sexually frustrated life is almost wholly severed from the language he uses to describe his life apart from the sex and the “girls” (Elliot uses “girls” far more frequently than he uses “women”—see below). It’s as though Elliot had completely compartmentalized his sexual frustration, and was keeping it at bay. Or trying to. I don’t know how this plays out in individual sections of the manifesto. Nor do I know what it says about Elliot’s mental health more generally. I’ve always believed that compartmentalizing frustrations is, contra popular advice, a rather healthy thing to do. I expected a very, very tortuous and conflicted network to emerge here, indicating that each aspect of Elliot’s life was dripping with sexual angst and misogyny. Not so, it turns out.

Here’s a brief “zoom” on each section:



In the large, zoomed-out network—the first one in the post—notice that the most central nodes are “me” and “my.” I processed the text using AutoMap but decided to retain the pronouns, curious how the feminine, masculine, and personal pronouns would play out in the networks and the dispersion plots. Feminine, masculine, personal—not just pronouns in this particular text. And what emerges when the pronouns are retained is an obvious image of the Personal. Rodgers’ manifesto is brimming with self-reference:


Take that with a grain of salt, of course. In making claims about any text with these methods, one should compare features with the features of general text corpora and with texts of a similar type. The Brown Corpus provides some perspective: “It” is the most frequent pronoun in that corpus; “I” is second; “me” is far down the list, past the third-person pronouns.

Here’s another narcissistic twist, found in the most frequent words in the text. Again,  pronouns have been retained. (Click to enlarge.)


“I” is the most frequent word in the entire text, coming before even the basic functional workhorses of the English language. The Brown Corpus once more provides perspective: “I” is the 11th most frequent word in that general corpus. Of course, as noted, there is an auto-biographic ethos to this manifesto, so it would be worth checking whether or not other auto-biographies bump “I” to the number one spot. Perhaps. But I would be surprised if “I,” “me,” and “my” all clustered in the top 10 in a typical auto-biography—a narcissistic genre by design, yet I imagine that self-aware authors attempt to balance the “I” with a pro-social dose of “thou.” Maybe I’m wrong. It would be worth checking.

More lexical dispersion plots . . .

Much more negation is seen below then is typically found in texts. According to Michael Halliday, most text corpora will exhibit 10% negative polarity and 90% positive polarity. Elliot’s manifesto, however, bursts with negation. Also notice, below, the constant references to “mother” and “father”—his parents are central characters. But not “mom” and “dad.” I’m from Southern California, born and raised, with social experience across the races and classes, but I’ve never heard a single English-only speaker refer to parents as “mother” and “father” instead of “mom” and “dad.” Was Elliot bilingual? Finally, note that Elliot prefers “girl/s” to “woman/en.”





Until I discover that auto-biographical texts always drip with personal pronouns, I would argue that Elliot’s manifesto is the product of an especially narcissistic personality. The boy couldn’t go two sentences without referencing himself in some way.

And what about the misogyny? He uses masculine pronouns as often as he uses feminine pronouns; he refers to his father as often as he refers to his mother—although, it is true, the references to mother become more frequent, relative to father, as Elliot pushes toward his misogynistic climax. Overall, however, the rhetorical energy in the text is not expended on females in particular. This is not an anti-woman screed from beginning to end. Also, recall, the preferred term is “girls,” not “women.” Elliot hated girls. Women—middle-aged, old, married, ensconced in careers, not apt to wear bikinis on the Santa Barbara beach—are hardly on Elliot’s radar. (This ageism also comes through in his YouTube videos.) Despite the “I hate all women” rhetorical flourishes at the very beginning and the very end of his manifesto, Elliot prefers to write about girls—young, blonde, unmarried, pre-career, in sororities, apt to wear bikinis on the Santa Barbara beach.

I noticed something similar in the Unabomber manifesto. Not about the girls. About the beginning and ending: what we remember most from that manifesto is its anti-PC bookends, even though the bulk of the manifesto devotes itself to very different subject matter. The quotes pulled from manifestos (including this one) and published by news outlets are a few subjective anecdotes, not the totality of the text .

Anyway. Pieces of writing that sally forth from such diseased individuals always call to mind what Kenneth Burke said about Mein Kampf:

[Hitler] was helpful enough to put his cards face up on the table, that we might examine his hands. Let us, then, for God’s sake, examine them.


Lying with Data Visualizations: Is it Misleading to Truncate the Y-Axis?

Making the rounds on Twitter today is a post by Ravi Parikh entitled “How to lie with data visualization.” It falls neatly into the “how to lie with statistics” genre because data visualization is nothing more than the visual representation of numerical information.

At least one graph provided by Parikh does seem like a deliberate attempt to obfuscate information–i.e., to lie:


Inverting the y-axis so that zero starts at the top is very bad form, as Parikh rightly notes. It is especially bad form given that this graph delivers information about a politically sensitive subject (firearm homicides before and after the enacting of Stand Your Ground legislation).

Other graphs Parikh provides don’t seem like deliberate obfuscations so much as exercises in stupidity:


Pie charts whose divisions are broken down by % need to add up to 100%. No one in Fox Chicago’s newsroom knows how to add. WTF Visualizations—a great site—provides many examples of pie charts like this one.

So, yes, data visualizations can be deliberately misleading; they can be carelessly designed and therefore uninformative. These are problems with visualization proper, and may or may not reflect problems with the numerical data itself or the methods used to collect the data.

However, one of Parikh’s “visual lies” is more complicated: the truncated y-axis:


About these graphs, Parikh writes the following;

One of the easiest ways to misrepresent your data is by messing with the y-axis of a bar graph, line graph, or scatter plot. In most cases, the y-axis ranges from 0 to a maximum value that encompasses the range of the data. However, sometimes we change the range to better highlight the differences. Taken to an extreme, this technique can make differences in data seem much larger than they are.

Truncating the y-axis “can make differences in data seem much larger than they are.” Whether or not differences in data are large or small, however, depends entirely on the context of the data. We can’t know, one way or the other, if a difference of .001% is a major or insignificant difference unless we have some knowledge of the field for which that statistic was compiled.

Take the Bush Tax Cut graph above. This graph visualizes a tax raise for those in the top bracket, from a 35% rate to a 39.6% rate. This difference is put into a graph with a y-axis that extends from 34 – 42%, which makes the difference seem quite significant. However, if we put this difference into a graph with a y-axis that extends from 0 – 40%—the range of income tax rates—the difference seems much less significant:


So which graph is more accurate? The one with a truncated y-axis or the one without it? The one in which the percentage difference seems significant or the one in which it seems insignificant?

Here’s where context-specific knowledge becomes vital. What is actually being measured here? Taxes on income. Is a 35% tax on income really that much greater than a 39.6% tax? According to the current U.S. tax code, this highest bracket affects individual earnings over $400,000/year and, for  married couples, earnings over $450,000/year. Let’s go with the single rate. Let’s say someone makes $800,000 per year in income, meaning that $400,000 of that income will be taxed at the highest rate:

35% of 400,000 = 0.35(400,000) = 140,000

39.6% of 400,000 = 0.396(400,000) = 158,400

158,400 – 140,000 = 18,400

So, in real numbers, not percent, the tax rate hike will equal $18,400 to someone making 800k each year. It would equal more $$$ for those earning over a million. So, the question posed a moment ago (which graph is more accurate?) can also be posed in the following way: is an extra eighteen grand lost annually to taxes a significant or insignificant amount?

And this of course is a subjective question. Ravi Parikh thinks it’s not a significant difference, which is why he used the truncated graph as an example in a post titled “How to lie with data visualization.” (And as a graduate student, my response is also, “Boo-freaking-hoo.”) However, imagine a wealthy couple, owners of a successful car dealership, being taxed at this rate (based on a combined income of ~800k). They have four kids. Over 18 years, the money lost to this tax raise will equal what could have been college tuition for two of their kids. I believe they would think the difference between 35% and 39.6% is significant. (Note that the “semi-rich” favor Republicans, while the super rich, the 1%, favor Democrats.)

What about the baseball graph? It shows a pitcher’s average knuckleball speed from one year to the next. When measuring pitch speed, how significant is the difference between 77.3 mph and 75.3 mph? Is the truncated y-axis making a minor change more significant than it really is? As averages across an entire season, a drop in 2 mph does seem pretty significant to me. If Dickey were a fastball pitcher, averaging between 92 mph and 90 mph would mean fewer pitches under 90mph, which could lead to a higher ERA, fewer starts, and a truncated career. For young pitchers being scouted, the difference between an 84 mph pitch and an 86 mph pitch can apparently mean the difference between getting signed and not getting signed. Granted, there are very few knuckleballers in baseball, so whether or not this average difference is significant in the context of the knuckleball is difficult to ascertain. However, in the context of baseball more generally, a 2 mph average decline in pitch speed is worth visualizing as a notable decline.

So, do truncated y-axes qualify as the same sort of data-viz problem as pie charts that don’t add up to 100%? It depends on the context. And there are plenty of contexts in which tiny differences are in fact significant. In these contexts, not truncating the y-axis would mean creating a misleading visualization.

Distant Reading and the “Evolution” Metaphor


Are there any corpora that purposefully avoid “diachronicity”? There are corpora that possess no meta-data about publication dates and whose texts are therefore organized by some other scheme—for example, the IMDB movie review corpus, which is organized according to positive/negative polarity; its texts, as far as I know, are not arranged chronologically or coded for time in any way. And there are cases where time-related data are not available, easily or at all. But have any corpora been compiled with dates—the time element—purposefully elided? Is time ever left out of a corpus because that information might be considered “noise” to researchers?

Maybe in rare situations. But for most corpora whose texts span any length of time greater than a year, the texts are, if possible, arranged chronologically or somehow tagged with date information. In this universe, time flows in one direction, so assembling hundreds or thousands of texts with meta-data related to their dates of publication means the resulting corpus will possess an inherent diachronicity whether we want it to or not. We can re-arrange the corpus for machine-learning purposes, but the “time stamp” is always there, ready to be explored. Who wouldn’t want to explore it?

If we have a lot of texts—any data, really—that span a great length of time, and if we look at features in those data across the time span, what do we end up studying? In nearly all cases, we end up studying patterns of formal change and transformation across spans of time. The “evolution” metaphor suggests itself immediately. Be honest, now, you were thinking about it the minute you compiled the corpus.

One can, of course, use “evolution” as a general synonym for change. This is probably the case for Thomas Miller’s The Evolution of College English and for many other studies whose data extend only to a limited number of representative sources. However, when it comes to distant readings, the word becomes much more tempting. The trees of Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees are explicitly evolutionary:

For Darwin, ‘divergence of character’ interacts throughout history with ‘natural selection and extinction’: as variations grow apart from each other, selection intervenes, allowing only a few to survive. In a seminar a few years ago, I addressed the analogous problem of literary survival, using as a test case the early stages of British detective fiction . . . (70-71)

The same book ends with an afterword by geneticist Alberto Piazza (who worked with Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza on The History and Geography of Human Genes). Piazza writes:

[Moretti’s writings] struck me by their ambition to tell the ‘stories’ of literary structures, or the evolution over time and space of cultural traits considered not in their singularity, but their complexity. An evolution, in other words, ‘viewed from afar’, analogous at least in certain respects to that which I have taught and practiced in my study of genetics. (95)

Analogous at least in certain respects . . . For Moretti and Piazza, literary evolution is not just a synonym for change in literature. Biological evolution becomes a guiding metaphor (not perfect, by any means) for the processes of formal change analyzed by Moretti. Piazza continues:

The student of biological evolution is especially interested in the root of a [phylogenetic] tree (the time it originated). . . . The student of literary evolution, on the other hand, is interested not so much in the root of the tree (because it is situated in a known historical epoch) as in its trajectory, or metamorphoses. This is an interest much closer to the study of the evolution of a gene, the particular nature of whose mutations, and the filter operated by natural selection, one wants to understand . . . (112-113)

Obviously, for Piazza, Moretti’s study of changes to and migrations of literary form in time and space evokes the processes and mechanisms of biological evolution—there’s not a one-to-one correspondence, of course, and Piazza points this out at length, but the similarities are evocative enough that he, a population geneticist, felt confident publishing his thoughts on the subject.

In Distant Reading, Moretti has more recently acknowledged that the intense data collection and quantitative analysis that has marked work at Stanford’s Literary Lab must at some point heed “the need for a theoretical framework” (122). Regarding that framework, he writes:

The results of the [quantitative] exploration are finally beginning to settle, and the un-theoretical interlude is ending; in fact, a desire for a general theory of the new literary archive is slowly emerging in the world of digital humanities. It is on this new empirical terrain that the next encounter of evolutionary theory and historical materialism is likely to take place. (122)

In Macroanalysis, Matthew Jockers also acknowledges (and resists) the temptation to initiate an encounter between evolutionary theory and the quantitative, diachronic data compiled in his book:

. . . the presence of recurring themes and recurring habits of style inevitably leads us to ask the more difficult questions about influence and about whether these are links in a systematic chain or just arbitrary, coincidental anomalies in a disorganized and chaotic world of authorial creativity, intertextuality, and bidirectional dialogics . . .

“Evolution” leaps to mind as a possible explanation. Information and ideas do behave in a ways that seem evolutionary. Nevertheless, I prefer to avoid the word evolution: books are not organisms; they do not breed. The metaphor for this process breaks down quickly, and so I do better to insert myself into the safer, though perhaps more complex, tradition of literary “influence” . . . (155)

And in the last chapter to Why Literary Periods Mattered, Ted Underwood does not mention evolution at all but there is clearly an evolutionary connotation to the terms he uses to describe digital humanities’ influence on literary scholars’ conception of history:

. . . digital and quantitative methods are a valuable addition to literary study . . . because their ability to represent gradual, macroscopic change brings a healthy theoretical diversity to literary historicism . . .

. . . we need to let quantitative methods do what they do best: map broad patterns and trace gradients of change. (159, 170)

Underwood also discusses “trac[ing] processes of change” (160) and “causal continuity” (161). The entire thrust of Underwood’s argument, in fact, is that distant or quantitative readings of literature will force scholars to stop reading literary history as a series of discrete periods or sharp cultural “turns” and to view it instead as a process of gradual change in response to extra-literary forces—“Romanticism” didn’t just become “Naturalism” any more than homo erectus one decade decided to become homo sapiens.

Tracing processes of gradual, macroscopic change . . . if that doesn’t invoke evolutionary theory, I don’t know what does. Underwood doesn’t even need to use the word.

Moretti, Jockers, and Underwood are three big names in digital humanities who have recognized, either explicitly or implicitly, that distant reading puts us face to face with cultural transformation on a large, diachronic scale. Anyone working with DH methods has likely recognized the same thing. Like I said, be honest: you were already thinking about this before you learned to topic model or use the NLTK.



Human culture changes—its artifacts, its forms. This is not up for debate. Even if we think human history is a series of variations on a theme, the mutability of cultural form remains undeniable, even more undeniable than the mutability of biological form. Distant reading, done cautiously, gives us a macro-scale, quantitative view of that change, a view simply not possible to achieve at the scale of individual texts or artifacts. Given the fact of cultural transformation, then, and DH’s potential to visualize it, to quantify aspects of it, one of two positions must be taken.

1. The diachronic patterns we discover in our distant readings are, to use Jockers’ words, “just arbitrary, coincidental anomalies in a disorganized and chaotic world of authorial creativity, intertextuality, and bidirectional dialogics.” Theorizing the patterns is a fool’s errand.

2. The diachronic patterns we discover are not arbitrary or random. Theorizing the patterns is a worthwhile activity.

Either we believe that there are processes guiding cultural change (or, at least, that it’s worthwhile to discover whether or not there are such processes) or we assume a priori that no such processes exist. (A third position, I suppose, is to believe that such processes exist but we can never know them because they are too complex.) We can all decide differently. But those who adopt the first position should kindly leave the others to their work. In my view, certain criticisms of distant reading amount to an admonition that “What you’re trying to do just can’t be done.” We’ll see.



When we decide to theorize data from distant readings, what are we theorizing? Moretti, Jockers, and Underwood each provide a similar answer: we are theorizing changes to a cultural form over time and, in some instances, space. Certain questions present themselves immediately: Are the changes novel and divergent, or are they repeating and reticulating? Is the change continuous and gradual, or are there moments of punctuated equilibrium? How do we determine causation? Are purely internal mechanisms at work, or also external dynamics? A complex interplay of both internal mechanisms and external dynamics? How do we reduce data further or add layers of them to untangle the vectors of causation?

To me, all of this sounds purely evolutionary. Even talking about gradual vs. quick change is a discussion taken right out of Darwinian theory.

But we needn’t adopt the metaphor explicitly if we are troubled that it breaks down at certain points. Alex Reid writes:

Matthew Jockers remarks following his own digital-humanistic investigation, “Evolution is the word I am drawn to, and it is a word that I must ultimately eschew. Although my little corpus appears to behave in an evolutionary manner, surely it cannot be as flawlessly rule bound and elegant as evolution” (171). As he notes elsewhere, evolution is a limited metaphor for literary production because “books are not organisms; they do not breed.” He turns instead to the more familiar concept of “influence” . . . Certainly there is no reason to expect that books would “breed” in the same way biological organisms do (even though those organisms reproduce via a rich variety of means). [However], if literary production were imagined to be undertaken through a network of compositional and cognitive agents, then such productions would not be limited to the capacity of a human to be influenced. Jockers may be right that “evolution” is not the most felicitous term, primarily because of its connection to biological reproduction, but an evolutionary-type process, a process as “natural” as it is “cultural,” as “nonhuman” as it is “human,” may exist.

An “evolutionary-type” process of culture is what we’re after, one that is not necessarily reliant on human agency alone. Will it end up being “flawlessly rule bound and elegant as evolution”? First, I think Jockers seriously over-estimates the “flawless” nature of evolutionary theory and population genetics. If the theory of evolution is so flawless and elegant, and all the science settled, what do biologists and geneticists do all day? Here’s a recent statement from the NSF:

Understanding the tree of life has been a goal of evolutionary biologists since the time of Darwin. During the past decade, unprecedented gains in gathering and analyzing phylogenetic data have demonstrated increasingly complex genealogical patterns.

. . . . Our current knowledge of processes such as hybridization, endosymbiosis and lateral gene transfer makes clear that the evolutionary history of life on Earth cannot accurately be depicted as a single, typological, bifurcating tree.

Moretti, it turns out, needn’t worry so much about the fact that cultural evolution reticulates. And Jockers needn’t assume that biological evolution is elegantly settled stuff.

Secondly, as Reid argues, we needn’t hope to discover a system of influence and cultural change that can be reduced to equations. We probably won’t find any such thing. However, within all the textual data, we can optimistically hope to find regularities, patterns that can be used to make predictions about what might be found elsewhere, patterns that might connect without casuistic contrivance to theories from the sciences. Here’s an example, one I’ve used several times on this blog: Derek Mueller’s distant reading of the journal College Composition and Communication. Mueller used article citations as his object of analysis. When he counted and graphed a quarter century of citations in the journal, he discovered patterns that looked like this:


Actually, based on similar studies of academic citation patterns, we could have predicted that Mueller would discover this power law distribution. It turns out that academic citations—a purely cultural form, a textual artifact constructed through the practices of the academy—behave according to a statistical law that seems to affect all sorts of things, from earthquakes to word frequencies. This example makes a strong case against those who argue that cultural artifacts, constructed by human agents within their contextualized interactions, will not aggregate over time into scientifically recognizable patterns.  Granted, this example comes from mathematics, not evolutionary theory, but it makes the point nicely anyway: the creations of human culture are not necessarily free from non-human processes. Is it foolish to look for the effects of these processes through distant reading?



“Evolution,” “influence,” “gradualism”—whatever we call it in the digital humanities, those of us adopting it on the literary and rhetorical end have a huge advantage over those working in history: we have a well-defined, observable element, an analogue of DNA, to which we can always reduce our objects of study: words. If evolution is going to be a guiding metaphor, we need this observable element because it is through observations of its metamorphoses (in usage, frequency, etc.) that we begin to figure out the mechanisms and dynamics that actually cause or influence those metamorphoses. If we had no well-defined segment to observe and quantify, the evolutionary metaphor could be thrown right out.

To demonstrate its importance, allow me a rhetorical demonstration. First, I’ll write out Piazza’s description of biological evolution found in his afterword to Graphs, Maps, Trees. Then, I’ll reproduce the passage, substituting lexical and rhetorical terms for “genes” but leaving everything else more or less the same. Let’s see how it turns out:

Recognizing the role biological variability plays in the reconstruction of the memory of our (biological) past requires ways to visualize and elaborate data at our disposal on a geographical basis. To this end, let us consider a gene (a segment of DNA possessed of a specific, ascertainable biological function); and for each gene let us analyze its identifiable variants, or alleles. The percentage of individuals who carry a given allele may vary (very widely) from one geographical locality to another. If we can verify the presence or absence of that allele in a sufficient number of individuals living in a circumscribed and uniform geographical area, we can draw maps whose isolines will join all the points with the same proportion of alleles.

The geographical distribution of such genetic frequencies can yield indications and instruments of measurement of the greatest interest for the study of the evolutionary mechanisms that generate genetic differences between human populations. But their interpretation involves quite complex problems. When two human populations are genetically similar, the resemblance may be the result of a common historical origin, but it can also be due to their settlement in similar physical (for example, climactic) environments. Nor should we forget that styles of life and cultural attitudes of an analogous nature (for example, dietary regimes) can favour the increase or decrease to the point of extinction of certain genes.

Why do genes (and hence their frequencies) vary over time and space? They do so because the DNA sequences of which they are composed can change by accident. Such change, or mutations, occurs very rarely, and when it happens, it persists equally rarely in a given population in the long run . . . From an evolutionary point of view, the mechanism of mutation is very important because it introduces innovations . . .

. . . The evolutionary mechanism capable of chancing the genetic structure of a population most swiftly is natural selection, which favours the genetic types best adapted for survival to sexual maturity, or with a higher fertility. Natural selection, whose action is continuous over time, having to eliminate mutations that are injurious in a given habitat, is the mechanism that adapts a population to the environment that surrounds it. (100-101)

Now for the “distant reading” version:

Recognizing the role lexical variability plays in the reconstruction of the memory of our (literary and rhetorical) past requires ways to visualize and elaborate data at our disposal on the basis of cultural space (which often correlates with geography). To this end, let us consider a word (a segment of phonemes and morphemes possessed of a specific, ascertainable grammatical or semantic function); and for each word let us analyze its stylistic variants, or synonyms. The percentage of texts that carry a given stylistic variant may vary from one cultural space to another, or from one genre to the other. If we can verify the presence or absence of that variant in a sufficient number of texts produced in a circumscribed and uniform cultural space we can draw maps whose isolines will join all the points with the same proportion of stylistic variants.

The distribution of such lexical frequencies can yield indications and instruments of measurement of the greatest interest for the study of the evolutionary mechanisms that generate lexical differences between “generic populations.” But their interpretation involves quite complex problems. When two rhetorical forms or genres are lexically similar, the resemblance may be the result of a common historical origin, but it can also be due to their development in similar geographic or political environments. Nor should we forget that styles of life and cultural attitudes of an analogous nature (for example, religious dictates) can favour the increase or decrease to the point of extinction of certain lexical items or clusters of lexical items.

Why do words (and hence their frequencies and “clusterings”) vary over time and space? They do so because of stylistic innovations. Such innovation occurs very rarely, and when it happens, it persists equally rarely in a given generic population in the long run . . . From an evolutionary point of view, the mechanism of innovation is very important because it introduces new rhetorical forms . . .

. . . The evolutionary mechanism capable of changing the lexical structure of a rhetorical form or genre most swiftly is cultural selection, which favours the forms best adapted for survival to publication and circulation, or with a higher degree of influence (meaning a higher likelihood of being reproduced by others without too many changes). Cultural selection, whose action is continuous over time, having to eliminate rhetorical innovations or “mutations” that are injurious in a given cultural habitat, is the mechanism that adapts a rhetorical form to the environment that surrounds it.

Obviously, it’s not perfect. I leave it to the reader to decide its persuasive potential.

I think the biggest problem is in the handling of mutations. In biological evolution, genes mutate via chance variations during replication of their segments; these mutations can introduce innovations in an organism’s form or function. In literary evolution, however, no sharp distinction exists between a lower-scale “mutation” and the innovation it introduces. The innovation is the formal mutation. This issue arises because, in literary evolution, as in linguistic evolution, the genotype/phenotype distinction is not as obvious or strictly scaled as it is in evolutionary theory. Words are more phenotype than genotype, unless we want to get lost in an overly complex evocation of morphology and phonology.

The metaphor always breaks down somewhere, but where it works, it is, I think, highly suggestive: the idea is that we track rhetorical forms—constellations of words and their stylistic variants—across time and space, in order to see where the forms replicate and where they disappear. Attach meta-data to the texts that constitute those forms, and we will have what it takes to begin making data-driven arguments about how cultural ecology affects or does not affect cultural form.

It’s an interesting framework in which distant reading might go forward, even if explicit uses of the word “evolution” are abandoned.