Identifying Themes

In Macroanalysis, Jockers makes a concerted effort to delineate the reach and the limitations of “big data” with regards to interpretation and meaning. In the foundational opening chapters, he is clear to qualify the products of computer-based text analysis when he notes that “an early mistake …was that computers would somehow provide irrefutable conclusions about what a text might mean” (40). He explicitly denies that this macro scale is supposed to supplant analysis in that regard. Regarding his careful maintenance of this limitation through all the literary and historical conclusions he comes to, I thought the way he toed this line during his section on topic modeling particularly interesting.

I am accustomed to thematic material, derived between the lines of a book’s contents, that is usually subjectively interpreted, but I think now that is because I conflate the discovery of a theme with its interpretation. However, this relates back to Jockers’ description of research bias in terms of Irish Americans, and the focus on urban environments in Eastern states which clouded the understanding of important activities in the Western frontier. The raw material, consisting of the author’s actual words, in a piece of literature is the same no matter who reads it and specific topis require the use of specific words. Through topic modeling, these words are drawn out to find themes that may be obvious in one text (whaling in Moby Dick) but not so much other texts. Also, done on a macro scale, learning of the existence of these topics in a corpus of works too large for a single person to synthesize clearly reveals trends that open up other avenues for research, probably done on a micro scale.

This is where interpretation and meaning become foregrounded considerations, as subjectivity is derived from the commentary the author makes with the theme and the emphasis or connection the readers has on certain attributes of the theme due their own biases, and an author’s “artistry…comes in the assembly of these resources” (174). The trends that are highlighted from the macro reading serve to contextualize findings from a micro reading (even as often macroanalysis literally removes words from their surrounding text) because works of literature do not exist in isolation, and neither do historical events and activities. In Jockers’ own efforts mapping influence and discussing intertextuality in literature, he touches upon what seems like a valuable application for historical research. As literature synthesizes the (usually) unique voice and insight of an individual author the with common qualities of language, culture, and generation, and requires different methods to access specific data, addressing history engages similar parameters of time and distance, and thus similarly benefits from the interplay of close and distant readings.

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