Abstraction : a literary history
- Ryan Heuser.
- [Stanford, California] : [Stanford University], 2019.
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- This dissertation turns to computational semantics and natural language processing in order to trace forms of abstract language as they travel across literary history. Abstract words, when studied at the scale of the digital archive, weave a broad historical pattern for which we have no name: a slow-moving, centuries-long rise and fall across the literature of the modern period. This pattern, invisible but to the macroscope of distant reading, provides a new kind of map, and a new kind of prominence, to the literary history of the long eighteenth century. Zooming in on these distant data, I explore two literary forms of abstract language more closely: "abstract realism, " in the "tell, don't show" narration of the early realist novel; and "abstract persons, " in the personified abstractions of the mid-eighteenth-century poetry. Drawing on both close reading and computational analysis, my dissertation historicizes a cultural logic of abstraction as it develops across the long eighteenth century through a range of linguistic, literary, and social forms. Critically, Abstraction: A Literary History aims to recuperate abstraction as both a method and an object of literary study. For decades, literary criticism has been largely hostile to abstract methods, from the New Critics' insistence on a poem's irreducible ambiguity to the new historicism's emphasis on its material circulation and exchange. My dissertation participates in, and theorizes, what I call an "abstract turn" in criticism, a set of related trends encompassing not only digital humanities work, but also newly abstract, interdisciplinary notions of form, along with new investments in large-scale critical frameworks like the institutional, the transhistorical, and the planetary. Working, computationally, at the scale of four hundred years, Abstraction: A Literary History visualizes this abstract turn within a broader history of negotiations between the literary, the critical, and the abstract.
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- Submitted to the English Department.
- Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2019.