Mo / 16:00

Fiction’s Functions: Three Data-Driven Hypotheses

Andrew Piper, McGill University

Virtual Talk

The study of literature abounds in theories. Since the time of Plato, scholars have developed theories about the nature and function of literature. And yet until recently, we have had no way of empirically testing these theories, nor developing new theories based on large-scale observations of literary texts. In this talk I will present research that aims to motivate three emerging hypotheses about the social function of fictional storytelling based on the use of computational approaches to the study of literature. These hypotheses thus represent the first steps in a data-driven theory of literature. I call them the coherence hypothesis, immutability hypothesis and the phenomenological hypothesis. Coherence refers to the degree of semantic and stylistic distinctiveness of fictional versus non-fictional discourse. Immutability refers to the transhistorical (and potentially transcultural) continuity of such distinctiveness. And phenomenological refers to fiction’s unique investment in the fictional subject’s sensing, testing and wondering relationship to the world. The talk will explore the appropriateness of different kinds of data for such analysis, the choice and interpretation of different feature spaces, as well as the available methodologies that can be used to support the development of such hypotheses.

This talk will offer a glimpse into the work of one of the most renowned and active practitioners of cultural analytics. Andrew Piper has published many highly regarded contributions to the question of the materiality of literature, the evolution of literary genres, and digital methods in literary studies since his study of imaginaries of the literary in the medium of the book (Dreaming in Books, 2009). The tension between exemplary analyses and work with large corpora of digitized sources is always at the center. How can these two ways of working be brought into better contact with each other, what chances do they have to learn from each other? At this lecture evening, Andrew Piper will present an excerpt from his current projects and put it up for discussion.