This essay addresses the relationship between shape and number that is implicit to the conversion of statistics into forms of visual display. It does so by way of the work and legacy of Robert Burns, particularly the well-known poems “To a Louse” and “To a Mouse.” Bearing the reputation of Scotland’s national bard, a figure resolving a multiplicity of citizens into the image of unity, Burns’s poems nevertheless present complex, creaturely subjects that seemingly consist in more and less than themselves, in more and less than “one.” The poems thus make a narrow case for the breakdown of sympathy and a broader one for the irreducible complexity of being. Such complexity inflects the very structure of what scholars, after Franco Moretti, call the quantitative analysis of literature (in the conversion of texts to countable units: one, two, three, etc.). It also reveals how texts from literary history both complement and undercut the practices that partly convert those texts into bytes of information.
Matthew Wickman; Robert Burns and Big Data; Or, Pests of Quantity and Visualization. Modern Language Quarterly 1 March 2014; 75 (1): 1–28. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-2377721
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