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  Evidence, Coincidence, and Superabundant Information Maurice S. LeeVictorian Studies, Volume 54, Number 1, Autumn 2011, pp. 87-94 (Article)Published by Indiana University PressFor additional information about this article Access provided at 20 Mar 2019 15:48 GMT from Lancaster University https://muse.jhu.edu/article/468196   AUTUMN 2011 Evidence, Coincidence, and Superabundant Information Maurice S. Lee “I must trust to chance, Mr. Varden.”“A bad thing to trust to, Joe.”Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge  M  y grandfather used to get uncomfortable when the grand-kids fiddled with his VCR. He used the machine regularly enough, but it still felt mystical and fragile. I feel a bit like my grandfather when I see students slinging around their laptops or using them as food trays in the student union. It’s not that they under-stand the technology better than I (though many do); it’s more that it has been so integrated into their lives as to inspire little wonder or fear. Something similar appears to be happening with literary critics and databases. The digital humanities for literary scholars was once the domain of pioneering specialists doing seemingly alien work, and much research in the field still emphasizes technical questions of informatics and database construction. The digital humanities may remain a foreign land represented by a handful of ambassadors, and  yet databases have become so basic to mainstream critical practices that even non-technical scholars of a certain age can begin to take them for granted. What follows attempts to reclaim some discomfort and wonder by asking what is gained and lost by using search engines to gather evidence, a question that can turn us toward Dickens and Poe, who both confronted the problem of identifying evidence during their own information revolution.  Well before the digital humanities 2.0 was offered to the public, Jerome McGann and Katherine Hayles signaled what in retro-spect might be called the domestication of the digital humanities, arguing that the future of the field depended on discipline- and media-specific interpretation. As predicted, the digital revolution in literary studies now seems less PC and more Mac, less directed by technical  88 MAURICE S. LEE VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 54, NO. 1 specialists and more driven by ordinary end-users. Among the greatest beneficiaries of the digital humanities are historically minded scholars of nineteenth-century literature. The explosion of transatlantic print culture, coupled with the fact that most published work from the period is already in the public domain, means that an inconceivable quantity of texts are accessible through Internet databases. More practically—which is to say, more importantly—the vastness of nine-teenth-century print culture is profoundly usable in digitized form as search engines drive targeted research and data mining of unprece-dented efficiency, specificity, and scope. For critics who build interpre-tations on links between literary and historical texts, searchable databases can feel almost too powerful, particularly under the influ-ence of New Historicism.New Historicism was initially most controversial for finding ideology everywhere, though its most unsettling legacy at this moment is its broad construal of what constitutes evidence. Under a New Histor-icist anecdotal logic that has been largely naturalized today, any single cultural artifact can be a basis for interpretation as New Historicist methods expand the range of potential evidence beyond authorial intention and source study, while at the same time shrinking the amount of evidence required to make a case. New Historicism unleashes myriad interpretive possibilities, though the worry is that it lacks falsifiability insofar as it becomes theoretically impossible to exclude any meaning from a text. New Historicists in the mid-1980s and 1990s theoretically justified such methods (Fineman 49–76; Galla-gher and Greenblatt 1–19), though my sense is that the persuasiveness of New Historicist arguments depends mainly on an implicit belief that connections made between texts are not arbitrary. When Mary Poovey took an 1862 National Review essay to represent “an entire social orga-nization” enforcing gender roles, her excerpt’s language was so pitch perfect as to convince beyond its rightful evidentiary weight (2). Or  when Eric Savoy examined Henry James’s “In the Cage” (1898) along-side the Cleveland Street affair, the parallels were so striking that it seemed hardly to matter what precisely James knew of the scandal. For New Historicist interpretation to work—then and now—homologies cannot be coincidental, though how one might determine such things remains difficult to say.Here databases can provide a supplementary, though hardly definitive, quantitative perspective. In 1983 Michael Rogin leveraged a  FORUM: EVIDENCE, COINCIDENCE, AND SUPERABUNDANT INFORMATION 89 AUTUMN 2011 Theodore Parker abolitionist sermon figuring the biblical King Ahab as a slaveholder to argue that Moby-Dick (1851), through its own Captain  Ahab, critiques American slavery and capitalism. New Historicism makes it unnecessary to prove that Melville knew Parker’s text, for the uncanny echoes between Moby-Dick   and the sermon stand in for a larger cultural discourse associating Ahab and slavery. Though Rogin’s discovery evinced time well spent in the stacks and the homologies he drew were scintillating, ten minutes on Google Books offers up evidence that was practically unobtainable in 1983. Restricted to texts between 1830 and 1850, “Ahab” and “slavery” appear together in what feels like a whopping 351 texts, though we might wonder if this implies a broad discursive formation given that a similar number of correlations exist between “Ahab” and “key” (316), “beards” (332), “trains” (336), and “banks” (414). Out of the roughly 25 million texts between 1830 and 1850 that Google Books has indexed, “Ahab” appears independently in about 32,000 and “slavery” in about 260,000. If the two words had no meaningful discur-sive link at the time—that is, if their appearances in the same texts  were merely coincidental—we would expect their correlation to be around 250, though whether the actual number of hits (351) is statisti-cally significant is a matter of probability and interpretation. The correlation between “Ahab” and “slavery” based on the number of Google Books hits can be quantified with a “strength of associativity” (SA) statistic that turns out to be inconclusive. Experimentation with a set of 30 pseudorandom words renders a Z-score of .42 for the SA of “Ahab” and “slavery,” well within a standard deviation and indicating a modest correlation at best. By way of comparison, the Z-scores are lower for “banks” (-.14) and “key” (.33) and higher for “trains” (1.3) and “beards” (1.9), while “Ahab” and “Jezreel” (the biblical Ahab’s city) has a Z-score of 4.64, confirming the sense that it is extremely unlikely that the two words are randomly associated. 1  This is not to say that Moby-Dick   is about beards, or even to argue against Rogin’s position, which involves more than the Parker homology. It is to point out that what seems like a meaningful correla-tion can result from sheer quantity and chance, particularly under conditions of mass information in which seemingly unlikely coinci-dences are highly probable and easily targeted by bias-confirming searches. Blunt quantitative analysis may help to contextualize New Historicist anecdotal evidence, and still a literary critic might wonder
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