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A word cloud would seem to qualify as a kind of deformance, since it merely re-orders words from the original work. Here's the one for "The Yellow Wall-Paper" that we looked at today, produced using Voyant. (Click the thumbnail to enlarge.)


  1. Unknown User (ebw1)

    Can I ask why we need to do this to works of literature? This seems dangerous to take it upon ourselves to manipulate the structure of a text in hopes of finding meaning that isn't actually there. What if we take holy scripture and manipulate the text in ways to make it mean something entirely different to like the point of blasphemy. Is that a good way to read scripture? Maybe a text is best interpreted in the progression of the narrative. Take David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest. Wallace fractured the narrative to attempt to metaphorically and structurally describe what it feels like to receive information in our society. To break apart the books fractal structure would really defile a defining quality of the book.

    I'm starting to feel like this deformance stuff is really sort of over stepping our bounds as readers. Sure, there are no bounds to how we interpret a text but to actually move the text around and jumble it up seems like a big disservice to the original thing. What do we think?

    1. Unknown User (mrb21)

      Eric - I think there is some value to this structure in determining the author's bias toward certain words or phrases. Inherently, many writers focus on themes (i.e. without even thinking consciously about each word chosen, authors subconsciously chose words that further the development of their theme). Seeing the frequency of the word 'said' in these piece reminds us of how important it is to distinguish between what is said and the truth. A major theme in The Yellow Wall-paper has to do with her focus on what her husband is saying, and seeing the word in such big letters (indicating its frequency) reminds us of the importance of what is said versus reality or truth.

      Do I think we should read/critique works of literature only this way? Of course not! Many poems by e.e. cummings should be read as they were written so that we can understand the significance of the format chosen by the author. Deformance just offers us another way to see what was significant to the author and help us focus in on common threads, or themes, by seeing which words appear most frequently. This is probably another example of how both form and the literal words chosen are both very important to works of literature. Deformance is one way to analyze what the words chosen mean.

      Also, what do you mean by 'meaning that isn't actually there'? Inherently, if meaning is found, it is there. It may not be the intended meaning of the author, or the meaning of every reader who reads it, but as you and I were discussing the other day, meaning is different for each reader of a piece of literature. Isn't any meaning you find in a piece of literature, no matter how you analyze it, meaning that is actually there?

      1. Unknown User (ebw1)

        Why can't the reader pick up on the frequency of the words in the text reading it as it is? It's not like putting the repeated word side by side will increase the number of times the word was used in the original structure of the text. I think if a particular word is repeated throughout the course of a narrative it really does a much better job of emphasizing that word and, perhaps, the intended importance of that word. To me, the word is a lot more effective in that way than extracting the word from the text and computing it's frequency. Throughout the narrative the word manages to remain in the reader's awareness as the reader moves through the narrative and hears it over and over again. Whether you make the word bigger in a jumble or not doesn't affect the value or importance of the word as it was meant to be recognized in the text's original form. I think we're smart enough as readers to recognize that, "hey, this word keeps popping up, I wonder why", rather than have to remove it from the text. In my opinion, removing it from the context of the narrative might be a bit reductive to the words actual meaning to us as readers of the narrative.

        What I meant by 'meaning that isn't there' is that if we extract words and phrases from the original text and jumble them up into whatever random order (even more dangerous is letting some computer algorithm decide what order the fragments go in) the meaning produced from that fragmentation is essentially false, has become something it wasn't. If we think of literature as a highway, right, and each author is the operator of an automobile and the authors written work is, in this metaphor, considered to be the CD the author/driver chooses to put on the radio, why is it okay that we reach up from the backseat and change the CD? Do we have that right as readers/passengers? Look, we each take meaning from texts independently and uniquely, which we agreed on in the other blog post, but that is not the same thing as deconstructing a text and pulling sentences out where we want to (or where the computer wants to) to generate meaning that, in the original text, wasn't actually there in the first place. Like, if you only focused on the word 'nigger' in Huckleberry Finn, which appears a whole lot of times, you might really miss the point of the book's anti-racist proclamations (which most readers did when that book was published, in fact–even further are the editions of that book being printed today without the word to make it more politically correct because readers fail to recognize the words intended purpose in the original text and only view it as something offensive that needs to go). I think the meaning you find in a piece of lit should be the meaning you gather from the authors way of putting it, no? We can agree, disagree, relate or not. I'm not saying that the authors intended meaning is what we are supposed to be looking for (which is what we agreed was what we shouldn't do as readers in the other comments) but rather I'm saying that if we break apart the text as the author intended the text to be structured, I think we are seriously overstepping our responsibilities as readers and end up creating something that certainly shouldn't have that authors name on it. How is this not copy-right infringement or something?

        This, to me, seems like a weird kind of boredom with literature, something where we can't actually sit and pay attention to the narrative and piece together our own meaning in relation to the text presented, but that now we have to create something new and more acute to our needs as readers. This seems sorta dangerous to me. Maybe I'm way off and too simple to understand this critical tool, but this is just how I feel about it.

        (I'm jesting a bit with that copy-right thing, but the point remains)

        1. Unknown User (mrb21)

          I came back to this comment in light of our recent copy-right discussion (I remembered your copy-right joke and it got me thinking about this post again, so I thought I'd revisit it).

          I really liked what you had to say about the word 'nigger' in Huckleberry Finn - that demonstrated your point quite nicely. I don't think this should be the only way we analyze literature because we will, inevitably, miss things that come from context clues. Yet I still think there might be some value in this technique in interpreting what the author meant in their piece. To test out my hypothesis, I took a play I had written myself, and stuck it into voyant - like so:

          This cloud really showed me that this form works - this particular cloud expressed very clearly what some of the main points of my play were. I don't think you'd understand them without reading the play first, but this cloud could solidify your understanding of what is important.

          For example -

          Jimmy is clearly the focus of this play. The other characters, mom, dad, the scientist, all have significantly smaller fonts and are clearly less important.

          Notice how big the word 'lights' is. This is because, in the stage direction, lights up and lights down were mentioned frequently. Lights were a hugely important in achieving the desired effect I wanted when staging my show this summer and I thought it was fascinating that it showed up here. The word 'lights' is never actually spoken by a character on stage - not once - but this cloud brought up the importance of the lights which might be missed when viewing or reading the work. I thought that was incredible.

          Finally, notice the two words 'can' (bottom right, red) and 'can't' (bottom left, purple). Can is much larger than can't. This is partially due to the fact that the basic moral of my play was focusing on two, downtrodden teens (Jimmy 1 and Jimmy 2) and how they can transform their lives from 'I can't' to 'I can'.

          There are numerous other examples of how arranging my words like this and noting their frequencies can bring 'to light' (no pun intended) some things that could be missed by reading straight through. The frequency of words I chose was 'my way of putting it'. This is my work, synthesized in a different way, to help understand my words even better.

          I was considering if this works better for some works of literature than others? Long poems, short stories, and plays I thought might benefit from this the most, whereas novels and short poems might find that this deconstruction distracts the reader.

          As a final note, most novels contain anywhere between 65,000 and 150,000 words - somewhere between 5,000 and 16,000 of those are unique words. Is it possible for a reader, over the course of hundreds of pages, to pick out which of those 16,000 words occurs most frequently? Don't we need a computer program to help us understand a work of literature this way? Sometimes a work of literature has more  meaning than just the meaning the author intends - and I think deformance helps us understand the work of literature's own meaning independent of the author's construction.

  2. Unknown User (bbc5)

    Eric and Meghan - In light of what you've said, I think you're both right in your own regard.  Eric brings up a nice point that we, as interpreters of literature, may be doing the writer a disservice when we break apart his/her work into fragmented words and ideas.  Although I can see that this "cloud technique" highlights key words used by the writer, I think it would be imprudent of us to examine these words outside of the context of the work itself.  In other words, a work of literature should be regarded as a single, indivisible entity that cannot be broken down into sub-sections.  When we choose to focus our attention upon a specific paragraph or area of a work of literature, that's when we often find ourselves in danger of misinterpreting the text.  As Eric previously alludes to, holy works (such as the Bible, Koran, or Torah, just to name a few) can and have been widely misread when passages are taken out of context.  Having read the majority of the Bible, I can say that when certain passages of the Bible are taken out of context, you can "justify" just about anything - murder, war, and even genocide.  I don't want to turn this into a religious debate, but I think it's safe to say that most Christians don't identify murder, war, and genocide with "the Word of the Lord."

    Then again, as Meghan points out, the "cloud technique" does have its benefits when examining a work of literature.  Just by looking at the diagram alone, we can easily tell which words the author most often resorts to, and thus infer that these words harbor some kind of significance in the story.  It's a nice way to generate conversation about the work (as evident in Monday's class) and can certainly lead to new interpretations of the text.  

    What's most important is that we keep our interpretations from the "cloud technique" in check and not overreach with its perceived implications as these single words by themselves fail to encapsulate the larger meaning of the work itself.