This talk aims to introduce new methods in the digital humanities involving computational semantics, while also drawing on those methods in order to explore the semantic history of particular words across the long eighteenth century. Uniting these two aims is the notion of a “keyword,” as Raymond Williams imagined it: a word, often abstract, whose semantic history bears witness to the broader literary, social, and material histories within which it evolved.
New methods of computational semantics, known variously as “word vectors” or “word embedding models,” allow researchers to trace the changing associations of such keywords across historical corpora, pinpointing moments and directions of semantic change while contextualizing specific trends within broader transformations. This talk, titled “Computational Keywords,” hopes to follow in the tradition of Raymond Williams, Reinhart Koselleck, and other semantic historians, carrying forward the goal and shape of their analyses while altering their scale and methods. Specifically, I investigate which semantic transformations were most active around the turn of the nineteenth century, which both Williams and Koselleck saw as a hinge-period during which a range of social and political concepts acquired their modern meaning. Such an investigation uncovers a particularly striking transformation in ethical and economic abstractions, one through which, it would seem, the independent virtues and vices of an older ethical discourse commensurate into the single, economically-inflected abstraction of “value.”
This talk is co-sponsored with the 18th/19th-Century Colloquium
Ryan Heuser is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Stanford University, studying British literature and culture in the long eighteenth century. His dissertation, tentatively titled Cultures of Abstraction, explores abstraction as a set of related literary and social forms emerging from the financialization of early capitalism in eighteenth-century Britain. In his dissertation and elsewhere, Ryan works on the theory and methods of distant reading and the digital humanities. He has been an active member of the Stanford Literary Lab for many years, and acted as its Associate Research Director from 2011 to 2015.