What We Talk about When We Talk about Stories

Rejected for a special issue of the Journal of Cultural Analytics, but, still, I think, an interesting project and one I will continue to pursue. If anyone else is interested, this is part of a larger project I have in mind and I am open to there being a working group.

Current efforts to treat narrative computationally tend to focus on either the very small or the very large. Studies of small texts, some only indifferently narrative in nature, have been the focus for those interested in social media, networks, and natural language technologies, which are largely dominated by the fields of information and computer sciences. Studies of large texts, so large that they contain many kinds of modalities with narrative the dominant, have largely been the purview of the field we now tend to call the digial humanities, dominated by the fields of literary studies, classics, and history.

The current work proposes to examine the texts that fall in the middle: larger than a few dozen words, but smaller than tens, or hundreds, of thousands of words. These are the texts that have historically been the purview of two fields that themselves line either side of the divide between the humanities and the human sciences, folklore studies and anthropology (respectively).

The paper profiles the knot of issues that keep these texts out of our scholarly-scientific systems. The most significant issue is the matter of “visibility”, of accessibility, of these texts as texts and thus also as data: largely oral by nature, most folk or traditional narratives (must) have been the product of a transcription process that cannot guarantee the same kind of textuality of a “born literary” text. (The borrowing of the notion of natality is somewhat purposeful here, since we often distinguish between texts that have been, sometimes laboriously, digitized and those that were “born digital.”) As scholarly fictions, if you will, they are largely embedded within the texts that treat them, only occasionally available in collections. With limited availability, and traditionally outside the realm of the fields that currently dominate the digital humanities, folk/traditional/oral narratives are not yet a part of the larger project to model narrative nor of efforts to consider the “shape of stories.”

This accessibility gap has overlooked both human and textual populations: most of the world’s verbal narratives are in fact oral in nature and millions upon millions are produced everyday by millions and millions of people and those narratives tend to range in size from somewhere around a hundred words to, perhaps, a few thousand words in length. The result is that any current model or notion of shape simply has allowed the wrong “figures figure figures.” Put another way, there can be no shape of stories without these stories.