Never Mistake the Tool for the Task

By knoblej

I’ve really enjoyed reading the “syuzhet” debate, but with all due respect to both Jockers and Swafford, the post which grabbed me the most was Scott Enderle’s–not so much for his specific observations, but simply because he pulled back a bit from the back-and-forth and asked a slightly more fundamental question beyond the technical limitations Swafford pointed out–in this case, is the Fourier curve a good model to apply to “sentiment” at all?

It seemed to me that the more Swafford and others pointed out larger conceptual problems, the more Jockers dug in and defended the fundamental workings of his tool, but he never took a step back and defended the ultimate logic of applying it to the problem in the first place. In other words–arguments over whether nor not the 85% accuracy rate that the Stanford tool could produce was “good enough” were interesting, but absolutely nothing in this entire exchange–with all due apologies to the late Mr. Vonnegut–ever convinced me the whole enterprise has any inherent value. I’m just not convinced that even a more accurate plot curve or a more detailed and nuanced sentiment curve would TELL us that much.

I didn’t say that the would tell us nothing, mind you–there is some value in being able to establish certain universal or common themes or plot structures. I can think of plenty of possible insights one might gain by being able to rather quickly graph the general emotional arc of thousands of novels from a particular genre, time or place; or to verify certain universals in plot construction. Jockers, I’m certain, has since come up with a number of such findings.

However…he seems to have begun his project with the notion that there are “six or seven” basic plots, and while he later acknowledges that there arguments that that estimate might
Source: Kirk Johnson  

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