Publication details

"Doomed" from the Start : The Role of "Cultural Pollutants" in the "Cultural Death" of Late Victorian Bestsellers



Year of publication 2019
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description This presentation applies computational methods in the analysis of the process of divergence that placed some late Victorian novels in the literary canon (thus exposing them to future generations of readers) while pushing others outside of the public eye, a development that could be termed “cultural death”. This presentation argues that the large quantity of “cultural pollutants” in the textual fabric of late Victorian bestsellers is a significant factor in this divergence. “Cultural pollutants” are inherent properties of the text linked to the zeitgeist of a particular period that block its vertical cultural transmission across time to new generations of readers, they neatly fit the cultural tastes of a certain period or generation but prevent the novel to thrive when these tastes change. As such, they are direct opposites to Dan Sperber's “cultural attractors”, aspects of the cultural product that facilitate its transmission. The presentation will deal with the following “cultural pollutants”: (1) The ratio of “moralizing” (narrative interventions in the text usually seeped in contemporary moral values, which might drastically differ from present-day moral standards or the “natural morality” put forward by literary Darwinists) vs. narrative “action”; (2) the level of saturation with concepts inextricably linked to the sociocultural context of the novels (i.e. references to places, people, professions that are no longer relevant or no longer exist); (3) the inherent stylistic properties of the text that have “gone out of fashion” or undergone changes over the years. The computational analysis largely relies on LDA topic modeling, utilizing the “tidytext” and “topicmodels” packages in R, as well as simple token distribution analysis. The preliminary findings indicate that late Victorian bestsellers feature markedly high levels of linguistic complexity, heavy saturation with contemporary cultural context, and contain large swathes of moralizing and authorial commentary in their text, which may be perceived as digressions from the main flow of the narrative, especially by modern readers, who are proven to have considerably shorter attention spans than their Victorian counterparts.
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