David Kurnick presents “The Erotics of Large Numbers: Realism’s Demographic Passions”

williams-and-kurnickDavid Kurnick, Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, will present a talk at UC Berkeley entitled “The Erotics of Large Numbers: Realism’s Demographic Passions.“ The event will take place on Friday, January 22nd at 3:00pm in 300 Wheeler Hall.


Kurnick is the author of “Numberiness,” a short essay responding to Eric Bulson’s article “Ulysses by Numbers” (Representations 127 [Summer 2014]), published on the Representations blog last year.

Three Responses to “Ulysses by Numbers”

Eric Bulson’s “Ulysses by Numbers” (Representations 127) asks the literal question, “Why is James Joyce’s Ulysses as long as it is?” Here we have three responses to his question, his methods, and his conclusions:

JAMES F. ENGLISH | The Resistance to Counting, Recounting

Eric Bulson takes it as given that “quantitative readings of literature . . . get a bad rap.”   Indeed, the presumed hostility of literary scholars toward quantitative analysis provides the necessary friction for his essay, lending argumentative force and methodological point to what might otherwise seem a rather narrowly focused piece. And it is to highlight the wider stakes involved in Bulson’s contrarian decision to count rather than simply read the words of Ulysses that the editors have invited this accompanying cluster of responses and reflections.

I’m in no position to challenge the view of literary studies as a bastion of numerophobia. I wrote a few years ago that a “negative relation to numbers” is “foundational” to literary studies, which occupies a structural position in the university as the quintessential non-counting discipline. But what strikes me now is that neither Bulson nor I, nor anyone else hoping to expand the space for quantitative analysis in literary research, has presented any quantitative evidence to support this picture of literary scholars as the determined enemies of counting. Wouldn’t “quantitative data… actually help us” in this respect, too, enabling us to take the measure of our presumed hyper-commitment to the qualitative, to calculate its degree and scale relative to other disciplines and to other moments in our own history? (Continue reading … )

DAVID KURNICK | Numberiness

“We can indeed count” words, Eric Bulson observes, and concludes that therefore “the counting must go on” (4).  The reasons to move from the first remark to the second will not be self-evident to everyone.  But “Ulysses by Numbers” gives an unprecedentedly intimate sense of Joyce’s compositional practice, offering not just a fascinating picture of how Ulysses grew but also an account of why it grew in the increments it did.  Perhaps the most surprising discovery here for Joyce scholars is the fact that, as Bulson puts it, “even after serialization stopped, Joyce was still writing by the numbers” (26): even released from the 6,000-word increments suggested by Pound for the novel’s serial installments, Joyce kept creating at scales of 6,000.  It turns out that “Circe,” which seems to obey no rules save the volcanic logics of the unconscious and Joyce’s own ambition, is dutifully designed to fit into eight installments of The Little Review.  Figure 9, where you can see this finding visualized, offers a startling picture of genius in compromise with the materiality of publication.

Bulson thus indisputably helps us get a sharper sense of how “the serial logic of length” (6) conditioned this particular masterwork.  Accordingly, my questions about his essay are less about the findings themselves than his account of them, and they concern the charisma that the rhetoric of number itself exerts in the essay.  Surely Bulson’s most provocative claim is that his method will help us get at Ulysses’ “numerical unconscious” (4).  The formulation suggests an opaque but determining structure whose revelation will be decisive for our sense of the meaning of the whole.  And Bulson does tend to connect number with causality in just this way.  “More words on the page but fewer seconds passing in the plot: that is a discovery Joyce made while writing Ulysses” (19).  This can’t really be said to be a discovery, though, since Joyce could have learned that discursive time affects diegetic time from (to pick a name not quite at random) Homer, who interrupts a classic action-movie moment—an arrow whizzing by Menelaos—with a startling simile about Athena deflecting it “the way a mother / would keep a fly from settling on a child / when he is happily asleep”[1]: the words take longer to read (or to hear recited) than an arrow to miss its mark, and even longer if you pause to think about them.  And “more words” is only one way texts slow down story-time: arcane or boring or made-up words can achieve a similar end with relative verbal economy, as can disorienting shifts in point of view, or a lot of jokes, or odd images.  Every attempted reader of Finnegans Wake knows that the number of words on the page has relatively little to do with how long it takes to read that page and how much time it seems is passing in the “plot” as you do so (if I had to quantify, I’d say that word count in the Wake isn’t even the half of it). (Continue reading … )

HOYT LONG and RICHARD JEAN SO | “A Hail of Information”: Ulysses, Topic Modeled

What can a quantitative analysis of style tell us about James Joyce’s Ulysses? Quite a lot, according to Eric Bulson. In his “Ulysses by Numbers,” Bulson uses some of the simplest forms of “stylometrics”—word counts and measures of lexical diversity—to provide new insights into some fundamental questions: why do the novel’s episodes get longer? What’s the relationship between an episode’s length and its plot? Bulson productively correlates the concrete evidence given by word counts with questions of composition and the material constraints of serialization. While the straightforward empiricism of his argument is a strength, it left us to wonder what it misses by treating words as homogenous numerical units abstracted from their semantic contexts. But not because we believe numbers and counting are unsuited to an interpretation of the novel. One of Bulson’s great insights is that counting is hardly alien to the project of reading Ulysses, an insight encapsulated in an epigraph from Hugh Kenner (“‘Words’ are blocks delimited by spaces. So we can count them.”). For us, the question is how to push this counting further. Can we count the words in ways that do not elide their contextual signifying power? Kenner too was interested not just in the number of words on the page, but the likelihood of certain words appearing with others, in what he called “space-time block[s] of words.”[1]

As quantitative approaches to text analysis have evolved, they have similarly shifted from counting words to counting collocations of words, and even collocations of collocations. One popular innovation along these lines is probabilistic topic modeling, which we propose here as a method for exposing what Kenner calls Ulysses’s larger “verbal systems.”[2] What we discover in the process is in part obvious—that topic modeling as a method of counting is also constrained by its assumptions about words as numerical units and their relation to each other. Ulysses troubles these assumptions, which amount to a highly particular theory of information. Precisely because it does so, however, topic modeling the novel also reveals something of how the novel functions as its own form of literary information. If word counts help us understand Joyce as a “mechanical counter,” topic models help us understand him as a careful “arranger” of latent verbal structures.[3] (Continue reading … )