Passive Observation

Earlier this week, I took a look at the
TED Talk presented by
Jonathan Harris
, creator of the programmed-art installations
We Feel Fine, and
several more, including his most recent
project, Universe. Universe, like
most of Harris’ work, presents a more dynamic and aesthetically lively interface
for encountering large samples of texts, such as news feeds from all over the
world, collections of blog entries, or the British National Corpus.  No
question Harris’ projects stand apart from nearly everything else I’ve seen
online where sizeable corpuses are rendered visually. I mean that these projects
are created in such a way that they lead with artfulness, enriching data
visualization with aesthetics.

If you play the TED Talk, you’ll hear Harris talk about We Feel Fine, a
project that gathers "feel" and "feeling" statements and funnels them back
through the interface he designed.  He calls this process "passive
observation." Subjects implicitly assent to We Feel Fine’s use of their writing
because they have published it online.  It is out there, available on the
web. In this context, the "passive" allows for working with a large sample of
texts.  It’s not humanly possible to read every weblog entry published in a
single day for instances of "feel" and "feeling."  I think of Harris’s
methods as well-aligned with Moretti’s "distant reading." Passive observation,
in effect, bears some correspondence to distant reading.  In much the same
way "distant" is a term in need of recuperation, particularly in the humanities,
so too is "passive," given that active and activity usually win the day. 
Rare are the arguments against the active, against activity,
against activism, against the act (as event?). Is passive in
"passive observation" opposite of active? Not necessarily.  If by "active,"
we refer to the efforts it would take an army of readers to glance a few million
blog entries for "feel" and "feeling," passive indicates a different way–aggregate, casual filter, pass over if, drifting
attitude or manner (the sub-terrain of Burke’s agency, which incorporates
instruments).  Relaxed finding not so much bound to today’s set of
blog entries as a focal act or object of study but speculative and futuristic,
open to an undetermined end.

Harris’s most recent project, Universe, abstracts global news coverage.
Universe is explained at length in the talk linked above.  The notion of
constellations is central here.  Constellations of words, references,
names, figures.  And although Harris’s work serves generally as a relay to
the texts, he does not seem concerned with writing or rhetoric. The writing that
all of these projects piggyback is phenomenal, its constructedness and context
is downplayed if not ignored altogether. Within Universe, Harris extends the
forming of constellations to a "mythology of the world." Maybe we could hold up
these projects alongside Barthes on the spreading and ripening of myth and its
social geography; its discursiveness, its rootedness in select social strata,
and its micro-climates:

Thus every myth can have its history and its geography; each is in fact the
sign of the other: a myth ripens because it spreads. I have not been able to
carry out any real study of the social geography of myths. But its perfectly
possible to draw what linguists would call isoglosses of a myth, the lines which
limit the social region where it is spoken. (149)

After all, these projects set out after text-based pattern. 

While I am enthusiastic about Harris’s work, I view much of it with a faint
wish at the back of my mind, a wish that it will one day be set loose from the
gallery so that others might adapt and appropriate it (with credit where due). 
Maybe I’ve mentioned it before, but why not have WordCount scale to any set of
texts? Certainly Harris is under no obligation to share the back-end on any of
these projects, particularly the attention-getters and recent releases. 
But at a time when the only attention being systematically given by universities
to large corpuses of texts is to march student essays through the
criminal-infested by-ways of, it’s encouraging to think about some
of the other ways these open-ended text-trajectories (i.e., student writing or
writing in any field or discipline) might be read distantly or observed
passively.  We Feel Fine for an entire curriculum or program, where "feel"
and "feeling" can be aggregated and re-associated right along with [verbs of
choice, perhaps "argue" and "arguing" for so much academic interchange]. 
Imagine a hybrid set of applications blending Harris’s projects with
MONK and with texts of the everyday not
limited to news feeds, digitized literary archives, or national corpuses,
applications, that is, scalable to whatever.