Cloud Reading

A word cloud in 2014 is probably more démodé than my flip phone, but… I still like them. As a tool of distant reading or of not reading, the word cloud has some obvious limitations—it effaces the context of words and tells us more about topics than about arguments, narratives, or relationships. In conjunction with close reading, though, word clouds can still offer insights and provoke new questions, and as someone whose work falls firmly in the camp of “small data,” I find them useful.

For example, here’s a word cloud I made with TagCrowd while writing an article on H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine this spring (an article that will appear in English Literature in Transition next year). The word cloud illustrates the 25 most common words in the text and shows, by size, their relative frequencies.[1]

Time Machine word cloud

Notice the prominence of the word “seemed,” which appears 75 times in a novel of less than a hundred pages. My article argues that The Time Machine destabilizes the grounds of scientific knowledge by questioning the reliability of observation itself. The word cloud suggests that this epistemological unraveling makes itself felt in the very language of the novel, where things often seem but rarely can be definitively said to be a particular way.

To see whether Wells’s use of “seemed” was unusually high compared to other authors, I used Voyant to compare the relative frequency of this word in The Time Machine, News from Nowhere, Treasure Island, Heart of Darkness, and Wells’s own War of the Worlds. I picked these five novels because they were all written in England between 1880 and 1900, and they all loosely belong to the genre of imperialist fiction. The genre tends to stage encounters between English protagonists and people or places strange and new to them, a scenario that might account for the frequency of the word “seemed.” Here’s what I found:

The Time Machine News from Nowhere Treasure Island Heart of Darkness The War of the Worlds
Uses of “seemed” per 10000 words 20.38 11.74 7.15 16.58 14.45

From this (admittedly unsystematic) accounting, The Time Machine really does have the greatest frequency of the word “seemed” of any of these novels. The only one that comes close to that frequency, Heart of Darkness, is a novel widely known for thematizing uncertainty and dislocating knowledge.

My Time Machine article argues further that Wells’s novel draws on the study of vision and the eye during the nineteenth century to challenge the empiricist idea that visual witnessing, seeing with one’s own eyes, could produce reliable knowledge. The eye and the mind, suggested nineteenth-century researchers studying physiological optics, were easily tricked and prone to misperceptions. In the word cloud, the presence of visual words, including “looked,” “light,” “darkness,” “black,” and “white,” suggests that Wells is at least interested in sight as an embodied phenomenon, located in the “eyes” (43 instances) and “mind” (36 instances). The word cloud alone cannot prove the argument, much less produce it; but it did confirm my hunch that seeing is a crucial theme in The Time Machine. Words indicating knowledge, on the other hand, do not appear at all in the top 25 most frequent words in the novel.

So far, my use of the Time Machine word cloud has been mainly to corroborate things I already knew or suspected about the novel. But there is one word looming large in the word cloud that surprised me: “hand,” with 75 instances, equal to “seemed.” I had never even thought about hands in The Time Machine before, but from a quantitative point of view at least, they appeared to be crucial.

I ran my Voyant comparisons again to see if Wells uses the word “hand” or “hands” more frequently than other authors:

The Time Machine News from Nowhere Treasure Island Heart of Darkness The War of the Worlds
Uses of “hand” and “hands” per 10000 words 13.59; 7.64 8.28; 3.21 16.69; 14.44 6.34; 4.39 4.76; 3.97

The Time Machine has the second-highest frequency of “hand” and “hands,” after Treasure Island. So its focus on hands is not off the charts, but is still high enough relative to other novels to draw attention.

Using the “find” tool on my browser, I examined all the instances of “hand” in The Time Machine. I found that most instances of the word fell in one of six categories:

  • References to the Time Traveller’s “sleight-of-hand.” “Things that would have made the frame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands,” declares the narrator; and many uses of the word “hand” refer to the Time Traveller holding his model Time Machine in his hand or using his hands to demonstrate time travel to his companions.
  • Overlapping with (1), “hands” in The Time Machine wielding technologies of one sort or another. So, for example, the Time Traveller puts his hand on the lever of his machine, or he uses his hands to carry matches or weapons: “I rejoined [Weena] with a mace in my hand more than sufficient, I judged, for any Morlock skull I might encounter”; “I had my crowbar in one hand, and the other hand played with the matches in my pocket.” Sometimes, too, the use of “hands” to signal the use of human technologies is metaphorical, as in the Time Traveller’s musings on agriculture and artificial selection: “We improve them [domesticated species] gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands.”
  • Hands as weapons. Sometimes, in the absence of matches or weapons, the Time Traveller fights with his hands: “‘Where is my Time Machine?’ I began, bawling like an angry child, laying hands upon [the Eloi] and shaking them up together”; “I stood there with only the weapons and the powers that Nature had endowed me with–hands, feet, and teeth.”
  • Eloi hands. The Eloi have “little pink hands” which the Time Traveller compares to “tentacles.” Weena often claps her hands or kisses and holds the Time Traveller’s hands.
  • Morlock hands. Like the Eloi, the Morlocks have hands that are repeatedly described as “soft” and “little,” and that they use to “clutch” and “examine” the Time Traveller.
  • The hands of the dials in the Time Machine. “I found that the thousands hand was sweeping round as fast as the seconds hand of a watch–into futurity,” the Time Traveller says.

For some philosophers and anthropologists, hands are a way of defining the human—our nimble hands, with opposable thumbs and fine motor skills, separate us from our primate relatives who walk on all four limbs. Our hands allow us to make and hold tools, and tools are widely held to be one of the things that distinguish humans from animals.[2] For the most part, The Time Machine seems to support this anthropological notion of the hand, representing hands as holders of tools or indicators of the Eloi and Morlocks’ human descent (connected, in the Eloi’s case, to human affection, and in the Morlocks’ case to human curiosity). The Time Traveller’s “sleight of hand” represents his intellectual dexterity, while his moments of hand-to-hand combat reveal his “primitive” (yet still human) side.

Things are not so simple, though, for we might also argue that The Time Machine animalizes human hands by giving the “inhuman” Morlocks hands that investigate while comparing the Eloi’s hands to animal “tentacles.” The novel in general questions definitions of the human by envisioning two posthuman species who only meet some of the Enlightenment criteria for “human.” It looks at humans from an evolutionary, biological point of view, not a humanistic one. Little wonder, then, that hands within it do not function as a tidy anthropological machine, separating humans from animals. Instead, hands are something shared by humans, posthuman animals, and even the machine itself, an icon that crosses categories of beings and that raises more questions than it answers about the meaning of “human.”

[1] TagCrowd has filtered out many common small words, including the word “time,” which would otherwise dwarf all the other terms.

[2] Some ethologists have challenged this distinction, however, finding tool use among other animals.

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