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New Left Review 101, September-October 2016

stanford literary lab


A few years ago, a group of researchers from the Stanford Literary Lab decided to use topic modelling to extract geographical information from nineteenth-century novels. Though the study was eventually abandoned, it had revealed that London-related topics had become significantly more frequent in the course of the century, and when some of us were later asked to design a crowd-sourcing experiment, we decided to add a further dimension to those early findings, and see whether London place-names could become the cornerstone for an emotional geography of the city. [1] The present text was authored by Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti and Erik Steiner. The original group working on London-related topic modelling included Ben Allen, Cameron Blevins, Ryan Heuser and Matt Jockers. In the Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti had already worked on the geography of London, mapping residences in Dickens and crimes in Conan Doyle. But emotions have a more elusive reality than buildings or murders, and only one of the Atlas’s hundred images—a map of foreign ideas in Russian novels—was somewhat comparable to the current project. To further complicate matters, when Moretti had shown that image to Serge Bonin, the historical geographer who was advising him about the Atlas, Bonin had been extremely critical: ideas like ‘materialism’ or ‘equality’ were not ortgebunden, as German geographers would say: they didn’t have that intrinsic connection to a specific place which is the basis of every real map. And if ideas were not mappable, how could emotions be?

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Stanford Literary Lab, ‘Mapping London’s Emotions’, NLR 101: £3

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