The Augmented Criticism Lab is a human-machine partnership that detects and analyzes rhetorical figures across vast collections of written texts. Rhetorical figures are the patterns of repetition and variation that make language—especially poetic language—memorable and effective. Consider this gradatio or climax from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage.

In all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, our machine-assisted team found 15 instances of gradatio. As part of our Rhetorical Schematics Project, we’re now testing the program on a much larger corpus of 400 early modern dramas to compare, contrast, classify, and (above all) wonder at the various ways that early modern playwrights used this figure. As you can imagine, technology is accelerating an otherwise painstaking process.

But that’s not to say the algorithm is doing all the work. Because computers are better processors than they are readers, we have a crack team of literary critics who close-read what the computer finds. We know that reading is a distinctly human activity that technology can assist only when we know what we are looking for (rather than a prodigious task we can outsource to a machine). We are becoming a cyborg, not building a robot.

As we work toward detecting and scrutinizing rhetorical figures from anaphora to zeugma, we expect to produce tools that facilitate scalable reading, like:

  • mapping a single text’s figures and comparing  them to the figures in other texts,
  • comparing the figural habits of two authors, or of any permutation of authors,
  • identifying usage patterns from models to imitations (to quantify claims of rhetorical imitation—like Milton’s of Ariosto—and to identify imitations we haven’t yet recognized,
  • identifying the figural signatures of students of influential teachers or schools (students who read the same texts and recognized the same figures), and
  • measuring the influence of certain texts and writers (especially preachers and playwrights) on common figural habits.

The Augmented Criticism Lab is based at the University of Calgary, but its team members and advisors are scattered across the planet. We’re always looking for new collaborations and partnerships, so let us know what research questions you’re asking and how we might work together to answer them.

This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.