Stanley Fish asks ("Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation", NYT 1/23/2011):
[H]ow do the technologies wielded by digital humanities practitioners either facilitate the work of the humanities, as it has been traditionally understood, or bring about an entirely new conception of what work in the humanities can and should be?
After a couple of lengthy detours, he concludes that neither any facilitation nor any worthwhile new conception is likely: the digital humanities
… will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.
In other words, he agrees with Noam Chomsky that statistical analysis of the natural (or textual) world is intellectually empty – though I suspect that they agree on little else.
One of Prof. Fish's detours is this:
Halfway through “Areopagitica” (1644), his celebration of freedom of publication, John Milton observes that the Presbyterian ministers who once complained of being censored by Episcopalian bishops have now become censors themselves. Indeed, he declares, when it comes to exercising a “tyranny over learning,” there is no difference between the two: “Bishops and Presbyters are the same to us both name and thing.” That is, not only are they acting similarly; their names are suspiciously alike.
In both names the prominent consonants are “b” and “p” and they form a chiasmic pattern: the initial consonant in “bishops” is “b”; “p” is the prominent consonant in the second syllable; the initial consonant in “presbyters” is “p” and “b” is strongly voiced at the beginning of the second syllable. The pattern of the consonants is the formal vehicle of the substantive argument, the argument that what is asserted to be different is really, if you look closely, the same. That argument is reinforced by the phonological fact that “b” and “p” are almost identical. Both are “bilabial plosives” (a class of only two members), sounds produced when the flow of air from the vocal tract is stopped by closing the lips.
There is more. (I know that’s not what you want to hear.) In the sentences that follow the declaration of equivalence, “b’s” and “p’s” proliferate in a veritable orgy of alliteration and consonance. Here is a partial list of the words that pile up in a brief space: prelaty, pastor, parish, Archbishop, books, pluralists, bachelor, parishioner, private, protestations, chop, Episcopacy, palace, metropolitan, penance, pusillanimous, breast, politic, presses, open, birthright, privilege, Parliament, abrogated, bud, liberty, printing, Prelatical, people.
Even without the pointing provided by syntax, the dance of the “b’s” and “p’s” carries a message …
The section that Fish cites comprises three paragraphs in the middle of Milton's essay. Flouting Fish's disdain for quantification, I observe (on the basis of a couple of minutes of programming) that these three paragraphs contain 1836 consonant letters, out of 50,433 in the whole work. Within that span, 125 of the consonant letters are p's or b's, or about 6.8%.
Is this "a veritable orgy of consonance and alliteration"? Well, we can recast that question in a way that Fish would doubtless reject: Among the 50,433 consonant letters in the whole Areopagitica, 2,938 are p's and b's, or about 5.8%; is the extra percent in Fish's selected segment meaningful?
Here's a plot of the p/b count in similar spans throughout Milton's essay, with a vertical red line indicating the region that he selected:
As you can see, these paragraphs are definitely a local peak of bilabial plosivity. But there are nine or ten other peaks, some bigger — do those peaks also indicate regions where "the pattern of the consonants is the formal vehicle of the substantive argument"?
Frankly, I doubt it. In the region that Fish chose to make his point, the topic happens to be enriched with religious-hierarchy words containing p's and b's: prelaty, pastor, parish, Archbishop, parishioner, episcopacy, palace, prelatical, etc. If we look at the end of the essay, which is even more p-b-dense, we find that again it's because of a topical area that happens to be enriched in words like press, published, printed, printer, printing, prevention, policy, purpose, prohibiting, power, book, books, bookselling, libellous, liberty, forbid.
Is this kind of various in local consonant density special to p and b in this work? Not at all — here's a plot of the local density, in a similarly-sized region, of counts of the letters 'w' and 'y'. (I chose them because together they occur 3,032 times in the Areopagitica, about as often as p and b do.)
As expected, the number and relative height of local peaks is similar to what we saw for 'p' and 'b'.
And here's the plot for the single letter 'l', occurring 3,069 times in the Areopagitica, which works up a veritable froth of lateral lasciviousness around consonant offset 19,350:
What does this all mean, if anything?
Prof. Fish begins with an "insight" about the alleged dance of p's and b's surrounding Milton's assertion that "“Bishops and Presbyters are the same to us both name and thing". Despite the paradoxically semi-quantitative nature of his idea, he presents it as an example (though clearly not a very interesting one) of the kind of literary analysis to which "digital humanities" methods are not relevant, the kind of "criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play". But it seems to me that a trivial application of statistical methods, humanistic or not, suggests that his idea is probably "false", "noise", and "mere play". Have I missed something?