Voyant Tools and Hermeneutics

Overwhelming Information

I played around with the Voyant tools by comparing different combinations of the slave narrative volumes by region. I divided the volumes of the different states into the following categories: South Atlantic States, East South Central States, and West South Central States. It was interesting to see the words’ unique contexts. The graphs and word bubbles, or word clouds, provided captivating visuals. It was fascinating to see the frequency of words used in each interview or how the spelling or pronunciation of words used by each ex-slave varied. It was even more interesting when I excluded “stop words” from the analysis of the corpus to get rid of insignificant words. However, I felt like I was making arbitrary connections between words that could have possibly held vastly different meanings to the ex-slaves who used them. I realized, as I was using the tool over and over I again, that I was trying to impose my modern sense of understanding to try to understand the texts. In the face of so much data, I wanted to categorize it through my own lens, my own human experience.

Voyant Tools and Analysis of Literary Texts

Then I started thinking about the theory of hermeneutics, about interpreting texts. What is considered a text? Novels, short stories, poems, lyrical ballads, essays, and news and scholarly articles are texts, right? With all of the technology we have, we can now cite song lyrics, emails, Tweets, Facebook statuses, etc. as sources or regard them as mini-texts, perhaps. What about all of the slave narratives written through amanuensis? Or, what about these slave narratives written in the form of interviews? Can readers interpret the language used in any of these texts at face value or even at their metaphorical value using their contemporary human experience as a lens? It really is tempting to do so in the form of a reader-response interpretation; it is easy to ignore what influenced the language choice of the writers or the interviewees at the time they were writing or speaking.

But, maybe, if students utilize these Voyant Tools through a literary and sociological perspective when analyzing literary texts, students can analyze the significance or frequency of certain language in the context of the social, historical, and political era from which it emanated. At first glance, Voyant Tools may seem like an analysis tool that dehumanizes literary texts in the sense that it re-orders the language in texts in the form of data and graphs. However, if students take the time to research, for instance, the height of the Jim Crow Era and the practice of lynching in the 1930s, or the way slavery pervaded every social action of slaves and masters and overseers and so-called abolitionists, perhaps the students could use that information to better interpret the literary data Voyat Tools analyzes and organizes. I am optimistic that Voyant Tools, a very modern form of hermeneutics, can help us modern readers put a “face” to the people, situations, and social forces literary texts address through their vastly differing uses of language.

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