Margaret Atwood: A Career Spent “Working the Wars”

Margaret Atwood has enjoyed a genre and medium spanning career very few other authors have achieved: her published fictional novels include The Handmaid’s Tale (1985,) a post-apocalyptic work of social criticism which has recently inspired a popular television show; Oryx and Crake (2003,) a well-known work of science fiction; and Alias Grace (1996,) a work of historical fiction which has been made into a six-part television series. This list, which is far from complete, does not include Atwood’s many plays, collections of poetry, works of critical non-fiction, or the transcriptions of various interviews she has given over her career. Atwood is a prolific writer who has achieved success in many, wildly divergent, genres and forms of writing: she is the authorial “Jill-of-all-trades.” However, while Atwood’s large body of work provides no shortage of material for critical analysis, the size of her corpus makes it difficult—if not impossible—to analyze the minutia of her career as a unified whole. Moreover, while it is certainly not impossible for an individual critic to closely examine all of Atwood’s works, it is difficult for one person to detect lexical, thematic, and topical similarities which span the many genres, forms, and mediums Atwood has contributed to over her career—a single critic simply cannot quickly survey the amount of text required to make such claims with authority. In other words, authoritative claims spanning Atwood’s entire career require a level of rigor the individual critic is incapable of achieving; no one can keep—within the biological constraints of a single human mind—the volume of divergent themes and the vast quantity of text required to meaningfully examine an author as productive as Margaret Atwood in their head simultaneously without some form of augmentation. To illustrate this issue, a paper written on the thesis that “Margaret Atwood’s entire career as a writer has been focused on the traumatic effects of war as they pertain to the women on the home front” would be hard-pressed to collect and keep track of the number of examples required to substantiate this central claim. Furthermore, a critical paper comprised of thousands of quotations in support of such a thesis would leave little room for a critical analysis and, at best, amount to little more than a catalog of examples with an analysis tacked on at the end. As a result, these types of universalizing theses cannot depend on the tools of literary criticism alone. However, by combining the mathematics of a statistician, the reductivist analysis of cultural sociology, and the subjective theory of the modern literary critic, literary criticism can gain the ability to make the broad, universalizing claims mentioned above without the need to support such claims with hundreds or thousands of unique examples. The tools of mathematics and machine learning can provide literary critics with the augmentations they need to move beyond the exemplary form of criticism they are accustomed to, and into an empericised form of criticism that enables the objectivity of scientific discourse within the subjective discourse of literary criticism.

The desire to make authoritative claims about an impossibly large corpora of divergent texts is the central purpose behind what is often called augmented (or algorithmic[i]) criticism—a form of criticism associated with the nascent, ill-defined field of “digital humanities.” Stephen Ramsay, a well known digital humanist, proposes an algorithmic criticism which “seeks, in the narrowing forces of constraint embodied and instantiated in the strictures of [computer] programming, an analogue to the liberating potentialities of art” (Ramsay x). According to Ramsay, an algorithmic criticism should “unite the reductive calculus of computation to the broader act of critical narrative” (xi). Put simply, augmented criticism should provide the critic with tools that enable a level of mathematical rigor without also supplanting the need for subjective analysis within critical discourse. The Augmented Criticism Lab[ii] (ACL,) a project I have spent the last year developing, is such a tool. The ACL toolkit is specifically designed for large-scale analysis of arbitrary volumes of text across any number of mediums; it enables a single critic to query a corpus of trillions of words in mere seconds and acts as a guide to areas within the corpus to focus a critical study. However, it is important to note that augmented analysis does not perform the critic’s job: these tools enable new forms of criticism but do nothing to remove the critic from the critical process as such.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: in part one, I will describe, in non-technical language, the augmented methods I employed to explore Margaret Atwood’s corpus of fiction, poetry, short stories, and critical non-fiction as a unified whole. Part one will focus primarily on correlating the results of a traditional, subjective analysis with the results of an augmented critical analysis. In part two, I will use the results of my algorithmic criticism to explore the central question of this paper: how does Margaret Atwood work the war?

Part 1 – Methods

The process of examining a large volume of text must always begin with the tedious task of data entry. The profound importance of accurate data entry cannot be understated: errors in the input data will render a resulting analysis invalid—any claims structured around incorrect data are themselves incorrect. In my analysis of Margaret Atwood, I began with parsing of few of her better-known works of fiction into the ACL database; in this initial phase I entered The Robber Bride, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin. To handle the data entry automatically, I wrote a simple Python script to parse the Kindle (mobi) editions of each text into sections the ACL database can handle. To enable a granular analysis of the texts, I split each work into small “chunks”—in this case chapters—so each chunk can be handled as a separate entity. These divisions allow a work to be examined with a high level of granularity and avoids treating a longer work of fiction as a single, unified entity. This initial phase was primarily focused on ensuring the database could handle longer works of fiction; up to this point the database had only been used to examine poetry. After carefully confirming the dataset against the source texts, I continued to the next phase of the process, topic modelling.

Topic modelling is a highly complicated mathematical process; the central theory governing how it operates is called Latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA).[iii] Any attempt to explain how LDA works in less than a few thousand words—the requisite graduate degree in mathematics aside—is destined to fail. Nevertheless, in very simple terms LDA assumes that each semantic unit (usually a sentence) in a piece of text has a definite topic. For example, the phrase “my love is like a rose” contains two topics, love and rose. In an LDA model, these two topics are added to a list of topics containing the topics of all sentences in the entire piece of text, and each topic is then ranked via a complex set of factors. These factors include frequency of occurrence, part of speech, and centrality. Nouns and proper nouns are always ranked higher in this matrix of factors than other parts of speech. This is because, in a purely grammatical sense, nouns are usually the subject of a given sentence, and proper nouns are most often the subject to which a sentence refers. Conversely, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are actions and modifier terms rather than topics, and, as a result, often—but not always—rank much lower than nouns. Put simply, the LDA topic modeller determines which terms in a body of text are the most likely topics one can use to describe the input text as a whole. It is a process of inference whereby terms are ranked against the likelihood they describe the entire body of the input text. Below is an example of a topic model, specifically generated for Chapter One of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Note that rank 0 of any topic model contains the most central topic, and its probability is shown both as a single factor—without any of the other topics in consideration—and comparatively. The percentage inside the brackets is the topic’s comparative probability.

Rank Probability topics (word frequency)
0 85.1% (3.6%) zenia (8) tell (2) point (2) hand (2) develop (1)
1 3.2% enjoy (2) roz (1) crumble (1) despite (1) sense (1)
2 3.7% would (8) know (2) charis (1) market (1) real (1)
3 53.3% war (2) definitive (2) event (2) one (2) trouble (1)
4 3.1% Friend (1) hole (1) across (1) october (1) interest (1)
5 2.7% return (1) gulf (1) shift (1) dissolve (1) simultaneous (1)
6 3.5% much (3) moment (2) choice (2) preface (2) toxique (1)
7 4.3% tony (7) mix (2) someplace (2) begin (2) ontario (1)
8 3.4% lie (3) nothing (2) rubble (2) disaster (2) slight (1)
9 2.8% kill (2) hurt (2) blow (1) marriage (1) power (1)

These charts can be difficult to understand for several reasons: the probabilities do not appear to be ranked logically, the word frequency is often quite low, and, in the chart above, the item in rank 0 comparatively scores roughly 15 times lower than the item in rank 3. Regardless, anyone who has read the first chapter of The Robber Bride would know the topic of “Zenia” is most certainly the primary topic, but how does a computer determine this? Similarly, why is the item in rank 3, with a probability of 53.3%, not in rank 0? In exceedingly simple terms, the computer determined that Zenia is the most likely topic because the word “Zenia” appears in relation to other high-ranking potential topics more often than any other term: the word “Zenia” is central (or related) to many of the other topics and therefor must be the central topic of Chapter One.

There is little doubt that Zenia is the central topic of Chapter One of The Robber Bride, and it would be difficult to argue otherwise. To take this one step further, can the topic modeller justify the claim that Zenia is the primary topic of the entire novel? There are, of course, non-computational methods for justifying this claim: as readers, we have no difficulty in determining Zenia’s central role in The Robber Bride, but can a computer reach the same conclusion without human input? If the topic models for the entire novel are examined, the word ‘zenia’ appears in 648 out of a total 2916 model predictions,[iv] an occurrence of 22.2%. This is direct empirical evidence that “Zeina” is one of the central topics in The Robber Bride. Here, the topic modeller has substantiated something subjectively known about a text in mathematical terms, providing objective evidence for a subjective observation. To make this interesting, what happens when the topic modeller looks at the central question of this paper: how does Margaret Atwood work the war? To keep things simple, if the same algorithm as the one used above is used to search for the word “war” rather than “Zenia,” 162 hits are returned, representing roughly 5.6% of the total predictions. If the same search is run on The Blind Assassin, 198 hits are returned out of a total 6318 predictions, representing about 3.1% of the total. These results are interesting, but they fail to provide anything of value to a critical analysis of either text. If topic modelling is going to augment the critic, these numbers alone are simply not enough.

Part 1.a – Robbers, Assassins, and the Adventures of Penelope: Women Against War

This section will begin to demonstrate the synthesis of traditional English criticism and the augmented tools described above. Specifically, this section will examine a common theme in Atwood’s The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, and The Penelopiad: all three texts examine the traumatic effects of war, not on the men who fight in them, but on the women who are left to pick up the pieces when their brothers, husbands, and fathers come home as strange shadows of the men they used to know or, in many cases, never come home at all.

In The Robber Bride, the three female protagonists and Tony’s mother have suffered profound traumas as a direct result of the traumatic effects war had on the men in their lives. Tony’s conflicted relationship with her parents—and their similarly conflicted relationship with each other—is the most profound example of this effect. In his suicide note, Tony’s father Griff remarks “that Tony’s high school graduation was all he’d been waiting for. … [And after her graduation ceremony,] he went home and shot himself in the head” (Atwood, Robber, chap.23).[v] While Griff’s suicide is certainly a consequence of his experiences with war, his final act is not the most troubling effect his war trauma has on Tony’s life. While the exact cause of an individual’s trauma is often difficult to determine, much of Tony’s trauma can be traced to how Anthea, Tony’s mother, often minimizes Griff’s experience of the war: Anthea claims “[Griff] didn’t go through [the war] the way she did. Her parents’ house in London was destroyed by a bomb during the Blitz and her parents were both killed” (chap. 22). Anthea’s antagonism of Tony’s father is deplorable and an understandable expression of her own trauma; effects of her own traumatic experiences aside, when Anthea asks Griff if the gun he brought home from the war “feels liberated” she reveals a level of sociopathic narcissism Mr. Trump would struggle to achieve (chap. 22). Tony’s lifelong obsession with war, and her decision to become a war historian, is likely a product of her father’s unwillingness to speak of his experiences during WW II in the face of Anthea’s lack of compassion—which is likely the result of her own traumatic experience of war. Tony acknowledges this when she remarks that she often “sits on the floor, looking at her father and wondering about the war, which is such a mystery to her but which appears to have been decisive in her life” (chap. 22). In this passage, Tony sees her father’s experiences as a mystery she needs to understand, not because of what happened to her father per se, but because of the effects of the war on her own life. Moreover, Tony’s desire to understand her relationships through the lenses of combat and war does not end with her parents: Tony seeks to explain her relationship with West in the same war-centric frame. When Zenia appears to return from the dead, Tony struggles with how to disclose her apparent resurrection to West, stating “the enemy is already within the walls. … [And,] the personal is not political… the personal is military. War is what happens when language fails” (chap. 6; emphasis added). Here, Tony sees her relationship with West as a product—and direct consequence—of a conflict with Zenia, and she rationalizes this conflict through the same process she uses to rationalize the conflict between her parents, war; Griff’s inability to discuss his trauma, coupled with Anthea’s narcissism and lack of empathy, have caused Tony to see all relationships with men as a product of conflict; for Tony, relationships, be they romantic, platonic, or otherwise, are always-already entangled with her own traumatic experiences of war.

Roz and Charis have less obvious war-related traumas, but their respective experiences are no less profound than Tony’s. Roz’s father’s life had always been a near-total mystery to her, and the truth of his experiences with war is something Roz often obsesses about in the novel. After his death, Roz interrogates one of her father’s long-time friends, whom she calls Uncle George: he describes her father as “a fixer before the war, he was a fixer in the war, and after the war he was also a fixer” (chap. 45). However, this explanation does little to assuage Roz’s curiosity; even the revelation that her father was a crook is no surprise—she had always suspected the source of her family’s sudden wealth was illegitimate. Zenia uses Roz’s curiosity about her father’s life—claiming “he saved [her] life… during the war”—to gain more access to Roz’s personal life (chap. 41). This is illustrated in how “it grates on Roz that Zenia has this news [about her father] and Roz does not. It’s as if her father has left something in his will, some treasure, to a perfect stranger, some drifter he’d met in a bar, and nothing for his own daughter. Didn’t he know how much she wanted to know?” (chap. 41). Another important point is how the troubled relationship between Roz and her parents, especially her relationship with her mother, forms the basis for much of her war-related traumas. During the scene of her childhood flashback, Roz describes her father as “the great unknown” (chap. 42). She recalls that her father was “doing important, secret things that could not be spoken about. They were war things, even though the war was over” (chap. 42). However, Roz doubts her mother’s claims and, consequently, locates the source of her trauma as her mother’s distortion of her father’s role in the war rather than the war itself. 

Roz and Tony both share an insatiable desire to understand the relationship between the traumatic experience of war and their respective fathers, but what about Charis? To explore this, before Charis, there was Karen, and “Karen’s father was killed in the war when Karen wasn’t even born yet, leaving Karen’s mother to bring up Karen all by herself” (chap. 33). Here, Charis perceives the loss of her father as a direct product of war, but as with Tony, Charis’s mother is the true source of her war-related trauma; Charis’s mother tells her raising a child alone is “very hard, practically impossible,” and forces Charis to see herself as a burden at a very young age (chap. 33). Moreover, Charis’s mother abandons her at her grandparent’s farm, as “she was heading into a bad patch of nerves” (chap. 33). These so-called “nerves” are a condition which Charis describes as “the fault of the war” (chap. 33). Yet again, as with Tony and Roz, the traumatic experience of war—even though Charis’s mother may have lied about her father’s identity—plays a profoundly important role in Charis’s life. Moreover, the genesis of the Charis / Karen split is a direct result of her mother’s “nerves,” which Charis perceives as a product of war; had it not been for her father’s death, her mother would never have abandoned her, and Uncle Vern would never have created the divided personality of Charis / Karen during the traumatic rape scene where Karen’s “skin comes open like the dry skin of a cocoon, and Charis flies out” (chap. 35). Here, the very existence of Charis as an individual is portrayed as a direct result of the war-trauma her mother suffered when Charis’s father, allegedly, died during the war.

Everything noted above indicates a distinct constellation of topics are at work in Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Atwood structures the narrative of Tony, Roz, and Charis around the effect war had on their fathers, but she always directs this trauma through the locus of their mothers. Rather than a direct experience of war-related trauma via their respective fathers, it is their mothers who act as the catalyst of their traumas. For Tony, it is her mother’s constant antagonism of her father that causes her distress; for Roz it is her mother’s misrepresentation of her father’s role in the war the leads her to obsess over the true nature of his experiences; and for Karen it is her mother’s “nerves” that lead to her abandonment, rape, and eventual fracture into Charis. These topical connections provide a means for pursuing an augmented analysis over a much wider scope of works, but finding a pattern in a single text is not enough to substantiate a claim which covers all of Atwood’s corpus. To make such a claim, a similar pattern must be found in other texts: this will help substantiate any claims structured on topic modelling alone. Put simply, if one finds the topics of war, mother, father, and trauma are also related in other works via traditional critical methods, any claims made via augmented critical methods are much easier to substantiate.

In The Blind Assassin, the traumatic effects of war on the women who fight on the home front is central to the entire narrative. Norval Chase, Iris and Laura’s father, “had been wounded at the Somme” and, much to his wife Liliana’s chagrin, “is now an atheist” (Atwood, Blind, chap.“The gramophone”). Rather than accepting Norval’s new-found atheism as a direct result of his traumatic experience of war, Liliana “begged [Norval] to keep his atheism to himself. Then she was deeply ashamed for having asked this – as if what mattered most to her was the opinion of the neighbours, and not the relationship in which [Norval’s] living soul stood to god” (chap. “The gramophone”). Liliana’s ongoing attempts to sooth her husband and understand his trauma have no effect, and Norval would often “climb up into the stumpy turret of Avilion… [and] up there he would talk to himself and slam against the walls, and end by drinking himself numb” (chap. “The gramophone”). Unlike Anthea and Griff from The Robber Bride, Liliana does not attempt to antagonize her husband, but her inability to properly cope with his suffering is a major source of trauma for their children. After Liliana’s death, she leaves her children ill-prepared for the realities of their father’s war trauma: by allowing Norval to spend much of his time “drinking, and… tomcatting,” Liliana unwittingly places her children in the care of a broken alcoholic with no capacity to fulfil his duties as a now single parent (chap. “Bread day”). It is important to note that Liliana is not at fault for her inability to deal with her husband’s trauma, at the time no one could effectively deal with the traumatic effects of war. The purpose of this argument is to draw a connection between the traumas experienced by Tony, Roz, and Charise in The Robber Bride, with the traumas of Iris and Laura in The Blind Assassin. In both novels, Atwood uses the relationship dynamics between mother and father as a locus for exploring the inter-generational traumas experienced by their children. The pattern of topical associations between war, trauma, and parents form a continuity across both works. Nevertheless, finding a common theme in two of Atwood’s novels is not enough evidence to justify any objective conclusions found via topic modelling—more evidence of a pattern is still required.

In Atwood’s Penelopiad, the eponymous Penelope “is thrown into the sea” as an infant because an Oracle tells her father, King Icarius of Sparta, she will “weave… [his] shroud” (Atwood, Penelopiad, 1.1). If it were not for the intervention of some “purple-striped ducks” Penelope would certainly have drowned (1.1). However, Penelope’s struggles do not end with her father’s attempts to kill her: later in the play Icarius remarks that “if you have daughters instead of sons, you need to get them married off as soon as possible so you can have grandsons. The more sword-wielders and spear-throwers you can count on within your own family, the better” (1.6). Here, the connection between the traumas of war and one’s parents—common across many of Atwood’s works—begins to take form: Icarius sees his daughter as little more than a bargaining chip. Moreover, children are portrayed as “vehicles for passing things along” and “through children, alliances are formed” (1.6). In other words, Penelope’s entire life is directed by the exigencies of war; her parents see her as a vehicle for ensuring and perpetuating the martial capacity of her father’s kingdom. For example, Penelope’s husband is chosen after “holding an athletic contest to determine a suitable match” (1.6); her father is only concerned with the martial prowess of Penelope’s future husband—Penelope’s happiness and wellbeing never enter the equation.

Penelope’s war-related trauma may begin with her parents, but her life in Ithica is where the traumatic effects of war, specifically as they apply to women on the home front, become impossible to ignore. After a period where Penelope “had little authority in her new home” and spent most of her time “in anticipation of evenings—evenings in bed with Odysseus,” Helen, Penelope’s beautiful (and married) cousin, unexpectedly appears (1.11). Helen, “the septic bitch,” as Penelope calls her, had eloped with King Priam, and consequently Odysseus must “go to Troy” because of “an oath [he swore] concerning the husband of Helen” (1.12). Odysseus’ sudden departure leaves Penelope alone in her new island home as her husband—the only thing she enjoys on Ithica—goes off to fight a war against the Trojans. Soon after his departure, Odysseus’s mother “wrinkled up like drying mud and then died,” King Laertes “retreated to the countryside,” and Penelope is left to manage her husband’s estate in his absence (1.12). Here, the connection between The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, and The Penelopiad takes shape: Odysseus is gone for a long time, and his prolonged absence after the fall of Troy leaves Penelope wide-open to proposals from any eligible bachelor with a desire for the newly created wealth of Odysseus’s estates—wealth Penelope herself had created. These lecherous layabouts force Penelope and her maids into the subterfuge that, in the play’s conclusion, causes Odysseus to hang the maids without first consulting Penelope. In summary, Penelope’s war-trauma-by-proxy plays the same narrative role as the traumas of Roz, Charis, and Tony in The Robber Bride and the Chase children in The Blind Assassin. In all three of these novels the traumatic experiences of the main character(s) stem from the war experiences—or aspirations—of their brothers, fathers, husbands, and mothers. What does this signify? These texts all share a very specific topical similarity: namely, they all focus on the intergenerational effects of traumatic war experiences on the children—especially the female children—of those directly affected by war. Is it possible to extrapolate this topical connection into Atwood’s other works? In the following section, I will begin exploring the potentials of augmented critical analysis across the whole of Atwood’s corpus.

Section 2 – Topic Modelling a Career: How does Atwood “Work the War?”

“Simple word-to-word collocations… do not provide enough information to rise to the level of theme. What is needed in order to capture theme are collocations of collocations on a much larger scale. … latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) takes us a very long way to fulfilling that need.”

Jockers 122

How does LDA topic modelling manage to “rise to the level of theme,” as suggested by Mathew Jockers, above? While LDA models can provide insight into the thematic components of a piece of writing, it is not simply a matter of shunting a large volume of text into a formula and hoping for a positive result. For one thing, an LDA model provides none of the subjective insight required by a good critical analysis. Instead, these models provide a means of reducing and “deforming” a text into forms that enable new avenues for subjective critical discourse. In section one of this paper, I identified a topical similarity in three of Atwood’s works. Specifically, in these texts Atwood explores the intergenerational nature of war-related trauma with a specific focus on the female children of those traumatized, and this topical correlation will serve as the jumping-off-point for an interdisciplinary study of Atwood’s corpus. However, as noted by Jocker’s in the epigraph, a list of collocations provides little insight insofar as the critic is concerned, and subjective criticism cannot rely on the tools of a statistician alone. To be clear, this paper is unequivocally un-statistical: the data are 100% cherry-picked and the graphs are manipulated to favour my subjective interpretations. The purpose of this paper is not to demonstrate the capabilities of a statistical model or mathematical trick; the goal is to explore the possible fusion of natural language processing (NLP) and Franco Moretti’s notion of “distant reading:” a practice “where distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems” (Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature” 77). Topic models are used as a means of reducing a text to its thematic components, and subjective criticism is required to explore the relationship between these thematic components and Margaret Atwood’s entire body of works. In other words, the synthesis of a computer’s objective logic and a critic’s subjective analysis provides a means to answer this paper’s central question: how does Margaret Atwood “work the wars?”

In my analysis of Atwood’s The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, and The Penelopiad, I noticed a common theme: each work explores the inter-generational consequences of war-trauma on the children of those traumatized. In The Robber Bride, Atwood structures the narrative of Tony, Roz, and Charis around the effect war had on their fathers, but she always directs this trauma through the locus of their mothers. For Tony, it is her mother’s constant antagonism of her father that causes her distress; for Roz it is her mother’s misrepresentation of her father’s role in the war that leads her to obsess over the true nature of his experiences; and for Karen it is her mother’s “nerves” that leads to her abandonment, rape, and eventual fracture into Charis.  In The Blind Assassin, Liliana Chase’s inability to properly cope with her husband Norval’s suffering is a major source of trauma for their children; by allowing Norval to spend much of his time drinking Liliana unwittingly places her children in the care of a broken alcoholic with no capacity to fulfil his duties as a now single parent. And finally, the eponymous Penelope of The Penelopiad lives a life perpetually structured around the exigencies of war—her father chooses Odysseus as her husband based solely on his martial prowess, and Odysseus’s long absence to make war with Troy is the cause of most of the play’s conflict. In all three works, the narrative is structured around the trauma-by-proxy experienced by the children of those directly traumatised by war. However, these qualitative similarities are impossible to quantify through the objective lens of a topic model. Per Franco Moretti, if these similarities form “parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases” (Moretti, Graphs 13). Put simply, before a topic model can quantify a topical connection within Atwood’s corpus each topic must first be reduced to its lexical components. To accomplish this, a list of terms and related terms (or collocations) must be generated for each topical pattern. Moretti describes these collocated list of terms, or “maps,” as a list that “disregards the specificity [of each element] … to focus almost entirely on their mutual relations” (Moretti, Graphs 54). In other words, to detect a topical pattern within any large corpus of works, the topic must first be reduced to a list of collocated terms that disregards the broad context of the work where the topic appears.

How does one go about generating these lists of de-contextualized terms? There is no clearly defined means of generating such a list automatically, but there is a tried and true method of examining a text any critic is already intimately familiar with. This is to say, such lists are created through very close reading and a bit of computational aid. Consider Tony’s story in The Robber Bride: how could Tony’s war trauma be reduced to a set of loosely related terms? A close reading focused on words related to war and trauma as they apply to Tony provides a good starting point, and, to aid in locating further examples, a custom search engine I devised can locate all instances where a series of terms are found in proximity to each other. In any case, this phase of the process depends heavily on traditional close reading; what value is a search engine if you do not know what to search for? Through close reading and proximity searching a short list of terms related to both war-trauma and Tony is devised:

Impact Sharp War Gulf Father Remembrance
Battle Rubicon History Nobility Foreigner Mother

Once a list of terms is identified, my custom search engine generates a key-word-in-context (KWIC) graph of all instances where the terms occur in proximity to each other. Some examples of these KWIC graphs are listed below:

  • …teeter, car factories grind to a halt. The war in the Gulf is over. … (Atwood, Robber, chap.57)
  • …or the war?” says Tony. “For the battle, it’ll definitely be technology… (chap. 5)
  • …“You mean, is there going to be a war?” says Tony. … (chap. 5)
  • …So Tony is a foreigner, to her own mother; and to her father… (chap. 22)
  • …father and wondering about the war, which is such a mystery to her be on the farm. … (chap. 22)

This list is not complete: a total of 47 examples of these related terms are found in The Robber Bride alone, far too many to list here. After confirming the terms are relevant, this process is repeated for The Blind Assassin and The Penelopiad. Finally, after a list of common battle related words are added, the data is compiled into a list of 565 battle related words[vi] which acts as a guide to locations within Atwood’s corpus to direct further study. To proceed from this point, I must first answer a question I have left intentionally unanswered: what does a collection of war-related terms have to do with an analysis of Atwood’s body of work?

Before I answer this question, I must first explain a limitation of the LDA topic modelling process. Accurate topic models require a minimum amount of text; this limit is not well defined and depends heavily on the type of input material. For example, a short abstract of a paper—around 400 words—is more than enough to generate an accurate topic model: an abstract is specifically written to describe the topic of the paper. In contrast, a short piece of poetry is nearly impossible to topic model accurately—poems are not focused on a topic and are difficult to qualify objectively. As a result, topic modelling and KWIC lists are wholly ineffective at working with poems. Nevertheless, this deficiency is easy to rectify: poems are short. A single critic can manually topic model dozens of poems in a relatively short period of time. For this reason, I identified fourteen of Atwood’s poems from three of her poetry collections which provide further evidence of the topical similarities already discussed above. These poems include “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”where the speaker has, “in the interest of research… walked many battlefields,” as Tony does in The Robber Bride (Atwood, “Lonliness”); “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing” where the speaker states “I do give value. \ Like preachers, I sell vision, \ like perfume ads, desire \ or its facsimile. Like jokes \ or war, it’s all in the timing” (Atwood, “Helen”); and “Singing to Genghis Khan” where it is the speaker’s job to “make him [Khan] feel better. \ Then maybe she can get some sleep \ and will not be murdered” (Atwood, “Singing”). At the risk of waxing tautological, in the three collections of Atwood’s poetry I read while researching this paper each contained a considerable number of poems about war qua women’s bodies, roles, or experiences—the fourteen I chose were the most obvious examples, but do not amount to a complete list of all examples. These poems provide further evidence of a topical connection spanning Atwood’s entire authorial career: images and topics on the traumatic effects of war are central to many of her poetic and fictional works. Thus, lists of collocated terms allow a critic to explore how two texts are related to each other via purely lexical means.

Section 2.a: What do the Computers Say?

The observations above provide ample evidence of a topical connection across a small subset of Atwood’s corpus. However, all this evidence was gathered with traditional, subjective means and the aid of a souped-up search engine. How does one move from subjective criticism to augmented criticism, and what does a list of battle related terms have to do with said augmentation? The first step in answering these questions is to topic model as much of Atwood’s corpus as possible: to start The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and Surfacing were divided into chapters and topic modelled—I feel these texts provide a good survey of Atwood’s career as a novelist. Of the 529 chapters modelled, 96 (or 18%) of the sections contained a topic from the list of war-related topics. From the 96 models flagged as potentially war related, I generated a KWIC list to locate how each word was used in the relevant section of the text. These lists provide the insight required to bridge the gap between traditional criticism, topic modelling, and augmented criticism. To begin exploring how this works, the topic models indicate that Cat’s Eye contains thirteen chapters with a war-related topic. For example, Chapter 22 is described with five topics: easier, perpetual, boy, enemy, and nose. A KWIC lists provides the following snippet of text in relation to these topics:

“…because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they’re boys they fight. In the war there were enemies. … Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are enemies. You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger.”

Atwood, Cat’s, chap.22

This passage seems to describe a conflict between school children, but the line “in the war there were enemies” indicates these school children are familiar with, or have been directly affected by, war in a literal sense. A search for the words war, house, and boy—inspired by the model of Chapter 12 (carol, rope, bury, boy, and house)—provides a bit of context:

“satisfying word, especially annihilating. Boys say it mostly, to one another to be intentional. I don’t have occasion to use my mean mouth on boys, since on the side of the page. … We are taking the Second World War. The teacher may have been in the war himself, or so rumor goes. On the board he’s drawn is disintegrating block by block, house by house, mantelpieces, chimneys, double beds.”


This indicates the topical connection described previously is at work in Cat’s Eye: the teacher is described as a potential soldier in the Second World War and has drawn a picture of a town being dismantled “block by block.” But what about the topic of intergenerational trauma? A search for collocations of “mother and war,” and “father and war” reveals that the speaker in Cat’s Eye is experiencing the war alongside her parents; thus intergenerational trauma does not come into play. To explore another of Atwood’s novels, the topic modeller indicates sixteen war-related topics in Alias Grace: Chapter 45 contains the topics chief, dead, father, help, and mr (Mr.); and Chapter 48 contains command, neck, behind, first, and except. A KWIC search of these 10 topics fails to provide any insight into the role war-trauma plays in Alias Grace. However, the civil war is identified as a potential topic, and a KWIC search on some of Chapter 8’s topics—head, blow, and Jordan—returns the passage: “of a sharp blow to the head, which is the only thing that would account for such idiocy. If Dr. Jordan keeps on with this disorderly course of thought in regards to Grace Marks” (Atwood, Alias, chap.50). This passage is ambiguous, but an online plot summary—like those used by students who have not read an assigned text—describes the significance of Dr. Jordan’s blow to the head: “upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Jordan enlists as a military surgeon. He sustains a head injury and, according to his mother, loses his memory of his time in Canada. However, despite his claim to not remember treating Grace, Mrs. Jordan admits that her son mistakenly refers to his betrothed as Grace” (“Alias Grace Summary”). While Alias Grace is, however tangentially, thematically related to war and war-related trauma, it is not a good example of the thematic connection described above—the war-trauma-by-proxy theme is not detectable in this text. However, the centrality of war related imagery in Alias Grace is further evidence of a topical focus on war and war related themes at work within Atwood’s corpus.

To avoid writing a paper that amounts to little more than a catalog of examples with an analysis tacked on at the end—a form of analysis I deemed useless in part one—I will attempt to summarize the 529 unique topic models generated for this project succinctly. Of the novels I modelled, both Cat’s Eye and Surfacing contain strong evidence of the war-trauma-by-proxy theme discussed at length in this paper. Cat’s Eye has been explored in detail above, and a few examples found in Surfacing are explored below.

  • “Joe never mentions his mother and father, Anna says hers were nothing… childhood; it was in the middle of the war, flecked grey newsreels I never saw cars: like my father, Paul saves everything useful…” (Atwood, Surfacing, chap.2). This quote indicates the war played an important role in the lives of each character’s respective parents.
  • “a talisman, my father had left me the guides, the man- animals and the maze would go elsewhere. To continue the war. I didn’t want to join…” (chap.8). Here, the speaker is tasked with continuing a war his father began.

In effect, topic modelling provides objective evidence of a very specific topical continuity across five of Margaret Atwood’s novels, and close reading of her poetry provides further evidence in support of this continuity. As further evidence, topic models were generated for 45 of Margaret Atwood’s short stories: these 45 stories are comprised of every story in The Tent and Moral Disorder and Other Stories—I did not read or curate the sample in advance. Of these 45 stories, two are unambiguous examples of the war-trauma topical continuity. The story “My Last Duchess” discusses “the war of zippers and buttons” and how the speaker “couldn’t expect help from her father… just after the war” (Atwood, “Last”); and “Life Stories” discusses a father and mother who go away, leaving “icebergs and war monuments” to mark their passing (Atwood, “Life”). The general subject of war is found in eight of the 45 stories I analyzed, suggesting the pattern of topical similarity, previously estimated at 18%, continues into Atwood’s shorter works. Put simply, when the results of the topic modeller are compared with the results of a subjective analysis the result is nearly identical: war-trauma-by-proxy is a common theme in nearly one fifth of Atwood’s entire corpus. Ultimately, the answer to my central question of how Atwood works the wars is simple: there is ample evidence, both subjective and objective, that much of Atwood’s work is centred on the effects of war, and a good proportion of her work deals specifically with the intergenerational nature of war-trauma. In conclusion, topic modelling has proven its use in the toolkit of augmented criticism: the synthesis of subjective criticism and objective data analysis enables a critic to explore a subjective observation across a huge range of texts without the need for the critic to examine each text individually.

Works Cited

“Alias Grace Summary.” LitCharts, Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. McClelland & Stewart E-Omnibus 2016, 2016.

—. Cat’s Eye. Anchor Books, 1988.

—. “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing.” Morning in the Burned House, McClelland & Stewart, 1995, pp. 33–36.

—. “Life Stories.” The Tent, Anchor Books, 2006.

—. “My Last Duchess.” Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Emblem, 2009.

—. “Singing to Genghis Khan.” Interlunar, Toronto UP, 1983, pp. 68–69.

—. Surfacing. McClelland & Stewart, 1999.

—. The Blind Assassin. Kindle, McClelland & Stewart, 2000.

—. “The Loneliness of the Military Historian.” Morning in the Burned House, McClelland & Stewart, 1995, pp. 49–53.

—. The Penelopiad: The Play. Kindle, Faber & Faber Ltd, 2007.

—. The Robber Bride. Kindle, Emblem, 1993.

Jockers, Matthew. Macroanalysis. U of Illinois P, 2013.

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review, vol. 1, 2000, pp. 54–68.

—. Graphs, Maps, Trees. Verso, 2007.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines. U of Illinois, 2011.


[i] These terms will be used interchangeably throughout this paper.



[iv] Predictions with a probability of less than 4% were removed.

[v] I am using chapter numbers because the kindle editions of The Robber Bride and The Blind Assassin do not include page numbers.


How to Talk About Lacan if you Haven’t Read Lacan

Introduction and Caveats

There are two things you must always remember when discussing Lacan:

  1. Lacan is an asshole.
  2. Lacan is (almost) never making a metaphor or speaking with poetic devices.

There are also two major phases of Lacanian thought that you must consider:

  1. Pre-Seminar X – or, Lacan the clinician.
  2. Post-Seminar X – or, Lacan the philosopher. See the opening chapter “Excommunication” of Seminar XI if you want to grasp the importance of said ‘excommunication’ in Lacan’s life.

I will focus on cutting through Lacan the asshole to reveal the truth behind much of what is often perceived as ‘metaphor’ or ‘allegory’ in his work. I will keep citations minimal because (in my opinion) quoting Lacan is often an exercise in ‘tailoring the paper to the quote’ and will instead point to sections and chapters of his relevant works. I will also only discuss Lacan’s published (via Jaques-Alain Miller or Russel Grigg) works and will not discuss any unpublished seminars. I will on focus on Seminar X thru Seminar XX (primarily XI, XVII.) This is not an academic paper, nor is it intended to be. Rather, this is a brief introduction to the major concepts of Lacan’s later works.

This is not definitive, this is substantially influenced by my opinions on Lacan’s works gained over my academic career. This shouldn’t concern you, as there is not (even among the ‘elite’ of Lacanian scholars) anything definitive in anyone’s interpretation of Lacan. Please keep this in mind as I continue.


What is discourse? Is it conversation, literature, the corpus of all things said? Yes, it is all these things, but—sticking to Lacan—discourse is everything. This is not a metaphor. Reality itself is a function of discourse. Accepting this will make reading Lacan much easier as this single point serves as the foundation of all of Lacan’s later works.

Now, let us begin with Seminar XVII The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. We will completely ignore the diagrams but will try to work out the symbols before we proceed.

$ = the split subject, the subject split by language, or—in Lacanian terms—the castrated subject. The castrated subject is a paper all in itself, it must suffice to know that every speaking being becomes subject to (in both the sense of power dynamics and language) language. This is to say, $ represents the base state of every speaking being of the type ‘human.’

S1 = here I must go down an interpretive route and include a bit about how “woman does not exist.” S1 represents all signifiers, including those subject to the phallic function and those who, impossibly, have escaped it. The S1 represents literally everything with the potential of description and understanding. I did a bit of mathematical analysis on the upper limit on the number of items this set could contain, but that’s outside of my scope right now. Spoiler: the number is almost the total number of atoms in the universe.

S2 = every signifier mediated by the phallic function (i.e. everything we are capable of understanding.)

The $ is now better understood as S1 / S2 where the ‘/’ represents the ‘bar’ Lacan often talks about when talking about the phallus. Thus, the subject split by language is any subject who is also subject to the phallic function qua castration—all human beings are subject to the phallic function, but, there exists one exception; namely, woman.

Here we enter a rather controversial subject, the feminist-Lacanian conflict has been a war well fought by both sides and neither can claim victory. Let’s try to move passed this, but don’t let my ignoring this topic elide any anti-feminism on my part—we simply don’t have time. As a side note, I fall firmly on the feminist side of the equation, but I also know Lacan is there with me.

Now, when Lacan says “all determination of the subject, and therefore of thought, depends on discourse” he is not being obscure. The subject is determined by language, and all language (qua signifiers) is an effect of the phallic function. But, because not all signifiers are subject to the phallic function, a subject outside the phallic form of signification must exist, but not in any way an S2 could signify.

This ends my Cole’s Notes version of Lacanian discourse. I recommend you read chs. 2, 6, 8, and 13 of Seminar XVII if you want more info.

A note on signifiers: here I will direct you to “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” from Lacan’s Écrits or even Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not going to explain what a signifier is; if you’re not aware of a signifier this synopsis isn’t going to help you.


Do you remember Freud’s analysis of little Hans? If you haven’t read this yet, you should read it right now. Freud’s two-page introspection on repetition and the death drive is the jumping off point for most modern psychoanalytic theory. Freud had noticed Hans’ game (gone or da as Freud calls it) was focused on repetition of the painful event (his mother ‘going away’) and not the pleasurable return. Freud spent a few off-hand paragraphs musing (in the aptly named Beyond the Pleasure Principle) about how, if Hans was enacting unpleasurable situations, this must also mean the pleasure principle isn’t the be-all-end-all of human subjectivity. If human beings only seek pleasure (and this is the motivation for all actions) then why does Hans want to role-play his mother’s painful departure more than her pleasurable return?

Because of the death drive, which is not a suicidal impulse. It is more of a biological drive toward its initial inanimate resting state, but this is a complex subject out of our scope. So, let’s move on to Seminar XI.

Lacan’s focus (around repetition) is one’s desire for the Other, and how repetition drives us to enact (and repeat) non-pleasurable (masochistic) and non-procreative (i.e. a foot fetish) sexual acts and fantasies. This has to do with the displacement of desire, but we can skip all the middle ground here and jump right to the end. Everyone wants to fuck their mother, but not in a weird creepy way—if we take this as a simple imperative, we’re missing the point (Lacan is aware of gays, lesbians, asexuals, etc.). So, in more nuanced terms, everyone wants to return to the limitless pleasure (AKA jouissance) they, as pre-mirror-stage infants, obtained from their mother. This has very little to do with one’s actual mother outside extreme oedipal edge cases, and is rather an idealized form of pleasure without limits from a time when our minds weren’t capable of ‘grasping’ the concept of our own physical boundaries.

This repetitive misconnaissance (misrecognition) of one’s desires forms the first fundamental concept of psychoanalysis. The displacement of one’s initial experience with limitless jouissance onto other objects forms the basis of all human sexuality. Even missionary, eyes closed, only when she’s ovulating sex is still misplaced—there is no normal sexual practice. Displacement is the foundation of all forms of hysteria, and the separation from limitless jouissance is usually called castration.

A note on jouissance: this literally translates as ‘joy’ or ‘enjoyment,’ but includes the connotation of ‘to cum’ (or orgasm.)

A note before I go on: I’m not going to talk about the unconscious, conscious, preconscious, ego, superego, and so on. Strangely, this has very little application to what I’m talking about. If someone needs a Cole’s Notes version, I suggest you go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Google it, it’s online.)

Objet Petit a

Žižek provides a very concise run down on the object a in Coke as Objet Petit a (or a for short):

It was already Marx who long ago emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume. A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical, niceties. Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence. And the classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible, quality. Coke is the “real thing,” Žižek argues, foregrounded by Coke commercials that urge consumers to “enjoy.”

It’s not just a positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed,” he continues. “It’s the mysterious something more. The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire.

We are obliged to enjoy. Enjoyment becomes a kind of a weird perverted duty. The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, you drink it, but as everyone knows the more you drink it the more thirsty you get.

What Žižek says about a commodity is the definition of the a. It is nothing. Your desire (remember repetition) is not for the thing you want, it is for a return to your infantile state. The closer you get to the object of your desire (or a) the further you find yourself from it (“the more Coke you drink, the thirstier you are”—this works even better with the new meaning ‘thirsty’ has taken on.)

So, in simple terms you think you want a but you really want your mom (please, I know how weird this sounds, but this is not about fucking your mother. Whomever decided to use the Oedipus complex to describe human subjectivity screwed up badly and we analysts have been fighting it ever since—thanks Freud…)

See: the pervert’s guide to ideology (on Netflix) and/or section two of Seminar XI for more info.

Transference and the Drive

We covered a bunch of this in repetition, and Lacan goes into a tonne of repetitive detail in section three of Seminar XI, but there are a few important points to bring up here. First, I will return to Žižek’s awesome Marx metaphor and talk about “economies of desire.” The thing about having what you want is the inevitable counter-desire to squander it. The one paradoxical, factual problem with desire is that no one wants to keep it. Having what you want is not the goal, getting what you want is. So, what do you do when you’ve got what you want? Suddenly, you want something else. Suddenly, you transfer your desire onto another objet a. In fact, should you ever get what you actually desire, you probably wouldn’t survive the encounter, but this is a bit of a poetry joke (for the philologists in the room.)

There are several other points in section three that are of middling importance, but (in my opinion) don’t have a massive effect on Lacan’s overall philosophy (this is his first departure from Lacan-the-clinician, and there is a lot of material here that falls under the clinical banner.) If you want to know more, read section three of Seminar XI.

More Transference?

I’m pretty sure this isn’t lost on Lacan, but sections two three and four of Seminar XI can be condensed into two sections. Remember when I said Lacan’s an asshole? Well, now you know why I said that. Lacan was famous for being shocking. People came to his seminars with the expectation he would say something crazy (yet somehow correct) enough to top his last crazy statements. (See, “woman is not real,” “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” “the only source of truth is the hysteric,” and so on.)

Note: There is also “the transference” which refers to a clinical process by which the psychoanalyst ‘stands in’ for the source of the analysand’s neurosis. This is not what is being discussed here.

There is so much I would like to say about the topologies and mathemes, but I’m running out of word count for this summary. So, I’ll provide the oft-used tldr;

  • Repetition – why do people do unpleasurable things? Because every pleasurable thing is a shitty stand-in for the true pleasure of our pre-mirror-stage being.
  • Split subject – everything is a subject of (and subject to) language. Reality is literally a linguistic construct. But, woman (who’s existence is not possible, yet also must be) can perceive things beyond the scope of the phallic function (and, moreover, a woman—in Lacanian philosophy—has nothing to do with one’s penis/vagina; anyone could be classified / sexuated under Lacan’s definition of woman.)
  • Phallic function – the ultimate patriarchy, all language—and therefore all being—is subject to the phallic function (except the woman who does not exist.)
  • The death drive – complex, but can be used to explain why people do destructive things and/or things outside the scope of ‘biological (or instinctual) needs’ qua procreation. If fucking is an instinct, why do people gain pleasure from things that aren’t purely procreative sexual pursuits?
  • Objet a – the target of one’s misplaced desires. The non-existent ‘thirst quenching’ capacity of Coke.
  • Transference – the inevitable process one undergoes in locating their objet a (i.e. deciding what to put their dick in) and the process one undergoes when one ‘obtains’ or get’s too close to their desire. This is also fundamental to the inherent squandering of desire (I didn’t mention this above, but this is called the jouissance imperative—an obvious play on Kant’s categorical imperative.)

There is a 0.1% coverage of Lacan’s later philosophy with a focus on the foundational concepts in Seminar XI. It ignores so much I hesitate to post it, but I hope it provides enough illumination to make further Lacanian studies a bit easier.

10 things I wish someone had told me before I started writing code…

  • There is no such thing as an absolutely correct or ‘perfect’ way to write an algorithm. Moreover, while there are plenty of wrong ways to solve a problem, you’ll almost never write a truly ‘wrong’ piece of code. In general, if the code works as you expect it to, it’s good code.
    • There is no such thing as a final implementation—even the Apollo mission code (which wasn’t code in the modern sense, but a system of wires and physical registers) required modification—in space no less.
  • Given unlimited time, there is nothing a computer can do that cannot be done with a pen and piece of paper. This includes machine learning, AI and anything else you can imagine; there is nothing ‘magical’ about a computer’s capabilities.
  • A new technology is only better if it’s better for you. Don’t chase the language/framework/library of the day, if it isn’t broke, don’t learn a new language to fix it.
    • It is often better to use an existing solution than to build your own from scratch. BUT, make sure you don’t break your back integrating another’s code if it becomes more difficult than writing your own. (This is especially important for recent CS graduates, but all programmers fall victim to ‘I’ll just make it myself’ syndrome on occasion.)
  • Computer programming is not the same as computer science. Knowing how to use a language or framework is just as important as knowing how to build a language or framework from scratch. Put simply, knowing how to create your own computer programming language does not automatically make you a more effective programmer—it makes you a better computer scientist. Conversely, being good at writing Java doesn’t make you a good computer scientist—it makes you a good computer programmer. Knowing the finer details about how a computer operates does not always mean one is good at writing code.
  • The user is always wrong. Not about what they want, but don’t ever expect a user to use a piece of software in the way you intended when you wrote it.
  • Don’t optimize a piece of code until you’ve fully integrated it into the program its intended for. In other words, make sure it works before you spend any time making sure it will work efficiently. Effectiveness should always take priority over efficiency, there are some exceptions to this rule (i.e. database design and systems programming) but the average developer will almost never run into them a situation where their code cannot be optimized after it’s been integrated.
  • Prototypes are not optional for anything that will take you longer than a few working days to implement in full. Even the world’s greatest minds cannot reason effectively about a system with more than a dozen working parts without a physical model of its final form sketched out somewhere. An artist does not start work on a sculpture until they’re sure about what they’re going to sculpt, writing a computer program is no different.
  • Strict adherence to concepts like modularity, composition, inheritance, state, paradigm/pattern compliance, etc., is always less important than readability: a line of code is written once and read many times, don’t ever ignore the reader, even if the only person who will ever read it is you.
  • Don’t write notes about obvious things. For example:

# instantiate a csv reader.
reader = csv.reader(file)

In general, if you write clean, concise code, the notes will take care of themselves.

  • Don’t write notes about how a piece of code works, write notes about what it does. If you need to explain how a piece of code works, it’s probably shitty code.
  • Not all programmers write code in their free time, and those who do are not automatically better at writing code than those who don’t. You don’t need to spend your free time doing your job to be good at doing your job: most accountants don’t go home and do accounting in their spare time. Don’t let the keeners make you feel like a shit programmer because you have a life outside writing code.

Element of the Expository Essay

Element of the Expository Essay #1 – Thesis (or Conclusion)

What you’re arguing for or what you want to get your reader to believe

A thesis is not a topic.  A topic is the general subject matter of a paper, a thesis is a position on that subject matter.

Topic Thesis
Knowledge Knowledge is possible.
The banning of handguns Handguns should be banned.


Topic-Statement Thesis Statement
“In this paper, I will discuss whether knowledge is possible.” “In this paper, I will show that knowledge is possible.”
“Should we ban handguns?” “We should ban handguns.”

A bad thesis is like a cancer.  It will spread to all other aspects of your paper: style, transitions, argument, clarity, objections, replies.  It can even damage the most important element of the expository essay: the title.

A satisfactory thesis needs to satisfy three conditions.  It needs to be:

  1. Provable.
  2. Deniable.
  3. Focused.

Provable: you must be able to rationally argue for your thesis with the evidence at hand.  This does not mean it needs to be successfully proven beyond any doubt.  You need to be able to come up with an argument that makes it seem true to the intended audience of your paper.  Furthermore, you must be able to argue for your thesis with only the evidence at hand.  In other words, if every argument for your thesis requires tons of statistics, studies on human psychology, data from evolutionary theory, then (assuming you haven’t done the required research) it’s not a great thesis.  The solution to this problem is not to come up with a different (and bad) argument that doesn’t involve statistics or outside evidence.  The solution is to get a new thesis.

Deniable: your thesis must be able to be sincerely argued against in a rational way.  It must be controversial.  Merely provable theses are a dime a dozen.  “Humans generally have two arms” is a provable thesis.  But it is not deniable.  No one rational would sincerely argue against it.  Merely deniable theses are also a dime a dozen.  “I could survive the hottest flames of the Earth’s sun” is a deniable thesis.  But it is not provable.  There is no way to rationally argue for it.  It is a rare thesis that there is both a good argument against but a better and more decisive argument for.  It is rarer still to actually be in possession of that better and more decisive argument.  These are the theses you need to look for.  You need to look for a thesis that has a good argument against it, but for which you have an even better argument.  If the thesis you want to use in your paper does not fit this bill, you need a new thesis.

Focused: Your thesis needs to be small enough that a single (possibly complex) argument can prove it.  You shouldn’t have to provide 3 separate reasons why your thesis is true.  You need your final paper to be unified and the way you do this is by narrowing your thesis so that your entire paper all fits together.

Bad Thesis for a 4-6 page paper: Man is inherently evil.

Reason: What sort of evidence could possibly be brought in to a 4-6 page paper to show that this is true?  How many sociological and psychological studies must be done to show that all of every man’s actions are motivated by malevolence?

Bad Thesis: Belief in God is an important part of many people’s lives.

Reason: Who could reasonably disagree with this?

What you don’t want is: “There are three separate reasons why Descartes’ skeptical argument fails: 1) X, 2) Y, and 3) Z.”  Starting with a thesis like this leads to the dreaded laundry list style of paper writing.  You will end up with three discrete sections to your paper, tied together by nothing other than the fact that they are all arguments for a common claim.  This may be fine in a longer paper or a book, where you might try to marshal many arguments for a single point.  But the more unified your thesis is, the more focused on a specific line of thought, the better your paper will be.

You also don’t want: “In this paper I will be disagreeing with Descartes” or, “In this paper, I will be arguing for knowledge” These are examples of the “Yay-Boo Thesis”.  They are the equivalent of, “Yay knowledge!” and “Boo Descartes!”  These are too broad to count as nicely focused theses.  Your thesis should hint at some reason that you believe it.  (See accompanying handout.)

So, two kinds of theses to avoid:

1) The Yay-Boo Thesis.

2) The Laundry List.

Steps to the Thesis Statement

Step Example #1 Example #2 Example #3
1) Decide on a large overarching issue.  This can be big. What is knowledge? What is the relationship between religion and morality? Which is more important: individual rights or the health of society as a whole?
2) Decide on a smaller question that illustrates, exemplifies, handles, or puts this larger issue into stark relief. What must a belief be supported by in order to be genuine knowledge? Could we legitimately judge Hitler to be morally wrong unless there was a God that declared his actions to be wrong? Can we ban private ownership of handguns if it would reduce crime?
3) Take a stand on that smaller question. In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience. Hitler can be legitimately judged morally wrong even if there is no God to declare his actions wrong. It is wrong to ban private ownership of handguns, even if it would reduce crime.
4) Think of an initial and compelling reason in support of your stand. Unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error. There are pre-existing moral laws – laws that exist independently of God, but also independently of humans. It is wrong to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.
5) When you state your thesis, your statement of it should include BOTH 3 and 4.  It is this combined statement that you will be arguing for in the paper (even though 4, strictly speaking, is also part of the argument itself). “In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience because, unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error.” “We can judge Hitler to be morally wrong, even without a God, because we can use pre-existing moral laws, laws that are independent both of God and Man.” “We cannot ban private ownership of handguns, because this would be to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.”

You don’t have to go through these steps in this order.  And be careful about step number

  1. It’s probably less important than the others (see the accompanying Introduction Rule). But you should, when you’re finished coming up with your thesis, be able to set it up with a main question (level 2), have a clear picture of your answer to that question (level 3), have a good statement of your primary reason for that answer (level 4), and a well-formed statement of and argument for the combined answer and reason (level 5).

Element of the Expository Essay #2 – Argument

How are you arguing for your thesis?

Argument: how you support your thesis/the reasons or evidence you use to show that your main claim is true.

Arguments are more than mere illustrations.  Illustrations are further clarifications of your thesis.  Arguments give the reader reasons to believe your thesis.

Thesis Illustration Argument
People only act to achieve their own self-interest. Whenever you think you’re acting unselfishly, you’re really self-deceived.  Really you’re just trying to feel good about yourself. People only act on their own desires (not anyone else’s).  But to act on one’s own desires just is to act in one’s own self interest.  Therefore, people only act to achieve their own self-interest.

The Only Two Ways That Arguments Can Fail

  1. The conclusion can fail to follow from the premises.


Oswald’s gun requires 2 seconds between shots.

Therefore, it takes 6 seconds to shoot 3 times with Oswald’s gun.

  1. The premises can be false.


All dogs are fish.

All fish are mammals

Therefore, all dogs are mammals.

The Game of “Why”

As is often pointed out, argument can go on forever.  You claim X.  I ask you, “Why believe X?”  You say, “Believe X because of Y.”  I ask you, “Why believe Y?”  You say, “Believe Y because of Z?”  I ask you, “Why believe Z?”  You say, “Believe Z because of A.”  This is a very fun game for a very short period of time.  When can you stop this chain of argument?

ANSWER: when you get to a claim that your target audience (those reasonable people who disagree with your thesis) agrees with.  If you are trying to convince me of X, then presumably I don’t yet believe X.  That’s WHY you are trying to convince me that X is true.  If you can show me that Y is a good reason to believe X, and if I believe Y, then you will have convinced me to believe X.  So, you need to keep arguing until you get to some foundation, some basic premises that your target audience believes.

Element of the Expository Essay #3 – Motive

Why your reader should care about your thesis/why it’s CONTROVERSIAL

You provide a motive for your thesis by showing the reader why the opposing view is very plausible.  You provide a motive by giving reasons to believe the opposite.  You do not provide a motive merely by showing how important it is that your thesis is true, or by showing what psychological trait would make people believe it, or simply by saying that there is controversy, or simply by saying, “The opposite view seems very plausible.”

Usually, you put the motive at the beginning of the paper.  Some authors will spend the first few pages of their paper doing nothing but showing why the opposite view is something worth believing.  However, you always need to Return to the Motive at the end of paper, to show how you’ve resolved it (see other side of this sheet).

Poorly Motivated Thesis Well Motivated Thesis
Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: In our society, opinion is split pretty evenly on the subject of abortion.  Many intelligent people think abortion is morally permissible.  So how can I be arguing that abortion is morally impermissible?

Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Since the dawn of time, mankind has been fascinated by the notion of morality.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, people have a need to believe in the inherent goodness of individuals.  Without this belief, people would lose hope.  It makes us feel bad to believe that people always and only act selfishly.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two.

Return to the Motive:

It is not enough to give a good argument for your thesis.  Your argument can be as good as can be, but if you leave the motive standing, the reader will think, “Yes, I know you have a good argument.  But what about that reason I had to believe the opposite?”  So, you need, at the end of the paper, to come back to the motive and explain why it no longer has the force it initially seemed to.  Ideally, this explanation should fall right out of your argument.  It should be because your argument is what it is that the motive no longer looks so good.  Here are the above three examples, with some sample Returns.  (I’m not saying the sample Returns successfully defeat the sample Motives – they just are of the form that you will want to emulate.)

Thesis Motive Return
Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.


It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance. So now we can see why it doesn’t matter that, as pointed out earlier, an early fetus doesn’t seem to have any mental capacities.  It’s because the impermissibility of abortion stems from the fact that a fetus is a potential person, not from the fact that a fetus feels pain.
There is no objective moral truth.


Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything. So, once we take the view that there is no objective moral truth seriously, we realize that it makes no sense to say “it is not legitimate to judge others.”  Legitimacy is itself a moral notion.  So, judging others is perfectly “legitimate” but, of course, only in the relativist’s sense.  Since we personally feel that genocide is immoral, it is personally “legitimate” to judge it to be wrong.
People always and only act selfishly.


It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two. So, given my argument, we can now see why evidence that people only act selfishly is unnecessary.  This is because the view that people only act selfishly is a result simply of the nature of voluntary action.  Voluntary action, by definition, is action that an agent wants to do.  Since it is the agent’s desires, and no one else’s, that make the agent act, the agent is necessarily acting selfishly, regardless of whether the agent wants to help others or to help him or her self.


Element of the Expository Essay #’s 4 and 5 – Objections and Replies

Objections: why one might plausibly think that your specific argument doesn’t work.

Replies: reasons that the objections fail.

Inclusion in your paper of compelling objections and replies has multiple purposes.  Most obviously, it gives you the opportunity to address complaints that your reader may have.  If your reader is left, at the end of your paper, with unanswered questions in mind, that is the one thing your reader will remember of your paper (if that).  Second, consideration of objections and replies allows you the opportunity to clarify what your thesis is and what your argument is.  You might say, in response to an objection, “This objection assumes that I am saying XXXXXX.  But, in fact, am saying YYYYYY.”  Third, you might consider objections that your reader hadn’t ever thought of.  It might seem strange to give your reader ideas – strange to help your reader see where your paper might go wrong – but in fact this maneuver can strengthen your paper and heighten its impact.  The reader will leave your paper thinking, “It answered everything, objections even I, the smartest in the land, had not thought of.”


An objection needs to be something more than an accusation that your argument fails.  Suppose your thesis is that Singer’s argument fails (for some specific reason).  Neither of the following are satisfactory objections:

“Someone might object to me that my argument fails.” Or, “Someone might object that Singer’s argument succeeds.”

You need to make each objection targeted at a very specific point in your argument.  The objection needs to show that you are wrong and why you are wrong.  You don’t have to consider every single possible objection to your view.  What you need to consider are the ones that the most intelligent critics will have in mind.  You shouldn’t pick objections just because they’re easy for you to answer.  For example:

“Someone might object that my argument seems too good to be true,” or “Someone might wonder how I developed such a brilliant argument without supernatural powers.”


A reply needs to be more than a restatement of your argument and more than a restatement of your thesis.  You need to supplement your argument with a new mini-argument against the objection.  The following is not a satisfactory reply:

“I respond that my argument actually succeeds.”

Where to Put Objections, and Replies

A thorough treatment of objections and replies often has a rather unpleasant side effect.  It can really drag the paper down into a list style, especially if you put all of the objections and replies at the end of the paper.  There are ways to avoid this:

1) Whatever you do, do NOT load all your objections and replies into the same paragraph and do NOT run through all of your objections and then run through all of the replies. 

2) Put the objections in surprising places.  Suppose your thesis is that Descartes’ argument is successful.  Suppose you want to consider the objection that, in fact, there is no evil demon consistently fooling us.  You could put this objection at the end, with all your other objections, thus expanding the already gigantic list.  Or, you could put the objection at the beginning, when you are spelling out Descartes’ argument.

You start out by saying:

“Descartes argues that, because the evil demon might be constantly fooling us, we cannot trust any of our beliefs.”

You then offer the following objection:

“Of course, we don’t actually believe there is such an evil demon.”

You then clarify Descartes’ argument by giving the following reply:

“But Descartes’ argument doesn’t depend on the evil demon actually existing.  As long as it is even possible for the evil demon to exist, we won’t be able to show that there is no evil demon who is constantly fooling us.  Any evidence we could bring up to show that there is no evil demon would also be there if there were an evil demon.”

By doing this you simultaneously clarify Descartes’ argument and dispose of a major objection.

3) Consider only a few objections, but make sure they are closely related to each other and to the motive.  That way, instead of a list of disparate objections, it will seem more like a variety of takes on one central objection.

4) Oddly enough, you can sometimes make the “list” seem less troubling by numbering the objections.  Though this seems like it will make the paper more despicably list-like, it can have the opposite effect.  But be careful with this approach.  It’s kind of a last resort.  If you use it, you should put each reply right after its objection.  You should make sure you deal completely with each objection; don’t leave any questions hanging.  And you should anticipate the numbered list by saying something like “My argument seems subject to three major objections.  I will discuss each in turn.”

These methods aside, it is very difficult to do a completely thorough job with objections and still have a smooth, unified-seeming paper with perfect transitions.  There’s usually a tradeoff.  Always err on the side of answering a crucial objection.

Element of the Expository Essay #6 – Sources

Any outside material that you use in your essay either as evidence for a claim, the basis for an interpretation, an example of an opinion, for any other reason.

A source is any material other than the fruit of your own intellect that you refer to or use in a paper. These vary widely in kind. All the following can be sources:

  1. A movie.
  2. an encyclopedia.
  3. another person.
  4. a work of fiction.
  5. a song.
  6. a work of art.
  7. a natural object.

and many others, including all the standard texts, reference books, essays, journal articles, television shows, magazine pieces, newspapers, and, ultimately, everything in the universe.

Sources can be used in a variety of ways, but we can fudge certain details and narrow down those ways to 2 basic categories.  Sources can be used:

  1. to get information or facts about the world and
  2. to reveal a claim, opinion, or interpretation that someone else has made.

For example, if, in a paper on population trends, you quote The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth as saying “The population of the earth is 6.2 billion.” then you are using the source in the first way; you are using it factively.  You are using it to get a fact about the world (how many people there are).

On the other hand, if you say, “Plato argues that knowledge is true belief plus personal experience,” then you are using the source in the second way; you are using it (for lack of a better word), non-factively.  (You are also using it incorrectly, because Plato never actually says that an account needs to involve personal experience.)  You are not using it to get information about the world in the same way as you used the almanac.  You are using it as an example of something Plato says.  You are using it as revealing a claim of his.

  • The very same passage in the very same source can be used in both ways at different times. For example, the almanac can be used factively, as above.  Or it can be used non-factively.  If you are writing a paper on whether The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth is reliable, you could use the very same passage above simply as evidence that the almanac has a certain thing to say about the population of the earth.  You would use the passage as revealing a claim that the almanac makes, not as necessarily revealing a fact about the world.
  • Depending on the situation, sources can sometimes be properly used in only one of the two ways. For example, in an essay on the nature of knowledge, it would be improper to use Plato’s text as a source of fact, as giving the truth about knowledge in the same way almanacs give the truth about population.
  • Sometimes it might be proper to use a source factively, but not proper at other times. In a newspaper article about why a plane crashed, it may be proper to use some physics textbook factively.  But in a scholarly article about whether that physics textbook is accurate, it no longer is proper to use that very textbook as a source of fact.
  • Generally, you can use a source factively only when there is no question as to whether the source is reliable. This happens only when both the author and the audience agree fully that the source is reliable.

How to Elegantly Weave Sources Into Your Paper (The Four “I”s)

Do not simply drop a quote into your paper as if it’s just another sentence.  The following paper excerpt is a misuse of a source.

Should we believe that we are awake?  “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (Descartes, 13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

The main problem with this excerpt is that the quote is dropped into the paper as if it’s the author’s own.  Simply giving the page number is not enough.  You have to….

Introduce the quote.  You must preface the quote with something like, “Descartes says…” or “Descartes makes the following argument:” Rephrasing the above excerpt:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is better, but not quite there.  For, though the author brings in Descartes to support the conclusion, the author just drops the quote in without explaining it.  You not only have to introduce the quote.  You have to say what it means.  That is, you must…

Interpret the quote.  You need to give some example illustrating what the quote says or some further clarification of the content of the quote.  If the quote is an argument, you need to elaborate on the argument.  If the quote is a snippet from a piece of literature, you may need to clarify terms, concepts, or how it relates to the larger text.  Either way, this may end up seeming redundant to you.  That’s o.k.  Be redundant.

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is still better.  But it’s lacking in two ways.  First of all, though the author has explained what Descartes means, the author has not yet taken a stand on what Descartes says.  The author has provided another version of Mavrodes’ argument, but the author hasn’t yet stated whether and why the author thinks the argument works.  So, the author needs to…

Issue a verdict on the quote.  (O.k., this isn’t the most natural way of saying this.  But I needed this step to begin with an “I” so I could keep with my 4 “I”’s theme.)  This won’t be as crucial when discussing literary quotes.  But even there, a verdict can be made on how important the passage is in the overall scheme of the work.  Your verdict can be a matter of simply saying, “And this argument seems exactly right (or wrong).”  More often it will be a matter of explaining why it’s right or wrong.  So:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

Almost there.  The remaining problem is that it is not clear how the quote relates to the ultimate conclusion (that we should not believe that we are awake).  Just because a connection might seem obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone.  So, you need to tie the source with the main argument in the paper.  That is, you need to…

Errrr…. Integrate the quote into the main argument.  Why does the fact that there are no “sure signs by which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” mean that we should not believe that we are awake?  The author can’t simply insist that it does.  Another argument is needed, here.  Thus, the final version reads as follows:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  What this shows is that we have no more evidence to show that we are awake than that we are asleep.  That is, from our perspective it is just as likely that we are asleep as that we are awake.  But if a belief is just as likely as its opposite, we shouldn’t believe either one.  I shouldn’t believe that the coin will come up heads – it’s just as likely that it will come up tails.  Since it’s just as likely that we are asleep as awake, we should not believe that we are awake.

One small paragraph on a single quote has turned into two rather large paragraphs.  This is as it should be.  Quotes are sacred things.  You cannot simply drop them into your paper, assume them to be clear and true (or false), and move on.  You need to investigate (another “I”) them thoroughly.  This is what is involved in elegantly weaving quotes into your paper.

The 4 “I’s” are:

  1. Introduce the quote.
  2. Interpret the quote.
  3. Issue a verdict on the quote.
  4. Integrate the quote into the main argument.

3 Ways to Misuse a Source

Assumption: you use a source as a source of fact, when it actually should be taken to be a source of opinion.  That is, you assume what the source says is true, that an argument presented in a source works, that the author is automatically authoritative, etc.  Usually, if a source presents an argument or makes a claim, you need to give reasons why we should trust the source in general and the argument or claim in particular.  Here is an excerpt from a student’s paper in which this sort of error is made.

According to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State during World War II, “the face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives.  The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese.  But this deliberate premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”  Therefore the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan.

Even if Stimson is ultimately correct, what the student needs is some argument that we should trust Stimson on this issue – some argument that Stimson’s reasoning is sound.  It might even suffice just to say, “Because Stimson was in a position to know what the potential outcomes were, we should trust Stimson on this issue.”  This may not be a great argument, but it makes clear that you know that you need a reason to trust Stimson – that is, you are not simply taking his word as a source of fact.

Misrepresentation: you represent the source as saying something that, in fact, it does not.  This might be because you are simply misinterpreting the source.  This is a simple matter of misunderstanding.  Or it might be because you are focusing too much on one passage in the source and ignoring other, relevant passages.  Or you might be putting words in the author’s mouth.  Here is an example of misrepresentation:

Plato argues that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  But we can know many things via the testimony of others.  So, Plato’s account of knowledge is incorrect.

Plato never actually says that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  What he says is, “When a jury is rightly convinced of facts which can be known only by an eyewitness… they are judging without knowledge” [908, emphasis added]  It’s up to you to interpret this passage in as plausible a way as possible.

Plagiarism: you represent other people’s ideas, phrases, essay structure, novel vocabulary as your own.  This occurs when you:

  • paraphrase without citing.
  • too closely paraphrase; even if you do cite, a paraphrase that too closely mirrors the text (without directly quoting it) represents the phrasing of the author as your own.
  • fail to quote a verbatim passage.
  • fail to note that you are borrowing the structure of an author’s paper as your own.
  • use an evocative phrase or even a single characteristic word, Plato’s “account” or Hare’s “blik”.

Element of the Expository Essay #7 – Transitions

The sentences you use to move from paragraph to paragraph and topic to topic.

Though your essay should be on one unified topic, you can’t help but include a number of subtopics within that main heading.  You want to make sure that you smoothly switch from subtopic to subtopic.  Usually, you switch topics by switching paragraphs.  And to do this smoothly, you need to make sure that the final sentence of the one paragraph indicates why you’re going to switch to the next subtopic, while the first sentence of the next paragraph makes clear why you are elaborating on the preceding paragraph.

The point is, you need to say explicitly why it is that you are switching subtopics.  Often, this will take a paragraph of its own.

Obviously, an unfocused thesis will make for some awkward transitions.  If your thesis isn’t focused, that means that your thesis contains a number of ideas that aren’t really closely related to each other.  With an unfocused thesis, when you skip from one idea to the next, it will be quite difficult to do so smoothly.  It will be quite difficult to make clear how your ideas are related to each other.  So, the first step toward smooth transitions is focused, unified thesis.


There are certain words and phrases that should signal to you that you may have written an awkward transition.  These words are:

“also”, “in addition”, “plus”, “another”

As in:

“Another problem with Bok’s argument is that she assumes that politicians aren’t qualified to know when it is dangerous to tell the truth.”


“Keeley also mention another reason why conspiracy theories ought not be trusted.”

Though these words don’t always indicate a poor transition, they should cause you to look closely at the sentence to see if the paper reads well at that point.  In particular, if these sorts of words occur at the beginning of a paragraph, that should really ring warning bells that you may have a quite sudden transition.

Words like “but”, “however”, “so”, and “therefore” have just the opposite implication.  If you begin paragraphs with these kinds of words, then you are likely transitioning well from idea to idea, because it is clear how each paragraph is CONTRASTED with what came before (“but”, “however”) or FOLLOWS from what came before (“so”, “therefore”).

Element of the Expository Essay #8 – Structure

How your paper is organized, the order the ideas and arguments are presented, the movement of thought from topic to topic.

Your essay’s structure is the order in which you present other central elements of the essay: thesis, argument, motive, objections, and replies.  There are many compelling ways to do this.  But there are also sure-fire ways to do it wrong.

Do Not Use the Following Methods!!!

The Walk-Through Approach: In the walk-through approach, you basically follow the order of some source that you are using, running through an author’s arguments and responding to them in basically the same fashion the author does.  When you do this, you are letting the texts use you, instead of using the texts for your own purposes.

Signs you are using the walk-through approach:

  • You say things like, “Then Smith argues that…”
  • You begin the paper with an introduction of the author instead of your own ideas. It’s fine to begin with a powerful quote from a source.  But it’s often dangerous to begin by saying something like, “Sociologist Maisie Jones argues that U.S. society has become less religious in the last 50 years.  Her argument is…”
  • There is nothing original from you.

The List Approach: We have already discussed this approach earlier in the year.  But, as a reminder, in the list approach, you arrange your essay by presenting seemingly unconnected ideas one after another without providing explicit connection between them.  As we have noted, this approach is usually indicative of a disunified or unfocused thesis.

Usually, if you avoid both of these methods, your structure will be o.k.  There are, however, a couple of strategies for making sure your structure is as effective as possible.

  1. Do not order your paper arbitrarily. That is, do not throw ideas into the paper in the order you think of them.  Objections, for example, might proceed from the less compelling and plausible to the most compelling.  Your replies can proceed in the same way, as might your arguments.  That way, your paper builds toward a climactic end in which you are considering the most important point in the issue you are writing about.
  2. Try this: physically cut your paper into pieces at the paragraph breaks. If someone who has not read the paper can put them back together in the right order, that will ensure that you have a paper which moves sensibly (not arbitrarily) from idea to idea as the paper progresses.  (Sometimes, if your paper is quite arbitrarily assembled, not even you will be able to reassemble it in the correct order, especially if you wait a while before trying it.)

Some Possible Structural Approaches

Title Description Pros Cons
The Default Model


1) Thesis

2) Motive

3) Argument

4) Objections and Replies

6) Return to the Motive

1) Lets the reader know exactly where the essay is going.

2) Ensures that all elements of the essay are included.


1) Can be quite dry and boring.  But any paper can be dry and boring.
The Slowly-Opening Delicate Flower


Like the amaryllis which, over the space of a few days, gradually emerges from dry brown bulb, to end in glorious bloom, so too will your thesis and argument, from the barest reflections on a topic, emerge by the conclusion into the glorious concept that it is. 1) Can be much more interesting than the Default Model. (but see Con #2)

2) Can be more compelling than the Default Model model, since the reader gets swept along with the essay.

1) Sometimes, crucial elements of the essay get left out (e.g. thesis, argument, motive, objections, replies, or all of them together).

2) Can be deadly boring, as the reader wonders when on earth you’re going to get to a point.

3) Can be quite confusing, as the reader wonders what on earth is going on in the essay.




Start with just a gigantic motive.  Spend the majority of the paper arguing for that motive before finally, at the end, springing your own argument and thesis. 1) If successful, is completely convincing, since you’ve spent so much time convincing the reader that you’re aware of even the strongest arguments against you (and you’ve handled them.). 1) If unsuccessful, leaves the reader wondering how you’ve proven what you set out to prove.

2) Can be a bit confusing, at first, unless you foreshadow the conclusion you will eventually reach.


Note – I Josh Harkema, if for some reason you’re not getting this document from me, collected most of this information from Professor Jeremy Fantl at the U of C. I edited 10 documents from Fantl and collated this, massive, document on essay writing. I take no credit for this document.

Building a Better Mousetrap – The Digital Humanists’ Manifesto

“Literary criticism is exemplary” (Ullyot and Bradley 144). This opening line from Ullyot and Bradley’s section of Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media serves as the impetus for the Art Criticism Lab’s (ACL) sonnet database project. The central question driving the creation of the database is simple: how can technology enable definitive critical statements? Tools like the Natural Language Toolkit[i] (NLTK) exist to aid in the analysis of digital texts, but tools for storing and querying digital text are almost non-existent. Project Gutenberg[ii] stores a vast quantity of raw text in various formats; however, these texts are not encoded for programmatic analysis. With the Gutenberg corpus it is possible to examine an entire text against another entire text, but an examination focused on the specific contents of a given text is difficult, if not impossible, using Gutenberg alone. The Gutenberg corpus contains data (page headers, footnotes, and editor’s introductions) useless to a digital analysis, as well as lacks data (delimiters for chapters, sections, and lines; and titles for individual poems) required for an accurate computational analysis. The primary aim of the ACL sonnet database is to address these issues of specificity: rather than storing a vast quantity of raw text, the database is designed to store only the sonnets contained within a text in a format that allows programmatic analysis. In other words, the database strives to gather and meta-tag all sonnets in the English language in a format designed to enable ‘definitive’ critical claims about its contents. Specificity of meta-data (data about data) is what separates the ACL sonnet database from other text-focused digital corpora. Other databases allow a user to search and obtain the contents of a single text, and some of the better databases allow a user to search the contents of many texts but lack a method to simultaneously ‘download’ the results of a search in a meta-tagged format for digital analysis. The EEBO corpus[iii] contains tens of thousands of digital texts, but unless a scholar is willing to download and meta-tag each document one by one, it is impossible to preform a wholistic analysis of the corpus’s contents. The EEBO database is perfectly designed for a human user, the ACL sonnet database is designed with both humans and computers in mind.

The primary difference between the ACL sonnet database and databases like the EEBO is the integration of a RESTful (Representational State Transfer) compliant public API[iv] (Application Programmer Interface.) This type of API is the standard protocol for moving structured data from one computer to another in a format both computers can understand. The ACL’s implementation of a RESTful API allows a user to preform queries on the database from a Python script, an R project, or other computer language without the use of the database’s browser-based website. However, all the features of the API are also available on the site itself, the API is a computational interface whereas the site is a human interface. The results of a user’s programmatic query to the API are sent back to their computer as a JSON[v] (JavaScript Object Notation) formatted file their computer program can interact with natively[vi]. The ACL site’s various API endpoints[vii] allow a user to gather only the specific data (sonnets) they require for their analysis; the JSON formatted response allows a user to preform an analysis across a large data set without the need to first strip away important details about the data. For example, a user can preform an analysis on all the text (i.e. the lines of poetry) in the database and easily locate the specific author and title of each sonnet in their results. Rather than analyzing a corpus of many different texts condensed into a single text file, the use of JSON files allows an analysis of many texts without the need to first condense them into a single file. While this type of JSON based API is extremely common in public websites, the academic world has yet to integrate them into their websites and databases. This lack of standardized digital corpora already presents a major problem to those working in the digital humanities: future failure to implement open-source, publicly available, meta-tagged, APIs of digital corpora will force any project in the field to spend most of its available time and budget collecting and collating data. Moreover, the creation of non-public digital collections of texts inevitably leads to a massive amount of duplication; digital humanists will spend sparse research dollars collecting and tagging texts already digitized by another researcher. The ACL sonnet database is the first step towards an API based open-source collection of text, and it is my hope many similar projects will follow the ACL’s example. Modifying the code used to operate the ACL database to integrate formats beyond sonnets is a project of trivial difficulty; the future of the digital humanities relies on individuals and groups willing to adapt, maintain, and contribute to open-source software projects like the ACL. While those with coding skill are always important, those willing to encode and sanitize (make readable/regular) raw text are much more important to the field. Gathering a huge volume of raw text to analyze is only the first—and perhaps the easiest—step of an algorithmic analysis, the text is practically useless until it is tagged, sorted, cleaned, and regularized.

Data regularization presents a problem to any project working with textual data, especially those working with texts from earlier periods. This problem seems straightforward, but digital analysis requires an attention to details a human reader can easily overlook. For example, how should spelling be dealt with if the misspelling is important to the metre of the line? For example, when Shakespeare uses an acute accent, “agéd” instead of “aged,” to add an extra syllable to a line the database must somehow account for this variation. Moreover, when preforming an analysis should agéd and aged count as the same word? Can the problem be solved by simply allowing agéd = aged? If so, how many other uses of an acute accent would we have to map onto such a system of substitution? The problem cannot be solved by a simple substitution, nor can it be solved by simply removing the accented letter: in both instances the loss of essential data is too great. Furthermore, how should non-standard spelling be corrected? Which standard spelling should be used? British English? Canadian English? American English? How is ‘standard’ defined? It is easy to switch “neuer” to “never,” but what happens when the spelling change is not obvious? What about misspelled proper names? How should words like “amazeth” be lemmatized? Any extant database for lemmatization will need to include archaic tenses or a newly created database will need to account for them. How should metrical contractions like “prick’d” and “imprison’d” be dealt with? Should we remove the metrical regularity by correcting the term to its dictionary spelling or should we map all possible metrical contractions to some form of substitution scheme? If we choose the former we lose the ability to algorithmically analyze the metre of the poem, if we choose the latter we must create a database to correct for all such substitutions when preforming a lemmatized analysis of word frequency. The solution is not simple, and I do not have answers to these questions. This serves as an example of how a seemingly simple problem becomes a hugely complex issue when one focuses on the details. Furthermore, these examples do not represent a comprehensive list of all the problems any large-scale text digitization project will face.

Now, I will address some of the solutions to specific problems I discovered while creating the ACL database, and, by extension, problems any similar database project undertaken in the digital humanities will face. First, what is meta-tagging and what should any such tags contain? A meta-tag is, put simply, a piece of information related to another piece of information. For example, each sonnet in the ACL database is ‘tagged’ with the author’s first and last name, the sonnet’s title, where the sonnet came from, how many lines it contains, who added it to the database, when it was put in the database, and so on. However, determining what information each sonnet should be tagged with is not a simple undertaking. In the initial construction of the ACL database I relied on the Text Encoding Initiative’s (TEI) P5 Guidelines[viii] to determine the structure of the tags; the TEI guidelines form the de facto standards used by many large-scale text digitization projects. To create a valid TEI formatted XML file, the file must contain the author’s first and last name, the names of any editors and/or contributors, a description of the text’s source, a publication statement, and a title (The TEI Consortium). However, these standards are not specific enough for use in an augmented analysis. The next step was to determine the domain of the problem the database needs to solve. For this step, I asked my fellow English 523 students and Dr. Michael Ullyot what kind of questions the database should answer. The common thread in these discussions came down to two questions: what is a sonnet? and, is the sonnet a form or a genre? From these questions I was able to separate the domain of the problem into a set of elements (or features) the database needs to capture. The chosen meta-tags must aid in computational analysis and database queries. Moreover, the tags must be unique enough to prevent a sonnet matching an existing sonnet’s title, source, and author last name from being re-added. Based on these requirements, I chose the following meta-tags:

  • The author’s first name (optional.)
  • The author’s last name (mandatory.)
  • The year of initial publication (optional.)
  • The title of the sonnet (mandatory, but the sonnet’s first line is used when a title is not provided.)
  • A timestamp of when the sonnet was added or the last time it was updated (automatic.)
  • A publication statement of the sonnet’s publication rights (mandatory.)
  • A description of the sonnet’s source (mandatory.)
  • The username of the user who added the sonnet, or the user who last edited the sonnet (automatic.)
  • The total number of lines in the sonnet (automatic.)
  • The period of initial publication (mandatory.)

Optional meta-tags allow for some flexibility within the data, and required meta-tags enforce a regularity across the varied contents of the database. Without a baseline of regularity, deriving definitive results from the data set is impossible; without regularization, the database becomes a motley assortment of poems with no definitive context one can utilize in an analysis, defeating its entire purpose. For the database to definitively provide a user with, for example, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, every sonnet in the database must contain the author’s last name. In addition, each last name must be added to the database in an exacting format. To illustrate this problem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s name could be added in two ways:

  • First name: “Elizabeth” | Last name: “Barrett Browning”
  • First name: “Elizabeth Barrett” | Last name: “Browning”

As this shows, regularization of inputs is extremely important. Entering information into the database requires a detailed consideration of every possible manifestation the data may present, not only the intuitive manifestations common to any given corpus. These regularized and specific meta-tags allow the database to produce valid TEI files while also allowing complex and specific analysis of the database’s contents. Consistent meta-tagging, in concert with a public API, is what separates the ACL database from other digital corpora like the EEBO database or Project Gutenberg.

The ACL database provides an augmented interface to enable augmented criticism, and the EEBO and Gutenberg databases provide standard interfaces to enable standard criticism. The elusive ‘definitive’ criticism the digital humanities aims to produce requires the former, but only the latter exists today. This presents an existential problem to any pursuit in the digital humanities: before any valid discussion around digital methods can begin, before any augmented tools can be built, such projects must first define and regularize the data set these methods and tools will utilize. In other words, definitive criticism must operate on a standard data set shared and validated across a broad spectrum of academic fields. Moreover, analysis of such a data set must use standardized tools and metrics designed by the same academics in their various analyses. In the pursuit of definitive criticism, an academic must produce repeatable results another academic can verify. Therefore, before any real work in the realm of digital humanities can begin, a shared data set must exist; and the only way such a data set can exist is if it is built and maintained by a community of academics. Before one can claim ‘all {x} equals {y}’ one must first collect all the {x} and ensure the resulting {y} is valid. Collecting all the {x} for a simple question like the one posed by English 523 (what is a sonnet?) presents a near-impossible problem. However, if this type of critical project is undertaken the way an open-source software project is managed, a critical project becomes a collaboration of many people working separately toward similar goals. Maybe the work of an academic digitizing and tagging the works of James Joyce would provide further data to another project on modernist literature; maybe someone digitizing and tagging all the works of unknown female poets would unintentionally provide profound insight to another person working on the feminist implications of the renaissance. The point is simple: definitive criticism is only possible if the data set under analysis contains anything and everything remotely applicable to its claims. And, the only way one could ever hope to create such a data set is through the massive, shared, open-source effort of many academics working together on different projects. In other words, we need many people to follow the same guidelines on the same database across many and varied projects before we can form anything resembling a definitive claim. Consequently, a comprehensive data set must always precede a definitive claim.

The technology to power a massive literary database like the one described above is the same technology used in large companies to power accounting, messaging, and other business-oriented tasks. The digital humanities does not need a new type of database technology or a new file standard for encoding and sharing data; any attempt to build such a technology would inevitably reproduce another technology already deployed in another field. For this reason, I chose to use Spring Boot[ix] (part of the Spring Framework) to power the ACL database and website. While many other technologies could handle the ACL’s specific needs, I chose to use Spring Boot because of my own familiarity with it, its wide corporate and open-source adoption, the availability of accurate documentation, and the availability of developers experienced in its use. Furthermore, the Spring project is open source and can be used without any special licensing or branding requirements. Spring enabled me to produce a working site quickly without the need for thousands of lines of boilerplate code[x] or abstract security considerations; Spring’s security and database modules are proven to work, and it would have taken me hundreds of hours to create and test code with similar functionality, and the resulting code would have been sub-par at best. The data is stored in a MySQL database using the InnoDB[xi] dialect to ensure high-speed returns of the most commonly queried data. Search is currently handled by the Apache Lucene[xii] search engine, but I plan to migrate onto Elasticsearch[xiii] (a more powerful implementation of Lucene) soon; Lucene does not provide the customization available in Elasticsearch, and the complex nature of the database requires a custom solution. Moreover, combining Spring and Elasticsearch enables easy expansion of the types, forms, and genres contained in the database without the need to start from the beginning and throw out existing code. For example, I could add another poetic form to the ACL database with the addition of less than 400 lines of code; an experienced developer could add a new poetic form to the database in less than a single day’s work. This is to say, any project in the digital humanities does not need to rebuild the wheel. Using existing frameworks allows a project to grow beyond a single academic and/or institution: a truly open-source project is developed in a way that allows developers unfamiliar with the project to quickly ‘get on board’ and contribute. For a large, multi-user project to succeed, its architecture must follow standard development practices and use widely available frameworks. When an open-source project is too esoteric for someone unfamiliar with it to quickly understand and contribute code, it is only open-source in name; no one will want to contribute if they first need to spend many hours learning a project specific nomenclature or design specification they cannot use anywhere else. Standards make everyone’s life easier, and there is no reason for the digital humanities to design a new standard when the current standard has already been shown to work. To ‘build a better mousetrap’ is not to ‘design a new mousetrap from scratch,’ one should only change the elements specific to one’s use case and keep what already works in place.

In conclusion, the ACL sonnet database provides an example of how a large-scale text digitization project could use existing technology and standards to satisfy the needs of the digital humanities. It strives to improve upon existing human-centric online corpora by enabling programmatic access via an JSON based RESTful API and standardized meta-tags. Rather than providing large blocks of raw text, the ACL database provides specific and regularized text with the important meta-tags intact. Moreover, the open-source nature of the code behind the database provides a template for other projects with similar aims. However, rather than building a domain specific database, those in the digital humanities should focus on the creation of a collaborative general-purpose database of as many and varied texts as such a group could obtain. Any potentially definitive claim requires a vast corpus of supporting data, and it is nearly impossible for a single person or institution to gather, sort, tag, and regularize the volume of data such claims require. The digital humanities cannot thrive in the realm of individual critics making individual claims on a set of data judged applicable by an individual’s opinion; for the digital humanities to succeed a massive collaborative effort must be undertaken to collect and regularize a massive set of literature. Without a comprehensive set of data to ground our arguments upon, we are simply extending our existing critical conceptions to include more data. For a truly definitive claim our conceptions must include every piece of data with any potential to influence our claims. To build a truly definitive criticism, we must allow every piece of literature—irrespective of canon, creator, and critic—the same status. To create a definitive criticism, we must first remove the critic from the claim.

Works Cited

Jenstad, Janelle, et al., editors. Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media. Routledge, 2018.

The TEI Consortium. TEI P5: Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. Edited by C.M. Sperberg-McQueen and Lou Burnard, 31 Jan. 2018,

Ullyot, Michael, and Adam James Bradley. “Past Texts, Present Tools, and Future Critics: Toward Rhetorical Semantics.” Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media, pp. 144–56.







[vi] A native file is a format a computer can use with no additional components (i.e. a file the computer can use without installing any new software.)

[vii] An endpoint is a URL (i.e. https://database.acriticismlab.ort/sonnets/all) that preforms an API function.



[x] Code that runs the ‘plumbing’ of a piece of software (i.e. HTTP handlers and database connectors.)




Newspeak, Computability, and the Subject of the Master’s Discourse

“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone” (Orwell 69).

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s primary goal is the total mind and body subjugation of those living within its sphere of influence. One of the methods used to achieve this goal, as quoted above, is to cut ‘language down to the bone.’ However, this attempt to limit the meanings available to the people of Oceania is not, nor can it ever be, a solution to the problems faced by a totalitarian regime. As we have recently seen in China’s attempt to suppress the use of Kim Jong-un’s name[i], outlawing a word (or sequence of words) does not prevent a human subject from simply using their remaining vocabulary to create new metonymic, metaphoric, and idiomatic forms of oppositional expression. Simply restricting the words available to create meaning is not an effective method for restricting thought; one of Big Brother’s chief fanatics, O’Brien, tacitly acknowledges this intrinsic failure when telling Winston “our neurologists are at work” removing the “sex instinct… laughter… literature… [and] science,” from the human subject (Orwell 450). In other words, O’Brien knows an attempt to restrict oppositional thoughts by placing limits on vocabulary cannot succeed; they must remove the human subject as such for Big Brother’s project to accomplish their totalitarian goals. Such failed attempts to control opposition through language are a common theme in human history: Turkmenistan’s former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, changed the word for “the month of April and the word for bread… to his mother’s name, Gurbansoltan” (Mathis-Lilley). The Brits employed tactics similar to those of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth during WWII, the wartime “Ministry of Information” was “designed as ‘the center for the distribution of all information concerning the war’” (Irving). As history has shown, these attempts to control language inevitably fail. The extreme level of censorship Britain’s Ministry of Information employed to suppress dissent remains a black mark on British history and Niyazov’s linguistic modifications were never able to take a solid hold. In this paper, I will show how language’s ability to infinitely abstract meaning into complex systems of difference renders any direct attempt at suppression of thought impossible.

History’s failed attempts to suppress dissent through linguistic restriction demonstrates one of language’s most overlooked elements: its infinite ability to generate new meanings and capacity to take on new, unexpected, and seemingly contradictory meanings. When applied to the fields of computability and computer science this infinite ability becomes truly sublime. Computers understand two things, on and off. However, from the computer’s perspective these two things essentially amount to one thing, on or nothing. In other words, from a computer’s perspective all meaning is founded on being and absence of being. Computers are only capable of manipulating this single state of knowing (on/not-on) with three basic functions: reading a sequence of ons, writing a sequence of ons, and modifying a sequence of ons. A common maxim within the world of computer science, ‘if you can’t do it with a pen and paper, you can’t do it with a computer,’ is not a joke or metaphor. Computers are only capable of doing three basic things to a datum only capable of existing in a single state. The implications that arise when one applies the concept of linguistic meaning making to the concept of computability cannot be understated. No one (beyond those prone to masochistic academic pursuits and certain forms of mathematics) writes computer code as a sequence of ons; the development of FORTAN in the early 1950’s rendered the use of binary code in computer programming needlessly esoteric. While programming in binary is not technically impossible, such programs are unmanageable, complicated, and entirely without practical use. The impracticality of communication with a computer in its native language necessitates a disconnect between the computer and the computer programmer. This disconnect is one of the foundational principles of computer science; in a surprisingly apropos turn of phrase, this process is called abstraction. Computer scientists have devised hundreds[ii] (if not thousands) of different ways to abstract a computer’s binary limitations into human readable coding languages. Many programmers consider it terribly bad form to ‘get to close to the hardware’ and avoid abstraction when designing a program. These methods of abstraction have enabled a computer’s restrictive system of being and non-being to devise massive virtual worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life,) networks of communication billions use every day (the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,) mathematical feats (Machine Learning, Wolfram Mathematica,) and enhancements to human capacity previously outside the scope of our wildest dreams; Google’s AlphaGo beating the world’s best go player[iii], and IBM’s Watson proving better at diagnosing cancer than a team of doctors[iv] are two recent examples, and every day a new wonder is revealed. This incredible level of meaning generation stands as strong evidence in support of Lacan’s theory of discursive subjectivity. According to Lacan, “all determination of the subject, and therefore of thought, depends on discourse” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 152). Within a computer’s simple structure of on and not-on, the human mind has the capacity to produce an infinite number of meanings. In other words, within the realm of computability the impossible reality of a subject determined by discourse exists in a tangible form many interact with every day.

As I have explained above, a computer can only comprehend the ‘on’ half of its structure. This forms an uncanny connection between the not-whole of phallic jouissance and the ‘off’ of a computer, both states are impossible and necessary. From a computer’s perspective, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off,’ but the computer has no means of signifying ‘off’ within its limited system of signification. This is to say, as the existence of phallic jouissance necessitates the existence of an impossible feminine jouissance, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off.’ A computer has no means of signifying ‘off,’ but ‘off’ must exist for ‘on’ to have meaning.  In the same way the human subject compromises for the disconnection from limitless jouissance with discursive displacement, computer programmers inscribe an infinite number of abstractions and displaced significations upon a computer. However, any questions involving a computers jouissance should not be directed at the computer itself: a computer’s jouissance is merely a reflection of whomever is currently programming it. Simply put, the programmer wants the computer to reveal a digitized manifestation of their desire. Therefore, the very act of writing computer code “constitutes a medium (support) that goes beyond language’s effects” (Lacan, Seminar XX 93). The non-existent gap between the programmer and the computers they program demonstrates the real’s function in the symbolic realm in a tangible way. In the same way all masculine desire is mediated through the phallic function, a computer comes to engender the object a in the form of the programmer’s displaced desires. The only way a programmer can successfully approach the computational real “remains rooted in fantasy” (95). The computer’s not-whole—its underlying lack of meaning—is only comprehensible once it has been subjected to the effects of language. Even a simple device built from a series of tiny electrical switches cannot be understood until it is made subject to the all-encompassing symbolic realm.

Herein lies the ultimate failure of any totalitarian project: even within a binary structure of on/not-on the human mind can generate an infinite number of distinct meanings. So long as any method of generating meaning exists, the human mind will always be free from total external control. The only sure-fire way to restrict human thought is to remove the human capacity for thought altogether. If we have access to an ‘on’ we will always have the limitless capacity to create new meanings. In the words of Orwell’s fanatical O’Brien, “the German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to [Big Brother] in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives… one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship” (Orwell 479).  Later adding, “power is collective… the individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual… reality is inside the skull” (482; emphasis added). However, the confidence of these statements is undermined when O’Brien goes on to say “obedience is not enough… how can you be sure that [an individual] is obeying your will and not his own?” (485). Here, O’Brien acknowledges the impossibility of a fully realized state of mental oppression; so long as a single being capable of language exists, so long as a single source of meaning exists, Big Brother’s mission cannot succeed. If someone who, like Winston in 1984¸ remains to stand “as the guardian of the human spirit” no form of oppression can successfully restrict the human capacity to creative thought. As my examination of computability has already shown, our minds can construct an infinite number of meanings within the restrictions of a binary system; even our mechanical and electrical creations are subsumed by our limitless capacity to create. Put simply, the human being, so long as one exists, is invulnerable to external oppression of thought. A slave’s body may be oppressed through violence, but a slave’s mind will always dream of freedom. Even multi-generational forms of systemic oppression fail to fully subjugate the minds of its victims—the children of American slaves had never known freedom, but they were no less capable of desiring it; one does not need to experience a thing before imagining it. Moreover, the master’s existence necessitates the slave’s knowledge of freedom, so long as the master exists, the slave must always know freedom. The only way to resolve the possibility of revolt faced by a system of total oppression is to either remove the slave and render everyone a master or remove the master and render everyone a slave. However, both slaveless and masterless systems share a fundamental flaw: without a master there is no slave, and without a slave there is no master. For any system of oppression to remove the possibility of dissent the system must first negate the existence of the slave entirely, or they must give up their position of mastery and become a slave. In other words, the only way to oppress the human capacity for linguistic creativity is to remove the human subject from the equation entirely.

Now, I must revisit Lacan’s theory of the master’s discourse: the master’s position in the upper-left hand corner—the position of the agent—is no longer as stable as it appears. Who is the master of a computer program? The programmer writing the logic, or the computer’s definition of the limitations the programmer’s logic must obey? Before the programmer can assume his role as agent, he must first learn to extract his own desire from a structure entirely defined by the machine he intends to master. Put another way, a programmer must first contrive some means of making a computer recognize his agency before he can assume his position as agent. As Hegel states in his famous dialectic, any master, be they real ‘beings’ or otherwise, can only become master through the recognition of the slave. So, to answer my initial question, the master in these examples is not a being of the human variety, the master is discourse itself. Instead of theorizing the master’s discourse, the complicated nature of mastery leads to a theory of the master as discourse. This is to say, in many situations it is discourse itself acting as the master, and there exists no being not subject to one of these masters as discourse. Whether Big Brother is a man, woman, puppy dog, or pony is irrelevant to O’Brien. Big Brother’s ‘being’ must be nothing more than a master signifier; if Big Brother was an actual person at some point, any such existence is of no consequence to those now under his sway. In fact, if Big Brother was a real being, this would render him impotent as a master within the master discourse: there is no way a real being could come to hold his ever shifting ideological positions for any length of time. History is filled with examples of the spectacular failure all ‘human masters’ inevitably succumb to. While Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini may have filled the agent’s position for a time, they all struggled with dissent from within their own ranks. Hitler was so often subject to assassination attempts from within his circle he was unable to trust those who’s very existence maintained his position as master[v]. So long as a ‘being’ fills the role of master, the master is always subject to those he appears to rule. The only thing capable of maintaining the role of master over time is not a being, but a master signifier. Big Brother contains only the meanings he is given, Big Brother means nothing beyond what those subject to his discourse allow. Thus, any human agent elevated to the position of master is inevitably revealed as a mere instrument, a “magnificent Cuckold of history” entirely constructed by those they enslave (Lacan, Seminar XVII 171). The master is not formed through the Hegelian process of forced recognition, but through the very structure of language itself. It is not man who is master of language, but language who is master of man. If one desires true mastery, one must first remove the capacity of language from those one wants to enslave.

In conclusion, the human ability to generate limitless meaning from seemingly meaningless systems indicates a profound power intrinsic to language itself. Our unbounded capacity to form meanings from nothing is the cause of the digital age we all now enjoy. From a binary system of on/off we have created machines with capabilities inconceivable less than a century ago. Moreover, these same creative powers render us immune to any attempt at suppression of thought; even a mind subject to the most brutal acts of physical oppression cannot be deprived of its imagination. A slave’s body can be forced to work, and a torturer can force one to speak, but no one can extract the human capacity to dream. In the linguistic realm of the mind, everyone is free.

Works Cited

Irving, Henry. Chaos and Censorship in the Second World War – History of Government. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

—. Seminar XX – Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.

Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Golden Statues and Mother Bread: The Bizarre Legacy of Turkmenistan’s Former Dictator.” Slate, Feb. 2014. Slate,

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.


[i] “China banned all mention of Kim Jong Un while he was in Beijing — so people called him ‘fatty on the train’ instead”

[ii] “List of Programming Languages”

[iii] “In a Huge Breakthrough, Google’s AI Beats a Top Player at the Game of Go”

[iv] “Watson Proving Better Than Doctors at Diagnosing Cancer”

[v] The purpose of the Gestapo was to police the members of the Nazi party itself, with a focus on members of the party elite.

Locating the Master – A Study of A Passage to India and 1984


This paper requires both an introduction and disclaimer: I will be approaching the subject of colonialism from an angle some may find offensive. My purpose is not to minimize the profound social harms inflicted upon those subject to colonial oppression, nor is my intent to provide any form of justification for said harms. Rather, this paper will examine the subject of colonialism through a strict, narrow focus on the bidirectional discursive affects of fascist and colonial projects through a close reading of George Orwell’s 1984 and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. My intent is to demonstrate how the manifestations of power extant in repressed peoples and individuals complicates a simplistic master/slave binary interpretation of these novels. Rather than contributing to the overwhelmingly large body of works focused on the effects of power on the oppressed, this paper examines the effects of power on the oppressor. Specifically, I will demonstrate how, in the complexities of any given social construct, power relationships are primarily discursive relationships. Moreover, to quote Lacan, the master’s desire to extract knowledge (or labour) from the slave, “isn’t self evident… it wasn’t the master who invented that all on his own. Someone must have imposed it upon him” (Lacan 107; emphasis added). Furthermore, while the master “has deprived the slave of the disposal of his body… he has left him his jouissance” (107). This imposition upon the master to extract the slave’s knowledge, in tandem with the impossibility of removing the slave’s jouissance is found in both 1984 and A Passage to India.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, I will demonstrate the impossibility of a fully realized state of oppression in any extant social construct; and second, I will explore how—through the impossibility of any totalitarian project—the slave is never entirely subject to the master’s desire (or decree.) In fact, in the register of Hegelian dialectics, the master—as an extant individual being—is always-already subject to the master’s discourse. This is not a simple restatement of the Hegelian aphorism “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (Hegel 111). Instead, I will demonstrate the master—in both 1984 and A Passage to India—is only the master insofar as they are always-already subject to preforming their prescribed role within the master’s discourse. Put simply, the master is subject to a role prescribed by their position within a discursive construct they cannot escape, and the slave exerts a profound level of control over the mode, function, and realization of this discourse.

Ignoring Oppression – Winston, Mr. Turton, and Michel Foucault

“If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it?” (Foucault 119).

This quote highlights several problems faced by postcolonial critical analysis. If all power dynamics exist in clearly demarcated master/slave relationships and simple binary oppositions then why was the colonial project so successful? How did the 20th ce fascist phenomenon take hold of huge swaths of Europe? In other words, are the goals of fascism and colonialism entirely founded upon the Other’s complete subjugation and total compliance achieved through force? The fundamental problem faced by all forms of oppression is not centered around oppression itself; it is far too difficult to force people to do something through persistent threats of violence. For one thing, a system where the control of productive forces depends solely on violence is terribly inefficient: per Lacan, “getting people to work is even more tiring, if one really has to do it, than working oneself” (Lacan 174). This problem is clearly demonstrated by the paradoxical existence of the proles in 1984; their existence leads Winston to state, on more than one occasion, that “if there is hope… it lies in the proles” (Orwell 94)[i]. Moreover, the proles do not exist in ideological opposition to Big Brother, “as the party slogan put it: ‘proles and animals are free’” (94). In the eyes of the totalizing, often brutal party, the proles are not seen as a subversive or oppositional force, their existence is not simply ignored, they are integral to the function of society at large; “so long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance” (94). The party’s only concern is the product of prole labour. Ideological differences are easily ignored in the face of expediency. As demonstrated by the existence of the proles, even within a fictional system of total subjugation the aims of the oppressor can never be achieved through violence alone: the omnipotent gaze of Big Brother is often forced to ‘turn a blind eye’ upon elements indicative of its own negation.

We see this same intentional blindness in A Passage to India, though its manifestation is less obvious. After the incident in the Marabar caves, Mr. Turton attempts to “dominate without formality” the British civilians awaiting news of Ms. Quested’s condition (Forster 162). But, “the dread of having to call in the troops was vivid to [Mr. Turton]; soldiers put one thing straight, but leave a dozen things crooked, and they love to humiliate the civilian administration” (162). Here, Turton is more concerned with the appearance of inadequacy than the threat of an uprising; he chooses to ignore the real threat he faces in support of, what Žižek calls, “the struggle of hegemony” (Žižek, Fragile 49). Mr. Turton’s desire to “flog every Indian he saw” is promptly overruled by the need to maintain the population as a compliant, productive body; the ‘struggle of hegemony’ depends on Indian productivity, not strict compliance to Turton’s individual notion of colonial dominance (Forster 162). Turton is more willing to risk harm to his fellow Brits than put at risk the desired outcome of the colonial project at large. Ultimately demonstrating that, in both 1984 and A Passage to India, the illusion of control is more important than any impractical realities with the potential to undermine said illusion. The loss of the illusion is the only ‘real’ problem of serious concern to both O’Brien and Turton; both know that if the truth behind the illusion is revealed “the master subsequently appears only as the instrument, the magnificent Cuckold of history” (Lacan 171). In other words, the problem faced by any given fascist project is never the resistance of those it tries to subjugate, but how to best conceal those it ignores.

The Thomas Theorem, Symbolic Authority, and Master Signifiers

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

(Thomas and Thomas 571–752)

The supremacy of the illusion is integral to O’Brien’s fascism and Mr. Turton’s colonialism. Further, both constitute perfect examples of Lacanian master signifiers—in O’Brian’s case Big Brother, and in Turton’s Imperial Britain (i.e. The Crown,) in any case the distinction is superficial: both constructs “represent the hole from which a master signifier arises… the quilting points” where the void takes on the semblance of meaning (Lacan 189). While, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, it is easy to relegate the foundations of fascism and colonialism to the realm of philosophical constructs, one must never fall into this trap.

The need to secure and maintain an illusion is central to all manifest forms and expressions of power. However, as stated by the Thomas theorem quoted above, one can never let the ‘realities’ (or lack thereof) of a situation overshadow the social consequences of those who experience it—an illusion of power does nothing to diminish the effects of power on those within its sphere of influence. Instead, one must examine power “where it installs itself and produces its real effects” (Foucault 97). Following Foucault’s suggestion and focusing on the ‘real effects’ of power in 1984 and A Passage to India produces interesting—though not altogether unexpected—results. In both novels, power focuses most of its ‘real effects’ on the supposedly dominant group.

This principle is exemplified best in A Passage to India during the power-struggle over the seating arrangements at Aziz’s trial. Initially, after the Major demands “better arrangements” for Adela, it seems as though the Brits are to enjoy a position of authority on the platform overlooking the trial. Immediately upon taking their seats, the Major acknowledges the authority this change of seating represents, calling the change “thoroughly desirable… for several reasons” (Forster 194). However, the vaunted platform which initially “confers authority” to Brits and Indians alike, is attacked moments later as “only one foot high” when Mr. Das requests the British remove themselves from it (196). Here we see the dualism intrinsic to symbolic authority. According to Žižek, “symbolic authority is… grounded in voluntary blindness, it involves a kind of will-not-to-know, the attitude of je n’en veux rein savoir” (Žižek, Incontinence 96). In other words, for the Brits to maintain their sense of authority, they must ignore the obvious reality bearing down upon them. They must ignore the fact that an Indian, Mr. Das, has the authority to force the supposedly dominant party of Brits to descend “from [the platform’s] rash eminence” (Forster 196). Rather than accepting the truth, they must pretend as though the platform itself lacks the element of authority they had, until being asked to remove themselves from it, attributed to it; ignoring the reason they wanted to sit on the platform in the first place.

Consequently, the maintenance of the colonial position of authority entirely prevents the Brits from exercising said authority to any meaningful effect. In a strange twist of reason, their continued authority depends on its denial. As a result, it becomes apparent that colonial authority must be maintained through a social agreement allowing both parties (colonials and colonized) to systematically deny the lack of authority upon which said authority derives its source. In the words of Žižek, “whenever we have a symbolic structure it is structured around a certain void, it implies the foreclosure of a certain key signifier”(Žižek, Sublime 78). As shown above, the key signifier foreclosed upon is revealed during Aziz’s trial: the concept of British superiority itself, upon inspection, is little more than an unpaid lease on property the Brits had never owned.

Intransitive Particularity

Although the underlying truth of colonial oppression is structured around a fundamental lack of authority, I cannot ignore a serious objection arising from this claim: if symbolic authority depends on a social agreement, how did said symbolic authority come to exist in the first place? This is to say, how did the Brits or Party Members come to inhabit a position of authority at all? Here we find a profound connection between Badiou’s ‘event’ and the psychoanalytic concept of the master signifier. In Philosophy of the Present, authored by both Badiou and Žižek, Badiou lays out his eight theses of the event. In his exploration of thesis one[ii] Badiou notes, “by ‘thought,’ I mean the subject is constituted through the totality of established knowledge. Or, as Lacan puts it, the subject insofar as it makes a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). This is important to keep in mind when, in thesis three, Badiou states “every universal originates in an event, and the event is intransitive to the particularity of the situation” (31; emphasis added). It is in these two theses where the void structuring symbolic authority takes on almost sublime dimensions.

I will begin my exploration of Badiou’s ‘intransitive event’ with the scene from 1984 where Winston attempts to remember Big Brother’s rise to power: “the Party claimed, of course, to have liberated the proles from bondage… [but] the thing you invariably came back to was the impossibility of knowing what life before the revolution had really been like” (Orwell 129, 132). Winston is aware of a time before Ingsoc, but when he struggles “to think his way backward to the dim period of his childhood…. [he remembers] huge events which had quite probably not happened” (60; emphasis added). Here, we see the failure intrinsic to Big Brother’s fascist project. The party claims to ‘have liberated the proles,’ and in some ways this is true. The party has clearly failed to fully indoctrinate them into their system, and through this failure a type of ‘liberation’ occurs. However, the existence of the proles and the discourse Big Brother uses to describe them indicates something much more profound. There must have been an event that lead to the rise of Big Brother’s regime, yet no one remembers it— “Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence” (68). This gap (or void) between the present state of power, and the origin of power serves as the primary impetus of Winston’s downfall. It is Winston’s pursuit of Big Brother’s origins that leads him to enter the prole bar and ask the “old man… you must have seen great changes since you were young?” Only to discover the proles have no interest in the topic—the old man only wishing Winston “the very best of ‘ealth” when questioned about “the war” supposed as the initial source of Big Brother’s power (162). Consequently, Big Brother’s rise to power is an intransitive event no longer required in the ongoing maintenance of their fascist system; the event has no connection to the present reality of Party members and proles alike. The proles, as Badiou states above, are subjects “only insofar as [they] make a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). In effect, the proles represent the radical impossibility of Big Brother’s genesis within the ideological construct they maintain. Big Brother’s genesis, entirely forgotten, can have no role in its current state of being.

A Passage to India does not deal directly in the events responsible for the genesis of colonial rule. Nevertheless, there exist several clues of such an events intransitive nature. Near the novel’s end, Mr. Fielding remarks: “we all build upon sand… in the old eighteenth century, when cruelty and injustice raged, an invisible power repaired their ravages. Everything echoes now; there’s no stopping the echo” (Forster 244; emphasis added). Here Fielding tacitly acknowledges the ‘event’ (qua power) which lead to colonial rule, but the ‘echo’ he mentions can be read in a number of ways. On one hand, Fielding could be lamenting the loss of martial authority—like Turton’s longing “for the good old days when an English man could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked later” (162). On the other hand, the phrase “there’s no stopping the echo,” in the context of Fielding’s overall character, indicates the echo originates from an Indian source (244). In other words, Fielding appears to imply the imminent failure of British colonial rule. Turton, in a roundabout way, also acknowledges this failure: lamenting Aziz’s right to a fair trial as “the old weary business of compromise and moderation” (162). As a result, the relationship between the proles of 1984 and the colonial subjects of A Passage to India becomes clear. In both cases, the power of the dominant group—through the very nature of subjugation—loses its dependence on the ‘event’ responsible for the establishment of their power. In other words, the Party’s current position of power has nothing to do with the event of its genesis; just as the colonial’s current rule has nothing to do with the violent conflict upon which it stands. In summary, the brutal and violent events leading to the lived experience of proles and party members are unrelated to the ongoing maintenance of Big Brother’s domain; just as colonial rule can no longer depend on violence if its desired goal is to be achieved.

The Slave’s Role in the Master’s Discourse

“It is odd to observe that a doctrine such as Marx’s whose articulation onto the function of the struggle, the class struggle, which instituted has not prevented it from giving birth to what for the moment is, indeed, the same problem that confronts us all, namely the persistence of a master’s discourse” (Lacan 31; emphasis added).

The persistence of the master’s discourse is something often overlooked when analyzing power relationships. It is easy to ignore the effects of power on those in positions of power in favour of the less controversial ‘power is bad’ form of critique. However, Lacanian psychoanalysis does not shy away from this sort of critical study; as shown in the quote above, Lacan makes two highly important observations on this subject:

  • Power qua the master’s discourse is universal.
  • Power

The universality of the master’s discourse and its effects on those in the position of the slave in 1984 and A Passage to India are abundantly apparent, but—to keep with my stated purpose—this is not where I will direct my focus. Rather, I ask another, somewhat uncomfortable question: what is the slave’s role in the master’s discourse? Following from the universality of the master’s discourse, can we assume there exists individuals not subject to it? In other words, is there a subject not always-already subject to the master’s discourse?

As I have already demonstrated, many of the expressions of power in established forms of subjugation are, in fact, a denial of power. I have shown this in Mr. Turton’s denial of power and Big Brother’s voluntary ignorance qua the proles. However, I have yet to explore the slave’s role in these effects. In A Passage to India, is it not the actions of the subjugated directing the ideology to which they are, supposedly, subject? When Heaslop refuses Aziz bail, is it not because he is powerless to take a more drastic approach? The confrontation between the Brits and Indians is much more complex than a simple master/slave binary. Heaslop attempts to satisfy the master by taking the only action permitted within the colonial master’s discourse. Thus, Heaslop (the magistrate of Chandapore) is somehow limited by the discourse supposed to bestow his status as master. Here, we see the slave’s role in the master’s discourse. To return to Lacan, “the master’s desire is the Other’s desire, since it’s the desire that the slave anticipates” (Lacan 38). In other words, what the master wants is what the Other has, but the master’s desire—in a strange fusion of Hegelian and Lacanian logic—is derived, not from the master’s self, but from ‘the desire that the Other anticipates.’ Simply, what the master wants is for the slave to tell him what he wants.

However, as with many things, the interpretation is not this simple. Heaslop’s conundrum is double edged: he derives his desire from the Other’s anticipation, but he must also contend with another master. Specifically, Heaslop (and every other master) must always-already contend with the master’s discourse. In Heaslop’s case, the master’s discourse is what controls every aspect of his life: from where he eats, to who he associates with, even how he exacts justice. Heaslop, as the magistrate of Chandapore, is not the representative of the master’s discourse, he is its subject. When Mr. Das is appointed judge of Aziz’s trial it is because the master’s discourse (in this case the law) demands it. Heaslop is powerless before a master’s discourse he does not define. The hegemonic goal of the master’s discourse is not violent subjugation, but productivity; and Heaslop is as much a slave to this as the Indian Other. In fact, the Indian Other (the slave) is the only subject with any control at all over the particularities manifest in the master’s discourse. To explore this further, is it not the fear of the loss of Indian productivity that bestows the need for Aziz’s trial? Is it not the fear Indians will stop working that stops Turton from flogging “every native he saw?” (Forster 162). With these questions in mind how can anyone claim the relation between the colonial subject and the colonized Other is a simple omni-directional binary construct? Considering this, the master’s discourse is no longer a means for one group to impose its will over another, but a complex system of interactions both master and slave must ultimately answer to. The dynamics of power do not proceed through subjugation and violence alone. If Heaslop is the master, his mastery is impenetrable bounded by the will of the slave—it is the slave who defines the meaning of the master’s discourse.

In 1984 the reality of the master’s discourse is less obscure. The Party is aware of their ideological mission’s fundamental impossibility—as I’ve already demonstrated qua the proles. The party’s solution to the intrinsic impossibility of their ideological goal is where the bi-directional nature of the master’s discourse becomes undeniable. During Winston’s imprisonment, when O’Brien is expounding upon the party’s long-term goals, he reveals “in our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement… the sex instinct will be eradicated… our neurologists are at work upon it now” (Orwell 487). The Party does not wish to enforce subjugation through violence, they want to remove the slave’s existence from the discourse altogether. This is tantamount to an admission of defeat. The Party knows it cannot defeat the innumerable masses of individual human subjects they desire to subjugate, and their solution is to remove subjectivity itself from the equation. Without subjectivity we are no longer dealing within the confines of the master’s discourse, as without a subjective slave the master’s discourse is no longer possible. Put simply, O’Brien knows his ideology is impossible in a world filled with subjective Others, and the only realistic solution is not to exert greater control over the population, but rather to negate the Other’s discursive subjectivity altogether. Thus, the problem is solved only when subjectivity is removed from the equation.

In Conclusion – Totalitarian Impossible

The problem of power, an already complex subject, is only compounded when examined through a focus on its real effects. A close examination has demonstrated the impossibility of a fully realized system of oppression in most (if not all) forms of systematic oppression. Furthermore, the power of the slave within the master’s discourse is not negligible; the slave exerts an integral element of control over the manifestation and direction of oppressive structures to which he submits. However, this is not an attempt to justify oppressive systems like fascism and colonialism, but an attempt to show the intrinsic failure to which such systems invariably succumb. Fascism, while possible in the short-term fervor inspired by populist notions or the vitriol of a demagogue, cannot persist over an infinite period. As shown in 1984, the only way such a system can have any success in the long term is to remove the subject from the equation altogether. The same problem exists in the colonialism of A Passage to India: a system of economic subjugation must, in many ways, be a system built around a gap—there is no benefit to economic oppression if one must ensure production solely through the use of violence. And, when the productivity of a system depends on compliance, the system of subjugation, in a paradoxical fashion, becomes ruled by those it subjects. In conclusion, power is fundamentally oppressive, this is certain, but the question of who constitutes the oppressor in such systems of oppression is not entirely clear: there is a lot more to these structures than one can explore through the lens of binary oppositions and omnidirectional power structures. One must never avoid looking at such problems, to paraphrase Lacan, from the other side.

Works Cited

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Penguin Random House UK, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Power / Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon, Translated by Colin Gordon et al., Vintage, 1980.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by J.N. Findlay, Translated by A.V. Miller, 5th ed., Oxford UP, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.

Thomas, W. I., and D. S. Thomas. The Child in America: Behaviour Problems and Programs. Knopf, 1928.

Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void. Cambridge UP, 2017.

—. The Fragile Absolute. Verso, 2008.

—. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 2008.

Žižek, Slavoj, and Alain Badiou. Philosophy in the Present. Edited by Peter Engelmann, Translated by Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano, Polity P, 2009.


[i] The page numbering in my Kindle version of the text is different from the paperback page numbers.

[ii] “thought is the proper medium of the universal” (Žižek and Badiou 26).


In the interest of brevity, I avoided a discussion on the implications of new speak as they appear in 1984. This is mostly due to the difficulty of linking the concept into colonialism as portrayed in A Passage to India. The topic of new speak is a paper in its own right from the perspective of this analytical framework. I hope, even with this omission, the paper proved enlightening.30