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