Man of His Words

February 28, 2013—As an expert on the life and works of poet John Milton, Assistant English Professor Daniel Shore appreciates “fantastic sentences.” His interest in the social and cultural histories of sentences has led him to writing his second book, Cyberformalism.

Shore has been teaching at Georgetown for two years, and his interdisciplinary work often touches on linguistics, philosophy, and sociology. He began writing Cyberformalism four years ago, inspired by the presence of novel “digital tools” like Google Books to explore the full sweep of the textual past.

“When we think about literature, we often think about big forms, like the genre of the novel, or somewhat smaller forms like the sonnet,” said Shore, who plans to finish Cyberformalism by spring 2015.

“I’m interested in the form of individual sentences, the way that sentences are put together. Specifically, I’m interested in whether those forms of sentences accumulate meanings, connotations, and cultural careers in the way that words do.”

In literary theory, formalism is the critical evaluation of features in a text, such as grammar, word choice, and syntax. According to Shore, cyberformalism is best understood as formalist study aided by the use of technology.

“The term ‘cyber’ is actually from the Greek ‘kubernetes,’ which refers to the steersman of a boat,” Shore said. “The idea is that you are interfacing with the technology—that you’re controlling it, governing it, but that the technology also allows you to do something that you couldn’t do otherwise.”

Shore’s “favorite example” of cyberformalist study, which is found in the first chapter of his book, is the evolution of the Christian catchphrase ‘WWJD?’, which stands for ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Shore theorizes that the grammar of this famous question, which has changed over time, speaks to a social mindset.

“I claim that people only started to ask what Jesus ‘would’ do in or around 1631,” Shore said. “The form there asks about Jesus in the conditional. It’s a counter-factual conditional. You’re asking, ‘What would Jesus do if he were here now, or if he were in my situation?’ Before that, everybody talked about imitating Jesus in the indicative mood. They’d say, ‘You should do what Jesus did. Follow him. Take up the cross.’”

Shore explained that this “weird shift” occurred because believers began to realize that their lives in 17th-century England were so different from the life of Jesus, who lived in first-century Palestine, that they should adapt Christian teachings to modern culture.

“That’s only the kind of thing I can know or make a claim about with any reasonable degree of certainty because I have searchable digital archives like Google Books,” Shore said.

Shore bridges technology and text in another current project, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, which studies not sentences or words but the authors who create them. Last July, Google awarded a grant for the project to Shore and his research collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University, Christopher Warren, Mike Feingold, and Cosma Shalizi.

Named in honor of the pop-cultural game that associates people with actor Kevin Bacon, the version Shore is engineering finds links between historical figures who lived in the same era.

“Suppose you think, ‘How is John Milton connected to George Fox, who founded the Quakers in the late 1640s and early 1650s?’ By mapping out the connections, you can create a synthetic picture of the way Milton was related,” Shore said. “At three degrees, for example: Milton knew George Fleetwood, George Fleetwood knew Gervase Babington, and Gervase Babington knew George Fox.

“That fact in itself may not be significant,” he said, “but considered alongside other relationships, it can turn up a fuller picture of how people were associated in the period.”

Shore hopes that by founding a statistics-powered “social network” for luminaries of the 17th century—one that visually resembles Facebook and incorporates the open-edit features of Wikipedia—their works can be better understood by scholars and the general public.

“Texts don’t exist in isolation. Everyone is always writing and composing text by taking material from the people they’re reading or from conversations they’re having with friends,” he said. “If we want to understand how texts come to be the way they are, we have to understand the relationships between authors, their associates, and other writings.”

—Brittany Coombs