Simulated Humanist Mind | Zipf’s Law, Style and the Literary: Stein and Experimentalism


Zipf’s Law, Style and the Literary: Stein and Experimentalism

Posted by Craig on February 17th, 2015

(This is part 5 of my series on Zipf’s Law. For part 4 see here)

Stein and Experimentalism

In my last post, I promised to offer evidence that my technique employed thus far is non-vacuous, that it can account for variety across different texts. To test this theory, one could do much worse than leap 200 years hence from Puritan shores to the cosmopolitan work of Gertrude Stein. The combination of Stein’s American origins and European residence produced one of modernism’s more distinct aesthetics, especially in the case of Stein’s “middle” experimental works like The Making of Americans, A Novel of Thank You, and Lucy Church Amiably. Characterized by iteration, permutation, and unresolved referentiality, these works form a sort of allusive stew that challenges reading practices that ascribe overly deep meaning to the texts while still offering some sort of meaning-carved handhold onto which the critical reader can cling. Stein’s usage of this style has been (unsurprisingly) contextualized a myriad of ways. Two particular efforts stick out as useful to our agenda. The first comes from critic Carolynn Van Dyke who in her article “Bits of Information and Tender Feeling” argues that Stein’s work presages the techniques computer generated literature. Comparing Lucy Church to the work man-machine collaborative text generator Racter, Van Dyke pronounces both samples examples of “schizophrenic” texts that consist of “fragmentary and deformed syntax,” “erratic allusions” and the “violation of discursive norms of relevance and informativeness.” 1 A striking statement, given that Cancho’s framework provides expected values for the written work of schizophrenics. Processing a corpus primarily composed of Stein’s middle period experimental works reveals strikingly low values: 2


Almost all of the works dip well below the common value of ~2. As noted above this same phenomenon does not occur in the writings of similarly experimental writers of the Modernist period. Stein’s’ experimentalism takes a specific tack most easily identifiable through power law fitting. A comparison is still necessary in order to determine the extent of Stein’s difference. In order to facilitate such a comparative method, I also prepared a corpus consisting of modern experimental texts, some of which were produced at least partly by computer and some of which were entirely human produced but subject to constraints or other rule-governed procedures:


Almost all of these texts, including the specific Racter text referenced by van Dyke contain values well above 2. While Cancho identifies schizophrenic texts as potentially being either below or above the 2 mark, the Racter text comes in significantly above, while Stein’s corpus comes in significantly below. Indeed, almost all of the modern experimental texts also come in well above the 2 mark. This varied result indicates that, perhaps, Stein’s efforts should not be linked to a Deleuzian attempt at the schizophrenic text.

By introducing this second example we can see how this methodology might help provide alternate possibilities for claims of style derivation and influence. To strongly refute van Dyke’s belief that there is similarity between Racter and Stein, citing our finding that Racter’s a more closely approaches modern rule-bound texts than Stein’s (very low) values seems hasty. To me, it seems that this would involve arguing that “schizophrenic” style supervenes on the features captured in our analysis. But how could we make this claim, especially given that, at least in one account (van Dyke’s) it seems not to? This will be, loosely, the topic of my conclusion, which will focus on what all of this Zipfian analysis we have done might tell us about style’s impact on the reading mind, and, loosely, what the reading mind might actually be.

Text Listings:

(Name, token count, a)


Stein – Making of Americans.txt 12300 1.7594590192
ThreeLivesStein1909.txt 86188 1.5884792387
SteinTenderButtons1914.txt 14985 2.0458896116
Stein – A Novel of Thank You.txt 11276 1.8956102154
SteinThreePortraits.txt 2291 1.4266193187
Stein – Lucy Church Amiably 21434 1.8188597208

Electronic/Rule Following Literature

AdjunctManson2004.txt 31512 2.1510631686
SoreThroatKunin2010.txt 7338 1.9720400974
HartmanSentences2000.txt 3481 2.5480647771
RacterPolicemansBeard1984.txt 7282 2.1696521405
NameNovelToadex2004.txt 55200 2.4055065438
  1. Carolynn van Dyke, “Bits of Information and Tender Feeling”: Gertrude Stein and Computer Generated Prose in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (35.2) 1993. 175-176.
  2. Note that these are for the most part representative samples and not the full text itself. The paucity of keyed texts forced me to transcribe these selections by hand

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