Like a lot of quantitative humanities scholars, I find the tension between traditional ways of reading texts and so-called distant reading methodologies to be productive in multiple ways: from non-intuitive replication of human processes through the satisfaction of developing a quantitative method that advances a traditional humanities question to the feedback that comes with unexpected results that cause you to re-think the question (and its assumptions). Much of my work rests on the deep foundation of folkloristic corpora studies, and seeks to contribute both to the highly qualitative inquiry of scholars like Richard Bauman and Patricia Sawin, the quantitative inquiry of Tim Tangherlini and Rob Howard, as well as the hybrid work of Sheila Bock and Andrew Peck, who have all pursued a line of inquiry focused on texts and their contexts and the people that connect the two.
My own principal interest is in understanding how vernacular discourse in general and narrative discourse in particular moves through online and offline social networks. I am particularly interested in narrative texts — in understanding how they are constructed, deployed, and received — both because of the ways narrative activates our imaginations, seemingly syncing our brains, and the ways that narrative, as one of many modes of discourse, seems able to make words stick, and stay, together as they travel across networks.1
My training in post-structuralist theories about texts led me to folklore studies, where my early research explored how individuals use available discourse structures to negotiate complex socio-cultural landscapes often riven by political and economic divisions. In mapping how urban Appalachians, African Americans, and Midwesterners manipulate available cultural forms (2000, 2004, 2001), my goal was to understand how individuals use available syntaxes, which often seek in the case of the Urban Appalachians to write over them quite literally, in order to articulate alternative interpretations of their world(s).
Much of this early work is qualitative and close, but it always has an eye to what is generalizable and, though I would not have described it this way at the time, operationalizable. Approaching texts as discourse, as a series of words grouped into syntactic clusters that arise out of longer strings words exchanged between individuals within a larger social network/group, my early work identifies ways that speakers manipulate time, authority and other domains through both semantic and pragmatic dimensions. One example stands for many: while working with Elizabeth Bridgwaters, an elder of the African American community in a small Midwestern town, she observed:
When I was a little girl,
most black people lived on the east side of town.
But some black people lived over here.
But they didn’t want us over there.
So they built a school over here.
Using carefully considered ideational couplets, Ms. Bridgwaters captures, via shifting pronominal reference, what it feels like to be displaced, to be turned by institutional syntaxes into a “them” (1999). My later work with African Americans in Louisiana has similar research goals: the development of frameworks that made analysts move past considerations of plot and theme to how texts actually achieve their effects. This has blossomed into a series of essays, some of which involved collaborators—and one of which has been translated into Chinese—that have focused on a small corpus of legends that have created space for the articulation of a theory of vernacular/folk discourse (2014, 2018, 2021, 2023). As this research line continued, however, the lack of ability to expand beyond a small number of texts became a pain point. An invitation to the NEH seminar on Network Studies for the Humanities at UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics solidified my sense that the missing piece of the puzzle was an adequate understanding of quantitative methods and their concomitant theories.
While I was already committed to a long-term ethnographic project focused on understanding creativity and tradition through the lens of actor-network theory (2016a), there was time as that work concluded and moved towards publication to embark upon smaller studies that charted possible quantitative approaches to humanities topics, including issues about disciplinarity (Goodwin and Laudun 2013) and sentiment as a way to imagine Kurt Vonnegut’s “shape of stories” (Gao et al 2016). I was also fortunate in meeting Katie Kinnaird at the IPAM long program, and we began a collaboration that has yielded two essays, one published (2019) and one under review, and a book project all its own, The Data Text Book.2 Our first essay details the development of TED talk transcripts as a data set, and the second essay takes up the matter of gender within TED talks, focusing on what some have called “character spaces” and what we are, using extant work in sociolinguistics, “subject positions” — essentially we are comparing the differences between gendered subjects and their verbs and objects (he has X vs she has Y), gendered objects (her, him), and the implied gender of the speaker’s I/me.
The tight focus on discourse has remained a constant in my work, and coming out of the work on the crawfish boats, inspired as it was by the 2005 hurricanes, I found myself fascinated by treasure legends which like the amphibious boats seemed to hinge on the intersection of land and water: treasures are regularly found on the shore of a lake, by the side of a creek, etc. Moreover, legends of widely varied lengths could, in effect, tell the same story. How does a sequence of 100 words spin up a story world and deliver a semantically-rich world? How does one compare it to a 1000-word version of the same legend? This has led to some interesting experiments with synonym trees in WordNet in order to stabilize entities within schematized versions of the legends, with the schemes themselves still very much in flux, but pursuing lines of inquiry started by Vladmir Propp and Claude-Levi-Strauss but later taken up by Mark Finlayson and others in the current moment.
The steady progression here of seeking to develop a schema for modes of discourse (2021) along with a schema for the relationship between ideas and their embedding in discourse (2023) has always proceeded with an eye to operationalizability in some form of code. The preliminary results have appeared in a number of publications but they have all been building blocks for How Stories Work a book-length treatment intended for OSU Press’ narratology series, which will be completed in Summer 2023. My focus is on how individuals use narrative to shape various dimensions of the world as they understand it: time, space, the interactional order. The goal is to build a computational model of narrative such that we can discern narrative from other modes of discourse and begin to understand its place within the larger stream of vernacular discourse, themselves situated within global information flows.3
Bauman, Richard. 2008. The Philology of the Vernacular. Journal of Folklore Research 45 (1): 29-36.
Bauman, Richard, and Charles L Briggs. 1990. Poetics and Performances as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life. Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1): 59-88.
Bock, Sheila. 2017. Ku Klux Kasserole and Strange Fruit Pies: A Shouting Match At the Border in Cyberspace. Journal of American Folklore 130 (516): 142-65.
Gao, Jianbo, Matthew Jockers, John Laudun, Timothy Tangherlini. 2016. A multiscale theory for the dynamical evolution of sentiment in novels. International Conference on Behavioral, Economic and Socio-cultural Computing (BESC). 10.1109/BESC.2016.7804470.
Howard, Robert Glenn. 2009. Vernacular Media, Vernacular Belief: Locating Christian Fundamentalism in the Vernacular Web. Western Folklore 68 (4): 403-29.
Kinnaird, Katherine and John Laudun. 2019. TED Talks as Data. Journal of Cultural Analytics (19 July). 10.31235/osf.io/4yqex.
Laudun, John. 2023. Weathering the Storm: Folk Ideas about Character. In Wait Five Minutes: Weatherlore in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Shelley Ingram and Willow Mullins. University Press of Missippi.
Laudun, John. 2021. Narrative as a Mode of Vernacular/Folk Discourse. Western Folklore 80 (3/4): 401-435.
Laudun, John. 2018. Tallying Treasure Tales: A Reconsideration of the Structure and Nature of Local Legends. Contemporary Legend 3(7): 1-27.
Laudun, John. 2014. Counting Tales: Towards a Computational Approach to Folk Narrative. Folk Culture Forum 5(228): 20-35. Translator (to Chinese): An Deming.
Laudun, John. 2004. Reading Hurston Writing. African American Review 38(1): 45-60. 10.2703/1512231.
Laudun, John. 2001. Talk About the Past in a Midwestern Town: “It Was There At That Time”. Midwestern Folklore 27 (2): 41-54.
Laudun, John. 2000. “There’s Not Much to Talk about When You’re Taking Pictures of Houses”: The Poetics of Vernacular Spaces. Southern Folklore 57(2): 135-158.
Laudun, John and Jonathan Goodwin. 2013. Computing Folklore Studies: Mapping over a Century of Scholarly Production through Topics. Journal of American Folklore 126(502): 455–475.
Peck, Andrew. 2015. Tall, Dark, and Loathsome: The Emergence of a Legend Cycle in the Digital Age. Journal of American Folklore 128 (509): 333-48.
Sawin, Patricia. 2004. Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth Through Her Songs and Stories. Utah State University Press.
Tangherlini, TR, S Shahsavari, B Shahbazi, E Ebrahimzadeh, and V Roychowdhury. 2020. An Automated Pipeline for the Discovery of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory Narrative Frameworks: Bridgegate, Pizzagate and Storytelling on the Web. PLoS ONE 15 (6): e0233879.
The focus on the somewhat larger horizon of discourse, as opposed to strictly narrative, is the outcome of years of close examination of actual vernacular texts as they passed between individuals both in face-to-face interaction and online. ↩
The goal of the book is to find ways to clearly define and explain humanities staples, like “theme,” as well as to compare them over and against working substitutes, like topics, to suggest what can be modeled already and what is yet to be modeled in compelling ways. Intended for data science undergraduates, the book seeks to give them the grounding in humanities methodologies from the vantage point of data science. ↩
One argument, for example, has been that the cognitive mirroring enabled by narrative helps in the spread of fake news and in radicalization processes. And yet the status of legends as narrative within folklore studies has long been subject to discussion, calling into question the narrative nature of those forms which rest upon legend, like fake news. A proper accounting of narrative within legend and fake news would go a long way to clarifying the dynamics of these phenomena. ↩