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    Calculating the Politics of Aesthetics

    by  • May 15, 2016 • 2015-2016 Provost Digital Innovation Grant Winners

    Project Name: Calculating the Politics of Aesthetics
    Grantees: Henry Alexander Wermer-Colan
    Discipline: English
    Funding Cycle: 2015-2016
    Project Status: Cycle Complete

    I intend to use digital humanities tools, from sentiment analysis to topic modeling, to study the reception of literary and cinematic works of art. My primary purpose is to gather empirical evidence to support or contradict theories on the political effects of art works. To this end, I believe the digital humanities can serve as a vital means of integrating statistically significant data into theoretical arguments. Nowhere is such hard data more necessary than in contemporary discussions surrounding the politics of aesthetics, in which literary theorists and critics make sweeping claims about the subversive or repressive potential, subliminal or explicit, of art works and propaganda more generally. To this end, I would like to believe that a sustained, data-based investigation into texts, such as reviews, from the New York Review of Books to Amazon posts, that demonstrate the reception of specific works of art, by revealing the effect of a work of art within a particular social and political context, could thereby assist in the development of alternative, aesthetic modes of persuasion for projects of artistic activism that currently resort too frequently to outdated and ineffective means of protest and propaganda.

    For my project in particular, I am working in my dissertation to investigate decadent writing as a counter-discourse to imperial ambitions by tracing a lineage from French decadent poetry (where I anatomize the decadent utterance) through British decadent novels, especially taking Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as exemplary (novels that first hypothesize the political effect of decadent art), up to writers such as William S. Burroughs who initiated a renaissance of decadent art in post-war America. I intend to investigate the actual effect on the American populace of Burroughs’ writing in the 1950s, and, as a more fruitful data field, to highlight thereafter the reception of, for example, Vietnam War era movies, comparing Apocalypse Now’s decadent aesthetics to other Vietnam films, from The Green Beret’s pro-war stance to Full Metal Jacket’s ambiguous and Platoon’s more didactic critique of American imperial ambitions.