Can Google Books Ngram Viewer help students learn theory?

Google’s latest search gizmo, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, allows users to make statistical graphs of word usage in books from its digitized collection between 1500 and 2008. The metadata attached to Google Books – the publication year and other things (including the text of the books themselves) is unreliable, as this study shows, but with that caveat in mind the scholarly and teaching potential of the new Ngram Viewer isn’t negligible.

I inputted some simple words related to sexuality to see what came up. Of course scholars in the humanities, who are aware of the work of Michel Foucault, know that sexuality is a medical invention of the late nineteenth century, so the appearance of this graph, which shows instances of the words homosexual(ity), bisexual(ity), heterosexual(ity), and sexuality itself between 1700 and 2008 isn’t surprising.

Google Ngram of sexuality words. Click for full size image.

There are a few blips before the late nineteenth century (probably caused by Google’s faulty metadata: it’s easy for a typo to create a hit in 1720 when it should have been 1920), but there’s a sudden explosion exactly at the point scholarship knows to be the case. (The OED gives its first citation for these words in a translation of R. von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in 1892.)

Typically, when students encounter Foucault or any other theory, such as that of Judith Butler, that takes this construction of sexuality – essentially an arbitrarily concocted tool of oppression – as a fact, those students know but do not believe that it is true. (It often takes a while even to reach that stage.) Good old fetishistic disavowal shows its function as they say things like ‘I know that it’s right that nobody before the late nineteenth century had “a sexuality”, and that everyone in history before that date, include the randy old ancient Greeks, would consider the idea that people were somehow determined by what they did genitally to be a nonsense…’ [so far, so able to traverse the fantasy of sexuality] ‘but nevertheless’ [the ideology kicks in again] ‘I feel myself to be gay, straight, whatever’.

As a teacher, this is sometimes an infuriating experience, but we have to be realistic. It’s hard for people to believe and act on the knowledge they gain from studying theory at university, not just in terms of sexuality but of the whole complex range of human symbolic fantasies that it helps to clarify. Such is the power of ideology that even full-time professional academics act like idiots even when they think like geniuses. But any tool that can help us to communicate the truth, rather than just the show-off cleverness of theory (as it is sometimes unfairly judged) can only be a good thing. Perhaps more or less ‘objective’ graphic representations like this will help the penny to drop, and enable more students to shake off the ridiculous shackles of the idea that they have or are ‘a sexuality’ – with all the related constructions such as marriage, alpha-male gendering, etc. that goes with it.


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