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Personhood Project

The Personhood Project is a collection of experiments that investigate the ways that the attributes of personhood are assigned to (or taken away from) literary characters. How are non-human characters (for example, animals or robots) represented so that readers encounter them as persons in the text? And how are human characters sometimes denied attributes of personhood?

This project seeks seeks to understand how texts assign the qualities that we typically associate with persons to characters depicted within the text, whether human, object or animal. These qualities, which can include animacy, independence, expression, and vocalization, among others, are often those that we associate with personhood, and the rhetorical attribution of these qualities to figures depicted by texts (whether real or fictional) play a role in determining whether we understand these figures as persons, or whether they appear as less than, or different from, the human. In this project, we use computational methods to explore what kinds of rhetorical, textual, semantic, grammatical or syntactical features play a part in giving characters the qualities of a person. By discovering how texts communicate personhood, we are able to identify figures at the boundaries of personhood: both points at which nonhumans are given the qualities of a person (as in animal stories, or science fiction) or when humans are depicted as less than people (as is too often the case in medical literature, or slave narratives).

The Personhood Project is a project of the Literary Lab.