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The Perils of the 'Digital Humanities': New Positivisms and the Fate of Literary Theory


Tom Eyers. "The Perils of the "Digital Humanities": New Positivisms and the Fate of Literary Theory." Postmodern Culture 23.2 (2013). Project MUSE. Web.

p.1: The concentration of grant funding in digital projects in the humanities is now well established. There is, to be sure, a danger of confusing cause with effect here, and the so-called digital humanities should be understood less as an invader arising ex nihilo in the academy and more as a symptom of broader social and political trends, albeit a symptom in the process of gaining its own autonomy, fortifying in turn the managerial and bureaucratic imperatives that framed its emergence -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: While the limits of space prevent me from engaging comprehensively with most of these critiques, it's fair to say that a majority of them fall into two, broadly defined categories (often combined): the first laments the loss of humanist sensitivity in the face of technological anonymity, pitting a renewed, broadly neoRomantic aestheticism against the growth of number-crunching; the second discusses the proliferation of positivist methods as another face of the neo-liberalization and corporatization of the university. My reservations about the first approach become clear in my comments below about humanism and historicism. The second is best summarized by a single quote from a panel, blessed with the pleasingly ominous title "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities," that took place at the MLA convention in Boston in January 2013. The comment comes from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun of Brown University: "The humanities are sinking if they are not because of their earlier embrace of theory or multiculturalism, but because they have capitulated to a bureaucratic technocratic logic." Chun is quick to defend aspects of the digital humanities that are not so easily mapped onto this broader attack on the corporatization of the university, but the pithiness of her perspective serves our purposes. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: Put simply, I challenge the model of scientific rationality underpinning much that falls under the banner of the digital humanities and its cognate frameworks, and I actively seek alternative models, even if only in germinal form, for thinking the scientificity of literary theory and criticism. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.3: For Prendergast, the signal flaw in Moretti's appeal to the natural sciences for a model of literary history is his refusal to provide full, philosophical argumentation for his reduction of literary consumption to a singular model developed for quite different purposes. Each of Moretti's essays takes a branch of empirical, social, or natural science as a freestanding model for a new literary history, one that would, in its final synthesis, resist what he laments as the previous dominant trend of close reading, apparently limited to a selected few canonical texts in their varying historical contexts. The three sciences appealed to are quantitative history ("Graphs," the first essay), geography ("Maps," the second), and evolutionary theory ("Trees," the third). Prendergast's analysis focuses largely on the third essay, where the resources of evolutionary theory are used to chart the "survival of the fittest" in particular literary genres over time, with the detective novel taken as a central example. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.4: A first and obvious objection would be to the distant and uniform model of literary consumption that underpins the large scale of Moretti's optic. There are, of course, multiple instances in the writing of history when one must generalize beyond the complexities of individual subjectivities; how, otherwise, to explain the power and value of Marx's Capital (to name only one obvious and canonical example)? But Moretti makes much of his refusal of the text's permutations as a central determinant (the individual text being an object that induces irresponsible, close "interpretation," and thus blocks any rigorous explanation of literary diffusion over time), while skating over the question of his derivation of individual reading mentalities and habits; we're meant to pass over a whole history of reader-response theory and psychology in favor of his singular variable explaining the success of Doyle over his competitors in the "struggle for survival." -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.4: To restrict oneself to the strictly extratextual is to disbar potential answers to the complex questions of readerly subjectivity, and the latter's multiple instantiated interactions with, and transformations of, the text in question — the text that in any theoretical framework deserving of the designator "literary" must surely be granted some autonomy and efficacy of its own, no matter how decentered, striated, or contradictory it might be conceived as. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.6: Even as Moretti multiplies the possible scales, temporal and spatial, within which context may be constructed, their permeability to analysis is rarely questioned; instead, one gets a sense of the alluring transparency afforded by the sharp technological lenses at his disposal, lenses that then fill in for the occluded transcendental frame of analysis. As he writes, "[d]istant reading, I have called this work elsewhere; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns" ("Graphs 2" 94). But it may be worth reconsidering the ways that obstacles can be productive and the manner in which a text's self-enclosure, its formal indifference or even resistance to its context, might be the very source of its power. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.7: Moretti remains at such an abstract scale of situated patterns of consumption and distribution that he is prevented in advance from being able to understand the more obscure kinds of cultural forms that pool between the cracks of those patterns. "Books survive if they're read and disappear if they aren't," Moretti claims, but what he really means to say is that the expanding market, under certain historical conditions, supported the sale of some books over others at different times and under different conditions ("Graphs 1" 16). -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.9: The publication in 2011 of Stephen Ramsay's Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism heralded a significant advance in critical and theoretical reflections on the digital humanities. Ramsay wishes to advance a theory of digital humanities practice that is attentive to the epistemological peculiarities of its object and to the productive gap between quantitative positivisms and the formal ambiguities of literature. His aim, he writes, is to "locate a hermeneutics at the boundary between mechanism and theory," which is to say, in the interstice between the boosted methodologies of the digital and the prior, conceptually oriented critical humanities, with their emphasis on textual undecidability, on the motivations of gender and race, and on the multiple meanings produced by the juxtaposition of different literary devices (x). -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.9: Critics, as Ramsay has it, "who endeavor to put forth a 'reading' put forth not the text, but a new text in which the data has been paraphrased, elaborated, selected, truncated, and transduced" (16). Ramsay wishes to highlight the ways in which quantitative methods perform their own "defacement" of literary texts, opening those texts to what remains a fundamentally subjective and subsequent practice of interpretation. As such, the "algorithmic criticism" he advocates is one that uses quantitative methods for ends that are assuredly not to be located in the narrow digital parameters that define the mere beginnings of such a process. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.9: For Ramsay, "the narrowing constraints of computational logic the irreducible tendency of the computer toward enumeration, measurement and verification is fully compatible with the goals of criticism" (16). This is because "critical reading practices already contain elements of the algorithmic" -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.10: such an approach must take account of what Peter Osborne has adroitly called "the utopian horizon of global interconnectedness," a horizon that only capital, in its contemporary manifestation, seems able to create (34). Osborne distinguishes between modernity as the periodization of avantgarde possibilities and the contemporary as the distinctly post-conceptual moment of an abstract globalism. Such a globalism can "exhibit the structure of a subject (the unity of an activity) only objectively, in [its] product, separated from individual subjects and particular collectivities of labor" (35). -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

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Apter, Emily. "Global Translatio: The 'Invention' of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933." Critical Inquiry 29.2 (2003): 253-81. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print.

Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013. Print.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print.