dh and the “discipline” of english studies; UPDATED


[image of Ermenonville, Le temple de la philosophie, courtesy of Parisette and Wikimedia commons]

I spent a few days listening in on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference at UH this weekend, and was impressed by a number of presentations. I won’t try to record everything, but will just blog about a few of the ideas that have stuck with me for the last day or so. (For those seeking a good comprehensive account, try instead keynote speaker Geoffrey Rockwell’s very helpful summary of keynotes and panels here)

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the earlier discussion of the Emory English blow-up, I walked into the conference thinking about English studies, a disciplinary agglomeration that has never had much success organizing itself around any consistent methodology or object of study. If this is indeed our disciplinary home and background, I wondered, why should it feature such persistent, distracting arguments about who belongs inside and who doesn’t?  So I walked into the TXDHC conference wondering whether I myself might belong inside their tent.

I was very pleased to see a presentation from Geoffrey Rockwell (Alberta) on Friday about a collaborative project he is developing (with Stefan Sinclair) called “hermeneutica,” In their introduction they note that hermeuti.ca includes both a printed text on methods of textual analysis and a suite of tools designed to “instantiate” those principles. They envision users looping back and forth from the printed portions to the embedded interactive panels that display their own processes and results; these panels would also allow users to enter their own values so that they could “recapitulate and experiment with” those results, and compare their own with R/S’s results. This creates an interactive feedback loop between the learner and the book/site that a “mere” printed text could not emulate. They also include case histories demonstrating what can be done with such tools, reflective essays on their analyses, and finally “recipes” that are “tutorials on how to do interpretative things with common tools.”

“Hermeneutica,” we learned at the presentation, were “little hermeneutical toys” that we could use to analyze the texts around us. Rockwell pointed out that these kinds of interactive data visualizations were already becoming commonplace on sites like the NY Times and the NYSE.

I’d need to spend far more time with this project to have more to say about its details, but what I appreciated were the following principles I gleaned from the presentation and the online materials contained here:

  • The emphasis is on collaboration, since it is unlikely that any single scholar will have all the skills necessary to do the kind of work necessary to tackle interesting projects with sufficient scope and depth to satisfy the lay audience;
  • The emphasis is also squarely on interpretation and the open-ended generation of insights, as an “art of making things more interesting” along the lines of cooking, embroidery, etc., rather than a utilitarian model of searching or pattern-matching;
  • Drawing on Franco Moretti’s discussion of “models” (e.g., “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” p. 4) Rockwell stressed that textual analysis produced by hermeneutica’s tools operated upon “surrogates“* rather than texts themselves, in just the way that scholars might work on the indices or outlines of books rather than books themselves for certain kinds of research. (Moretti: “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead”**) At the same time, hermeneuti.ca’s tools were designed to “help you read,” and to “help you get back to the full text”;
  • This stress on the proliferation and discussion of surrogates in the humanities might help explain why preservation and rereading of of older material legacies are always so closely interwoven with the production of new insights; accordingly, in this presentation, Rockwell began with the little-known prehistory of DH in the 1970s and 1980s, in some of the earliest computer-assisted readings of literature like the work of John Smith on James Joyce;
  • Rockwell’s emphasis here was not necessarily on building one’s tools, or all of one’s tools, from scratch, but using and adapting what one could find from ready-made and available tools, which certainly lowers the bar for those, like myself, who would rather adapt existing tools for their own interpretive projects than devote themselves single-mindedly to tool-construction;
  • Finally, by comparing the tools and products of the hermeneutica to the surrogate-like features of 18th-century architectural “follies,” Rockwell stressed their non- or anti-utilitarian character, since they helped to resist or interrupt one’s use or production of texts, in order to draw attention to their theoretical workings;
  • The anti-utilitarian character of the folly-like hermeneutica makes their character as tools paradoxical, since they represent a class of “tools” that work against the purposeful or transparent operations of signification, slowing down or interrupting production to the point where they make their own use more available for conscious manipulation; they make it possible for creators and audiences to move to new, meta-levels when considering the use of a particular element in a composition.

I  believe that it is this conceptually suggestive, exploratory, anti-utilitarian element of the “folly” or hermeneuticon–the tool that acts like something other than a simple tool–that seems especially inviting for folks doing work in English departments.  This kind of exploration, shared I think by each of the interpretive sub-disciplines housed in English departments, distinguishes thinking in the humanities from other disciplinary forms of thinking, and distances our work from the kinds of purposiveness found in other disciplines.


[*UPDATE: GR’s discussion of “models” or textual “surrogates” deployed by scholars to interpret an inaccessible “text” reminds me of Frank Ankersmit’s observations about the distinction between “historical research (a question of facts)” and “historical writing (a question of interpretation)” (“Six Theses,” 2.1). It also seems to me that the most interpretively productive way to regard data visualizations of individual artworks or larger groupings might be as Ankersmit’s “metaphors.” According to Ankersmit, metaphors help us to organize, understand, and redescribe the past in novel terms that encourage interpretation and debate (“metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else (‘John is a pig’), “Theses,” 5.1.1).]

[**UPDATE: Bill Benzon (H/T Alan Liu) has posted (here and here) about Moretti’s uses of computers and computer-generated networks for literary works.  Benzon observes that while Moretti does not use a computer to create his network diagrams, they are “very much in the spirit . . . of computing.” Benzon believes that the point of Moretti’s enterprise is the movement from quantification to visualization. Ultimately, this process should produce an “irreducible” visual pattern that can serve as a usefully suggestive model for a literary work or group of works. Benzon writes:

The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis.

In my view, Moretti’s “irreducible” patterns constitute “primary object[s] of description and analysis” when they fulfill Ankersmit’s definition of “metaphor,” “show[ing ] what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else.”

Moretti himself shows these visual patterns’ defamiliarizing potential when he uses figs. 34 and 35 to reveal the significantly liminal status of Hamlet‘s Horatio as a “good gateway” to the play’s “periphery,” in contrast with the courtly characters tightly clustered around Polonius (“Network” 6).  Here are the figures:

Moretti fig 34

Moretti fig 35

When Moretti is able to transform “Horatio” from a character made of words into a vertex that he is then able to describe as a “gateway,” then the transformation of the model into a new metaphor is complete.



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