DH is hard work. It’s insightful. That’s why we like it

On sunday night, after reading multiple reactions to Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities I happened to be browsing my narratology basics and somewhere in Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s gloss over the concept of reader I found this: “At one extreme the concept is of a real reader, whether a specific individual or the collective readership of a period. At the other, it is a theoretical construct, implied or encoded in the text, representing the integration of data and the interpretative process ‘invited’ by the text” (my emphasis). I was immediately struck by the choice of words, I kept on reading and found numerous instances of this. Shlomith-Kenan’s Narrative Fiction was published in 1983, almost thirty years ago, and almost twenty years before Marche’s alleged kidnap of literature by – what he hurtfully implies are – data fascists. Regardless of time periods, since the origins of DH go farther back than the early 1980’s, it is very interesting to see that narratology, hauling its formalist, structuralist and phenomenological baggage, aimed at a systematization of literature that actually takes its components as data in which meaning is encoded – something that sounds quite familiar to many doing DH. The first question that popped into my mind was: in what way is narratological systematization different to the processes TEI, stylometrics or graph database creation require? If we look at the particulars, of course, everything will seem different: it’s not the same to talk about the heterodiegetic narrator, collocations, subaltern subject or directed edges. But the process of organizing (and by this I mean understanding) literary texts according to theoretical notions cannot be that different from one methodology to another. In principle, I don’t think it is at all different.

Before I continue I will allow myself a couple generalizations. Many of us trained in literary studies with a strong close-reading base assume the possibility of multiple readings of any given text under the condition that those readings be grounded on solidly built interpretive and contextual notions. Similarly, many of us were trained to assume the fact that nobody doing any kind of study could possibly explore and account for every minute aspect of a literary text. As complex as it might be, any study is, at least to a certain extent, an organization – a trimming – of, what Marche would term, the messiness and incompleteness, but really any topic/formal aspect of literature. When I started gearing towards digital humanities, a few years ago, it dawned on my rather quickly that the change in methodologies and research tools could not do without those same solidly built interpretive and contextual notions if I meant to say something insightful. If I meant to say something I would like to say about literature. It was also pretty clear that the issue of large scale could not be equated with an exhausting of texts, literary traditions, etc. As many different emergent practices, it seems to me that DHers have been wise to carry along at least those two fundamental assumptions.

This is where Marche’s article could use some documenting. To start, there is a deep contradiction at the bottom of his argument. The idea that mushiness and incompleteness is a quality of literature, even part of its ‘sacred essence’ it would seem – and I’m assuming also of non DH literary studies – runs throughout the article. DH, however is not only unable to account for that incompleteness but also cannot afford to be mushy “beneath the hard equations”. Marche’s view is, to say the least, uninformed and over generalizing. UPDATE: Ernesto Priego points out, Marche is not an academic and this is certainly (un)informing his approach not just to DH, but to literary studies in general, it seems to me.  As Priego himself has pointed out this morning. It turns out Marche does have a PhD in early modern drama from UofT. This makes it all the more unexplainable why he seems to have such a partial idea of the ways in which literary studies are carried out.

Marche’s assumption that “literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data” rests on a sacralization of literature that seems to ask scholars to be guards and prophets of it, not researchers. Marche’s sentence can usefully be restructured as “data in literature is treated meaningfully”. This is what we do when we read: make sense of codified signs on a page/screen. This does not just underly DH projects, but literary studies in general. Even going way back to Wolfgang Iser, this is the principle of every single act of reading as well.

Coming back to the (re)discovery that led to this, Rimmon-Kennan, in her 2002 afterword to Narrative Fiction recounts how over the two decades since her book was first published, even the strictest narratological assumptions became a means to further interpret the semantics of literary works. What I see in this analogous situation between narratology (which was also subject to wide criticism because of its systematic notions) and DH is precisely the idea that literature is data subject to/inviting interpretation being repeated. The process underlying new ways of organizing literary texts and describing them in terms of “data” in DH – or any other for that matter – is not really different to the ones happening underneath other critical schools. What Marche criticizes as “the mushiness of the words beneath the hard equations” is, in fact, the same mushiness of literary meaning being accounted for especially if discussing terms such as influence. DH needs and wants that from ‘traditional’ literary studies, and hasn’t shied away from it. That’s why it’s hard work. That’s why it’s insightful. That’s why we like it.

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