Over the last couple of weeks of learning about the Digital Humanities it has become increasingly clear to me that one major concern is how they relate to science and scientific methodology, but also to the ‘old’ humanities. Many people working with digital texts are aware that the possibilities of computing do not mean that digital text analysis finally equips us with the ability to squeeze the ‘ultimate truth’ from literary works. (For instance, Stephen Ramsay acknowledges that “the analogy of science being put forth as the highest aspiration of digital literary study” (2011) is not entirely valid and that literary-critical interpretation is – and will remain – a matter of subjectivity.) But the question I’ve been asking myself is to what end it is generally sensible to employ digital tools and statistical methods in literary studies?
Perhaps to know the answer to this question one would also have to know the purpose, the aim of literary scholarship as a whole. Judging from this introduction to literary criticism it seems that the field is defined not by its aim(s), but by the practices it encompasses. In part, confusion about why digital methods should be incorporated into literary criticism therefore surely comes from the prospect that, to some degree, a redefinition of the field, of its aims, methods and possibilities might be required. (Arguably, ‘incorporated into’ is the wrong phrase here; perhaps ‘merge with’ is more appropriate.) Presumably the Digital Humanities’ dissimilarity with the old humanities is also why they seem to have been studying and reflecting on themselves as much as their subject matter(s).
Concerning new possibilities of ‘knowing’ about literature that digital literary analysis brings to the table, Willard McCarthy in his essay “Knowing … : Modeling in Literary Studies” seems to agree with Jean-Claude Gardin and Northrop Frye (two scholars whose ideas about the potential of digital tools in the humanities he cites) that scholars “gain an effective way of quantitative analysis that would not be possible without machine-support.” Like Ramsay, however, McCarthy argues that this does not lead to an “’ultimate aim’” (2008) of literary studies. Instead, he says, digital methods will enable “work that is disciplined, i.e., distinguishable from the intelligent but unreliable opinion of the educated layperson.” To me, this sentence has so far best pointed out one of the most immediate and important practical contribution that digital methods can make to scholarly work. I realise that literary criticism will continue to depend on subjectivity and rhetoric, but I see no reason why the possibility of supporting literary criticism with interpretable data should be rejected.
Ramsey, Stephen. Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. ix – 31: ‘Preconditions’ and Chapters 1 & 2. (pdf)
McCarthy, Willard. “Knowing … : Modeling in Literary Studies”. A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens (eds.) Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/>
Brewton, Vince. “Literary Theory”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 7 October 2013. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/literary/#H1>
Exam No. B054532