Originally, I was going to think and talk about whether digital writing needed a new kind of theory but then I found myself just asking questions and being generally really unsure about the whole topic.
I found Moretti’s article and his reading practice very interesting and enjoyed this exposition of Digital Humanities in practice, so I wanted to find out what other academics thought about this and what they were doing with these new digital resources themselves. Matthew Wilkens in ‘Canons, Close Reading & the Evolution of Method’ discusses how canons as an institution are outdated and they only exist because of the tiny number of texts it is possible to read compared to the enormous number that are produced. He follows the Moretti party-line in advocating we get rid of existing theories or ways of reading (such as close reading, which is hugely specific and time-limiting) and suggests extracting information “from and about texts as indicators of larger cultural issues”. He describes his own project of mapping locations named in a certain number of American novels published in 1851 and comparing these maps with those from 1852 and 1874. The conclusions that he is able to draw are, in his own words, quite limited. He says how any differences in the data might seem more important than it is, and that through these new practices we will naturally become worse close readers (good or bad, you decide). However, he goes on to say that these kinds of geospatial tagging can extend to more texts as they become available, and the data is gathered very quickly compared to previous methods. It seems that new reading practices clearly emerge from digitisation, and that certainly Wilkens is describing a move away from current theories, if not an explicitly new theory. My view of this was the same as when I read the Moretti article, that I assume these digital methods are just new tools to do the old job, and that facilitating new reading practices is interesting, but that I am skeptical as to whether new theories will emerge.
In my own experience, I was writing an essay on the use of the Bible in Shakespeare’s Richard III when I came across a book on Google Books which was essentially a table of how many times certain Biblical references were used in the play. I now realise this data mining is part of the digital humanities practice. Before I was aware of this, I assumed this data was interesting but only used it as supplementary to my close reading, almost like Moretti states, when he describes how his graphs only really do half the work, and that interpretation is still crucial to such a practice.
Finally, in her article ‘Humanistic Theory & Digital Scholarship’ Johanna Drucker appears to be highly critical of these new practices. She wonders whether humanists are doing anything different or whether they are just continuing what they have always been doing. She advocates a shift from humanities looking at the effects of technology (including digital writing) to a theory of making technology (i.e. the “more hack less yack” school). She does admit that the oft-cited Rosetti archive “pushed scholarship to a new level” but then seems to launch a tirade of the issues against such new practices, arguing that:
- Different geospatial maps will lead to wildly varying conclusions depending on the one used.
- Google Maps is merely a construction of the world according to a particular company, not necessarily a real reflection of the world. Also due to its ubiquity, historical maps are now judged against Google Maps which is inadequate.
- Temporality modelling doesn’t work because time is relative to cultures depending on their use of electrical light, or their timekeeping methods, as well as time being subjective throughout one’s own life.
- Mapping the references to Dublin in Ulysses would defeat the metaphoric and allusive use of spatial reference.
I don’t necessarily agree with these complaints but I do think it is interesting to see the different academics’ views on the matter and it helps to highlight some of the issues that we could talk more about in class.
– Paul Simpson