The author is dead. Long Live the @uthor!


Illustration by Joon Mo Kang (Source: NYTBR, via Stanford Literary Lab)

Earlier, we discussed Lisa Rhody’s work as an example of”distant reading“—a term coined by Franco Moretti and defined by the New York Times Book Review as “understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.” In other words, using computers to analyze texts quantitatively.

As you can imagine, this method has its critics—people who believe, as Stephen March does, that “literature cannot be treated as data.” The debate on DH escalated at the 2013 MLA Conference, where a panel titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities” discussed, well, the dark side of Digital Humanities. If you’re interested in what that includes, Matthew Kirshenbaum has collected an entertaining list of all the terrible things people say about DH.

I’m choosing not to devote much time to the critiques of DH, however, because they seem to me to be so thoroughly enmeshed in university politics (funding and STEM envy in particular) that I anticipate any serious consideration of the arguments against DH distracting and derailing my efforts to, first, figure out what exactly it is and does. Which brings us to the point of this final post.

Through the research I’ve conducted for the last three posts, I’ve landed on a working definition of Digital Humanities, as it applies to literary study. I’ve begun to think of DH as the point where a digital method intersects with a literary theory.

In this post, I try to identify a few illustrative examples of DH at work. Specifically, I’m looking here for qualitative examples, rather than the quantitative examples mentioned above. (It should be mentioned, too, that these examples are ad hoc. I in no way feel I have a complete understanding of the landscape of Digital Humanities work in literature. Rather, these are some examples, representing a range of DH methods in literature, that I have come across, and which seemed relevant to my attempt to understand the work being done under the name of DH. If any reader has additional, or better, examples, please let me know in the comments—I’d love to hear from you.)


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Some examples of DH methods applied to literary study:

1.Glossing. Dickinson College professor Sarah Kersh’s DH project digitized and annotated the ekphrastic poems of “Michael Fields,” the pseudonym for two lesbian writers. The poems are now presented in an open-access online edition, along with a reproduction of the artwork each poem addresses. This effort seems to align with the values of  Formalism, in terms of the emphasis placed on the exact historical meaning of each word, as well queer and gender theory (there’s that twisting and torquing, again).

2. Authorial intent (and reader response) in the age of social media. Reflecting on the proliferation of author-helmed social media feeds, Matthew Kirshenbaum argues that we now have “a landscape of social documentation and medial interaction that collectively generates an algorithmically amplified real-time archive of authorial presence”—a “qualitative” experience of literature that affects the way we think about the things we read.

The mere fact of accessible authorial presence also brings up questions about literary scholarship, and the author’s influence on it. As Kirschenbaum points out, no critic is likely to give an author the final word on a text simply because he now has the opportunity, via social and digital media, to offer it. Yet can we help but be influenced by an author’s documented comments on his work? Kirshenbaum gives the example of sci-fi writer William Gibson dismissing, via Twitter, the opinion of MLA panel members in real time as they discussed the ending of his book. Another example might be the takedown of novelist Lionel Shriver after her recent speech on political correctness and cultural appropriation. The resulting domino effect of documentation and reaction via social and digital media would have been impossible even a decade ago, in the pre-Twitter age, so perhaps her comments shouldn’t change the way I read her novels. Yet, I’d be lying if I said my own perspective on her work remains unaffected. Despite ourselves, the author seems to be resurrected from Barthes’ mortuary table.

3. Close reading of digital objects. In the book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, more easily identified as 10 PRINT, a collective of ten scholars analyzes a line of vintage code using the same close reading methods literary scholars traditionally apply to poetry. Their argument: “Code is not purely abstract and mathematical; it has significant social, political, and aesthetic dimensions. The way in which code connects to culture, affecting it and being influenced by it, can be traced by examining the specifics of programs by reading the code itself attentively.”

This last example does more than any other I have come across to answer a fantastic question posed by Johanna Drucker in 2012. Noting the quantitative emphasis of early DH, she asks “if this is what the encounter of humanities work and digital tools was like, then what could the encounter of humanities ‘tools’ bring to digital contexts?”

There are many more examples of DH methods than the ones I’ve stumbled upon in my research—qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative examples that may go further than the ones I’ve identified to answer Professor Drucker’s question about the possibilities of DH as a meta-discipline. Please do share your own thoughts on that in the comments, and thank you for reading.  

This post is part of a four-part series (links below) that seeks to explain the role of Digital Humanities in literary study, written as an alternative to a traditional paper in my Lit Theory class. I welcome (encourage!) feedback on my work, including corrections to my research and/or interpretations. I hope you will consider commenting if you have something to add to the the ideas presented here. —KF



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