18.719 less is more?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2005 07:17:05 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 719.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2005 07:11:32 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: less is more

This note gets to a question I asked some time ago concerning the
disciplinary, epistemic effects of ever-expanding access to ever greater
volumes of data. To ask the revised version of this question, inspired by
historian Carlo Ginzburg, I need to quote at some length from his essay,
"Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible", in the latest issue of Critical Inquiry,
31 (Spring 2005): 665-83. I quote from the beginning and end:

>At the end of his masterpiece, Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the
>Second World War, [Erich] Auerbach wrote: "Beneath the conflicts, and also
>through them, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place.
>It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal
>begins to be visible." Half a century later one hesitates to describe the
>so-called globalization that is taking place under our eyes as an
>"economic leveling process." On the other hand, the "cultural leveling,"
>the erasure of cultural specificities, which Auerbach looked at with
>growingworry, is an unquestionable reality, although difficult to grasp.
>In an essay published in 1952, Auerbach remarked that Goethe's concept of
>Weltliteratur had become increasingly inadequate to our endlessly
>expanding gaze. How can a philologist from a single cultural tradition
>approach a world in which so many languages and so many cultural
>traditions interact? Auerbach believed that one has to look for
>Ansatzpunkte, that is, for starting points, for concrete details fromwhich
>the global process can be inductively reconstructed. The ongoing
>unification of the world, Auerbach wrote in the conclusion of Mimesis, "is
>most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and
>exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different
>people." (pp. 665-6)

>A life chosen at random can make concretely visible the attempt to unify
>the world, as well as some of its implications. In saying this I am
>echoing Auerbach. But Auerbach was implicitly referring to Proust. Let us
>allow Proust to have the final word: "People foolishly imagine that the
>broad generalities of social phenomena afford an excellent opportunity to
>penetrate further into the human soul; they ought, on the contrary, to
>realise that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that
>they might have a chance of understanding those phenomena." (p. 683)

Greater volume of cultural data challenges our conclusions reached on the
basis of the smaller amounts we were able to survey before digital media.
(Please twist the tail of this statement if you wish.) The question is how
to meet the challenge. One way is exemplified by statistical approaches to
masses of literary and linguistic data and by the methods of corpus
linguistics -- to tackle the volume head-on. Auerbach's focus on
Ansatzpunkte, taken up by Ginzburg, suggests another, and, as he says, a
complementary one:

>My approach to microhistory... has been contrasted with another version,
>more oriented towards the social sciences and the critique of their
>methods. In my view, the opposition is groundlessbecause both versions of
>microhistory aim at the same theoretical target, albeit from opposite
>directions. I knowthat theword theory cannot be taken for granted in this
>context. In the social sciences, theory is often tacitly identified with a
>broad approach a la Max Weber, and microhistory with a narrowly focused
>attempt to rescue fromoblivion the lives of marginal, defeatedpeople. If
>one accepts these definitions, microhistory would be confined to a
>peripheral and basically atheoretical role that leaves the dominant
>theories unchallenged.... A life chosen at random can make concretely
>visible the attempt to unify the world, as well as some of its
>implications. (p. 682)

The literary critic (to pick the kind I know best) is not inclined to
choose a poem at random, but, it seems to me, the methodology translates:
small, minutely focused study of individual works -- but study that (to
echo the Psalms) raises its eyes to the expanding horizons, whence cometh
our help. A a powerful and powerfully appealing way forward?


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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street | London
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Received on Wed Apr 20 2005 - 02:29:30 EDT

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