21.074 DH2007 keynote: chasing themes vs finding structures?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 5 Jun 2007 13:06:16 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 74.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 05 Jun 2007 13:00:39 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: chasing themes vs finding structures

In his keynote speech to the Digital Humanities conference, Franco
Moretti (English & Comparative Literature, Stanford) said in passing
that until humanities computing can get beyond a preoccupation with
chasing themes in literary works to developing the ability to deal
with their formal properties, it will have very little influence on
literary studies. He did qualify his remark by saying that his
knowledge of humanities computing is limited, but the challenge
stands nevertheless.

My reply to him was twofold: first, that chasing themes is so much
easier than dealing with formal properties in literature that one is
bound to find at this stage in our development much more of it;
second, that people who take an interest in computing from the
various disciplinary heartlands, like him but perhaps not him, tend
to reach for what serves their conventional ways of work without
disturbing these ways. So the actual impediment to greater influence
is not merely that we yet to grow up but that our colleagues in other
disciplines are stuck in their old ways. Is this a fair reply?

Moretti's own use of computing, insofar as this was visible in the
lecture, was confined to the use of spreadsheet graphing to
illustrate formal trends in the novel. But how does computing itself
become concerned with formal properties in literature (or in any
other cultural mode of expression)? Markup can *describe* static
formal properties that we perceive. So can a relational database
design. But isn't this like approaching the study of living systems
(past or present) only by describing their anatomy, their skeletal
structures, their fossilized remains? And since for literary
questions at least this involves significant interpretation every
step of the way, what good is it for anyone other than the person
describing the artefact in question?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Tue Jun 05 2007 - 11:16:49 EDT

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