Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Companion to Digital Humanities: Ch. 8 Literary Studies

A Companion to Digital Humanities
Ch. 8 Literary Studies
Author: Thomas Rommel

Rommel's first paragraph contains an intriguing sentence:
"But the analysis of literature is traditionally seen as a subjective procedure. Objectivity, based on empirical evidence, does not seem to figure prominently in studies that elucidate meaning from literary texts."

Rommel is describing a phenomenon that represents my biggest problem with traditional literary criticism -- I consider the systematic collection of empirical evidence to be prerequisite to the attempt to explicate, if not to elucidate meaning in a text of any kind. Herein lies one of the great appeals of an approach such as literary computing. However, Rommel's pessimism about the potential of literary computing is a bit discouraging.

Rommel purports to address a question that he never actually answers: What does it mean to collect empirical evidence with regard to a literary text? It is a question that seems to demand a quantitative approach, in the sense of identifying elements of the text that demonstrate common characteristics. Rommel does mention the use of computer to identify "strings and patterns in electronic texts." This type of analysis is far more systematic than the traditional, subjective analysis of literature.

But Rommel seems to believe that literary computing, which has now been engaged in systematic analysis of literary texts for more than twenty years, has yet to add anything to the traditional study of literature. Rommel repeatedly declares that literary computing can only access the "surface features of texts." He bemoans the fact that it has "never really made an impact on mainstream scholarship," that it "remains a marginal pursuit," and that it has added "significant insight in a very narrow spectrum of literary analysis." He quotes McGann's 2001 statement that literary computing will not be taken seriously until digital humanists demonstrate that their tools and methods "expand our interpretational procedures."

There are moments in his chapter when Rommel acknowledges the potential of literary computing, such as his allusion to the ability of markup to embody the encoder's interpretation of the text, Near the end of his chapter, Rommel also mentions that "Numerous studies of individual, and collections, of texts show that empirical evidence can be used productively for literary analysis." However, the overall tone of Rommel's article indicates that he is rather pessimistic about the potential for literary computing.

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