Emerson’s aphorisms provide useful reminders both for digital humanists surveying the field and for scholars observing it from its horizons. In today’s talk, I want to think through states of knowing in the digital humanities, situating our practices within larger histories of knowledge production. My talk has three parts:
- A discussion of a few approaches to text analysis and their relation to larger perceptions about what DH is and does, and how DH knowledge is produced;
- A discussion of some practitioners who are blending these approaches in provocative ways;
- A wider view of experimental knowledge in DH, with the suggestion of a new grounding, based in the arts, for future DH public work.
I want to start by discussing current directions of DH research, and in particular to spend some time poking a bit at one of the most influential and vibrant areas of DH — literary text analysis, the type of DH research that most often stands in as a synecdoche for the larger whole of the digital humanities. I do this despite the fact that focusing on literary text analysis risks occluding the many other rich areas of digital humanities work, including geospatial mapping and analysis, data visualization, text encoding and scholarly editing, digital archives and preservation, digital forensics, networked rhetoric, digital pedagogy, advanced processing of image, video, and audio files, and 3D modeling and fabrication, among others. And I should note that I do this despite the fact that my own DH work does not center on the area of literary text analysis.
One reason to focus on text analysis today is that when we talk about DH methods and DH work in the public sphere, literary text analysis of large corpora in particular is over-identified with DH, especially in the popular press, but also in the academy. There, we often see large-scale text analysis work clothed in the rhetoric of discovery, with DHers described as daring adventurers scaling the cliffs of computational heights. A 2011 New York Times book review of a Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet described, tongue-in-cheek, Franco Moretti’s supposed attempt to appear “now as literature’s Linnaeus (taxonomizing a vast new trove of data), now as Vesalius (exposing its essential skeleton), now as Galileo (revealing and reordering the universe of books), now as Darwin (seeking ‘a law of literary evolution’)” (Schulz). All that’s missing, it would seem, is mention of an Indiana-Jones-esque beaten fedora.