Digital Humanities Masterplots, Matt Erlin

Digital Humanities Masterplots

Matt Erlin (Washington University in St. Louis)

Digital humanities research has frequently been characterized by a high degree of recursivity—that is to say, by attempts to use digital humanities tools and techniques to reflect back on the structures and history of the field. Perhaps the most conspicuous efforts in this respect are the many visualizations that have appeared in recent years, from Melissa Terra’s 2011 infographic, “Quantifying the Digital Humanities,” to the 2014 “Mind Map of the Digital Humanities” that appears on the website of the European Association for Digital Humanities. The meditations that follow are intended as a contribution to this ongoing project of self-analysis, but they aim to shift attention away from actors, institutions, and research agendas, and toward what Matthew Kirschenbaum refers to as the “discursive construction” of digitial humanities (3). That is, my aim is not to offer a survey of (or an opinion piece on) work in an emerging field—not least because a critical mass of such essays already exists.[1] Rather, I will focus on second-order reflections on the field, and, more specifically, how they tend to emplot the rise of digitial humanities in order to render it intelligible within a range of intellectual, institutional, and societal contexts. Inspired by the narratologist Mieke Bal’s assertion that “the shape of the story you tell determines what knowledge you produce,” my claim is that the shapes of our digital humanities stories derive from specific assumptions about the aims of humanistic inquiry, and that by attending to them we can better understand an emerging set of positions regarding the role of the humanities as such (317).

With regard to history proper, Hayden White is the scholar who is most closely associated with the idea of emplotment. Taking his inspiration from Northrop Frye, White describes the plot structures through which scholars encode facts and events from the past in order to create stories that make sense to an audience. As White puts it, “what the historian brings to his consideration of the historical record is a notion of the types of configurations of events that can be recognized as stories by the audience for which he is writing. True, he can misfire: I don’t suppose that anyone would accept the emplotment of the life of President Kennedy as a comedy, but whether it ought to be emplotted romantically, tragically, or satirically is an open question” (84). As the reference to Frye reflects, the identification of basic plot types has also been a topic of recurring interest in literary studies, from the four mythoi in Frye’s own Anatomy of Criticism to the seven basic plots in Christopher Booker’s eponymous book from 2004. More recently, the topic has received renewed attention in the work of such digital humanities scholars as Matt Jockers and Ben Schmidt, both of whom have revisited the question of archetypal plots using computational techniques.[2]

These approaches have always generated their share of skeptical responses, not least because they challenge conventional wisdom regarding disciplinary or categorical boundaries. In White’s work, history blurs into literature; in Frye, literature becomes a variant of myth; Booker obliterates the distinction between high and low, presenting Finding Nemo and The Odyssey as structural equivalents.[3] Yet the value of these approaches lies precisely in the way they throw such conventional wisdom into relief and encourage us to take up conscious positions toward it. They are reductive, yes, but in the sense of the “deliberate process of reduction and abstraction” that Franco Moretti describes in Graphs, Maps, Trees:“‘Distant reading’, I have once called this type of approach; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall connection” (1). My contribution adopts a similar strategy. In considering how events and characters have been integrated into a series of digital humanities masterplots, I hope to illuminate the major fault lines of ongoing debates as well as the some of the normative assumptions of the various participants in those debates, especially as regards the status of the humanities vis-à-vis other fields of intellectual inquiry.

I should note at the outset that the emplotments discussed are in no way exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive. On the contrary, we can often find blending and overlap among them, especially since the plots unfold along one or more different axes of focalization: the disciplinary, the institutional, and the societal. A single set of reflections may deploy one emplotment to explain the trajectory of digital humanities within the discipline of literary studies while simultaneously gesturing to another emplotment at the level of society (such as the emergence of a broader culture of “computationality”).

1. Digital Humanities as Insurrection

The first, and arguably, most exciting way to frame the emergence of digitial humanities is as insurrection: an uprising against the disciplinary and/or institutional status quo, which may or may not lead to revolutionary change. We can identify a sense of this orientation already in the titles of some essays, such as Lisa Spiro’s “Why We Fight: Defining the Value of the Digital Humanities,” or Elizabeth Losh’s “Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University.” Like all of the masterplots I will discuss, this masterplot appears in both positive and negative incarnations. The positive variant is perhaps best exemplified by the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,which Todd Presner and others launched in 2009 at the UCLA Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities. This document is impressive in terms of both substance and style, which benefit from the authors’ clever appropriation of the formal and rhetorical features of earlier manifestos, especially those of the Dada movement (figs. 1 & 2).


Figures 1 & 2: Manifestos (Source: cartolist, Humanities Blast)

The evocation of Dada is more than a gimmick. In fact, one can make a strong case for the claim that, in the manifesto, DH takes shape as an avant-garde movement in the sense that Peter Bürger outlines in his Theory of the Avantgarde. To be sure, one finds many elements in the manifesto that even in 2009 had long belonged to DH advocacy: the description of DH as “an array of convergent practices” (2) rather than a field, the commitment to open source, the emphasis on “making” as a form of scholarship, and the celebration of collaborative research. More unique, and more evocative of Bürger’s argument, is Presner et al.’s insistence on the “utopian core” (3) of digital humanities—which includes, among other things, an affirmation, on the part of digital humanists, of “the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/ museum/ archive/ library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship . . .” (3). Of special significance here is the fact that the critical impulse of DH, as the manifesto presents it, is directed largely (though not exclusively) against the institutional status of the humanities, and specifically against their autonomy. Not only do the authors call for an end to the “solitary, ‘eccentric,’ even hermetic work carried out by lone individuals” (5); they also urge us to break down the barriers that separate the humanities from society at large. After all, as they explain, “Wikipedia wasn’t invented at/as a university,” and Google, though it began at Stanford, has “its home turf in the corporate world” (6). Other commentators on DH have argued along similar, though generally less radical, lines. For example, David M. Berry, in a 2011 article titled “The Computational Turn,” argues that computational methods “facilitate disciplinary hybridity that leads to a post-disciplinary university” (13). The emphasis on post-disciplinarity pushes against the boundaries of the institutional structure of the university in a way that mere interdisciplinarity does not.

This view of DH as institutional critique aligns well with Bürger’s conceptualization of early twentieth-century avant-garde movements as a negation, “not of an earlier form of art (a style) but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life praxis of men” (49).[4]  To the extent that we accept the characterization of DH as an academic avant-garde, however, we might be tempted to level against its practitioners the same criticism that Jürgen Habermas leveled against the historical avant-garde: the elimination of institutional constraints, to the extent that it is even possible, does not of necessity lead to emancipatory effects. It may simply mean that whatever meanings were being preserved within those boundaries are dispersed into the social element in such a way that they lose any positive efficacy they once had.

Negative variants of the DH as insurrection masterplot do not, to my knowledge, pursue this line of criticism. Rather, they often cast the practitioners of DH as a “fifth column” that attempts to undermine the authority of the humanities from within (Liu, “Meaning,” 410). A case in point is the 2014 article by David Golumbia that appeared in a special issue of the journal differences. Golumbia pulls no punches in his discussion of the institutional-political stakes of digital humanities, and his criticisms deserve serious consideration. Still, the polemical intent of his reflections does lead to formulations that can only be characterized as ungenerous. Despite protestations to the contrary, Golumbia seems to view the institutional politics of literary studies as a zero-sum game, in which the redirection of both intellectual and financial resources to DH threatens to supplant other configurations of our role as scholars and teachers.

He points, in particular, to the vision of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who, in her book Death of a Discipline, argues for a conception of global literary studies that emphasizes language study as well as the possibility of studying all literatures with “linguistic rigor and historical savvy” (4). Against this, the emergence of DH threatens to lead to “the displacement of a critical humanities praxis with one that announces its resistance to interpretation and to engaging with virtually every canon of existing interpretive thought” (158-9). Other scholars, such as Alan Liu, have taken DH to task for its apparent lack of interest in cultural criticism; but Golumbia’s approach is striking for the way in which it casts this indifference as part of an institutional rebellion that has ideological affinities with a right-leaning cyberlibertarianism. Posing the question so often asked of digital humanities—namely, “what is it?”—he offers the following definition: “What it is may be in part understood as the name for a means by which a school of thought strategically opposed to interpretation could wrest authority over literary studies, when this could not be accomplished through the usual means of direct, public, intellectual debate” (171). And he goes on to cast digital humanities as part of an effort to “create an outpost of ‘literary studies’ where the majority of literary scholars have little or no authority or influence” (172).

2. Digital Humanities as Eternal Recurrence

My selective focus on the question of emplotment in the pieces by Presner et al. and Golumbia does not do full justice to the nuance of their arguments or to the rhetorical situation in which their texts took shape, but it does help to foreground the tectonic shifts often associated with the expansion of the new field. An alternative masterplot takes the opposite position on the possible impact of the expansion of DH. Narratives of digital humanities as “eternal recurrence” emplot the rise of DH in a cyclical progression of ever-evolving disciplinary paradigms. An example is Stanley Fish’s introductory op-ed piece on the 2012 MLA. The title, “The Old Order Changeth,” already alludes to the argument he subsequently presents. Fish initially adopts the language of the first masterplot, referring to digital humanities as the “new insurgency,” but—by subsequently drawing a parallel to the revolutionary rhetoric typical in the early days of postmodernism, after which “the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream”—he indicates that the fate of DH will most likely be, likewise, domestication and absorption into the mainstream. Although he does not state it explicitly in this article, the title, the text, and the narrative perspective of a senior scholar also suggest that the paradigm shift aligns with a generational shift, an implication that reinforces the idea of cyclicality.

Such comparisons of the rise of DH with the rise of Theory feature prominently in opinion pieces, often delivered in a tone that calls to mind the cry of the crowd in Georg Büchner’s revolutionary drama, Dantons Tod:“We’ve heard that before. How boring!” (106; translation amended).[5] A notable exception is Golumbia, who refers to the ostensible parallel between DH and Theory only in order to deny its validity. Whereas Theory was taken up by high-profile scholars almost immediately, he explains, digitial humanities in its current incarnation has existed for more than a decade, and yet “the number of prominent literary scholars who openly engage with . . . its methods and assumptions as direct parts of literary study is vanishingly small” (162). Among those who accept the analogy, moreover, the indifference is by no means universal. One can still identify negative and positive variants, even if the cyclical narrative does not lend itself to the same intensity of enthusiasm or contempt as the idea of DH as insurgency. The fact that we have seen it all before need not lead us to resignation. Referring to digital humanities as “the next big thing” (as William Pannapacker did in a report on the 2009 MLA) may imply cyclicality, but it also suggests a sense of excitement about something new in the world—as well as about a movement that foments broad-based intellectual discussion as Theory did in the 1980s and 1990s.

A different, yet still positive approach to the eternal recurrence masterplot can be found in another essay by Kirschenbaum, whose widely-cited 2010 piece, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”, aligns DH with other “major critical movements like the Birmingham school or Yale deconstruction” (4). The impulse in this essay, and also in the follow up piece he published in 2014, is to foreground the fact that DH practitioners are serious scholars making use of the same protocols and institutional infrastructures to produce and evaluate scholarship as their non-DH peers. DH, in other words, is not that different, and this is a good thing.

It should come as no surprise that the negative variant of this masterplot takes up the language of fads and fashions. Examples are legion; one need only Google “digital humanities” together with “fad” to find some 43,000 websites and blog posts that offer arguments and counterarguments along these lines. It seems to me that this position is becoming increasingly untenable, and for reasons that also challenge more temperate analyses such as those of Kirschenbaum. The key question in this context is whether it really makes sense to think of DH as a “method” of literary study or a type of criticism in the manner of post-structuralism or psychoanalysis. While one can certainly describe computationally-assisted literary analysis as a method, DH is coming to seem more and more like a discipline. Kirschenbaum’s own essay provides strong support for this claim. He points out that the field has a huge professional umbrella organization, the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, which sponsors a major conference every year. Scholars can publish their research in a variety of digital humanities journals, some of which, such as the recently renamed Literary and Linguistic Computing, have been in existence for decades. And finally, experts in the field come from a variety of different home disciplines or from no discipline at all. Ted Underwood has nicely summed up the situation in a 2011 blog entry where he writes that digital humanities is not a way to “save” literary studies “because digital humanities is not a movement within literary studies. It includes historians and linguists, computer scientists and librarians.” Although Kirschenbaum has pointed out the affinities between DH and English departments, its emerging institutional structure might be said to have more in common with that of comparative literature.

3. Digital Humanities as Maturation

Questions of disciplinary and institutional identity also figure prominently in a third masterplot—one with which scholars of the European novel will have a particular familiarity. Perhaps the most neutral label for this masterplot is the “maturation plot.”[6] Of course, maturation can be normatively framed in a variety of ways: as self-actualization; as a necessary accommodation to reality; as an abandonment of cherished ideals; as coercive socialization. All of these inflections can be identified in writing on digital humanities. In some cases, the maturing subject under consideration is digitial humanities, which, after its beginnings in the solitary projects of tinkerers like Father Roberto Busa, who began work on the fifty-six volume Index Thomisticus in 1946, is seen to be finally realizing its full potential in both institutional and analytical terms. What Busa was only able to accomplish by way of punch cards and painstaking effort can now be achieved in an instant by any scholar with access to an electronic text file, thanks to technological advances and the buildup of institutional infrastructure that has made projects like Voyant or LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) possible.

Adopting this line of argument, one can even make a plausible claim as to the moment at which the field emerged from adolescence, at least on an institutional level. Using Google trends, which allows one to map the frequency of Google searches for a particular term or phrase over a specified time period (starting in 2004), one can identify a major growth spurt in searches for the term “digital humanities” in 2007 (fig. 3).[7] Drilling down to the search results themselves, we can see why: it was the year the Digital Humanities Quarterly began publication, the year the NEH awarded its first digital humanities start-up grants, and the year that Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities was published online. It is also worth noting that the ADHO-sponsored conference in Paris in July 2006 was the first to carry the title “digital humanities” instead of describing itself simply as the ACH/ALLC joint conference.

Figure 3: DH growth spurt (Source: Google Trends)

In other variants of this masterplot, it is the humanities in their entirety—rather than digitial humanities—that are maturing; the turn toward quantification and computation and computation is merely evidence of maturation. As a member of a multi-disciplinary university committee on “big data,” I have personally encountered a version of this story in which the coming of age of the humanities is combined with the idea of what Jürgen Habermas, speaking in reference to 1989, termed a “nachholende” or recuperative revolution. Colleagues in the social sciences sometimes view the growing interest in quantitative methods as evidence that the humanities are finally growing up, in the sense that they are undergoing (or about to undergo) the same salutary transformation in method that disciplines such as political science, psychology, or education experienced decades ago. We can see a similar, if less patronizing and better informed, characterization of such a need to catch up in German literary scholar Gerhard Lauer’s comment that DH represents “a new departure, the long overdue modernization of the humanities” (Berg, 15).

Whereas colleagues in the social sciences who favor this masterplot tend to relate these developments with straightforward enthusiasm, humanities insiders tend to be more ambivalent. This ambivalence should come as no surprise since, as any avid novel reader knows, the entry into adulthood requires sacrifices even as it carries certain privileges. A 2015 piece in the Chronicle Review by Jeffrey J. Williams offers a case in point. Williams’s reflections pertain to literary criticism as a whole rather than to DH or literary computing specifically. He casts the latter, together with such other trends as “book history,” “the new sociology,” “surface reading,” and “thin description,” as evidence of what he calls a “new modesty” in literary criticism, and opposes them to the turbulent Sturm und Drang years of high Theory. His review of these new approaches is judicious and insightful, focusing primarily on the idea of “surface reading” as elaborated by Sharon Marcus and Stephen M. Best and also Moretti’s concept of “distant reading.” The tone of the article as a whole, however, also betrays a certain skepticism. Williams fears a retreat from the political ambitions of previous criticism and a return to a “more cloistered sense of literary studies.” And he clearly harbors some nostalgia for the heady days when “scholars aimed to explode the foundations of Western metaphysics, foment a revolution of the sign, overturn gender hierarchies, and fight the class struggle.”

What Williams fails to consider, at least in this brief text, is that we cannot adequately account for the “new modesty” as an arbitrary shift in intellectual tastes or even (as he mentions at one point in a gesture to the eternal recurrence masterplot) as a generational shift. We also need to consider the internal developmental logic of cultural criticism itself—more precisely, its failure to deliver on the revolutionary promises of the heady early days he celebrates. One can remain critical of all of the trends Williams discusses and still recognize them as a response to the widespread sense that, as Bruno Latour provocatively claimed in 2004, “critique has run out of steam.” And just as, in a broader context, the shift from the revolutionary fervor of the sixties to the micropolitics of the seventies has been applauded as well as condemned, one can take an affirmative or a critical stance toward the less explicitly political aims of current criticism. Caution is advisable in either case, however, since history tells us that calculating the political impact of any theoretical orientation is exceedingly difficult. At the very least, such an effort must take into account the layers of mediation through which ideas and intentions filter as they progress from the journal or seminar room to the corridors of power.

Regardless of whether one shares Williams’s reservations regarding the “new modesty,” one can only applaud his inclination to view digital humanities approaches, as they have been adopted in literary studies, as part of a broader turn away from what Marcus and Best call “symptomatic reading,” the paradigmatic example of which is Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. Too often the emergence of quantitative and computational methods in literary studies is cast as a rupture, when in fact it can be understood as the continuation of long-term trends—for example, as an extension of the longstanding interest in opening up the canon, an attempt to pursue the idea of post-hermeneutic criticism to its logical conclusion, or simply as a reweighting of elements that have always been part of the system. After all, subfields such as book history, literary sociology, and reception studies, not to mention bibliography or textual scholarship, have always had an empirical element, even if they have not emphasized pattern recognition and big data to the same degree as has DH.

The preoccupation with big data also reminds us that such reweighting does not merely represent the unfolding of some sort of internal disciplinary logic. It also constitutes a response to a real transformation in the material conditions of scholarship—and this transformation brings us to the third and final version of the maturation masterplot. In this variant, the turn toward the digital appears as a rational and reflected accommodation (which is thus suggestive of responsible adulthood) to a new situation confronting textual scholars: in particular, one characterized above all by the availability of texts in unprecedented numbers. The assertion that computational methods in textual studies constitute a necessary scaling-up of analyses in response to these materials is nearly ubiquitous. Moretti is the typical source for quotations on the subject—especially his remark, in Graphs, Maps, Trees,that “a canon of two hundred novels . . . is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows—and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so” (4). Similar arguments appear in countless other essays, from Gregory Crane’s “What Do You Do with a Million Books?”, published back in 2006, to Ted Underwood’s and Andrew Goldstone’s more recent analysis: “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us.”

There can be no doubt that access to large digitized corpora through resources like Google books, HathiTrust, JSTOR Data for Research, and the Internet Archive confronts scholars with challenges and opportunities that are difficult to ignore. The material reality of this textual abundance—and the possibility of helping to contribute to its continued expansion—constitute perhaps the most powerful driving force behind computationally-assisted cultural analysis. In light of such a profusion of potential evidence, efforts to base sweeping conclusions about an entire cultural moment on a single artifact or a small collection of artifacts has come to seem increasingly dubious. The more modest aims of contemporary criticism can be understood as a maturation in this regard as well.

4. The Immortal Story

Although the maturation plot has much to commend it, my intent is not to argue that it represents the best way to tell the story of digital humanities. On the contrary, the value of considering masterplots lies in their ability to demonstrate how story elements can be legitimately embedded in different narratives—and, even more importantly, that the choices about how to embed them reveal higher-level concerns. To the extent that one can generalize across such a diverse set of emplotments, it strikes me that all three of the variants described thus far entail specific perspectives on the status of the humanities vis-à-vis other academic disciplines. In the case of the insurrection masterplot, we find a strong commitment to the uniqueness of humanistic inquiry as a direct source of societal transformation. The difference between the positive and negative variants described is not to be found at the level of this commitment, but rather 1) in the type of intellectual inquiry that each asserts will foster this change and 2) in their differing responses to whether the aim can be achieved within the current institutional structures of the university.

The eternal recurrence masterplot seems to grant a far less significant role to the humanities. It aligns humanities research with the fashion paradigm, so that methodological shifts appear derivative of exogenous variables or some kind of formal logic rather than as a genuine advance in knowledge or understanding. This claim holds true whether one considers digital humanities to be “the next big thing” or nothing more than a cyclical generational shift. As in the case of the first masterplot, however, here we can identify at least an implicit assertion of the uniqueness of the humanities vis-à-vis the natural and the social sciences. In this instance, the uniqueness lies not in an orientation toward societal change. but rather in an acknowledgment (albeit one that is never explicitly articulated) of social irrelevance. Notwithstanding the work of Thomas Kuhn, it is hard to imagine colleagues in the natural sciences describing the methodological evolution of their disciplines in terms of a succession of styles entirely detached from a notion of cumulative intellectual progress or societal impact.[8]

In this regard, we can identify a key contrast between the eternal recurrence and the maturation masterplots. Assertions of maturation often entail precisely this idea of intellectual progress, even if it appears in attenuated form or is subject to scrutiny. Essays like those of Moretti and Underwood/Goldstone point to concrete disciplinary insights that new computational approaches might generate; Williams accepts the possibility of progress within a discipline and then wonders whether recent developments do in fact represent an improvement or simply a downsizing of our intellectual ambitions. An even more salient point, however, is that the maturation masterplot aligns the humanities more closely with other academic disciplines. As the more positive essays depict, the humanities share with the natural and social sciences many of the same research protocols, much of the same infrastructure, and generally similar epistemological commitments. In this variant, traditional scholars undertake sometimes painstaking, domain-specific research within the institutional framework of the university. Ideally, the results of this research appear in academic publications, and these publications contribute to incremental, but not insignificant advancements, in our grasp of the disciplinary terrain. Societal impact is indirect and occurs largely through teaching and conventional channels of popularization.

In a PMLA piece that appeared in 2013, Alan Liu argued that “an understanding of the digital humanities can only rise to the level of an explanation if we see that the underlying issue is the disciplinary identity not of the digital humanities but of the humanities themselves” (“Meaning,” 410). Focusing on these masterplots can bring us a step closer to achieving this aim, particularly with respect to our perception of the relationship between the humanities and other disciplines. But the masterplots that I have addressed thus far leave us with an incomplete picture, not least because they derive from discussions of “the” digital humanities, which, to reiterate the quotation from Kirschenbaum, is only ever a “discursive construct” and thus mistakenly “presumes the existence of entities called ‘digital humanities’ that exist apart from the practices of the people who identify them” (“Terrible Things,” 58). A reading—albeit a rather “distant” one—of actual DH research projects tells a somewhat different story, and thus I would like to conclude the discussion by shifting my emphasis from theory to practice, maintaining the focus on emplotment but applying the category of emplotment to concrete instances of computationally assisted cultural analysis rather than to commentary on DH as a discipline.
Anyone who has perused analyses of specific DH projects will have noticed their typical departure from what Alan Liu describes in a different article as the traditional “high style” of humanities discourse, “individual cultivated voices of eloquence feeling their way toward sustained, rigorous, and elegant or ‘edgy’ interpretations” (“Theses”). Instead, we find something more akin to an inventor’s idiom—the narration of scholarly efforts to build a better mousetrap. This idiom, I would argue, is reflective of yet another masterplot, one that proves crucial for an understanding of how work in digital humanities metonymically encodes perspectives on the disciplinary location of the humanities more generally. A brief comparison of two sets of texts can help to illuminate this assertion. Taking the nine pamphlets that have been published by the Stanford Literary Lab since 2011 and comparing them to nine “randomly” selected essays published on the novel in roughly the same period, we can identify a variety of significant rhetorical distinctions between the groups of texts.[9] Perhaps most striking is the frequency with which the Literary Lab essays make use of questions. Excluding notes and quotations, these analyses include 148 interrogatives or an average of no less than 16 per essay.[10] By comparison, the other essays on the novel contain a total of 26 interrogatives, or an average of about three per essay. Examples from the Literary Lab essays include such musings as: “What about plot—how can that be quantified?” (Pamphlet 2), “Do novelistic genres operate the same way in the 20th century as they did in the 19th?” (Pamphlet 8), and “What does it mean that the use of the word “culture” rose dramatically in the 1770s and once again in the 1790s?”
(Pamphlet 3).

Whatever one’s position on the use of rhetorical questions as a stylistic device, I believe that here they reflect the excitement of charting new territory and thus suggest a connection with one of the oldest and surest ways of telling a story, one that also happens to serve as a favorite masterplot of the natural sciences. I am referring to the quest narrative, domesticated forms of which constitute the bread and butter of popular science journalism. These Literary Lab essays also share additional features with the quest that figure far less prominently in other examples of humanities scholarship: the narration of the various phases of the intellectual journey, the obstacles encountered, even expressions of gratitude to the helpers met along the way. Not all humanists are comfortable with adopting the explicit language of discovery typical of this masterplot, and perhaps for good reason. A quest for answers in the form of causal explanations has, since Dilthey, been opposed to understanding as a means to identify the basic distinction between the natural and the historical sciences, and it has in some lines of thought been associated with a problematic desire for the total mastery of nature, human or otherwise.[11]

Writing in a similar vein, Stephen Ramsay recently pointed out in Reading Machines that literary criticism is not interested in solutions, in the sense of singular answers, to the same degree as the sciences. As he insightfully explains, “We are not trying to solve Woolf. We are trying to ensure that discussion continues” (15). Ramsay refers here to the idea that we could solve Woolf “once and for all” and then move on to the next author—a notion that is indeed bound to strike humanists as absurd, certainly more absurd than the idea of, say, curing one disease and moving on to another. Nonetheless, this statement, together with his emphasis elsewhere in the book on the goal of “unfolding interpretive possibilities” and his claim that “scientific literary criticism would cease to be criticism,” also suggests a more general subcurrent of resistance, or at least indifference, to what social scientists term “explanatory” (as opposed to “exploratory” and “descriptive”) research, and I think it can be taken as representative of a widespread belief among literary scholars that the most appropriate questions for scholarship to answer resemble the one Ramsay proposes: “Can I interpret (read) it this way?”[12]

The essays from the Stanford Literary Lab, however, demonstrate that while humanists are certainly interested in exploration, they are also interested in discovery (explanation): in “why” questions, hypothesis testing, and relations of causality. In other words, sometimes we do want answers rather than a mere expansion of “interpretive possibilities.” Not all of these answers can be found through quantitative methods; the question, “Was Don Quixote a hero or a fool?”, for example, would seem an unlikely candidate. On the other hand, such questions as “Why was Goethe’s Werther such a runaway bestseller?” or “How significant was Kant’s influence on Goethe?” may prove more amenable to a quantitative approach.

In fact, the Literary Lab essays remind us that the desire for answers has always been, and continues to be, a driving, if increasingly subterranean, force in humanities research. It is worth remembering that Ian Watt begins The Rise of the Novel with a series of questions: “Is the novel a new literary form?” “[…] how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past […]? And is there any reason why these differences appeared when and where they did?” (9). And Ernst Robert Curtius closes European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages with an evocation of travel: “We have an arduous journey behind us and now we may relax. Looking back, we can see the stages of our road. How have we proceeded?” (380).[13]The quest structure that characterizes many DH essays picks up on this tradition and thus provides another perspective on the question of what truly separates these new approaches from “traditional” humanities research, as well as what separates the humanities in general from the natural and the social sciences. Viewed from the perspective of the quest masterplot, the answer seems to be: not as much as we might think.

Works Cited

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Crane, Gregory. “What Do you Do with a Million Books.” D-Lib Magazine 12.3 (2006). n.pag. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013.
Davis, Kathy. Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences: Studies on Cosmetic Surgery. Lanham, MA: Rowan & Littlefield, 2003.
Dilthey, Wilhelm. Ideen über eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie. Gesammelte Werke. Ed. Georg Misch. Vol. 5. 1923. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). 139-240.
Edmundson, Mark. “Against Readings.” Profession (2009): 56-65.
Fish, Stanley, “The Old Order Changeth.” Opinionator Blog. New York Times Company, December 26, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
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[1] The sheer number of these essays makes a comprehensive list impossible but many notable examples are included in the list of works cited.

[2] Booker’s seven plots include the following:Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth; Using a software package that he developed for "R" called Syuzhet, Jockers was able to extract a generalized plot shape for every book in a corpus of over 40,000 novels. He then used a Euclidean distance calculation to determine the similarity between every pair of novels in the corpus, and finally applied a clustering algorithm to these distances in order to group books according to the similarity of their plot shape. The original results and discussion can be found on his website. Ben Schmidt has identified and analyzed a series of “fundamental plot arcs” in television and movie scripts.

[3] Jocker’s results also gave rise to a lively and highly productive debate.

[4] From the perspective of disciplinary change, adopting Bürger’s framework also raises the interesting possibility of viewing the rise of Theory in literary studies as analogous to high modernism in the arts, as both are characterized by a highly self-conscious interrogation of basic materials and practices (though not institutional contexts).

[5] Fish writes “I was pleased to see that the [MLA] program confirmed an observation I made years ago: while disciplines like physics or psychology or statistics discard projects and methodologies no longer regarded as cutting edge, if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years.”

[6] I take this designation from Ronald B. Tobias, who includes it in his self-help manual for writers, but he is certainly not the originator of the term.

[7] For a discussion of the origination of the term around 2001, which has been attributed to John Unsworth, see Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities,” 2-3.

[8] This is not to say that the notion of intellectual fashions is absent from discussion in these fields, nor would I want to slight important work in the field of science studies that challenges precisely this idea of progress. Nonetheless, the belief that knowledge -- substantive knowledge -- advances stadially through a series of incremental steps is far more prevalent in the natural sciences than the humanities.

[9] This “random” selection was obtained by querying Project Muse for articles published in the category “literature” between 2011 and 2015 that include “the novel” in the title. I then took the top 20 essays and selected every other essay for analysis. Rather than providing full bibliographical information, I simply list the titles here to give an impression of their range: “Representation and the Novel”; “’The Mesmeric Power’: Sarah Grand and the Novel of the Female Orator”; “The American Genome Project: A Biopolitical History of the Contemporary Ethno-racial Novel”; “Democratic Networks and the Industrial Novel”; “Exploring the Text/Image Wilderness: Ironic Visual Perspective and Critical Thinking in George O'Connor's Graphic Novel Journey into Mohawk Country; Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis: The Reception of a Soviet Novel in the North American Market”; “From Aesthetics to Allegory: Raphaël Confiant, the Creole Novel, and Interdisciplinary Translation”; “Not Quite Letting Go: Rethinking the "tragic sense of life" in Roth's First Novel”; “Figuring Abjection: The Slave Mother in the Early Creole Novel.”

[10] By pamphlet: 1 - 20; 2 - 12; 3 - 4; 4 - 31; 5 - 18; 6 - 13; 7 - 4; 8 - 34; 9 - 12

[11] Dilthey’s original distinction appeared in several of his works. A concise expression is the following: “we explain nature; we understand the life of the soul” (144, my translation). This quest narrative takes multiple forms in the natural sciences and does not necessarily entail a quest for absolute mastery or eternal truths. On the one hand, Kathy Davis is certainly correct in claiming that: “The image of science as quest for discovery and control over the unruly forces of nature runs through modern science from Plato to the present” (55). Karl Popper, on the other hand, describesabsolute certainty as an “idol” and asserts: “The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth” (280-81).

[12] For a related, non DH perspective on this type of approach, see Mark Edmundson, “Against Readings.”

[13] In the foreword, Curtius also describes his approach in a manner that not only gestures toward the maturation masterplot but also offers an early formulation of the aims of distant reading: “Contemporary archaeology has made surprising discoveries by means of aerial photography at great altitudes. Through this technique it has succeeded, for example, in recognizing for the first time the late Roman system of defense works in North Africa. A person standing on the ground before a heap of ruins cannot see the whole that the aerial photograph reveals. But the next step is to enlarge the aerial photo- graph and compare it with a detailed map. There is a certain analogy to this procedure in the technique of literary investigation here employed. If we attempt to embrace two or two and a half millenniums of Western literature in one view, we can make discoveries which are impossible from a church steeple. Yet we can do so only when the parochialism of the specialists has provided careful detailed studies. All too often, to be sure, such studies are lacking, and from a more elevated standpoint we see tasks which would promise a rich yield to individual research.” (xxv).




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