Ingraham: Post #1: “Pattern Recognition”

Mitch Ingraham

30 August 2015

ENGL 5529

Dr. Emerson

Blog Post #1

“Pattern Recognition”[1]: Digital Humanities and The Technogenetic Turn in Literary Studies

At the risk of sacrificing depth for breadth, I want to (albeit briefly) address all four of this week’s readings insofar as they each engage with issues concerning the interaction between science, technology, history, and literature.

Cynthia Selfe’s sibylline observations, questions, and caveats regarding technopower are particularly germane (despite the original publication date nearly thirty years ago) to the perpetual debate concerning the role of technology in the humanities. Selfe raises the ethical implications of computers’ role in English departments; namely, that the decisions concerning access to and the use/purpose of technological resources will largely shape the future of the humanities and, therefore, should reflect departmental values and goals. The increasing proliferation of technology in the humanities establishes technological literacy as a cultural commodity. As Selfe observes, “Power involves control of information as well as access to that information” (65). This, ultimately, led me to wonder: does technology introduce the threat of the corporatization of the humanities?

For me, the most compelling aspect of Moretti’s argument is that it introduces more questions about quantitative literary/historical analysis than it offers solutions. In other words Moretti, whether deliberately or unwittingly, draws attention to the highly-contingent (if not outright ambiguous) factors that quantitative data is predicated upon (i.e. parameters of data sets, terms, criteria for analysis, etc.). Moretti does note the significant distinction between raw data collection versus the act of interpretation: “Quantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations [. . .] and that is of course also its limit: it provides data, not interpretation” (72). This, in turn, invites us to consider how quantitative research methods impact the hermeneutic aspect of literary studies. Q: Is DH (or at least Moretti’s approach to DH), to some extent, a return to Russian Formalism (i.e. Propp, Shlovsky, Jakobson) and/or structuralist linguistics (i.e. Saussure) aided by technological advancements in computational analysis?

John Unsworth, in part, provides a counterpoint to Moretti’s quantitative approach to literary history insofar as he resituates the argument within an ontological and epistemological framework. According to Unsworth, “doing” digital humanities is “a practice of knowledge representation” predicated upon certain premises (or, “ontological commitments”). As Unsworth points out, we are confronted with the task of “distinguishing between computing in the service of a research agenda framed by the traditional parameters of the humanities, or [. . .] the humanities research agenda itself is framed and formed by what we can do with computers.” The former limits technology to a procrustean, prescriptive function; while, in the latter case, technology has the potential to play an integral role in shaping how we engage with literature and, moreover, allows for novel approaches to literary analysis.

Many of Snow’s claims are indicative of the academic and social climate of the time/place (i.e. Oxford circa 1959) however, they also prompted me to ask: How much has really changed? Although his rhetoric is rife with jingoistic/anglocentric assumptions (i.e. obligation to dominate/nationalistic imperative) reminds us of the audience (“us” and “we”) to which Snow was delivering the lecture.

Despite the persistence of stigmatization amongst the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences, perhaps collaborative fields such as DH offer an opportunity to reconsider how these two seemingly disparate worlds can work in tandem to produce/generate knowledge; obfuscating the clearly demarcated divide that separates–and thus inhibits– meaningful and constructive innovation and development: both in theory and practice (cf. Dimock’s “Theory of Resonance”). In terms of “doing digital humanities,” this entails considering both how and why we integrate technology with literary studies.

Works Cited

Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review

24: Nov/Dec 2003 (67-93). 28 Aug 2015. Web.

Selfe, Cynthia. “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower.” ADE

            Bulletin 90 (Fall 1988). MLA. 28 Aug 2015. Web.

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge UP, 1961.


Unsworth, John. “What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?” Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2008. 28 Aug 2015. Web.

[1] William Gibson. Pattern Recognition. New York: Penguin, 2003.

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