Jones Post 1: Computational Research in the Humanities As a “Way Out” of Two Cultures?

After reading this week’s assignments, I wondered if academia could move away from the question of “are the humanities relevant” and Snow’s observations of the “two cultures”? The perception of the “two cultures” positions the humanities and the sciences in opposition, and establishes a one-sided lineage for digital studies. This limiting space constructs the view that the humanities are “the most backward discipline in the academy.”[1] If the two disengaged from perpetuating this theory, would this open up the possibility to validate and verify new information gleaned through digital humanities? Computing competency does not solely belong to the sciences, and understanding how to utilize the languages and tools of computing then acts to speak a language of “navigation and exchange”, which allows new processes for communication and research. [2]

To tackle some of these questions through the scope of the articles, I’d like to take issue with Snow’s term, “pure scientist”[3]. Snow’s lecture, The Two Cultures, outlines perceived cultural misunderstandings in an act of mediation. Yet assigning “purity” to the sciences conjures the image of a “one true heir” and disinherits  the application of computational research across academia. Would redefining “research” alleviate this privilege and show how scientific rigor may exist in digital humanities in comparable form? If scientific rigor includes collaboration, data collection, and analysis, then labs like the Stanford Literary Lab already engage in this work.

The Stanford Literary Lab, which Franco Moretti co-directs, utilizes computational research in order to understand systems of literature. Johns Unsworth’s article advocates using digital computation in order to communicate “not in spite of, but because of” the ways that human understanding has evolved[4]. The Stanford Literary Lab may offer an example of surmounting the “two cultures” struggle by practicing the distant reading of literature through big data. The Stanford Literary Lab “applies computational criticism, in all its forms, to the study of literature” and includes a page where students may highlight their research and findings.[5] These projects include students “reading” thousands of texts and exploring larger ideas about genre, form, and more through compiled data. This involves projects titled:

  • The Taxonomy of Titles in the 18th Century Literary Marketplace
  • Trans-Historical Poetry Project
  • Modeling Dramatic Networks
  • Canon, Archive, Literary History

These projects can be collaborative, and work with other universities to create informational models to test theories. These projects can also tackle other issues by looking at word-usage novels, poems, and even legal documents. What are the advantages to these computational studies? One advantage is the rupturing of the literary cannon, a similarly privileged and difficult-to-access system. In Franco Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature”, Moretti advocated for a “WeltLiteratur” by  proposing his theory of distant reading. Moretti planned to look across countries and genres for a more inclusive view of literature. [6] Moretti’s article “Graphs, Maps, and Trees” then reports on the applied technique, with the Stanford Literary Lab executing computation analysis for students as well. As a reader, this highlights how perhaps the “two cultures” argument may require a similar rupture that the literary canon is going under. Instead of focusing on misunderstandings, perhaps the new question for this century should rather be, “how do we make computing competency accessible” towards the ends of research and learning. The future of big data and the digital age has already arrived and it may be feasible (yet still difficult), to create a universal digital fluency for broader communication and understanding across disciplines.

Bibliography

Abrams, Dennis. 2013. “Stanford Literary Lab Applies “Big Data” to Reading.” Publishing Perspectives. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/06/stanford-literary-lab-applies-big-data-to-reading/.

Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature .” New Left Review 54-68.

Moretti, Franco. 2003. “Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review 67-93. Accessed August 28, 2015.

Moretti, Franco, and Mark Algee-Hewitt. n.d. Stanford Literary Lab. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://litlab.stanford.edu/.

Snow, C.P. 1998. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Unsworth, John. 2002. What is Humanities Computing and What is Not? Accessed August 30, 2015. http://computerphilologie.uni-muenchen.de/jg02/unsworth.html.

Notes:

[1] Abrams, Dennis. 2013. “Stanford Literary Lab Applies “Big Data” to Reading.” Publishing Perspectives. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/06/stanford-literary-lab-applies-big-data-to-reading/.

[2] Unsworth, John. 2002. What is Humanities Computing and What is Not? Accessed August 30, 2015. http://computerphilologie.uni-muenchen.de/jg02/unsworth.html.

[3] Snow, C.P. 1998. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 38.

[4] Unsworth, John. 2002.

[5] Moretti, Franco, and Mark Algee-Hewitt. n.d. Stanford Literary Lab. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://litlab.stanford.edu/.

[6] Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature .” New Left Review 54-68, 54-55.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Jones Post 1: Computational Research in the Humanities As a “Way Out” of Two Cultures?

  1. Rebecca,

    Thanks for this fascinating post! You helped walk me through a few nascent ideas I’d been forming about Snow’s “pure” disciplines. I certainly agree with you that Snow’s terminology is frequently essentialist and polarizing; the entire concept of “two cultures,” as you note, reinforces hierarchical binaries and limits the progression of our field. After our discussions in class yesterday about the future of humanities studies, however, it seems that purity remains a topic of prime concern in the academe. Our discourse primarily focused on questions of digital copyright and the lack of private space; maintaining/defining the borders of the humanities field; anxieties regarding online publication and self-promotion. Even Dr. Emerson felt uncomfortable with online self-advertisement (who does, really?). And as you mentioned, acquiring access to digital materials can be quite difficult outside a directly related field. I think we need to find a way to deconstruct the individualized space of the Literary Scholar (i.e. Kill the Monograph). It’s a simple thing to talk about embracing interdisciplinary intellectualism, but we’re going up against a very real, very resistant canon.

    Like

  2. mringraham says:

    Thoroughly researched and insightful observations, Rebecca. Despite some of the scrutiny surrounding DH, I agree that it has the potential– not only to rupture the literary canon (as you succinctly put it)– but to interrogate some of the assumptions and (mis)conceptions about the dichotomous rift between Snow’s “two cultures.” The issue of funding immediately comes to mind as one of the many negative manifestations of perpetuating such a divide between the sciences and the humanities (i.e. prioritization/privileging of allocation of funds for the engineering, physics, and chemistry fields over sociology, literature, history, and philosophy). The university’s recent decision to no longer offer a PhD in Comparative Literature is symptomatic of this disparity; which, in this case, unfortunately (as Selfe points out) reflects the values and goals of the institution.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: