Different Reading

I talk a lot about public-facing online writing environments, and how they challenge students to think about audience in a way that more traditional essay forms do not. I encourage them to think about primary and secondary audiences, and to remember that what they write might have a much broader audience than they anticipate. I encourage them to engage with that (unknown) audience. I caution them to be cautious as they write. I will now proceed to ignore my own advice.

I have struggled this week: I came a day late, and haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve been a dollar short. I have small Latin, less Greek, no German or Russian or Japanese or Chinese .. I code (some). On the whole I have felt that I’ve been an interloper in the East Reading Room as everyone talks about translation and translatability.  Those of us who have become professional Digital Humanists have spent years in a defensive posture trying to explain to the rest of our Humanities folk why what we do is not something to fear; we spend so much of our time *doing* that that we often default into a position of being practitioners who foreground our DH-itude in order to demonstrate its (and our?) usefulness. We forget to do the reading.

Yesterday I tried to articulate (badly, I fear) why I wrestle with whether or not coding is an untranslatable. Specifically, I’m thinking about TEI-compliant XML, the encoding system with which I spend most of my time. But I think the argument plays out more broadly: that English has been so baked into machine readable language systems that I wonder how it is possible to mark up the Bengali works of Rabindranath Tagore without engaging in a dual language exercise that doesn’t serve the source text. Perhaps I should ask this question: must Digital Humanists who write in Bengali and work with Bengali texts be forced to code in English? I hope that someday Sukanta Chaudhuri talks about that.

I have a tense relationship with Moretti that stems, I only last night realized, from the fact that I am sick of the fan boyzz and grrlz in DH who worship him with such drooling adoration; I find it difficult to do anything but play the curmudgeon and scowl when he is invoked. I don’t trust any situation where gushing admiration isn’t matched by solid understanding of the person or his work. Look how that played out for the Beliebers. I can therefore only blame myself for not reading him in more than a cursory fashion. But Moretti doesn’t belong to DH, and I don’t think he wants to speak for them (us?), either.

I really truly enjoyed the reading. My scribbles in the margins became a dialogue between Moretti and me. I don’t often annotate like that, in the second person, with lots of punctuation marks. It was very satisfying – frustrating, at times, but satisfying. Frustrating, probably, because I was jumping up and down and there was no one to talk to about why I was jumping up and down.What I really loved in Distant Reading (more so than Atlas of the European Novel) was the confessional way in which he describes his interests and approaches and processes. There’s joy and humility (and ego, of course) in the way he presents his experiments. In fact, I think that he presents himself as an incidental Digital Humanist. I love that he says, “I soon realized that the tools for a large-scale gathering of data were not (yet) available to me.” (211) Perhaps I am being precious, but he does not say ‘I had not yet built a tool that would …’ He acknowledges that he cannot do what he does without others. He is fortunate to have the people at the Literary Lab to help him when he needs those tools. See Matt Jockers or Elijah Meeks. I also, perversely, love that his methods invite Digital Humanities to join departments of comparative literature as a permanent intellectual “thorn in the side” (62) of national literatures. That’s a fun place to be.

What I find valuable about Digital Humanities and Moretti’s approach more specifically is that digital methods offer the scholar an opportunity (confidence?) to ask otherwise unwieldy questions and look for answers – and often unexpected new questions at a different point in the research process. “When it comes to phenomena of language and style, we can do things that previous generations could only dream of.” (212) That’s a powerful statement that is invigorating and not a little daunting. I think this is what he means by the years of analysis and day of synthesis. (47). The work that Moretti describes is indicative of the ways in which many who utilize digital methods engage with subjects. They have exploded the canon. Frankly (and with apologies to Harold Bloom and to John Hunter, who recently pointed out to me that I am, in fact, a sort-of Shakespearean) the canon is no longer valuable to us. Digital forms of engagement help scholars to pursue questions across genre and medium. ” Distance,” Moretti writes, “allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text.” (48-9) The challenge, then, is that “we must acccept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge.” (49) Ok. We always have to leave something behind or out when we focus – however we choose to do that.

When he does talk about Digital Humanities explicitly, he points to the fact that we are about to come to the end of our “un-theoretical interlude.” (122) I think that’s right. There are others in the community who are talking about the same thing. I think there’s an eagerness about getting to this point. I’ll find a reference and add it here.

The one place where I will take issue with him, and where Moretti and I really went at it last night, is in the chapter “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.” After spending so much time explaining that he’s a specialist and therefore feels “like a charlatan” when it comes to world literature (45) why does he devote an entire chapter to Hamlet?  I get that he’s fond of Horatio (who isn’t?) but someone enlighten me as to why dramatic plot works better (?) for demonstration than any other kind of plot. Why not do this with Bleak House? And to a performance historian and theatre practitioner who also has to “stop working on the play proper, and work on a model” (218), there are much more compelling arguments about network that I think can be teased out through doubling charts. The only digital platform necessary is an Excel spreadsheet. Not even Google. Why can’t you have the same actor play Hamlet and Horatio (although that would be super cool)? What freaks the audience out when you have the same actor play the Ghost and Gertrude (that would also be super cool, and make the closet scene REALLY Freudian)? It has to do with who is talking to whom on stage or how many lines separate two characters’ bits of dialogue, affording an opportunity for the actor to dive offstage, change, and jump back on again. But sorry, I digress.

Ok. I’m late for work. In closing, many many thanks to Katie Faull for organizing this and for guiding us through the week and for keeping us on track when some of us started to veer off. And to Slava and to John for leading discussions. And to everyone in the group for being patient with me when I didn’t understand what you were talking about. I promise to do a better job with the reading next time.

About Diane Jakacki

Early digital modern humanist. #a11y #reluctantpugilist
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2 Responses to Different Reading

  1. faull says:

    Fantastic, thoughtful post, Diane! To me this shows that close reading of distant reading is a crucial act. I share your suspicion of the fetish objects of DH, whether they be human or digital, but Moretti models how we should work together in a reflective and transparent way. A translatable modus operandi?

  2. Pingback: The un/translatability of code? | Diane Jakacki

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