Objectivity & Digital Humanities

I find Glen Worthey’s post about the relationship between Digital Humanities & Russian Formalism really compelling. He gives a useful  overview of russain formalist criticism and then suggests:

“I’m here to proclaim that the digital humanities are a 21st-century version of Russian Formalism of a hundred years ago.  … we digital humanists – including us digital humanities librarians – in some sense have all come out of Eikhenbaum’s great essay, and out of the foundational writings, approaches, and ideas from Eikhenbaum’s fellow Formalists.”

Worthy sees a continuity between the Russian formalist search for objectivity in the text and the digital humanities effort to render a text an object & to discover the quantifiable qualities of text and corpora. He writes:

“In approaching the literary text, we focus on “how it’s made” – how literary history, genre systems, narrative lines, character networks, and even language itself are “made.”  Like the Russian Formalists, we in the textual digital humanities focus on “The Word as Such” (to use the title of a manifesto by two poets who were close comrades to the Formalists, Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov); the advantage we claim in a particular digital approach is that we can do that at scale: our focus can be telescopic.  But the object in view is very much the same as that of our predecessors.”

One can argue about the different kinds of digital humanities practices — many of which are far more / less invested in this formalist practice than others — but I think Worthey’s ideas make a lot of sense, especially in terms of provoking DH practitioners to investigate the function of the “words as such” in their DH interventions.

If Russian Formalism sought to make literary study a more “objective” kind of analysis, we know that objectivity is always infused with différance. In this sense what do we mean when we talk about the “words as such”? Can our DH tools — whatever they happen to be — give us some access to the words as such or do they do a better job revealing (only partially) the field of différance in which those words accumulate their meaning? This is a long way of asking what we mean when we talk about the objectivity of a text in DH contexts.

It seems to me that provocations like this are best understood as raising the issue of interpretation which may get lost amongst the algorithmic acrobatics and awe-inspiring data visualizations that often accompany DH projects. Its certainly useful for me in my own work to think about the manner in which interpretation must shape my understanding of the accumulated “data” on Austin Clarke’s writing. In other words, what crucial acts of interpretation are involved in transforming the data of DH into a literary argument? If DH’ers are concerned with “How Its Made” then we need to turn that gaze back on our own projects & consider the methodology of our own computation & argumentative work.

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