September 2009

Literature and Data
(Theory & Media Studies Colloquium, Yale Univ., Oct. 7, 2009)

How a Romantic Became a Digital Humanist
Tom Swift

  • The Two Cultures
  • The Sense of History and Information Culture

Selected UCSB English Department Digital Initiatives

Department Projects

Collaborative Research or Curricular Development


Experimental Courses

  • English 194: Creativity and Collaboration
  • English 194: Literature+ (Spring 2007)
  • English 149: Literature+ (Winter 2008)
  • English 149: Literature+ (Winter 2009; co-taught with James Donelan)
  • English 236: Literature+ (Winter 2008)
  • Toy Chest (Online or Downloadable Tools for Building Projects)

  • See A. Liu, “Literature+”.
    Currents in Electronic Literacy (Spring 2008). <>

    • Ideal Conclusion

      There has never been a time when world issues on the scale of globalism, terrorism, and the environment have created such a need for radical interdisciplinarity in the academy. There has never been a time when the digital tools facilitating such interdisciplinarity have been more accessible, shareable, and useable. And, from the point of view of our students (who are idealistic about the future but also worried about their careers after graduation), there has also never been a time when the workplace seems more to reward “knowledge workers” able to collaborate via digital technologies across expertises, departments, firms, and nations. My Literature+ courses are packed, drawing students from many disciplines who sense that they are in the pipeline, for better or worse, to such a future. Can the humanities prepare its students not just to survive but to shape the future into what might be called, in complementarity to Literature+ , Dataset+? I mean by this a view of the world that exceeds the usual spreadsheets, databases, reports, and other bleak expressive forms that today sum up the knowledge of business, government, etc., to afford some measure of ethical intelligence, social awareness, communicational fluency, aesthetic/design sensibility, and other cultural quotients of a robust human knowledge?

      Of course, a skeptic responding to such idealism might be suspicious that asking students to take a literary work and do anything with it other than literary interpretation in preparation for a more robust knowledge work can only be a recipe for dilution, popularization, and philistinism. But I have rarely, if ever, seen students more truly engaged with literature than in these courses, where they decide what is essential about a work that must be modeled in new paradigms and technologies so as to make literary experience tractable and manipulable in other disciplinary world views. During the studio/lab classes, I rotate among student teams to ask such questions as, “So what is this work really about? What does your project have to carry over no matter what?” Given that responsibility, students act as if they were at the sensitive stick of a jet fighter called literature.


What is the Relation of Literary Study to Data?

  • Exempla:
    • Shaun Sanders, Textones I, Textones II
    • Jeremy Douglass (and Lev Manovich), Cultural Analytics Project (Software Studies Program, UC San Diego)
    • Hans Rosling, demo of GapMinder software at TED (2006)
      (TED = Technology, Entertainment, Design annual conference, Monterey, CA)

      • Bio: "Rosling began his wide-ranging career as a physician, spending many years in rural Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease (which he named konzo) and discovering its cause: hunger and badly processed cassava. He co-founded Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) Sweden, wrote a textbook on global health, and as a professor at the Karolinska Institut in Stockholm initiated key international research collaborations. He’s also personally argued with many heads of state, including Fidel Castro."
    • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005)
  • Some Questions:
    • What is the relation of literary study to data?

      • What do we gain, and what do we lose with "distant reading"?

      • Whither "interpretation"?

      • What is the relation between data and aesthetics?
Selected Quotations and Concepts
  • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005):

    Moretti collage“But within that old territory [of literature], a new object of study: instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs–graphs, maps, and trees–in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction. ‘Distant reading,’ I have once call 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 interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models” (p. 1).

  • Willard McCarty, Humanities Computing (2005):

    “By ‘modelling’ I mean the heuristic process of constructing and manipulating models: a ‘model’ I take to be either a representation of something for purposes of study, or a design for realizing something new…. Two effects of computing sharpen the distinction between ‘concept’ on the one hand and the ‘model’ on the other: first, the computational demand for tractability, i.e. for complete explicitness and absolute consistency; second, the manipulability that a digital representation provides…. Take, for example, knowledge one might have of a particular concentration in a deeply familiar work of literature. In modelling one begins by privileging this knowledge, however wrong it might later turn out to be, then building a computational representation of it, e.g. by specifying a structured vocabulary of word-forms in a text-analysis tool. In the initial stages of use, this model would be almost certain to reveal trivial errors of omission and commission. Gradually, however, through perfective iteration trivial error is replaced by meaningful surprise . . . either by a success we cannot explain . . . or by a likewise inexplicable failure” (pp. 24, 25, 25-26)

  • Lisa Samuels and Jerome J. McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1999):

    “The usual object of interpretation is “meaning,” or some set of ideas that can be cast in thematic form. These meanings are sought in different ways: as though resident ‘in’ the work, or evoked through ‘reader-response,’ or deconstructable through a process that would reinstall a structure of intelligibility at a higher, more critical level…. In this paper we want to propose–or recall–another way of engaging imaginative work…. The alternative moves to break beyond conceptual analysis into the kinds of knowledge involved in performative operations–a practice of everyday imaginative life. We will argue that concept-based interpretation, reading along thematic lines, is itself best understood as a particular type of performative and rhetorical operation…. In an undated fragment on a leaf of stationery, Emily Dickinson wrote what appears to be one of her ‘letters to the world’: ‘Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have–a Something overtakes the Mind’ (Prose Fragment 30)…. Our deformations do not flee from the question, or the generation, of ‘meaning.’ Rather, they try to demonstrate–the way one demonstrates how to make something, or do something … that ‘meaning’ in imaginative work is a secondary phenomenon, a kind of meta-data, what Blake called a form of worship ‘Dependent’ upon some primary poetical tale. This point of view explains why, in our deformative maneuvers, interpretive lines of thought spin out of some initial nondiscursive ‘experiment’ with the primary materials. ‘Meaning’ is important not as explanation but as residue. It is what is left behind after the experiment has been run” (pp. 26, 48).

  • The unstable continuum between modeling and interpreting:

    • Model
    • Adaptation
    • Translation
    • Performance
    • Rendering
    • Simulation
    • Deformance
    • Edition
    • Interpretation

Citation: “Digital Humanities and Academic Change.” English Language Notes 47 (2009): 17-35

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