Tags

, ,

I found that this article, by Stephen Marche titled Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, was very thought provoking as far as polemic goes. Of course literature isn’t just mere “data”; but I also think that data about literature can still give you insight into it. One of the comments, by “mad scientist”, sums up the biggest problem with this critique when it says:

… simply to insist — again — on the ineffable mystery of literature isn’t particularly interesting.

Literature, like all art, does have an element of “ineffable mystery” but that’s not the only thing it has.

Anyway the entire polemic seems to me to be misplaced. It might be a new feeling for academics of English literature to be relying on databases and software tools but I suspect most modern Classicists simply couldn’t live without their Perseus or Brepolis access. Perhaps because Classicists are also nearly always Classical Historians and many of us have a close relationship with Archaeology and Archaeologists. Many of us Are Archeologists first and foremost (I’m not, however). Those of us trained in the Internet Age are completely normalised to the idea of databases and digital resources. Many of us have pocket Latin and Greek dictionaries in the form of smartphone applications.

But I think, in the Classical field, it goes to something deeper. Our field has always had an element of this: lonely scholars slaving over commentaries, compiling dictionaries or creating concordances. I certainly do not envy those who came before us and built up databases of texts with an index for every unique word stem used in it! That, to me sounds like such an amazingly stultifying job description, I’m glad I live in an age when all that prior hard word can be digitised and automated and made available for my daily use at the touch of a button!

But there’s also a great insight that I think is yet to be fully realised. For example, the creation and classifying of stemma codicum, so important to us in understanding how the literature has been transmitted to us through the ages, I think may be an area that will benefit from future computational insights. Another could be understanding the relationship of texts and authors; and the identification of insertions and errata another. These are things which were once done by hand, now the use of computers can speed them up and let scholars do the important work of humanist analysis and understanding rather than the mere donkey-work of collating word-frequency tables and transmission of stylistic markers in different works. Where the understanding of texts intersects with the understanding of history, the use of computational analysis, like that of definitive archaeological data before that, will also help us to sharpen our focus and broaden our horizons.

I for one welcome our new computer overlords.