A Science of Literature: Book Reviews

Writing for the Boston Review, Ben Merriam provides a critique of the digital humanities, from a scientific perspective. He reviews four recently published books on the topic: Distant ReadingFranco Moretti; The Bourgeois: Between History and LiteratureFranco Moretti; Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary HistoryMatthew Jockers; Text Analysis with R for Students of LiteratureMatthew Jockers. Merriam writes:

For some years, humanities scholars have sought to integrate computing technology into their research. These efforts—the “digital humanities”—have inspired public debate well out of proportion to the number of researchers involved or the scope of their findings. P.T. Barnums and Chicken Littles have proclaimed that computation will mark the end of humanistic inquiry. Actual literary research in this vein suggests otherwise.

Much of this work is driven by tools rather than by questions; when scholars have the means to manipulate large bodies of text, they will fiddle with the data and see what happens. To the extent that digital projects do have clear goals, they tend to yield recognizably humanist products, such as a new edition of a book, a map of the places discussed in a narrative, or attribution of authorship to a formerly anonymous text.

The literary scholar Franco Moretti and his colleagues, most notably Matthew Jockers, are exceptions: their project of “distant reading,” developed steadily over more than a decade, has an ambitious, nontraditional goal. In its strongest formulation, it seeks to explain long-term patterns of literary stability and change through the quantitative study of all surviving literary texts. Forms of change include large developments, such as the rise and fall of novel genres, already recognized by critics, but also many small shifts, such as changes in sentence structure, the gradual emergence of themes, or the increased use of locative prepositions, which are readily detected with statistics but mostly unnoticeable to a human reader. Jockers’s nascent work on novel plots, which suggests that nearly all novels conform to a half dozen basic structures, derives from many small measurements concerning the emotional sentiment of individual sentences.

This is an unmistakably scientific aspiration. Unfortunately, few scientists, or social scientists, have taken notice of this body of work, while humanists have responded to it in a remarkably partisan fashion. The main difficulty is that two distinct issues have been blurred. The first is legitimate disagreement about the goals of humanistic inquiry. But both critics and proponents tend to jump straight to a second, larger conflict about the transformation of the university and the proper place of the humanities in education and intellectual life. These are important value questions; however, the work of these digital humanists should not be expected to answer them.

The results of this earnest scientific project are mixed. Moretti and Jockers are obviously enthusiastic, and in many cases their findings are interesting and surprising. (As a frequent reader of academic social science, I wish more scholars could make statistics seem so exciting.) But there are serious conceptual difficulties. While this work presents extensive new descriptions of literary change, it has not persuasively explained the causes of that change. The evidence available—published texts—is not sufficient to explain it. The statistics used in these works are mainly descriptive, and the faith placed in these descriptions is limited. A table or graph is treated as an object to be interpreted. In this and many other respects, distant reading remains a recognizably humanistic practice.

For the full article, see here.