Where Would I Sit in DH at Lunch Tomorrow?

Our term is winding down, and the time to post my final blog entry has come. I thought that I might offer a general reflection this week on my perception of DH and how it has evolved over the course of this semester. My deliberations on DH, of course, are heavily influenced by its practitioners, and these remind me of characters from Mean Girls (2004) or any other dramatic interpretation of our most tumultuous formative years. That cafeteria could be a scary place. So, the important question (in a fun, not so important kind of way) becomes: where would I sit in DH at lunch tomorrow?

Reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) was, for several reasons, the ideal way to open this course. As many of our most memorable teachers have preached, this novel taught us that “different” is not synonymous with “wrong.” Distant reading and close reading both have significant purposes; lone scholarship and collaborative scholarship do not necessarily need to butt heads; and balance, harmony, or moderation can go a long way. Next, we first walked into that DH cafeteria, and was it ever flavourful. All the cliques were there, chatting: Marché and the DH naysayers, Nowviskie and the feminists, Underwood and the pragmatists. We were not there for a minute, however, still gathering our food trays, that the cool kids strutted through the door: Drucker and those other California-tanned alphas, claiming DH from under their elevated noses, bullying the humanists as useless in a world moving too fast. Bueller could have dealt with them, but we did not have Bueller. We had Franco Moretti.

Moretti was that kid with the motorcycle, flicking a cigarette to the curb as he walked in, always late to class yet never in trouble. Everybody talked about him, but nobody knew what to make of him. Needless to say, he sat wherever the hell he wanted to in the DH cafeteria. His presence alone seemed to jeopardize the elite position of the Californians and spark up some debate. Ultimately, even little Scheinfeldt stood up and asked “where’s the beef?” Then Ed Folsom bravely compared the database to the archive before some of the elite fought back and threw their tatter tots at him. They would not be defeated so easily.

The tide was turning, however, and it was too late. Those business boys bustled into the DH cafeteria and made off with almost all the data. Jockers, that geek, took what was left and got on a motorcycle of his own, flipping off those paying attention as he rode off. Moretti grinned, Ramsay applauded. The cafeteria was a disaster in the wake of these developments. I could sit anywhere I wanted to, today, but tomorrow, I would have to make a choice, deal with the aftermath of the events. So, where would it be?

I pondered.

Marché and his followers were spoiled brats. If they had any dignity, they would sit outside at the picnic tables tomorrow. Drucker and those others were not all bad: they raised some highly important issues in DH. They just brought it too far – or not enough. Moretti and Jockers were the cool kids, but they were anarchists. Following them blindly would be unwise. Ramsay tried too hard. Folsom was taking a victory lap. So, where to sit?

Since I was in doubt, why not sit with the doubters and hold the fort? Yes, that would be wisest. Not that taking a position is bad, but, if I am not sure of my position, what is the harm of sitting with the people asking the right questions? I put my tray back on the counter and started towards the doors. I would eat at home. As I got to the door, I gave little Scheinfeldt a wink. He smiled and dipped into his pudding.


Knowledge is Power, or Power is Knowledge

Our reading of and subsequent discussion on Big Data (2013) last week pushed me to think both publicly and privately, as our classes always do, and this time about power distribution. Shada especially, via her interests in copyright issues, made strong arguments about data and to whom it belongs, or should belong. To me, these concerns echo Francis Bacon’s now familiar claim that “knowledge is power,” and those words could not be any more frightening than they are today.

Alongside our concerns about data, who uses it, and how it is used surfaced the topic of “business ethics” and how the writers of Big Data oppose these to the villains that are governments and their ethics, or purportedly lack thereof. Generally, we agreed that large corporations more often than not run governments, and so we would all rather see our data in the figurative hands of our governments rather than in those of these corporations. The second wave, led by Sahar, I believe, counter-argued that governments are not the most trustworthy of institutions, either. I think therein lies the key word: institutions. Institutions and their use of power in the pursuit of knowledge or their use of knowledge in the pursuit of power. The question then becomes: where do we, the public, fit into this dynamic?

Ethics come back into play here; not “business ethics” but “institutional ethics” in general. On the opposite side sits the public, desperately trying to hold onto its vulnerable data. These are the two players in the power struggle, with knowledge at stake: institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility for its data.

Imagine a teeter-totter: if the institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility toward its own data are balanced, the stakes are equal for both sides. The less ethics are involved on the institution’s end, the more the public must be wary of the protection of its data, and it ends up “hung out to dry,” as they say. Unfortunately, this dynamic seems to be the trend today, and the reciprocal benefits of knowledge and power seem to be almost unstoppable from the perspective of the institutions. Fortunately, however, digitization of the world has also made communication among humanists, of all people, much easier. Through awareness as well as small and large scale battles, beginning with those taking place in our class, humanists might be able to be the big kids that lend a hand and balance out the teeter-totter.

Now, shifting from the public to the private: never forget that universities are also institutions and, as a result, have a particular interest in sitting opposite to you on the aforementioned teeter-totter. Our recent discussion in class with Professor Quamen with respect to what your actual goals are in writing a dissertation, as well as my own recent experiences in these matters, make me realize that these power struggles are much closer to home than we (or I, at least) would like.

Since our blog format allows me to do so, I will digress from the public sphere to my particular situation and talk about these power struggles and how they directly affect us. As some of you know, I have to fly back home to New Brunswick next week to defend my MA thesis. My MA is of a comparative nature, and the stipulations are, essentially, that my thesis engage with primary texts in both French and English (a bit odd, since a comparative project should by no means be reduced to this type of condition), that its length be of approximately one hundred pages, and that I provide a ten-page summary of the thesis in the other language than the one I have chosen to write it in. (A considerable amount of work to be done in under one calendar year, so I hope you all will not judge too harshly that I am only defending now.) Evidently, I must also defend this thesis in front of a jury. My defence consists of a thirty to forty-minute presentation of my thesis, oscillating between both languages, of course, followed by a question period from my jury. Before my defence, I am to know whether I failed, passed, or passed my thesis with distinction, as well as receive the commentary from my jury members in order to prepare for and anticipate questions at the defence itself. The jury has four weeks to read my thesis and pass along their evaluations to me.

These stipulations are quite fair, especially considering those final lines. Except that, due to the power dynamics, I am the only one actually constricted by these rules of engagement.

I am not certain how one fails a thesis: your supervisor must approve every step of the way, so unless he or she missed a fairly blatant bit of plagiarism, failing is hard to imagine. If I did fail, though, whatever intellectual property I owned is almost out of my hands. The power would sweep up my knowledge and I could, in reality, probably not do much about the fact.

I followed the rules in submitting my thesis. My jury, for its part, does not seem too invested in rules when suitable to its timeline. My thesis has been in their hands for five weeks, and I have yet to hear of my “passing,” never mind of any comments that would help me prepare for my defence, even though they are my right. I defend in nine days, and the clock keeps ticking. Again, the power is definitely one-sided.

Money is, as always, another issue of power. I must pay out of my own pocket (a lot of money) to fly back to New Brunswick and defend this thesis. Of course, this fact is not my current university’s problem, nor is it my past university’s problem: it did not choose to study across the country, right? Students, evidently, are not allowed to defend their thesis via video conferences: only professors that are part of the jury may do so. Power sticks with power.

I could go on and on with respect to this topic, and you can presumably tell it is close to my heart (and my thoughts, and my wallet), but I feel that we do a proper job of keeping academia and its institutions in check during our classes. I only hoped to remind you to not take anything for granted: yes, our university is progressive, relatively-speaking, but we as humanists in the big, bad age of knowledge as power and power as knowledge can never let our guards down.

Keep on fighting the good fight.

In-Between… Whatever That Means

Over my last couple of years as a graduate student (consumed by the ambiguity and paradox championed by the postructuralists and what these meant for Canadian postmodernism), and even more recently in my classes here, I’ve been caught “in-between” ideas. My “Affect Theory” class in particular presented me with The Affect Theory Reader (2010), which defines its subject as “aris[ing] in the midst of in-between-ness (1; not my emphasis). The question of in between what is constantly changing, depending on who’s arguing and what they’re arguing, but while the concept of in-between-ness promotes vagueness, I can’t help but find that the most productive work is often found within the parameters of this loosely-defined limbo.

I’m thinking back to our discussion this past week, specifically with respect to Stephen Ramsay and his apparent difficulty in choosing a stance on structuralism/poststructuralism in Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (2011). Professor Quamen voiced his frustrations on the matter while providing a comprehensive visual aid, which went something like (or exactly like, since I copied it) this:

Structuralism               |             Poststructuralism

Text                             |             Reading

“Deep” structure         |

Formalism                   |

Algorithm (my addition)

While I completely agree with Professor Quamen that Ramsay could have done a better job to establish his position in dealing with these two critical perspectives, I do side with the creation of a “space” between the two which allows for scholarly productivity.

Binary oppositions such as this one, if we take into account our own class discussions, clearly foster positive conversations. Considering our general agreement that we need both close and distant reading in our varied analyses and that both the “Big Tent” and narrow definitions of Digital Humanities have their merits, “in-between-ness” seems to sound less silly than its initial vagueness suggests. Of course, this vagueness represents the danger for us scholars: you can be judged as wrong or right if you take a specific stance on one end of the opposition or the other, but the act of playing in the middle warrants attacks on the grounds that you have no idea what you’re doing altogether and are simply strategically playing both sides. Maybe that’s okay, though? Maybe “algorithmic criticism” is a way to shift these possible “attacks” unto the “computing” element of humanistic computing, or Digital Humanities? Hmm…

Regardless, what I would like to read, and maybe I will with people like Jockers coming up soon in our readings, is an assertive stance “in-between” the opposed arguments, in the realm of possibilities. To use the maritime metaphor that my Acadian soul won’t let me deny: I would like to see a digital humanist purposefully place himself in the eye of the storm and say “these are the conflicts of today, but what both sides are missing out on is the view that I have here, in the middle of the battlefield, flashing sword to my left and battered shield to my right.”

Moretti’s nonchalant position there, in-between, and Ramsay’s confused one represent a start, but let’s have a brave soul deliberately put his or herself in no man’s land and come back with a token of veracity that we can all respect.

Trick or “Tree”: Moretti’s Little Joke

Reading the blogs of my colleagues, I find myself in awe of the truly intellectual debates on display as well as unsure of my own feelings towards the Digital Humanities. Are canons evil? Does Franco Moretti represent the Second Coming? Should I close these porn tabs? Okay, just kidding about those first two. But seriously, though, you have all forced me to think, to look back, and to consider the outside of the proverbial box. And I think that is the point of it all, considering how I felt reading Moretti’s work this past week.

Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005) or, rather, its style of argumentation (or lack thereof) left me perplexed this past week. Most of us can agree that his most assertive claim throughout the work is that he has no idea what he is doing. And yet, we can also surmise that the man with such eloquence in explaining the difference between Power-law and a Gaussian curve (2011: 85) has a certain deliberateness about him. We have already discussed in class how this deceitful technique might possibly benefit the Digital Humanities, since outsiders might feel more welcome in learning about the trade; however, we have yet to discuss exactly how Moretti goes about doing this beyond his apparent, and quite shallow, self-deprecation. Moretti undermines outsiders on more than this single, superficial basis. In fact, he does so by, in what I would almost describe as a satirical act, blurring the “traditional” values of close and distant reading.

  1. Let’s talk about titles. On one hand, consider the titles we have encountered in class: many establish distinct perceptions of the Digital Humanities, set up opposing definitions, or take the form of suggestive questions and declarations on the subject. Golumbia: “‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions” (2013) and “Definitions that Matter” (2013); Nowviskie: “What Do Girls Dig?” (2011); Pannapacker: “Digital Humanities Triumphant?” (2011); Underwood: “Why digital humanities isn’t actually ‘the next thing in literary studies’” (2011) and, going down the list of readings on our syllabus, a significant amount of others. On the other hand, consider Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: can a title be any more neutrally descriptive? I have a difficult time believing that anyone reading this title could describe him as a literary “heretic,” “hell-bent on the way we talk about literature.” The obvious refutation to this argument goes something like “well, of course not, these comments are based on the contents of the book, as any good close reader will tell you.” But is it that obvious?
  2. We also discussed in class how Moretti does not condemn close reading. He claims that “[q]uantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations… and that is of course also its limit: it provides data, not interpretation” (9; Moretti’s emphasis). Of maps, he explains that “they are a good way to prepare a text for analysis” (53). To any close readers, then, Moretti is evidently not discounting close reading at all. He is simply pointing out that distant reading is a good “funnel,” or explanation, to get us into close reading, or interpretation. So far, neither Moretti’s title nor his argument seem to warrant the passive-aggressive reviews on the covers of his book. The maths in those graphs must be the cause…
  3. Or not. Moretti’s graphs are anything but scientific: he does not define their axes, as we mentioned, nor do these particular graphs depict intricate mathematical concepts like the Power-law or Gaussian curve. Rather, they are purely Cartesian: an x (quantitative, sometimes within a specific space) figure for every y (temporal) figure. Moreover, his ultimate graph quantifies and situates novelistic genres (23), the close readers’ accordingly close friends. Of course, we pointed out in class that he does not provide us with his data. But this is because it is the data of others: literary criticism. That is correct: close readers have already compiled all of this data over the years. They have been doing the devil’s work this whole time. Moretti simply shows us the data in graphs so that we can make the interpretations over longer periods that close readers have been making between overlapping genres for centuries (remember Professor Quamen’s example of Frankenstein 1818). What a twist! Is this bastardization of close reading what everybody is so riled up about?
  4. Or is the bastardization of close reading present in the “Trees” chapter? The tree that is “Figure 30” is a helpful demonstration of clues in detective fiction (73). I would argue that studying all of these works to determine the quantity of clues, as well as to what degree of success they are incorporated in each work, represents a diligent close reading. But to show what the implications of this close reading are on a larger scale? Heresy!

I guess what I am trying to show with these examples is the wit behind Moretti’s work. His examples of distant reading are always grounded on and inseparable from close reading, and a close reading of his distant reading clearly shows this inseparability. This invites the following question: are his critics in cahoots with him, or are they actually bad at close reading and miss his message? Such as, for example, how Swift’s intentions in “A Modest Proposal” (1729) flew over readers’ heads. I would like to believe the latter, and that Moretti enjoys a good chuckle upon reading his critics before closing his laptop and picking up a Doyle novel by its broken spine.

Blog 1: Tensions Between Distant and Close Reading in Penumbra

At stake in Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) is the answer to the (digital) age-old question of who has it right, the distant or the close readers? Champions of exclusively one side or the other, however, find that the truth, or at least Penumbra’s, is “like kissing your sister,” in that both distant and close readers have their uses in the contemporary treatment of information. Penumbra makes this clear with two major events: first, Clay inserts the data from a logbook, compiled by Google, into his data visualization programme, which allows him to solve what he comes to know as the “Founder’s Puzzle” (94-95). Second, once Clay understands more of the Unbroken Spine and Google fails to crack the code of the Founder’s (Manutius) codex vitae with all their resources, he tracks down the original Gerritszoon punches, which is the typeset of the codex vitae and, with the aid of his favourite novelist and former member of the Unbroken Spine Clark Moffat’s audiobook, finds that the code was in the typography all along (265-266). Penumbra’s plot thus revolves around a first act of distant reading, then finds resolution in an act of close reading, showing the value of both methods.

While these two events are central to the novel, other, subtler examples also reflect the tensions at work between close and distant reading. Clay represents the medium between both, for instance, but other characters stand in stark contrast to one another. Penumbra is evidently representative of the open-minded scholar, receptive to Clay’s use of technology to distant-read the pattern in the Founder’s Puzzle, while Corvina is the lone scholar, refusing to rely on any other methods but the close reading of the texts. The two women in Clay’s life, Kat and Ashley, also follow the rules of this tensional relationship. Kat, the Googler and data visualization specialist, is the ultimate champion of distant reading methods, while Ashley, the rock-climber, is deeply appreciative of details and thus promoter of close reading. Characters in Penumbra, therefore, also embody these two methodologies of reading.

Finally, even space in Sloan’s novel reflects the tensions between distant and close reading with respect to the two major cities featured in Penumbra: San Francisco and New York. As Clay puts it, San Francisco is “a good place for walks if your legs are strong” (6). The city, with its hills and vistas, gives the impression of a vast space with a unique landscape. In other words, a space to look upon within the context of distant reading. When Clay finds himself in New York with Kat and Neel, however, readers notice the difference in space, as Neel points out to Kate that she “[does not] have enough memory” (128) at Google to model New York. The city simply has too many details for a distant read: it needs to be examined closely, or by a close reading. The fact that Corvina is established in New York while Penumbra is established in San Francisco is thus not coincidental. Even space suggests a tension between distant and close reading. The significant events in Penumbra, as well as characters and even space, among other elements, undoubtedly, promote at once distant and close reading. If Clay’s success offers any insight, it is that fruitfulness is found in harmony between both methodologies. Perhaps, then, that scholars should cut Moretti some slack.

ENGL 575 – Digital Humanities

Hello, all, and welcome to my blog for our Digital Humanities class. I apologize for the Joyce theme, but a significant amount of bloggers by the name of “Matt Cormier” seem to have claimed every possible variation of website by that name. Regardless, this will be my first experience as a “keyboard warrior,” and I hope to engage in productive scholarly banter with you all. Cheers.