Infernal Machine   /   April 1, 2014

The New Heresy

Brianne Alcala

The recent diatribes, or here, against the digital humanities, aren't really about the digital humanities. They do make disparate and disparaging claims about projects that combine computational resources and interpretive skill to map literary genres, discern gradual changes in literary periodization and form, or simply curate our cultural traditions. Such projects, suggest their critics, tell us things we already know; they smack of a small-minded professionalism interested only in method; they suffer from science envy; and, they lack imagination and wonder. All because they dare to think with numbers.

Last week my Infernal Machine colleague Andrew Piper suggested that all this fuss about quantification and data is the new anti-intellectualism. I think he's right, but there is something else at stake for these breathless skeptics. Their denunciations of digital humanities are not just a tired rehashing of C.P. Snow's "two cultures" argument about the mutual incomprehension of the humanities and science. (For that read that latest spat between Stephen Pinker and Leon Wieseltier.) They represent the unveiling of the literary sacred.

One recent dismissal of the digital humanities opens with a sympathetic vignette depicting how charismatic Franco Moretti, the impresario of Stanford's Literary Lab and author of Distant Reading, can be, but it ends with an emphatic claim about what reading, books, and literature are really all about. "Books," as blogger Rachel Cardasco declares, "are NOT data, they're books":

Ultimately [..] reading is the act of running your eyes across the page and processing the words into images, sounds, feelings, and ideas. We talk to each other about books, we read passages out loud to one another. We lovingly arrange books on shelves or in piles. We download hundreds of them onto our devices. And we immerse ourselves in the stories they tell. So don’t talk to me about data, Franco, my dear. I simply don’t want to hear about it. I’m busy reading.

Don't disturb the devotee while she reads, worships, prays–to literature. What is under threat is not just a particular practice of reading but deep assumptions about the very nature of literature. Digital humanities is a heretical intrusion into a sacred space. It dares to treat literature as a field of knowledge that could be cultivated with qualitative interpretation, as well as statistics, graphs, and data sets. Don't sully my literature with your data because the quiet, close repose of reading is where I transform myself.

Mark Edmundson echoes Matthew Arnold when he describes literature as a replacement for religious faith:

 If religious faith wanes in the world–or in a given individual–then the next likely source of meaning may well be literature. The literature we have come to value, most especially the novel, is by and large anti-transcendental. It does not offer a vision of the world as existing under the guidance of a deity. It suggests, though often it does not assert, that we humans have to make our own way without the strains and the comforts of faith.

After the death of God, literature is a resource for self-transformation, and reading–closely, caringly, silently–is one of our modern liturgies.

It wasn't always this way. Until the end of the eighteenth century, literature referred to everything that had been printed. It wasn't until around 1800 that it was used to refer to a particular kind of writing. Only when there was too much literature did Literature become a distinct category. In 1803 Wilhelm Schlegel, a German Romantic and one of the first scholars of Literature, lamented the pitiful state of German reading and writing. Given the ready availability of printed texts, German readers no longer read with "devotion but rather with a thoughtless distraction." To remedy this situation he invoked Literature as a particular kind of writing that had been filtered and sorted from among the surfeit of all that had been printed. What was needed to remedy the sorry condition of German literature and thought more generally, claimed Schlegel, was a normative, critical category that would separate the good books from the bad ones and help readers make their way through the proliferation of print. Literature was not simply a "raw aggregate of books"; it was a source of spiritual relief and discovery.

For some, the digital humanities threatens to interrupt this experience of Literature by reducing texts to an aggregation of data points. These contemporary cultural anxieties echo similar anxieties that accompanied the desacralizaiton of other kinds of texts. Consider the double bind of seventeenth and early eighteenth-century British scholars of the Bible. With the profusion of apocryphal material and new scholarly methods, they pioneered forms of inquiry that many worried would undermine the divine authority of the Bible. The enumeration of 30,000 variants among various Biblical manuscripts by the Oxford scholar John Mill, claimed some, made the Bible seem all too human. Something similar happened when eighteen-century German philologists like Friedrich A. Wolf, flush with newly discovered information and refined techniques of philological criticism, suggested that the Odyssey was not the result of one author, Homer, but the product of textual accretion over time—just as biblical scholars had eventually concluded about the Old Testament. Similar to biblical scholars, Wolf thought, as Anthony Grafton puts it, that he faced a choice: he could either save Homer as creator and obliterate the text or save the text and destroy the author—a figure who had become a model for humanist education.

Both of these examples concern data-driven violations of sacred texts, and so too do contemporary worries about digital humanities. Literary theories from the radically deconstructive to the deeply historicist have long interrupted our reading experiences, but they have done so within the bounds of close-reading liturgies. Digital humanities violates this consummate exhortation of the practice of Literature. It is the new heresy.

We live, or so the sociologists of religion tell us, in a post-secular age. Experiences of the sacred have not been extinguished by the bright light of reason and the overblown promises made on behalf of science. These self-consciously secular anxieties about a future without literary critics and close reading give the lie to the notion that we've given up the sacred. For some, Literature is a sacred realm that should remain set apart from the mundane details of life and the profane distortions of data.