Reading data into literature

For several years, I’ve been following trends in data analysis in literary studies. As my PhD begins to come to a close, I turn my attention to a comprehensive study of ideas and methods of literary analysis that emerge from reading data into literature.

So, a short sweep:
Ten years ago, literary scholar Franco Moretti published Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, a fascinating re-approach to literary study whereby the data visualization of hundreds of literary texts’ narrative content (through graphs, maps, and trees) allows us to grasp larger trends in literary history.

Five years ago, Google Books & Harvard physicists attempted to quantify the English language through a database: drawing from millions of digitized literary texts, they mapped patterns in the literary usage of words through what is called “culturonomics,” whereby language is proven to reflect cultural atmospheres and change.

In the past five years, and with increasing urgency and interest, digital humanists and literary scholars have expanded methods of database analysis to consider the quantification of narrative. For example, through Stanford’s Literary Lab, Moretti combined network theory with plot analysis in theory and practice, furthering the intent of the digital humanities to unite new media tools with humanistic interpretation.

Given that we have created our own burden of information overload through the database (what I’d describe as a gluttonization or perversion of the archive that is less Foucault and more Kittler), it is inevitable that we now have to fix the repercussions of what once seemed to be “useful” strategies and tools, much in the same way that we must address pollution and climate change. With digital access to an abundance of literature that cannot be read by one person in a lifetime, the coping method is to read in a way that is described as “surface”-level or “shallow.” NK Hayles has described the practices of “hyper reading” and “machine reading”; Moretti, “distant reading”; and the research team of HathiTrust, “non-consumptive reading,” to name a few. My approach to the changing environment and stakes of literary analysis and humanities scholarship is to trace shifts in narrational method and comprehension. How do emerging approaches to literary analysis impact how we make narrative meaning?

And since this research project is in its nascency, that’s all I’ll post for now. Look for more in the upcoming months, or come see my paper “On the Value of Narrative in a Reflexive Digital Humanities” at CSDH (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) at the Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences in two weeks.

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