Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Ted Underwood

More could be said about specific claims in “The Computational Case.” But frankly, this forum isn’t happening because literary critics were persuaded by (or repelled by) Da’s statistical arguments. The forum was planned before publication because the essay’s general strategy was expected to make waves. Social media fanfare at the roll-out made clear that rumors of a “field-killing” project had been circulating for months among scholars who might not yet have read the text but were already eager to believe that Da had found a way to hoist cultural analytics by its own petard—the irrefutable authority of mathematics.

That excitement is probably something we should be discussing. Da’s essay doesn’t actually reveal much about current trends in cultural analytics. But the excitement preceding its release does reveal what people fear about this field—and perhaps suggest how breaches could be healed.

While it is undeniably interesting to hear that colleagues have been anticipating your demise, I don’t take the rumored plans for field-murder literally. For one thing, there’s no motive: literary scholars have little to gain by eliminating other subfields. Even if quantitative work had cornered a large slice of grant funding in literary studies (which it hasn’t), the total sum of all grants in the discipline is too small to create a consequential zero-sum game.

The real currency of literary studies is not grant funding but attention, so I interpret excitement about “The Computational Case” mostly as a sign that a large group of scholars have felt left out of an important conversation. Da’s essay itself describes this frustration, if read suspiciously (and yes, I still do that). Scholars who tried to critique cultural analytics in a purely external way seem to have felt forced into an unrewarding posture—“after all, who would not want to appear reasonable, forward-looking, open-minded?” (p. 603). What was needed instead was a champion willing to venture into quantitative territory and borrow some of that forward-looking buzz.

Da was courageous enough to try, and I think the effects of her venture are likely to be positive for everyone. Literary scholars will see that engaging quantitative arguments quantitatively isn’t all that hard and does produce buzz. Other scholars will follow Da across the qualitative/quantitative divide, and the illusory sharpness of the field boundary will fade.

Da’s own argument remains limited by its assumption that statistics is an alien world, where humanistic guidelines like “acknowledge context” are replaced by rigid hypothesis-testing protocols. But the colleagues who follow her will recognize, I hope, that statistical reasoning is an extension of ordinary human activities like exploration and debate. Humanistic principles still apply here. Quantitative models can test theories, but they are also guided by theory, and they shouldn’t pretend to answer questions more precisely than our theories can frame them. In short, I am glad Da wrote “The Computational Case” because her argument has ended up demonstrating—as a social gesture—what its text denied: that questions about mathematical modeling are continuous with debates about interpretive theory.

TED UNDERWOOD is professor of information sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published in venues ranging from PMLA to the IEEE International Conference on Big Data and is the author most recently of Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019).

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One response to “Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

  1. Pingback: Computational Literary Studies: A Critical Inquiry Online Forum | In the Moment

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