Franco Moretti on what digital humanities can and cannot do

Here’s a snippet from Franco Moretti’s 2016 interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books as part of its series “The Digital in the Humanities.”  My book project has no connection with digital humanities; but, just as Moretti observes that one can do things in/with digital humanities that one cannot do in traditional approaches to reading and writing about texts and vice versa, the same is also true of the various critical approaches to texts within traditional scholarship.

I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work. You can’t possibly know this, but when my last two books were going to be published — Distant Reading and The Bourgeois — I convinced my publisher (and it took some convincing) to have them come out on the same day because they were for me two sides of the coin of the work I tried to do. And what I find potentially interesting is that the two sides don’t add up to a whole. I do things in the mode of Distant Reading that I could never do in the mode of The Bourgeois. But it also works the other way around. When I write a book with zero digital humanities content, or very little, like The Bourgeois, I find myself doing things that I cannot do with the other approach. Exactly what things are available in the one and in the other and are they mutually exclusive, I still haven’t figured out how to think about this. But for me, this is going to be the problem for the years to come because I don’t want to give up any of these two realities. They are equally dear to me.

For whatever it might be worth to you reading this, I’ve been thinking about this a bit regarding my own reading and writing.

I find myself pulled toward both older theoretical models for talking in general terms about writing from this hemisphere, and toward critical and theoretical writing on Latin America that originates in those countries to the south of us.  In the back of my mind, I’ve been wrestling some with the worry that my work, in one sense, is pretty old fashioned in its overall approach.  For example, Richard Poirier’s 1966(!) book, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature, still seems valuable to me: I see his argument (that much American writing seeks to use language (“style”) to carve out places of resistance to prevailing modes of thinking) played out not just in the books he covers but also in American novels written long after his book was written.  But when I also see Poirier’s argument echoed in Julio Ortega’s characterization of Spanish-American literature as “the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama,” well: what’s a feller to do except say, “You know, this argument just might have something to it”?  And that leads me to my second observation, which seems blindingly obvious to me: that writers from Latin America have theorized about their culture’s response(s) to their shared histories as colonies and then as independent nations, and that people in the United States writing about those cultural productions might want to know about those theoretical approaches.  That we tend not to know about them reveals in part, I think, an extension of ages-old cultural bias against Spanish culture in favor of British and Continental European culture and thought (because of Spain’s oddball history relative to that of the rest of Europe–which is to say, it just doesn’t fit neatly into big, sweeping generalizations about “Europe”).  But that’s a whole other matter.

To circle back to Moretti’s observation again about different critical approaches allowing us to do things that other approaches don’t allow us to do, that’s just obviously true, as anyone can attest to who has read discussions of the same text written about through various critical lenses.  So, after reading this bit from him, I gave myself a bit of a pep talk–which, you know, is a pep talk all of us in this discipline has to give ourselves: “I can’t read everything there is to read, much less talk about it all from every conceivable theoretical angle.  All I or anyone can do is read what I can and choose an angle that yields readings that I think and hope are worth other people’s time, and to write about them as well as one can.  And this is how we’ll make our way in the world.”

And now . . . back to grading some papers.


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