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.

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The New World as “textual drama”: Julio Ortega on Borges and “El Inca”

 

Ortega [b. 1942; apparently still living] is a poet and critic. He was born in Peru and has lived and taught in the U.S. for many years. In the passage below, he is rebutting the familiar critical observation that Borges’s work is an anomaly in Latin American writing:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in his natural habitat.

 [T]he mechanisms that produce [Borges’s] writing confirm, in fact, an operative tradition that is characteristic of the Spanish-American text. In this sense the novelty of Borges’s prose is not its negation of previous Spanish-American languages but, on the contrary, its privileged manifestation of those languages.

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Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), known as “El Inca” to distinguish himself from his uncle, the Spanish poet of the same name. “El Inca” was the son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca woman who was a member of that people’s royal family.

 Let us look, for instance, at the interaction of various genres. At least since Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas [1616-1617], Spanish-American writing has been constituted through the polyvalence of its formalization. Beginning with that text, Spanish-American writing has reflected the following characteristics: it dramatizes its manifestation in a textual space based on history understood as politics (the Incan utopia as the realized projection of the Neoplatonic order); it is formalized through a critical sum of texts (chronicles that are refuted or inserted as a probatory intertext); it is self-referring as a way of producing itself (the narrative that unfolds, splits, and is rechanneled); it shares frontiers with novelistic and philosophical treatises with criticism; and, finally, it reveals 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. (“Borges and the Latin-American Text,” p. 22 in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.)

This passage struck me on more than one account.  It so happens that I’ll soon be writing about de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries, but that’s less important than Ortega’s placing of Borges firmly in the mainstream of the larger tradition of writing in Latin America (and I broaden this from Ortega’s “Spanish America” because I see, certainly, Brazilian writing as fitting that list of characteristics in the paragraph above).  I’m not an expert on Borges, but it is clear that the traditional take on him is that his perceived European-ness makes him stand out from the pack–and, indeed, is one of his virtues as a writer.  Ortega clearly doesn’t have much patience with that take.

The real hook for me, though, is Ortega’s assertion that (and sure, I’ll broaden his remark here still further to include the United States) writing in this hemisphere “reveals 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.” 

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“Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes

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The cover of the U.S. edition of Christopher Unborn

As I’d mentioned in my previous post,  I am in the middle of revisiting and expanding on a chapter whose two central texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  As part of that work, this morning I thought I would re-read the opening chapter of Carlos Fuentes’ 1987 novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), since that section in particular is one of the other texts I take up in that chapter.  In so doing, I realized that earlier remarks about another novel I’ll be discussing in that same chapter, along with commentary by Fuentes himself, will serve to reinforce some of my project’s larger claims about the Baroque and the New World, this time with a focus on literary aesthetics.  All of that, I hope, will tie in (I hope not hog-tying style) with the politics of Martí and Mariátegui that I’ll also be adding to this chapter.

(The perils of “quick re-reads”: This post’s original title, when I started on it two days ago, had in it the phrase “a few quick comments.”  So you see . . . )

Dalkey Archive edition of Three Trapped Tigers.

The other novel is by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers).  Its title (the first line of a Cuban tonge-twister) and its description by its English translators, David Gardner and Susan Jill Levine (with assistance from the author) of having been translated “from the Cuban” alert the reader that it is no ordinary novel.

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Book Project Notes: Chapter II, Alternative Narratives, and Presuming to Speak

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Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom William Faulkner dedicated Go Down, Moses.

I have begun transcribing some of my dissertation’s second chapter into Domestic Issue‘s Chapter I.  This will consist of a comparative reading of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, out of which will emerge both some further elaborations of ideas developed in the prologue for this project (the idea of the New World as a space whose difficulty in being read has its starting point in the land and/but manifests itself most overtly in human beings via racial intermixing, as articulated chiefly by Glissant and Santiago, with an assist from Foucault’s notion of heterotopia). I’ll also be rereading both these novels to account for any changes in my thinking and try to integrate, as needed, the ideas from the prologue.

Also making their appearance here will be two new ideas to throw into the mix.  The first, which I call Astonishment, is the narrative moment in which either the narrator or a character in the narrative (and maybe even on occasion, I will suggest, the writer himself/herself) is unable to articulate what s/he is experiencing.  In the texts I’ll be examining from here on out, Astonishment occurs when the narrator or character suddenly becomes aware that s/he is in the presence of someone of mixed race, but I will make the claim that it is also a trope for the initial Encounter between Europeans and the landmasses of the Western Hemisphere.  (By the way, Astonishment as I will be describing it in this chapter is not something that occurs in the so-called tragic mulatto narratives that were popular in this country in the 19th century; in those, the woman’s (with very few if any exceptions, the “tragic mulatto” character is a woman) origins are often so obviously telegraphed to the reader that when the revelation occurs, the only person surprised is the woman herself, and perhaps her would-be husband.)  Into that void of unarticulateable wonder rushes the rhetoric of Apocalypse, meant here in its twin senses of “destruction” and “revelation”: the wrecking of old orderings of and assumptions about the world, and the glimpse of the beginnings of a re-ordering that is not yet identifiable (here revisiting as well from the prologue the idea of the New World as an indeterminate space), which, certainly in the primary texts in this chapter but also in the ones to follow in this project, miscegenation certainly causes.

The other idea, which I will develop in the chapter that follows this one, is what I am calling “a language.”  I’ve italicized the “a” because Foucault argues that heterotopias have their own language; we cannot merely import languages from spaces outside them and expect them to be adequate to the task of describing who or what occupies those spaces.  The italicized “a,” therefore, is meant to indicate that that language cannot be just any already-existing language but one generated from within that space by its members; we, listening in on the language of this space, can identify it as a language but can comprehend it imperfectly at best.

So, then, that is the outline for the chapter.  Below the fold, I want to talk through a couple of (very) big-picture matters that have to do with my position relative to the materials I am working with, not to mention the arguments I’m making about those materials.

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Book-project Progress

It is the last day of July; next week, I will turn away from daily work on Domestic Issue in favor of getting things ready for the new semester, which begins in three weeks.  So, mostly just for me (but also, obviously, for anyone who happens to come upon this post), I thought I’d post a little “How I Spent My Summer, Scholarship-Wise” post.

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So, why am I writing this book again??

To be clear, I’ve known why; however, someone looking at my vita and seeing where I teach now and where I’ve taught before, and how long it’s been since I obtained my doctorate, might wonder.  Why now, after all this time?  So, I’d like to point that person to this essay by David Perry (thanks to my FB friend Kendra Leonard for linking to it), and in particular to this paragraph:

For me, the key was realizing that I was writing this book solely for myself. I believed I knew some things about history that were important and would contribute to a field of study to which I have dedicated much of my life. I believed that the best way to communicate my findings was via a long-form monograph, rather than chopped into discrete articles. I did not, and do not, expect this book to transform my career. A new study shows that perceptions of prestige matter at least as much as quality of work in terms of hiring at top jobs, so no matter what I write, those perceptions are static.
In addition to Perry’s discussion of the academic and professional aspects of things, I would add two things.  One, it’s been immensely gratifying to do some reading of recent work on culture in Latin America and find that, on the whole, my arguments that I’d made way back when in the diss.  seem germane to these recent discussions (when, I confess, I had my doubts as I was writing the thing).  This is important to me because, given the nature of the classes I teach at Butler, I get little space in the classroom to explore these ideas, and I really need that intellectual outlet.  The other thing I would add that has been true for me is I tell my students: they will be more engaged, if not happier writers if, whenever possible, they can think of their academic writing as a creative act, as a form of self-expression.  To put things delicately, because I’m not up against a deadline, it’s been easy to, um, become distracted from the task; when I am working diligently, though, I’m learning things I hadn’t known I believed about New World writing, and I’m having a pretty good time in the process (even when, as now, I’m in the middle of unsnarling a rather tangled section of the Columbus chapter).  I’d also add as a corollary that if we’re regularly engaged in writing and researching, we can speak from those experiences as we teach, counsel, and advise our students regarding their own writing.
So.  I’m doing this because, as Perry says of his own book,  I think I have something to contribute to discussions about the literatures and cultures of the Americas, and–just as importantly–I want to have some intellectual fun.  I would hope that others of you who find yourselves in similar circumstances can see your way clear to say the same thing about your work.