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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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies


The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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Spring semester welcome: Education as oyster-shucking


Oyster shuckers, Bayou La Batre, Alabama, 1911.  Photograph by Lewis Hine.  Image found here.

To my students, both those I have had in class before and those who are new to me and/or new to college, welcome to the new year and a new semester!  I have not required any of you to visit this blog or this post, so your visit here reveals something about you to me: you are curious, inquisitive people who, yes, want to know as best you can what the the path straight ahead of you looks like, but who also aren’t above looking around the passing scenery as well.  Looking at the scenery–or reading this post–won’t get you any faster to where you are going; on the other hand, it just may be the case that the scenery might reveal to you something you hadn’t been aware of before, something that you might in fact find to be of even greater value to you than what you imagine awaits you at your destination.  (I won’t make the same claim about this post.)

Oh–the picture up there.  In a way, it is about you.

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On Being More Interesting at Parties: Cockroaches and the Human(ities)

Two Fridays ago, Jim, the chair of our department, presented us with data from our college and some articles from national publications that made my colleagues and me uncomfortable to confront and discuss.  Their general subject: If one chooses to measure the value of a discipline in higher education (especially in community colleges) by the number of students enrolled in its offerings in that discipline and the number of declared majors it attracts, then the apparent value of our discipline of English–or, more precisely, the teaching of literature–is in clear decline.  In our own department’s case, we see the decline in enrollments in–and, thus, the number of sections offered in–our face-to-face literature classes.  Online sections seem to have healthy enrollments, but those sections seem not to attract potential majors to us: there’s an inverse correlation between the increasing numbers of those sections and the number of declared majors in English and the other humanities.

Part of my own discomfort in thinking about this subject is due, no doubt, to the fact that we (okay, okay: I) cannot help but regard the importance of English as so self-evident that any dolt can see that, and so why on earth is our/my discipline in trouble as measured by enrollments and majors?  But then again, we college-prof types, no matter our subject areas, tend to have already been persuaded as to our respective disciplines’ self-evident value, or else we wouldn’t have become college-prof types to begin with.  (Speaking for myself, while no one actively discouraged me from doing so, one and only one person is


The cover art for Melville House‘s edition of The Metamorphosis.

ultimately responsible for talking me into spending two years on earning a masters and four on a PhD, not to mention staying on at this work for 23 years.)  That particular kind of epistemic closure, though, puts us in the very position we find ourselves in: we’re just not accustomed to having to justify what we do even to our own colleges’ administrators, much less more indifferent or hostile audiences; and, by the way, it’s a very cold comfort to me that those scientists arguing about the very real dangers posed by the very real phenomenon of climate change happen to find themselves in a similar position as they seek funding for research from congressional committees on science who are openly hostile to that work.

At any rate, Jim challenged us to make pitches on behalf of our literature courses in our classes, and this past week I tried my best to do so.  As it happened, in my own Intro to Lit class back on Tuesday, right there on the syllabus, I had what I thought might serve as a pretty good entree into that pitch: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

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