Since its creation 40 years ago, the field of Digital Humanities has attracted much scrutiny from critics. The idea of an intersection existing between new computational tools and the traditional humanities disciplines appeared radical and almost impossible. Recently, a new debate within the digital humanities has arisen, surrounding the effectiveness of CLS, or computational literary studies. CLS is the use of computer programs on corpora of literary texts in order to obtain quantitative evidence to support claims made about literature. The field is attacked for overlooking the qualitative aspects of literature and being solely quantitative, and therefore ineffective in fully analyzing literature. However, other academic studies have shown how the application of modern technology and large-scale computing in digital humanities have facilitated important discoveries and theories. In this essay, I will address how, if used effectively, digital humanities can have lasting and significant cultural impacts.
In her essay, “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” , Nan Z. Da argues that CLS studies have a negative effect on society, since they are littered with such inconsistencies and stray too far from traditional literary studies. A central facet of literary studies is the ability to study, evaluate, and interpret works of literature. Much of this interpretation comes from discussion and philosophizing. She continues to criticize the use and emphasis on data in CLS, claiming it added an element of shallowness to the field, as it simply counts words with no context, and eliminates the subjectivity that prominently exists in literary studies. While this article raised many points and arguments that were supported by outside evidence, I had some fundamental issues with its perspective and reliability. Primarily, Da sustains a negative perspective throughout her entire argument. In her claims, she does not fully develop a multi-faceted, open-ended argument and rarely regards or acknowledges any opposing arguments. This, in turn, makes her seem incredibly biased.
In "American Studies + Computational Humanities,” Lauren Tilton addresses the many suspicions and claims against the digital humanities, particularly CLS. Tilton argues that the Digital Humanities have, in fact, revolutionized the field of literary studies, as well as other fields, such as American Studies. Contrary to the opinions of many, CLS has had a significant cultural impact and has facilitated researchers, particularly women and people of color, to “use and critique computational techniques to study topics such as race, gender…” (Tilton 637). She uses the example of a new, growing area of black code studies that focuses on black thought and culture across a scope of literature and digital platforms. This is fueling the questioning of how people can use the digital world to “challenge systems of oppressive power, constitute communities of support and resistance, and imagine a radical future” (Tilton 637). CLS is based in the digital world, which transcends all barriers between race, ethnicity, gender, and class. This provides an equal opportunity to all people to study important topics and reach groundbreaking conclusions, regardless of their different backgrounds. However, she also states that, like with all fields, it is crucial to look at digital humanities with a critical lens, and to not allow it to consume an entire field. I found Lauren Tilton’s article to be particularly engaging, as she offered a solid background on the digital humanities, and clearly elaborated on the extent of its cultural and societal impacts. Every argument that she made was incredibly well-developed, as she referenced many outside sources and studies as support to her claims. Nonetheless, it was evident that each claim she made was original.
"No matter how fancy the statistical transformations, CLS papers make arguments based on the number of times x words or gram appears. CLS’s processing and visualization of data are not interpretations and readings in their own right” (Da 606)
Critics argue that the fundamental flaw of CLS and the digital humanities is their focus on quantitative data, and inability to register the quantitative, or even subjective facets of literature and the humanities. Nan Da argues that CLS results cannot even serve as interpretations of literary pieces. She states, “No matter how fancy the statistical transformations, CLS papers make arguments based on the number of times x words or gram appears. CLS’s processing and visualization of data are not interpretations and readings in their own right” (Da 606). Da acknowledges that CLS studies are successful in measuring the quantitative, but she argues that the breadth of their efficacy only extends to that point. Results from CLS research can be used to support interpretations but cannot serve as representations in their own right. Consequently, CLS studies are ineffective in making strong arguments on interpretation, on their own. She writes, “When CLS tries to do this for literature, using various methods to reduce large corpora of words to sensible groupings, it realizes that after the necessary dimensionality reduction is performed...it’s left with only a small portion of what it was originally purporting to study, and these are corralled into groupings so general as to preclude meaningful interpretations” (Da 625). Da argues that the quantitative nature of CLS is, in fact, its fault. By focusing on word count, uncommon stops, groups of words, etc., CLS studies reduce the meaning behind literature to data. In doing so, it eliminates all opportunities for significant interpretation beyond mere points on a graph. She continues this argument by stating, “That does not mean that any pattern that can be found in that unknown data, any answer to any previously un-asked question, or any question, is automatically worthy of attention” (Da 639). Da staunchly opposes the use of CLS because she believes that it focuses on the superficial—on numbers and statistics and summaries—and completely overlooks the subjectivity and creativity that are necessary in interpreting literature.
“the strength of…computational digital humanities is how our field necessitates that critical questions about issues such as race, gender, and power shape our objects of study and the applied methodologies, including questioning and remaking the very computational logic that makes computational humanities possible” (Tilton 635)
In response to such argument, Lauren Tilton states, “the strength of…computational digital humanities is how our field necessitates that critical questions about issues such as race, gender, and power shape our objects of study and the applied methodologies, including questioning and remaking the very computational logic that makes computational humanities possible” (635). Tilton argues that the quantitative analysis that occurs in CLS does, in fact, enable interpretations on text and has allowed for significant conclusions. The computational methods used in CLS allow people to analyze and truly evaluate the presence of important issues over a specific era. For example, Tilton references Viral Texts, an initiative directed by Ryan Cordell and David Smith. This program used computational methods to identify heavily reprinted pieces in 41,829 issues of different newspapers. Their aim was to explore and analyze the culture of reprinting, and “viral pieces” in newspapers from the nineteenth century. (Tilton claims, “The project is using computation methods to see patterns in the archive that are leading to a new bibliography of popular literature. Such a bibliography allows scholars to see the ideologies and values that shaped the era…” (Tilton 634). By using CLS methods, this initiative was able to look through a massive amount of newspapers and identify texts that were often reprinted, or had gone viral, yet had received little scholarly attention. This, in turn, revealed much about the principles and perspectives that had defined the time, which gave further insight into the culture. Thus, the quantitative aspect of CLS enables the discovery of different interpretations and new understandings of not only literary text, but society as well.
The digital humanities, particularly CLS, are often condemned for their shallow nature. Critics, such as Da, argue that computational methods used in the field focus solely on quantitative data, and cannot serve to truly derive meaning from literary texts. However, through examples such as the call for black code, and Viral Texts, Lauren Tipton illustrated how, when applied correctly, CLS studies can lead to substantial findings in culture. Significant technological advancements in recent years have propagated a new movement of globalization and cultural exposure to a new degree. If researchers want to better understand current and developing cultures, and their relation with the past, it is crucial for their methods to develop with technology. Ultimately, CLS is a crucial component in comprehending the world around us in a new, digital age.
Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 45, no. 3, Spring 2019, pp. 601–39, https://doi.org/10.1086/702594
Tilton, Lauren. "American Studies + Computational Humanities." American Quarterly, vol. 70 no. 3, 2018, pp. 633-639. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0046