The Computational Literary Studies Debate: Thoughts from the Fall 2019 Class, Writing in Digital Humanities

The High Cost of Computational Literary Studies and Its Connection to Neoliberalism

       The subfield of Computational Literary Studies (CLS), within Digital Humanities, is a contested and controversial one within academia. Some scholars feel that the field is superfluous, particularly on the subject of text mining data from literature. There is also the argument that funding for CLS is exorbitant and unnecessary for the level of work that it produces, which consists of quantitative data with the aim of proving statistical significance within patterns of words. Another issue being discussed by some scholars is the belief that the digital humanities, through what some consider "excessive funding" are in fact a form of neoliberalism, and that the field of digital humanities is undeserving of those funds, particularly if those funds and their results are only meant to produce graduates and products that are useful in a profitable workplace. An important question to ask here is what is the current role of the University and academia in the context of the neoliberalism argument? Another important question is what is the role of humanities in the university currently, specifically the digital humanities branch and how is it being used for academia?
         The authors of the literature being reviewed are Nan Z. Da, author of “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies, and Brian Greenspan author of “The Scandal of Digital Humanities.”
Nan Z. Da, assistant professor of English at Notre Dame, gives a systematic critique of the field of CLS. She references the research of many scholars, such as Andrew Piper and Ted Underwood, and their respective studies, throughout the article while stating her own argument in which she makes the point that she views the field as a waste of resources and statistical tools. The main critique in Da’s article is that the complexities of literature are no match for statistical tools, and that the results do not offer insight into the literature itself as evidenced by her statement “There is a fundamental mismatch between the statistical tools that are used and the objects to which they are applied” (601). She also makes the statement “because of the way data is treated, CLS can make macrohistorical claims that are statistically uninformative” (610). CLS tends towards reductionism, which Da feels is not pragmatic in literature, and is in fact, the opposite of what literature is intended to do. She references a number of research studies such as Ted Underwood’s “The Life Cycle of Genres” as an example of a study that yields, in Da’s opinion, no result due to a weak measuring device (607). By referencing this study, Da hopes to prove that Underwood’s use of resources are wasteful and have no useful outcome, which again supports her claim that the field receives excessive funding for it's purposes.
             One claim that Da makes seems to hold up the critique by other authors that suggest there is a link between CLS and neoliberalism. Da states:

             “CLS claims to produce exploratory tools that, even if wrong, are intrinsically valuable because exploration is intrinsically valuable. Misclassifications become objects of interest, imprecisions become theory, outliers turn into aesthetic and philosophical  explorations, and all merit more funding and more publications” (602).

 This would seem to suggest, that in the opinion of Da, the purpose of CLS research is not to garner results, but to secure more funding and more opportunities for the researchers to gain attention for their attempts. Da does not care for research that does not yield accurate results. She makes the claim that not only do the results often end in no findings at all, but quite often are inaccurate. While Da does make some convincing arguments against CLS, she also seems to be reducing the studies that she researched by the quality of the research, as much as by the results that are garnered. It is as if she is suggesting that because she believes there to be errors in the studies, they have no purpose. Another issue with this article is the lack of cohesion in her arguments. She makes statements regarding the type of technology used for CLS, and suggests that it will never be advanced enough to analyze literature, yet by the end of the article she is suggesting that a laptop or cellphone could perform the same tasks. In this sense it would seem that her own research may be slightly flawed.

             Greenspan is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He writes his article as a critique of Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, the authors of the article titled “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities”. He discusses and argues against the claim, made by these authors in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that the Digital humanities are closely tied to neoliberalism. The authors of the L.A.R.B. article state that

“Neoliberal policies and institutions value academic work that produces findings immediately usable by industry and that produces graduates trained for the current requirements of the commercial workplace” (2016).

This argument makes the point, similarly to Da, that the field of CLS is not as much about the quality of the research as much as about extracting results, quickly. Greenspan’s article suggests that though it may be difficult to separate the two, the connection between the digital humanities and neoliberalism is tenuous at best. He does admit that “the case could still be made that it exacerbates neoliberal tendencies that already exist within the academy and media culture at large” (2019). He goes on to make the point that their comparison doesn’t consider what a digital humanist actually does when he clarifies that his own work “involves collaborative and broadly interdisciplinary work that closely scrutinizes the materiality of scholarly archivization, bibliography, writing and publishing across media” (2019).

            At one point Greenspan makes a case that also seems to mirror the views of Da, when he states “the kind of computationally expensive uses to which digital humanists typically put technologies—such as running topic models on large corpora for hours or days on end in the hope of discovering new discursive patterns for interpretation—would appear to be an impractical and inefficient tax on resources with no immediate application or return on investment” (2019). Da herself references the article in the L.A.R.B., agreeing with the statement “data mining text labs are given institutional resources disproportionate to what they offer and how little computing power (excepting large-scale digitization efforts) their work actually requires” (603). However, Greenspan goes on to explain that he views the L.A.R.B. article as essentially a rant against academia, and what the three authors deem a misappropriation of grants and funding into what they consider a radical field with limited uses. He seems to feel that the authors are merely looking for an easy target when he states

“If anything, the digital humanities are guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill” (2019).

In this sense he is arguing against the claim of the L.A.R.B. authors who feel that digital humanists are in on the neoliberal scheme to take over academia. He does not agree that the funding is unwarranted, or that the digital humanities departments are "sapping prestige and resources" (2019) from academia.
            The differences between these two articles and their arguments can be based on each author’s underlying belief about how the research methods, specifically the act of gathering data from literature in an attempt to procure statistical significance, are used and to what end. While Da argues that the methods of CLS don’t produce results that are accurate and or useful, and in fact tend to deemphasize interpretation. Greenspan argues the opposite, suggesting that although the methods aren’t flawless, they have their uses, and in fact those who critique CLS and the digital humanities also use and rely on computers every day. He argues that the work being done “involves collaborative and broadly interdisciplinary work that closely scrutinizes the materiality of archival practices, bibliography, and publishing across media, as well as the platforms and networks we all use to read and write texts in the twenty-first century” (2019), and not just a ploy at obtaining more funding within a “neoliberal” context. The concern that academia will continue to acquire large amounts of funding for this research, not for it's academic uses, but for some type of dark capitalistic purpose seems to be a bit unfounded as of yet. Perhaps only time will tell if the high cost is warranted.

Works Cited

Allington, Daniel, et al. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los   Angeles  Review of Books, 1 May 2016,   archives-political-history-digital-humanities/.

Greenspan, Brian. “The Scandal of Digital Humanities”. Debates in the Digital Humanities,
            Edited by Gold and Klein. University of Minnesota Press, 2019, Greenspan, Brian. “The Scandal of Digital     Humanities”. Debates in the Digital Humanities, Edited by Gold and Klein. University of Minnesota Press, 2019, pp.92-95.

Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry, Vol.  45,
            no. 3 (Spring 2019): pp. 601-639.


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