Friday, October 12, 2012

The meaning of the humanities

Heard a very interesting lecture from Alan Liu of UC Santa Barbara yesterday at the Franklin Institute for the Humanities at Duke. Liu reflected on the state of the "Digital Humanities", a discipline/meme which has emerged since I left academe.

Much of his talk bounced off of and commented on a piece that recently came out of Stanford's Literary Lab by two guys named Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, in which the authors do some sophisticated cluster analysis of the word cohorts used in 2958 novels published in Great Britain in the 19th century.  All of this grows out of work Franco Moretti started doing in the 90s when I was at Columbia, and I chanced to work on a project he did counting and categorizing novels published all over the world. It's very cool, very interesting stuff.

Heuser and Le-Khac distill out some big trends in words used in the novels, from which they draw inferences about how society changed over the course of the century. None of what they say is great news, but it's super interesting how they do it, and raises lots of great questions.

Liu is also involved in advocating for the humanities, and is part of an initiative callled 4Humanities housed up in Alberta. All good.

Here's a core problem, it seems to me. Epistemologically, methodologically, yattayattalogically the quantitative orientation of humanistic scholarship is both fascinating and a "value-add," as we say. It points to use value for marketing people etc.

But people want to believe their individual lives matter, and telling them that they are but pieces of data in the grand machine doesn't do that, any more than telling them that they who they are is determined by their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and so on. They like it about as much as they like thinking that Google, Facebook, and other crunchers of big data can predict their every whim, or that their mortgage was sold to Fannie or Freddy, then bundled several times into a CDO that got lost in MERS. Telling people they don't matter is a hard way to sell something that's intrinsically hard to sell in the first place.

Back to me and the book I'm reading. I continue to slog through Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land because I "identify" with our narrator, Frank Bascombe, and with the other characters in the book, while I recognize that I am not them and am entertained the details and stories therein. This simultaneous identification and recognition of difference helps me both ponder myself as an individual and as a participant in the grander swoop of history.

Again, the one and the many. I keep coming back to Nicolas of Cusa's interesting phrase, "on the not-other."  You gotta have both.

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