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Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation

By Stanley Fish
New York Times

Gold_Debates cover[EXCERPT]

The direction is the reverse in the digital humanities: first you run the numbers, and then you see if they prompt an interpretive hypothesis. The method, if it can be called that, is dictated by the capability of the tool. You have at your disposal an incredible computing power that can bring to analytical attention patterns of sameness and difference undetectable by the eye of the human reader. Because the patterns are undetectable, you don’t know in advance what they are and you cannot begin your computer-aided search (called text-mining) in a motivated — that is, interpretively directed — way. You don’t know what you’re looking for or why you’re looking for it. How then do you proceed?

The answer is, proceed randomly or on a whim, and see what turns up. You might wonder, for example, what place or location names appear in American literary texts published in 1851, and you devise a program that will tell you. You will then have data.

But what do you do with the data?

The example is not a hypothetical one. It is put forward by Matthew Wilkens in his essay “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” (“Debates in the Digital Humanities,” ed. Matthew Gold, 2012). And Wilkens does do something with the data. He notices that “there are more international locations than one might have expected” — digital humanists love to be surprised because surprise at what has been turned up is a vindication of the computer’s ability to go beyond human reading — and from this he concludes that “American fiction in the mid-nineteenth century appears to be pretty diversely outward looking in a way that hasn’t received much attention.”

More international locations named than we would have anticipated; therefore mid-19th century American fiction is outward-looking, a fact we would not have “discovered” were it not for the kind of attention a computer, as opposed to a human reader, is capable of paying.

Read the full article here.