Thursday, 26 January 2012

Digital Humanities seen from the outside: a Fish out of water

On this post I would like to reflect on the way Digital Humanities are seen from the outside and the consequences of misunderstandings.

Apparently, seen from outside, we are those people counting words and detecting hidden meanings from numbers and statistics; this method is seen as being in contrast with the more traditional literary interpretation (close vs. distant reading, to say it with a slogan). Of this opinion seems to be Stanley Fish. In his blog post Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation he reports on a DH-like analysis of the Aeropagitica of John Milton, where he studies the "the dance of the “b’s” and “p’s” on a given passage. In the end, he concludes that DH-like analysis is not his piece of cake:
But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.
Well, there is nothing wrong in the fact that DH is not everybody's piece of cake. I can live with that, pretty easily, as it happens. The problem is that  to do an effective criticism, you should actually know what you are talking about. Mark Liberman has in fact run a test on the very premise of Fish argument and has discovered that in that passage:

  • The number of 'p's and 'b's is only 1% higher of the average number of 'p's and 'b's in the whole text
  • There are passages that contain even more 'p's and 'b's
  • There are letters that show similar patterns, such as 'x's and 'y's
  • There are letters that show even bigger picks, such as 'l's
A.k.a.: to do a DH-like research you should use DH tools, i.e. use a computer! Had Fisher used a programme for his own research he could has spared himself a bit of ridicule. To do DH-like research, you should be able to do it, actually. DH are not approaches and theories only, they are practice as well (see my definition of DH on a earlier post). Turns out that to count words (or letters) you actually have to count them.

What do we learn from this? Two main lessons, I think.
First, that we have to reflect on our image and the way we present our research and ourselves to people that take more traditional approaches to scholarship. Second, that if you want to criticise something you have to make sure you have done your homework (something I discussed in another post). The problem is, I think, is that Fish *has*, in my opinion, a point here, namely that the statistical, computational approach is not for everybody (he doesn't say that it is not useful, only that is not for him) and that there is still a lot of values in doing things traditionally.
But if you want to make a point, make sure your argument is solid, otherwise people will make fun of you, missing something potentially interesting.

Are my students listening?

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