Theory vs Practice: The Problematic with Regards to Textual Analysis and Shakespeare

I have spent the larger part of the past month agonizing over the subject of my honours thesis: what are the issues most important to me, in which area do I want to specialize? With each passing day, I find myself doodling in my class notes, dreaming up potential topics: modernism & Shakespeare, Place Theory, “The Taxonomy of Genre,” Spenserian allegory sprinkled with pagan ritual and Celtic mythology . . . the list goes on. What I end up with (most evenings) are scraps of yellow paper, a half-filled journal full of existential ranting, a neurotic cat meowing for bedtime, and a series of essays that I should be working on in stead of this blog.

Yet, looming in the shadows of all this brainstorming is the fundamental (nagging) critical question that I can no longer suppress: I do not know whether I agree with Digital Humanities methodologies or not. The fact that this has been bothering me so much is a positive indication of my nerdy-ness; regardless, I must come to terms with the issue in order to satisfy my own conscience:

(+) implications.

Text analysis tools make it possible for scholars to:

-read literary works in a non-linear fashion

-establish new connections between a text belonging to a larger corpus; form links between elements within that text itself

-devise elaborate linguistic equations in order to explain/systematize the functioning of genre, syntax, diction (or any other structural element found in written works)

-visualize old stories in new spaces; bring the fictional world of the text into the virtual world of macs, ipads, and PCs.

These are all very exciting, of course. However, there are various negative (-) implications of digital analysis. Below are some outcomes that I view as potentially problematic:

  • Non-reading: the notion that a literary critic might actually come closer to the “truth” or meaning of a text through computational analysis; that the human mind does not actually have to engage with the poetic material (let’s overlook the fact that, for anyone obsessed with the materiality of the book/old libraries, “non-reading” is essentially heretical).
  • Loss of Context: while one might be able to track frequency and patterns of word usage in, for example, Shakespeare’s entire corpus, one loses a sense of immediacy that, up until now, could only be experienced through the act of reading. (*Another worthy subject of debate: what will be the reading experience of the digital humanist?)
  • Fun . . . but useful? Chopping up poetry into bits with a processor: it reminds me vaguely of paper shredders: they are a heck of a lot of fun, but the meaning of the original document is lost.
  • “I am a literary critic, not a computer scientist.” Such statements hardly lend credibility to arts majors, a faction of the student body most often labelled (self or otherwise) as math-haters and/or technologically inept. Still, isn’t there something to be said for specialization? We all want to be Renaissance women, certainly, but isn’t it the qualitative aspect of humanities scholarship that complements and completes the quantitative approach of scientific enquiry? Furthermore, doesn’t it endow worldly phenomena with mystery and meaning? Why this movement from qualitative to quantitative, when poetry, ambiguity and nuance’”at the end of the day’”are what engineers live for? Life is made up of more than just bridges, word-counts, and statistics, surely. Will poetic elements be missed?
  • What’s the rush? Slow reading is where it’s at. What is this peculiar urgency to uncover the meaning of Shakespeare’s entire corpus, or stratify his adverb usage, in under three hours? Scholars have been analyzing his texts for hundreds of years; is it really all that likely that a computer will pull out poetry’s core, essential meaning? Moreover, doesn’t art demand that we slow down, turn off our phones, and look (heaven forbid) at the photography on a friend’s blog, or lose ourselves in a Monet painting?

Basically, what I find most problematic about the new methodology is that it contains two underlying assumptions. I sum them up in the following mantra:

“Quantitative over qualitative; quantity over quality.”

It is the dialectical opposition between quantitative/qualitative and quantity/quality that is, for me, problematic. It could be said that what distinguishes art from science is its ability to provide subjective perspectives and qualitative nuances. After all, the notion that there is one right answer (objectivism) often leads to processes of exclusion and closed-mindedness. The digital realm is full of possibility: the key is in harnessing those capabilities to create an interpretive methodology that is more fluid and flexible–a methodology that still allows for creativity, slowness, and a little bit of mystery. Some things, it may be said, go a bit beyond the binary.

4 thoughts on “Theory vs Practice: The Problematic with Regards to Textual Analysis and Shakespeare

  1. This is a great start to your project. You articulate some of the issues with Digital Humanities in general — the debates that are not raging about and within DH practices. However, you might be interested to take a listen to Steve Ramsay’s talk on making lists and this type of quantitative work:

    Also, Franco Moretti and Matt Jockers at Stanford’s LitLab have been doing some wonderful stuff with *semantic* network analysis that addresses your very concerns above. They practice something in-between close and distant reading. (We haven’t come up with a word for it yet, I don’t think.)

    Nicely done!

    • Thanks! I’ll definitely look more closely at the links you’ve suggested; the issue of distant vs close reading is of particular interest to me.

  2. Your concerns with Digital Humanities mirror my thoughts about growing reliance on technology and social media to “connect” with other people. In a way, I think sites like Facebook place quantity over quality and remove the subtle nuances and flavourings that make human relationships so magical.

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