Literature is Not Data! But Data is a Way to Read

November 7, 2012

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English...

Literature is not data! This is the reasonable, almost tautological view of Canadian cultural critic Stephen Marche, writing recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books . Considering the new field of Digital Humanities, which seeks in part to elucidate patterns in literature by turning them into digital data, Marche argues that art cannot possibly be understood this way. Such an understanding, he says, would differ little from the inhumane rationality of fascism.

But though Marche’s argument is beautifully written and artfully constructed, and though he makes many valid points about algorithms and the history of the book, his premise is that Digital Humanities seeks to understand the literary value of literature by turning it into data. This is not true, and I’d best leave it to Scott Selisker to explain why. To put it plainly, though, Marche is essentially railing against something that isn’t actually happening.

It is, however, a very familiar argument, isn’t it? Data is but one entry in the “literature is not x” canon: literature is not philosophy, literature is not journalism, literature is not political, and so on. The truth, of course, is that literature can be all of those things, yet never just those things; aesthetics as a field is both reflective and productive of reality, and as such can never be reduced to one cause or effect. By extension, you can extract fascinating algorithmic data out of literature—like, say, the presence of mirrors in the English novel after the advent of psychoanalysis—without asserting that such extraction is somehow a substitute for aesthetic or ideological critique.

No, much more interesting is what underpins Marche’s view of technology, along with many other critics’: the idea that technology replaces the culture it builds on.

In the book world, this “discourse of displacement” dominates. The ebook will replace the print book, the website the newspaper, the video game the playground, and so on ad infinitum—and, it bears saying, ad nauseum, too. And beyond the technologies themselves, the attendant values will shift: the literary mind, with its emphasis on stylistics, subtlety, and shades of meaning will be a thing of the past.

Worries about an insidious, Google-led technocracy are not entirely unfounded. There are economic forces at work that seek to wring “value” out of new forms, often to the detriment of us all. TV, after all, is home to both Mad Men and Jerry Springer. But the idea that the promising vagaries of art will be swallowed whole by the cold, datafied logic of the algorithm is based on the flawed premise that only one approach to art can exist at once.

History has demonstrated quite the opposite: it is the very tension between competing hermeneutic frames, each with radically different aims and purposes, that defines the relevance of literature to each generation. The Digital Humanities and its frequent emphasis on broad, period- or genre-wide patterns is but one concern among a pantheon of other perspectives. Just because Google exists doesn’t mean that recent forays into new modes of analysis—like Object Oriented Ontology, for example—will simply be cast aside as we prostrate ourselves in front of the almighty computer.

Marche states that algorithms are pernicious because “literature is never finished.” I’d suggest Marche’s argument, and any other that claims technology will ruin literature, is suspect for the very same reason. Art, and just as importantly, its relationship with the contexts in which it is received, is forever in flux. Treated as data today, it does not cease to be beautiful tomorrow. After all, literature might not be data, but that doesn’t mean there’s no data in it—or that the mere whisper of such data will rob it of its humanity.

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English Literature, but was really just about Twitter.