Lit 80, Fall 2013
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Is Literature Data?

October 4th, 2013 | Posted by Zhan Wu in Uncategorized

Is literature data? Yes and no.

From a layman’s perspective, no.  The fact is that nobody except critics of digital humanities has ever seriously considered this question. We were all brought up believing that every literature piece we read and see, whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry or prose, is an artistic piece that reflects the author’s intentions, aspirations and quite possibly hidden philosophical ideas. To consider a literature piece just an accumulation of written language symbols, alphabetical letters, individual soundwaves or paint strokes seems absurd to many of us, and fairly so. Literature is in a sense not data because merely analyzing this art in terms of scientific means takes away the most significant aspects of a literature piece: the author’s artistic and creative elements. These factors just cannot be simply “measured” and summarized like it can be done with computer algorithms. In fact, a specific literature work might garner thousands upon thousands of different interpretations, each with it’s own unique analytic aspects, whereas data, with its ultra-clear structure and quantitative properties, might merely yield one result. Stephen Marche, in his critique Literature is not Data, even goes as far as to claim that “the story of literature [regarded as] data is a series of…failures.” [1] Therefore, in this perspective, literature cannot be stringently considered to be data.

We also, however, have to accept the fact that literature works, though fraught with myriads of interpretations, are on the very basic level still a construction of numerous individual aspects that ultimately come together, and that those aspects can be analyzed one by one for finding principle and relationships in a literature piece. Franco Moretti advocated the notion of “distant reading”, which means that we should not interpret written literature in terms of studying specific texts, but “by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.” [1] This may seem a radical proposal, but it does have some meaning attached to it and is a valuable exercise to engage in. Literature pieces themselves have been segmented by people into parts in terms of their many meanings, such as different genres, chapters, settings, plot details, persons (protagonist, antagonist etc.), archetypes, symbols and the list goes on. Furthermore, as books and the like appear more prolifically around us nowadays, it becomes increasingly harder to read and analyze all written text. Data accumulation software and websites such as Google Ngram [2] and Understanding Shakespeare [3] have opened up opportunities for people to achieve their research objectives without having to skim through the information from piles of books. With these new abilities, the digital humanities and its many revolutionary aspects (i.e. distant reading) have practically “augmented” scholarship and reality alike by creating new paths for research, interpretation and exploration both for classical and newly-emerging literature works.

References:

[1] Marche Stephen, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities, http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/literature-is-not-data-against-digital-humanities/.Accessed Oct. 2, 2013

[2] Google Ngram Viewer, Google Inc., http://books.google.com/ngrams. Accessed Oct. 2, 2013.

[3] Understanding Shakespeare, http://www.understanding-shakespeare.com/. Accessed Oct. 2, 2013.

 

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