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Humanities Data and “Measuring-Worm Exactness”

Wharton’s fidelity to detail is especially pertinent in The Age of Innocence, in which she attempted to reproduce a New York that many of her readers never would have known. She described her own habits of fact-checking as a “measuring-worm exactitude” that drove her to verify details that most readers might find minor. As many readers know, Wharton did not suffer errors gladly; like a good social scientist or cultural historian, she did her homework! I’ve been thinking about the tension between Wharton’s specificity and ambiguity, perhaps one of the operating principles of humanities data. Miriam Posner’s recent blog post about this is illuminating. Describing humanists’ resistance to characterizing evidence as “data,” she writes:

“When you call something data, you imply that it exists in discrete, fungible units; that it is computationally tractable; that its meaningful qualities can be enumerated in a finite list; that someone else performing the same operations on the same data will come up with the same results. This is not how humanists think of the material they work with.”

Although Posner doesn’t use this language, she raises the question of ambiguity. Reproducible results sit uncomfortably with the idea of ambiguity, which is fundamental to humanist–or perhaps especially literary–scholarship.

These two issues come together for me because despite Wharton’s penchant for accuracy, this novel–like any imaginative work–is filled with unverifiable detail. My endeavors to chart the temporal progression of the novel proved challenging (a polite way of saying that I think Wharton is fudging the dates). Primed to expect verisimilitude, 1920s readers of the novel delighted in bringing small errors they found (in my view, deliberate anachronisms) to light. If novels or other imaginative works are sources of humanities data, we should expect humanities data to confound our expectations, especially when technologies increase our desire to drill down to “facts.” Despite the “measuring-worm exactness” of a historical novelist or novel,  a computer, or an application, it seems to me that ambiguity forms a necessary layer to the process of visualizing the past.