A Science of Literature


Ben Merriman in Boston Review:

To the extent that digital projects do have clear goals, they tend to yield recognizably humanist products, such as a new edition of a book, a map of the places discussed in a narrative, or attribution of authorship to a formerly anonymous text.

The literary scholar Franco Moretti and his colleagues, most notably Matthew Jockers, are exceptions: their project of “distant reading,” developed steadily over more than a decade, has an ambitious, nontraditional goal. In its strongest formulation, it seeks to explain long-term patterns of literary stability and change through the quantitative study of all surviving literary texts. Forms of change include large developments, such as the rise and fall of novel genres, already recognized by critics, but also many small shifts, such as changes in sentence structure, the gradual emergence of themes, or the increased use of locative prepositions, which are readily detected with statistics but mostly unnoticeable to a human reader. Jockers’s nascent work on novel plots, which suggests that nearly all novels conform to a half dozen basic structures, derives from many small measurements concerning the emotional sentiment of individual sentences.

This is an unmistakably scientific aspiration. Unfortunately, few scientists, or social scientists, have taken notice of this body of work, while humanists have responded to it in a remarkably partisan fashion. The main difficulty is that two distinct issues have been blurred. The first is legitimate disagreement about the goals of humanistic inquiry. But both critics and proponents tend to jump straight to a second, larger conflict about the transformation of the university and the proper place of the humanities in education and intellectual life. These are important value questions; however, the work of these digital humanists should not be expected to answer them.

The results of this earnest scientific project are mixed.

More here.