Liu 2013

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Alan, Liu. "The Meaning of the Digital Humanities." PMLA 128 (2013): 409-23.

field as “a grid of affiliations and differences between neighboring tribes”

dh as distinct from new media studies, cultural criticism, and the avant-garde new

recent “limited engagement with identity and social-justice issues”

overlaps and trickster figures, like:

book history, overlapping with media studies and media archaeology on the one side, and with dh through bibliography and text editing on the other


historical sociology, applying social-network analysis to document corpora

but what of relationship between dh and humanities more generally?

“My thesis is that an understanding of the digital humanities can only rise to the level of an explanation if we see that the underlying issue is the disciplinary identity not of the digital humanities but of the humani- ties themselves. For the humanities, the digital humanities exceed (though they include) the functional role of instrument or service, the pioneer role of innovator, the ensemble role of an “additional field,” and even such faux-political roles assigned to new fields as challenger, reformer, and (less positively) fifth column. his is because the digital humanities also have a symbolic role. In both their promise and their threat, the digital humanities serve as a shadow play for a future form of the humanities that wishes to include what contemporary society values about the digtal without losing its soul to other domains of knowledge work that have gone digital to stake their claim to that society. “

“it registers both a specific problem in the digital humanities and the larger crisis of meaningfulness of today’s humanities” (411)


Heuser and Le-Khac, in Lit Lab pamphlet: how to turn numbers into meaning?

a few points:

  • selected research material from already digitized texts; work is not in realm of text encoding, archiving, publishing
  • formulate problem in terms of quantification, but also a problem of models
  • digital history vs digital literary studies
  • acting as both builders and interpreters

pamphlet argues there are inverse “abstract” and “hard” trends reveal something about the “social space of the novel”: that the values of conduct and social norms in knowable communities declined in the face of industrialization and capitalism — this is “computational verification” of “previously known thesis, coupled with the discovery of precise word cohorts giving genuinely fresh insight into the thesis”

so they developed “an unsupervised method” — “a computer should be able to read texts algorithmically and discover word cohorts or clusters leading to themes without acting on an initial concept from an interpreter looking to confirm a particular theme” — tabula rasa interpretation

tabula rasa interpretation does not help us get from numbers to meaning, though

“It is not clear epistemologically, cognitively, or socially how human beings can take a signal discovered by ma- chine and develop an interpretation leading to a humanly understandable concept unless that signal (in order to be recognized as a sig- nal at all) contains a coeval conceptual ori- gin that is knowable in principle because, at a minimum, the human interpreter has known its form or position (the slot or approximate locus in the semantic system where its mean- ing, or at least its membership in the system, is expected to come clear).”

adjustment step: Heuser and Le-Khac had to endow cohorts of words with a sense of “what is and is not proximate in meaning”; turned to Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which semantically groups concepts based on when they entered the language

using HTOED “solved” the meaning problem “only by deftly turning he aporia between tabula rasa quantitative interpretation and humanly meaningful qualitative interpretation into its own apparent solution” — hybrid solution; not using word cohorts (historical consistency but lack semantic coherence) or semantic fields (semantic coherence but ahistorical relationship) but combined

“Such hybridity is a prevalent feature of digital humanities method.”

how to root this hybridity better in theory?

turn to design theory and practice, and STS

e.g., STS approach shows HTOED is “less a solution to the meaning problem than a recursive, looking-glass version of the very same problem” — HTOED relies on “data” of OED; discovered reverse of Le-Khac and Heuser, namely that words became *more* abstract over course of 19c

“In the end, the HTOED is not the ‘other’ that Heuser and Le-Khac need to help make the work of their Correlator meaningful; it is the precursor of the Correlator.”

meaning problem, redux: “the general crisis is that humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self — or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity — must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, workplace, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or, even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co-opte humanistic meaning.”