Lindsey Banister – Notes on Liu
23 January 2014

Citation:
Liu, Alan. "The Meaning of Digital Humanities." Publications of the Modern Language Association 128.2 (2013): 409-23. Print.

Abstract:

Liu argues 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 humanities. Through the research of Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khan, Liu outlines how this crisis came to be and how dedicating the digital humanities to the soul of the humanities is what is meaningful for a humanist, digital or otherwise, now.

Tags:

disciplinary identity of the humanities, meaning of digital humanities, crisis of the meaningfulness of the humanities, STS, tabula rasa interpretation, seed words, qualitative interpretation, quantitative interpretation, Heuser, Le-Khac

Key Cites:

  • Ryan Heuser & Long Le-Khan’s A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteetnth-Century Biritish Novels: The Semanitc Cohort Method (2012)
    • “Heuser and Le- Khac report on their innovations in the methods of “distant read- ing” and text mining that are the signatures of the lab (where they worked with Matthew L. Jockers, Franco Moretti, and others), and they do so with a methodological self- awareness that puts the meaning problem front and center” (411).

  • Tabula rasa interpretation: “the initiation of interpretation through the hypothesis-free discovery of phenomena” (414)

  • HTOED: Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
    • “Started before humanities computing was practical, the HTOED required human beings over decades to write down individual words from the OED on paper slips with meanings, usage dates, and sparse metadata, then to sort, bundle, and file the slips in conceptual groupings and hierarchies. When computation entered the picture, it did so originally in a secondary capacity (to drive the print run of the work). In its formative state, the HTOED was a human labor of semantic ordering” (415).

Crucial Quotes:

“…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 humanities themselves” (410).

“Meaning is clearly a metavalue and also metaproblem for the digital humanities. To unpack this meaning problem, I will spotlight a recent work of digital literary scholarship by two beginning scholars that is state-of-the-art and representative of major trends in the digital humanities—a tactic that has the additional advantage of providing outsiders to the field with an end- to- end look at an example of research by digital humanists” (411).

“…as Hayles says, ‘large- scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces…many of which are nonhuman.” This is the backdrop against which we can see how the meaning problem in the digital humanities registers today’s general crisis of the meaningfulness of the humanities. 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, work-place, 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-opt humanistic meaning” (419).

Questions Raised by the Text:

“What could we learn from STS if we took the Stanford Literary Lab and other digital humanities centers and programs at their word and studied them as labs, much as Andrew Pickering studied the ‘hunting of the quark’ in a physics lab (68-112)?” (416)

“How might such hybrid method be better grounded theoretically?” (416)