Distant Reading and the Blurry Edges of Genre

Ted Underwood, contributor to Representations‘ recent special forum Search, continues his engagement with digital questions on his own blog, The Stone and the Shell, with Maria_Mitchell

Distant Reading and the Blurry Edges of Genre. 

Having just spent two years attempting to subdivide an entire digital library by genre, Underwood encountered some interesting problems. “In particular, the problem of ‘dividing a library by genre,’” he says, “has made me realize that literary studies is constituted by exclusions that are a bit larger and more arbitrary than I used to think.”

Underwood’s contribution to the Representations Search forum, Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago, asks what it means to say that search plays an “evidentiary role in scholarship”:

“Quantitative methods have been central to the humanities since scholars began relying on full-text search to map archives. But the intellectual implications of search technology are rendered opaque by humanists’ habit of considering algorithms as arbitrary tools. To reflect more philosophically, and creatively, on the hermeneutic options available to us, humanists may need to converse with disciplines that understand algorithms as principled epistemological theories. We need computer science, in other words, not as a source of tools but as a theoretical interlocutor.”

Full text of this article can be found here.



According to the forum’s introduction:

“This forum began with a conversation among editorial board members about what Representations might have to say in response to recent discussions about the nature and future of digital work in the humanities and social sciences. We wanted to think both about recent developments in the use of databases, search tools, and digital means of presenting and disseminating research as well as about the larger social and historical contexts behind these new applications of technology. We also considered some of the claims made about these technologies as well as the structure of the debate that has begun to rise up around them. As different search engines and online resources (Google, the Internet Archive, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, EEBO [Early English Books Online], and so on) have become more and more prominent, assessments of their value often seem to take opposed forms, with advocates for the transformative power of big data lining up on one side and those who think technology is mostly a distraction on the other. Rather than taking either side, we invited several writers to consider the historical and cultural conditions that have made this impasse possible….”RosenbergFig.3.aCrop

“The forum’s contributors look at several different aspects of what stands as the center of these debates for both dedicated specialists and scholars with only the most general of relations to technology: the homely search. How, in the face of new and more powerful tools, has searching for data changed? Is there a culture or cultures of search that differ from or repeat the terms of earlier moments in scholarly culture? To what degree do specific economies of searching reproduce other economic realities or fantasies? What stands logistically, aesthetically, ethically behind the act of searching for data?…”

jstor_logo“We hope these short essays will contribute to ongoing debates in and around digital technology in the humanities and social sciences and show how understanding the politics, the economics, and the mechanics of searching can help us better understand hidden aspects of the work we have been doing all along.” –Kent Puckett

FREDERIC KAPLAN  Linguistic Capitalism and Algorithmic Mediation
TED UNDERWOOD  Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years         Ago
LISA GITELMAN  Searching and Thinking About Searching JSTOR
LEAH PRICE  Response