Monthly Archives: October 2014

‘Defining Digital Humanities’ or ‘Why Not Defining Digital Humanities Is Good For Literary Criticism’

For those new to the Digital Humanities, defining it as a discipline can seem daunting. This conversation within DH itself shows no sign of slowing down, if one is to judge by the girth of the recently published Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (2013). This is underlined further by Lou Bernard’s droll contribution to the discussion, saying that he would define Digital Humanities “with extreme reluctance.” When it comes to bringing DH and literary studies together, this internal insecurity presents the question as to what DH can contribute to the formation of an interpretive practice within literary studies. This is the question that this blog post will seek to answer. In doing so, it will also advance potential reasons as to why the overdetermination of what exactly DH ‘is’ could be productive and even preferable in critical approaches to literature.

The most obvious critical approach that computation enables in the act of interpretation is through ‘distant reading.’ This involves the creation of corpora, which are generally large collections of literary material. The text therein is easily searchable. Unfortunately, the name that is given to this technique is derived from the practice of ‘close reading’ something that digital humanists from a literary background will be far more familiar with, being drilled in it from an early stage in a humanities education. The unfortunate connotation to the word ‘distant’ suggests that the methodology is, by comparison, not as labour-intensive as close reading, and therefore not as intellectually engaged. It also suggests that distant reading intends to supplant close reading and erase that which is unique about the academy with it. Hence, the implications of using a search function to do the work of hermeneutics for us can seem troubling. In a lecture at Columbia University, Daniel J. Cohen explains it as a form of prospecting, not intended as a replacement to the pre-digital humanities methodologies, a necessary component of humanities research with the tools and objects of inquiry that exist within in a new media ecology.[1]

In ‘Imagining the New Media Encounter,’ Alan Liu indicates that in narrativising the transition from a pre-digital environment into the so-called ‘new media ecology’ loose terms are often used, such as ‘borderlands,’ ‘otherness’ and ‘surmise.’[2] All these words will be familiar to those who have read critical material engaged in the definition of DH. Liu continues: “narratives of new media encounter, like all narratives, have no one necessary story.”[3] Liu is here resisting critical evaluations of this new landscape that read it telelogically, or in a linear way. In fact, media change is non-linear to such an extent that such discussions project themselves backwards. Literary objects created in a pre-digital environment or ‘old media’ can reconfigure themselves within contemporary discourse. This accounts for Liu’s use of Plato’s Phaedrus in his essay, and explains why Dick van Hulle can argue that James Joyce’s experimental novel Finnegans Wake (1939) and T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922) anticipate the advent of hypertext through their use of discrete units of text called lexia that play off one another in order to generate meaning in the mind of the reader.[4]

The position of the contemporary reader or literary critic have in fact been occupying the kind of mutable terrain outlined here for some time. Before ‘new media,’ post-structuralist theorists have criticised the notion of text as being fixed or stable. According to theorists such as Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida, text is a confluence of social forces. As Jerome McGann writes, a book is never “self-identical,”[5] because of the collaborative and socially charged nature of text. There are an ever-expanding number of agents involved in its production (the contribution of authors, publishers and typesetters) and in its transmission and reception (by actions of the reader). DH is fraught and subject to change. This is a useful and novel way to approach literary study and should be retained in future engagements with text so that the critical practice itself can more accurately reflect the entity being deciphered. It could lead to the kind of critique that will best serve one in examining the kind of born-digital texts that Jerome McGann delineates as “radiant textuality,”[6] the dynamic, multi-layered expressions that technologies enable us to produce.

The practice of scholarship is generally thought of as solitary. With the increasing use of digital tools in both publishing and academia, that DH can facilitate, the process of interpretation becoming a socially generated cross-disciplinary field “with scholars, students, librarians and technologists working together to produce a scholarly product with more functionality, further reach and potentially wider appeal.”[7] In such an environment, an aspiration toward the apparent stability and certainty of close reading seems hopelessly romantic. The ongoing uncertainty within DH can only be productive, and far more so than the monolithic ideal of the ideal Platonic text revealing the totality of its literary techniques to the scholar’s allegedly omnipotent and forensic scansion.

[1] Daniel J. Cohen, Federica Frabetti, Dino Buzzetti, ‘Defining Digital Humanities,’ (Columbia: 2011)

[2] Alan Liu, ‘Imagining the New Media Encounter,’ Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, p.9 (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)

[3] Ibid, p.11

[4] Dick van Hulle, ‘Hypertext and Avant-texte in Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature,’ Ibid, p.139

[5] John A. Walsh, ‘Multimedia and Multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for Nineteenth Century Literary Studies,’ Ibid, p.125

[6] William G. Thomas III, ‘Computing and The Historical Imagination,’ A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

[7] John A. Walsh, ‘Multimedia and Multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for Nineteenth Century Literary Studies,’ Digital Literary Studies, p.125


Daniel J. Cohen, Federica Frabetti & Dino Buzzetti, ‘Defining the Digital Humanities,’ (Columbia University: 2011)

Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens & John Unsworth (Editors), A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)

Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyann & Edward Vanhouette (Editors), Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (Ashgate Publishing Company: 2013)


On Reading ‘Amongst Women’

When reading Amongst Women (1990), it occurred to me how different a character the family patriarch Moran would have been in the hands of a less skilled novelist than John McGahern. Moran is an authoritarian. He is suspicious and defensive around the men his daughters choose as husbands. His oppressive temper is cited by his sons as their reasons for leaving the household and his daughters and wife indulge him throughout his life as if he were their child, negotiating his explosive temper in order to maintain some semblance of order in the household.

One can imagine this hypothetical unskilled novelist holding Moran up as a punching bag or an easy target for irony, particularly at one point towards the end of the novel when he initiates the family tradition of saying the rosary together. (The rosary tradition is generally more of an opportunity for Moran to showcase his authority than it is to demonstrate his faith, when Moran’s prospective son-in-law Mark says that he has no beads, Moran tersely informs him that: ‘You have fingers.’) At this stage in the text, his eldest son Luke refuses to engage with him. Moran and his wife Rose are watching their domestic ‘nest’ becoming empty as Moran’s daughters get married one by one and re-locate to such far flung locations as London or Dublin. However, he still believes: “the family that prays together stays together.” Even in moments such as these, when his oft-cited aphorisms are totally at odds from the reality of his life, McGahern does not encourage the reader to laugh at or judge Moran in a simplistic way.

There is a telling passage during which the family are gathering hay together in the meadow. One of Moran’s daughters, Sheila and her husband Sean eventually tire of the labour, and their attention turns to more important matters. Namely, each other: “Sheila and her husband were crossing the fence on the edge of the field before they were noticed leaving. They walked hand in hand.” Their behaviour becomes a matter of some scandal for the rest of the family and the tension mounts in the following scene in which the sisters trade snide comments about Sheila. However, this hostility does not build to boiling point, or culminate in a dramatic argument. Instead, time moves on, and Rose finds herself circumspect. Her reflection that the house will be quiet again now that everyone has left tacitly expresses a wish for such contact, no matter the potential for such unpleasantness, is preferable to being alone.

This is the core of what Amongst Women has to say about family and belonging, to the point where there a degree of truth to what Moran has to say, regardless of the fact that it is essentially a shibboleth. While Luke and Michael cannot endure living under his yoke, the trauma of their departures ultimately fades. It encourages Moran to reflect and reach beyond his familiar range of emotion to express himself in a semi-apologetic letter to his estranged son.

It is clear from the poignantly written last line that the family will ‘stay together,’ that it will survive Moran’s demise as it survived Sheila and Sean’s dalliance above, as it survived all the other crises that have assailed it in the course of this unforgettable novel.

What remains of Bowen’s Court?

Ireland - Text and Screen

The brief answer to the title question is: nothing but a field and a gate. First of all however, a little bit about Elizabeth Bowen and what Bowen’s Court was.

A vibrant literary tradition colours County Cork. On the road from Kildorrery (North Cork), you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on one of the same country roads that wind and weave throughout the Irish countryside, except that this one is irrevocably imbued with the memories and stories of Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (1899-1973), perpetuated most resolutely in the novel The Last September (1929). Bowen was born at Herbert Place in Dublin on the 7th of June, and famously thought that winter resided in Dublin and summer in Cork, given that she grew up spending her summers in Bowen’s court. Her father, Henry, and her mother, Florence, decided to move to England once her father become mentally ill in…

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