STEPHEN MARCHE'S RECENT ESSAY in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Literature is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” has garnered a fair amount of negative attention the past few days. In a lively comment thread and across many conversations on Twitter, there has been ample talk of straw men, overly defensive digital humanists, Marche’s unaccountable nostalgia, as well as the meaning of the word “data." (Natalia Cecire gets it right relative to Marche’s title: “Almost nothing in the world IS data. ‘Data’ is an abstraction we use to make certain kinds of inquiry possible.”) In playing the digital humanities alternately as a straw man and a bogeyman, though, Marche gives only vague hints about what it actually is.
Marche’s most consistent theme is the notion that Google’s digitization of millions of books, the universal accessibility of literary archives, and the machine-assisted crunching of literary datasets (or “distant reading”) are all a sort of algorithmic and inhuman development in the study of literature. Quantitative analysis is “necessarily at the limit of reductivism,” and, considered only as data, “To the Lighthouse is just another novel in [the database’s] pile of novels.” The notion seems to be that a professor somewhere will feed all of Virginia Woolf’s books into a machine and forget they’re good books. (For the record: Virginia Woolf is in no danger on this count.) Marche imagines that, in turning to the digital humanities, literature scholars, and maybe even readers, will lose sight of literature’s “humanness.” The threat of the digital itself, then, prompts Marche’s catalog of literature’s “human” qualities: its messiness and fragmentation, the irreducibility of its content to mere data, the insights it contains that cannot be machine-read.
It’s Marche’s hyperbolic comparisons between “algorithms” and “fascism” that suggest the essay is a brand of all-too-familiar doomsaying about technology. In talking about the “humanness” of literature, he may as well be talking about “humanness” per se: camaraderie, human contact, meaning, “messiness,” and insight. The engine behind the essay seems to be an appeal to the vague fears we share about how “cockroach”-like machines will threaten the things we value, from the experience of reading to our life savings. In ascribing a kind of fascism to the algorithm, Marche echoes dystopian writers like George Orwell and Anthony Burgess, who have posited technology as the totalitarian instrumentalizer of all things, as the opposite of the human, humane, and democratic. Only in this sense can it be tragic, as Marche suggests, that an algorithm will “treat all literature as if it were the same,” even if only for a few processor cycles. At other moments, however, Marche acknowledges the utopian aspects and “democratic spirit” of freely available digital texts through Google Books. The ungainly mix of utopian and dystopian thinking about technology in con...read more