The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Franco Moretti

By Melissa DinsmanMarch 2, 2016

The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Franco Moretti
Click here for the complete series of "The Digital in the Humanities."

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on the one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and, on the other, media archeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me early in my conversation with him: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”

It’s hard not to take such an assertion from Moretti, the author of Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading — canonized DH works, if such a thing exists — at face value, but that is what “The Digital in the Humanities” intends to do. Over the year, this series will explore the role of the digital humanities as well as the digital in the humanities as it currently exists in the US academy through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics of the field’s impact on humanistic inquiry. The result will be some surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement. But at its heart, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and this intersection’s impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

I begin this series with a leader of the digital field, Franco Moretti, whose work at Stanford University as The Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor in the Humanities and the founder of the now famous Literary Lab, speaks to what he calls a divided scholarship that “[doesn’t] add up to a whole.” This is a position to which his numerous publications speak. Over the past 20 years, he has written the more “traditional” Modern Epic, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, and The Bourgeois, as well as the computationally inclined Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading. And while Moretti seems not entirely comfortable with the divided nature of his scholarship, he is also adamant that this is a division he is not willing to give up. This tension is present at Moretti’s best moments in this interview and in his writings, and is why, despite his well-respected stature within both the traditional and digital humanities fields, his computational work is often the subject of much debate, even within the Los Angeles Review of Books. But this tension between the traditional and computational, between close and distant readings — and Moretti is always the best of close readers even when reading the distant — is what makes Moretti’s scholarship so impressive and important to the 21st-century humanities.


MELISSA DINSMAN: Like me, you come from a literary background, so how did you first come to enter what we will broadly call, at this point, the digital field?

FRANCO MORETTI: I have been interested in a scientific approach to literature for a long time, since the late-1980s when I wrote on evolutionary theory in literature. From here I moved to geography and wrote the Atlas of the European Novel. While doing geographical research, I realized that quantitative methods helped considerably with mapmaking. So I became interested in quantitative approaches to history of all kinds. Around 2000-2001, I gave a series of lectures at the University of California, Berkeley that pulled all these threads together. This became the book Graphs, Maps, Trees. But the lucky moment was that right then Matt Jockers came to Stanford as a technology specialist. We met and started working together. So for me, digital humanities was really like the fourth or fifth station along a much longer course, which also means that I've never seen digital humanities as, so to speak, a total novelty as some of its practitioners do. For me it’s basically the form taken in the digital age by scientific, explanatory, empirical, rationalistic, call it what you want, approaches to the history of literature and culture.

This is interesting, because what you are describing sounds like a very natural progression, rather than say something that was always external to your field of study. At this point in your career, how would you describe the role that the digital plays in your work? You’ve used the phrase "digital humanities." Do you think of your work as part of the digital humanities or is it something much larger?

No. First of all the term "digital humanities" means nothing. Computational criticism has more meaning, but now we all use the term "digital humanities" — me included. I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work. You can't possibly know this, but when my last two books were going to be published — Distant Reading and The Bourgeois — I convinced my publisher (and it took some convincing) to have them come out on the same day because they were for me two sides of the coin of the work I tried to do. And what I find potentially interesting is that the two sides don't add up to a whole. I do things in the mode of Distant Reading that I could never do in the mode of The Bourgeois. But it also works the other way around. When I write a book with zero digital humanities content, or very little, like The Bourgeois, I find myself doing things that I cannot do with the other approach. Exactly what things are available in the one and in the other and are they mutually exclusive, I still haven't figured out how to think about this. But for me, this is going to be the problem for the years to come because I don't want to give up any of these two realities. They are equally dear to me.

So there hasn’t been a sort of natural blending then into some sort of whole. It is still very much separate.

It is. I am loosely planning a book on tragic form, which occasionally I try to conceive as a unification of the two. Who knows. This is planning. It is easy to plan. Doing is a different thing.

Are there any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?

I don't see a special area. What I would be very interested in reflecting upon is the different fates, the different destinies, so far of the digital approach in literature, history, and art history, because DH has clearly functioned very differently in those three fields. And why has it functioned so differently? Many of your questions have to do with the humanities in general and this would be an interesting way to try to figure out why this DH approach is much more productive in literature than in the two other cases. Not that we've done anything earth-shattering, but it’s clear that English departments have done more than the others in this field. In fact, as you know, I am currently in Switzerland, and there are several universities here that are beginning to think in these terms by organizing discussions between historians, literary critics, and art historians. I think this kind of enlarging of the panorama will be more fruitful, rather than splitting hairs within the literary digital humanities. We need it. It's a little claustrophobic in our field.

Part of what you seem to be gesturing toward in your discussion of interdisciplinary collaboration comes down to physical space, which brings up an interesting and somewhat ironic problem relating to the need digital projects have for a rather large amount of real estate in an institution. Despite its reliance on online platforms, much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — namely does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship, and what does this say about its future role in the university?

The empirical answer is that libraries are certainly moving forward. When you look at job offers, a lot of them are in libraries or library-like environments. I've done what I've done and I stand by it. I think the solution for digital research is a lab attached to a department. That is to say with the department as its reference, but not exactly an organ of the department. The lab would have its own autonomy. It's clearly a precarious situation and honestly it would make sense to look to the sciences to see the ways in which a biology lab and the biology department function together. The way I see these labs is attached, but not co-extensive with the department — appendixes of the departments.

So how would separate lab space work toward your idea of an increased "panoramic" view of the humanities?

At the Stanford Literary Lab we are part of a three-lab environment and one of the three labs is for historical research. But somehow in English there are many more grad students than in history, so there hasn't been a real synergy. In reality, functioning labs are still extremely rare. There are a lot of things that call themselves labs, but many of them don't do lab-like research and publication. So we have to see how things evolve.

I think we are verging on talking about the relevance of the digital humanities for the larger institution and not just specific departments. People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant for the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities to say that DH will come in on a white horse and save the humanities from itself?

Neither one. The humanities will need to save themselves, and not only for the crass reason that going to university can cost an insane amount of money, so students choose to go into business, medicine, economics, etc., to remake the money as soon as possible. It's not just that, although that cannot be simply dismissed. In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort. Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness. I totally understand why a 20-year old would choose to do astrophysics rather than literature. It's so much more interesting in many ways, just for the pleasure of the intelligence. That is what the humanities have to work on.

Another solution that is often presented as a "way out" for the humanities is interdisciplinary work, to which DH seems to naturally lend itself.

Interdisciplinary work won't solve the problem. Interdisciplinary work is even harder than disciplinary work. It's even more chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly. Now, are the digital humanities heading towards making the humanities as a whole, let's say literature in my case, relevant in terms of beautiful theories and high-order conceptualization? No. Not yet, at least. That's what I care about. I don't care if the humanities have bar graphs in every paper, like The Financial Times, which I think in a newspaper there should be, but not necessarily in literature. No, to make the humanities relevant you need something much bigger than the digital humanities. What the humanities need are large theories and bold concepts.

Another complaint often lodged against the digital humanities is that it is a sign of the increasing neoliberalism of academic institutions. For example, in a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

Digital humanities is not more productive than the humanities in general, so that certainly is not it. There definitely is a neoliberal offensive against the universities and an important component of that is that basically more and more research sectors are asked to find money outside of the university. Digital humanities is enjoying a lot of grants, and so it may be seen as having a good time in this new era. But DH is not part of the attack. It's simply because of the policy of funding agencies suffering less from the attack. I don't see DH as having a political agenda in any way aligned with the neoliberal offense. Think of one thing: digital humanities is introducing within the humanities, group work, systematically. One could claim that group work is actually the opposite of the individualistic ethos, competition at all costs, typical of the universities. Does this mean that the digital humanities has a socialist bent, not at all. It's just that that's the way it has to work if it wants to work. Grusin's article has a lot of good sense in it. But the general idea that the digital humanities are aligned with the big tech companies is simply not true.

That brings us to the question of funding. To put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

Honestly I don't know. You will have to ask the other interviewees. I can tell you that when we launched the lab we got $20,000 from Stanford for the first two years, with which we had to buy everything: computers, screens, and all other expenses. Then there was more money that came, part from the university and part from some grants, which are usually international grants. But you know, six years later, we still have neither a programmer nor an archivist librarian. We don't even have 10 percent of a programmer or a librarian. We have a grad student who is a great programmer and there is a junior faculty in English who is a great programmer, but we don't have a dedicated programmer. There has been money that has come, and will continue to come in the future, both from within and without the institution. I've wasted an enormous amount of time raking together the money so that the lab can just survive. I'm sure there are places that have it harder than we do and places that have it better. But I can just speak for what has happened at Stanford.

I think it will useful to see how different institutions are approaching this question of funding differently. From my experience there doesn't seem to be consensus on how to fund or house digital labs and centers. It often seems people are making it up as they go along, and this includes determining which grants are available. Let's switch gears, now, and talk about coding. In the past there has been a line drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

I don't code and if someone were to say I really don't belong to this new area, I would try to argue for leniency towards people who were already too old to learn coding, but I would understand. And it is not just a matter of "come on, let me in, I've done so much to give respectability to the field." It's not that. It's that coding, and I see this in young grad students or younger colleagues, allows them to have a type of intelligence and intuitions that I don't have and will never have. It's an intelligence that takes the form of writing a script, but in the writing of the script there is also the beginning of a concept, very often not expressed as a concept, but that you can see that it was there from the results that the coding produces. Perhaps the best example in the case of the Literary Lab was Pamphlet #4, which was written by two grad students who invented their own script. I envy them that form of intelligence, knowing that I will never have it. And I like it. I think that actually many of the most promising results in the future will come from scripts that are half scripts / half cultural, literary, historical concept. And so I think that universities that have a digital humanities program, minor, major, should make sure that everybody gets a chance at having that type of intelligence.

Since this is for the Los Angeles Review of Books, a publication that extends beyond a strictly academic readership, I wonder what is your impression of how the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)? If you are on a plane and you talk to the person next to you and say, "I work in the digital humanities at Stanford," do you get a blank stare? What do you think their knowledge base is? And do you think they should know that there is this entire trend or field emerging within the humanities?

They should know if it is worth knowing about. But that cannot be my decision. That should be your decision and you've decided that they should be informed in some form or another. And what I'm saying applies to literature and art more than history. The way in which, say through newspapers, the general public has knowledge of literary study or of approaches to literature, is still very normative. You read reviews that tell you if a book or a film is good or bad. And the same for art shows, and so on. Digital humanities is as non-normative as one can get in the field of literature. It is much more towards the explanatory. So to make it interesting for the general public, a major revolution in the way in which literature is approached by the media would be necessary. Will this revolution happen? No. Should this revolution happen? I'm not even sure. I have devoted my life to explanation rather than value judgment. On the other hand, I am not sure that for society-at-large, for the world-at-large, explanation is more important than value judgment. I think it is more important for people who devote their lives to try to understand how things work. I know that I have never had so colossal of misunderstandings as I have had in interviews with newspapers about the digital humanities, or in newspaper articles about my work in the digital humanities.

Why do you think newspapers are getting it wrong?

Newspapers have plenty of good writers who review books, films, plays, etc. and then there are these eggheads inside English departments doing these calculations that seem so completely beside the point. I think that may be the problem. That may be it. It seems like a strange waste of time. But I don't want to put myself in the heads of journalists.

So perhaps the digital humanities are too foreign to journalists who typically write about literature and film.

That's probably a good way to put it.

So we are at my last question for you; although we still have the surprise question that you formulated to come at the end. I want to continue this focus on the public's relationship with the academy through digital work, but think about it in terms of public intellectualism. We are supposedly in an age that has seen a decline in the public intellectual (as Nicholas Kristof opined in The New York Times as recently as last year). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

I left Italy for the US 25 years ago and I was already 40, so I had been working for a while. I had published a couple of books and had been writing on and off for newspapers. When I left, I would have described myself, perhaps, as an intellectual. Now, I am not. I am certainly a professor — so someone much more confined in a specialty. And I think the digital humanities has made me more of a professor than I was say 15 years ago, because it requires so much technical knowledge and an exchange between you and your peers. I don't think the digital humanities now, or for the foreseeable future, is a particularly good wager to revitalize the public intellectual. Public intellectuals can be revitalized if politics is revitalized and honestly the signals in that direction are scarce, to put it mildly, in the US but also in Europe.

Now for my question back to you. I was entertained often in your questions, expressions such as "could," "should," "is it likely to," "the future," "the purpose," etc., and very little, if anything at all, referred to the past. There wasn't a single question that asked, "Has the digital humanities done anything?" Leave aside what it can do in the future; has it done anything? And I find this fascinating. Somehow digital humanities has managed to secure for itself this endless infancy, in which, it is always a future promise. And of course this is reflected very much in the grant culture that supports it. Grants are all about what you promise you will be doing in the next three years, which is a way of asking to be fooled, or of encouraging salesmanship. It's a perversion of intellectual judgment. Intellectual judgment ought to judge what has been done, not to just be a promise for the future. There should be a little room for that, but just a little. The answer that I would give to my own question, but that you should ask other people if you think it's important…

I think I will. It is a blind spot in my own thinking about the digital's place in humanities work.

…is that the results so far have been below expectations. Now, it's true that the field is at the beginning still. It's true that much of scientific research is so called normal science, and it's certainly true that traditional literary criticism is not sending off sparks every day. All of this is true, but it is also irrelevant because digital humanities are claiming to be the big novelty and so far I think I have produced little evidence about that. I don't want to push it too far. I don't want to say there is not evidence, because it is complicated. Evidence comes in many forms. At times it is conceptual refinement and at times corroboration is a form of evidence, and it is a form of important evidence. But in the humanities it is often not considered important. Perhaps one of the most important things DH should address in the coming phase is the nature of its own results — how to evaluate them — and if necessary, why is it, considering the amount of energy, talent, and tools, going into it, that we have such difficulty producing great results. I think, and think others in the field would agree, that our work could have been better.

I think that's a strength though, to perpetually think "that could be better." I think that's the sign of a growing field. And I think that's what gives us a future-facing focus. There is a perpetual need to make it better, more accurate, in order to build the discipline. 

I agree. But again, think of this: to make it better — it's a perfect expression because it's a comparative, it was good and now it's more good — this is not how the humanities think in general. It's usually much more of a polemical, an all-or-nothing affair. It's a conflict of interpretation. It's: you thought Hamlet was the protagonist of Hamlet, how foolish of you; the protagonist is Osric. Digital humanities doesn't work in this mode and I think there is something very adult and very sober in not working in this mode. There is also something, maybe especially for older people like me, which is always a little disappointing: the digital humanities lacks that free song — the bubbliness of the best example of the old humanities.


Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).

LARB Contributor

Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015). Dinsman’s research focuses on the intersection of modernist literature and media aesthetics, and her first book brings together her interest in late-modernist radio broadcasting, archival recovery, information networks, and the Frankfurt School. Dinsman is currently working on a new book project, America’s Blitz, which looks at the ways in which British and U.S. writers, directors, and broadcasters translated British wartime experiences for American audiences during World War II, and how these translations often resulted in a melodramatic genre-framing of Britain’s struggle. Her work can be found in journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, The Space Between, and Literature Interpretation Theory.


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