The Boston Review recently published an article featuring NovelTM member Matthew Jockers, which reviews his recent publications Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History and Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, and examines his long-term contribution to the digital humanities. An excerpt of the article entitled ” A Science of Literature” by Ben Merriman can be found below, along with a link to the entire piece.
For some years, humanities scholars have sought to integrate computing technology into their research. These efforts—the “digital humanities”—have inspired public debate well out of proportion to the number of researchers involved or the scope of their findings. P.T. Barnums and Chicken Littles have proclaimed that computation will mark the end of humanistic inquiry. Actual literary research in this vein suggests otherwise.
Much of this work is driven by tools rather than by questions; when scholars have the means to manipulate large bodies of text, they will fiddle with the data and see what happens. To the extent that digital projects do have clear goals, they tend to yield recognizably humanist products, such as a new edition of a book, a map of the places discussed in a narrative, or attribution of authorship to a formerly anonymous text.
The literary scholar Franco Moretti and his colleagues, most notably Matthew Jockers, are exceptions: their project of “distant reading,” developed steadily over more than a decade, has an ambitious, nontraditional goal. In its strongest formulation, it seeks to explain long-term patterns of literary stability and change through the quantitative study of all surviving literary texts. Forms of change include large developments, such as the rise and fall of novel genres, already recognized by critics, but also many small shifts, such as changes in sentence structure, the gradual emergence of themes, or the increased use of locative prepositions, which are readily detected with statistics but mostly unnoticeable to a human reader. Jockers’s nascent work on novel plots, which suggests that nearly all novels conform to a half dozen basic structures, derives from many small measurements concerning the emotional sentiment of individual sentences.
Full article here