Peer Reviewed

From the Print Journal

The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

Are digital methods weak or strong? How should we understand the conjunction of digital tools and methods with modernist studies? In some accounts of the rise of weak theories in literary studies, weak theory and digital methods like distant reading are taken as correlative terms, with associative logic and epistemological modesty common to both.[1] Yet a nearly opposite set of arguments is as familiar: digital literary methods are too “strong,” so goes the claim, because they conceal naïvely positivist notions of evidence and proof, reductively quantify cultural production, or advance a neoliberal agenda within the academy.[2] Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.

Generalized glosses such as these call out for more particular accounts of digital practice from within modernist studies itself, and indeed these have begun to appear. Work by Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, Jessica Pressman, Shawna Ross, and James O’Sullivan supports the contention of Stephen Ross and Jentery Sayers that there are “special affinities” between modernism and digital approaches, and that digital methods “afford some of the most promising lines of development for the ongoing expansion of the ‘new modernist studies.’”[3] Shawna Ross and James O’Sullivan’s edited volume Reading Modernism with Machines (2016) marks a turn from debating the advantages and deficits of digital methodology and towards embedding new methods and interpretive procedures within the specificity of modernist studies as a field.[4]

Rather than surveying the field or advocating a particular digital technique, the present article advances an argument about how digital approaches articulate with modernist subjects. After considering the leading positions on that question, and drawing on current examples of work in the field, I contend that digital modernist studies can and should understand itself through a weak theory of the conjunction of digital method and scholarly field, following the line of thinking developed by Wai Chee Dimock, Bruno Latour, and their common sources in science and technology studies.[5] This line of weak theory focuses on relational networks of association, skeins of weak bonds that paradoxically produce strength through “dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties” (Latour, “Actor-Network,” 3). The social is continuously woven by human and nonhuman actors, argues Latour, and he has in mind the micro-societies that constitute disciplines, not just the macro-social echelons of politics and economics. For Dimock, these “dispersed, episodic webs of association, not supervised and not formalizable, make it an open question what is primary, what is determinative, what counts as the center and what counts as the margins” (“Weak Theory,” 737). The weak conjunction between digital method and modernist studies foregrounds exactly these questions of center and periphery, social determination, long lines of material dependencies, and critical authority. Rather than a static theoretical picture, weak theory is here employed to theorize the process of affiliation, conjunction, translation, and alliance between methods and subjects, and to redescribe the work of digital modernist studies as the careful, conscious “plaiting of weak ties” between method, object, and field.

Digital modernist studies requires a Latourian attention to the intervention of material agents into critical practice, along with long chains of institutions, machines, collaborators, and other mediations between the intimate triad of the world, the text, and the critic. It necessitates the Dimockian work of filiation, comparison, and self-reflective theorization—an emphasis on constructing rather than assuming the boundaries of the field—that increasingly serves as the hallmark of an expanded modernist studies. It compels interdisciplinary conversations that extend beyond the boundaries of the humanities. Over and above the labor of the individual critic, digital modernist studies demands collaborative labor and collective verification, along with new methods of peer review now coming into view. Such methods at their best afford us few of the pleasures of deciphering, uncovering, or excavating meaning associated with the strong theoretical approaches that Paul Ricoeur describes as the hermeneutics of suspicion, despite the now privileged rhetoric of “data mining.” Nor do they offer historicist critics an escape from the careful composition of texts, contexts, and archives. What digital methods instead offer to modernist studies, I suggest, are the weak powers of experimental disciplinary liaisons, provisional models, subjunctive modes, hapax legomena, paratextual embellishments, and fragile geographies.

Digital Modernist Studies: Strong and Weak Paradigms

A weak theoretical model of the conjunction of digital method and field must be distinguished from some strong critical alternatives. One such strong position aligns contemporary digital literary experiments or new media formations with antecedents in the historical avant-garde, in a way that reiterates the modernist problem of formal-as-political revolution.[6] Thus digital Jacobins such as Robert Coover once proclaimed the decadence of print culture, declaring a “late age of print” or “the end of books.”[7] A range of digital media theorists, from Richard Lanham to Lev Manovich, have posited rhetorical analogies between the language of new media and that of the historical avant-garde.[8] More recently, Pressman has tracked the way that work in electronic literature appropriates the language, rhetoric, and cultural capital of high modernist artworks for the purposes of legitimation and cultural critique. Opposing the notion of a “digital avant-garde,” Pressman and others have pushed back against the logic of suppression and rupture that would consign print culture to a prior stage of literary production, to be sublated in the Aufhebung of the digital avant-garde. Scholes and Wulfman, Dean Irvine, Stephen Ross, Shawna Ross, and other digital modernist critics are far more likely to position such work in a reciprocal or recursive relationship to modernist print culture, rather than as heir to a modernist dialectic of supersession and renewal.[9]

The proliferation of digital manifestos is a related phenomenon. Even those who would reject the analogy between the digital and historical avant-gardes may implicitly advance a strong formal argument for the conjunction of modernist studies and digital technique through the continuous reinvention of the manifesto form, a genre often appropriated and reinterpreted in the larger digital humanities conversation. A major example is the “Digital Humanities Manifesto” collectively authored by Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, and a crowd-sourced collective, an intellectual and institutional program for change in the humanities that consciously remediates the typographic, semantic, and codological innovations of Blast.[10] The Francophone counterpart “Manifeste des Digital Humanities,” by contrast, takes an intriguingly Foucauldian point of departure (“Le tournant numérique pris par la société modifie et interroge les conditions de production et de diffusion des savoirs”) and a form more clearly linked to the socialist manifestes of the nineteenth century.[11] Alex Christie, Shawna Ross, Andrew Pilsch, and Katie Tanigawa have advanced a “Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities” that remediates the form to argue for a “methodological modernism” in digital modernist studies, rather than a “methodological realism” that would examine modernist texts through techniques that invoke representational fidelity and historical accuracy. “We can DECOUPLE methodological strategies from the content of the objects we study,” they assert, in a demonstration that the perverse, fragmented, and polyphonic modes of the modernist avant-garde can be weakly linked with the new mechanic styles of a modernist digital humanities.[12]

One final strong program is that complex disciplinary formation known as “distant reading,” employed by Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So to read the modernist-era English haiku as both literary pattern and “social or cultural milieu.”[13] Any account of distant reading must recognize the diversity of projects and cases grouped under that rubric, and the long disciplinary history of quantitative analysis in literary sociology and reader-response criticism, as Ted Underwood’s longue durée account of the term reminds us.[14] But the dominant form of distant reading in North America has been associated with the work of Franco Moretti and the Literary Lab at Stanford University, and its ambitious attempt to describe and analyze “the literary field as a unified, internally differentiated system.”[15] The weak approaches I describe in the following might be initially understood through their distinction from the Bourdieusian framework invoked by Moretti and allied distant reading approaches. But that distinction should leave open the possibility of methodological crossing and hybridity, as in the case of Long and So’s close, distant, and cultural reading of haiku in the little magazines.

As we begin to articulate a weak model of digital modernist studies, we find an initial paradox: weak conjunctions of methods, tools, and field are everywhere and nowhere. Take the negative first. Digital methods are surprisingly underrepresented within modernist studies, decades after the first projects were launched. Recent issues of this journal and others connected to the field contain vanishingly few arguments with explicit digital dependencies, at the level of either argument or archive. The exceptions, as with Long and So’s algorithmic reading of haiku form, or David Earle’s “MySpace Modernism,” tend to prove the rule.[16] Yet at the same time, digital methods, like the dark matter some astrophysicists think must attend every visible star, invisibly shape and inflect the entire field, beginning with the now unremarkable ability to search databases that index the entire recent history of modernist scholarship. Other dark matters include the influence of textual search within both modernist works and modernist scholarship; the place of n-gram word frequency calculations now easily available and increasingly in casual use among scholars; and, of course, the very nature of scholarly textual transmission itself is increasingly dependent on long chains of digital mediations and revisions. This is the sense in which we are all digital modernists now, a thesis that implies the invisibility of the most common digital methods.[17] Indeed, the pervasiveness and near invisibility of digital methods, far from being contradictory phenomena, may be seen as functions of one another.

The relative invisibility of digital arguments or evidence does not, of course, exhaust the influence of efforts like the Modernist Journals Project (MJP) on the larger field. The recent renaissance in scholarship on print culture and the little journals undoubtedly derives in part from the scope, simplicity, and ease of access promoted by that project. Yet one of the strengths of the project is that rather than “revolutionizing” the way we conceive of the little magazines—as one rhetoric of digital supersession would have it—the Modernist Journals Project takes great pains to remain within the familiar graphic, indexical, and also codicological conventions of the library archive. The recent efforts of the MJP “Lab” have begun to move beyond those conventions, but its worthy main purpose remains in the areas of accessibility and dissemination. And yet this expanded and disseminated archive has been one of the signal successes of digital modernist studies.

This first weak conjunction between modernist studies and digital method aims at recovery, categorization, and dissemination. The exigency of the Modernist Journals Project, for Scholes and Wulfman, was the discovery that advertisements had been removed from not just one but most library runs of the little journals they set out to digitize, so that an essential element of cultural history had become unavailable to those studying periodical culture. They set out to repair this hole in the archive, through a process that combines textual markup with visual fidelity to bibliographic codes of the archive: as Scholes and Wulfman say, “We are talking about copying, which is an ancient process now finding a new form in the digital world” (Modernism in the Magazines, 198). Some exciting new efforts, like the Modernist Versions Project, respond to a similar need for the dissemination of modernist texts, in that case for the purpose of flexible pedagogical anthologies; other projects, like Woolf Online, are devoted to particular authors or works.[18]

Within many of those same projects we see a second weak paradigm in the description and reinscription of loose social ties, in the form of metadata that describes roles, contributors, dates, and places in a standard way. This process of standardization itself allows for new forms of visualization and inquiry. The Modernist Journals Project Lab has made its hierarchical description of journal metadata available to other researchers, so that structured questions across a range of magazines can be rigorously pursued. Who contributed most to The English Review under Ford Madox Ford, and who among those contributors were most commonly found in the other little magazines? What does the network of contributions to those magazines look like over time? And what reviewers were most commonly reviewed in the three Marsden journals, The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist?[19] These are questions that can be pursued in transformative ways through the open data of the MJP Labs. Such questions have the potential to reshape our study of the little magazines through correlation and colocation, represented through network-visualization tools that can only provisionally and contingently be employed to examine modernist objects.

A third weak paradigm for digital modernist studies is the use of consciously aleatory or procedural modes of criticism, modes that refuse strong models of authority, history, and genealogy in favor of cunning and chance. Modernist precedents have been insistently recurred to in this way within the interdisciplinary conversation of the Digital Humanities itself. Dada, Oulipo, and the “pataphysics” of Alfred Jarry are claimed as direct influences on what the digital critic Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism” and (on a related line of inquiry) what Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie call “speculative computing.”[20] Jarry’s “science of unique solutions, of exceptions,” along with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and Duchamp’s procedural compositions, have been taken up as banners for work that consciously resists the turn to scientific or social-scientific paradigms through particular, unique, or aleatory digital operations. Thus one line of “digital modernist” work is the development of a procedural line, founded in modernist poetics, into a branch of critical digital work that holds in suspension the premises of the tools it employs. Meanwhile, non-academic modernist enthusiasts have developed paracritical yet often gorgeous digital approaches to the study of modernist texts. One could do worse, when comparing Hemingway or Beckett to their minimalist contemporary epigones, than to begin by simply comparing patterns of punctuation abstracted from text, as one amateur project does.[21] The necessarily weak underpinnings of such projects cannot be tied to any strong notion of modernist field or period, but instead arises through what Dimock and Lauren Berlant call “lateral” lines of affiliation and agency, through fan cultures, illicit critical genealogies, and the sudden germination of new projects in unexpected fields from the seed of Mallarmé’s poems or Faulkner’s periods (Dimock, “Weak Theory,” 737).

Certainly the paradigmatic shift with the greatest impact on the new digital modernist studies has been the development of what many have called the “laboratory model” of humanistic knowledge production, a model closely allied to collective efforts in the field. The best known examples include Stanford’s Literary Lab, the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia, and the new Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. These institutional projects, and others like them, have moved towards more openly collaborative, multi-institutional, and indeed international efforts, combining work on fundamental standards and techniques with interpretive applications geared to specific subjects, periods, and fields, including modernist studies.[22] We are only beginning to understand how these new sites of inquiry might change our field. As Latour and Steven Woolgar demonstrate in Laboratory Life, we require new epistemological vocabularies to account for the way that laboratory knowledge is produced and circulated by apparatuses, shared methods, inscription devices, visual arguments, apprenticeships, and shared publications in academic journals. This mode of producing knowledge tends to look epistemologically weaker than the standard model of critical authority over a discrete domain of archival, textual, and theoretical work, even when, as in Stanford’s LitLab Pamphlets, the theoretical claims are quite strong.[23]

Serious work on spatial mapping, to take an example discussed at more length below, requires collaboration with technologists, satellites, and also critical geographers. This series of technical “dependencies” transports us beyond the realm of individual critical judgment and into more interconnected and therefore frangible modes of geospatial argumentation. The conjunction of such work with modernist studies proper is of necessity weak, implicating the critic in a set of tools, expert communities, and interdisciplinary conversations outside the field itself. Yet this set of weak connections and affiliations has produced some of the most interesting recent re-readings of modernist space.

The use of laboratory nomenclature does not herald some new positivism in the humanities oriented to outputs and results. Instead, modernist laboratories return us to an important mode of collaborative experimentalism, of the kind that was central to modernist architecture and poetics. Using the example of the Canadian avant-garde poet Earle Birney, Irvine has argued for a continuity between the avant-garde “mainframe experimentalists” of the postwar period and the laboratories of modernism, particularly Le Corbusier’s notion of architecture as “laboratory” activity: “Suffice it to say that Birney’s operating procedures in Waterloo’s ‘compulibratories’ position him as a practitioner in the tradition of aesthetic experiments and collaborations conducted in avant-garde art and design labs beginning at the turn of the twentieth century” (Irvine, “MISSION CONTROL”).[24] Such experimental collaboratives are now the crucible of much interesting work in digital modernist studies.

A final paradigm that weakly joins the field to digital method is the turn to collective platforms and distributed networks, oriented towards the production of critical editions, linked open data, and digital peer review, among other goals. Irvine’s own Editing Modernism in Canada, a large network of collaborators focused on Canadian modernist texts, stands as a central example here, along with the Modernist Versions Project, centered at the University of Victoria, and the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project directed by Dirk Van Hulle. With collaborators interested in digital approaches to literary correspondence, I have begun work on a Twentieth Century Literary Letters Project, following the example of existing projects in Renaissance and eighteenth-century letters. A specifically modernist digital peer review network has now been created in the Modernist Networks Project headed by Pamela Caughie and David Chinitz. These distributed mechanisms for collective peer review and critical production rise out of existing scholarly mechanisms for collective labor and review, promise to enable new work in the field rather than revolutionize it, and yet count among the most intriguing shifts in the way we study modernism now.

Case Studies: Fragile Geographies and Empty Letters

I turn now to two emerging areas of work in digital modernist studies as a way of fleshing out my account of the weak conjunctions between digital method and modernist field: first, new modernist geographies, and then modernist letters. One way of introducing the promising new work in the first of these subfields would be to locate it as a subset of “spatial humanities,” an interdisciplinary subfield that unites digital historians, cultural geographers, and other humanists who “critically engag[e] the technology [of geographic information systems] and [direct] it to the subject matter of the humanities,” following historians David Bodenhamer and Ed Ayers.[25] But that mode of introduction tends to implicate us in a strong logic of technologically determined innovation that I am arguing we should avoid.

Instead, let us frame digital approaches to modernist geography within the well-noted spatial turn within modernist studies itself: both the centrifugal movement, noted by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, out to a transnational and world frame, as exemplified in Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough’s Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, and more particularly the locative claims of recent work on modernist geographies, spaces, cities, and ecologies.[26] Much (not all) of this work moves away from what Raymond Williams famously called “metropolitan perception,” a characterization of the spatial consciousness of modernism that united modernist communities as disparate as Eliot studies and neo-Marxist world-systems approaches. Our moment of pervasive digital mapping of both urban environments and desert wildernesses appears to destabilize that imagined geography, making specific places accessible and visible in a way unimaginable to Tiresias’s vague “hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains.”[27] The global spatial consciousness now projected by an intricate weave of satellites, algorithms, cell phones, and military mainframes differs from previous imperial and metropolitan conceptions of space in its radically expansive reach and in the saturation of what once was the “periphery.” One central point from which consciousness could move expansively outward has vanished, but the replacement—our polycentric model of digitally connected space—retains and reframes most of the old assumptions without the national, linguistic, and geographical barriers that resisted the older regime. Our metageographic consciousness, to use a term explored by Jon Hegglund, preserves the historical conditions of its founding moments.[28] Geolocative technology retains and expands the many North Atlantic metropolitan deformations of its predecessors: the Mercator projection still shrinks Africa and flattens arcs into flat lines of latitude (originally for the purposes of shipping); north is still up and the (global) south is down; and the imperial settlements of 1884 and 1919 still determine the imagined boundaries of most nation-states.[29] More importantly, as with earlier geographic technologies, spatial representations are created by and for economic systems. The famous maps of red, blue, green, and yellow which so captivated the imagination of the childhood Marlow have given way to microlocative capitalism, a mode in which spaces are not only produced and filled by capitalist enterprises, but also wherein the observer’s location and inquiries are themselves commodified. In its reach, saturation of the life-world, and underlying assumptions, the GIS-driven conception of world space represents a quite strong paradigm for spatial thinking now, one that tends towards the totalizing sovereign “field” that Dimock describes.[30]

For these reasons and others, geographic information systems (GIS) and their re-articulations in spatial representations have been seen as particularly dangerous for use in critical contexts. Indeed, an entire field of work in critical cartography and critical GIS developed alongside the first uses of such tools; this field has grown to include feminist geography, a critical Marxist geography, and what has been called neogeography, a response to the microlocative technological regime just described.[31] The very danger implied by the (naïve) use of spatial technologies, we should first note, is itself a rationale for what I am describing as a weak theoretical praxis for modernist spatial humanities.[32] Digital maps should always be seen as provisional, problematic, contaminated: they are useful to think with and against, but not to ground our histories on. Objections can and should be retained within a critical practice of spatial modernist studies, as the best examples demonstrate. Indeed, critical awareness of the epistemologies contained within our technologies of representation—including the familiar Mercator projection—is one of the primary benefits of this work. To read modernism through maps, we need to know how maps “lie,” as the cartographer Mark Monmonier puts it.[33]

The weakest and, I maintain, the best spatial humanities projects in modernist studies thus evince awareness of their compromised epistemological status, making use of that status to produce a range of openly anti-mimetic geographies. Take the “Z-Axis” map of Djuna Barnes’s Paris as reconceived by Alex Christie and the INKE team at the University of Victoria.[34] Their map is a deformed version of the historical maps of Paris in the 1920s, with the sections of the city most significant to Barnes’s narrative pulled up out of the flat plane of the map into spiky, seismic waves of significance. No one would use this map to navigate the physical Paris, a fact that allies the map formally with Barnes’s narratives, which deform city streets and the human animals who roam them into what Christie et al. call an “affective map” of the city. What we are mapping here instead of physical space is the conjunction of desires and the city, an illicit rendezvous of character and topoi, cartography and narrative drive.

Christie et al. argue against what they call the “isomorphic” and realist view of cities in fiction, and particularly the placement of points on a map through easily available commercial geospatial technologies. Using these techniques, they say, reproduces the mimetic illusions of naïve realism in works committed to anti-mimetic strategies and spaces, even if realism was never so naïve nor modernism so invested in anti-mimesis as the old realism-modernism dyad would imply. Placing locations on an existing geospatial map, in their view, threatens modernist objects with the “top-down and totalizing” ideologies” of what I am calling here microlocative capitalism. Work by Amanda Golden and others who employ these technologies on radically anti-representationalist texts, to take a converse case, demonstrates the pedagogical utility of a strong GIS-based realism when exploring a defamiliarized urban landscape.[35] As with editorial notes marking the social, economic, and political valences of urban space in Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, grounding textual allusion in a clear map of the city provides a sense of scale, density, and historical change in the urban fabric surrounding the modernist flâneur. We should note that both these examples remain within the classic metropolitan framework of modernist studies. Both approaches deform the familiar city-space in ways that seem to resonate with a modernist subjectivism; and both remain largely within the paradigm of “metropolitan consciousness,” focusing our view on the spatial dimension of that located consciousness. A mental map of the geographies of new modernist studies would differ quite dramatically from these remediations of modernist texts. The next generation of work on spatial modernist studies has before it the prospect of that greatly enlarged geographic field.

Other geographical projects that exemplify the weak conjunction between field and digital method have come out of the literary laboratories at Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Virginia. Stanford’s Republic of Letters project—about which more in a moment—is one of the most ambitious examples of mapping intellectual space over time, in this case through the movement of correspondence between Enlightenment philosophes. The ongoing Mapping Emotions in Victorian London project at the Stanford Literary Lab aims at producing an “emotional map of the English metropolis,” in terms intriguingly parallel to the Z-Axis team’s project on Barnes’s Paris.[36] Todd Presner and his spatial humanities group have created thickly layered cultural maps both of the major metropolises of European modernity, in their HyperCities platform, and what we might call the social life of contemporary crises, in the responses to the Fukushima disaster and the “Arab Spring” of 2011.[37] Presner has employed this platform to suggest newly geographical readings of the German-Jewish cultural dialectic, a Benjaminian mapping of cultural history onto the walking maps of Berlin.[38] Rather than generate unidirectional narratives of temporal influence, Presner asks what it would mean “to produce a [historical] narrative that looked more like a railway system or web, with a multiplicity of connecting segments, branches, nodes, and possible pathways . . . a labyrinthine structure in which straying and contingency are the methodological starting points” (“Remapping German-Jewish Studies,” 305). Cultural history, he suggests, would begin to look more like the plan of a railway network than the unilinear epochs of a teleological history. Presner’s metaphors of network, branch, node, contingency, and straying suggest an imminently weak mode of cultural history at work, as do the specific studies collected within Hypercities.

A common theme in all these projects is the fragility of geography, the way that the warp and weft of city space can so easily unravel and be reworked within literary space, and the way that literary space reveals the fragility and contingency of the city itself. Against Pascale Casanova’s strong-theoretical, Bourdieusian view of Paris as the unseen center of literary prestige and cultural capital—a center to which peripheral literatures and belated literary modernities come for consecration—these new approaches argue for radically peripheral literary geographies that relativize and skew the cultural topology. Barnes’s Paris is remapped through a queer geography that skews the usual touristic map, blurs parks, blots monuments, and invents lesbian quartiers.[39] These weak-theoretical maps are distant from Fredric Jameson’s notion of metropolitan “cognitive mapping,” a political aesthetic that could move beyond the classical “logic of the grid” (classically reproduced in the newest digital “innovations”) or the spatial unrepresentability of multinational capitalism.[40] New digital heterotopias do not provide any pretext either for a renewed sense of “freedom and aesthetic gratification” or for the basis of a renewed socialist politics (Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” 353).[41] Instead, they offer us fresh itineraries through an already distant historical space, from aleatory walks through Benjamin’s arcades to poetic routes through poetic development.[42] Precisely through their deformations of urban space, they return us to the lived city.

Sealed Letters: Modernism and Epistolary Space

Not all of the leading work in digital literary studies advances through what I am calling weak conjunctions of literary objects and digital method. As we have seen, some of the most exciting work to come out of the Stanford Literary Lab, as in recent studies by Mark McGurl and Mark Algee-Hewitt, aims to do nothing less than reconstruct the nineteenth- or twentieth-century “literary field” as a whole.[43] The urge toward totality exhibited by such strong constructions of the literary field is particularly exciting when it prompts researchers to sample the vast range of literary material that lies outside our usual small critical samples. The attempt to identify the most “typical” Victorian novel in a variety of genres, for example, has led to counterintuitive results in work by Matt Jockers.[44] But such approaches are unlikely to resonate widely in modernist studies, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that modernism defined itself, and is still largely defined by scholars, through the exclusion of a wider literary field. An enormous range of work in the new modernist studies has demonstrated the relevance of what was once called mass culture, and of popular and “middlebrow” literary genres more specifically, to the study of modernism as a cultural formation. Yet modernist studies continues to construct its subject matter not as a “unified, internally differentiated” field in the manner of Moretti et al., but rather as a weakly connected network of nodes, loosely or tightly connected together, clustered around circles, coteries, journals, and major works. The large corpora of “representative” texts examined by Moretti, Jockers, and others, and their correspondingly strong theories of genre, historical change, and periodization, all seem less suitable for the study of modernist iconoclasts, coteries, and polemicists.[45]

If, for these reasons, large textual corpora are unsuited to modernist aesthetic works, we might find better objects for the weakly conjunctive studies I have in mind. Let us instead consider letters, as did Virginia Woolf: “how they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark—for to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien.”[46] Yet life would “split asunder without them,” she soon notes, since they bind together teas, dinners, days, capitols, parties and movements: “these lace our days together and make of life a perfect globe” (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, 96). Literary correspondence also binds together poets, editors, publishers, and “schools,” evidence after the fact of the multiplicity of economic and social relations that constitutes a literary field. Far after the many deaths of the Author, we use correspondence to understand everyday life and intellectual history, find points of connection between persons and movements, determine the fates of manuscripts, make corrections, assert final intentions. We tend not to use letters to study larger social and aesthetic formations, as letters invoke the particularity, intimacy, and ephemerality that still attaches to the high culture of letter-writing as Woolf understood it.

A recent renaissance of work on letters has put the limits of that traditional particularism into question, developing expanded maps of literary epistolarity. These epistolary maps deform our accustomed sense of the literary field, much as the deformed affective map of Paris informs our sense of Barnes’s spatial imaginary. A number of projects focusing on earlier periods are now studying the potential of letters for modeling literary fields and exchanges, developing weakly affiliative but far-reaching models of epistolary culture.[47] Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford project now in a late stage, visualizes an enormous range of correspondence taken from the Electronic Enlightenment database associated with the Bodleian Library.[48]  Mapping the Republic of Letters has moved from visualization to the slow work of integrating the project’s findings into eighteenth-century cultural history, a less immediately arresting project and one with the potential for longer-lasting scholarly impact. From a project centered on the fascinating  (yet at first merely illustrative) visualization of the correspondence that bound together the Lumières, the Republic of Letters has moved into specialist publications centering on Cordocet, D’Alembert, and others, Enlightenment intellectual history, and the open development of its underlying technology for the use of others.[49]

In the study of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, several research projects on digital letters have developed under similar auspices. Ryan Weberling and others have begun studying the networks formed by Bloomsbury correspondence, a project that remakes Bonnie Kime Scott’s famous image of the “web of modernists” with a different set of conceptual tools.[50] The last several years have seen the inception of important digital projects in French literary correspondence in the period, including a digital edition of Proust’s letters led by Caroline Szylowicz and François Proulx. As with much in modernist studies, copyright restrictions limit the breadth of most projects, particularly those outside university library collections. The content of most letters will be reserved for edited editions developed by specialist scholars (rather than library archivists), and those editions will usually be covered by copyright restrictions. Twentieth-century counterparts to the Bodleian’s Early Modern Letters Online—an aggregated catalogue of the intellectual life of an entire period—thus remain, for the present, elusive.[51]

Yet much can still be done with a sealed letter, as unread correspondence in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James evinces.[52] With only information about the sender, recipient, and date of address—the information wrapped around the content, its “metadata”—we can begin reconstructing complex networks of sociality and of epistolary cultures. Recent advances in metadata standardization help us do so: the Berliner Intellectuelle research group at the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Arts and Sciences has developed rigorous standards for describing digital letters, and correspondence data projects at Oxford and Stanford have developed a variety of tools and techniques for manipulating letter metadata.[53]

What we begin to see when we look at these sealed letters, and at their information-rich envelopes, is both the individuality of the letter-writer and the way she is embedded in a larger epistolary culture. Take for example Willa Cather, whose letters are helpfully cataloged in preliminary form in the digital “Calendar” developed by Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout (fig. 1).[54] If we aggregate the recipients in Cather’s letters and add identifying information, we see in an immediate way features of Cather’s writing life that we might not suspect: for example, the dominance of her relationship to her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet, and the secondary prominence of a range of female writers and friends.[55] Even more telling are the hapax graphomena, the cloud of once-written correspondents that immediately surrounds Cather in the visualization, indicating her attention to a wide public audience. A whole swarm of readerly responses immediately attend and surround the more prominent literary connections to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (her literary biographer), the “Taos circle” around Mabel Dodge Luhan, and other American modernists like Sinclair Lewis, Sigrid Unset, and Carl Van Vechten.

Fig. 1. A visualization of Willa Cather’s correspondents (derived from “A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather,” ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout, Willa Cather Archive, Center for Digital Research, University of Nebraska-Lincoln).
Fig. 1. A visualization of Willa Cather’s correspondents (derived from “A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather,” ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout, Willa Cather Archive, Center for Digital Research, University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Lines designate co-addressed correspondents.

Willa Cather’s broad public and dispersed, loosely connected correspondence stands in sharp contrast to writers of a century earlier, such as the British Romantic and Poet Laureate Robert Southey, whose “Collected Letters” have been edited in a unique digital edition.[56] More work is needed before we can parse the differences between Cather's and Southey’s correspondence, or between the Romantics and modernists as epistolary cultures. Indeed, any given circle of writers will have its own particular mode of connection, its own epistolary signature. Precisely for this reason, a weak theory of literary correspondence, one that closely examines the intricate knots, coteries, and clusters of affiliation within a given literary culture, accounts for the specificity of literary correspondence better than would a strong theoretical model premised on the totality of a whole period or cultural field.

These initial examples, extracted from sealed letters, should incite us to better weak models of modernist epistolary culture: models which would be more particular, more granular, and more embedded in specialist scholarship. Our work here needs to move from weak models of general epistolary exchange, on the model of the intellectual history produced by the Republic of Letters group, towards particular clusters of letters, small knots of significance, and the very individual efforts of those letter writers venerated by Virginia Woolf, “masters of language, poets of long ages, [who] have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes, pushing aside the tea-tray, drawing close to the fire . . . and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart” (Jacob’s Room, 97).

In these cases of modernist correspondence and modernist space, we have seen the virtues of weak bonds between writers, addresses, envelopes of information, library archivists, and specialist scholars; between novels, maps, satellites, emotional topography, and metropolitan perception. None of these heterogeneous assemblages will crystallize into anything so strong as a single new critical hermeneutics. Nor do they promise to revolutionize their own fields of inquiry, to which they must remain weakly bound. But they do indicate the emergence of what we might call the weak program in digital modernist studies, a program composed by the multiplication of ties between field, method, and object. Through the ramifying composition of these weak ties, we hope to better capture the particular, provisional, distributed aesthetic life of modernism itself.


[1] “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “interventions” of world-historical importance. Their methods include ‘surface reading,’ ‘thin description,’ ‘the new formalism,’ ‘book history,’ ‘distant reading,’ ‘the new sociology’” (Jeffrey Williams, “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism,” Chronicle of Higher Education 61, no. 17 [2015]: B6).

[2] For these lines of argument, see Tom Eyers, “The Perils of the ‘Digital Humanities’: New Positivisms and the Fate of Literary Theory,” Postmodern Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); and Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1, 2016.

[3] Stephen Ross and Jentery Sayers, “Modernism Meets Digital Humanities,” Literature Compass 11, no. 9 (2014): 625–33. See also Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); Reading Modernism with Machines: Digital Humanities and Modernist Literature, ed. Shawna Ross and James O’Sullivan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] Shawna Ross’s introduction to Reading Modernism with Machines notes that “the chapters in this volume . . . use digital methods to intervene critically in conversations current in modernist studies, foregrounding the interpretive significance of their results rather than devote the larger portion of their argumentation to technical excursuses or methodological summaries” (4). Ross’s Modernism/modernity Print Plus cluster on the future of modernist digital humanities also explicitly takes up the issues described in this article: see there my related article, “We Are All Digital Modernists Now,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 3, cycle 2.

[5] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53; and Bruno Latour, “On actor-network theory: a few clarifications plus more than a few complications,” Soziale Welt 47, no. 4 (1996): 369–81. The revised version cited here is found at “The Trouble with Actor-Network Theory.” That brief statement on relational and irreductionist ontology is expanded in Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] See the discussion in Maria Engberg and Jay David Bolter, “Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no. 3 (2011): “The critical discourse of the digital literary community is still laboring under the modernist problem—still struggling to bring together the formal and political.”

[7] See Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, 2nd ed. (1991; rpt., Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2001), 1–13; and Robert Coover, “The End of Books,” New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992, 23–25.

[8] See Richard Lanham, “The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution,” New Literary History 20, no. 2 (1989): 265–90; Lev Manovich, The Languages of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

[9] See again Pressman, Digital Modernism; Scholes and Wulfman, Modernism in the Magazines; Dean Irvine, “MISSION CONTROL: An Operator’s Manual for Compulibratories,” Amodern 4 (2015); Ross and Sayers, “Modernism Meets Digital Humanities”; and Ross and O’Sullivan, Reading Modernism with Machines.

[10] This work was collectively generated in 2008 and revised in response to commentary in 2009. See Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, et al., “A Digital Humanities Manifesto,” A Digital Humanities Manifesto, last modified December 15, 2008; and Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, et al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” A Digital Humanities Manifesto, last modified May 29, 2009.

[11] Marin Dacos, “Manifeste des Digital Humanities,” THATCamp Paris 2010, March 26, 2011, “Définition,” 1.

[12] Alex Christie, Andrew Pilsch, Shawna Ross, and Katie Tanigawa, “Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities.”

[13] Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So, “Literary Pattern Recognition: Modernism between Close Reading and Machine Learning,” Critical Inquiry 42, no. 2 (2016): 235–67, 238.

[14] See Ted Underwood, “A Genealogy of Distant Reading,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no. 2 (2017). For important objections to Moretti’s model, see also the recent cluster of responses to Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013) in Nancy Armstrong et al., “On Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading,” PMLA 132, no. 3 (2017): 613–89.

[15] See the description and introduction to Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, “Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels,” Literary Lab Pamphlet 8 (2015).

[16] David M. Earle, “MySpace Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 16, no. 3 (2009): 478–81. Recent work has turned, however, to thinking through the shared cultural concern of cybernetics, information theory, and modernist art: see Heather A. Love, “Cybernetic Modernism and the Feedback Loop: Ezra Pound’s Poetics of Transmission,” Modernism/modernity 23, no.1 (2016): 89–111; and James Purdon, Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[17] See again my “We Are All Digital Modernists Now.”

[18] See the University of Victoria’s Modernist Versions Project; and Woolf Online.

[19] That last question is visualized by the MJP Labs. See “Review Networks in the Marsden Journals,” Modernist Journals Project. See also J. Stephen Murphy and Mark Gaipa, “You Might Also Like . . . : Magazine Networks and Modernist Tastemaking in the Dora Marsden Magazines,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 27–68.

[20] See Stephen Ramsay, “Toward an Algorithmic Criticism,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 18 (2003): 167–74; Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 18–31; and Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 431–47.

[21] See Adam J. Calhoun’s “Punctuation in Novels,” Medium, February 15, 2016.

[22] On the turn to the laboratory model in the humanities, see Dean Irvine’s essay, “ModLabs,” in Reading Modernism with Machines, 15–48; and Amy Earhart, “The Digital Humanities as a Laboratory,” in Between Humanities and the Digital, ed. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 391–400.

[23] See Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1979), 51. See again Algee-Hewitt and McGurl, “Between Canon and Corpus.”

[24] See also Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block, trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury (London: Harvill Press, 1953), 29.

[25] The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, ed. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), ix.

[26] See Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48; The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). A few recent examples are Eric Bulson, Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850–2000 (London: Routledge, 2007); Geographies of Modernism, ed. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (London: Routledge, 2005); and Jon Hegglund, “Ulysses and the Rhetoric of Cartography,” Twentieth Century Literature 49, no. 2 (2003): 164–92.

[27] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks, vol. 1 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2015), lines 368–69, 70.

[28] See Jon Hegglund, World Views: Metageographies of Modernist Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[29] See Mark S. Monmonier, Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[30] See her discussion of Hobbes’s erasure from the history of science and the analogy to a Bourdieuian theory of the “cultural field” (Dimock, “Weak Theory,” 733–36).

[31] See Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 4, no. 1 (2005): 15; David Harvey, Spaces of Capital (London: Routledge, 2002); Mei-Po Kwan, “Feminist Visualization: Re-Envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92, no. 4 (2002): 645–61; Barney Warf and Daniel Sui, “From GIS to Neogeography: Ontological Implications and Theories of Truth,” Annals of GIS 16, no. 4 (2010): 197–209.

[32] I expand on the movement from “naïve” or pedagogical uses of GIS to more critical purposes in “Visualizing Modernist Magazines with Geographic Information Systems (GIS): New Approaches in the Spatial Humanities,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 69–93.

[33] Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[34] See Alex Christie, Stephen Ross, Jentery Sayers, Katie Tanigawa, et al., “Z-Axis Scholarship: Modeling How Modernists Wrote the City,” Modernist Versions Project, 2014.

[35] Golden discusses mapping Jacob’s Room as pedagogy here: Amanda Golden, “Mapping Jacob’s Room,” Tech Style, November 12, 2013.

[36] See “Mapping Emotions in Victorian London,” History Pin.

[37] See Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano et al.’s HyperCities: Thick Mapping in Digital Humanities.

[38] See Todd Presner, “Remapping German-Jewish Studies: Benjamin, Cartography, Modernity,” German Quarterly 82, no. 3 (2009): 293–315.

[39] See Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Amy Wells-Lynn, “The Intertextual, Sexually-Coded Rue Jacob: A Geocritical Approach to Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, and Radclyffe Hall,” South Central Review 22, no. 3 (2005): 78–112.

[40] Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 347–60, 349.

[41] This is not to discount recent Marxist work in neogeography and critical geography, a particularly fertile area of work during the Occupy protest movement.

[42] For an example in the Romantic period, see David McClure’s digital map of The Prelude, “Book Sixth.”

[43] See Algee-Hewitt and McGurl, “Between Canon and Corpus”; and Mark Algee-Hewitt et al., “Canon/Archive: Large-scale Dynamics in the Literary Field,” Literary Lab Pamphlet 11 (2016).

[44] Jockers, for example, suggests that according to some methods—methods I would call weakly aleatory or patacritical—Disraeli’s romantic novel Venetia is one of the more “typical” Victorian novels. See Matthew L. Jockers, Macroanalysis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 168.

[45] But see again Long and So, “Literary Pattern Recognition,” for one recent machine-learning approach. An intriguing recent exception is Melanie Conroy, “Before the ‘Inward Turn’: Tracing Represented Thought in the French Novel (1800–1929),” Poetics Today 35, no. 1–2 (2014): 117–71. Andrew Goldstone’s work on the system of genre fiction promises to be another.

[46] Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, ed. Vara Neverow (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008), 96.

[47] I discuss paradigms for the study of digital correspondence at more length in “Correspondence: Theory, Practice, and Horizons,” in Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens (MLA Commons, 2015).

[48] See Mapping the Republic of Letters, Stanford University.

[49] See Caroline Winterer, “Where is America in the Republic of Letters?,” Modern Intellectual History 9, no. 3 (2012): 597–623; See also the case studies of D’Alembert and others at Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, and the Palladio tool for the study of correspondence data.

[50] Bonnie Kime Scott, “A Tangled Mesh of Modernists,” in The Gender of Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 10.

[51] Digital editions of the original archival correspondence itself, on the model of the Electronic Enlightenment developed at Oxford, could of course still be developed; but the absence of singular repositories representing the diversity of modernist correspondence make this unlikely. See Electronic Enlightenment, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

[52] Recall the unread letters of The Aspern Papers and the role of the sealed letter in The Wings of the Dove; for how much can be read from a sealed letter in Poe, see the selections collected in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John Muller and William J. Richardson (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

[53] See the “correspSearch” tool; and my longer discussion in “Correspondence: Theory, Practice, and Horizons.”

[54] This data is derived from “A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather: An Expanded, Digital Edition,” ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout, Willa Cather Archive, Center for Digital Research, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, More information on the process will be available in an article in progress, “Comparing Literary Correspondences.”

[55] For more on this, see Robert Thacker, “‘As the result of many solicitations’: Ferris Greenslet, Houghton Mifflin, and Cather’s Career,” Studies in the Novel 45, no. 3 (2013): 369–86.

[56] Comparison of “Part Three” of Southey’s Letters, roughly comparable in size to the Cather letters above, suggests some fascinating broad differences between the epistolary networks of the early nineteenth and early twentieth century; my article “Comparing Literary Correspondences,” in preparation for Digital Studies / Le champ numerique, will expand on this initial comparison. See The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Ian Packer, Romantic Circles, March 2009.