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. 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. Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.
Modernism has an image problem.
For the most part, the modernists themselves are to blame. Privately, they grumbled about “the inconceivable stupidity of the common reader.” Publicly, they promised to make “no compromise with the public taste.” Many prominent modernists, at points in their lives, were loudly elitist, racist, classist, sexist, imperialistic, and militaristic (let’s call it ERCSIM, pronounced “irksome”).
But modernist scholars are to blame as well.
Today, even as access to digital reproductions (transcriptions, images, recordings) and datasets (text files, TEI files, and various forms of metadata) makes it possible to forge new connections among agents, works, genres, and media, the figure of the individual author continues to delimit the way that modernist literature is edited, reproduced, and studied. This position paper advocates for the reconstruction and reimagination of non- and para-authorial perspectives on modernist literature through the study of the work of modernism’s literary editors.
In T. S. Eliot’s famous model for artists and their creations delineated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” all the works of art throughout history exist as monuments that “form an ideal order among themselves.” Although this arrangement can be “altered” slightly, Eliot stresses the “conformity between the old and the new” (“Tradition,” 15). Eliot’s conservative canon preserves an existing binary order—authors are major or minor; works are canonical or noncanonical—and leaves little room for major upheaval or disruption. However, most modernist authors saw their projects as less static and more expansive than Eliot’s metaphor would indicate.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
In a charged essay recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia offer a sharp corrective to the utopian claims that have so often been used to describe the digital humanities. Noting the overlap with Silicon Valley’s rhetoric about “disruption,” they contend that digital humanities is about “the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge.” This new field, they conclude, aligns too neatly with a neoliberal view of a higher education that uses the digital to hollow out the core critical, intellectual, social, and even professional practices of the humanities.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.
The future of the digital humanities is field-specific. Past models of the digital humanities (DH) have emphasized interdisciplinarity—not, perhaps, so much the idealized version of interdisciplinarity that implies a fertilizing combination of disciplines and their existing, unique methods as the strategic development and deployment of new, shareable methods that could (at least theoretically) apply to any number of humanist disciplines or literary subfields. Reaching across disciplinary boundaries was necessary, on a practical level, in order to assemble a sufficient number of peers performing the everyday activities of scholarship (collaboration, mentorship, peer review, critique) for a robust new field to emerge.
Laura Heffernan’s introductory post describes work being done in what she calls the “new disciplinary history.” I have an interest in using quantitative methods to practice disciplinary history. In this post, I explore some of these methods using the archives of Modernism/modernity.
The quantitative analysis of a journal has a long history. Sociologists of science, for example, have long used citation patterns to reveal the disciplinary structure of a field.