Blog Post

Notes for "What is Data?"

I want to begin with the premise that literature is the data of literary studies. The OED tells us that the term “data,” from classical Latin, refers to “an item of information” and to “related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis or calculation.”1 “Data” is the plural of “datum,” deriving from the Latin “dare,” which means to give.” Hence, “datum” and “data” refer not only to information but also (and more generally) to “something given or granted; something known or assumed as fact, and made the basis of reasoning.”2

To say literature is the data of literary studies, then, is to understand it, first, as something given or obtained for analysis and, second, as something made the basis of reasoning. Although these two understandings are often entwined, I want to draw a bolder line between reasoning and analyzing. I wonder about the potential payoff of considering literature to be data in one sense (as that which forms the basis of reasoning) yet not in the other (as that which we analyze). What would happen if literature were understood to constitute the ground for thinking without being itself the primary object of analysis?

This question was prompted for me by this panel and by recent work at the intersection of sociology and literary studies. I am thinking of scholars such as Rita Felski and Heather Love who have found the work of sociologists like Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman to be methodologically provocative.3 Latour, as Felski notes, has not offered extensive exegeses of individual literary texts, yet what he calls a “continuous familiarity with literature” is central to his sociological program.4 Indeed, Latour does not analyze novels, poems, and plays, but he does consider literature and literary theory to be conceptual “resources,” devices for generating concepts to explain social experience. His influential conception of the nonhuman actor, for instance, derives partly from his reading of narratology alongside works by Richard Powers and Francis Ponge. “When everything else has failed,” he quips, “the resource of fiction can bring— through the use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and [other means]—the solid objects of today into the fluid states where their connections with humans may make sense. Here again, sociologists have a lot to learn from artists.”5 For Latour, then, literary art performs a pedagogical function, in this case enabling the sociologist to “make sense” of the relationship between human and nonhuman. Instead of approaching literary authors like Powers and Ponge as objects of analysis, Latour enlists them as allies in his ongoing effort to apprehend contemporary social experience.

Across the disciplinary divide, I want to receive Latour’s engagement with the literary as a challenge to think of literature as data in the broadest sense—as not merely something given or obtained for analysis but as something that constitutes the basis for reasoned inquiry into the philosophical and sociological questions that matter to us. I want to read literature, in other words, as both a primary source and a conceptual resource.

  • 1. “data, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/Entry/296948?redirectedFrom=data (accessed January 03, 2014).
  • 2. “datum, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/Entry/47434?redirectedFrom=datum (accessed January 03, 2014).
  • 3. Rita Felski, “Context Stinks,” New Literary History 42 (2011): 573–591; Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 371–391.
  • 4. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 55.
  • 5. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 81–82.