What Is Data in Literary Studies?

“What is Data in Literary Studies” was one of two sessions at this year’s Convention of the Modern Language Association that featured the word “data” in the title—bringing the grand total of such sessions over the past decade (since 2005) to six.  That is about one every other year, or approximately one out of every one thousand five hundred sessions.

If I’m interpreting those data correctly, they suggest that, despite what seems an intense fascination with the power of data in our wider culture, we as literary scholars have not really given much thought to the concept, or made much of an effort to understand its relationship to our discipline. 

The six participants on this roundtable are all notable outliers in this regard.  From their quite different angles of approach, each has considered the forms and functions of data in literary method and the stakes involved in reconceiving them.   Their thinking about literary data and its methodological implications goes beyond the now familiar debates over DH to engage a wide range of questions about our objects of study and our ways of knowing them.

We divided our roundtable into three slices.  Each pair of presentations focused on a particular set of theoretical issues, with the first offering a more abstract view of those issues and the second anchoring them to a specific example or case study.

In slice one, Eric Hayot and Scott Selisker addressed literary data in terms of different modes of reading, involving differences of scale (small vs. big), differences of vantage (close vs. distant), and different kinds of information.  As an illustration, Scott discussed data produced by the Bechdel Test.

In slice two, Peter Logan and Lauren Klein addressed literary data in light of the double problem of ontology that it raises: the ontology of literature and the ontology of data.  By way of example, Lauren discussed several items from the archives of Thomas Jefferson.

In our third and final slice into the question of literary data, David Alworth and Heather Houser proposed that we regard literary data not as a mine of raw material but as a conceptual resource; that we begin to see the literary work less as a potential source of data than as a powerful system of data selection and management.  Heather illustrated this point via discussion of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior.

All six participants in this very stimulating session kept their remarks within our agreed time limit, so that we had a full thirty minutes for further discussion with the audience.  Unfortunately, that audience was so much larger than the room’s honest capacity, and the single short-corded microphone so poorly suited to our format, that many in attendance, or in the adjacent corridor, heard only small snippets of the event.  We are grateful to Arcade for providing access to the presentations in the form of an online Colloquy for all those who were disappointed in Chicago.

Image attribution

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Images via Patrick Gensel and Wikipedia.