Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stephen Marche, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities.

Attacking Moretti etc. He refers to "desacralization", using the standard religious tropes against scientism, but he quotes Borges to make the case for literature, in retrospect—to me—an obvious choice, but something I've never done since Borges is so obviously a literary dilettante and nihilist. But he can be that precisely because his arguments succeed—correctly, logically—in undermining certainties, idealisms and linguistic "philosophies", while Borges himself as a lapsed idealist can't replace them with anything, the result being not non-idealism but a mirroring negative idealism. I've referred to all of this (over 30 years) but never telegraphed as Marche does how much Borges, if only in the first part of his argument was right.  I'm leaving in Marche's introductory fluff and his sharp conclusion
The process of turning literature into data removes distinction itself. It removes taste. It removes all the refinement from criticism. It removes the history of the reception of works. To the Lighthouse is just another novel in its pile of novels.

Borges predicted this phenomenon, as he seems to have predicted so many of our current predicaments. His story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” practically reads like a polemic against the premise of the digital humanities. Pierre Menard decides to write Don Quixote — not a revamped Don Quixote or a transcription of the original, but the same exact text of Don Quixote as if it were written by a contemporary author. Borges writes:
It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine): “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.” Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history.

Menard, on the other hand, writes: “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.” History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases — exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor — are brazenly pragmatic.
The data are exactly identical; their meanings are completely separate.
Distinction, Taste, Refinement are red flags. Judgement is not.
The argument for the living constitution, for the living tree doctrine that is codified in Canadian law (Marche is Canadian), begins in the understanding of living language. Borges belongs with Duchamp and Quine, avatars of a pragmatism they could never accept. The argument with Balkin is whether we need to sacralize questions in order to avoid sacralizing things.

The argument for separating propositional and non-propsitional speech, philosophy from literature, stems from a misunderstanding of language and from that of what democracy requires. I'm not going to repost everything I've written on all this.

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