Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein
This forum marks the first instance of a new feature for the Debates in the Digital Humanities annual volumes, one that brings together position statements from a range of scholars who have contributed to the discussion around a topic of pressing import to the field. These statements are intended to serve as short provocations and declarations of values; in collecting them here, we aim to create a record of the key ideas animating current conversations in the field and to document the full extent—and the full intensity—of the surrounding debate.
The theme of this year’s forum, “Text Analysis at Scale,” takes its cue from the multiple conversations about “distant reading” that took place in the spring of 2015, ranging from lectures by Franco Moretti and his colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab to multiple conferences exploring large-scale text analysis—the symposium on “Scale and Value” held at the University of Washington and a conference on cultural analytics held at the University of Chicago.1 We were also inspired and provoked by the debate that accompanied the release of Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s software package for automated plot analysis.2 That discussion, initiated by Joanna Swafford, whose statement we include in this forum, was sustained through the input of scholars from a range of disciplines, including literature as well as computational linguistics, sociology, and information science.3 More than the affordances of the algorithms it employed, Syuzhet came to stand for the potential of DH work to reach across multiple fields, introducing crucial issues in the digital humanities to interdisciplinary conversation.
The range of perspectives assembled here, while not exhaustive, nevertheless provides a basis to further explore the challenges associated with using digital tools to “read” large swaths of text. Indeed, if “distant reading” often serves in the public imagination as a synecdoche for the field itself, we hope that these statements offer a window into the future possibilities for the digital humanities, as well as a probing look at the limitations of the field, and its methods, that we must always keep in sight.
1. For more information about the symposium on “Scale and Value,” see http://scaleandvalue.tumblr.com/; for more information on the conference on cultural analytics, see http://neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu/events/uc/cultural_analytics/.
3. For a record of this conversation on Twitter, see https://storify.com/clancynewyork/contretemps-a-syuzhet; for Swafford’s original blog post, see https://annieswafford.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/syuzhet/.