The article offers a definition, overview, and assessment of the current state of digital humanities, particularly with regard to its actual and potential contribution to literary studies. It outlines the history of humanities computing and digital humanities, its evolution as a discipline, including its institutional development and outstanding challenges it faces. It also considers some of the most cogent critiques digital humanities has faced, particularly from North American-based literary scholars, some of whom have suggested it represents a threat to centuries-old traditions of humanistic inquiry and particularly to literary scholarship based on the tradition of close reading. The article shows instead that digital humanities approaches gainfully employed offer powerful new means of illuminating both context and content of texts, to assist with both close and distant readings, offering a supplement rather than a replacement for traditional means of literary inquiry. The digital techniques it discusses include stylometry, topic modeling, literary mapping, historical bibliometrics, corpus linguistic techniques, and sequence alignment, as well as some of the contributions that they have made. Further, the article explains how many key aspirations of digital humanities scholarship, including interoperability and linked open data, have yet to be realized, and it considers some of the projects that are currently making this possible and the challenges that they face. The article concludes on a slightly cautionary note: What are the implications of the digital humanities for literary study? It is too early to tell.
Simon Burrows and Michael Falk
The eddas and sagas are literary works written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries but incorporating memories preserved orally from preliterate times of (a) Norse myths, in prose and verse form, (b) heroic lays with common Germanic roots, (c) raiding and trading voyages of the Viking Age (800–1030 CE), and (d) the settlement of Iceland from Norway, Britain, and Ireland starting from the 870s and of life in the new country up to and beyond the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. In their writing, these works show the influence of the learning and literature introduced to Iceland from the 11th century on through the educational system of the medieval Church. During these centuries, the Icelanders translated the lives of the principal saints, produced saga biographies of their own bishops, and recorded accounts of events and conflicts contemporary with their authors. They also produced conventional chronicles on European models of the kings of Norway and Denmark and large quantities of works, both translated and original, in the spirit of medieval chivalry. The eddas and sagas, however, reflect a unique and original departure that has no direct analogue in mainland Europe—the creation of new works and genres rooted in the secular tradition of oral learning and storytelling. This tradition encompassed the Icelanders’ worldview in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and their understanding of events, people, and chronology going back to the 9th century, and their experience of an environment that extended over the parts of the world known to the Norsemen of the Viking Age, both on earth and in heaven. The infrastructure that underlay this system of learning was a knowledge of the regnal years of kings who employed court poets to memorialize their lives, and stories that were told in connection with what people observed in the heavens and on earth, near and far, by linking the stories with individual journeys, dwellings, and the genealogies of the leading protagonists. In this world, people here on earth envisaged the gods as having their halls and dwellings in the sky among the stars and the sun, while beyond the ocean and beneath the furthest horizon lay the world of the giants. In Viking times, this furthest horizon shifted little by little westwards, from the seas around Norway and Britain to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually still farther south and west to previously unknown lands that people in Iceland retained memories of the ancestors having discovered and explored around the year 1000—Helluland, Markland, and Vínland—where they came into contact with the native inhabitants of the continent known as North America.
What allegory is and how it functions varies hugely throughout its history in the European tradition. One version of allegory sees it as a rhetorical strategy by which a speaker or writer can say one thing but mean another, by means of an extended figuration. A different, theological understanding of it is that allegory consists of events, described in the Bible, which themselves represent other events or spiritual realities, so that the world in a certain sense signifies. Both understandings draw inspiration from Platonist or Neoplatonist philosophical traditions and textual practices. Whatever the justification for such an understanding of hermeneutics, taking a text to have a concealed meaning poses problems. Can such meaning be identified? Who is responsible for that meaning? Consideration of allegory necessitates consideration of texts’ readers, who are variously understood to gain pleasure and understanding through the experience of interpretation or to be faced with a cognitive conundrum according to which the meaning that allegory promises is impossible to find or even to articulate. The work of interpretation is also foregrounded in the commitment in classical, medieval, and modern approaches to allegoresis, the identification of concealed meanings in earlier texts. Such readings find, for example, philosophical truths concealed in the fables of Greek and Roman mythography. While allegorical approaches dominate European 12th-century Scholastic philosophy and literature, as the Middle Ages progress, an Aristotelian literalism overshadows a more Platonist commitment to figuration. Allegory continues in playful narrative poetry, written in the vernacular, in which allegory’s paradoxes and ironies can be enjoyed and indulged, all the while holding out the promise of hidden meanings to committed interpreters. Rejected as stilted and backward by Romantic thinkers, allegory nonetheless persists, both as reclaimed by 20th-century theorists from Walter Benjamin to Northrop Frye and more generally as a way of understanding aesthetic productions whose meaning is not immediately available. Thinking allegorically and thinking about allegory have been at the heart of literary theory and practice in the Western tradition for over two millennia, so that to think about allegory is necessarily to think about what literature means.
From its emergence and early evolution in and through the writings of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, critique established its parameters very early on as both porous and dynamic. Critique has always been, in this sense, mutable, directed, and both multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and this very fluidity and flexibility of its processes are possibly among the central reasons for its continuous relevance even when it has been dismantled, rebuffed, and attacked for embodying traits, from gender bias to Eurocentrism to neuro-normativity, that seem to indicate the very opposite of that flexibility. Indeed, once it is examined closely as an apparatus, the mechanism of critique will invariably reveal itself as having always contained the tools for its own opposition and even the tools for its own destruction. Critique has in this way always implied both its generality as a form and autocritique as an essential part of its process. For the past two centuries this general, self-reflective, and self-dismantling quality has led to its constant reinvention and re-adaptation by a wide range of thinkers and writers and across a broad range of disciplines. In the case of literature and literary theory, its role can often best be grasped as that of a meta-discourse in which the nature and purpose of literary criticism is shadowed, reflected upon, and performed. From this perspective, from the 18th-century origins of critique in its gestation in the fields of theology and literary criticism to its formalization by Kant, the literary expression of critique has always been bound up with debates over the function of literary texts, their history, their production, their consumption, and their critical evaluation. In the early 21st century, having evolved from its beginnings through and alongside various forms of anticritique in the 20th century, critique now finds itself in an age that favors some variant or other of postcritique. It remains to be seen whether this tendency, which suggests its obsolescence and superseding, marks the end of critique as some would wish or merely its latest metamorphosis and diversification in response to the multivalent pressures of digital acceleration and ecological crisis. Whatever path or paths contemporary judgment on this question may follow, critique as the name of a series of techniques and operations guided by a desire for certain ends is likely to remain one of the most consistent ways of surveying any particular field of intellectual endeavor and the relations between adjacent or even divergent fields in terms of their commonalities and differences. As Kant and Voltaire understood so well of their own age, modernity is characterized in the first instance by its will to criticism and then by the systematic criticism of the conditions for that criticism. By the same token now in late or post- or neo-modernity, if contemporary conversations about literature and its pleasures, challenges, study, and criticism require an overview, then some version of critique or its legacy will undoubtedly still come into play.
In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Western modernity was “disenchanted.” He meant that modernity was defined by the growth of rationalization, which evacuated the shared spiritual meanings and purposes that had characterized premodern societies oriented toward supernatural worldviews. Rather than relying on “mysterious, incalculable forces,” Weber maintained that modernity relied on reason, science, and bureaucracies to manage existence. Weber’s disenchantment paradigm influenced thinkers throughout the 20th century, but since the turn of the 21st century, it has been substantially revised. Critics note that traditional “enchanted” worldviews continued to thrive within modernity, and varieties of specifically modern “re-enchantments” arose as well, consistent with the rational, secular, and consumerist currents of the modern world. Critics also observe that the paradigm was too one-sided in its stress on rationalization as the guiding principle of modernity. The paradigm’s binary opposition between reason and the irrational, or the dialectical transformation of the former into the latter, have been largely replaced by an emphasis on the complementary nature of reason and the imagination. (Indeed, contrary to Weber’s assertion, the imagination itself is now perceived as a “mysterious, incalculable force” within modernity, appealing to the secular and the religious alike.) The new paradigm highlights the intertwined nature of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, reason and the imagination, disenchantment and enchantment. Modernity is characterized less by outright disenchantment than by “disenchanted enchantment.”
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.
Benito Rial Costas
At the end of the 15th century, printed books were known and read throughout Europe, and the modern structure of this new product was defined. However, in many Spanish cities, printing and selling books depended on the work of itinerant printers with scarce economic and technical possibilities and professional skills. The limited industrial, technical, and economic development and the lack of good communications produced a map of Spain with small and dispersed printing offices spread over many different places. Spanish printing quality could not compete with that of other countries. These limitations determined the character of the works that the Spanish printing offices produced. On the one hand, many Spanish printed books were made by and for the local clergy and royal officials, and, in many senses, they followed objectives and productive patterns that were not distant from the purposes of handwritten books. On the other hand, Spanish literature and translations into Spanish and Catalan of important Latin and Italian texts were the other main feature of Spanish 15th-century printing history. The Spanish printing offices could not offer anything to the European book market, and they could not even offer certain books to the Spanish market that booksellers brought from abroad.
Alexander S. Wilkinson
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain was the most powerful nation in the world, controlling territories across Europe and much of the newly discovered lands west of the Tordesillas line. Although its influence would wane in the 17th century, as its empire became overstretched, and as the home nation itself was forced to confront major financial and demographic challenges, overall these centuries would represent the high point in Spain’s political and global hegemony. This was a great age—a Golden Age—in Spain’s history, and one which would see too the unleashing of powerful creative energies, especially in the fields of literature, drama, and the visual arts. Among a host of other notable figures active in this period were Miguel de Cervantes, Félix Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, El Greco, and Diego Velázquez. Given such intense artistic vitality, it has seemed almost paradoxical to scholars that the publishing industries of Spain and Portugal should have remained so underdeveloped. In the broader historiography of the European book, Spain and Portugal are presented as examples of peripheral print regions. Mention is frequently made of the relatively late arrival of print to the Peninsula, as well as the unexceptional quality of its book production—particularly its rudimentary typography and uninventive ornamentation and illustration. Surveys usually point out that so poor was the caliber of printing in the Peninsula that printers in the Low Countries, France, and elsewhere saw clear opportunities for filling the void, producing both scholarly and vernacular editions to be sold to eager and grateful purchasers in Spain and Portugal. However, this established and rather somber portrait of the industry is exaggerated and misleading in some key respects.