The Digital in the Humanties: An Interview with Franco Moretti is part of a series by the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) that seeks to document & analyze the field of “Digital Humanities” and digital work being done by humanities fields (history, art history, literature, philosophy, and so on).

Moretti seems like an interesting guy to start the series with — typical in some ways, atypical in others.

Typical:

  • Another Digital Humanities (DH) practitioner that has spent some time at an Ivy League school.

Atypical:

  • Shows signs of cognitive dissonance with the field calling itself a field (“Digital Humanities”)
    • Franco Moretti: So for me, digital humanities was really like the fourth or fifth station along a much longer course, which also means that I’ve never seen digital humanities as, so to speak, a total novelty as some of its practitioners do. For me it’s basically the form taken in the digital age by scientific, explanatory, empirical, rationalistic, call it what you want, approaches to the history of literature and culture.
    • Melissa Dinsman: This is interesting, because what you are describing sounds like a very natural progression, rather than say something that was always external to your field of study. At this point in your career, how would you describe the role that the digital plays in your work? You’ve used the phrase “digital humanities.” Do you think of your work as part of the digital humanities or is it something much larger?
    • FM: No. First of all the term “digital humanities” means nothing. Computational criticism has more meaning, but now we all use the term “digital humanities” — me included. I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work.

I liked the tone of his response immediately… as if to say, “of course this is what I’m doing.” Of course this is where the humanities are going.

In response to the interview, here are 10 Things I Learned from Franco Moretti:

1. There’s something called the Stanford Literary Lab.

2. Literature is more productive than other humanities disciplines.

“What I would be very interested in reflecting upon is the different fates, the different destinies, so far of the digital approach in literature, history, and art history, because DH has clearly functioned very differently in those three fields. And why has it functioned so differently? Many of your questions have to do with the humanities in general and this would be an interesting way to try to figure out why this DH approach is much more productive in literature than in the two other cases. Not that we’ve done anything earth-shattering, but it’s clear that English departments have done more than the others in this field. In fact, as you know, I am currently in Switzerland, and there are several universities here that are beginning to think in these terms by organizing discussions between historians, literary critics, and art historians. I think this kind of enlarging of the panorama will be more fruitful, rather than splitting hairs within the literary digital humanities. We need it. It’s a little claustrophobic in our field.”

3. The solution for digital research is a lab attached to a department.

<–! In my imagination, this looks like a “lab” within a university’s research library where there is a subject specialist or media liaison for each department. Subject specialists can be offered fiscal incentive to receive special digital media training or those incentives can be passed on to students who are trained to act as department liaison. The main physical space for lab work should be in the library! –>

4. The humanities have to work on producing theories for “the pleasure of intelligence”.

“In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort…I totally understand why a 20-year old would choose to do astrophysics rather than literature. It’s so much more interesting in many ways, just for the pleasure of the intelligence. That is what the humanities have to work on.”

I would have called out the difference in actual real-world application, but hey.

5. Interdisciplinary work is hard as hell and no one tells you that.

“Interdisciplinary work won’t solve the problem. Interdisciplinary work is even harder than disciplinary work. It’s even more chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly.”

6. “The idea that digital humanities are aligned with the big tech companies is simply not true.” We’re as much socialists as we are neoliberals.

7. Funding a DH operation is a bitch.

“I’ve wasted an enormous amount of time raking together the money so that the lab can just survive.”

8. Studying digital humanities as a university student? You should be learning to code.

“I think that universities that have a digital humanities program, minor, major, should make sure that everybody gets a chance at having that type of intelligence.”

9. The public still doesn’t really understand “DH”. Understandable, since the “field” is in its infancy.

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10. Results from the field have been below expectation. DH should address the nature of its own results – what does DH greatness look like?

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