Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Redefining the Pendular Arc of Analysis

BIG data.  MACRO analysis.  Both are hot terms in the digital humanities, and they both point to one of the strengths of the discipline: the ability to take a step back from the text, to look at its underlying and overarching structures from an outside view.  To extract ourselves from the inside position of more traditional close readings, where we are more akin to entymologists obtaining a micro view of the segmented nature of the text, dissecting its thorax, abdomen, and head.  Instead we can take a step back and more readily say, "This is the pattern underlying the connections among the thorax, abdomen, and head.  These are the prominent features that dominate this text's body: the antennae, pincers, and multifaceted eyes."

Such analyses are in many ways refreshing after the many decades throughout which close-reading has held the humanities fiercely in its throes.  Not that it's completely let go, of course: grade schools tend to be less contemporaneous regarding humanities scholarship, and are more likely to still rely on older methodologies in the class room.  Perhaps, within the next few decades, and as the digital divide hopefully continues to shrink, will we see more of such macro-analytic thought taught to our children, but for now it is more the domain of higher academia.  And when it does reach even the humblest grade school classrooms, I hope we do not forget the value of close-readings and displace them too much in favor of big data and the long-distance views digital humanities is bringing to the table.

We must be diligent, for too often dichotomous cultural structures can swing back and forth as a pendulum from generation to generation.  In generation A we see it on the left, in generation B it has struck the center, and by generation C it is fully on the right, ready to make a trans-generational journey across its arc again.  These new techniques digital humanities has given us are wonderful, they are beautiful and new and shiny, but we most not be blinded to the virtues of our parents' methodologies by their luster.  Cultural trends do not have to travel like an arc, we can instead intercede with our arms and minds, striking the pendulum whimsically along its arc, suiting our methodologies as situationally best along its curvature, perhaps even shattering its path into new dimensions it could not reach without our interference of tangential intersections imposed from other intellectual disciplines.

If we are not diligent, if we do not intercede, we will find ourselves and our children eventually at the mirrored disadvantage of what we had before: instead of too much of a focus on close reading, we will focus too much on the analysis from afar.  As digital humanists on the vanguard of this weather-change, we are in a unique position to precipitate this possible eventuality, and we should work consciously towards the need for situationally dependent mixtures of micro and macro analysis.

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