Ashlyn Oakes

Are the humanities doomed? Compared to the fast-moving worlds of computer science and physics, analyzing ancient texts seems increasingly retrograde.

With growing student demands to invest money into more ostensibly forward-thinking departments, such as computer science and engineering, the humanities seem to be under attack from a hostile brand of modernity. But rather than push back, a small group of professors and students have absorbed the techniques and practices of the sciences. In doing so, they’ve brought a new area of study to Yale: the digital humanities.

“Digital humanities” is a broad term that encompasses any approach to the humanities relying on digitization. According to English professor Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82, there are three discrete focuses within digital humanities: broadening access, online teaching and data mining.

Broadening access is generally accomplished by uploading great works, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” to online databases. Online teaching is self-explanatory. But the most revelatory area is likely data mining — a term generally heard almost exclusively in the context of STEM subjects. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around (or see the use in) the concept of applying quantification to literary texts, but Dimock provided a helpful example.

“I have a hunch that the word ‘extinction’ is used by Melville more often in conjunction with Native Americans than with plants and animals,” she explained. “However, if I were to write a full-length essay on the use of the word ‘extinction,’ I’d definitely want to do this as a data-mining project, tracking down every instance of the word’s usage and correlating that with the recurrence of other words.” Such specific, detail-oriented insights would be nearly impossible to glean through traditional research methods. It’s the unique ability of computers to process massive chunks of data — or perform macro-analysis — with total accuracy.

At Yale, the digital humanities are broken up into separate “projects,” each with its own focus. Their range is truly staggering, encompassing Western and Eastern texts, Modernism and pre-Modern scrolls. Pericles Lewis, a professor of English and comparative literature and the president of Yale-NUS College, is the project director of the Modernism Lab. He created the lab, a virtual space for collaborative research on literary modernism, out of his own frustration with what he believed to be an underutilization of digitized resources.

Lewis recalled that the earliest digital humanities projects were based on a “publishing” model in which researchers would take what would otherwise be in a book and put it on the Web.

“I saw wikis especially as a way to do collaborative research, but unlike [with] Wikipedia, I wanted the Modernism Lab to reflect scholarly debates and the voices of the individual contributors,” he said. Far from an online database, the Modernism Lab serves as more of a virtual think tank.

East Asian Languages and Literatures professor Michael Hunter shared a similar collaborative sentiment. He is one of the heads of the Ten Thousand Rooms Lab, a workspace designed for uploading and studying pre-modern Chinese texts. The lab’s name itself comes from a pre-modern Chinese poem by Du Fu, and gives a good idea of the project’s less-than-modest ambition:

“If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms

A great shelter for all the world’s scholars, together in joy,

Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.”

“The goal of the Ten Thousand Rooms Project is to create an online platform or workspace for the collaborative translation, transcription and annotation of pre-modern Chinese texts,” Hunter explained. “Once users contribute a certain number of texts and a certain amount of content, the platform will also be useful as a searchable database.”

He was also quick to point out that the programs being used are not inherently limited to pre-modern Chinese texts. In fact, the underlying software was initially created for medieval European texts, so there’s no reason to believe that it cannot be repurposed once again.

A single digital humanities lab can focus on a topic as broad as Modernism or something as narrow as the work of a single figure. The Brodsky Lab at Yale falls into the latter category. The lab is named for the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who suffered an almost 10-year-long KGB campaign against him and subsequently emigrated to the United States. Brodsky taught at several universities — including Yale — and was eventually appointed poet laureate. Now, the Brodsky Lab uses new digital tools to explore his massive body of work, as well as his incident-packed life.

A third-year Ph.D. student in the lab, Carlotta Chenoweth GRD ’19, presented her findings at a University of Pennsylvania conference last spring. Her project, “Brodsky in absentia: An Interactive Map of Exile,” created a digital map of Brodsky’s travels in letters, interviews and poetry.

“As exile became the central theme of his creative output, ‘Brodsky in absentia’ complicates assumptions students may have regarding the experience of exile,” Chenoweth explained. “From quotidian matters to political angling, Brodsky’s exilic experience was immensely complex.”

Jacob Lassin GRD ’19, also a third year Ph.D. student, focuses less on the biographical details of Brodsky’s life and more on his work. His research involves building a database of feminine rhymes — the rhyming of two or more final syllables — in Brodsky’s poetry, in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of such rhymes in both Russian and English. “Produced” and “reduced” is an example of a masculine rhyme, in which only the final syllables rhyme, whereas “painted” and “acquainted” is an example of feminine rhyme, in which the last two syllables rhyme.

Lassin noted that while common in Russian poems, feminine rhymes are apparently quite rare in English poetry. The feminine rhyme sounds odd when used in English, yet Brodsky fought to retain it in translations of his poems. Macro-analysis of these feminine rhymes may be used to demonstrate larger trends in his writing.

In spite of the massive possibilities unlocked by digital research, questions remain about the potential limitations of digital humanities. For instance, is it possible for such macro-analysis of great literature and poetry to eliminate the intangible nature of art?

One of the insights gained by the Brodsky Lab through data mining was the recurring motif of snow in Brodsky’s poems. While anyone who has done significant research on Brodsky could tell you that snow comes up a lot, such macro-analysis of his oeuvre reveals the sheer extent of his love for “snow.” But the question remains: does the computer executing the data mining even know what snow means? Will students of the lab be able to cite the average number of times “snow” is used per masterpiece, yet be unable to say anything about what the snow represents, or how Brodsky varies its usage? By reducing art to data codes, do the digital humanities estrange students from the very works they study?

Slavic Languages and Literatures professor Marijeta Bozovic, head of the Brodsky Lab, certainly does not think so. In fact, she discussed the unique possibilities of such estrangement: “I encourage students to produce original scholarship as soon as possible — that is, to contribute new knowledge about a body of work or cultural moment. Without some degree of estrangement from established modes of reading already established works, a really creative and novel contribution is impossible.”

For Bozovic, estrangement isn’t something to be feared — rather, we should almost embrace it. Without estrangement, we bring previous assumptions and prejudices to research. And such close-mindedness can instigate a dearth of new opinions. Lassin, the graduate student who wrote about feminine rhymes, feels that initial estrangement leads to deeper connection.

“I felt closer to the material,” he said of Brodsky’s work. “My specific project allowed me to see poetics in a whole new way and engage with the material much more strongly.”

Bozovic was also quick to point out that humanities research is already largely dominated by computers, whether in the form of typing up papers or searching web databases. Past humanities majors have had to passively accept the technological changes issued to them by computer programmers. Now, for the first time, professors involved in the digital humanities are shaping science and data analytics around their own needs.

However, the movement is far from unimpeachable. One need only do a quick online search to find articles like “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities.” The authors make a not-entirely unpersuasive case that big data will soon overtake literature the same way it has overtaken music, social life and even romance. Only time will tell if the doomsday predictors are right.

Bozovic’s other areas of interest include the Russian avant-garde. When I corresponded with her, a poem came up — almost in passing, and completely tangential to our conversation. The poem is called “Dyr bul shchyl” and was written in 1912 by Aleksei Kruchenykh. A little research reveals that it is considered the most famous transrational (adj. — going beyond or surpassing human reason) poem. Moreover, the poem is written in Zaum, a language that Kruchenykh himself invented, which is apparently defined by a lack of definite meaning.

“Dyr bul shchyl” is in many ways nonsensical, all harsh consonants, yet its entire purpose is to capture some primal feeling that modern language cannot. When existing language was not enough for the poet, he invented his own. And the professors of digital humanities have done the same thing in their research. They are inventing a new language of humanities.