I have spent what feels like the last year and a half trying to make the hermeneutical added value of digital methods audible to Literary Studies scholars in my field – and I have failed. These discussions always reach a point of no-return when I am being asked to give an example, offer one such example, and the example is then considered a specific case which does not tell much about the hermeneutical value of the whole. I have had this conversation over and over again and I keep wondering: Why is it that digital methods are being granted the ability to realize experiments, at the very best to develop more or less useful heuristics, but never, ever, to deliver in themselves an hermeneutical contribution?
This is all the more striking as the importance of a clear hermeneutical framework is the very starting point as well as ending point for scholars who actually work with digital methods. They know that they are doing nothing else but interpreting. They know that the reason why you need to document your protocols, your decisions, your hesitations, your results and your lack of results, is precisely that this is what will help you define the kind of interpretation you can actually hope to reach.
One could certainly argue that there is a definition problem. What makes it impossible to move forward in that discussion is that we are simply not talking about the same thing. What is an experiment, what is an interpretation? What is the relationship between the research question and the corpus (and no, the corpus is not a neutral, passive magma to which you apply your brilliant research question, it is, in fact, just as much a construction as your question is)? Mostly, literary scholars never think about experimental setups in their practice. They have one method, one corpus, they apply the method to the corpus. Maybe, if they are very bold, two methods to one corpus, but generally, that’s it. Once a corpus exists in one form, it is not re-shaped in another one. Once you have chosen a method, you stick to it. In the course of a research, it is complicated, if not institutionally impossible, to justify changing method or changing corpus.
The notion of experiment does almost not belong to the methodological apparatus of analog literary studies. To be precise, anything experimental remains below the level of scholarly awareness in the academic discourse. It may exist, but in some limbo.
So much for the e word. The word with the big h, Hermeneutics, that is, on the other hand, what is considered rocket science, as if interpretation was a self-sufficient approach that would only need text and itself to be valid. The little h word, heuristics, well, one can do that, too, why not, but really, what is the point of having worked out something for the sake of being able to repeat it again?
If you see yourself as someone whose task it is to deliver an interpretation in the analog world, you can easily declare yourself free of any responsibility regarding the whole set-up that is behind your interpretation. You don’t have to constitute your corpus, you take it, you mostly don’t have to constitute your method, you take it (you can develop a method too, but then it is not so much the development that matters than what you do with it), and by that, you exempt yourself of any responsibility about what could be wrong in either the corpus or the method. Their weaknesses might limit the overall scope of the interpretation, but I have never heard of a situation in which, in the opus magnum, the method would not make the corpus talk and say something considered new.
This is different in the digital world. In the digital world, you are constantly self-aware of being constructing something, be it a corpus or a method (often both), and the process of reflecting these work steps makes it almost impossible to separate them from the interpretation, which then is not a final result, but a processual one. Which is why, whenever I give an example, I would need to explain the whole encoding system and the way the corpus is constituted and annotated in order for the hermeneutical value of that example to make sense. And I can’t just start explaining XML every time I have this conversation. Or should I?
There, again, I also clearly have a problem specific to Germany. German editors are truly convinced that their editions are objective, that they solely render what they see and at no point do interpret. That is what makes a discourse inaudible in which one needs to get back to the editorial steps to understand the interpretative steps, because the editorial steps, and specifically the annotation set-up, is nothing else but step one of the hermeneutical process. And that, in the traditional view of things, simply can’t be good, because a good edition is an objective one, a good edition does not interpret.
Editions are a particularly striking example, because they are not being considered scholarly accomplishments (since they don’t deliver an interpretation). They show the gap, in the conception of the research process, between analog and digital methods, even if anyone working with digital methods will, again, tell you that he or she does no more no less deliver an interpretation than his or her colleagues do with analog methods.
For me, I think that this way of constructing the scholarly setup from the beginning to the end, from the corpus to the diverse forms of interpretations you can deliver starting from it, is what I like in DH. You get a sense of the so many different paths an idea can take, you get to see where you can tune this and that and what it would change. I certainly like it also because of all the things that I can’t do by myself in the process, and all the people I get to learn who explain to me how this part and that bit work. What I regret (apart from the almost non-existent recognition of the hermeneutical fruits of these methods) is that the funding lifetime of “projects” (I just hate this word) does in fact not allow you to reach the end of the process and articulate not only an audible interpretation, but one that can embrace all the reflections on the construction process you have meticulously recorded and documented for 3 or so years. Because the two h words and the one e word, taken together, are, well, you know, research.