Graphs and Legends

Graphs and Legends

Raymond Williams tried to save culture from a priestly elite. Can the same be said of the digital humanities?


A Wikipedia search for “keyword” directs you to a disambiguation page with half a dozen entries. Among them are “Keyword (linguistics), word which occurs in a text more often than we would expect to occur by chance alone,” and “Keyword (computer programming), word or identifier that has a particular meaning to the programming language.” The last link leads to “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 1976 non-fiction book by Raymond Williams.” Click on it and you’ll learn that Keywords is a compendium of micro-essays that the “Welsh Marxist academic” wrote, exploring “the history of more than a hundred words that are familiar and yet confusing,” like “Art; Bureaucracy; Culture; Educated; Management; Masses; Nature; Originality; Radical; Society; Welfare; Work.”

Click further and you’ll discover that, although Williams had to wait nearly 20 years to publish Keywords, the book was a hit. Although it’s deeply erudite, the author wears his learning lightly; Williams’s prose has a spring in its step. In 1976, the radical left was about as powerful as it would ever be in postwar Britain, and, much like their counterparts in the United States, British New Left intellectuals were increasingly focused on cultural questions, including questions about representation and language. The concise histories that Keywords offered of concepts like “society”—discussing not just their origins, but also how people had wielded them to shape their times—appealed to readers living through the political clashes of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and the Tories were setting out to prove that “society” did not exist.

A revised and expanded version of Keywords appeared in 1983, and Williams was at work on another when he died in 1988. Within the academy, its popularity has endured, and admirers have undertaken projects in the book’s honor. In 2005, Blackwell published New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Now, 10 years on, Oxford University Press has published a handsome new edition of Keywords. Its gray-and-lime-green cover features a tangle of scrawled words of various sizes that drift and overlap one another, creating the impression of a commonplace book or a palimpsest.

In the foreword, the professor and filmmaker Colin MacCabe stresses how much Keywords draws from the work of earlier philologists—particularly the mix of amateurs and academics who compiled the Oxford English Dictionary between 1857 and 1928. Other and older antecedents leap to mind: the French Littré, published in 30 parts over the 1860s and ’70s; the dictionary that Samuel Johnson assembled in the mid-18th century; not to mention the parodies that played on the popularity of these compendiums with the aspiring and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

The era of such projects seems ever more remote. In 2010, Oxford University Press announced that it would most likely not print a physical version of the OED again. Two years later, Encyclopaedia Britannica followed suit: it, too, would shift to publishing exclusively online. (And if you search Wikipedia for the word “Wikipedia,” you can read about a study that found that the free online encyclopedia was almost as reliable—and far more extensive and up-to-date—than its print rivals, and that Encyclopaedia Britannica has contested these findings, to no effect.)

Yet despite the rise of digitization, Keywords remains strangely timely—not least because it anticipates the opportunities and impasses that new digital tools have created for academics in the humanities. It is also because Keywords is only masquerading as a reference book. It is really an argument about the scholarly value of literature and the rationales for doing research on it.

* * *

Raymond Williams is one of those thinkers who helped change his field so profoundly that today it can be difficult to appreciate how original he was. The turbulence of the mid-20th century shaped him intellectually. So did his background: Born in 1921 in the Welsh village of Pandy, Williams was the son of a railway worker who supported the Labour Party. He joined a Left Book Club and read Marx as a teenager. Shortly after arriving at Trinity College, Cambridge, to study English, Williams joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. There, he befriended Eric Hobsbawm, who was an undergraduate at King’s College, and in 1941 they published their first article—a defense of the Soviet invasion of Finland.

World War II interrupted Williams’s studies. He spent four and a half years fighting as a tank captain in France, an experience that left a deep impression on him. When he returned to Cambridge in 1945, Williams felt disoriented; the world, he sensed, had shifted. He later recalled running into an acquaintance from the battlefield on campus: “After many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war…. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language.’”

It is hard to be sure, here, which “they” they mean. Were “they” the professors and others who had remained behind? Or the speakers’ own former selves? What was clear to Williams was that he and his peers had “different immediate values or different kinds of valuation” than they’d had before the war, and that whatever change had taken place manifested itself most clearly in how people used language. “I found myself preoccupied by a single word, culture,” Williams would write, “which it seemed I was hearing very much more often.” After finishing his master’s degree, Williams left Cambridge and spent several years teaching adults in the workers’ education movement. But his fascination with the new way of talking about “culture” that he had discovered on the Cambridge campus persisted, and it would lead him to write the book that made him famous.

Published in 1958, Culture and Society centers on the idea that changes in the significance—both the meanings and importance—of particular words can illuminate the process of historical change. Williams focuses on a set of terms—“industry,” “democracy,” “class,” “art,” and “culture”—whose evolution, he argues, tracked the massive shifts that took place in Britain at the time of the Industrial Revolution. “The changes in their use,” Williams writes, “bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education and the arts.”

“It is the relations within this general pattern of change,” he continues, “which it will be my particular task to describe.”

Williams proceeds to do this by examining a series of writers and thinkers from both the right and the left. For instance, in a section called “Contrasts,” he pairs the conservative Edmund Burke with the rabble-rousing journalist William Cobbett, and the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham with the Romantic poet-critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Despite the intensity of his own political commitments, Williams is a generous reader; he patiently reconstructs the arguments of others. This evenhandedness is part of the point. Williams insists that, although his subjects put forth conflicting or opposing arguments, they were in fact reacting to the same historical forces. We can only understand the nature of those forces by taking into account the entire range of responses they inspired.

Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.

Williams originally intended to include his collection of “keywords” as an appendix to Culture and Society. But his publisher balked at the idea of adding them to a book of dense prose that already ran to over 400 pages, so Williams shelved it. Culture and Society went on to sell more than 200,000 copies. After his next study, The Long Revolution, appeared in 1961, Williams was invited back to teach in the Cambridge English department, where he was a professor of modern drama from 1974 to 1983. By 1976, he was able to publish Keywords as a stand-alone volume on the strength of his reputation.

Williams became one of the leading thinkers on the New Left in Britain. Together with other editors and contributors connected to the New Left Review—particularly the sociologist Stuart Hall—he helped set the agenda for a nascent field that called itself “cultural studies.” These scholars also, crucially, collaborated to create institutions that would house and disseminate their work: the New Left Review, Verso Books, and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Williams would later fall out with several members of this cohort, who accused him of being insufficiently radical. A spat arose when his former protégé Terry Eagleton publicly attacked him; shortly thereafter, Williams resigned his Cambridge post. When the Berlin Wall came down, one year after his death, others dismissed Williams as out of touch. And yet, in the 1990s, cultural studies, combined with other kinds of material history, became more and more influential in literature departments, and Keywords stayed in print. Today, it is better known than the study it was supposed to supplement.

* * *

The new definition of “culture” that Williams and the Birmingham School provided, which he called “cultural materialism,” was not a neutral description. It was a polemical tool—and as a tool, it was multipurpose. The new cultural theorists wanted to change how professors did research, but they also set a new agenda for teaching undergraduates. In the 1950s, the buzzword “culture” had belonged to another camp, led by T.S. Eliot and his champion in the Cambridge English department, the celebrated critic F.R. Leavis. By placing so much emphasis on the word “culture,” Williams and Hall were picking a fight.

In 1948, the same year that he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Eliot published Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He described the book as aiming to “help define a word, the word culture”; unlike Williams, Eliot saw the changes in how his contemporaries spoke about culture as evidence of its decline. Eliot repeatedly expressed his wish that “the word would cease to be abused, cease to appear in contexts where it does not belong.”

In his book, Eliot directly identified literary critics with priests. His point was that the literary tradition he held sacred had an intrinsic power to affect and elevate the students who came into contact with it, and which therefore warranted being preserved on its own merits. In the same year, Leavis published The Great Tradition, a study of canonical British novels, in which he argued that the role of a critic was to insist on “discriminations”: “the due sense of differences” between books that had merely been historically influential and those that were truly great.

According to Leavis, the difference had to do with a work’s “vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.” The literature still worth reading, the books that were great instead of merely influential, were worth studying after centuries because they retained the power to dramatically change us. Despite the ostensibly democratic criteria of evaluation—referring to each reader’s experience—Leavis was pretty unapologetically elitist. As he later wrote in New Bearings in English Poetry, in an age when “the finer values are ceasing to be a matter of even conventional concern for any except the minority,” the point of educating these selected few was that “in their keeping…is the language, the changing idiom upon which fine living depends and without which distinction of spirit is thwarted and incoherent.”

Williams clearly approached the great books with a different purpose. For him, a work of art provided a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change. The point of studying it was not study or worship but critique. Williams also challenged orthodox Marxists. Culture and Society departs from the traditional Marxist idea that economic relations dictate or determine the shapes that culture takes. Culture, Williams would later argue, is not merely a “superstructure” built upon an economic “base.” Rather, “the arts of writing and the arts of creation and performance, over their whole range, are parts of a cutural process…. What we permanently have are not objects but notations.”

Theodor Adorno and other Western Marxists had dismissed “mass culture” as inherently corrupt and corrupting—a form of “mass deception” that hypnotized people into blindly accepting the values of “late capitalism.” But Williams’s redefinition of cultural objects as “parts of a cultural process” or as “notations” meant that cultural studies could take mass culture seriously and give the people who enjoy it a little more credit for not being blind dupes. In addition to literature, Williams treated film, television, and popular music as worthy subjects of scholarship not because they were timeless, but because they yielded historical insights.

In the 1980s and ’90s, cultural studies helped put all sorts of new classes on the docket. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Williams is the reason that, at my university today, you can take classes on Beyoncé as well as Beethoven. The point was not—as conservative caricatures of this kind of thing suggest—that Beyoncé is as good as Beethoven. The passage of time changes what literature, what culture, what education are for; the point is that what we mean by “good” says a lot about what we want art to do for us, and what we want to do with it.

* * *

We would do well to bear this lesson in mind when wading into the current debates—extensions of what Eliot and Leavis were arguing—about whether the humanities still have a role to play in the university. They strike me as particularly relevant when you consider what seems to be the only growth industry going in literature departments: digital humanities.

There is no Keywords entry for “digital.” The word did not take on its current meaning and importance until the 1990s, after Williams’s death. But if I had to pick one word that seems to be on everyone’s lips on campuses today—the way that Eliot and Williams found “culture” to be in the late 1940s—“digital” would be it.

For as long as computers have existed, humanities scholars have tried to use them to do their work. In 1946, the year after Williams returned from Normandy to Cambridge, and two years before Eliot published Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the Jesuit priest Roberto Busa hatched the idea of using computers to create a concordance of the works of Thomas Aquinas. Three years later, he convinced Thomas J. Watson, the chief executive officer of IBM, to sponsor his project.

Interest in what Father Busa had called “humanities computing” gained steam in the 1980s and ’90s. As processing power got faster and servers got cheaper, a range of universities, corporations, and grassroots organizations digitized and encoded huge amounts of text. By the early years of the new century, the field that was now called digital humanities, or “DH,” was hitting its stride. By 2009, the National Endowment for the Humanities, together with the National Science Foundation, had launched through the Digital Humanities Initiative a series of “Digging Into Data” grants to humanists who were developing new methods of using digital tools. The Mellon Foundation started awarding a series of grants to universities to establish DH centers and programs.

Digital humanities had its breakout moment at the 2009 meeting of the Modern Language Association, when, after seeing that over a dozen panels were taking place on the subject, William Pannapacker of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that DH was “the first ‘next big thing’” in literary studies “in a long time.” In a 2011 follow-up, he declared it to be “the Thing.” News outlets picked up the story, and DH centers and projects started getting mainstream coverage. The New York Times even launched a series called “Humanities 2.0.” The rhetoric of these stories suggested that, in the age of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis, going digital was the only possible future for literary studies. And yet, when the Times series ended after just six stories, it left the central question unanswered.

Did “digital humanities” simply refer to a method, to a set of tools that scholars could now use to investigate literary texts? Or did they, as more ambitious practitioners claimed, fundamentally transform what literature was? Would it count as saving the humanities if, in the end, only computers did the reading?

* * *

One of the most curious things about reading Keywords now, the thing that makes it feel weirdly contemporary, is how the book resembles a digital-humanities project before its time. It reads as if Williams had text-mined a bunch of English—and a few French and German—sources and created a hyperlinked database before hyperlinks existed. The micro-essays in Keywords are cross-referenced in a way that encourages you to surf.

The academic who is probably the most prominent literary scholar using digital tools comes from an offshoot of the Williams lineage. He draws heavily on ideas that Williams articulated and publishes almost exclusively through the institutions that cultural studies built: the New Left Review and Verso Books.

Franco Moretti is a generation or so younger than Williams. He received his doctorate in Rome in the 1970s and was a professor at Columbia University for many years before moving to Stanford, where he founded the Center for the Study of the Novel. As director of a collective that calls itself the Stanford Literary Lab, he has pushed for introducing quantitative social-science methods into studying literary history—running experiments, for instance, on how the titles of novels change over time, or how dramatic genres evolve as they are used to represent new content, migrating to different corners of the world.

In his 1996 study The Modern Epic, Moretti was already questioning whether it made sense to speak of a modernist tradition—that is, of a movement that consisted only of rule-breaking exceptions. What kind of scientific field would describe only aberrations—or, for that matter, rely on the kinds of anecdotal observations that literature professors are used to citing as evidence? In 1999, in Atlas of the European Novel: 1800–1900, Moretti started experimenting with data-visualization techniques to generate maps both of the travels described within works of literature, and of how those works circulated in the real world where they were read.

In 2000, Moretti coined the phrase “distant reading” in a New Left Review essay. “Conjectures on World Literature” argued that in order to truly understand the literary “world system,” scholars had to break their habits of close reading—which Moretti denounced in the very terms Eliot had praised it, as a kind of “theological exercise”—and learn to look at books from afar. If you really want to understand, for instance, the significance of the clue to the genre of detective fiction, you cannot just study The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You have to study the tens of thousands of works of detective fiction published in Europe in the 1890s—what Moretti, following his Stanford colleague Margaret Cohen, calls “the great unread.”

Luckily, programmers in Palo Alto were developing the means to do that. Working with scholars, graduate students and others who “support” DH projects at the Stanford Literary Lab, Moretti wrote Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005). It repeated the arguments for a “more rational” or “quantitative approach to literature”: more information; testable hypotheses. A variety of these experiments are showcased in Moretti’s most recent book, Distant Reading (2013), a collection of essays that rely on tools like text mining and “topic modeling”—a technique from computational linguistics that uncovers hidden thematic structures in a body of text. Again, Moretti uses data visualization to explain his findings.

The tone of these essays suggests a turn toward modesty or pragmatism in literary criticism. If Moretti believes that his work has the power to effect the kind of real-world change that the intellectuals of the New Left hoped their work would accomplish, he certainly doesn’t spell out how. But “distant reading” has interested a wide range of academics and even a mainstream(ish) audience. Last year, Moretti won the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism.

* * *

It makes sense for literary scholars to be excited about tools that let them ask new questions. After the last “next big things”—French-influenced poststructuralism and the more homegrown new historicism—literary studies have often felt like a Cold War of local skirmishes. The struggle between theory and history has long ended; the historicists won. Since then, minor provocations like literary Darwinism, world literature, animal studies, and affect theory have not caught on enough to revolutionize an entire discipline.

In addition, digital tools promise to give dusty humanities courses a fresh sheen of Silicon Valley sex appeal for the undergraduates who might not otherwise take them. It doesn’t seem crazy to imagine that, as a former generation of lawyers and consultants studied English in order to develop strong reading and writing skills, kids who want to design financial products or mobile apps might like to pick up some things about Shakespeare while learning how to encode and interpret data.

At the same time, DH has attracted a lot of haters. It has been dismissed as a desperate bid by humanists facing a future of adjuncting for below-minimum wages to get in on STEM resources and prestige while there’s still any “getting” left. I once heard a fellow grad student refer to the fetishization of DH by our male colleagues—their eagerness to work with big data on the model of the hard sciences—as “the only actually existing case of penis envy ever.”

Skeptics like William Deresiewicz, Stanley Fish, and Adam Kirsch have more soberly described the rise of digital humanities as a misguided abandonment of the central vocations of humanistic teaching and scholarship. One key problem that Distant Reading raises is about interpretation. It’s our version of a debate that has been happening in the sciences for a long time—namely, is theory obsolete?

It is hard to picture what truly data-driven literary studies would look like. Pharmacologists use a “sandbox” model to develop new medications: identifying them by observing clusters of incidental effects from existing substances. But while search functions and other algorithms can be used to test intelligent hypotheses from scholars trained in close reading and well versed in their periods, it’s not clear that there is yet any model for reverse-engineering interpretations based on literary data.

There are many embarrassing anecdotes about DH scholars getting excited about patterns that turned out to have obvious explanations they had overlooked. A historian friend told me once about the scholars who built Google Ngram. It seems that they gave a presentation about how the specific year in which a book is set started getting mentioned much more frequently after the French Revolution, and hypothesized that this had something to do with a new sense of time in the modern nation-state. In fact, as a senior professor attending the presentation immediately pointed out, these were just the years when copyrights, including dates of publication, started appearing in the fronts of books. It’s a classic example of why you need to know your data set—what to control for and remove. Humanists may not be able to do away with expert opinion yet.

* * *

Moretti knows what to ask of his data because he is a brilliant critic whose mind has been trained by decades spent reading novels. Also, he happens to be employed by an exceptionally wealthy private university and to have an army of graduate and undergraduate students and support staff working for him. The latter point may be the more important.

Any way of studying something implies a set of beliefs about what that thing is, and critics have always debated what literature is for. Eliot and Leavis treated literature as a source of transformative imaginative power for individuals; Williams treated texts as a source of knowledge about history and social and political forces. Distant reading takes the project of cultural materialism one step further. Moretti treats literature as data. Critiques of his work in the Deresiewicz or Kirsch style tend to reject this approach by arguing that data does not have the power to affect us, to change us, the way great books do.

This may be so. And yet, it seems to me that the more urgent question for academics concerns how DH technologies are being introduced into the corporate university. If humanists hitch their wagon to big data in order to save their prestige and place at the university, they do so at certain costs. In attempting to bolster the status of literature, Moretti and others may end up reducing its viability and shrinking its importance.

While they can teach members of existing fields fascinating things, digital-humanities tools are certainly not entering a stable environment. The intellectual labor that humanists do—the work of research and teaching—is in a state of flux. The Information Revolution may do to academic labor what it has already done to many other forms of work: render workers increasingly precarious and distribute rewards on increasingly unequal terms among them.

Digital humanists, like humanists and the digerati generally, tend to be utopians. The idea of the database is highly seductive. It evokes open access to complete information and the ability to analyze it with unbiased tools. Of course, in reality, servers powerful enough to process big data can only be located in a highly select number of well-endowed institutions; and the books that have been digitized hardly represent everything that has been thought and said. Digitization does not extricate us from real-world power concentrations and contests.

Moreover, the work of scanning, digitizing, and coding is just that: work. Departments are struggling to come up with ways to recognize and reward it. But for now, this work seems easy to slough onto the growing army of PhDs for significantly less than a tenured professor’s keep. If the next generation of digital humanists is to be trained, is it to be trained in close reading and in coding and programming? Where is the extra funding for that supposed to come from? How are graduate students who are already being told to cut their time to graduation supposed to find the hours to learn all that? What else will have to give?

It’s not that hard to imagine a dystopian future in which, for every Moretti who gets to propose brilliant theories via a massive open online course (MOOC) lecture beamed to tens of thousands of students, there will be umpteen scholars doing the drudge work of uploading and encoding the material he studies, coding the programs used to analyze it, and somehow also finding the time to oversee students. What is hard to imagine is that the quality of research and teaching wouldn’t suffer in this situation—or that bright students would be inspired to reproduce this system by pursuing research and teaching after graduation.

Members of Williams’s generation believed that analyzing culture would bring about revolution. Much of their prose now sounds turgid, and many of their political hopes were either beaten into submission or inflated into a hyperbole that remains purely hypothetical. The New Left’s long revolution has ended up looking a lot like a retreat of left politics into the academy. This may be why Moretti and other distant readers have stepped back from making any greater claim for their data than that it offers valuable insights into literary history and forms for those of us already interested in literature. And yet, if we want there to be a T.S. Eliot or Raymond Williams or Franco Moretti to write about our current crisis in the future, academics will have to fight to preserve universities good enough to produce them today.

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