It is a <Marxist> <culturalideology> truth <classformation> universally </classformation> acknowledged</culturalideology> </Marxist>, that a <SexGender> <gender> single man <capital> in possession of a good fortune </capital> </gender> must be <capital> in want of </capital> a <gender> wife </gender> </SexGender>.
All right, it’s a bit preposterous–but perhaps not.
TEI is the attempt to make possible rigorous use of computer technology in the humanities. The initiative stems from a recognition that, like eyes, microfilm, the internet, peer-review, and so forth, computation can?/could?/should? constitute more than a technology in the colloquial sense; they could be–and probably already are–a technology in a Foucauldian sense: a material and discursive formation that comprises a fundamental structure of “the academic self.” The only difference between a scholar who refuses to acknowledge the potential of computation for the humanities and one whose heart leaps at the sign of sideways carrot brackets is that the latter admits the reality that humanities scholars have grafted computers into the scholarly body. Any time I begin research with a cursory search of JSTOR or the library catalogue, I’m making use of XML-encoding (or an equivalent). Unless I know specifically where I want to start, someone, somewhere, encoded the data that leads me to begin my research with Ed Cohen and not D. H. Miller. TEI is an attempt to make sure that someone is someone who thinks like a literary scholar.
Given that argument, whether you buy it or not, I’m just going to ask you, Dear Reader, to accept for the next four-hundred words that quantitative computation of the TEI sort is a worthwhile endeavor. Through that vein, I would like to briefly consider the notion that if we can calculate or compute and interpretation, we should be skeptical of that interpretation. A professor once told me that reason that they [sic] rejected “Theory” was that if one knew what someone’s “Theory” was, one could just as easily tell what that person’s reading of any given text might be. Sure. Fine. Marxists will talk about class; Feminists will talk about women; Deleuzians will talk about assholes and werewolves and lines and bodies.
So, let’s do two things with encoding and theory, as an experiment. First, let’s imagine that it could be an exceptional teaching tool, a way to introduce undergraduates to the field. “Here, undergraduate,” you will say. “Search this text and mark up all the places where someone could do a reading with Theory X.” Or, even better, “Here, undergraduate. Make use of this edition of Middlemarch that a professor has marked up, so that you can see all the interpretive possibilities that a text can provide.”
And secondly, let’s imagine that a whole bunch of us did this, and then we ran all of that data through an even bigger algorithm. We could, I think, legitimately examine the way that we think of texts. Can we chart Mary Ann Evans’s interest in Spinoza through frequency of references? Can we chart the Victorian interest in brain science by compiling that kind of data? Perhaps even more interesting would be the questions we could ask about ourselves: How much (quantitative, word-count-wise) of a text do we overlook in order to make our specific reading on X in text Y? What seem to be the topics about which most scholars write in a given text? What seem to be the topics most scholars see in a given text but on which they don’t publish?
Certainly, all of this data would be quantification of the subjective. There are many reasons why I think class matters in Pride and Prejudice, none of them ontological–but all of them potentially interesting. Moreover, this wouldn’t provide a given reading of a passage; rather, this would constitute a markup in potentia, the possibility of reading. Imagine what we could find out if we stopped panicking about whether literature was data or had data or could be rendered in data and just went for an acknowledged amalgam of sense (numbers) and sensibility (interpretation)?
“Hey,” we might say, “it turns out that, for all we talk about it, The Moonstone really doesn’t quantitatively center around the detective story and Victorian disinterestedness. In fact, it seems to be much more concerned reading books as bodies and bodies as books!”
Well, all right–that’s what it would say if the data included pretty much just my reading. But that’s a different post.