Distant Readings/Descriptive Turns: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century
From March 29 to March 31, 2012, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Washington University will host an international and interdisciplinary symposium on the concept of "distant reading" and its applications to the analysis of German literature and culture in the long nineteenth century (1789-1918). Building on recent approaches to literary and cultural criticism developed by Franco Moretti, Bruno Latour, and others working under the rubric "new sociologies of culture," fifteen German and North American scholars will give presentations that seek to generate fresh insights into cultural history by adopting and adapting the empirical methods of the natural and social sciences. Participants will be addressing the question of what can be gained (and what is lost) when we move away from an exhaustive rhetorical analysis of individual texts and turn our attention instead toward large bodies of data, making use of analytical techniques borrowed from such disciplines as statistics, computational science, quantitative history, and the emerging field of digital humanities.
As an age of industrialization and the development of mass markets, the nineteenth century offers fertile terrain for such approaches. The roughly 150 years between 1789 and 1918 were characterized by an unprecedented boom in newspaper, magazine, and book production, fostered by breakthroughs in printing technology that made reading material, fiction and non-fiction, available to a wider range of consumers than ever before. Precisely this abundance of textual material, however, has long presented scholars with a challenge: how to read it all. No individual scholar can ever acquire knowledge of more than a tiny percentage of the total number of novels and stories that were actually published in the period. New digital technologies cannot significantly accelerate human reading processes per se, but they do give us the power to search and analyze a much greater percentage of this vast corpus of texts. The assembly and management of large databases enable both the testing and re-articulation of hypotheses as well as recovery and discovery of patterns and trends. Our interest in organizing this conference is thus informed and driven by the new availability of historical materials in the digital age. Google Books' ongoing project of digitizing libraries, to name the most prominent undertaking, allows scholars access to the broad spectrum of German texts as never before and thus pushes us not to limit our understanding of literary production, circulation of texts, and reading to what contemporary presses and the academy of the twentieth century have deemed canonical.
We expect the symposium to demonstrate the enormous potential that resides in new technologies, not only to open up entirely new areas of inquiry, but also to breathe new life into some of the most venerable topics of literary studies, from genre to the nature of literary realism. The presentations model a spectrum of approaches to the general topic, often combining broadly conceived considerations of methodology with individual case studies. They treat such critical issues as genre, period (realism), social history, transatlantic relations, reading and reception, technology and literature, disciplinary history, and the relationship between geography and literary production.
This conference will contribute to the lively early twenty-first-century re-conception of literary and cultural criticism, reframe and reinvigorate fundamental questions of literature and print media, and chart new directions in literary and culture studies. The questions addressed in the presentations, although inspired by nineteenth-century materials, are of great relevance in an age of social media, rapid mobility, and new ways of thinking about literature and literacy more generally. We thus expect to attract a broad audience from a wide range of disciplines, not only in the humanities, but, because of the methodological innovations, in the social and natural sciences as well. Our aim is to shed new light on nineteenth-century German culture and its relationship to contemporary Germany as well as to open up new avenues for interdisciplinary and international collaborations between the humanities and the sciences.
The symposium will be held Thursday, March 29 - Saturday, March 31, 2012 on the Danforth Campus of Washington University.
The symposium is free and open to the public.