Melissa Dinsman interviews Franco Moretti in the LA Review of Books. On the humanities in the 20th century:
In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort. Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness.
Whoops! But digital humanities isn't coming to the rescue:
No, to make the humanities relevant you need something much bigger than the digital humanities. What the humanities need are large theories and bold concepts.
Yep. In the value of coding:
It's an intelligence that takes the form of writing a script, but in the writing of the script there is also the beginning of a concept, very often not expressed as a concept, but that you can see that it was there from the results that the coding produces. Perhaps the best example in the case of the Literary Lab was Pamphlet #4,* which was written by two grad students who invented their own script. I envy them that form of intelligence, knowing that I will never have it. And I like it. I think that actually many of the most promising results in the future will come from scripts that are half scripts / half cultural, literary, historical concept.
Yes, of course. I would only add, and now I'm mounting one of my favorite hobby horses, is that literary critics must learn to think about mental and cultural processes as involving computation in some form.
On judgment vs. explanation:
You read reviews that tell you if a book or a film is good or bad. And the same for art shows, and so on. Digital humanities is as non-normative as one can get in the field of literature. It is much more towards the explanatory. So to make it interesting for the general public, a major revolution in the way in which literature is approached by the media would be necessary. Will this revolution happen? No. Should this revolution happen? I'm not even sure. I have devoted my life to explanation rather than value judgment. On the other hand, I am not sure that for society-at-large, for the world-at-large, explanation is more important than value judgment. I think it is more important for people who devote their lives to try to understand how things work.
On this I'll say, unequivocally, that explanation of cultural phenomena (works of art, music, literature, dance, and so forth) is certainly important for society-at-large, for the world-at-large.
Moretti poses his own question for DH: "Leave aside what it can do in the future; has it done anything?" What do you think his answer is:
...the results so far have been below expectations. Now, it's true that the field is at the beginning still. It's true that much of scientific research is so called normal science, and it's certainly true that traditional literary criticism is not sending off sparks every day. All of this is true, but it is also irrelevant because digital humanities are claiming to be the big novelty and so far I think I have produced little evidence about that. I don't want to push it too far. I don't want to say there is not evidence, because it is complicated. Evidence comes in many forms.
I'll go along with those last three sentences.
*Which I discuss in From Telling to Showing, by the Numbers.