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Evidence, Coincidence, and Superabundant Information
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Evidence, Coincidence, and Superabundant Information

“I must trust to chance, Mr. Varden.” “A bad thing to trust to, Joe.”

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

My grandfather used to get uncomfortable when the grand-kids fiddled with his VCR. He used the machine regularly enough, but it still felt mystical and fragile. I feel a bit like my grandfather when I see students slinging around their laptops or using them as food trays in the student union. It’s not that they understand the technology better than I (though many do); it’s more that it has been so integrated into their lives as to inspire little wonder or fear. Something similar appears to be happening with literary critics and databases. The digital humanities for literary scholars was once the domain of pioneering specialists doing seemingly alien work, and much research in the field still emphasizes technical questions of informatics and database construction. The digital humanities may remain a foreign land represented by a handful of ambassadors, and yet databases have become so basic to mainstream critical practices that even non-technical scholars of a certain age can begin to take them for granted. What follows attempts to reclaim some discomfort and wonder by asking what is gained and lost by using search engines to gather evidence, a question that can turn us toward Dickens and Poe, who both confronted the problem of identifying evidence during their own information revolution.

Well before the digital humanities 2.0 was offered to the public, Jerome McGann and Katherine Hayles signaled what in retrospect might be called the domestication of the digital humanities, arguing that the future of the field depended on discipline- and media-specific interpretation. As predicted, the digital revolution in literary studies now seems less PC and more Mac, less directed by technical [End Page 87] specialists and more driven by ordinary end-users. Among the greatest beneficiaries of the digital humanities are historically minded scholars of nineteenth-century literature. The explosion of transatlantic print culture, coupled with the fact that most published work from the period is already in the public domain, means that an inconceivable quantity of texts are accessible through Internet databases. More practically—which is to say, more importantly—the vastness of nineteenth-century print culture is profoundly usable in digitized form as search engines drive targeted research and data mining of unprecedented efficiency, specificity, and scope. For critics who build interpretations on links between literary and historical texts, searchable databases can feel almost too powerful, particularly under the influence of New Historicism.

New Historicism was initially most controversial for finding ideology everywhere, though its most unsettling legacy at this moment is its broad construal of what constitutes evidence. Under a New Historicist anecdotal logic that has been largely naturalized today, any single cultural artifact can be a basis for interpretation as New Historicist methods expand the range of potential evidence beyond authorial intention and source study, while at the same time shrinking the amount of evidence required to make a case. New Historicism unleashes myriad interpretive possibilities, though the worry is that it lacks falsifiability insofar as it becomes theoretically impossible to exclude any meaning from a text. New Historicists in the mid-1980s and 1990s theoretically justified such methods (Fineman 49–76; Gallagher and Greenblatt 1–19), though my sense is that the persuasiveness of New Historicist arguments depends mainly on an implicit belief that connections made between texts are not arbitrary. When Mary Poovey took an 1862 National Review essay to represent “an entire social organization” enforcing gender roles, her excerpt’s language was so pitch perfect as to convince beyond its rightful evidentiary weight (2). Or when Eric Savoy examined Henry James’s “In the Cage” (1898) alongside the Cleveland Street affair, the parallels were so striking that it seemed hardly to matter what precisely James knew of the scandal. For New Historicist interpretation to work—then and now—homologies cannot be coincidental, though how one might determine such things remains difficult to say.

Here databases can provide a supplementary, though hardly definitive, quantitative perspective. In 1983 Michael Rogin leveraged a [End Page 88] Theodore Parker abolitionist sermon figuring the...