- The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies
Are digital methods weak or strong? How should we understand the conjunction of digital tools and methods with modernist studies? In some accounts of the rise of weak theories in literary studies, weak theory and digital methods like distant reading are taken as correlative terms, with associative logic and epistemological modesty common to both.1 Yet a nearly opposite set of arguments is as familiar: digital literary methods are too "strong," so goes the claim, because they conceal naïvely positivist notions of evidence and proof, reductively quantify cultural production, or advance a neoliberal agenda within the academy.2 Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.
Generalized glosses such as these call out for more particular accounts of digital practice from within modernist studies itself, and indeed these have begun to appear. Work by Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, Jessica Pressman, Shawna Ross, and James O'Sullivan supports the contention of Stephen Ross and Jentery Sayers that there are "special affinities" between modernism and digital approaches, and that digital methods "afford some of the most promising lines of development for the ongoing expansion of the 'new modernist studies.'"3 Shawna Ross and James O'Sullivan's edited volume Reading Modernism with Machines (2016) marks a turn from debating the advantages and deficits of digital methodology and towards embedding new methods and interpretive procedures within the specificity of modernist studies as a field.4 [End Page 569]
Rather than surveying the field or advocating a particular digital technique, the present article advances an argument about how digital approaches articulate with modernist subjects. After considering the leading positions on that question, and drawing on current examples of work in the field, I contend that digital modernist studies can and should understand itself through a weak theory of the conjunction of digital method and scholarly field, following the line of thinking developed by Wai Chee Dimock, Bruno Latour, and their common sources in science and technology studies.5 This line of weak theory focuses on relational networks of association, skeins of weak bonds that paradoxically produce strength through "dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties" (Latour, "Actor-Network," 3). The social is continuously woven by human and nonhuman actors, argues Latour, and he has in mind the micro-societies that constitute disciplines, not just the macro-social echelons of politics and economics. For Dimock, these "dispersed, episodic webs of association, not supervised and not formalizable, make it an open question what is primary, what is determinative, what counts as the center and what counts as the margins" ("Weak Theory," 737). The weak conjunction between digital method and modernist studies foregrounds exactly these questions of center and periphery, social determination, long lines of material dependencies, and critical authority. Rather than a static theoretical picture, weak theory is here employed to theorize the process of affiliation, conjunction, translation, and alliance between methods and subjects, and to redescribe the work of digital modernist studies as the careful, conscious "plaiting of weak ties" between method, object, and field.
Digital modernist studies requires a Latourian attention to the intervention of material agents into critical practice, along with long chains of institutions, machines, collaborators, and other mediations between the intimate triad of the world, the text, and the critic. It necessitates the Dimockian work of filiation, comparison, and self-reflective theorization—an emphasis on constructing rather than assuming the boundaries of the field—that increasingly serves as the hallmark of an expanded modernist studies. It compels interdisciplinary conversations that extend beyond the boundaries of the humanities. Over and above the labor of the individual critic, digital modernist studies demands collaborative labor and collective verification, along with new methods of peer review now coming into view. Such methods at their best afford us few of the pleasures of deciphering, uncovering, or excavating meaning associated with the strong theoretical approaches that Paul Ricoeur describes as the hermeneutics of suspicion, despite the now privileged rhetoric of "data mining." Nor do they offer historicist critics an escape from the careful composition of texts, contexts, and...