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  • TMI:The Information Management Aesthetics of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman
  • Brad Rittenhouse (bio)

The commotion of nineteenth-century urban space at first seems antithetical to the common perception of the American Renaissance as a small-town, rural phenomenon. Over the past several decades, however, scholars like Wyn Kelley and Andrew Delbanco have done much to reconsider this pastoral image, instead stressing that burgeoning American cities were central to the maturation of American literature.1 These urban literary studies have largely foregrounded the city as physical space, recognizing the structural similarities between the excessive, distracted writing of authors like Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, and urban America's increasing chaos. For example, in Melville: His World and Work (2005), Delbanco observes that "moving clause by clause through Melville's New York prose is like strolling, or browsing, on a city street: … sometimes we are brought up short by a startling image requiring close inspection; sometimes a rush of images flickers by; but there is always the feeling of quickened pulse, of some unpredictable excitement, in aftermath or anticipation."2 Like Lewis Mumford's architecturally-inspired, city-centric literary analyses before it, these scholars found aesthetic metaphors in real-world structures and locations. [End Page 474]

More recently, with our evolving understanding of the digital world, cities have been refigured as informational as well as physical spaces. Ed Folsom, for instance, has generatively argued that for Walt Whitman, "the world was a kind of preelectronic database, and his notebooks and notes are full of lists of particulars—sights and sounds and names and activities—that he dutifully enters into the record."3 Jonathan Freedman reinforces this claim in a response to Folsom, suggesting the nineteenth-century city itself became "not only a place … articulated by buildings and street signs, by vagrant scraps of newsprint and books or pamphlets, but an infoscape where encoded bits of data imprint themselves successively on the avid subject seeking to make sense of the world."4

In response to this informationally dense world, writers like Whitman innovated aesthetic strategies to collect, store, organize, and manipulate literary data. Adapting models from contemporaneous information science, biology, library science, and elsewhere, they experimented with speculative ontologies of data management that resisted real-world implementation.5 They also drew upon traditional literary strategies, repurposing devices like the literary catalogue and anaphora to render their data-driven works both more efficient and more user-friendly. Indeed, many of the aesthetic innovations of the American Renaissance resulted from pragmatic struggles against the tide of nineteenth-century information identified by Folsom and others.

data | information | literature

Works like Moby-Dick (1851) and Leaves of Grass (1855) exemplify a shifting heuristic for representing information in literature. Using the descriptor datadriven, rather than the more traditional encyclopedic, helps us reimagine how actual encyclopedic form can influence [End Page 475] conceptions of literature as information. Scholarship on encyclopedic literature has typically emphasized notions of scale and grandiosity as a result of an inherent investment in the cultural artifact we call the encyclopedia.6 Viewing literature as data-driven sidesteps generic conventions of encyclopedias and encyclopedic narrative, asking if works can centralize data in ways that are not inherently encyclopedic. In addition, this approach foregrounds central dictates of electronic media—efficiency, relational structures, user-friendliness—in an attempt to think about works that, though concerned with information, find much of their motivation in developing aesthetic strategies that prioritize logical efficiency in rendering and organizing textual data.

It seems fitting here to clarify what I mean when I talk about data and information in literature. For information scientists, these two terms have very specific meanings: data is a raw output, information is processed data. Knowledge, additionally, refers to the potentially actionable conclusion drawn from information. While these distinctions are very important in information science, computer science, and other technical disciplines, the humanities have been less stringent in using the terms. Daniel Rosenberg suggests that even in foundational "histories of science and epistemology … the term 'data' does heavy lifting yet is barely remarked upon" as a theoretical concept that "can be deconstructed."7

Following Walter Benjamin, I interpret literary data as subject matter that, at least on the surface...