Avant-gardes and Emigres: Digital Humanities and Slavic Studies

By Marijeta Bozovic, Yale University 

In April 2015, Stanford University’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Humanities Center hosted an ambitious and experimental one-day conference on “Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities.” The event, organized by Mellon Fellow Jessica Merrill with the assistance of Andrei Ustinov, brought together two distinct camps: Digital Humanities pioneers, including Franco Moretti (Distant Reading, 2013) and Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis, 2013), and leading scholars of Russian Formalism. The aim of the conference was to locate “quantitative literary analysis within the broader spectrum of 20th century literary theory by comparing recent work in the Digital Humanities with Russian Formalism—long considered the foundational movement for modern literary theory.”

In the opening talk, however, Moretti immediately questioned whether it would be possible for these two subfields or modes of analysis to come together. While the Digital Humanities researchers were happy to find continuity with classics such as Tynianov’s essay “On Literary Evolution,” the theorists, on the whole, remained skeptical. Ilya Kliger (NYU), in particular, offered an eloquent critique: while the two formalisms share surface similarities, Kliger argued, current practices of Digital Humanities resemble more the “historical poetics” research that preceded the Formalists and prompted their incisive interventions. Tynianov warns against fixed, reductive models for the analysis of culture, calling instead for a “dynamic archeology” of form.

The debate continued and grew at the National Humanities Center’s faculty seminar in Digital Textual Studies in June 2015, led by Jockers and Willard McCarty (Humanities Computing, 2005). Faculty working in fields ranging from ancient Greek, modern Chinese history, and contemporary poetry to sociology and feminist theory gathered to imagine the future of an umbrella term encompassing a series of practices, not quite a discipline, and not entirely method. The marginalization of Digital Humanities in many disciplines within the humanities, and of research making use of computational tools, proved a recurrent topic of discussion: “distant reading” studies of the nineteenth-century English novel, for example, are more likely to be cited by other DH practitioners than by nineteenth-century English literature scholars outside of DH. While the dramatic growth of Digital Humanities conferences, of DH panels at the Modern Languages Association convention, and the veritable explosion of related publications in recent years attest to the fact that more and more graduate students and faculty are interested in and experimenting with digital tools and methods, in literary studies the practices remain far from attaining the status of quantitative or computational methods in linguistics or sociology. 

The reasons for caution—ranging from reductive models and positivistic claims to the obfuscation of ideology and infiltration of the citadel by salesmanship and Silicon Valley culture—have been well documented and debated in the popular press and academic forums. As DH methods grow ever more wide-spread, however, we might shift the question from whether to what kind of computational research might prove intellectually responsible, creative, emancipatory, and sustainable. Strong examples include Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood’s topic modeling of the journal PMLA to investigate the history of literary scholarship; research inspired by Jerome McGann’s studies of print and digital culture; and numerous projects with a focus on the sociology of literature, or on the remediation and materiality of text. The best studies (including Bolter and Grusin’s seminal Remediation: Understanding New Media, 1999) paradoxically draw greater attention to the materiality of textual dissemination, and find continuity with practices of philology and textology that have fallen out of fashion in many fields. 

Done well, DH demands self-awareness about method, data, sources, and bias. In many literary and media disciplines, the boundary between truth claims (author X wrote a letter to Y in 1957) and interpretation fluctuates with theoretical fashion and goes unremarked: in a room of ten literary scholars, we are likely to find as many working definitions of “evidence.” It is invaluable to learn to actively negotiate a position for one’s own research within that room, above all at the graduate level. The collaborations necessitated by many DH projects contribute in no small way to the potential for greater disciplinary and methodological self-awareness: the groups behind the new research often include partnerships with scholars in statistics, computer science, and social sciences. As early adopters and “digital natives,” graduate students are taking leading roles in many DH projects—as are librarians and specialized technical staff. By pulling different parts of the university into contact and into the open, such partnerships have the potential to forge strategic alliances with consequences beyond the research at hand.

In the fall of 2014, I taught an experimental graduate and advanced undergraduate seminar on Joseph Brodsky, making use of his papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. The quantity of materials available encouraged me to think about digitization and “semi-distant” reading. As I wrote in a guest post for NYU Jordan Center’s All the Russias’ Blog, experiments with topic modeling, word frequency counts, and keyword searches defamiliarized both the selection and the approach that the class took to Brodsky’s poems and essays, and simultaneously prompted us to delve deeper into the physical materials (drafts, correspondence, notebooks) of the archive than might have a more conventional poetry seminar. As a result of the Brodsky experiment, I established an ongoing collaboration with a group of Yale staff: Digital Humanities librarian Peter Leonard; Lisa Conathan, the archivist who processed the Brodsky papers and is now Beinecke’s Head of Digital Services; and Trip Kirkpatrick in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Building from the Brodsky course, the team intends to expand the project in pursuit of a number of overlapping aims. We hope to make more—and more creative—use of the Beinecke and other local resources, while training graduate students and advanced undergraduate students in archival research. By actively teaching, trying, and debating the possibilities and limitations of digital tools and methods, we aim to encourage critical thinking about the digital world that surrounds us and mediates our cultural experiences, and which the majority of us use with little understanding of how search tools, categorization systems, citation counts, and more shape and limit our research. It is not only useful to learn to write code enabling personalized searches for keywords in context across texts and corpora, it can feel emancipatory. (Thought of in this way, teaching humanities students to code and to find common language with researchers in other disciplines has something in common with initiatives to teach young girls to dis- and reassemble cars.) 

We are working to develop a research initiative and online environment dedicated to the study of Russian and East European avant-gardists and émigrés in the twentieth century. The project aims to explore the close relationship between avant-garde poetry and Formalist theory, and the dissemination and evolution of interpretive practices through emigration, including the formation of many departments of Slavic Languages and Literature in the United States today. How did avant-gardists and émigrés shape the reading practices, archival and library collections, and institutional formations of Slavic Studies as a field? How did the flow of persons, texts, and ideas from the Soviet Union influence institutions, academic practices, and cultural forums—from the Slavic Review to the New Yorker?  Can we imagine and visualize a network of émigrés and centers of cultural capital in complex and ever-shifting configurations? How have these networks shaped our own education, training, tastes, and biases? How do they shift over time? And how might all of the above be reimagined—indeed, how are they already being reshaped—in the digital age, given the technological, socio-economic, and political present? 

In phase one of our latest initiative, Yale Slavic Department graduate students Carlotta Chenoweth and Jacob Lassin have joined the team and are studying the international exchange of persons and texts central to the Slavic field, such as Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ROSTA windows, Viktor Serge’s manuscripts, and Nina Berberova’s and Joseph Brodsky’s archives. With the support of the Center for Teaching and Learning, I am developing a sustainable and recurrent advanced seminar on avant-garde and émigré poetry and theory that will, over time, contribute to the research initiative. The online platform will incorporate the findings and specific interests of graduate and undergraduate students, adding research results and open access tools as we grow. Whenever possible, the project will integrate digitized materials and link to archival holdings. In the fall of 2015, we are working on network visualizations and topic modeling the Slavic Review. We welcome any thoughts, contributions, collaborations, and critique along the way.

Marijeta Bozovic is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University 

Editor's Note: Article originally appeared in August 2015 NewsNet