Navigating the “Screwmeneutic” Circle

digital literary studies and digital history: sailing between two poles of “big tent” humanities.

How far are digital historians willing to go with the new methods of digital literary studies such as “deformance,” “textual intervention,” “tamperings,” and, most fabulously, “screwmeneutics”? The question raises useful issues of the potential similarities and differences between digital history and digital literary studies, two key poles holding up the “big tent” of the digital humanities.

In digital literary studies, which has dominated popular coverage of the rise of digital humanities as a field (see the now-infamous Stanley Fish essays in the New York Times), the most adventurous position has been staked out by scholars who wish to harness computational power as a tool for more fecund, imaginative modes of textual criticism. As Stephen Ramsey writes of new digital modes of literary analysis, “If text analysis is to participate in literary critical endeavor in some manner beyond fact-checking, it must endeavor to assist the critic in the unfolding of interpretative possibilities.” The computer’s power, for Ramsey, is found in its capacity to blur distinctions between “reading” texts and manipulating them, all in the service of creating new perceptions of how literary creation works both in particular cases and overall. This leading digital literary scholar even looks optimistically “toward a critical vanishing point at which the distinctions between art, criticism, and science dissolve.” He seeks to “locate a hermeneutics” there, “at the boundary between mechanism and theory.” This new hermeneutics would enrich understandings of texts and produce a heightened awareness of the ongoing conversations that hermeneutics sustains and inspires (Ramsey, Reading Machines, 10, 31).

Ramsey borrows Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels’s term “deformance,” Rob Pope’s “textural intervention,” Estelle Irizarry’s “tamperings,” and, most humorously, the idea of “screwmeneutics” to describe the use of computers to manipulate and play with texts in the service of furthering literary criticism. He and others advocate re-sorting and re-organizing texts using computational algorithms, assembling lists of word frequencies and other data from corpuses, using topic modeling and other statistical models of probability, and juggling words within classic forms of literary creation (the sonnet for instance) to seek out underlying structures of syntax and significance.

A kind of distancing occurs through this approach—what Franco Moretti has controversially termed “distant reading” rather than the classic New Critical tactic of  “close reading.” The hope Ramsey and others have is that as critics mess with their objects of study—as they tweak them, look at them under new lights (LCD I presume), carve them up with laser beams, and translate them into bits and bytes—they will discover new meanings. Messing with things will lead to clarification not obfuscation.

A number of literary scholars, such as Mark Sample, even want to emphasize the mess itself as what defines the new field of digital humanities. DH should involve an effort not to order things again once they get deformed, but to let them live in their fragmented, unfinished states—don’t put humpty dumpty together again, Sample urges, in his call not for a “deformative” humanities but simply a “deformed” humanities. For Sample, broke is the new fixed.

This is a powerful intervention into the field of literary studies. And in some sense, Reading Machines, Moretti’s work, and Sample’s blog musings all seem aimed most of all at established literary scholars. These digital humanists seek a place at the English Department seminar table for themselves, their computers, and their wireless links to vast databases of texts and the intricate software applications necessary to master them (or in Sample’s case, not master them). But the ideas of “deformance,” “deformed” criticism, and “screwmeneutics” also speak to interdisciplinary interactions in digital humanities. For instance, Ramsey goes so far as to contend that the goal of all this computational manipulation should “be to generate further ‘evidence’.” He strikes an intriguing note of caution, though: “We do well to bracket the association that term holds in the context of less methodologically certain pursuits,” he admits. It is here, around the vexed issue of “evidence,” that digital history might engage with methods of “screwmeneutics.”

The question becomes: do digital historians methodologically share this interest in toying around with the materials upon which we base our arguments and interpretations?

At first, this approach sounds something like counterfactual history, as if we should tinker with historical evidence to think about events and activities that did not happen. What if the North had acquiesced to the demands of the Confederacy? What if Marie Antoinette had insisted on bread for all, rather than cake? What if Kennedy or Lumumba or Trostky or Malcolm X had not been assassinated? And so on.

But this seems to me like the least productive use of a “deformance” approach to history; rather, the goal of “deformance history” might be to play with our evidence not to alter it into something it is not, but rather to seek out the many potential layers of what is already there. What patterns and meanings, connections and correlations—perhaps even causalities—lurk within rich bodies of evidence? Computational power might be wielded in the service of this kind of investigation. It’s not about airbrushing purged party members out of the photograph for Stalinesque ends, which is to say that it’s not that anything goes in interpretations rendered from manipulations of evidence; rather, the actual facts of the evidence are themselves multilayered and manifold—computers can help us to explore the many possibilities that remain below the surface of or between the parts of assemblages of facts.

Thinking along these lines, there are many confluences between digital literary studies and digital history. And yet there also must ensue more fraught conversation between digital literary scholars and digital historians about how reasonable it is to “deform” historical evidence.

For digital historians, what kinds of “deformances” are valid and which are problematic? By what criteria? Are historians really willing to follow Ramsey and crew as they set off for (but never quite reach) the “critical vanishing point” where making art, studying it, and practicing science ultimately blur? What would joining this journey mean for the creation of historical interpretation and historical narrative?

Going back to Dilthey and Ranke (who were both deeply interested in hermeneutics), the practice of history has rarely been an intentional act of deformance. When it has explicitly been so, this is usually labeled bad history. Fabrication is considered an insult. Speculation has rarely been used as a positive term. I think historians feel much more cautious about the “screwmeneutics” approach to evidence than Ramsey and other digital literary scholars. There is a hesitancy to diss-assemble and rearrange and reinvent sources. It remains in question whether all of history can be read like a text. Maybe some evidence does not operate like language. And because of this, there is an ambivalence about pursuing the dream of collapsing the divide between artist, scholar, and scientist, between creator, commentator, and discover of universal truths.

Even though most historians are aware that writing history is a literary act, that history is a construct and an art as much as it is a social science, there remains an insistence that even the most daring acts of narrative invention must still be grounded in acts of discovery. Because of this belief in discovery, the stability of sources remains important if not even fetishized.

It is precisely in the relationship between invention and discovery, however, that “deformance” seeks to operate: invention does not just come from discovery, screwnemeutical literary scholars suggest, discovery also comes from invention—or, in the case of “deformance,” what is more accurately described as creative destruction. History, they seem to insist, is just like any other text waiting to be screwed with.

This adventurous approach to history might be productive at times. For instance it offers a useful opening for digital historians to think about new ways of computing, representing, and analyzing the very fact that interpretations become facts. It might highlight the idea that ideas can also be causal factors, that what is made of things happening also makes things happen. But how do we trace that process? Can deformance approaches help? Here, the subfields of digital and intellectual history go together quite well.

Historians might then not go so far as to embrace “screwmeneutics” whole cloth, but we might begin to develop something like a new computerized hermeneutics of history, a new kind of digitally-assisted historical criticism, in which, as Ramsey urges for literary scholars, the goal “is not to arrive at the truth, as science strives to do” but rather to contribute to the long-running purpose of humanistic inquiry (and even, at its deepest levels, science too): to “arrive at the question.”

Since “screwmeneutics” has now taken us in search of arrivals to some new place, let us shift metaphors from the “big tent” of the digital humanities to another trope comprised of poles and canvas: boats on the seas under the heavens. Now that’s a big tent! It might be the best one for continued interdisciplinary conversations between digital literary scholars and historians. For while certain digital literary scholars might wish for their work to dissolve one day into the “critical vanishing point” at the edge of the ocean of time, reaching a utopian land where artists, critics, and scientists all speak the same tongue, digital history might better continue to pilot back and forth on the massive tides between acts of imaginative interpretation and the facts of what actually happened, including the interpretations that have (or have not) become facts. In such currents, the past can be understood more profoundly.

Which is to say that even if digital history does not sail off with digital literary studies into the romantic sunset of a “scewmeneutic” horizon, never arriving at a question, bobbing around where everything is broken and shattered, beautifully unanswered and left to chance, digital historians can still draw upon computational power, even in its most screwy and deformed configurations. Learning from digital literary scholars can help us to traverse the wreckages of the past, recover the remains, live to tell the stories, and, chronometers in hand, perhaps better navigate the forces that push and pull us all around the world.

3 thoughts on “Navigating the “Screwmeneutic” Circle

  1. “Are historians really willing to follow Ramsey and crew as they set off for (but never quite reach) the “critical vanishing point” where making art, studying it, and practicing science ultimately blur?”

    Oh hell no. At least, I think hell no–I will let others go first and see what I think. Do you have examples of digital historians doing this (rather than writing about doing it) in mind?

  2. Hi Larry —

    Thanks for your comment!

    I think few historians have reached, or even pursued, this vanishing point, although in a funny way history has always occupied a strange spot at the boundary of humanities, social sciences, and even sciences (in the sense of searching for universal, singular, positivist conclusions).

    I think that the other aspect I tried to write about here—”screwmeneutic” playing with and deforming texts—now that hasn’t been done explicitly by any digital historians I know of, but I do think there are a lot of opportunities to so. My main point, the more I think about this, is that there’s a bit of a romance going on with data, statistics, computational models, and other quantitative desires. To me, this borders on stale, reductionist, positivist fantasy. What I’d rather see is the use of computational power to think about ambiguities.

    Let me give a concrete example. Could we use computers not to freeze a keyword in place—say Eric Foner’s fascination with the term freedom and liberty—but rather to capture the way it is sliding around ideologically, meaning different things to different people, or even contradictory things to the same person. To me, computers might both track and represent these ambiguities effectively.

    Here’s another example. History is always about bringing different lines of evidence together in different frameworks of facts that undergird and structure an argument. What if we use computers to bring together new sorts of lines of evidence, even incongruous and John Cage-ian combinations that are left to chance…just to see what emerges? That’d be a kind of screwmeneutic history.

    Finally, and this is the platform I’m working on with the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Research Workshop, the virtuality of the digital lets us, paradoxically, “touch” materials. We can now rip up and rearrange an archival object without damaging it. We can assemble, layer, write on, resize, rearticulate, collage, compare, contrast, squeeze, twist, etc. objects to see if it lets us look at them in new ways. Again, not to misrepresent them, but to look at what’s actually there in the evidence, but perhaps not immediately discernible or obvious.

    That’s just a few thoughts about this.


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