Sheila Liming responds to Kate Holterhoff

In her reading of Allison’s work, Holterhoff focuses on Allison’s efforts to reveal an “author’s sometimes obscure moral purpose.” Like Fyfe, Hoterhoff notes how such efforts appear, at first, yoked to seemingly antithetical spheres of discussion, particularly “literary theory.” Holterhoff continues by noting some of the apparent differences between Allison’s work and some of the other projects that have been coming out of the Stanford Literary Lab.

What Holterhoff is getting at, I believe, is the way in which Allison’s work appears to be inspired by the field of the digital humanities and by its adherents’ interests in computational methods even as it resists committing wholly to, or simply replicating, those methods. Allison is more interested in showing us how computers have changed her thinking and reading than in showing us the work of computers reading and thinking on the level of syntax, grammar, etc. This is most clear in her final chapter, “A Grammar of Perception,” in which she summarizes and names an array of skills and methods that the human critic, according to her thinking, may yet take away from experiments with computational analysis. Just as we have taught computers how to read and think, so may computers teach us to reexamine our tendencies and habits as readers through a process of critical refraction. In emphasizing such an argument, Allison actually avoids some of the censure levied by critics like Nan Z. Da, who sees computational analysis as “prone to fallacious overclaims or misinterpretations of statistical results.”[1] Allison is more interested in the reader as “machine” than in the computer itself.

[1] Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computer Literary Studies.” Critical Inquiry, 45:3 (2019), p. 611.  

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