One result of our current economic and technological preoccupations is that we are blind to all possible alternative approaches to a problem. Our approach is not flexible, it is not supple enough to cope with all the contours of complexity which are innate to the world. Thus generally there are two approaches, whereby if we encounter a difficulty we will attempt to address it either via (i) speed or (ii) quantity. The first is where things such as computers and automation come in. Nominally they are here to make the execution of a task quicker, and they are almost always successful at this. The second is a corollary of the first, in that being able to do something faster (i.e., compute) allows us to do more of an action. So the rise in computing power leads in some sense to considering all problems in terms of the raw inputs for computing – data.
How close does the “history of ideas” approach come to data-mining as the study and criticism of literature? I was rereading Christopher Tilmouth’s Passion’s Triumph Over Reason, and I began thinking about this. I met the author a few years back, in his Cambridge room in a turret of Peterhouse, when I was planning on undertaking a PhD (on the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) there. We discussed the various approaches that are common now, and while he is not necessarily a party to the more theory-laden schools of thought, he certainly was familiar with their content and understood their attraction to many. I was there to talk to him about the possibility of taking a more formal approach to literature (which is in keeping with my techno-functionalist interests in philosophy!), one which did not make the text merely a conduit to discuss a particular theory of discourse, one which, incidentally might be anachronistic. At the same time, however, I felt that there was something about the historical scholarship approach to poetry that didn’t resonate for me. Continue reading