“If print culture foregrounds answers and pushes questions into the background, then perhaps data culture may do the opposite: it privileges queries and treats answers as if they are ephemeral.” In the slides we read for today, this was marked as an “interesting idea,” and I think it is interesting, not only for discussions about databases versus documents, but for the humanities as a whole. I ran into this idea recently in a different context while reading for the Shakespeare Performance class that many of us are in. We were assigned a 2008 essay called “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads” by Thomas Leitch, which reviewed the most recent scholarly work focusing on the adaptation and appropriation of literary texts. One of Leitch’s criticisms of undergraduate textbooks on the subject is that “they are limited not because they give incorrect answers to the questions they pose, but because those questions themselves are so limited in their general implications” (68). Leitch further asserts that sometimes “the question is more valuable than any answer” (75) and endorses textbooks that raise productive questions about adaptation studies even, or especially, when those questions are unanswerable.
It’s interesting that Leitch would raise some of the same issues as the DHSI slides, as he is largely dealing with the same kind of shift from print (books) to digital (movies). I think the privileging of questions rather than answers that Leitch and the DHSI lecture bring up is a productive approach to the humanities, and one that is sometimes itself underprivileged. Asking the right kinds of questions is always more important and more productive than definitively answering the wrong ones. And our answers to these questions often change over time anyway. In light of these observations, I’m not going to attempt a conclusion to this post; instead, here are some questions that might prove productive: How can or will databases change our modes of research? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these changes? How can we use quantitative data provided by databases within the framework of disciplines that focus on the “human,” or at least on things that we believe to be largely unquantifiable?