Keith Michael Baker
I offer this preface in all modesty. I’ve compiled no databases, created no programmes. At best, I’ve benefited as an early adopter of some of the more manageable (but no less powerful) tools developed in the digital humanities. At worst, I’m a Zelig of the digital humanities world who has happened to show up in some of the right places, and at some of the right times, to observe its progress. From either of these perspectives I invite Enlightenment scholars and other readers to marvel at the ambition, creativity, ingenuity, persistence and sheer joy of discovery apparent in the pages that follow. They show scholarship in perpetual motion. They open avenues and suggest opportunities for humanistic enquiry that can pique our curiosity, empower our research, enrich our understanding and amplify our knowledge in remarkable and often unexpected ways.
When I started my doctoral work decades ago, the Journal of the history of ideas had been publishing a succession of notes on early occurrences of the term ‘social science’. Successive scholars coming across the term – in Mill, in Comte, in Saint-Simon – each wondered whether they had stumbled upon the earliest usage. Since the concept of social science in the Enlightenment was my chosen dissertation topic, I thought I could begin with a more systematic investigation of the history of the term. I had an intuition that it could be found in Sieyès’s Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, but turning the pages of a copy of that tract published in 1789 did not disclose it. The road instead led me to Condorcet, who had named the subject in the plans for public instruction he proposed during the French Revolution, from him to its inclusion in the organization of the Institut de France, and thence to the ideologues appointed to positions in that institution. From their writings, the term passed into English, on one side of the Atlantic via a Spanish translator of Bentham’s works, and on the other side via Thomas Jefferson’s translation of a text by Destutt de Tracy. I thought I had a pretty definitive essay on the subject to offer the Journal of the history of ideas, but that journal haughtily decided that it had no interest in considering further articles on the topic. I published the paper elsewhere only to learn later that I had been right about Sieyès: he had used the term in the first edition of Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? but had removed it from the many others published later the same year, only one of which I had searched.
I mention this by way of saying that, having always been fascinated by the history of words, I was immediately excited when Robert Morrissey, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, floated the idea that a digital database being used to create a new French dictionary, the Trésor de la langue française, might also be utilized for other research purposes. I was an enthusiastic participant in the complicated and sometimes amusing negotiations that led eventually to the creation of ARTFL (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language) and became one of its earliest users. I still have remnants of the reams of printout generated by then-clumsy searches in the database for early co-occurrences of ‘opinion’ with ‘publique’, and by efforts to gauge the frequency and correlates of basic Enlightenment terms like ‘société’, ‘social’ and ‘révolution’. How far ARTFL has come from those early days! Over the years, Morrissey and his brilliant team of collaborators have turned it into an immense resource for studying the Enlightenment while developing a powerful research engine (now PhiloLogic4) that is also available to scholars exploring texts in other fields and languages.
One key step in the development of ARTFL was the digitization of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, that massive keystone of the Enlightenment. This was a major accomplishment but it also opened an immense challenge. Generations of scholars had surfed the work’s seventeen folio volumes of text and its eleven volumes of plates. Its very bulk had made it a work more cited than read. What questions could now be addressed to this digital version? What could it be good for? This was the spirit in which Dan Edelstein and I first offered a graduate seminar on the digitized text at Stanford in 2006. It was immediately obvious that digitization would make it possible to address more systematically some longstanding questions about the work, its contributors, its organization, the classification of its articles and its treatment of various topics. But that seminar fired a desire to dive more deeply below the surface of the text, to ask about its sources and citations (or lack of them), to detect sunken materials and preserved traditions, on the one hand, and the often silent harvesting of modern thought on the other. Collaboration with the ARTFL team on the development of methods to answer such questions led eventually to the path-breaking sequence alignment analysis by Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe that revealed the extensive but largely unacknowledged borrowing of the encyclopedists from the work of Montesquieu, Voltaire and countless others. (A similar analysis of the ECCO database, reported below by Clovis Gladstone and Charles Cooney, has also made clear the massive resonance of the Bible in eighteenth-century English texts.) More discoveries of this kind will doubtless follow as scholarly interest and the stock of comparable machine-readable texts expand. As Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe make clear in their essay in this volume, the digitized Encyclopédie is destined to become a critical ‘living’ edition of that work of which earlier scholars could only have dreamed. In the meantime, ARTFL now offers scholars the opportunity to use its search engine to open up the history of another great collective enterprise of the French Enlightenment through its recent digitization of all three editions of the abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes.
If the Encyclopédie, why not the entire Enlightenment? Or which Enlightenment? Will a comprehensive topical analysis of eighteenth-century works one day allow us to discern more precisely an identifiable Enlightenment discourse emerging within it? Will it instead reveal a cacophony of Enlightenments? Clio is greedy, she always wants more. From Oxford she has received massive tribute in the form of Electronic Enlightenment, the pioneering achievement of Nicholas Cronk and Robert McNamee for the Voltaire Foundation, which is gathering into a single database the growing number of digitizations of the correspondence of individual Enlightenment authors. Cronk describes the process and editorial promise of this development below. Dan Edelstein, in turn, captures the excitement unleashed by the generous sharing of metadata from Electronic Enlightenment that made possible the creation of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project by Edelstein, Paula Findlen, Caroline Winterer and Giovanna Ceserani. Their engagement produced some unexpected results – notable, for example, in the visualization of Voltaire’s correspondence and of the nesting of an Enlightenment network within the Old Regime establishment. It also stimulated the serious and sophisticated reflection on visual design as an element of humanistic enquiry that has given birth to Palladio, the remarkable new tool for that purpose described below by Nicole Coleman.
Major digital humanities engagements beyond the Chicago–Stanford axis are also brought to more general view in this volume. From MIT, Jeffrey Ravel presents a striking account of the development of the ambitious Comédie-Française Registers Project. He makes clear the imperative towards institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration inherent in digital humanities research while hinting at the tensions, vicissitudes and anxieties inherent in this endeavour and pointing out the questions about audience it raises. From Western Sydney University, Simon Burrows provides an update on the major resource he and his team have built over decades for research into the history of the eighteenth-century French publishing trade (FBTEE). This now includes the invaluable bibliography of eighteenth-century French novels described by Angus Martin and Richard Frautschi in their contribution to this volume. Gargantuan in its ambitions, FBTEE expands the range and enhances the power of Burrows’ database of French books sold by the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, the bookseller Robert Darnton made familiar to Enlightenment scholars as the purveyor of the forbidden bestsellers of enlightened Europe. His analysis sharpened by ongoing engagement with Darnton’s conclusions, Burrows invites researchers to confront the complexities of eighteenth-century publishing and the challenges of representation and interpretation they present.
Navigating such complexities is far from easy. There is nothing mechanical about this work. It requires intellectual sophistication, historical intelligence, subtle judgement and endless decisions. Essays in this volume on research engagements related to FBTEE – by Alicia Montoya on analyzing catalogues of private libraries, by Katherine McDonough on confronting problems of identifying and locating early-modern places, and by Laure Philip on disentangling and representing available information regarding clandestine publications – each offer granular accounts of the conceptual, methodological and technical challenges of deriving and analyzing digital data. They are echoed in this respect by the contributions of Elizabeth Bond and Robert Bond on their topic modelling of French provincial newspapers and by Melanie Conroy and Chloe Summers Edmondson on their enquiry into the participants in Paris salons.
As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, the publication of this volume opens an opportunity to weigh the achievements and promise of digital humanities against the cautions, criticisms and dismissals often levelled at it. Some of the latter are political: behind the digital humanities they see efforts of neoliberal academic administrators and their funding allies to destroy the traditional university or undermine the critical practices of the humanities within it. These charges appear to make digital humanities the stalking horse for an indictment of more general perceived tendencies within the contemporary university rather than engaging directly with it. However, the assumption that close reading of texts can be critical and disruptive while their distant reading is necessarily reactionary seems unexamined. The computer might as readily be used to disclose linguistic regimes of oppression as to sustain or advance them.
More frontal dismissals of digital humanities research contrast ravenous costs in money and labour with a paucity of results. ‘Garbage in, garbage out!’ may be one of the most common tropes of disparagement, but there is ample evidence in the following essays to belie the image of philistine feeding of lumpen, ill-considered data into mindless machines. As for the common critique that digital humanities expends vast resources to unveil what we already know or mere common sense would have expected, there is much in this volume to rebut it. The comparatively circumscribed circulation of Voltaire’s correspondence is an obvious example of an unexpected result. The plagiarism of Montesquieu in the Encyclopédie might have been intuited, but its full extent would have been almost impossible to demonstrate without the technology of sequence alignment. The resonance of the Bible in eighteenth-century English texts might well have been expected by some scholars without our ever knowing how great it is. Or not. It is worth remarking that we think we know many things without knowing how well we know them, or without acknowledging that the things we think we know or expect may not turn out to be true, and are often in any case incompatible one with another.
Eventually, I imagine, the term ‘digital humanities’ will become redundant, and computer-assisted humanistic research will cease to exist as a specialized field. Its methods will be absorbed by humanistic scholars more generally, serving and stimulating them in a variety of ways and to varying degrees according to their interests and the questions they pose. As that happens, this volume will be acknowledged as marking an important step in that direction.