How to avoid the return of the risks of the Classical Age in the Digital Humanities?

This article has been corrected by Jon Wilcox (UK), after a first automatized translation from my French blog article.

Nobody likes the role of Cassandra. However, since my presentation in the Symposium in August 2011, my fear of a return of the Classical Age in the approach to knowledge has increased every day. Rather than enable the multidisciplinary research team to interrogate from, and engage with, different points of view, the machinery to standardise knowledge that the Digital Humanities represents could once again expel différance and the asymmetry, to take the words of Derrida. I ask myself this face-to-face with the “object-centred” approach which promises us a global, transparent and unequivocal knowledge base. ”OCHRE” (Object-centred high-level reference ontology) comes from Leipzig.

To take an example of the dangers of such an approach and which urgently requires  multi-disciplinary research, let us consider the “computer graphics” of the English version of the “miserable” Jeff Clarke, very judiciously presented in French by the Pegasus Data team (here Yannick Rochat) on their website. Rochet commenced with an excellent review, which continues in the blog discussion. I add here some thoughts on this ‘infographic’ that visually represents some quantitative data of an English translation of les Misérables:

Interdisciplinary teams are necessary if we are to understand how to connect and relate all quantitative and qualitative analysis in the humanities, as is the practice of the social sciences. The social sciences integrate the qualitative with the quantitative, sometimes with a great deal of pain and effort. The humanities will have to proclaim the right to the qualitative in the wave of the quantitative. Indeed, I imagine already primary and secondary school teachers filling with beautiful coloured paintings their classes about French Literature…practical, effective, aesthetic: the children and young people will develop a taste for it very quickly!

It is clear that Clarke’s infographics are all based on the choice of translation from French into English. It seems to me we must consider this infographic from the perspective of “versioning” of les Misérables. This is not an analysis of les Misérables, but a version of it, in a dated English translation. A text – and its rewriting – can no longer be regarded as a fixed and stable entity. When technologically re-produced, that which proceeds is only ever a “version” of the text. This is what led the research team of Homer Multitexte to start quoting verses of The Iliad by “manuscript”; by “version” rather than text. Even the concept of archiving is undoubtedly moving towards this “versioning”, via the regular recording of what we want to retain, which will necessarily evolve over time.

It is seriously cringe-worthy to read in Clarke’s first infographic (image above) that there is ‘positive’ words, such as “love”, and negative ones. A century of psychoanalysis has shown us that a “mother who loves her child”, is potentially ambiguous for the rest of the story… If there is “absolute values” in words (to combine the language of mathematics and literature), then perhaps we could be certain! But the peculiarity of language is its ambiguity, its floating appearance. All human sciences are built on the small percentage of meaning which always escapes all ontologies, because it is not possible to equate totally “words and things”, to quote Foucault. The celebrated French thinker has rightly diagnosed the reign of the novel in the 19th century as the revenge of language of its “canning” in the Classical Age. Since all of this has been said and thought, we will not reproduce at the end of post-modernity a Classical Age part 2!

To say, as Clarke does, that the frequency determines the importance of the characters is reductive. The concepts of the butterfly effect and of serendipity, well remind us that it may be those characters mentioned on just a few pages, or even in two paragraphs, that will change everything. In this beautiful and breathtaking meeting across fields and genres, it would be appropriate to talk of the Digital Humanities as being not just a meeting between geeks and poets, but perhaps between geeks, poets and philosophers, to extending the expression of Martin Foys in the NY Times.


Claire Clivaz

Claire Clivaz is Head of Digital Enhanced Learning at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (VITAL-IT, Lausanne, CH) and belongs to an interdisciplinary team that started the Digital Humanities in Switzerland since 2011. She is also a member of the LADHUL ( This blog assumes to developp opinions and discussions on all the events and problematics around the Digital Humanities, particularly in the French speaking aerea. Claire Clivaz est Head of Digital Enhanced Learning à l'Institut Suisse de Bioinformatique (Lausanne, CH) et appartient à une équipe interdisciplinaire qui a lancé les Humanités Digitales en Suisse depuis 2011. Elle est membre du Ladhul ( Ce blog se propose de présenter et développer des sujets de discussions sur les événements et problématiques touchant aux Humanités Digitales, notamment dans l’ère linguistique et culturelle francophone.

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