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Parsing Fiction: Humanistic Computing and the Postmodern Novel

  • Author(s): Shepard, David Lawrence
  • Advisor(s): Hayles, Nancy K
  • et al.
Abstract

Despite the recent rise of interest in digital humanities, the long history and influence of computerized humanities scholarship remains unrecognized. In response, this dissertation reads novels written over the past five decades as reactions to humanistic computing. Though recognized as important examples of postmodern literature, these novels also belong a category of "parsing fiction": novels written partly in response to projects that analyze language and literature with computers. This dissertation constructs a tradition of novels that consciously develop aesthetic techniques that subvert the theoretical rubrics such projects embrace.

The existence of parsing fiction demonstrates that humanistic computing has influenced the development of postmodern fiction, having inspired authors to explore the implications of computerizing linguistic and literary study. A primary reason for this engagement between novelists and scholars has been that most humanistic computing projects follow hegemonic scholarly methodologies rather than challenging them. Parsing fiction reacts against this high-tech conservatism by questioning these common theoretical underpinnings in light of the computer.

Each of the four chapters pairs one novel with a group of projects to which it responds. This dissertation begins with John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, which critiques Literary Data Processing in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Italo Calvino's if on a winter's night a traveler responds to Mario Alinei's linguistic research. A decade later, Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story advocates the use of hypertext over humanistic Artificial Intelligence. Finally, at the end of the millennium, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves argues for the specialness of print against digital hypertext. The conclusion offers some final reflections on the digital humanities' influence on contemporary literature.

Reading novels as parsing fiction demonstrates that understanding the computer's role in literature requires attention to specific technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and hypertext. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that humanistic computing has had a more significant impact on postmodern fiction than scholars recognize. While scholars who design projects and write programs remained comfortable with the computer as a tool for reinforcing accepted theories, novelists who sometimes only glimpse computers from a distance have imagined them as agents of radical transformation for literature.

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