When Max Weber suggested in 1917 that the world had been disenchanted, he meant that modernity was best understood by the expansion of “technical means” that controlled “all things through calculation.”1 The real power of these technical means lay not in the techniques and technologies themselves but in the disposition of those who used them, in their unshakable confidence that there were in principle “no mysterious, incalculable forces” they could not calculate and control. Such a technical rationality had replaced the “magical means” premodern people had used to placate gods and spirits. In Weber’s account, which was both elegiac and supercilious, when the “technical” superseded the “magical,” wonder disappeared from the world. The confident, calculating scientist, the intellectual hero of the modern world, was incapable of “wonder” and inured to “revelation.” Nothing surprised him, and nothing could be revealed to him.
Having conquered everything else, the calculating machines of modernity are now coming for our books. Or at least that’s what anxious writers in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the New Republic have suggested as they warn of the cultural collapse being ushered in by the digital humanities. These critics rarely discuss what most scholars do with their digital tools—marking, annotating, visualizing, and collecting texts as our literary archive gradually moves from print to digital form. They focus, instead, on the grandiose pronouncements of Franco Moretti, a professor of literature at Stanford University and founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab. “The trouble with close reading,” Moretti claims, “is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon.… At bottom, it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously.” In place of “close” reading, Moretti proposes a “distant” reading, in which gradually emergent and long-term patterns in literary history are studied through the application of computational and quantitative methods to the analysis of massive numbers of texts. To critics of the digital humanities, Moretti has come to represent all humanities scholars who use a range of computational and quantitative methods to model plot structures in novels, analyze literary periods, map metaphors, track lexical changes, and, yes, read texts.