Who Is Liu Speaking To?

In “From Reading to Social Computing,” Alan Liu sets forth a vision of social computing as a new locus of academic literary study. To make his case, Liu passes over a wide geography of different academic disciplines, pointing to ideas and methodologies from computing, social sciences and finally literary studies. Liu wants literary scholarship to “take an interest in contemporary social computing” because he believes that it is a place of ongoing “demotically raw, even feral” literary creation and criticism.

Liu argues that social computing is a kind of extension to a “larger circuit of literary activity” unearthed by a post-1960s critical focus on literary roles acting in the periphery of the relationship between documents and their publishers, authors, interpreters, and readers. He leans on the idea of “marginal zones of literary activity” to suggest that a blog’s “blog rolls, track-backs, and other signs of […] communal communications” represent a digital form of literary sociality that warrants further exploration.

Liu seems to essentially propose “a unified field of literary and social communicational study” with the object of blurring the lines between social computing and literary activity insofar as they are “both aspects of a single communicational phenomenon: the contemporary form of the human need to say something well […] to someone else.”

Although Liu is able to clearly articulate the complications of fusing together literary theory and social science methodology for the objective of exploring literary social computing, he dedicates surprisingly little time to explaining how the whole enterprise would benefit literary critics. Liu appears to be mired in the how without adequately explaining the why. He hints at the idea of pedagogical benefits by suggesting that analysis done with a tool called PieSpy of The Merchant of Venice substantially improved the essays that students wrote for his class. He correlates this desirable end with the technological means by mere syntactical juxtaposition, failing to pinpoint precisely how the act of developing  “diagrams of the play’s social networks” lead to a deeper understanding of the play itself.

In fact, his next two anecdotes about a creative reconstruction of The Canterbury Tales using LiveJournal and a reconstruction of Romeo and Juliet using Facebook would suggest that the primary benefit of the technology was not in its inherent technological qualities, but instead in its ability to facilitate a kind of creative criticism. Rather than pay any attention to the playfulness of all three classroom activities, Liu draws attention to the tools that supported them in a way that makes me question the intended audience of the article. He opens with technological terms and metaphors, using the words “circuit” and “transistor” in a way that seems alienating rather than instructive. If the purpose of this article is to persuade literary theorists to get to work on the intersection between literature and social computing, I fear that Liu has instead constructed an opaque wall of jargon that is more focused on what the tools can do than who the tools can serve.

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