The Literary Lab
The Literary Lab began its activity in the 2019-2020 academic year as part of the Department of Hebrew Literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The lab, the first of its kind in Israel, serves as a nurturing center for systematic computational research in Hebrew literature and associated fields. The lab combines new perspectives with traditional approaches and relies on the collaborative work of researchers and students drawn from the Department of Hebrew Literature, from a variety of different disciplines in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and from across the entire University.
Computational Literary Studies is one of the main branches of Digital Humanities - a field that has grown significantly since the beginning of the present century. As with the entire field, this branch seeks to harness the computer's processing and analytical capacities for the purposes of researching literature, in its multitude of various forms. Pioneering attempts in the last decade in some of the world's literatures, and particularly in English literature, have revealed how computational reading in texts, rather than making actual "human" reading redundant, instead complements, enriches, and sometimes even challenges it: the computer can handle texts on a larger scale, support and empirically endorse research intuitions - or, alternatively, question and reject them; it uncovers phenomena that the researcher's eye has difficulty seeing, due to the natural human limitations of linear reading and limited memory; it offers original answers to old questions, and, at the same time, raises unanswered ones.
The Department of Hebrew Literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is the optimal place to embed these new directions in Hebrew Literature. The department, the largest and the best of its kind in Israel and worldwide, provides the laboratory with a vibrant and dynamic intellectual framework. The accelerated development of computational literary research in Europe and North America is here given a unique local makeover with promising conditions for its inauguration. Thanks to them, we hope, this development will leave its mark in the study of Hebrew Literature, while preserving a continual connection to that which is universal.
The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences provides the laboratory with an even wider local and universal context. Displaying a good deal of receptiveness it has supported the crossing of boundaries between the various disciplines, a move in which other faculties are also involved. Thus, the lab serves as a home for anyone interested in computational research, whatever their background: history and computational linguistics, Jewish philosophy and math, Hebrew language and information systems engineering, art history and data science, and more - the lab's language is a blend of all of these.
Dr. Itay Marinberg-Milikowsky, the head of the lab, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on narrativity in the Babylonian Talmud under the Department of Hebrew Literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Various methodological and theoretical problems led him, quite coincidentally, to become acquainted with the pioneering work of Franco Moretti, and, subsequently, with computational research and its applications in the study of narrative prose. He then went on to conduct post-doctoral research under Prof. Dr. Jan Christoph Meister, a world-renowned scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology at the University of Hamburg, Germany, where he specialized in narrative theory, computational research, and the combination of the two. After three years in Hamburg, Marinberg-Milikowsky returned to Israel with his family to serve as a senior lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Literature and the founder of the Literary Lab. His forthcoming book, 'Textual Research in the Digital Age: Theory and practice' (The Open University of Israel Press, 2020) will be the first introduction book in Hebrew to the digital humanities.
The term 'lab' is not yet widely used in the world of the humanities, but it does express quite well two of the three essential facets of our work. The first is collaboration: the culture of the laboratory is one that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and accustoms its members to teamwork, in ways that break the mould of the lone scholar characteristic of the humanities. This is not only because computational research is inherently interdisciplinary, but also for a more principled reason; we believe that a supportive and pleasant collaborative environment, where the researcher and the student are not alone facing the world of infinite knowledge but members of a team facing similar challenges, will contribute not only to improving research and the research experience, but also to fostering excellence and personal and group growth. The second facet is computationalism, which expresses better than any other term the unique research identity of the lab as a digital humanities center: unlike ‘traditional’ literary studies, the research conducted in the laboratory is bound to incorporate computational perspectives and empirical findings, which are partly achieved through experimental processes.
Empirical experiments? What do they have in common with a field that relies heavily on subjective assessments and creative interpretation? This complex question requires that we be committed to a critical integration - however challenging - of the new computational perspectives with the traditional perspectives of 'ordinary' humanistic, non-digital research. We attach great importance to imposing one on the other, as well as to a systematic and reflexive involvement in finding a common theoretical-operative language for both. From this perspective, for example, we recommend that graduate students and researchers working on a 'traditional' project examine certain aspects of their research - even only minor ones - with computational tools. Without such effort, computational practice will remain too esoteric and 'niche'-bound, while 'traditional' humanities will not discover the potential inherent in such integration. Both cultures need to meet one another.
Accessibility is, therefore, the third facet of our work, one that gives the laboratory a unique identity in the digital humanities landscape. We believe that computational research in the humanities must find ways to the heart of traditional research: not only to make an impact, but also to be impacted upon; to withstand criticism; to engage in dialogue; to be 'humanistic' in the deep sense of the word. To achieve this we need to remove barriers, not put them up. We need to encourage the use of user-friendly technologies and perspectives - not only from a technical but also from a conceptual or philosophical standpoint – technologies and perspectives that bear in mind also the whole realm of the humanities in its full complexity and beauty.
Does our vision speak to you? Do you have a project to offer? Email us and we will be in touch. We look forward to it; our door is always open.