Envisioning the Digital Humanities in Richard Powers’ Fiction: Technology, the Self, and the Encyclopedic Impulse

By Richard Dragan.

Published by The International Journal of the Humanities: Annual Review

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper will examine the presentation of digital humanities (DH) in the fiction of Richard Powers, who has consistently explored the intersection of technology and the humanities in his fiction. I will engage several theoretical questions in the current debates around DH. Specifically, several of Powers’ novels have envisioned actual implementations of digital humanities projects whether in creating an artificially intelligent algorithmic ‘reading machine’ in Galatea 2.2, who is trained to read fiction and pass a comprehensive exam for a Master’s Program in English; models of canonical art works (such as Matisse’s paintings) and interactive architectural models in Plowing the Dark (specifically a model of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul); and even accurate portrayals of social networking—in sections of Generosity and in a short story “Enquire Within upon Everything,” a short piece that anchors a recent collection of DH essays in Switching Codes (2011). In many of Powers’ works, the author juxtaposes individuals who are caught in their own inner subjective worlds juxtaposed against an ‘unlimited’ database, what I will call the ‘encyclopedic impulse.’ Powers’ celebration of the ‘encyclopedic impulse’ in his fiction marks his work as an important touchstone for conceptualizing certain ideas and current debates within digital humanities. Besides an argumentative essay, this essay includes several visualizations and word frequency charts analyzing encyclopedic novels.

Keywords: Theme: Literary Humanities, Richard Powers, Digital Humanities, Self, Encyclopedia, Encyclopedic Impulse, Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark, Enquire Within upon Everything, Social Networking, Digital Self, Model Building, Visualizations

The International Journal of the Humanities: Annual Review, Volume 10, pp.35-46. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 812.624KB).

Dr. Richard Dragan

Assistant Professor, Department of English, LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, NY, USA

Prior to earning his Ph.D. in English in 2006 from CUNY’s Graduate Center, where he wrote a dissertation on the encyclopedic novels of Joyce, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Pynchon, Richard Dragan worked extensively as a technical journalist and software developer. Besides publishing over 300 articles and product reviews on emerging Internet technologies for publications like PC Magazine, he taught software development at Columbia University’s IT Programs for over a decade. He also holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has published short fiction. His research interests include science and technology in literature and film. Last year, he published an essay on Web 2.0 and the films of Peter Greenaway in Literature/Film Quarterly. He has recently finished a short story collection and is working on an academic book based on his dissertation. He currently teaches writing and journalism at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, where he serves as Director of Journalism.