Critical Data Narrative as Modernist Aesthetic in Early Twentieth-Century U.S. Literatures
How a group of modernist writers used their training as empiricists to create a data-driven aesthetic
On a near-daily basis, data is being used to narrate our lives. Categorizing algorithms drawn from amassed personal data to assign narrative destinies to individuals at crucial junctures, simultaneously predicting and shaping the paths of our lives. Data is commonly assumed to bring us closer to objectivity, but the narrative paths these algorithms assign seem, more often than not, to replicate biases about who an individual is and could become.
While the social effects of such algorithmic logics seem new and newly urgent to consider, Collecting Lives looks to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. to provide an instructive prehistory to the underlying question of the relationship between data, life, and narrative. Rodrigues contextualizes the application of data collection to human selfhood in order to uncover a modernist aesthetic of data that offers an alternative to the algorithmic logic pervading our sense of data’s revelatory potential. Examining the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Rodrigues asks how each of these authors draw from their work in sociology, history, psychology, and journalism to formulate a critical data aesthetic as they attempt to answer questions of identity around race, gender, and nation both in their research and their life writing. These data-driven modernists not only tell different life stories with data, they tell life stories differently because of data.
Praise / Awards
“This is a truly thrilling book. It offers a modernist history of our contemporary data-driven society, a unique and rigorous demonstration of the ways that data have shaped not only modern/ist epistemological norms but also aesthetic form, and a compelling, counterintuitive argument that this modernist data aesthetic was developed in the service of black life, as a method of destabilizing the generalizing narrative tendencies of white supremacy.”
—Jasmine Rault, University of Toronto
“Collecting Lives is an exciting and timely work that connects early twentieth-century America and the digital humanities. Through Rodrigues’s formulation of ‘the epistemology of data,’ data collection plays a central role informing narratives of selfhood, strategies of othering, and anti-racist activism.”
—Wesley Beal, Lyon College
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