By Roel Smeets
These months, research brought me to autumnal Montréal, Canada, where I am a visiting scholar at McGill University’s .txtLAB. Montréal is the geographical centre of cultural analytics, a quickly evolving discipline that uses the methods of data science for the study of culture. The young and blossoming Journal of Cultural Analytics is hosted here, which is one the leading platforms in this field of study.
In the cold and rainy atmospheres of the city I daily think and talk about devising and fine tuning methods to analyse novels on a larger scale than literary scholars commonly do. I like to think that I am not doing this because I am perverted by a neoliberal logic in which everything, including works of art, have to be measured and classified. I rather tell myself that my algorithmic approach to the contemporary Dutch novel serves a higher goal: revealing patterns of literary representation that are not visible to the human eye. Turning art into data thus becomes a means to a noble end –
or so I believe.
Last weekend, I took a break from research and went to see Julian Rosefeldt’s video installation Manifesto (2015), which was exhibited at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). In the first room of the exhibition, excerpts from a diverse collection of manifestos are shown on panels, ranging from Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848), to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909), to Lars
von Trier’s and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 Manifesto (1995). In the next room, thirteen short movies are shown in which actress Cate Blanchett utters lines from these manifesto’s while performing various roles such as factory worker, homeless man and schoolteacher.
Upon entering the room, I hear Blanchett’s voice orchestrated through a cacophony of sound. I hear the words from the different manifesto’s being uttered all at once. At first glance, it feels as if every short movie expresses radically different statements on the workings and uses of art, culture and society. As if everyone disagrees. But at the end of each short movie, out of the blue, a moment of apparent harmony emerges. All of Blanchett’s characters start to synchronously utter words that all sound very much alike despite their difference in meaning. It is as if all manifesto writers are suddenly on the same page, as if there is nothing but one shared belief, although it remains unclear what that might entail.
The first video features lines from the Communist Manifesto. The chief point of focus lies with the words “All that is solid melts into air”, taken from the
first section of the manifesto. Unhampered by what Marx and Engels might have meant by this, the words serve as metaphor for the seemingly inviolability of the idealistic convictions of all the manifesto’s portrayed in the exhibition. Listening to the concepts and ideas expressed in each individual manifesto, I had the experience of listening to clearly defined, impregnable beliefs, carved in stone. But listening to all these manifestos at once, the apparent solidity of each manifesto melted into air. What seemed solid at first, turned out to be unstable, relative, hilarious almost.
I see Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015) as a metaphor for my own research practices. Turning culture into data creates an illusion of solidity. Numbers instead of words, statistics instead of speculation. But a numerical representation of a novel is still a representation, a perspective, a point of view, and therefore not necessarily more true than other representations. I picture a future exhibition where excerpts from dissertations are read out loud with an air of solidity, seemingly disagreeing, but sounding alike. Words on a page melting into thin air.