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New Left Review 84, November-December 2013


franco moretti

‘OPERATIONALIZING’

Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory

‘Operationalizing’ must be the ugliest word I’ve ever used, but it is nevertheless the hero of the pages that follow, because it refers to a process which is absolutely central to the new field of computational criticism, or, as it has come to be called, of the digital humanities. [1] This article has taken shape in a back-and-forth between my two favourite workplaces: the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and the Literary Lab at Stanford. To the people who make them what they are, and to Ryan Heuser in particular, my profound gratitude. Though the word is often used merely as a complicated synonym for ‘realizing’ or ‘implementing’—the Merriam-Webster online, for instance, mentions ‘operationalizing a program’, and adds a quote on ‘operationalizing the artistic vision of the organization’—the original root of the term was different, and much more precise; and for once origin is right, this is one of those rare cases when a term has an actual birth date: 1927, when P. W. Bridgman devoted the opening of his Logic of Modern Physics to ‘the operational point of view’. Here are the key passages:

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