Data Imaginary: Literature and Data in Nineteenth-Century US Culture

Postdoctoral Project by
Sebastian M. Herrmann

Diagram and Statistical Record of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (J. C. Power, 1858)This completed postdoctoral project inquires into the role that the nineteenth century’s emerging ‘data imaginary’ has played in the formation of US (national) literature. It proceeds from the observation that nineteenth-century US culture was deeply fascinated by the then-new symbolic form of data and, not least, with the presumed ‘democratic’ qualities of this way of textualizing the world. In the young republic, data thus quickly, and long before the advent of electronic computers, emerged as a privileged representational practice. As such, it served as a critical foil in discussions of national literature and in negotiating US culture’s desire for a national literature that was at democratic in an egalitarian sense while, at the same time, being as refined as the ‘aristocratic’ literatures of Europe. Data, and the data imaginary, thus played a crucial role in the emergence of literature and literariness as social and cultural institutions.

The project was concluded in April 2020. The resulting manuscript has been accepted for publication by Winter’s Amerikastudien/American Studies series.

For more information, please see the project webpage at