Photo by cinz, CC-licensed, CGB-modified

In RCDH this week, we began the turn to a series of weeks where we look at some specific methods associated with digital humanities, and I began our conversation by explaining why I’d avoided (mostly) the idea of “distant reading” as a way to organize the syllabus. I think my explanation worked out okay, but I thought I might write through it here.

None of this is to say that I don’t use the phrase “distant reading.” I like to think that I don’t spend too much time or energy trying to close barn doors after the animals have escaped. But I also believe that the phrase itself was initially meant to be suggestive rather than particularly denotative; it’s grown heavier as it’s gotten more popular, though, and there’s a tension at its core that I don’t find especially helpful.

I’m no expert when it comes to New Criticism, which is where the idea of close reading emerges (in the US, at least), from folks like I.A. Richards, Ransom, Empson, Brooks, et al. I did a little bit of research on this (it shows up in my discussion of interfaces vs objects in Lingua Fracta), but it’s never been a real focus of mine. And I don’t know that it’s exactly something that requires that focus. “Close reading” is not a method per se. Rather, it’s an attitude, I think, where “close” actually means “closely,” implying an extra degree of care, attention to detail, expertise, etc. When we ask someone “to pay close attention” to something, we’re not asking them to invade our personal space; we use it as an intensifier, like the word “critical” in the phrase critical thinking. There’s a metaphorical sense where we might imagine scholars moving their faces/eyes very close to the text, but that physical proximity is more metaphor than necessity.

The problem, then, comes from the fact that “closeness” can mean both physically near and carefully attentive. When we speak of distant reading, even though there’s a similar connotation in terms of attention (“You seem really distant tonight…”), that is not really what Moretti and others have in mind. Distant reading is not sloppy or inattentive so much as it is an inversion or distribution of attention—instead of focusing attention on a single passage or text or author, the distant reader looks for specific features or patterns across a broad range of texts. The connotation of distance makes sense to us in terms of zooming in and out with a camera lens, taking a metaphorical step back from the individual text(s), etc., but I think this misleads us (a bit) to think that distant reading is just a matter of tuning the “proximity dial” on our reading processes. Here’s Moretti, recently,

The “lived experience” of literature no longer morphs into knowledge, as in Ricoeur’s great formula of the “hermeneutic of listening,” where understanding consists in hearing what the text has to say. In our work we don’t listen, we ask questions; and we ask them of large corpora, not of individual texts. It’s a completely different epistemology.

Now, I do believe that this epistemology can be brought to bear upon targets that are smaller than the ones that Moretti works with, even to the point of a single text. The way that I ended up organizing the course was by focusing our attention at different scales or scopes, from single texts (microscopy) to small-ish sets (mesoscopy) to larger ones or corpora (macroscopy). While I think I’d argue that the kinds of macroscopic studies that Moretti suggests aren’t really possible through close reading, I do think that the techniques associated with both close and distant reading are applicable up and down the scale, even if (in the case of large-scale corpora, e.g.) certain of them become prohibitive in terms of labor.

So this week, we looked at a few different instances of “distant” techniques applied to individual texts, from Greg Urban‘s exploration of the politics of first-person pronouns in his own writing, to Don Foster‘s rhetorico-linguistic attribution work, to Seth Long‘s application of centrality and distribution maps to the Unabomber Manifesto. Each of these projects offers a take on an individual text that isn’t necessarily accessible to the (close) reader, but at the same time, these “distant” strategies provide a reading that is somehow “closer” than close. It reminds me of the way that we require specialized techniques to capture a fingerprint, as well as a large-as-possible database for comparison. Neither operation is especially feasible at the scale of human vision, but there’s a distinction there that doesn’t really exist for reading as we think of it.

The value of a term like “distant reading” for me, then, isn’t so much that it names a specific method or technique. Rather, it’s that it introduces the “proximity dial” at the same time that it expands the possibilities available to us on the “scope dial.” (allowing it to be turned up to 11?) Certain combinations are inevitably going to be more fruitful than others—I don’t spend a lot of time with the bass and volume both maxed out when I listen to music, for example, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, or that such a combo wouldn’t tell me certain things about a song.

There’s an interesting passage in the Moretti piece I quoted above, that I’ll close with, because it’s going to make some folks uncomfortable, I think:

I don’t want to answer for the humanities in general, but for those of us in digital literary studies the answer has to be, Yes: reading a book from beginning to end loses its centrality, because it no longer constitutes the foundation of knowledge. Our objects are much bigger than a book, or much smaller than a book, and in fact usually both things at once; but they’re almost never a book. The pact with the digital has a price, which is this drastic loss of “measure.” Books are so human-sized; now that right size is gone. We’re not happy about the loss; but it seems to be a necessary consequence of the new approach.

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I think he’s right to call attention to the notion that the book is not a natural form. The more we know about our neurological capacities for attention, the more I suspect we will find that what feels like “normal” or “natural” when it comes to the scope of our interfaces (like books) is in fact the product or consequence of enculturation. On the other hand, though, whether or not books are the only scale, Moretti’s comments feel strangely resonant with the “death of the book” nonsense from the 1990s. I don’t want to ignore the qualification he offers (“for those of us in digital literary studies”), but at the same time, a statement like this consigns this brand of study to a reactive pose. We neither write textual features nor corpora—we produce language at the scale of the human, however much we might push at the boundaries of what that means (and I do think there are some really intriguing examples of those boundaries being pushed). Perhaps, I’m being oversensitive to the difference here between literary studies and rhetoric, at least as it exists for me. But one of the questions we raised this week, after looking at several examples of rhetorical “fingerprinting,” was to ask whether those patterns are really (a) unique and (b) irrevocable. In other words, we weren’t just focused on what these techniques can help us to find (or even understand), but also what they can help us to do, as writers. If there’s an awkwardness for me here, it’s with the idea of thinking that opening up one dial necessarily means abandoning (or strictly limiting) another. I don’t want to read too much into a single passage, but at the same time, something feels a little off to me about it.