CIRCA:Distant Reading


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'Distant reading' is a research method coined by Franco Moretti in his 2005 book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. The book argues that the current scholarly literary domain has not accomplished enough and that its studies and techniques have become 'typical', limiting progress. Moretti proposes, then, that the introduction of quantitative methods from the natural and social sciences may serve to open up a new front of discussion.

In classic humanities research methods such a close-reading - the detailed observation, deconstruction, and analysis of the text itself and its content - the researcher closely interacts with one text at a time and treats it as a ‘unique’ entity. Distant reading, however, takes a step back; distant reading instead encourages aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data. As Moretti puts it, "instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs - graphs, maps, and trees - in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction"(2).

Distant reading versus close reading: An example

Figure 9: British novelistic genres, 1740-1900

In his graphs chapter, Moretti uses quantitative data to track the rise of the British novel. Moretti argues that one of close-reading’s flaws is that because it relies on reading few texts 'intensely' it covers so little of the whole field. A researcher may do a close reading of two hundred books published in 19th century Britain in an attempt to understand the scope and nature of the literature and its genres but there's still sixty-thousand more books published during this period. Even more books were published in other periods and places that would still be considered relevant to this canon, and the two hundred books would make up less than one percent of this.

To cover more data, Moretti read many more books 'superficially' by breaking them down into their least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated forms. The texts are represented through fewer elements but, he argues, are more capable of representing sharper interconnections. He relies on quantitative data gathered by other researchers from several different fields as the basis for his graphs. Through these graphs he found cycles, shifts, and emerging patterns that two books would be unable to make immediately clear.

For example, one of the graphs he created was based on the data on genres at the time (image shown right). The graph reveals that over the course of one hundred and sixty years there were forty-four genres and two thirds of them lasted between twenty-three to thirty-five years. This is concrete data, pin-pointing facts and figures free from interpretation. However, what this data does not do is explain 'why' the data is the way it is - these answers require interpretation.

While distant reading methods may not provide answers, it does raise questions and provide an alternative point of view and to spark fresh discussion.

Criticisms against distant reading

Many of the criticisms against distant reading are reminiscent to the tension between quantitative and qualitative methods when studying humanities work. For example, in her coverage of Moretti's pamphlet study ‘’Network Theory and Plot Analysis’’, Kathryn Schulz's critiques include:

  • Moretti isn't studying a science but literature, which can't be relied upon to obey natural laws. In his methods, Moretti shows a lack of interest in the "unquantifiable, inscrutable actions of intelligent human".
  • The idea that truth can be best understood through quantitative models isn't new and has proven false. For example, when statistics it too was believed it could provide concrete answers.
  • Distaste for the idea that all entities (people included) could be simply data to be mined, only clearest when "they are least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated".

One of the biggest general criticisms against distant reading comes from the assumption that Moretti's ideas suggest we should stop reading and count, graph, and map books instead or that qualitative methods like close-reading are inadequate compared to the quantitative.

Further Reading

Batuman, Elif. "Adventures of a Man of Science: Moretti in California", N+1.

Moretti, F. (2006), Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory.

Moretti, F. "Network Theory, Plot Analysis", Literary Lab. May 11, 2011.

Scott McLemee, "Literature to Infinity". Inside Higher Ed.

Schulz, Kathryn. "The Mechanical Muse: What is Distant Reading?". NY Times.

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