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 its studies and techniques have become 'typical', limiting progress. Moretti proposes, then, that the introduction of quantitative methods from 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 particular text at a time and emphasizes a text's 'uniqueness'. 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

In his graphs chapter, Moretti uses quantitative data to track the rise of the British novel. Moretti argues that one of the flaws with close-reading is that because it relies on reading a few texts 'intensely' it covers so little of the literary field at the time on a whole. A researcher may do a close reading of 200 books published in 19th century Britain to attempt to understand the scope and nature of the literature and its genres but there's still 60,000 more books published during this time. Even more books were published in other periods and places that would still be considered relevant to this canon.

Criticisms against distant reading

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