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

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 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, and the 200 books would make up less than 1% of this.

In order to cover more data, Moretti read many more books 'superficially' by breaking books 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 to make his own graphs and through it, he found cycles, shifts, and emerging patterns that 200 books would be unable to make immediately clear.

The graph shown in this section is one of the graphs he created based on the data he found on genres during the time. It reveals that over the course of 160 years there was 44 genres and two thirds of them lasted between 23 to 35 years. This is concrete data. However, what is does not do is explain 'why' the data is the way it is - answers would require interpretation.

In this sense, the use of distant reading methods are better suited to help raise questions, provide an alternative point of view and 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 first took off.
  • Her own distastes at 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 come 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 do not matter or 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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