Three Myths of Distant Reading

Three Myths of Distant Reading
Illustration by Joon Mo Kang (Original source: Stanford Literary Lab)


“To understand literature … we must stop reading books” (Moretti qtd. in Schulz). This provocative statement appears in Kathryn Schultz’s New York Times article about distant reading. To those unfamiliar with digital humanities scholarship and Franco Moretti’s approach of distant reading this statement might appear utterly bizarre. Reading such statements out of context has resulted in the perpetuation of various myths regarding digital humanities methods. To emphasize the potential benefits of digital humanities approaches, such as distant reading, cultural analytics, and macroanalysis, I have compiled a list of three dominant myths regarding distant reading in order to help deconstruct them.

1.  Distant reading leads to a loss of context.

If we are not actually reading the book, how can we properly contextualize the book and its meaning socio-historically? Moreover, in employing methods such as topic modeling or text mining, what Matt Burton refers to as “counting words,” how confident can we be that a significant loss of context does not result?

By discovering new interconnections between large collections of texts, digital humanities methods may in fact provide greater context. Moretti locates the problem of close reading in its reliance on an “extremely small cannon”; to get beyond the canon, he argues, distant reading is necessary (Moretti, “Conjectures”). At his Stanford University Literary Lab, Moretti utilizes computer programs to detect genre through “grammatical and semantic signals” (Schultz). His research demonstrates that genres “possess distinctive features at every possible scale of analysis,” formal elements that individuals may not discover without computer programs (Moretti qtd. in Schultz). Johanna Drucker similarly reveals how distant reading methods “expose aspects of texts at a scale that is not possible for human readers and which provide new points of departure for research.” She elaborates, “Patterns in changes in vocabulary, nomenclature, terminology, moods, themes, and a nearly inexhaustible number of other topics can be detected using distant reading techniques, and larger social and cultural questions can be asked about what has been included in and left out of traditional studies of literary and historical materials.” Moreover, undertaking a distant reading of ancillary texts, e.g., Ed Finn’s study of “a thousand book reviews” (3), produces a contextual background which allows the researcher to engage with a primary object of analysis. This leads me to the second myth.

2.  Distant reading ignores other materials surrounding the primary object of analysis.

Drucker defines distance reading as the processing of content in or information about “a large number of textual items without engaging in the reading of the actual text.” Computer analytics have the capacity to incorporate multiple discourses into a singular analysis, allowing researchers to elucidate the overlap between the popular, fan, industrial, and scholarly discourses surrounding the primary object of analysis. This permits researchers to explore and trace how particular ideas, values, practices have developed and spread within and between these ancillary discourses, highlighting objects, texts, and images, often disregarded in a close reading of an individual text or cultural artifact. For example, in “Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception” Finn explores the social lives of books and uses both professional and Amazon customer book reviews of David Foster Wallace as his primary datasets, studying and mapping the multiple networks of texts that appear as a way to investigate Wallace’s location in the literary marketplace.

Another way we can investigate these ancillary discourses is through topic modeling. David Blei explains how topic modeling, where a topic is defined as a pattern of “tightly co-occurring terms,” uses computer algorithms to identify thematic structures concealed in great masses of texts in order to “summarize, visualize, explore, and theorize about a corpus” or among multiple collections. In turn, this shift towards what Moretti refers to as “the archive of the Great Unread” (Distant 181) works against canonization and its issues of value.

3.  Distant reading displaces close reading.

Matthew Jockers prefers the term macroanalysis to distant reading, comparing it to macroeconomics and its focus on the big picture. Relating this to Pierre Bourdieu and his study of cultural economy, we can reposition distant reading as a technique to analyze the broader field of cultural production in which the cultural artifacts we study are produced, circulated, consumed, and given value. In this respect, it becomes less a matter of distance than focus; that is, it is a methodology which uncovers the broader workings of cultural artifacts often downplayed or completely ignored in a close reading of the object or text. As Jockers contends, “The most fundamental and important difference in the two approaches is that the macroanalytic approach reveals details about texts that are for all intents and purposes unavailable to close-readers of the texts.”

This interpretation is similar to the one held by Moretti, who maintains:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (“Conjectures”)

Yet, for Moretti the debate over close and distant reading, and the questions it raises—“are they complementary, compatible, opposite, do I really want people to step reading books, etc.”—holds little interest (Distant 137).

Overall, Jockers points out that his macroanalytic approach is just one of many methods of gaining and assessing information about a cultural artifact, the results of which are “not of lesser or greater value to scholars.” He argues persuasively, “It is the exact interplay between macro and micro scale that promises a new, enhanced, and perhaps even better understanding of the literary record.” Myths, such as the ones presented here, often arise due to a perceived threat to established methods and approaches to media history or literature. However, it is important to critically evaluate the potential contributions of digital methods and thus view them as complementary to more traditional methods.



Works Cited

Blei, David. “Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 2.1 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Burton, Matt. “The Joy of Topic Modeling: A Bag of Words by Matt Burton on the 21st of May 2013.” n. pag. Web.

Drucker, Johanna. “Distant Reading and Cultural Analytics.” UCLA Center for Digital Humanities: Intro to Digital Humanities. Concepts, Methods, and Tutorials for Students and Instructors. n. pag. Web.

Finn, Ed. “Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception.” Stanford Literary Lab Pamphlet. 15 Sept. 2011. Web.

Jockers, Matthew. “On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis.” Author’s Blog. 1 July 2011. n. pag. Web.

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000): n. pag. Web.

—. Distant Reading. Brooklyn: Verso, 2013.

Schultz, Kathryn. “What is Distant Reading? The New York Times. 24 June 2011. n. pag. Web.