Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

one vision of the digital humanities

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, an overview of Franco Moretti’s lab at Stanford, devoted to quantitative work on, especially, Victorian fiction:

The idea that animates his vision for pushing the field forward is “distant reading.” Mr. Moretti and Mr. Jockers say scholars should step back from scrutinizing individual texts to probe whole systems by counting, mapping, and graphing novels.

And not just famous ones. New insights can be gleaned by shining a spotlight into the “cellars of culture” beneath the small portion of works that are typically studied, Mr. Moretti believes.

He has pointed out that the 19-century British heyday of Dickens and Austen, for example, saw the publication of perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 novels — the huge majority of which are never studied.

The problem with this “great unread” is that no human can sift through it all. “It just puts out of work most of the tools that we have developed in, what, 150 years of literary theory and criticism,” Mr. Moretti says. “We have to replace them with something else.”

Let’s be a touch more precise, Professor Moretti: if someone wants to study all those forgotten novels in a special sense of the word “study” that involves not reading any of them, then your approach may well be a good way to do that. But for those of us who are interested in, you know, reading books, we will probably have to employ other intellectual tools. If you’re not into that, that’s cool.

8 comments:

  • I think the things that I like about Moretti's project include 1) he's not claiming any kind of exclusivity for it (ie "this is the only way to practice literary criticism" and 2) his method is obviously not great for saying things about individual texts, but is perhaps much better for saying things about categories like "the Victorian novel," terms that loom large in literary history but are usually based on a very small sample. We might think of Dickens as the prototypical Victorian novelist, but what if he was completely atypical? (He probably was.)

    And this is where the two approaches begin to intersect; you can develop a better qualitative reading of an individual writer through a better quantitative approach to their context. I think/hope the approaches from the second-generation critics trained on "distant reading" will be a lot more powerful than those of the first.

  • It seems like these techniques will probably be useful for finding out about the development and history of different cultural or literary trends, but the idea that this is going to somehow ‘revitalize’ ‘the most backward discipline in the academy’ is pretty poorly thought out. Increasing the technical rigor of a humanities discipline tends to narrow the scope of the discipline to purely professional concerns. In this case, you could probably find some quantitative evidence for the true extent of Melville’s influence on early 20th century American literature. This seems to be precisely the kind of thing that only English professors would care about, so I would imagine the revitalization that this kind of technique would bring about would be fairly limited in its scope.

  • Tim, I like what Moretti and his team are doing as well . . . it's just the stupid triumphalist rhetoric that makes me gag. I'm old enough to have been around that block several times, and it doesn't get any more enjoyable when repeated.

  • I also — while I'm ranting — wish he's come up with a more honest name than "distant reading." What he's doing in that lab is not reading at all, though I am eager to grant that the data gathered could be tremendously useful to readers and interpreters.

  • Okay, something like a concordance of Victorian lit could be useful, but as intermediate tool, not an interpretive device, right?

    This is what Fast Company did with a speech by Steve Jobs (http://www.fastcompany.com/1655523/steve-jobs-d8-language-words-ceo-speak-business-talk-people-apple):

    We edited a transcript to carve out the usual fill-in words in English, and then used the huge text feed to drive the creation of the word cloud up at the top, and it reveals right off the bat that the most important word Steve used during the hour and a half of interview was "people." Fabulous, isn't it? Not "Apple," or "technology" or even "iPad," which is the gadget that's selling like hotcakes around the world right now. Nope--"people." While he used the word in all sorts of contexts, it's a sign that Steve is acutely aware of people's opinions, wants, requests, desires and even failings. Perhaps this sensitivity to the human condition is behind the passionate Apple fan world, and even a factor in why consumers seem to love Apple products.


    Nope, the word cloud doesn't really tell us anything about what he said, which is obvious, once you imagine the Apple PR specialist saying "We need to use the word 'people' more, so that everyone will see how caring you are!"

    I THINK that Fast Company was joking. I fear Moretti was not.

  • Steve hearts people. Q. E. D.

  • franco moretti said...

    look -- you want to criticize what I do? Fine. But, first, READ what I write. Like most apostles of close reading, you don't read that much...

    franco moretti

  • It's true, Professor Moretti (if it's really you) that I don't get much reading done. No research assistants to do it for me! But seriously: I can't prove to you that I've read your work — though I could prove that I've assigned one of your books in classes, if that would help — but I am happy to be corrected on any errors. However, a sneer is not a correction. You have time for the former but not the latter, perhaps?

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