Digital Humanities and the End of (Close) Reading: A Review of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading

Last year in a post titled “Why Teach English?” Adam Gopnik offered one reason why not to teach English studies: as a discipline it does not give students basic research skills since research in English amounts to “archival futzing.” And scrounging a library for out of print books is “not really research.” Research involves looking for new knowledge within clear boundaries, or within a science. And as Gopnik points out, interpreting literature “isn’t a science.”

distantreadingFond of taking truculent positions in his field, Franco Moretti could not agree more in his collection of essays, Distant Reading (Verso, 2013). Where Moretti departs from Gopnik’s humanist account of literary studies is in his resolve to turn the interpretation of literature into a science. Moretti argues that what English scholars have done up until now, namely read a few texts very carefully, is the opposite of empirical deduction of truth based on observation. Close reading forces critics into a “theological” submission to the authority of just a handful of texts, Moretti asserts. The sample pool—the text at hand, or the canon of any single literary period or genre—will always be too narrow to yield valid insights. To arrive at empirical legitimacy demands grapping with the 99 percent of unstudied novels, poems and plays published last year, or during the entire reign of Queen Victoria. Doing that requires analytical tools as different from close reading as possible. A “larger literary history” calls for methods of analysis that do not sweat each vowel and simile, tools more akin to sociology like statistics and topic modeling. In other words, we need to make “a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Distant Reading confirms Moretti’s penchant for playing devil’s advocate, a role that has brought him as close to notorious stardom as his discipline allows. He has been called a true innovator in literary studies, a “great iconoclast of literary criticism,” and maybe not a literary critic at all. (The first opinion is an economist’s; the other two both come from a review of Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory.) Reading Moretti thus tends to raise a question, one that often attends the work of mavericks, about where showmanship gives way to brilliance expressed with uncommon candour. But in Distant Reading Moretti frustrates the iconoclast-charlatan binary by inhabiting both poses at once: in the headnote to “Conjectures on World Literature,” Moretti tells us that he first used the term distant reading “as a joke.” When critics responded by taking him seriously, he did the same.

All ten essays in Distant Reading begin with a headnote offering a “then and now” retrospective. Moretti clarifies what prompted each essay (sometimes he was responding to himself), points out the flaws he now sees (many), puts these occasional essays in dialogue with his book-length studies, sums up his arguments, or, just as often, reformulates them in light of later critiques and his turn to quantitative analysis. This last topic is really the spool on which the book spins. As a group of republished essays, Distant Reading gives readers nothing they cannot already find online. What’s new is a narrative about Moretti’s wholehearted embrace of computational approaches to literary studies now that “a global digital archive is (slowly) coming into being.” The abridged version of this narrative goes like this: after using evolutionary theory to talk about changes in style, form, and genre in European literature, Moretti abandoned evolution as a flawed analogy (since it cannot explain social conflicts) and turned to a “hard data” approach suddenly available with the mass digitization of historical texts. Since then he has never looked back, except while preparing this book.

In The Language of New Media (MIT, 2001), Lev Manovich asks why we have yet to produce a genealogy of computer media for future historians, a living record that could bear witness to the evolution of digital technologies. Distant Reading does this work on a small scale. It gives us one academic’s scrapbook, or working notes, of the digital turn in the humanities and its creeping influence on his research over the last decade or so. In keeping with that premise, Moretti does not put his notes in order. No introduction provides an overview of the emerging field of digital humanities, or how these essays fit into that growing body of thought. Rather, our attention is solely on Moretti’s digital turn and the series of questions that led him to reading literary texts through the lens of databases.

As such, Distant Reading sets out to trace a dotted line from Moretti’s work on comparative literature during the 90s to his current research with the Stanford Literary Lab, the digital humanities collaborative Moretti cofounded in 2011. In the note to “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” an essay that maps the rise of clues in early detective fiction, Moretti says it was “just a matter of time” before he decided he only wanted to do quantitative analysis. The implied argument is that Moretti’s turn to digital humanities is intellectually valid, despite the many setbacks he has encountered along the way. In several essays, Moretti concludes that he did not achieve his goal, that is, of making a new argument about a text or group of texts based on quantifiable data now available through digital databases. He concedes, for instance, that the final essay on network theory and Hamlet “retreats from quantification into a qualitative analysis of plot.” (The images of the play’s network of characters were also drawn by hand, not computer.) Moments like these are unfortunate since Moretti’s argument—that quantitative analysis can give English studies real truths—hinges on having concrete evidence to show. In this sense Distant Reading bears the traces of something antithetical to evidence-based methodology, but essential to digital culture: hype. Moretti commits himself to quantitative analysis without the hard proof yet needed to substantiate that commitment.

Distant or not, Moretti’s readings—of the rise of the novel, the spread of tragic drama across continental Europe, or the ratio of definite to indefinite articles in the titles of gothic novels—are dazzling and ever-sharp. Scrutinizing them can feel like a vain exercise, since Moretti is usually hardest on himself. Looking back on his early attempts to explore what good data for literary analysis might look like, Moretti points out problems with almost every essay. And he does so happily. As he says: “Finding facts, hard facts that contradicted my hypotheses, and forced me to change them, was truly a new beginning: exhausting—and incredibly exciting.” Moretti’s enthusiasm for finding new ways to approach texts gone over by ever so many close-reading lenses is refreshing. If the feeling is contagious, perhaps more English students will become good quantitative researchers. And better readers.