Thursday, November 19, 2009

Distant reading, again

Franco Moretti is, as I've said before here, the most virulent of the increasing number of opponents to close reading in American literary criticism. He coins the term “distant reading” in order to suggest how his method of using abstract models for literary history--graphs, maps, and trees--actually makes sense of texts. I want to go over that once more.

Quite simply, distant reading makes sense of texts through the process of gathering immense amounts of empirical data about literary works—the presence or absence of various traits, noted by collaborative efforts considering texts in dozens of languages—and organizing it all into various systems or wholes that seek to make sense of their distribution—projecting representations of the evolution of a genre, say, and its spread across Europe as it becomes more or less viable in various markets. Such effort is continually motivated by astonishment at the “minimal fraction of the literary field we work on,” given that the empirical amount of literary works produced in a span of time often dwarfs even the most expansive canon of that period that we indeed study (one of his favorite observations is that even a canon of two hundred nineteenth century novels would be still less then one percent of what was then produced ), and because these works continually overflow the national and linguistic borders within which literary research often moves.

Against this, then, attempts to expand the canon over the years to include alternative literatures meet something like their limit case, but so too does close reading. For it is the organization of canons—or attempts to expand them—around the latter that makes the study of the actual, empirically existing literary field impossible: as Moretti says, “a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases.” This study is only possible if we begin to plot what we have not looked at closely in order to extrapolate tendencies that we cannot actually observe at all. The entire project of literary studies suddenly becomes not one of avoiding paraphrase in the sense of avoiding reduction--which, I’d suggest, is the most fundamental motivation of close reading--but what literary structuralists like Propp, Greimas, Genette and Todorov long ago discovered could constitute a powerful poetics: negotiating reduction, simplifying, and then working off of these reduced systems.

Lest Moretti's study of these particular systems of distribution sound too much like work on the economics of literature, however, which has sometimes been treated very extensively in literary study, Moretti assures us that the effort is ultimately directed to the study of where and when formal innovations in literature--the province once proper to close reading—occur, since the traits that will be noted and plotted on graphs, maps and trees will indeed be formal ones: the presence or absence of clues in the evolving genre of the mystery, for example, which is then able to be represented in tree form. This has significantly led Jonathan Arac to call Moretti’s work “formalism without close reading,” an appellation Moretti himself says defines his work perfectly.

But if Moretti can actually affirm his work’s formalism, he still cannot give us much sense of what the close reading to which it is opposed actually involves. “At bottom,” he says, “it’s a theological exercise--very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously--whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” Such vagueness is typical of many recent critics who seek to turn away from close reading or, indeed, find new ways for critique in general to proceed. For specificity is not, ultimately, necessary: “close reading” can remain a label for the most tenacious of our basic critical dependencies—in Moretti’s case, at most it is the sort of scrutiny or attention that denies us access to the wide distribution of world literature that “distant reading” considers fundamental. “It’s a theological exercise,” in other words, only hints at what we need to make explicit in order for any widespread resistance to close reading to take place, and not collapse, as it sometimes does in Moretti, into the mere belief that anything different is better than what we have. In this respect, what is also necessary is a sense that distant reading is not only a name for Moretti’s work with models, but something like one pole at the end of a wide continuum whose opposite, while indeed being close reading, is only so if we cross many intervening levels of reading, from the more to the less distant over to the less and the more close. Looking for other distant readers than Moretti (I'd suggest Raymond Williams is such a reader), is then one step in both refining what we mean by close reading and showing how we can be lead out of it and brought towards something more distant, precisely by refusing to set up distant reading as some homogenous space outside of which, immediately, we fall into the close. Such a maneuver in fact capitalizes on what Moretti’s and other such attacks, in their vagueness, actually restore to close reading: its functional aspect, which ties it to methodological decisions that have alternatives.

Richards himself used the term “close” primarily in this functional sense, in order to denote the level at which one’s approach to the text in reading could, not make meanings appear, but eliminate other less relevant levels which might bear upon the act of construing a meaning. Only subsequently in America would the term carry the ethical significance it now has, and which the practical Richards never could really bring himself to charge it with except by becoming Utopian: the sense that if one read closely, one read slowly, with skill, with effort, bringing out the difficult and latent meanings with care. If the term and the practice have been able to remain less questioned, it is perhaps because its functions have become so intertwined with notions of virtue that, in the days of deconstruction, the cry “you have not read me closely,” could become not just a description but an accusation of irresponsibility in the widest sense--something like literary critical immorality, whatever that would be. And since it had become an empty term for, at bottom, interpretive work in general and what it does well, it is no surprise that “closeness” can veer round in Moretti to become an empty term for all that is bad.


subtext said...

So it is simply, despite the length of your post, a matter of being a part of the conversation, ala Bahktin/Great Books? We are all intertwined? (this is not a snarky comment).

subtext said...

Ok, I just read your "about me." By history of interpretation, do you mean how the tacit/implicit ideologies of the past, as well as our own "21-first century" ideologies develop and control what we are able to think?


Thoroughly ideal for your modern life-state. Congrats on your progress and I expect it is a trance.
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