Distant Reading and the Slaughterhouse of Literature

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by Mae Capozzi

I first heard about distant reading in a 200-level English class on World Literature and was immediately hooked. Though I have always enjoyed close reading, I was excited to discover there were different ways to think about literature than book-by-book. I had often felt that familiar feeling of not having read enough, and when I spoke to other academics they expressed that same anxiety. Here, I thought, was the solution. Of course, as I investigated Moretti’s concept more deeply, I realized I could not be farther from the truth. Moretti’s goal is not to simplify. Rather, he seeks to expand beyond the canon––to understand not only why canonical texts work, but why other books sputter out without so much as a spark.

Moretti

Introduction

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“The United States is the country of close reading, so I don’t expect this idea to be particularly popular. But the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premise by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And if you want to look beyond the canon…close reading will not do it. It’s not designed to do it, it’s designed to do the opposite. At bottom, 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”(Moretti 48).

Hello internet. Welcome to our blog!

The goal of this blog is to create a record of our application of Moretti’s concept of Distant Reading using topic modeling to eighteenth and nineteenth-century British texts. Reductively, distant reading is the opposite of close reading; the scholar examines many texts on a macro scale rather than one text on a micro scale. While some theorists have embraced Moretti’s idea, others are appalled by the suggestion that distant reading is somehow better than the more traditional method. We certainly do not believe distant reading should ever replace real human reading of texts. Rather, we assert that it can (and should) be used as a supplement to close reading.

Because of the newness of this field of inquiry, we are unsure of exactly how this project will look. Preliminarily, we are interested in looking for unexpected connections between genres and exploring different types of visualizations.  Ultimately, we feel as though it is important to share our research with other DH scholars, especially because the field is, as of yet, so unexamined.

More on all of this later…

 

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Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013. Print.