Distant Reading

Speaking of reading, this is an interesting look at the new kinds of research going on in the Humanities at places like the Stanford Literary Lab:

As its name suggests, the Lit Lab tackles literary problems by scientific means: hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis. Similar efforts are currently proliferating under the broad rubric of “digital humanities,” but Moretti’s approach is among the more radical. He advocates what he terms “distant reading”: understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of “Jude the Obscure,” become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England — to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

Check out the rest HERE.

One thought on “Distant Reading

  1. And then A.I. created man in its own image.

    The only models of intelligence catching any buzz these days are based on computer search strategies and a somewhat simplistic metaphor (i.e. “The mind is a computer!”). The article isn’t exactly clear as to Moretti’s approach but I think it is safe to say that he’s reduced “literature” and “reading” to information processing.

    A lot of humanities and social science research is going the information processing route and not always in a credible kind of way. Moretti’s approach is kind of a mess but it struck me as revealing at least one useful thing.

    The article mentions that Moretti’s experiment didn’t go as planned.

    THE ARTICLE: In its January pamphlet, for instance, the team fed 30 novels identified by genre into two computer programs, which were then asked to recognize the genre of six additional works. Both programs succeeded — one using grammatical and semantic signals, the other using word frequency. At first glance, that’s only medium-interesting, since people can do this, too; computers
    pass the genre test, but fail the “So what?” test. It turns out, though, that people
    and computers identify genres via very different features. People recognize, say,
    Gothic literature based on castles, revenants, brooding atmospheres, and the
    greater frequency of words like “tremble” and “ruin.” Computers recognize
    Gothic literature based on the greater frequency of words like . . . “the.” Now,
    that’s interesting.

    ME, AVRAMAKIS: The key thing here is that Moretti did not allow the programs to categorize a random selection of novels; rather, he fed them pre-selected novels (i.e. he imposed the categories). Then he simply fed them six more pre-selected novels.

    In other words, without this category of “Gothic literature” imposed onto the A.I. that category would have disappeared. Indeed, it did disappear since the A.I. didn’t notice castles and such but only the greater frequency of definite articles.

    Why is Moretti’s result useful?

    1. This demonstrates that information processing and (distant) reading are not the same. Let Moretti truly turn the A.I. loose and then let’s see how it categorizes the novels. (My guess is you still wouldn’t end up with either “literature” or “reading.”)
    2. This demonstrates the same principle for people: information processing and reading are not the same. Reading is not only content-based, reading is contextual and linked to categories that are created and shared by a particular culture. That’s how (useful) meaning gets made. Students often notice peculiar aspects of a text, such as the frequency of definite articles, but so what? That reveals intelligence of course, but learning about Gothic literature is what matters. No amount of graphic organizers or oral reading can make up for the lack of content and category. (International students always struggle to make sense of things like allusions to the Civil War, for example.)
    3. Imposing simplistic metaphors from the world of economics and business onto education doesn’t work for me, either. (THE ARTICLE: Indeed, Moretti often mistakes metaphor for fact.)
    4. This reveals that I’m willing to swing for the fence sometimes for just about anything. Any computer experts or reading experts want to jump in here?

    THE ARTICLE: To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

    ME, AVRAMAKIS : Oh. I’ve been gone for a few months. Did I miss anything?

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