March 7 ­– Close, Distant, and Surface Reading

///March 7 ­– Close, Distant, and Surface Reading
March 7 ­– Close, Distant, and Surface Reading 2017-02-23T01:22:42-05:00

Class Plan

  • David Hoover visits class


Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review, II, no. 1 (February 2000): 54–68.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Reading Digital Literature: Surface, Data, Interaction, and Expressive Processing.” In Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture), edited by Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Professional, 2008.

Wilkens, Matthew. “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Gold, Matthew K., ed. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Hoover vs. McGann

Hoover, David L. “Hot-Air Textuality: Literature after Jerome McGann.” TEXT Technology 14, no. 2 (2005): 71–103.

McGann, Jerome. “Radiant Textuality.” Victorian Studies 39, no. 3 (1996): 379–90.


  1. jpetinos March 5, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    In his main example for an alternative to close readings, Wilkens writes “The imaginative landscape of American fiction in the mid-nineteenth century appears to be pretty diversely outward looking in a way that hasn’t yet received much attention. Indeed, one of the defining features of our standard model of the period is that its fiction is strongly introspective at both the personal and national levels, concerned largely with American identity and belonging.” Is his conclusion accurate? How does mentioning non-US places in texts equate to being “diversely outward looking?” In addition, aren’t “the defining features” that he is trying to refute established by close readings of the books in questions? It seems like an analysis like this would be incomplete without the work that close reading has done so far.

    McGann references the Rosetti Project and the amount of time it will take for the full archival of the corpus. How does the amount of time that large scale projects like this one affect what texts will be relevant and studied in the future?

    Moretti and Wilkens seem to refer to a concept of truth that they are trying to find by expanding what is commonly read. What would this truth look like? Both authors address the simple fact that there is a finite amount of time with which to read literature; if it’s an impossible task to read everything ‘important,’ what can we hope to achieve by trying?

  2. Whitney March 5, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    1.) I can’t help but feel like the problem of world literature described by Moretti in “Conjectures on World Literature” is a bit of an outdated one. Moretti’s article, written nearly 20 years ago now, describes an approach to reading that would require a new critical method – because he believes that, in order to achieve a “world literature”, scholars must move from a focus on close reading to distant reading. Maybe the case isn’t so much that it’s outdated, but that Moretti’s appeal to distant reading has already been integrated into scholarly research practice so seamlessly that his problem no longer seems to be a problem….have we reached the point of weltliteratur/world literature that Moretti called for in his article some two decades ago? Or, are we still in a state of transition?

    2.) Then again, the more I read of Moretti, the more I question his objection to a “patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading”. Would it really be preferable for academia, or the world at large, to have a universal understanding of literary interpretation? And if the means of achieving such unity were derived digitally, could it even really be considered world literature? Wouldn’t that just be computational literature?

    3.) Maybe I was trying to read too much in one sitting, but I felt like my eyes were getting a little crossed trying to understand the differences between traversal function models, expressive processing, and the audience model of reading digital literature. Is there a simple way to designate how A is different from B and C, and so on?

  3. Lauren March 6, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    1) The size of the text seems to be one of the most pressing constraints of which books of work that are being used in different research, as computing power becomes able to handle more parallzation and the cost of using said computation power becomes very cheap will there still be the same hesitation in approaching larger corpuses of work? Will the speed of computing power to store and handle the data be the limiting factor or is that most of the tooling still needs heavy human interaction to make sense of it and thats why the size of the work is the limiting factor?
    2) The next big theme is how do you allow people to respond to the work via the different means? Is the field forcing a way of collaboration and response that hinders people from participation? How does privilege play into the accessibility of the conversation?
    3) Is the debate in digital humanities techniques healthy for the field? Is debate healthy for any or all fields? When in the growth of a new field is it good to have this kind of debate versus a distraction to the overall direction?

  4. Alfo March 6, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    1. I find Moretti’s article pretty appealing. What I don’t get is why is he longing for a theory of a Weltliteratur. Isn’t that what cultural historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have been doing since the second half of the XXth Century? I however find super interesting the idea of distant analysis in order to recognize deep trends, cultural waves, and the ‘long durée’…

    2. Does Wilkens base his article in the critical assumption that canons exist, as if they were a natural phenomena? Wilkens insist in the idea of hoarding as much material as possible, as if the existing material doesn’t exist also due to a previous bias that he seems to avoid.

    3. Hoover argues that interpretation should recover the main role it has traditionally had in the Humanities and the study of Literature. It seems to me that the DH community is somewhat divided between authors that won’t resign from interpreting and prioritizing ‘qualitative readings’, and those who dream of a world in which Humanites ‘compete’ with the Sciences in building communities of peers that agree upon wether things are ‘true’ or not. If this is the case, which ‘wing’ is winning?

  5. Cat March 7, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    1. I thought Franco Moretti’s discussion of world lit and distant reading was interesting. I am curious how those in the humanities responded to such a proposition? I would expect not a small amount of outrage.
    2. I’m a little bit confused concerning the point of James Meehan’s Tale-Spin (1976) project. Was his intention to aid random internet users in story generation? Pure entertainment? Just a theoretical experiment?
    3. Matthew Wilkens’s discussion of possible DH solutions to the canon problem was fascinating. It would be hard to learn the perfect balance between spending time on these data extraction/mapping work and spending time close reading texts.

  6. phyllis plitch March 7, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    The Jerome McGann article Radiant Textuality seems much more mainstream and tame than his later book. Though I haven’t read the book, David Hoover’s critique makes the book sound like Theater of the Absurd, and also apparently refutable. What prompted McGann to write it? Was it just to be provocative? Or was there an over-arching, known objective? Is it possibly one of those big academic jokes? (I assume not, but it sounds like it could have been).

    I thought Matthew Wilkens’s article raised interesting points about the perceived difficulties posed by the large and growing non-canon body of literature and the potential for using alternative technologies to extract some value from the wider group of literature. But how do the dots on the maps showing the great diversity of author geographics change or address the situation?

  7. Jane Excell March 7, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    McGann says that it is “crucial that scholars take an active role” in the digitization of library and archival materials. Why does he feel that this task is beyond the capabilities of librarians? This is exactly what they are trained and go to school for, and they have a much more comprehensive understanding of the factors that go into a digitization project. In his Chadwyck-Healey example, librarians are certainly aware of the shortcomings he mentions as well as being aware of the limits of resources that may force projects to either make compromises, or not be completed at all. I’m unclear what it is that “scholars” would be contributing to these library projects that librarians can’t.

    I don’t quite understand from Wadrip-Fruin’s explanation what “mis-spun” tales are. He says that they are “hand-transcribed errors” but the examples he gives vary widely in terms of story content, form- basically all aspects- from what he calls the “actual output.” The later explanations he gives seem to indicate more that the mis-spinnings result from lack of directives/information in TaleSpin. What does he mean by “hand-transcribed errors” then?

    Tale-Spin/Mumble sounds really interesting, but the excerpts I read felt a little flat because of the lack of any subconscious in the character’s motivations. As Wadrip-Fruin rightly points out, their actions are all based on “planning” which seems to equal logical, (except when the game gets confused) conscious thought. Subconscious motivations seem to me to be such an intrinsic part of literature that I have to wonder: can really call these “characters” or their stories “literature” without it?

  8. Sarah March 7, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Does digital literature fundamentally change the relationship between author and audience?
    Are these categories of author and audience singular and bound nodes?

    Is audience interaction a form of reading?

    What is the difference between reading (Moretti) and audience interaction (Wardrip-Fruin)?

    Wardrip-Fruin, states, watching the interplay between process and data over time can be an important type of critical reading for digital literature.” Is this history / history making? (Def of history of change over time.)

  9. Hannah May 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    I understand why the canon is important and I think Wilkens makes a good point, that it’s a sampling, but I do still find it to be arbitrary. That being said, from the end of using some of the tools of the social sciences and applying them to the humanities, it makes sense why you would need a sampling.

    This sort of plays into Morettis’ argument, that it will take a lot of time for the Rosetti Project to reach any stage of completion. However, I wonder what that means and what makes it worthwhile if the time warps the success of the project, per se.

    I’m also thinking about Wilkens’ argument that alternative technologies can assist with research from a larger corpus, and wondering how I can apply that to my own research – how different technologies may be useful in evaluating newspaper articles or regulations that are not traditionally fed through any sort of routine analysis.

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