Oct 24

Reading Wars?

Stormy times ahead

Stormy times ahead?

The battle lines are drawn, in one corner we have Stanley Fish, the “saving remnant” who “insists on the distinction between the true and the false”, and in the other Franco Moretti, who carries out research “without a single direct textual reading” and doesn’t care if his idea is “particularly popular” (48). Two extremes, dividing the Humanities departments of the world – or so many of the comments, accompanying Fish’s opinion piece, would have us believe.

Once past the bombast of the opinion piece, the battle ground is clearly an exaggeration. A closer look at the literature reveals numerous concerns and possible misunderstandings. Trumpener, an advocate for close reading, feels there is little need for these new ways of reading:


We can change our parameters and our questions simply by reading more: more widely, more deeply, more eclectically, more comparatively. (Trumpener 171)

In “Paratext and Genre System”, she emphasises the importance of comparison within literary analysis; however her fears that digital techniques will discard the traditional methods of exploration appear to be unfounded.

Unsworth calls comparison one of the “scholarly primitives” and illustrates how digital tools can aid the comparison of a text in ways that were not possible in the past. While Moretti himself is not advocating eschewing comparison at all. In fact, his explanation for distant reading has comparison at its heart:


Distant reading: where distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems…If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. (Moretti 48-49)

It is a matter of scale, if we want to understand world literature (which Moretti is discussing when he uses the term) it is not possible to read everything, even if there were sufficient time. How to cope with a body of literature on this scale is a problem:


That’s the point: world literature is not an object, it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method: and no one has ever found a method by just reading more texts…they need a leap, a wager – a hypothesis, to get started. (Moretti 46)

As digital and online editions make access to an ever-wider, and more numerous, range of texts possible, it is hardly surprising that new methods are needed to work at this scale. The concept of the canon, and close reading in this context, is being challenged:


close reading… necessarily depends on an extremely small canon…you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter…And if you want to look beyond the canon…close reading will not do it. (Moretti 48)

However, this is not moving away from close reading in all its forms, it is simply using tools to explore what to read in more detail. Mueller (“Digital Shakespeare”) points out that:


In scholarly or professional reading…You need to find what to read, which consists mostly of deciding what not to read. When you have found what to read you need to figure out how to get it. (Mueller 290)

Digital tools are commonly used in this process, and not just by those who ‘do’ Digital Humanities.

As Underwood notes (“Theorizing”), some regularly used close reading tools , for example the full-text search, have complex algorithms at their heart. In effect, ‘traditionalists’ may actually already be ‘doing’ Digital Humanities. The danger here is that without an understanding of how the tools work, findings can be skewed:


The deeper problem is that by sorting sources in order of relevance to your query, it also tends to filter out all the alternative theses you didn’t bring. Search is a form of data mining, but a strangely focused form that only shows you what you already know to expect. (Underwood 3)

The workings of the ‘machine’ needs to be understood, at least at some level, for its use to be effective. A search engine is not neutral, but it can be incredibly useful. Kirschenbaum (“The Remaking of Reading”), Mueller (“Digital Shakespeare”) and Drouin emphasise that the rise of the machine, a common trope in the criticisms of reading in the digital humanities, is not to replace human analysis, but rather to support and assist in that analysis. Mueller (“Scalable Reading”) calls this: “Digitally Assisted Text Analysis”.

Kirschenbaum (“What is Digital Humanities?”) identifies part of the problem as the difference between digital humanities in reality and the “construct”; “the construct…function[s] as a space of contest for competing agendas” (6), and this is what we see with the concept of reading. It is a false dichotomy:


Digital humanists don’t want to extinguish reading and theory and interpretation and cultural criticism.(Kirschenbaum 11)

Those who continue to use the traditional methods of literary analysis are not “worshipping a false god” (Mueller, “Digital Shakespeare” 290), as Steven Pinker states:


Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding?(Pinker)

With a broad range of consensus amongst digital humanists, that the traditional methods are needed in conjunction with the digital, this raises the question, why does the argument exist? Underwood (“The Imaginary Conflicts Disciplines Create”) admits:


One thing I’ve never understood about humanities disciplines is our insistence on staging methodology as ethical struggle.(Underwood)

The desire to create for conflict over reading, and, for some, a reluctance to make use of new technologies seems rather strange. Could part of the problem be the ‘construct’ of Digital Humanities? The term itself could be viewed as divisive, as it implies an ‘other’ non-digital humanities:


Fish probably is not right when he sees the problem of the Digital Humanities as a “we/plural/text and author detesting” ethos challenging an “I/singular/text and author fetishizing” ethos. (Mueller 'Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities')

However, he would find it difficult to make such a claim if the division did not exist. Thirty or more years into the existence of Digital Humanities, in one guise or another, could it be time for a change?


Works Cited

Drouin, Jeffrey. “Close- and Distant- Reading Modernism: Network Analysis, Text Mining, and Teaching The Little Review.” The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 5.1 (2014): 110–135.

Fish, Stanley. “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.” New York Times Opinionator Blog 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “The Remaking of Reading: Data Mining and the Digital Humanities.” The National Science Foundation Symposium on Next Generation of Data Mining and Cyber-Enabled Discovery for Innovation. Baltimore: N.p., 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

——- “What Is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” differences 25.1 (2014): 46–63. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

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

Mueller, Martin. “Digital Shakespeare, or towards a Literary Informatics.” Shakespeare October 2014 (2008): 37–41. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

——- “Scalable Reading.” Scalable Reading Blog. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

——- “Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities.” Reflections Blog. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Pinker, Steven. “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Newrepublic. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Trumpener, Katie. “Paratext and Genre System : A Response to Franco Moretti.” Critical Inquiry 36.1 (2009): 159–171. Print.

Underwood, Ted. “The Imaginary Conflicts Disciplines Create.” The Stone and the Shell Blog. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

——- “Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago.” (2014): 1-10. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: What Methods Do Humanities Researchers Have in Common, and How Might Our Tools Reflect This?” Symposium on “Humanities Computing: Formal Methods, Experimental Practice.” London: 2000. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.






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