From NYT 6/24/11, What is Distant Reading?

These comments do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of the Society of Linguistic Anthropology, its officers or individual members.

In the June 24, 2011 edition of the New York Times, Kathryn Schulz reviews Franco Moretti’s work on “distant reading,” the analysis of literary texts such as Hamlet or Victorian novels. Reacting to a paper from Moretti and his colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab, Schulz writes,

Reading the paper, though, I mostly vacillated between two reactions: “Huh?” and “Duh!” — sometimes in response to a single sentence. For example, Moretti, quoting a colleague, defines “protagonist” as “the character that minimized the sum of the distances to all other vertices.” Huh? O.K., he means the protagonist is the character with the smallest average degree of separation from the others, “the center of the network.” So guess who’s the protagonist of Hamlet? Right: Hamlet. Duh.

Schulz convincingly argues that the problem is not that Moretti takes a structural network approach to literature but that he argues that it is the only approach to take. Moretti does not believe in close analysis of individual texts or even a set of examples from a genre but instead analyzing large quantities of literature to find its formal properties such as how often “the” is used.

The arguments feel similar to those used in structural linguistics, that the architecture of the language is more important than the performance or context of that language use. As a linguistic anthropologist, I am intrigued by hidden structures but know close analysis and understanding of context would bring us a sense of the process that authors use to actually put together meaningful texts. Emmanuel Schegloff and his colleagues found universals such as the construction of turn-taking and repairs by analyzing very small pieces of texts. Alessandro Duranti saw the creation and maintenance of power in Samoan greetings. Analyzing only the internal structures of any piece of language use, be it Hamlet or phone conversations, doesn’t let us see how people are using these forms to further their own aims and those of the culture they are part of.