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Why Distant Reading Isn't

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Language is easy to capture, but hard to read.

—John Cayley, “Terms of Reference and Vectoralist Transgressions,”

Amodern 2: Network Archaeology

If Reading were used exclusively to designate human engagement with symbolic codes, then it would be relatively easy to dismiss distant reading as an oxymoron—unless it were referring to mystical scrying from dizzying heights or deciphering printed matter from across a room. Debates about what constitutes human reading are as varied as the many hermeneutic traditions and pedagogical or cognitive approaches on which they draw (Bruns). But reading has been used to describe many mechanical processes and sorting techniques. Punch-card rods, slotted light triggers, Jacquard looms, and many other devices were reading encoded information long before the standard MARC (machine-readable cataloguing) records became ubiquitous in library systems in the 1970s. Outmoded mechanical reading devices have a seductive, steampunk fascination. Many mimicked human actions and behaviors. In addition, these older technologies were embedded in human social systems and exchanges whose processes the machines' operators could partly read. The machines' actions were encoded and decoded by individuals' cognitive intelligence even if the machines functioned automatically.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2017 The Modern Language Association of America

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