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The year 2008 was one of fruitful disjunctions. I spent the fall teaching at Stanford but commuting to the University of California, Los Angeles, to cochair the inaugural Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities. During the same period, I was curating—at the Canadian Center for Architecture, in Montreal—an exhibition devised to mark the centenary of the publication of “The Founding Manifesto of Futurism,” by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Whereas other centennial shows (at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, and at the Palazzo Reale, in Milan) sought to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Marinetti's avant-garde, the Canadian exhibition, Speed Limits, was critical and combative in spirit, more properly futurist (though thematically antifuturist). It probed the frayed edges of futurism's narrative of modernity as the era of speed to reflect on the social, environmental, and cultural costs. An exhibition about limits, it looked backward over the architectural history of the twentieth century to look forward beyond the era of automobility.
So begins Constantine Cavafy's classic poem of November 1898, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard's assured translation. Cavafy was a writer who tested all manner of boundary conditions. His every identity came with an asterisk. He was a Greek who never lived in Greece. A government clerk of Greek Orthodox upbringing, in a tributary state of a Muslim empire, he spent his evenings on foot, looking for pagan gods in their incarnate, carnal versions. He was a poet who resisted publication, save for broadsheets he circulated among close friends; a man whose homeland was a neighborhood, and a dream. Much of his poetry is a map of Alexandria overlaid with a map of the classical world—modern Alexandria and ancient Athens—as Leopold Bloom's Dublin neighborhood underlies Odysseus's Ithaca. And I conjure Cavafy because, as I want to persuade you, he is representative precisely in all his seeming anomalousness.
For much of the nineteenth century, nonhuman animals shared the English stage with human performers in a series of popular, widely produced quadruped dramas. Work in animal studies and performance theory overlooks this phenomenon when it laments theater's unbroken history of animal exclusion—a notion of exclusion that quadruped dramas actually helped propagate and reinforce. The animal melodramas produced through the Victorian era featured animal characters whose appeal depended on the perceived otherness of animal actors, especially the knowledge that animals did not so much act in the drama as perform set responses to subtle, real-world cues from their trainers. Playwrights used animals' imperfect integration in the dramatic illusion to inject an uncanny sense of reality into their melodramatic plots. Their experiments with estrangement admit the difficulties of animal performance by explicitly staging animal otherness—but only as a spur to deepen human engagement with the more-than-human world.
The aesthetic of the sublime has long been associated with the language of elevation and height. Activities such as mountain climbing offer a physical correlative to this discourse. In these cases, the sublime is associated with a high point or summit, and the process of descent is minimized or erased. By contrast, what I call the Red Bull sublime—named for the energy drink company that claims to “give you wings”—uses technological innovation to draw attention to the aesthetic pleasures of falling. Taking Felix Baumgartner's 2012 space jump as its paradigmatic example, this essay elaborates the central features of the Red Bull sublime, connecting it with a Romantic tradition, represented here by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, of peering over the edge of the abyss.
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis has been embraced by critics and popular audiences alike as an accessible intercultural memoir-in-comics that challenges predominant Western stereotypes about Iran through the universality of its first-person narrator. But the text's global legibility goes beyond the familiarity of Satrapi's graphic avatar. In examining the surprising factors on which the text's globalism depends, I look closely at one of Persepolis's diverse inter-texts—the Persian miniature painting—and situate Satrapi in both Parisian bandes dessinées and Iranian diasporic artistic contexts to argue that the work's concurrent production of local, national, and global scales is inseparable from its connection to several genres and across several media, engaging its readers through multiple modes of perception. Persepolis draws on a global history of graphics as dissent by challenging preconceived notions about comics as a mass culture form, memoirs as limited confessionals, and Iranian women as silenced victims of an oppressive fundamentalist state. The global accessibility of this graphic novel exists not despite but because of porous categories of genre and culture, which are at once integral to its narrative structure and secondary to the aesthetic of protest that it ultimately embraces.
Andrew Marvell's “The Garden” foregrounds the role of subtraction in aesthetic creation and seeks to imagine sameness independent of metaphor, similarity, and relation. The poem employs a subtractive poetics that challenges modern presuppositions about the networked, connected essence of literature. It also points to the critical limitations of recent accounts of surface and formalist reading, both of which still present poetry as productive, especially insofar as it heightens attention. For Marvell, in contrast, the value of lyric resides in the ways in which it challenges the dialectical notion of creative destruction and, instead, conceives of an annihilation that does not transform into its more respectable opposite. “The Garden,” then, shows that we and our students are overburdened with connection—that there is too much relation, not too little—and that the function of poetry is to dismantle these links in the interest of creativity.
Growing interest in the archive as an object of study for queer criticism justifies closer attention to the concept of provenance. For archivists, provenance imparts a fundamental measure of integrity to archival collections by certifying their origin and proper order. Record origin and order, however, rely on authorial identity to establish authenticity, placing provenance in tension with queer theories that describe subjectivity as polymorphous, not fixed. That tension leads Roger Casement's official reports on the atrocities committed against rubber gatherers in South America to use provenance as a credible—rather than strictly authentic—narrative structure for publicizing British investigations of imperial violence. Recognizing provenance as a practice of representation invites reconsideration of Casement's notorious private diaries, which document his sexual interest in large penises. Instead of simply providing evidence of homosexual identity, the diaries show how impersonal fantasy becomes a constituent part of archival practice.
Of Franco Moretti's masterworks of literary history and theory, why is it the loosely assembled collection of occasional pieces Distant Reading that has captured the literary critical spotlight? Why now, just when enrollments in the humanities are plummeting, new technologies for storing and distributing information are revolutionizing interpersonal communication and scientific methods, and global is well on its way to replacing interdisciplinary as the descriptor favored by university administrators? Moretti is not alone in attempting to reconfigure a discipline that tends to favor the singular text and national literary traditions for a generation of students who apparently could not care less about either. In his effort to adapt literary history and form to the conditions of globalization that make them seem irrelevant, he asks us to abandon our obsessive focus on canonical texts—to start instead considering how certain forms of literature made the quantum leap from nation to world and what formal changes they underwent in doing so. This project he warns, will require us to “unlearn” how to read a literary text and to question the assumption that “world literature” is an object to be known: “We must think of it as a problem that asks for a new critical method” (46). He famously exposes this problem by staging various encounters between literary form and quantitative analysis.
To judge by debates over distant reading, literary scholars might have something in common with the unadaptable tutor in george Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who applies the same educational method to any boy in his charge: he sees Tom Tulliver's mind as a field to be plowed with the classics, not as a stomach that can't digest them. But if we look more closely at the range of projects in literary studies, from digital humanities to the new formalist poetics, we find few hidebound Stellings. Applying one's favorite method to all sizes and shapes of data is an obvious genre of error, and scholars and critics of all sorts studiously avoid it. In a maxim now popular among practitioners of digital humanities, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The humorous warning not to become enamored of shiny tools and ply them regardless of object (a schoolboy, all schoolboys) can come from people who use MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit) or other software to produce statistical analyses of words or of white spaces in nineteenth-century newspapers. As researchers who are primed to question the prescriptive bias of our doxa, our samples, our models, and our tools, we nevertheless have incentives to overstate the predictable errors of competing approaches.
—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.
Reading Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees as a late-stage graduate student in 2008 was invigorating. Here was an approach to literary history free from the pieties of close reading, committed to empiricism, seeking to fulfill, with its “materialist conception of form,” the promise of the sociology of literature (92). And, at the time, it seemed natural that the way to follow the path laid out by Moretti in Graphs and in the essays he had published over the previous decade was to go to my computer, polish my rusty programming skills, and start making graphs. Yet reconsidering Moretti's Distant Reading now, one is struck by how nondigital the book is. In fact, the meaning of distant reading has undergone a rapid semantic transformation. In “Conjectures on World Literature,” originally published in 2000, Moretti introduces the phrase to describe “a patchwork of other people's research, without a single direct textual reading” (Distant Reading 48). Today, however, distant reading typically refers to computational studies of text. Introducing a 2016 cluster of essays called “Text Analysis at Scale,” Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein employ the term to speak of “using digital tools to ‘read’ large swaths of text” (Introduction); in his contribution to the cluster, Ted Underwood embraces “distant reading” as a name for applying machine-learning techniques to unstructured text. Discussions of distant reading have become discussions of computation with text, even if no section of Distant Reading features the elaborate computations found in the Stanford Literary Lab pamphlets to which Moretti has contributed.
The chapter titled the “Reading of Bookes” in Francis Meres'S 1598 Palladis Tamia offers two competing prescriptions for the allocation of readerly attention. The first suggests that too-close reading spoils some books: “As the s[c]ent of spices and flowers is more acceptable somewhat off then close to the nose: so there are some things that please, if they be lightly passed over; which being exactly looked into do loose their grace” (266v). The second reverses that logic by way of a fresh analogy: “Those things that live long, doe not soon spring up: so that worke which thou wouldst have alwaies to be read, ought to be throughly laboured in, and seriouslie scanned” (267r). On the face of it, Meres's book—a six-hundred-and-sixty-five-page-long compendium of moral and practical precepts, each cast in the repetitive syntax of the similitude—is evidently the first sort of text. At once dizzingly various and mind-numbingly repetitive, Palladis Tamia is a book to “be lightly passed over”—“scanned” in the modern, not the sixteenth-century, sense of the word. That is certainly the case today, when Palladis Tamia is known primarily for a single chapter, “A Comparative Discourse of Our English Poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italiane Poets,” Meres's pioneering survey of English Renaissance writing, and above all for a handful of sentences in that chapter, which offer a rare glimpse into the early career of William Shakespeare. “As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras: so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honytongued Shakespeare,” Meres declares. “As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English” (281v, 282r).
Literary studies continues to have a penchant for great men. In 2015, for example, 20% of authors listed as subjects in the MLA International Bibliography accounted for just under 60% of all articles or book chapters published that year. Just the top 1% of authors, or 33 in total, accounted for 1,302 works, or 20.8% of the total. Four of these authors were women, and one was not white (W. E. B. Du Bois). Those numbers are even slightly more concentrated than in 1970, when 1% of authors accounted for 15.9% of all articles and book chapters. In that year, only one of the most frequently mentioned authors was a woman (George Eliot), and all were white.
The challenge facing “distant reading” has less to do with Franco Moretti's assertion that we must learn “how not to read” than with his implication that looking should take the place of reading. Not reading is the dirty open secret of all literary critics-there will always be that book (or those books) that you should have read, have not read, and probably won't read. Moretti is not endorsing a disinterest in reading either, like that reported in the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts' Reading at Risk, which notes that less than half the adult public in the United States read a work of literature in 2002 (3). In his “little pact with the devil” that substitutes patterns of devices, themes, tropes, styles, and parts of speech for thousands or millions of texts at a time, the devil is the image: trees, networks, and maps-spatial rather than verbal forms representing a textual corpus that disappears from view. In what follows, I consider Distant Reading as participating in the ut pictura poesis tradition-that is, the Western tradition of viewing poetry and painting as sister arts-to explain how ingrained our resistances are to Moretti's formalist approach. I turn to more recent interart examples to suggest interpretive alternatives to formalism for distant-reading methods.
Several years ago, the first thing i learned in my introductory statistics class was the following declaration, which the instructor had written in capital letters on the blackboard: “all models are wrong.” Models are statistical, graphic, or physical objects, and their primary quality is that they can be manipulated. Scientists and social scientists use them to think about the social or natural worlds and to represent those worlds in a simplified manner. Statistical models, which dominate the social sciences, particularly in economics, are typically equations with response and predictor variables. Specifically, a researcher seeks to understand some social phenomenon, such as the relation between students' scores on a math test and how many hours the students spent preparing for the exam. To predict or describe this relation, the researcher constructs a quantitative model with quantitative inputs (the number of hours each student spent studying) and outputs (each student's test score). The researcher hopes that the number of hours a student spent preparing for the exam will correlate with the student's score. If it does, this quantified relation can help describe the overall dynamics of test taking.
“I hope my attitude will not be regarded as irreverent,” Maurizio Ascari declares before launching into a critique of Franco Moretti's critical methods (3). By contrast, I undertake no critique of Moretti's methods, but my attitude toward his work is at least somewhat irreverent, if also appreciative. I titled an early draft of this essay “Distant Reading and the New Poetics of Enchantment; or, Toward a Literary History That Is Spiritual but Not Religious.” This title was self-consciously outrageous, since there is little that is overtly enchanted, let alone spiritual, about Moretti's criticism. Indeed, one of the recurring rhetorical fillips in his book Distant Reading involves the disparagement of close reading as a kind of theology: “At bottom,” close reading is “a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let's learn how not to read them. Distant reading: where distance … is a condition of knowledge” (48; see also 33, 67, 89, and 113). By invoking enchantment and spirituality to describe his work, then, I was looking to underscore, a little cheekily, how rigorous engagement with his “pact with the devil” reveals similar features to those Moretti partly discredits—namely, credulity, “superstition” (Johnson 84), and “mystery” (Goodwin xiii). In essence, my aim was to employ close reading—of distant reading—as a kind of return, if not revenge, of the repressed.
My first encounter with Franco Moretti's work was “conjectures on world literature,” from which his book distant reading takes its title. The essay was first published in 2000 in the New Left Review, the original home of seven of the ten essays reprinted in Distant Reading. I happened across it in 2004 amid a fit of procrastination fueled by anxious uncertainty. I was unsure about how, or even whether, to revise a dissertation on popular novels in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany, many of which had been translated from the French. No one really knew much about them. They were miserably cataloged; generations of Prussian librarians had been ordered not to collect them—and to throw away any that had managed to take up shelf space in the first place. In 1795 the reactionary, antirepublican Johann Georg Heinzmann opined, “So lange die Welt stehet, sind keine Erscheinungen so merkwürdig gewesen als in Deutschland die Romanleserey und in Frankreich die Revolution” (“Since the beginning of time nothing was more noteworthy than the revolution in France and the reading of novels in Germany”; 139; my trans.). But an awful lot of these novels are now gone. Critics sometimes say they were read to shreds. And whereas Heinzmann—and generations of state and church censors before him—cared a great deal about the republican potential of German Romanleserey (“reading of novels”), I wasn't confident anyone did today.