Monday, February 19, 2007

C'mon, Pokey

I finally got around to reading Lindsay Waters' CHE diatribe against Moretti's work on abstract models and literary studies. I know, it took me long enough. Collin mentioned the article, titled "Time For Reading," almost two weeks ago, and The Valve's Bill Benzon posted his thoughts on Waters last Tuesday. Rather than sum up the other entries here, I'll put the links in place and move along to a couple of my reactions.

Waters is unapologetic in his call for this so-called "new movement," a call he ends with pronounced enthusiasm for "slow reading." I have, in times past, characterized myself as a slow reader (though not during preparations for qualifying exams), and it's not unusual to hear one or two of the students in my classes describe themselves as slow readers. But it seems to me that we have a couple of different conceptions of "slow" rustling around in these labels. There's the slow that is deliberately, even skillfully, plodding and careful--a slow is akin to the savory swish-swish during wine tasting or a leisurely pace for Sunday drives in the country. It's not the same slow as a 1975 El Camino winding through a mountain pass in second gear or, as is more clearly connected to Waters' focal concern, the slow disparagingly assigned to the child who finds it difficult to read lines of words efficiently enough.

Waters compares the literacy crisis affecting school-aged children with the labors of English professors. It's connected, I suppose, but it's just as easily disconnected. What I mean is that I'm not sure the younger ranks are introduced sufficiently to differentiated reading methods. Much early reading instruction is, for good and bad, bent on a fairly stabilized, normative pace. Many of us have struggled with it, and still many more will. Taken to matters of professionalization and specialization in academia, slow reading is a rare luxury. And just how slow would Waters have us read?

A significant distinction here is that Waters emphasizes slow reading as a preferable (i.e., humanistic) counterpart to Moretti's distant reading. But slow and distant refer to different intervals, right?, one going the dimension of time and the other going the dimension of space. Of course, in much the same way I am tempted to complicate the slow in "slow reading," so am I interested in spreading out all of the cards in the deck of "distant reading." Moretti says very little (er...nothing) about "fast reading." He is content to pursue, instead, the questions provoked by abstract modeling:

Quantification poses the problem, then, and form offers the solution. But let me add: if you are lucky. Because the asymmetry of quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem--and no idea of a solution. In 'Planet Hollywood', for instance, it turned out that absolutely all Italian box office hits of the sample decade were comedies; why that was so, however, was completely unclear. I felt I had to say something, so I presented an 'explanation', and NLR indulgently printed it; but it was silly of me, because the most interesting aspect of those data was that I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution. And problems without a solution are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer. (Graphs 26)

Waters, plainly enough, sees a problem (illiteracy) and solution (slow reading), whereas Moretti's focal problem isn't illiteracy but rather the "specific form[s] of knowledge" wrought by distant reading. What are they? What unanswerable questions will they open us onto? And what are the limits of what we will know? No doubt, we need need to re-think slow reading, close reading, and especially distant reading as more than monolithic activities; we should reverse their conceptual reduction, and see them as complements, plural and constantly in play.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 19, 2007 11:00 PM to Distances

The disparity seems to me to come from the long tradition of deep, rather ponderous modeling in the humanities. All scholars build models, by whatever means. The Moretti-style "new" modeling adopts some techniques of modern technology to extract higher-order representations, summaries, features -- models in their own right -- from the corpora automatically.

This chafes some, because they cannot map these "new" models onto their own internal process; they are too weird. Instead, they seem the demand isolation, long inefficient conversation, "depth" and "slowness", whose ultimate result is... well, a lot of reading and talking.

The same thing happened in biology, during the 20th century. The result was that "traditional", "observational", "wordy" biologists are essentially left behind, or have adopted the tools and techniques of cladistics, ecological statistics, bioinformatics. In the old, monograph-laden world of "slow" biology, you looked painstakingly at one exemplar, one niche, one organism, one disease... and you thought and read and talked at length about that, and maybe if you were lucky you met somebody or had a student who would refer to your work.

There is, of course, no such real division remaining in biological schoalrship. What's left is a new way of using new tools to do the same work: develop models. Leaving more time to discuss them.

Posted by: Bill Tozier at February 26, 2007 9:50 AM