Maps and the Split English Department Fantasy

The split English department fantasy that opens Jordan’s post seems like an increasingly possible, and increasingly pleasant reality. I say ‘pleasant’ because I don’t feel that I need to change myself into a computer-assisted distant reader in order to benefit from the work of the folks who, “almost certainly have become worse close readers” (Wilkens 256). I have a hard time getting fired up over the close reading debate (as Wilkens is – a few points in his piece read almost as direct provocations to those prepared to be upset by comments like, “we [the entire profession, I guess] need to do less close reading;” [251] Wilkens appears to be taking seriously the kind of back-and-forth joshing visible in one of Ben Schmidt’s responses to Ted Underwood’s blog: “Can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost finally convinced a humanist that close reading is obsolete and only computers can truly appreciate an author’s intentions, only to lose them at the last moment by carelessly saying ‘corpuses’ instead of ‘corpora.’”) long parenthetical notation, so I’ll start again: I have a hard time getting fired up over the close reading debate because I feel that in a scholarly community even those uninterested or unschooled in the DH can benefit from the results of distant reading. Part of the discussion in those responses to Underwood’s blog that I mention involves the intelligibility of DH findings to what the interlocutors were loosely referring to as ‘humanists’ — I’m interested in a split English department reality in which the distant readers provide the ‘humanists’ with opportunities for further research and reading without a theoretical framework that invasively insists on that time spent reading and studying forgotten novels is valueless.

Two weeks ago, I questioned Moretti’s gestures away from what I called the ‘individual case’ in “Graphs” and “Trees” (if you recall, I suggested that by seeking patterns that are discernible without an intimate knowledge of the text, Moretti’s theoretical model was in fact discouraging or maybe even foreclosing on the [usually historicist] scholar who is working on excavating individual forgotten novels). In talking about the “material limits such [close] reading imposes,” and calling for, “more algorithmic and quantitative analysis of piles of text too large to tackle ‘directly,’” (255-6) Wilkens makes a heavier and less compromising version of this argument. After reading this, Moretti’s take is no longer as jarring — in “Maps,” he uses his Parisian lover-map (don’t fail out of grad school because of Proust, guys) to assist at a similar demonstration: it is not about, “a cluster of individual locations,” but it is about getting a spatial understanding of the, “matrix of relations,” that demand love interests to exist in distant (at times, specific) quarters or on opposite sides of the river (54-6). Moretti’s version of the claim is more palatable than Wilkens’ because rather than eliminating the need to read several decades worth of forgotten French novels, it provides an invaluable, distant-reading derived observation that enhances the reading of one or more of those novels. My own understanding of space in literary Paris has actually been altered for the better after my brief encounter with Moretti’s map – I hold that I do not have to recenter my research on algorithmic methods in order to make use of the work of those who have done. Next time Monsieur Charlus crosses the Seine, I’ll know what he’s up to.

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One thought on “Maps and the Split English Department Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Wait… they don’t love you like I love you: Reading Maps | "Digital Humanities": Emerging Tools and Debates in Literary Study

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