Against the Disappearance of the Text

I was extremely enthused while reading the collection of texts Yohei prepared for us this week because “close reading” is an aspect of literary studies I am invested in, both personally and professionally. Last class we discussed how much we value the personal tales of transmission that can imbue texts with greater meaning. My undergraduate degree in English at the University of Cambridge was thoroughly grounded in the work of the department founder, I.A. Richards, and Practical Criticism will always remain a seminal text for me. As the title of my blog might indicate, in many ways I am a purist when it comes to idea(l)s of the literary canon and how we should approach it. I enjoyed Yohei and John Guillory’s articles because they historicized the perceived relationship between media and forms of attention in a way that reminded me that the Digital Humanities is a development rather than a revolution: a methodology that can enliven rather than threaten the work we all do.

Hayles and Moretti are harder for me to swallow, however, in their prizing of scale as one of the key potentialities of digital tools. While both are keen to emphasize that we can only ever contextualize–rather than overturn or lose sight of–the canon through “reading” a much wider range of texts (those that did not survive and may be far less interesting!), they seem to shy away from the question of judgment that was so central for I.A. Richards. There is a reason beyond the economic and the institutional that some texts survive and why some demand our study more than others. Isn’t there?! In Distant Reading, Moretti writes that the pursuit of an understanding of the “system” (all literature of all time and all locations, it seems) necessarily leads to “losing something”:

And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. (49)


Moretti’s methodology asks us to step away from the primary texts and instead survey the secondary material. But surely one of the joys of English as a discipline is that we are uniquely able to include our objects of study within our scholarship: we quote text while (to paraphrase our very own Scott Campbell) biologists don’t put insects in their journals. I may be seduced by our desire for immediacy but digitization efforts do seem to stem from a wish to take us closer to the text and the synergy advocated by Hayles seems appropriate if we share the perspective of Guillory in “How Scholars Read” that “Both intensive and extensive modes are to be found at the scene of humanist reading” (11). His description of how we read in the archives rang true for me when I returned to the Dodd this week. I appear to have found some rich material in the papers of the British poet, John Temple, for my poetic palimpsests! 


5 thoughts on “Against the Disappearance of the Text

  1. Wonderful to hear that you’ve been making some good discoveries at the Dodd. I look forward to hearing more!
    For me, Moretti’s approach and other distant reading enterprises insistently highlight what they miss and cause us to question the limitations of the data — producing more interesting conclusions than the results themselves. For some examples of meditations on the limits of big archives and our approaches to them see the following:

    Especially the top entry on ‘Dennis the Paywall Menace’ and its comments, and the one two down, ‘How the Web can Make Books Vanish’. One of his earliest posts is also fabulous, the one I ran a discussion on last year: it looks at how many DH projects are canon-based, and why. See also these:

  2. I am glad to read your reluctance with Moretti and Hayles. It is sort of a reverse view from mine, which I greatly appreciate and need 🙂 I love reading secondary texts! But my delight in such scholarly things belies my deep joy in all things original.

  3. I agree with some of your reservations. As I read, I couldn’t help asking, again and again, “Aren’t there plenty of times when we don’t want to study the entirety of ‘world literature’?” I mean, we’re not simply historians, are we?

  4. I, too, enjoyed your post! I definitely have similar feelings, particularly in reference to Moretti (a bit less so in terms of the selections we read from Hayles). Moretti, for me, is often quite seductive in terms of the sweeping conclusions and broad new perspectives he proposes, but he is simultaneously provocative (and not always in a good way!)… and many of his arguments seem easy to poke holes in once you get past the attraction of his rhetoric.

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