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!