I became sort of familiar with Moretti’s theories about distant reading and the Literary Lab he co-founded while trying to wrap my mind around how narrative works in video games. His work seems particularly appropriate to understanding how the changes that occur in our emotional responses to narratives in games (in contrast to films and literature) happen, and the unapologetic digital humanist in me thinks that Moretti is onto something, even though that something will necessarily be a bit long in coming…and, if we do it right, will never be completely concretized.
Distant Reading itself is a collection of essays that he has published as he tries to understand how literary forms change as they move across cultural lines. He eschews close reading for what he calls distant reading, mostly because he’s trying to find a way to understand cultural forms as organisms that are affected by the environment in which they find themselves. My synopsis does not do his thinking justice, and I’d urge you to engage with his theories on your own, but the tl;dr version is that he’s wrestling with some huge problems for analysis here, and I think that he’s not trying to fit literary scholarship into a methodological paradigm so much as he’s trying to determine what methodology best helps us understand literary narrative, style, and affect (among other attributes) .
Thoughts on Moretti:
- I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him citing Stephen Jay Gould in the first essay. His look at literature from the perspective of cultural evolution and world system theory fits neatly with my own world view, although I can understand why some folks would find it off-putting.
- Close reading is still important, and I think he does some of that with his analysis of titles in the last essay. I get his frustration though – I feel the same when talking about games, as I know that (with apologies to Jean Genet) every time I choose one game to look at I’m ignoring a dozen others.
- He makes some really interesting observations while doing this form of analysis, observations that imply more of an interest in close reading than I think he sometimes gets credit for. His look at the use of subordinate clauses in the construction of narrative, for instance, allows him to argue the ways in ways in which narratives move forward and backward in time. Subordinate clauses ask us to prioritize action, and writers can use them to get us to look at the action ahead.
- Others have discussed this as well, but the particular lens through which he looks – large chunks of stories that have adopted another cultural’s form – makes this look especially useful, I think, from a literary critic standpoint.
- He does push ideas a bit too far, although he often catches himself. In his analysis of the lengths of titles, for instance, he spends several pages looking at how title lengths start long (in the pre-Pamela days) and then get shorter, but he finishes by arguing that perhaps this type of analysis isn’t as useful as he thinks. I don’t mind being walked on that sort of up-and-down path, because I think that it provides the type of transparency that helps make methodologies clearer.
- I understand, of course, folks who feel that authors should have their arguments more clearly worked out before simply spewing them, and if the the process is not interesting the writer runs a pretty big risk.
- I wonder, though, if by doing this sort of grand look he isn’t missing some of the ways in which identity gets configured in the research process. Distant reading can feel sort of dispassionate as it discounts those who are working to disrupt standard narrative patterns. I guess the thousand-foot view might make that sort of disruption clearer, but it also feels closely aligned with an attempt at scientific objectivity that minimizes the impact of these texts on lived experience.
- I get the same sort of uneasiness when I think of Darwin, and some of the scientists who work closely in further examining the implications of his theories. At times the prose feels ethereal, as if I’m being lifted above the surface by this admittedly brief and limited view of how the planet works. At other times it feels as if by looking from this view I am able ignore the blood and loss and devastation inflicted by brutal economic and ideological systems on fragile life.
- And sometimes breaking paradigms takes some work…