I presented this piece at the Novel Theory conference at Cornell, as part of a keyword seminar on genre and scale.
In this very brief talk, I will revisit the coining of the term “distant reading” by Franco Moretti in his 2000 essay, “Conjectures on World Literature.” I go to this text not because I’m some sort of Moretti originalist, but because I think it points toward an interesting path not taken in the history of literary studies’ thinking about scale. Since its publication, “Conjectures” has often been cited as a foundational text for at least two academic disciplines. One of these is, of course, the digital humanities, where “distant reading” has gone on to become a sort of umbrella term for various projects involving computational and quantitative methods. The other is world literature. Histories of the formation of world lit as an academic discipline in the late 90s and early 2000s often cite Moretti alongside Pascale Casanova and David Damrosch as a foundational figure.
The question I want to ask, then, is what we might learn by considering these two disciplinary histories alongside each other. Moretti argues in “Conjectures” that world literature is “not an object, it’s a problem” (55), and that problem is one of scale. As literary critics trained in close reading, Moretti claims, we deal with “not even one per cent” of published works, which span “hundreds of languages and literatures” (55). Distant reading, then, is meant to offer an alternative to traditional comparativism, which Moretti sees as overly Eurocentric. His interest is in the possibility of aggregating studies of multiple national literatures and linguistic traditions in order to quasi-scientifically test theses about world literature, without the distant reader necessarily needing linguistic or cultural competency in every tradition their work addresses. As an example of this, Moretti suggests that in the periphery of the world-system, “the modern novel first arises not as an autonomous development but as a compromise between a western formal influence (usually French or English) and local materials” (58). He then goes on to test this hypothesis with a sort of meta-study of rise of the novel narratives from various national traditions: Indian, Japanese, Russian, Nigerian, Brazilian, and others.
This is a strikingly different project from what we typically associate with distant reading today. Notably, there’s nothing particularly computational or even quantitative about the type of distant reading Moretti performs here. Yes, he’s polemically rejecting close reading, but his alternative is to read and aggregate other people’s close-reading-based scholarship on various national literatures. In a sense, we’re scaling up, dealing with more texts at once, but numbers and computation don’t enter into it.
Now I hope you’ll bear with me as, in the interest of time, I make a series of massive generalizations about large and complex bodies of scholarship. Since 2000, distant reading has come to be associated largely with computation. And often, the computational methods that produce the richest findings about literature are also best calibrated for work within a single linguistic tradition. I’m thinking about methods like topic modeling, which uses statistical models to identify clusters of words that tend to occur together within large corpora of texts. As useful as this is for identifying patterns that might not be visible through close reading alone, it can’t solve the problem of language Moretti identifies; in fact, the method assumes a corpus of texts that all draw on basically the same vocabulary, and in this sense it may in fact limit the scale at which we can think about literature, siloing different linguistic traditions off from each other.
Since the publication of “Conjectures,” then, distant reading seems to have turned away from Moretti’s initial ambition to construct a more systematic or scientific account of “world literature.” And world literature seems to have largely parted ways from distant reading; a number of world lit scholars have done work with (say) bibliometric data that somewhat resembles Moretti’s work in other texts like Graphs, Maps, and Trees, but they rarely seem to identify that work explicitly as distant reading.
I do wonder, though, whether the shared origins of distant reading and world lit might make both vulnerable to some of the same critiques. While “distant” functions most obviously here as an antonym for “close,” because Moretti is speaking about world literature specifically, it’s hard not to also think in terms of geographic distance. Moretti’s model seems to suggest that if I’m a traditional literary critic, trained in close reading-based scholarship by an English or comp lit department, I’m situated at a specific point on the globe. From this point, I can see an assortment of local phenomena: a national literature, a linguistic tradition, a canon of texts. The claim of distant reading, then, is that I need to leave this situated position and assume a sort of bird’s-eye view from which “the world,” conceived of as a spatial entity graspable through empirical study, becomes newly visible to me. I can now see across national borders and linguistic traditions, beyond my initial, localized perspective.
A number of postcolonial critics have criticized world literature for seeming to promote precisely this idea of “the world” as a neutral object of study. (I’m speaking specifically about a strand of world literature that’s seen as either ignoring or aiming to supplant postcolonialism, as opposed to extending its critiques.) Leaving behind the “local” in favor of the “global,” these critics have argued, erases local contexts, downplays relationships of exploitation, and privileges colonial languages over indigenous ones on the grounds that they’re somehow uniquely able to circulate “globally.” It’s worth asking whether we see a similarly problematic erasure of the local in “Conjectures”’ account of distant reading. I’m not sure that these two things map onto each other especially neatly, but I do think it’s difficult to mount a viable postcolonial critique from the sort of “view from nowhere” Moretti seems to wish critics to assume.
We might want to ask, then, what a more explicitly situated, more politically committed version of distant reading could look like. Can we imagine a postcolonial practice of distant reading? Does something along these lines already exist, under a different name?