On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis

Earlier this week Kathryn Schultz of the New York Times published a rather provocative, challenging, and in my opinion under-researched and over-sensationalized article about my colleague Franco Morreti’s work theorizing a mode of literary analysis that he has termed “distant-reading.” Others have already pointed out some of the errors Schultz made, and I’m fairly certain Moretti would be happy to clarify any confusion Schultz may have about his work if she were to actually interview him (i.e. before paraphrasing him). My interest here is to offer some specific thoughts and some background on “distant-reading” or what I have preferred to call “macroanalysis.”[1]

The approach to the study of literature that I call macroanalysis, instead of distant-reading (for reasons explained below), is in general ways akin to the social-science of economics or, more specifically, macroeconomics. Before the 20th century there wasn’t a defined field of “Macroeconomics.” There was, however, microeconomics, which studies the economic behavior of individual consumers and individual businesses. As such, microeconomics can be seen as analogous to the study of individual texts via “close-readings” of the material. Macroeconomics, however, is about the study of the entire economy. It tends toward enumeration and quantification and is in this sense similar to literary inquiries that are not highly theorized: bibliographic studies, biographical studies, literary history, philology, and the enumerative analysis that is the foundation of humanities computing.

By way of an analogy, we might think about interpretive close-readings as corresponding to microeconomics while quantitative macroanalysis corresponds to macroeconomics. Consider, then, that in many ways the study of literary genres or literary periods is a type of macro approach to literature. Say, for example, a scholar specializes in early 20th century poetry. Presumably, this scholar could be called upon to provide sound generalizations, or “distant-readings” about 20th century poetry based on a broad reading of individual works within that period. This would be a sort of “macro-, or distant-, reading” of the period. But this parallel falls short of approximating for literature what macroeconomics is to economics, and it is in this context that I prefer the term macroanalysis over distant-reading. The former term places the emphasis on the quantifiable methodology over the more interpretive practice of “reading.” Broad attempts to generalize about a period or about a genre are frequently just another sort of micro-analysis, in which multiple “cases” or “close-readings” of individual texts are digested before generalizations about them are drawn in very qualitative ways. Macroeconomics, on the other hand, is a more number-based discipline, one grounded in quantitative analysis not qualitative assessments. Moreover, macroeconomics employs a number of quantitative benchmarks for assessing, scrutinizing, and even forecasting the macro-economy. While there is an inherent need for understanding the economy at the micro level, in order to contextualize the macro-results, macroeconomics does not directly involve itself in the specific cases, choosing instead to see the cases in the aggregate, looking to those elements of the specific cases that can be generalized, aggregated, and quantified.

Micro-oriented approaches to literature, highly interpretive readings of literature, remain fundamentally important. Just as microeconomics offers important perspectives on the economy. It is the exact interplay between the macro and micro scale that promises a new, enhanced, and perhaps even better understanding of the literary record. The two approaches work in tandem and inform each other. Human interpretation of the “data,” whether it be mined at the macro or micro level, remains essential. While the methods of enquiry, of evidence gathering, are different, they are not antithetical, and they share the same ultimate goal of informing our understanding of the literary record, be it writ large or small. The most fundamental and important difference in the two approaches is that the macroanalytic approach reveals details about texts that are for all intents and purposes unavailable to close-readers of the texts. Writing of John Burrows’s study of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, Julia Flanders points out how Burrows’s computational study brings the most common words such as “the” and “of” into our field of view.

Flanders writes: “His [Burrows] effort, in other words, is to prove the stylistic and semantic significance of these words, to restore them to our field of view. Their absence from our field of view, their non-existence as facts for us, is precisely because they are so much there, so ubiquitous that they seem to make no difference.” (Flanders 2005)

At its most basic, the macroanalytic approach I’m advocating is simply another method of gathering information about texts, of accessing the details. The information is different from what is derived via close reading, but it not of lesser or greater value to scholars for being such.

Flanders goes on: “Burrows’ approach, although it wears its statistics prominently, foreshadows a subtle shift in the way the computer’s role vis-á-vis the detail is imagined. It foregrounds the computer not as a factual substantiator whose observations are different in kind from our own—because more trustworthy and objective—but as a device that extends the range of our perceptions to phenomena too minutely disseminated for out ordinary reading.” (Flanders 2005)

A macroanalytic approach not only helps us to see and understand the larger “literary economy” but, by means of its scope, to better see and understand the degree to which literature and the individual authors who manufacture the literature respond to or react against literary and cultural trends within their realm of experience. If authors are inevitably influenced by their predecessors, then we may even be able to chart and understand “anxieties of influence” in concrete, quantitative ways.

For historical and stylistic questions in particular, the macroanalytic approach has distinct advantages over the more traditional practice of studying literary periods and genres by means of a close study of “representative” texts. Speaking of his own efforts to provide a more encompassing view of literary history, Franco Moretti writes that “a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as a whole . . .” (2005). To generalize about a “period” of literature based on a study of a relatively small number of books is to take a significant leap. It is less problematic, though, to consider how a macroanalytic study of several thousand texts might lead us to a better understanding of the individual texts. Until recently, we have not had the opportunity to even consider this later option, and it seems reasonable to imagine that we might, through the application of both approaches, reach a new and better informed understanding of our primary materials. This is what Juri Tynjanov imagined in 1927: “Strictly speaking”, writes Tynjanov, “one cannot study literary phenomena outside of their interrelationships.” Fortunately for me and for scholars such as Moretti, the multitude of interrelationships that overwhelmed and eluded Tynjanov and pushed the limits of close-reading can now be explored with the aid of computation, statistics and huge digital libraries.

My book on this subject, Literary Studies, the Digital Library, and the Inevitability of Influence, is now under contact with [Update: will be published in 2013 as Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History by University of Illinois Press.

[1] I began using the term macroanalysis in late 2003. At the time, Moretti and I were putting together plans for a co-taught course titled “Electronic Data and Literary Theory.” The course we imagined would be a research seminar in the full sense of the word and in our syllabus (dated 11/3/2003) we wrote: “the main purpose of this seminar is methodological rather than historical: learning how to use electronic search systems to analyze large quantities of data — and hence get a new, better understanding of literary and cultural history.” During the course I began work developing a text analysis toolkit that I later called CATools (for Corpus Analysis Tools). In terms of methodology, I was learning a lot at the time from work in corpus linguistics but also discovering that we (literary folks) have an entirely different set of questions. So it made sense to do at least a bit of wheel reinvention. My first experiments with the macroanalytic methodology were constructed around a corpus of Irish-American novels that I had been building since my dissertation research. I presented the first results of this work in Liverpool, at the 2004 meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies. My paper, titled “Making and Mining a Digital Archive: the Case of the Irish-American West Project,” was part how-to and part results–I’d made one non-trivial discovery about Irish-American literary history based on this new methodology. In the spring of 2005, I offered a more detailed methodological overview of the toolkit at the inaugural meeting of the Text Analysis Developer’s Alliance. An overview of my project was documented on the TADA blog. Later that summer (2005), I presented a more generalized methodological paper titled “A Macro-Economic Model for Literary Research” at the joint meeting of the ACH and ALLC in Victoria, BC. It was there that I first articulated the economic analogy that I have come to find most useful for explaining Moretti’s idea of “distant-reading.” In 2006, while I was in residence as Research Scholar in the Digital Humanities at the Stanford Humanities Center, I spent a good deal of time thinking about macro-scale approaches to literature and then writing corpus analysis code . By the summer of 2007, I had developed a whole new toolkit and presented the first significant findings in a paper titled “Macro-Analysis (2.0)” which I delivered at the 2007 Digital Humanities meeting in Illinois. Coincidentally, this was the same conference at which Moretti presented the opening keynote lecture, a paper exploring a corpus of 19th century novel titles, which would eventually be published in Critical Inquiry. That research utilized software that I had developed in the CATools package.

One thought on “On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis

  1. […] data analysis may overpower our critical analysis of the methods themselves. In his article On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis, Matthew Jockers says: “It is the exact interplay between the macro and micro scale that […]

Comments are closed.