Franco Moretti’s new collection of essays, Distant Reading, has been generating a lot of buzz. The National Book Critics Circle just honored it with its award for criticism last month (winning out over books by Jonathan Franzen and Janet Malcolm ).
Few critics, writes the Times Literary Supplement are “as hell-bent on rethinking the way we talk about literature.” Wired declares that “if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.” And Joshua Rothman recently offered this reflection on the revolutionary critic in The New Yorker:
Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question…. Almost no one…wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach. Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, fascinates critics in large part because he DOES want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science.
Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous.
Over at Nautilus, the science writer Dana Mackenzie considers Moretti’s approach of “distant reading” in the context of the “topic modeling” trend:
Topic modeling looks beyond the words to the context in which they are used. It can infer what topics are discussed in each book, revealing patterns in a body of literature that no human scholar could ever spot. Topic-modeling algorithms allow us to view literature as if through a telescope, scanning vast swaths of text and searching for constellations of meaning….
Other revolutionary aspects of topic modeling for humanities students, according to Mackenzie: it brings “quantitative arguments into the humanities,” allows scholars to “mine for new themes and topics,” and introduces the tool of falsifiability via statistical analysis.
Digital humanities technologies can help us see gradual changes, whether in literature or elsewhere. Humans have difficulty comprehending change that happens on the time scale of a human life, or longer. If Underwood’s hypothesis is correct, we need computers to help fill in our blind spot. Topic modeling does not overturn or replace our previous ways of seeing; it enhances them.