A Genealogy of Distant Reading and my own spin…

Patrick Grady O’Malley


This article offers fascinating input that clarifies the history of distant reading, the possibilities for its future, and diplomatic terms for engaging more closely with the Digital Humanities as a separate, but perhaps mergeable field. While it may sound at first as if DH and distant reading automatically work together, there are differences. “Digital humanists don’t necessarily share distant readers’ admiration for social science. On the contrary, they are often concerned to defend a boundary between quantitative social science and humane reflection” whereas “distant reading, on the other hand, is not primarily concerned with technology at all: it centers on a social-scientific approach to the literary past.” What’s more is that this article tells us that distant reading has been going on since the latter part of the 20thcentury (maybe even before) and that computers have only recently begun to emerge as something usable in literary history.


What I would be interested in learning more of, or working more closely amongst, is how distant reading could be used to identify the underlying literary theory in a text. As an emerging/wannabe theorist, I see great value in using computational methods to look beyond the plot and themes, and into the guiding principles that define a particular work. Would it be possible for computers to read a text and determine whether or not something is post-colonial in nature? How could we as scholars benefit from machine learning that recognizes feminism and gender studies and could then refer a reader to relevant information regarding that very historical theory? If a text’s underlying theory is ambiguous, would it be possible for a machine to detect what it most likely includes to guide close readings more carefully? Which could then dictate newer and more relevant questions for distant reading?


“Critics of digital humanities often assume that computer science ought to remain merely instrumental for humanists; it should never “challenge” our “fundamental standards or procedures.”“ While this statement is not Underwood’s position in the article, I want to show my support for the author in saying how wrong this strikes me as. As computer science evolves and changes rapidly, how could us as humanists not challenge our work based on computational methods becoming richer? I think the problem is, like we discussed in our last class meeting, that academia is so afraid of humanities evolving themselves, simply because that puts those critics at risk for becoming irrelevant. Computers don’t necessarily change the humanities, the humanities aren’t going anywhere. But this article was very motivating for me in thinking of learning to engage with literature in new and interesting ways. Work has already been done exploring genre with computation, I wonder how long it will take for my theoretical aspirations to be realized? Certainly, and if nothing else, this gives me a goal to work toward to guide future research.


Overall, it was extremely interesting to learn how DH and distant reading relates and differs and how distant reading has a vivid and diverse history all of its own. This certainly attests for the creativity of the researchers who engaged in these projects before the advent of digital tools and gives us as Digital Humanists a great jumping off point to understand the theory of our own research more clearly.

2 thoughts on “A Genealogy of Distant Reading and my own spin…

  1. Nancy Foasberg

    I’m intrigued by your question of whether distant reading could be used to identify a theory in the text. Presumably, if a theory is associated with a specific vocabulary, you could search for the words you’ve determined are the best indicators of that theory (after identifying them in works that are known to use that theory), and look at how common they are in particular journals, and maybe even how they change over time, with new words appearing and others disappearing.
    I’ve used similar strategies searching for articles in databases using a particular approach.
    Where it gets really interesting, of course, is when the meaning of the words start to shift, or when other theories begin to pick them up. Perhaps a careful analysis could tease out these differences. “The Quiet Transformation of Literary Studies” starts to do some work that’s kind of similar to this, and even though they aren’t looking for particular theories, they do start picking them up! They identify a group of words that’s strongly associated with Marxist analysis.
    But you’re depending really strongly on the use of a shared vocabulary when you do that. I’m really looking forward to the section on network analysis, which (if it works the way I think it does) may be a really good way to look at theories.

  2. Dax Oliver

    About identifying literary theories — Back in 2012, the magazine “n+1” had an article about using computer analysis to identify literary genres:
    This was incidentally my first introduction to digital humanities. The data tools in the article analyzed not only words but also strings of words based on a massive database of “grammatical, semantic, and rhetorical” categories. The tools would cluster similar books together, and these clusters had a significant correlation to traditional genres. Intriguingly, the tools sometimes placed books in unexpected genres that then caused scholars to reassess the traditional genre classifications for those books.

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