the late age of close reading and the data humanities

I have been working on my book, so I haven’t found as much time to write here, and this post comes out of the work I’m doing there rather than any particular current event (though I’d like to think it has some currency!). In the broadest terms the manuscript considers the value of a particular kind of new materialist digital rhetoric in addressing some of the major cultural and disciplinary concerns with emerging digital media:  attention, deliberation (e.g. google is making us stupid), digital humanities debates, valuing digital scholarship, “moocification.” Those are some touchstones I guess.  As I’m writing it though, one of the other consistent themes that comes across is English Studies’ reliance on the concept and practice of close reading. Literary studies is most associated with close reading, but it strikes me it is also integral to rhetorical scholarship and the conventions of writing pedagogy.

As I discuss in the book, when I say close reading, I don’t mean it in the original, specific definition within New Criticism but in the broader way the term gets thrown around in English Studies. Katherine Hayles discusses this a fair amount in How We Think and never really identifies a clear disciplinary definition of what close reading is, even though it is clear that the practice is foundation to the discipline. As she notes, in my scholars’ eyes (and I would believe including her own), “close reading not only assures the professionalism of the profession but also makes literary studies an important asset to the culture.” There’s no little irony in the fact that the thing that makes us professional and gives us value to the culture is something that we can’t actually define. Well, I’m going to give it a shot (and this is examined in more detail, and in a different way, in the book).

Close reading has mean something different from just reading. It can’t simply mean giving one’s full attention to the text and reading all the words and sentences. These are things that people have to do in a lot of disciplines and professions: law, medicine, engineering, finance, the sciences, etc, etc. Hayles sets up categories of close, hyper, and machine reading, and that works ok for me to a certain degree, but not when one starts to mistake whatever close reading signifies in those categories with what happens in English Studies. But let’s stick with English Studies for the moment. Close reading can be tied to a lot of interpretive methods, maybe all of them besides some in the digital humanities. Basically it involves long hours spent in solitary acts of reading long texts–underlining, highlighting, writing in margins. This is not to suggest this isn’t a social activity. To become a disciplinary close reader takes years of study, it takes a shared community of practitioners, and it requires a material, information, technological, and cultural space that facilitates the activity (e.g. turn off your phone). But it’s much more than that. It’s really founded on the premise that interpretation and hence the meaning of the text is to be found/made in the careful consideration of word choices, style, specific sentences, and so on. A good amount of contemporary close reading is connected with what some call symptomatic interpretation (following on Fredric Jameson), which basically means that one views the text as a symptom of a larger cultural issue. As a result, close readings–in both literary studies and rhetoric–tend to move from quoting specific passages out of extensive texts to making fairly large arguments about race, gender, class, sexuality, and so on.

As I discuss in my book, close reading also informs our scholarly compositional activities. It is why we read papers at conferences–because everything rests on the specific choice and order of words, you can’t just extemporize or riff from an outline. It’s not only primary texts that we must read closely to create the evidence for our claims, but also the secondary scholarly material. As such, we must be able to read our own texts closely and compose them to be read closely. And make no mistake, the expectations of an audience of close readers shapes our scholarly genres quite heavily. But we don’t stop at scholarship: we read our students’ essays closely, application letters for jobs and graduate school in our department closely, various university missives closely, even your status updates. It’s not hard to understand how a scholar in English Studies might make the categorical slip that Hayles does and mistake all non-hyper reading practices for the kind of close reading that English scholars do. In fact, I’m not even sure it is a mistake. I actually think that for many in English–literary and rhetoric scholars alike–the kind of reading that everyone does is “close reading” and we just happen to be the experts at it.

It’s the reading equivalent of the notion that English is the place where people learn “to write.” I think we’ve managed to cut away at that conceit a fair amount, but somehow the presumption regarding reading remains quite strong. This is an important point though. It does appear to be the case as Hayles and many others observe that students are less interested in the English disciplinary practices of close reading. We also, in broad cultural terms, talk about the struggles of attention in the wake of smartphones, social media, and so on. It’s probably natural to want to connect these dots, so we see them connected all the time.

But here’s the thing, this close reading-attention-literacy crisis thing. We’ve been in this situation for at least a decade. That Nick Carr article was published in 2008 and that was far from the first time such issues were raised. And yet, does it really seem to you that there is a reading crisis among professionals in America? That doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, teachers, journalists, social workers, nurses, computer scientists, etc., etc. are unable to do the reading needed to perform their jobs? I’m pointing to professionals because we’re talking about college students to begin with here. If we think of close reading not as a disciplinary practice but rather as some general ability to sit and read a text for information, then I don’t think we have a crisis there.

In fact, I think it’s fairly obvious that the challenge lies at the other end of the informational spectrum. How do we handle the massive flows of data we now gather?

As I suggested above, I understand disciplinary close reading as a technosocial practice. It emerged as a capacity developed among English scholars within a specific set of media-informational conditions, a particular media ecology. Compared to the century before, the 20th-century era of industrial print and mass media was information rich; compared to today it’s an information desert. While we will continue to need to read texts carefully in some generic sense with different professional disciplinary versions of that, the notion of close reading as a foundational practice (or as the epitome of what reading is) is long gone. Instead, we have a new set of rhetorical and aesthetic challenges in relation to media and information in relation to an emerging digital media ecology. As we know, the flows of information are simply too intensive for humans to process using 20th-century reading practices. We require the mediation of digital technologies (what I call close, hyper machines, jamming together Hayles’ three reading practices). These are things like smartphones, apps, the networked algorithmic procedures fuel them, and the broad material network that makes the whole thing go. With this in mind, I tend to focus on the thing that sits in our hands: the point of interface between our bodies and media ecologies. I’m not saying these things are great. Far from it. I’m saying we need to develop rhetorical and aesthetic practices in relation to them and, in turn, shape those technologies as well.

Across universities, you are starting to see new majors and graduate programs in “data science.” Go on a job search site and look for data scientist jobs. They span industries. It’s interdisciplinary stuff, drawing on engineering, math, computer science and so on. It also often tied to the particular kind of data in question. There’s interesting and important work going on there trying to figure out in technical terms how to process and visualize data.

However there are humanistic questions and challenges to be considered here. No doubt we can and will manage to generate symptomatic close readings of the work data scientists produce. But that’s not really the same thing as addressing the challenges I’m talking about. And we are already performing some kinds of data scientific style work, like macroanalysis or cultural analytics in the digital humanities, where we process and visualize information from data sets comprised of literary texts. And that’s fine too (at least in my eyes) but it’s also not what I’m talking about.

To be honest, I’m not sure what a “data humanities” would look like, but it would require new reading and scholarly methods. In my mind, at its core, it would ask “What new rhetorical capacities emerge through our relations with emerging media ecologies?” It would need to approach this in both interpretive and experimental ways. That is, in part it would require discovering/building those capacities.

Anyway, clearly I don’t get around to writing here for weeks, and then I write 1500 words. So I’m going to leave this off here for now.