By Heidi Kaufman and Matthew Hannah
One of the biggest challenges in Digital Humanities analysis lies in supplementing tried-and-true tools such as close reading with other forms of analysis. Certainly, many scholars have heard of Franco Moretti’s famous “distant reading,” and this concept has come to serve as a kind of mysterious villain working in the shadows against close reading, seeking its elimination from the pursuit of humanistic inquiry and analysis.
But what is this “distant reading” and why does it matter? Although the term “distant” as used by Moretti is meant to offer a bookend to a range of literary and cultural analytic tools, with close reading occupying the other end of a spectrum, the term has become somewhat divorced from this context. This is why Matthew Jockers’ 2013 book on the subject, entitled Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History offers such an important contribution to the DH field.
Like Moretti–and indeed the two worked together on a larger database project which Jockers describes in his book–Jockers is interested in the role of what he calls “macroanalysis” in cultural criticism and literary history. Deriving this concept from Keynesian economics, which established macroeconomics as the study of the entire economy in the 1930s, Jockers suggests that, in a similar way, macroanalysis can be applied to consider cultural objects as a whole. Before Keynes’s 1936 General Theory of Government, Interest, and Money, economists focused solely on microeconomics, but the development of macroeconomics allowed for both local and global analyses. In other words, Jockers offers a way to reconceptualize distant reading as the counterpart to close reading, positing a “blended” approach that draws on both methodologies (26).
According to Jockers, we are entering a period of revolution, an upheaval in the way humanistic inquiry is conducted. “Revolutions take time” he argues, “this one is just beginning, and it is the existence of digital libraries, of large electronic text collections, that is fomenting the revolution” (4). Because we now have the infrastructure of digital archives constructed and because so much material has been uploaded, we can now begin to conduct macroanalysis in meaningful ways. Whereas earlier attempts to analyze a whole field relied upon exemplary case studies that were used to speak for the whole, digitized repositories now enable massive analytic projects to be conducted fairly easily: “The existence of huge data sets means that many areas of research are no longer dependent on controlled, artificial experiments, or upon observations derived from data sampling” (7).
Think about how much textual material is now available online. Google books has scanned and made available over 20,000,000 books online (173). This includes a wide range of texts that most of us have never read or even heard of (a fun and easy project is to search words using Google Ngrams, which searches for the word through all of the books Google has digitized). Hathi Trust’s digital library has over 60 collections with hundreds of individual books digitally available in each one. Internet Archive allows users to access free texts, videos, music, and other cultural materials online, and provides plain text versions of texts so users can apply digital tools to analyze them. For Jockers, the presence of this digital material represents a “tipping point, an event horizon where enough text and literature have been encoded to both allow and, indeed, force us to ask an entirely new set of questions” (4).
Google Ngrams Viewer
Macroanalysis, in this account, responds to the presence and ubiquity of this digital material by providing new sets of tools that can supplement close reading. “The most fundamental and important difference in the two approaches” Jockers contends, “is that the macroanalytic approach reveals details about texts that are, practically speaking, unavailable to close readers of texts” (26). By attending to the “big data” of culture, analysts offer new, important studies of history, literature, philosophy, media, and linguistics. Although close reading of particular case studies remains central, macroanalysis provides a new method for cultural analysis.
Macroanalysis is thus an important resource for new and experienced DHers alike. Jockers approaches the field in an engaging non-technical way while simultaneously offering a wide-ranging discussion of the possibilities for macroanalysis. He divides the book into three sections. The first discusses “Foundations,” the debates and discussions out of which macroanalysis arises. The second section, “Analysis,” is perhaps the most useful as it explores macroanalysis in terms of the key concepts Jockers studies: metadata, style, nationality, theme, and influence. Each concept is explored using macroanalytic methods, including mapping and graphing, and Jockers demonstrates the potential for such distant reading. Part three is really just one chapter called “Orphans,” which considers some of the limitations of the digital turn and briefly sums up the book. Although the last section is somewhat dissatisfying, the rest of the book is a great way to introduce some of the important tools that DHers use to analyze culture in the twenty-first century.
Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis, Retrieved from www.hasta.org. 22 October, 2015.
“Big Data.” Retrieved from www.javacodegeeks.com. 22 October, 2015.
“Google Ngrams.” Retrieved from http://infobeautiful2.s3.amazonaws.com. 22 October, 2015.