Matthew L. Jockers (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) released his volume Macroanalysis on April 1, 2013. In it, he discusses the ‘big data’ approach to textual analysis in terms of what he calls “macroanalysis” – a term based on Franco Moretti’s “distant reading.” Juxtaposed against the traditional notion of ‘close reading,’ Jockers’ method of macroanalysis incorporates large corpora of texts in an approach Scott McLemee describes as an “anti-sentimental and technophile attitude toward literature.” Jockers’ work has garnered an immediate response in the academic community and has revealed (or exacerbated) a few latent concerns with ‘big data’ in the field of the humanities. To view a Storify of Twitter responses to Macroanalysis and selected articles from below in context, click here.
Big Data = Loss of Sentimentality?
The editors at Library Journal named Macroanalysis a Spring Pick in February 2013, before its official publication. In their blurb they also raise the question of emotional impact:
Jockers graphs the results of [macroanalysis] (e.g., “the distribution of like and little in David Copperfield”). The information derived is fascinating, but does it mean that the emotional response to a novel is to be superseded? Will this word counting and comparing kindle—if you will—the same shocks of discovery we feel from actually reading? Is Jockers the Bill James of lit crit? I’ll leave you to decide.
Issues of Practicality
Jockers and other big data enthusiasts cannot avoid the limitations of copyright in their selections of texts – even the vast textual resources of the Internet Archive, HathiTrust Digital Library, and Project Gutenberg are limited by licensing. Along these lines, some have expressed concern regarding the feasibility of implementing macroanalytic textual studies. As Brian Real (PhD student in Information Studies), remarked on the Digital Studies Colloquium (ENGL888D, Spring 2013) class blog:
[W]e are a far way from “everything” being digitized. Jockers qualifies this in a note, saying it’s a comparative “everything” vs. 20-some years ago. But, we’re not even close. For English language published materials that got national distribution, sure, we’re sort of maybe doing okay. But for the world of information, even just outside of copyright? Things are still not good, and even the metadata – which are the high-level scraps, the information that lets you find more information – aren’t good.
Macroanalysis has also produced optimistic responses regarding the merging of traditional practices (read: close reading) with the new (read: macroanalysis). Elijah Meeks (Digital Humanities Specialist, Standford University Library) wrote a compelling argument for developing what he terms “mesoanalysis” in a blog post on 5-6-13. He writes:
I think there needs to be a formal mesoanalytical layer defined somewhere between macro and micro. It’s not that I think an arbitrary middle layer is needed, or that we need an exhaustive formal hierarchy like that found in ecology. I think that the meso layer is a necessary complement to the existing approaches. I think of distant reading or macroanalysis as focused on patterns in the data, and close reading or microanalysis as focused on sophisticated interpretation of case studies and their context.
After reading selections of Macroanalysis for their 4-30-13 colloquium session, a few members of Maryland’s ENGL888D echoed Meeks insights regarding the interchange of macro/micro layers of granularity in reading. In “Changing Perspectives: Reflecting on Reading & Education,” Kathryn Kaczmarek (English PhD student) focuses on the pedagogical impact of macroanalysis, combined with close reading, writing:
…Jockers points out that a macroanalytic approach to reading using computer algorithms cannot replace traditional close reading, but needs to work in concert with it to fully answer questions about literature. Despite critiques of distant reading as “just telling you what you already know”, the computer’s algorithmic analysis allows us to change our perspective to take into account all the things that we as humans tend to ignore…This recognition of the value of reading on multiple levels is what I find compelling about Jockers’ text.
In “Literary History … I Like this Idea,” Laura French (PhD student in library and information sciences) expands the concept of merging outward to other disciplines, reflecting:
As both Jockers and Katie K point out you need a solid foundation in history to interpret the resulting data from big data analysis of literature. Seems to me that historians and literary critics need to hang out more. They have a lot to learn from one another.
Others have also taken note of the cross-disciplinary potential of Jockers’ macroanalysis, however hypothetically (and/or facetiously):
Conversations regarding Jockers’ insights and proposed methodologies are just beginning to rev up, as the impact of Macroanalysis continues rippling across the field of Digital Humanities. It’s sure to be a noteworthy caveat at The Workshop on Big Humanities in October 2013.
To view a Zotero subcollection of the articles curated for this page, click here.
— Charity Hancock