Skip to:

Digital humanities: more than just text mining

A recent book by Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis, outlines an approach to digital humanities based on what is usually referred to as text mining. I can't help feeling that the "macroanalysis" approach, which is very similar to that of Franco Moretti's "distant reading" (from his book of the same title), looks at only one aspect of digital humanites, which seems to get all the attention while another important aspect is ignored.


Macroanalysis, the examination of texts at a level larger than the individual book, poem or other unit of content, is usually in this approach contrasted to close reading - the detailed examination of a text, something that is considered to be at the core of university literary study. But surely the simplest e-book reader, the Kindle, provides tools for close reading that are way in excess of anything a traditional literary scholar ever dreamt of? The Kindle enables a full-text search within the text of any word or string. Simply select the word and click on "search this book":

Kindle text search

Kindle full-text search

The ability to search for any word throughout the text instantly improves the accuracy of any statement made about the text. We no longer have to rely on Julian Barnes to tell us how consistently or inconsistently Flaubert describes the colour of Madame Bovary's eyes, because we can check for ourselves via the digital text. without having to remember where in the book we saw the references. Yes, people have known about this ability for years, but I don't think it has been sufficiently emphasised. In addition to linear reading, a digital edition and the Kindle (or simply loading the digital text into Word on a PC) provides a way of studying the text that is as far-reaching in its implications as the transfer of feature films to video and then to DVD. Instead of watching a film in its entirety, it can now be studied in detail, both forwards and backwards. Thus, creating a digital copy of the text provides a closer reading than ever before possible. Digital humanities should not be described in opposition to close reading, but as a powerful way of making close reading happen. It would appear a rather spurious opposition is often created between new technology and "traditional" study. In this case, it is clear that one can enhance the other.

Of course, some people will complain that books were never intended to be read in such an analytical way. Nor were films designed to be viewed backwards, but it seems no surprise to me that the growth of "film studies" as a discipline coincided with the widespread ability to view a film scene by scene, or even frame by frame, rather than seeing the whole thing in a darkened cinema. Will there be a similar impact on literary study?