In experimenting with the text-analysis environment Voyant to better understand Only Revolutions, I was struck by the inverse relationship of keywords in the story’s text and accompanying chronology; keywords that help define overarching themes in the novel. I was particularly interested in comparing words in the chronology sidebar to those in the story’s text.
The first relationship is between the characters’ names and the word “goes,” which, in the chronology, signifies death. As it can be observed in the line graphs below, death is opposite Sam’s thinking of Hailey, as well as Hailey’s thinking of Sam. This can mean that the presence of the other in their lives uplifts and casts fresh light on their previous depressing and dark experiences. For Hailey and Sam, each was a savior for the other from the negative forces surrounding their lives; the death of Sam’s horse and the destruction of Hailey’s tree, for example.
<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Figure 1: Hailey’s text (main-text vs. chronology)</figcaption></figure>
Equally interesting is the relationship between the words “feer” and “party” in the text. Again, not only do they have an inverse relationship in Hailey and Sam’s stories, but, in the novel’s conclusion, the words stand at opposite ends of each other: Sam is overly concerned with “feer,” while Hailey’s concern is “party.” This can mean that their relationship (Sam and Hailey) affected them in different ways. In other words, by the end of the novel, both Hailey and Sam recognize the value of the other to checking the growth of either their fear (“feer”) or desire for continued movement (“party”).
<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Figure 3: Sam’s main-text</figcaption></figure>
The association of Sam with a horse – and with animals more broadly – is made clear by how both he and Hailey seek to supplant the other’s absence with horses. Again, comparing their stories with the chronology highlights that as Sam loses his valued horse, his reliance on Hailey increases exponentially. And, as Hailey distances herself from Sam in the end of the novel, the mention of horses (“derby”) increases, suggesting her continued thought of him, and especially, her need for his company.
<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Figure 5: Sam’s text (main-text vs chronology)</figcaption></figure>
It is clear that the use of a text-analysis tool like Voyent allows you to make comparisons with words that would be almost impossible to do without the assistance of a computer. This is to say, it would be fairly challenging to make a side-by-side comparison of the story and the chronology, based on repetition of words. This can certainly lead to interesting findings that further underscore the interpretation a reader gives to the text.
However, while it offers new visualizations, it offers little to no new meaning. It only further strengthens the meaning of the text originally made by the reader’s reading of it. In other words, machine-assisted close reading of Only Revolutions, or of any other text, seems to be fundamentally meaningless. Further, the danger of this style of interpretation, “distant” reading, is that we as the reader are left to wonder if there is more to the book than there is: how far can our deconstruction of the text go? This can position the reader on an endless and paranoid loop where there is no significance or lesson learned from the text. And while the above line graphs appear to show a defensible relationship of words attached to the author’s intent, evidence of this relationship is not necessary for the reader to arrive at an interpretation. Indeed, the relationship can possibly be misleading; after all, it is the result of the whimsy of the internal program mobilizing data into a pretty visualization. The sacredness of literature – of printed material – can then be said to be trampled upon by the invasion of a technology-centered reading of this material. The world and lessons that an author aims to share with his readers can be experienced only by the total immersion of the reader into the text. To rely on technology, even to do so in passing, is to turn your back on the purpose of literature and do a disservice to the author’s labors, and to yourself.
To be fair, this is not to say that a reader’s consultation of what a computer can offer about a text should be avoided at all costs. But it is to say that our use of the computer should not be the principal medium for interpreting a work of literature. As one scholar, N. Katherine Hayles, posits, the use of a computer should supplant but not replace deep attention (John Guillory, “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue”. p. 8). The visualizations that are offered by digital tools like Voyant adds color to the text. But if not used correctly, color can obfuscate the portrait we imagine when reading. It would be safe then not to concern ourselves with digital tools when seeking only the meaning of a work of literature. Technology would only surface ambivalent connections which cannot be interpreted without the reader’s intimate connection to the text.
Part II: Scholarly Paper Prospectus
For my final project, I will engage in a discussion about the meaning and application of both distant and close reading. I plan to then use these definitions to put each methodological approach in the context of academic scholarship: what distant reading offers scholars who are engaged in analysis of a single work of literature. As many of the authors we have read this semester suggest, close reading is in danger of being jeopardized by distant reading. However, I think that in us understanding the two distinct disciplines of distant and close reading – seeing the former as not an enemy but as an ally in strengthening literary studies – the work of the English professor in unveiling the many interpretations of a poem or novel will be academically enriched. In other words, in applying distant reading after a thorough analysis of a work, the English professor can contextualize in historical terms his or her analysis. Whether this supports or challenges the original interpretation, is insignificant. The result will be the same: a more nuanced and broad perspective on a literary work.
I offer the following as a template of my final paper:
Section 1: What is distant reading? Section 2: What does distant reading offer? Section 3: How distant reading differs from traditional scholarship in literature. Section 4: Why distant reading has not been accepted by literary studies scholars. Section 5: What is close reading? Section 6: What close reading offers. Section 7: Why close reading is important. Section 8: Why close reading cannot be replaced – deficiencies of machines. Section 9: How close reading can be enriched by distant reading. Section 10: Future of distant reading.