Robert Brissey

Methodological Analysis #1


English 8120 – Dr. Thomas

Much like her subject matter, Julie Orlemanski’s “Scales of Reading” varies in theme and scope from the very minute, presented in her discussion of Chaucer, to the vast, as we see in her discussion of the production of knowledge and pedagogy within the humanities as a whole. However, as an overarching question to encompass the whole, Orlemanski tackles the large problem of explaining “what kinds of knowledge close reading [as compared to distance reading] produces” (217). Ultimately, the question of scale, processes both macro and micro, is answered in a fairly diplomatic way, with a claim that each contribute to a “literary event,” and are thus necessary for humanities and especially English departments in terms of knowledge production. Orlemanski’s article is schematically fairly straight forward, but with special emphasis on key ideas or players within the dialectic subject matter.

Structurally, Orlemanski’s discourse follows predictable patterns of critical scholarship. She begins with an “inciting incident,” in this case Chaucer’s House of Fame. Orlemanski describes a certain cataloguing of exploited or wronged women characters that are briefly presented by Chaucer, and uses this as a springboard to her multi-faceted considerations on scales of reading. We then move to Orlemanski’s primary critical stance, pulled with limited qualification from Franco Moretti’s Maps, Graphs, and Trees, which extolls the virtues and breadth of distance reading. Orlemanski’s argument, using the extra-textual evidences producible through Moretti’s methods, allows for a discernment of the levels of reading versus their respective productive values for the discipline. From there, Orelmanski circulates scholars, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Bruce Holsinger, discussing the debate around distance reading, but ever reverting to the expertise of Moretti. We reach a discussion of crisis within the humanities, as they are continually under fire for production. Medieval literary scholarship is brought in as an exemplar of contemporaneous uses of both distance and close reading strategy as a combined methodology for developing knowledge, but with the notation that medievalists often find themselves quarantined from the humanities in main. Orlemanski reaches a tipping point of her argument, in the tendency of canons to develop around seemingly arbitrary examples of a given genre or period. For the rest of the article, we progress through movements in scholarship from the 1940’s to present, specifically discussing close reading which Orlemanski qualifies, finally, as be generative of knowledge, but ends with call to lend academic attention to the problem of describing what kind of knowledge is generated and how it is generated.

Orlemanski’s stated audience is that of anyone involved in the literary “disciplines,” which are defined in terms of institutionality. Her sequencing follows a rough pattern of: the discussion of a new concept, linking to Moretti, expansion of that concept, and the implications of the new concept to scholarship at large. This method is effective, in the sense that the reader never loses track of either of the major referents, Moretti and Chaucer, while encountering the arguments and counterarguments for scales of reading. Furthermore, hermeneutics is presented as a viable source to begin the exploration of the at once thoroughly considered and ignored realms of knowledge generation and validity. Orlemanski does allow for a “push-back” against Moretti, primarily in a quotation from John Frow, which summarizes the need or value in such inquiries of scale and productivity. Finally, the argument comes full circle, with Chaucer again being the referent but including several of the concepts generated by this expansion and qualification of Moretti.

The argument, to this reader, is well structured but perhaps a bit too diplomatic. Ultimately, it seems as though Orlemanski feels compelled to qualify her support of Moretti to the extent of finding herself almost dead center on the spectrum of close versus distant reading. That said, the argument seems accurate in scope and sequencing, in that such proposed practices as found in this article might be invaluable as a tool to reconcile the humanities, which seem to ever be on the defensive. When appropriate to the task, Orlemanski re-references certain scholarship for emphasis, which is effective in drawing special attention to key elements found within. The article might have been assisted by more contemporary exemplars of literature with Orlemanski’s proposed treatment of scale, so as to avoid being “type-cast” or seeming too exclusive. For instance, The Great Gatsby, when treated through the suggested treatment, could offer insight on the emergence of the “gangster” as a trope found in American literature from the turn of the century through the 1950’s while simultaneously examining the clear vicarious pining and possible homoeroticism in the relationship between Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby. Finally, Orlemanski calls for reconciliation, which given the scope of the article and its initial promises, seems pragmatic but also anti-climactic.