It would be difficult to analyze Orlemanski’s methodology without including a brief summary of her essay. I say this because her method is a kind of summation of literary criticism and the conflicts that arise between the schools of thought that have arisen within the past few decades. At any rate, “Scales of Reading” is concerned with the benefits that may be derived from addressing different reading methods as equally valid rather than attempting to assign superiority to one or another. Orlemanski begins with a close reading of Chaucer’s “House of Fame,” a clever rhetorical move that sets her up to demonstrate the power of method as a way of defining literary criticism and discourse. This move also provides a practical example that immediately follows the essay’s central claim: that reading may be applied to scales “fast or slow, selective or thorough, deeply or skimming along” (Orlemanski 215). Moving on from Chaucer, she introduces Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees as a way of understanding the “wider” scale of textual analysis. The significance of Moretti for Orlemanski is not that he provides a more correct perspective on texts, but that he addresses and lies at the center of the greater conflicts within the discipline of literary criticism. His work is particularly helpful in characterizing the problems associated with literary historicism and the problematic of the “linguistic turn,” a tectonic shift in the way humanities departments perform scholarly research. Orlemanski describes this shift as “hav[ing] variously valorized surfaces, description, cognition, affect, materiality, nonhuman entities, the natural and social sciences, and speculative thought” (226). Having established the conflict between the various scales of reading in the discourse, Orlemanski is able to present the claim that each scale offers something new to the comprehension and analysis of texts. For reference, her thesis is as follows: “I argue that scale remains a literary event and that units of analysis derive from processes of interpretation. We need disciplinary accounts that incorporate both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of meaning and that explain why experiences of reading have validity as sources of knowledge” (216). Having authenticated this claim in a genealogy of critical discourse, Orlemanski moves on to separate her claims from those that would place these shifts at the feet of the “crisis in the humanities.” This essay is ultimately not concerned with attempting to address the social and cultural shifts that have rocked the humanities as they exist within the University. In making this clear, Orlemanski separates her essay from those that look to assign blame or preference and maintains the focus on methodology.
Having addressed the overall structure of the essay, I am now able to provide commentary on the method of summary and establishment of scale. Orlemanski’s approach is subtle in that it presents the varying scales inside the protective coating of the essay itself even as it argues for their existence. The close reading of “House of Fame” functions to give the average scholarly reader a concrete point of departure (as a lifelong close reader, I appreciated the shallow-end introduction) while offering an almost simultaneous nod to the benefits of backing away from the text to discover new significances to the ordering and arrangement of the heroes within Chaucer’s work. The move from here towards an analysis of the bomb that Moretti seems to have dropped on the discourse is done at an appropriate and rhetorically effective moment, though there may have been overmuch attention to Graphs, Maps, and Trees given the claim that Orlemanski gives no preference to the wider scales. Still, Moretti is the icon of distance reading right now and failing to address him thoroughly in an essay like this would likely have been a mistake.
Another way to characterize Orlemanski’s method is to view her as the ideal impartial tour guide. Some of the most effective argumentation involves establishing common ground amongst the disparate groups on either side of an issue. Orlemanski is able to write her essay using a variety of scales even while she describes them. Too, in framing her position within a genealogy of humanities debates, Orlemanski is able to deflate some of the more alarmist or sensational reactions to distance reading and the linguistic turn. A great example of this is the reference to medieval scholars, a group that both refutes the permeation of widely digitized scholarship and affirms the existence of altering scales and methodologies. This particular appeal is especially effective because of its inherent anachronism (ironic, I know). Medievalists ought to be the last group providing new perspectives on reading and critical methodology. However, because of the unique circumstances surrounding the texts they address, this group of scholars would already be quite familiar with differing scales of reading. Not only that, but the existence of such a scattered and disparate body of literature precludes the hegemony of digitization and itself argues for the benefit of multiple reading scales.