In her article entitled ‘”A thing not beginning and not ending’: using digital tools to distant-read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans”, Tanya Clement takes the necessary time and space to not only introduce the basic tools needed to visualize a challenging text, but also to walk the reader through the actual process of digital data analysis. She simultaneously concludes her abstract and presents her goal when she writes, “A distant view of the text’s structure allows us to read the text as an object that becomes, as it continues to turn in on itself with a centrifugal force, a whole history without beginning or ending.” (361) She effectively redefines the subject as an object to be observed rather than a book to be read, and in doing so she established her credibility by placing herself within the scholarly debate surrounding the text from traditional points of analysis and seeks to use the technology available to attempt to build on the work done by her literary predecessors.
In many ways, this piece is similar to Stephan Ramsey’s chapter “An Algorithmic Criticism” in the manner that it emphasizes methodology rather than theory, and seeks to maintain a collaborative rather than polemic tone. Clement achieves this by opening the piece with a summary of the previous struggles held by those who even attempt to read Stein’s book, by giving examples of the difficult language, and then by introducing the tools that she used in her analysis. She writes to expand and elaborate on prior discussion rather than to “falsify” it. Though it made the article a bit harder to read through, Clement’s continued use of actual images of her findings along with several paragraphs explaining potential interpretations of the data allowed her argument to maintain its focus on a specific project and text while attempting to present itself in such a way that it could be approachable to those who know nothing about the Digital Humanities.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this piece, is how it ultimately works to create an argument that synthesizes both distant and close reading. The expansive use of tools and programs as illustrated in the included graphs gives the reader an idea of how useful and complicated the implementation of digital tools can be when applying them to a challenging text. That being said, the models and graphs that were generated were only able to provide data which, on their own, are ultimately meaningless. Clement is able to take the data from the tools of analysis and interpret them in such a way that allows for a new understanding of the text in the way that it is structured and a fresh attempt at generating meaning from the various cycles, repetitions, and combinations. She coins this process “combinatory reading” and uses her own work on Stein’s novel as a model for how it can be done. Near the end of the article Clement summarizes, “Certainly ‘only reading’ _The Making of Americans—_or reading it in a traditional way—appears to have yielded limited material for scholarly work, but reading the text differently, as an object of pairings or as parts of combinations, ultimately works in contrast to the supposition that the text is only meaningful to the extent that it defeats making meaning….a distant view of the text’s structure allows us to read and better understand its repeating….” (378) This conclusion sums up much of the value contained within Clement’s work. She presents a problem that had difficult to draw meaning from with traditional methods of critical analysis, and shows methodically how the use of digital methods can reframe the discourse in a manner that makes it more approachable and meaningful.
Ultimately, Clement uses previous scholarship and debate to both contextualize the scope of her project and to establish her credibility within the field. She then takes the reader through her research process step by step through both screenshots of her research and accompanying notes to explain what exactly is being illustrated by the figures. She interprets the data as it is presented in order to make it more approachable before applying her interpretation to her close reading of the text and the conclusions that can be drawn as a result of her work. This article works on a number of levels to show how digital humanities can be used for more than simply macroanalysis and also to illustrate that the actual work of a literary scholar doesn’t change significantly just because computer programs are included in the research process.