Close Reading + Digital Humanities: A Dialogue


On April 20, we held a 3-hour seminar at Birkbeck on “Close Reading + Digital Humanities: A Dialogue”. This event brought professors from UCL, Swansea University, and Birkbeck to the Keynes Library in the School of Arts building to discuss the convergence of old and new methods to approach text: the traditions of close reading and digital humanities research that focus on the language and style of particular writers.

Despite gorgeous 28°C weather and the parks near the campus full of picnickers enjoying the sun, students and faculty from Birkbeck, UCL, King’s, and many other universities and organizations were in the audience.

Dr. Richard Robinson (Associate Professor, English Literature & Creative Writing, Swansea University) kicked things off with an exploration of how various close reading approaches evolved and rebelled against I.A. Richards’s ‘practical criticism’ of the 1920’s, including Ian Watt, who in the late 1950s and 1960s attempted to develop the empirical methods of practical criticism, partly by following French and German approaches that paid close attention to grammar and syntax. Richard discussed Watt’s well-known explication of the first paragraph of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — which tied close attention to words and syntax in James to greater thematic strategies — and contrasted these with Roland Barthes’s exegesis of Balzac’s Sarrasine in his S/Z. Throughout, Richard explored the theme of ‘parts and wholes’ across these various close reading paradigms.

Erik Ketzan (PhD candidate in Digital Humanities, Birkbeck) followed this by first asking how many attendees in the room were ‘digital humanities people’, and how many were not. The audience was divided about 50/50, which was the perfect mix for this seminar’s aim. Erik gave a brief introduction to digital humanities as well as its subfield, corpus linguistics, which uses the tools and methodology of computational linguistics to analyze the style of writers. Erik discussed how questions about Henry James’s style posed by Watt and other close reading scholars in the mid-20th-century have recently been tackled using digital humanities methods. Erik then discussed potential ways to computationally analyse ambiguity in texts, and finished by presenting work on digital approaches to comparing variants (or versions) of fiction (relating to his ongoing work on Andy Weir’s The Martian).

Figure: Visualization of edits to Andy Weir’s The Martian, sum of absolute Levenshtein distance per line over textual progression (script-identifiable edits in light gray, other edits in dark grey). Work by Erik Ketzan and Christoph Schöch.

Prof. Martin Paul Eve (Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London) followed with ‘Close Reading Cloud Atlas With Computers’, presenting work from his upcoming book, under contract with Stanford University Press. Martin shared visualizations comparing variant texts of Cloud Atlas, which differs in its UK and US editions, as well as a map of trigrams by character in the novel. He then discussed his new methodology for detecting anachronistic words in historical fiction, again using David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example. By querying words in the Oxford English Dictionary and, Martin’s method traces which words in chapters of the novel that take place in the 1850s were anachronistic for that time period.

Figure: Etymological First Uses of Words in the Ewing part 1 chapter of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Dr. Gabriele Salciute Civiliene (Teaching Fellow in Digital Humanities Technologies, King’s College London) presented ‘Towards Distant Reading Across Languages’, discussing results from her completed PhD thesis and ongoing DRaL project in collaboration with King’s Digital Lab on translations of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian translations.Gabriele explored the cases of English words dropped or elided in translation as culturally-situated responses to show that translations stand worlds apart from their originals due to those tectonic shifts on the semantic level. By contesting mainstream views that repetitions are omitted because translators find them ‘ugly’ across languages, she discussed her methods of cross-linguistic comparison, including the epistemologies of visualization, and argued for ‘distant reading’ that would reveal the messiness and richness of human response beyond aesthetic discontent.

Figure: Summary of all wave trajectories representing the use of synonyms per each repetition string in translations of The Sound and the Fury. Purely on the quantitative basis, the wave trajectory of each translation is unique.

In sum, this event brought together academics and students from both the close reading and digital humanities traditions, and we hope to have a sequel event in the future.

Close Reading + Digital Humanities: A Dialogue was co-hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Technology and Publishing and Centre for Contemporary Literature. This event was generously funded by The Lorraine Lim Postgraduate Fund and was dedicated to Dr. Lim’s memory.

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