Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Problems of Scale in "Close" and "Distant" Reading

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Problems of Scale in "Close" and "Distant" Reading

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THE HISTORY OF CLOSE READING as a Set of practices has been the focus of many excellent studies, the history of how the phrase "close reading" came to be remains largely untouched. (1) This article examines the beginnings of the term "close reading" in order to identify the rhetorics of scale employed in debates and arguments surrounding the practices behind the term, and how those rhetorics have set up the debates around "close" and "distant" reading today.

The first section of this essay thus sketches a history of "close reading" as a phrase predominantly found in general usage in primary and secondary education handbooks during the 1930s that subsequently takes on more specialized usage in academic books and essays during the following two decades. This section then details the issues of scale that crystallized in arguments about close reading once they came to focus on the "closeness" of "close reading"--which is to say, once "close reading" became an available term for the next half century against which "adjectival reading" (slow, distant, surface, deep, etc.) could push and define itself. Such arguments revolved around the synecdochic logic of part-representing-whole that governs "close reading," revealing its ability to scale from any amount of evidence (a word, a line, a sonnet) to any level of interpretation (the poem, poetry in the nineteenth century, poetic language in general).

The essays second section looks at contemporary debates of scale that surround "distant reading" and "close reading," which often take the former to be a macroscopic view of corpuses consisting of thousands of texts and the latter to be the microscopic view of a single text, a few passages, or even a couple of lines. I argue, instead, that various rhetorics of scale involved in "distant reading" can be understood metonymically, structured by the logic of part-part relationships. This mapping of a synecdoche/metonymy distinction onto the "close"/"distant" one is a preliminary response to Alan Liu's call "to discover technically and theoretically how to negotiate between distant and close reading" (2) and to Ted Underwood's important pronouncement "that it is now possible to leave the reading wars behind." (3) A fuller theorization of synecdoche, metonymy, and scale is outside the scope of this essay, but I conclude with a brief discussion of the synecdoche/metonymy distinction and its purchase on how concerns of scientism have inflected skepticisms of both "close reading" during the 1940s and 50s and "distant reading" in the twenty-first century.


The history of close reading is well documented as part of the history of critics associated with Cambridge--I. A. Richards and William Empson, then F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny group--and the American New Critics--consisting at the core of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks (though also more loosely including R. P. Blackmur, Kenneth Burke, and Yvor Winters). However, although the interpretive practices promoted by these critics are often grouped together, or at least grouped into a linear history of progression whereby the methods of the former are taken up and further developed by the latter, (4) close reading is far from being a homogeneous set of methodologies and practices. Instead, it is what Peter Middleton calls "our preferred contemporary term for a heterogeneous and largely unorganized set of practices and assumptions."(5) Jonathan Culler (who cites Middletons description) astutely makes the same point while hitting on the difficulty of thinking about "the closeness of close reading":

Perhaps what contrasts with close reading is not distant reading but something like sloppy reading, or casual reading, an assessment of "life and works," or even thematic interpretation or literary history. The fact that we have difficulty saying what close reading is opposed to suggests that it has served as a slogan more than as a name for a particular definable practice. …

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