Pamphlet No 6 – Between Distant and Close reading

Franco Moretti explains the “Operationalizing” of Distant reading in an interesting pamphlet from the Stanford Literary Lab (see below). Operationalization is a process that transforms a concept into a series of operations. This in turn makes it possible to measure objects. In an empirical approach to literature we measure the space which a character occupies in a text. Moretti illustrates this by the example of Phèdre. Obviously the main character, Phèdre speaks 29%, Hyppolite 21% and Thésée 14% of all words in this novel of Racine. But the counting of words is not enough to determine the weight and position of a character in a text. The network theory suggests that the direction of the relationships in a system of figures shoud be measered (see Figure).

Abbildung 3 Moretti

The figure shows that Phèdre does not mostly talk with her husband Thésée or her lover Hyppolite, but with her confidante Oenone. And it shows that the main character of the novel, Phèdre, is not in the center of the relationships, but Thésée, her husband.

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Digital Humanities as an emerging field of practice has undergone a huge expansion. It facilitate the work of the humanities but seems to have the potential to represent it’s state, too, as it is shown in an interesting and widely read book of the MIT. One important debate in this context is the critique on the quantitative approach, as it is used by Franco Moretti, for instance. His famous book, Distant reading, collects various articles about his interest into evolutionary theory and the digital issue. It reconstructs Moretti’s journey towards quantitative analysis. In 25 years, historians might well define this book as the very moment in which quantitative turned into qualitative analysis in literary science.

2013, Moretti claimed that, in future, it will be necessary to renounce for close reading, that distant reading, from now on, is a knowledge condition – because, distant reading promises impartiality and neutrality. The scope of the critical literary project is “directly proportional to the distance from the text”, Moretti says.

But: It seems clear that distant reading does not work by not reading at all. Perhaps, we should discuss about selective or mediated reading. The latter would use search tools to generate statistics and charts. Close and distant reading create a dual perspective that strengthen the significance of textual analysis.

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Moretti knows that quantitative analysis needs an enormous amount of empirical data. He also knows that this will meet with many obstacles. But it might be that he overestimated the power of data. Scholars must not lose touch to the substance of their objects of study, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht says. Hybridity, as developped by Yvonne Spielmann, might play an important role. And: Is there a convergence of methods within the Digital Humanities? It might be interesting to compare Moretti’s concept for empirical literature with ideas for a quantitative history – see my posts on Big Data and Big Data in History to that.


Bild Distant ReadingFranco Moretti, Distant Reading, London 2013;

“Operationalizing”: or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory, in: Pamphlet, 6, Stanford Literary Lab, 2013;

“In Praise of Overstating the Case: A review of Franco Moretti, Distant Reading”, in: dhq 2014-1.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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