digital humanities digital rhetoric

close reading and the Ptolemaic universe

This post takes up where the last one ended. In discussions of theory, I often hear poststructuralism described as a Copernican moment. As the Earth moves from being at the center of the universe, with poststructuralism, we say, the human subject is decentered. Maybe. We can recognize, “in theory,” how subjectivity, agency, rationality are treated; it’s all postmodernism 101. So we are familiar with this analogy in the humanities. At the same time, poststructuralism is carried out through the work of individual philosophers and often through close readings. Certainly the work that has been undertaken with these methods has continued in the form of close readings. One of the compelling qualities of the Ptolemaic model of the solar system was that it was predictive. Based upon careful observations and measurements of the visible universe, the geocentric model could anticipate the movement of heavenly objects. In short, it was self-validating within its own metaphysics. Of course, the geocentric universe also depending upon having access to a limited amount of information about the heavens–what could be seen by the naked eye.

As is maybe obvious, close reading is likewise what can be seen of texts by the naked eye. As is perhaps also obvious, the geocentric model rested implicitly on the premise that the universe was made for humans to experience. Close reading also rests on the premise that texts are made for humans to experience. The text/close reading argument seems more plausible because texts are written by people for people… right? Well, at least we can say that texts are the product of cultural/social forces as opposed to the natural forces of the universe… right? Instead, if we asserted, in a Latourian sense, that texts are a product of human and nonhuman forces, that they are not necessarily made “for humans” any more than heavenly bodies are.

IF we made such an assertion, then what would we make of the methodology of close reading? What kind of knowledge would we say that it produced? Certainly it could tell us something, in a kind of ethnographic way, about how humans experience texts. And really that’s all close reading ever aspired to be. No one would claim that an interpretation would tell you what a text “really” is. It’s just that we never really gave much thought to there being anything worthwhile about texts beyond our relationship to them. This is what I see in digital humanities: an investigation into how texts operate in a scope that is outside our direct experience with them. (Set aside for a moment, if you will, the correlationism issue.) In this context, I’m not sure how close reading and macroanalysis (to use Jockers’ term) will play together. I’m sure people will continue to be both. It just seems to me that if we accept the ontological premise of macroanalysis then close reading becomes a strange kind of practice, more like astrology than astronomy, imagining that the stars tell us about ourselves.

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