As others have mentioned in class, I also generally approach the readings for the week in the order they are presented in our course schedule. And I was excited to be learning more about distance reading: how it’s not necessarily an argument against close reading, seeing similar arguments about acknowledging “data as capta” and that there’s no such thing as an objective distance reading, but there’s room for more complexity and nuance. And of course lots of mentions of Franco Moretti, who originally coined the term.
Then I get to Lauren F. Klein’s “Distance Reading after Moretti.” Moretti has been accused of sexual harassment and assault, the details of which became more broadly known during #MeToo. After briefly acknowledging this, Klein goes on to discuss the ways in which a lack of representation in the field contribute to certain distance reading practitioners reinforcing problematic power structures. Klein says, “And like literary world systems, or ‘the great unread,’ the problems associated with these concepts, like sexism or racism, are also problems of scale, but they require an increased attention to, rather than a passing over, of the subject positions that are too easily (if at times unwittingly) occluded when taking a distant view.”
And then I get to two readings, both written after the allegations, that engage with Moretti and his contributions to the field: Laura Mandell’s “Gender and Cultural Analytics: Finding or Making Stereotypes?” and Richard Jean So and Edwin Roland’s “Race and Distant Reading.” My first thoughts are, can we separate the work from the person who performed it? (I’m not sure, but I’m skeptical.) And then what is the responsibility of a scholar to be aware of such abuses of the people they reference? My first thought was perhaps (being relatively new to the field and unaware of different scholars’ relationships to each other and to the general happenings within DH), maybe they didn’t know. Or maybe this is another issue where the publication date isn’t actually representative of the chronology in which they were written. But both of these articles include Klein’s panel discussion in their works cited. Admittedly both articles are critical of Moretti, but those criticisms are separate from the sexual assault. Do they have to acknowledge this? Does not acknowledging it let Moretti retain his privileged position within the field as being someone against whom discourse on distance reading necessarily has to reference and frequently appear as a starting point from which criticism must begin? I definitely wouldn’t advocate for erasing him from the history of DH and/or distance reading, but I’m not sure just being critical of his work is enough when it’s clear the authors of the latter articles are also familiar with the rape and harassment allegations.
Is this something that only comes with more time (and even if that has been the case, is that the example we should follow)? Is there reputable discourse on the “founding fathers” of the United States that doesn’t address their owning and raping of slaves? (Now that I’ve asked this, I’m fearing the answer may indeed be “yes.”) Medicine certainly still has many skeletons in its closet to contend with, but there has been a movement to rename conditions previously named after Nazi doctors. (I’m not sure this is an example to be followed, but naming medical conditions after people is incredibly problematic and also not very helpful in understanding what a condition really is anyway, so that’s its own can of worms…)
I’m not sure exactly what repercussions Moretti has faced, though I fear little. I found this article from the Standford Politics about him and another professor.