Biases in Distant Reading

In Richard Jean and Edwin Roland’s essay “Race and Distant Reading” they define distant reading as a process used to “describe the use of quantitative method to study large, digitized corpora of texts”. Basically the practice of this method is to analyze a large number of texts through a digital system, in order to find common textual patterns. The term was coined by literary historian Franco Moretti and has since been debated and critiqued in the field of DH.

The critiques in question have a common thread in the readings we had this week and honestly it’s not something I was exactly shocked to hear about. Biases against race and gender have long been an issue in the literary world. The nuances of both factors are often neglected and not accounted for and distant reading fully showcases that. With distant reading we don’t get the close attention to detail that these components fall under. Lauren F. Klein’s essay “Distant Reading after Moretti” explains that this seems to be a problem of scale- “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 this is where the problem arises. With a “passing over” way of analyzing texts we are left with clich├ęs and stereotypes based off of assumptions.

Not only can these assumptions cause inaccuracies in results but in today’s society the idea of this way of thinking and organizing is just not plausible. Labeling things to fit the criteria of a certain race or gender is near impossible considering the social construct of both is always changing. Gender is no longer just an M/F category and thus should not be viewed as such. In Laura Mandell’s essay she references professor Donna Haraway in “Gender and Cultural Analytics: Finding or Making Stereotype?” and sums up how gender should be viewed in distant reading. One line that really stuck out to me is when she says that gender in writing should be defined as a “category in the making”…as a set of conventions for self-representations that are negotiated and manipulated” Similarly in “Race and Distant Reading”, Jean and Roland state that “the racial ontology of an author is not stable; what it means to be white or black changes over time and place”,they use author Nella Larsen as an example where today most scholars will identify her as black while in the 1920’s she was referred to as mulatta.

Furthermore it goes without saying that race and gender should absolutely not be the only signifier to allude to a writer in analyzing their identity. There are a number of elements that go into forming a person’s identity and such elements should be taken notice of. Klein suggests that exposing these injustices will help make the practice more inclusive, something I really hope takes off because in my opinion the concept of distant reading seems like something that can be of great use in the world of research.