Distant reading

Book Review
Distant Reading: Performance, readership, and consumption in contemporary poetry.
Peter Middleton.
U of Alabama Press. 2005. 241 pages.

Here in Madison Wisconsin I read a book that was written by someone who lives and teaches in the United Kingdom and that was published by the University of Alabama Press in Tuscaloosa.

Peter Middleton would argue that these geographical distances shape my reading of the text, and that they compose part of the book’s textual memory. They are part of its ‘long biography.’

More to the point of this book: Poems, too, have long biographies. And they have distances. A poem’s biography, and its distance, are shaped not only by geography but also by the venues in which it is performed, by the number of its of readers, and by all its publications and critical responses.

Middleton proposes the concept of ‘distant reading’ as an antidote to the practice of ‘close reading’ which, he argues, is far out of date. Why? Because close readings involve narrowly conceived literary political debates and restricted canons of examples. Close readings limit the available languages and concepts for discussing how a poem’s meaning may appear.

In addition, the concept of ‘close reading’ is misguided because one cannot locate the meaning of a contemporary poem in a singular, solitary encounter between one printed manifestation of the text and one sensitive reader. Rather, a contemporary poem produces its meaning across networks of readers, performance, intertexts, and visual presentation.

Middleton’s challenging book, Distant Reading, makes this point over a series of chapters that, in various ways, emphasize the sonic quality of language and the importance of performance in poetry.

In fact, he argues a poem is never “finished.” A poem is the totality of its ongoing historical activity. Much of that activity will never be recorded in writing and could not be known in its entirety.

The ‘work’ of a poem, Middleton argues, is not some meaning or assertion contained in the uttered text. Rather, a poem’s work is the entire field of interaction in which performance occurs. Performance extends, complicates, and sometimes transforms a poem’s meaning. Oral performance makes possible an ‘extended semantic repertoire’ in which poetry fulfills more of its potentialities. “Each poetry reading represents a collective effort to create something out of written texts that is still unarticulated,” he says.

In fact, Middleton argues, the audience and the poet collaborate in the performance. An audience is not simply a collection of autonomous individuals with independent experiences of the spoken poem. Rather, the performance event forms the audience. The performance creates an intersubjective network, which then becomes an element in the poem itself.

Were I to publish this book in a second edition, I would include an audio CD of contemporary poets reading their recent work. Given the book’s emphasis on performance, the inclusion of audio material would be logical and helpful.

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5 thoughts on “Distant reading

  1. I would agree in simpler terms, I think, that it’s not the text but it’s cause and effect? or the art is merely an artefact of the moment? Am I close?

  2. One of my professors (I’m a UW student) described “distant reading” as using computers to facilitate literary research. It can be as simple as using word-search to find specific phrases in piece of text, which my first English professor encouraged our class to do. A more complex example would be taking a large corpus (say Shakespeare) and running statistical software for certain words and constructions and determining which works are most closely related. From the looks of your post though, it seems that there’s still room for “distant reading” to carve out a distinct meaning.

    Also, cool blog.

    • Hi Tristan. Thanks for the comment. Because the Google Books project is digitizing books from UW’s Memorial Library and zillions of other places, word search should become ever more amazing as the years pass. Using statistical software to determine similarity of writing styles is a fascinating field. The 21st century version of the Hinman Collator, I reckon.

    • AutoMap is a text mining tool that enables the extraction of network data from texts. AutoMap can extract three types of information: content analytic (words and frequencies), semantic networks, and meta-networks.

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