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  • Big Data:Communicating Outside the Medium of Meaning
  • Herman Rapaport (bio)

Quantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations.

—Moretti (2005, 9)

Beyond the horizon of the social, there are the masses, which result from the neutralization and implosion of the social.

—Baudrillard (1983, “Implosion of Meaning in the Media”)

The world is a civilized one, its inhabitant [mass man] is not: he does not see the civilization of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force.

—Ortega y Gasset (1964)

In 2009, Representations published a suite of essays on “surface reading,” a mode of textual analysis that privileged literal description over what Sharon Marcus and Steven Best disparagingly called “the excavation of hidden truths” by “critic heroes.” Despite all the mitigating qualifiers, this sort of approach pits a scientific mentality, based on anonymous information retrieval and algorithmic modeling, against a personalist hermeneutic mentality that, as in the work of figures such as Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, and Geoffrey Hartman, intuitively exposed latent meanings and formal associations that interpreted the literal appearance of what a text says by exposing the multi-dimensionality of its signifying features. For such “criticheroes,” as Marcus and Best would consider them, reading requires interpretation that works through various processes of meaning construction that aren’t to be found on the literal surface of a text.

For surface readers, the individual hermeneutical talent of the critic is thought of to some significant extent as a distraction, an impediment to what really matters: accurate, objective description of what is literally given. Anonymous, objective forensic lab work conducted by ordinary researchers [End Page 447] and not the refined Bildung and creative interpretive feats of great minds is what counts. Part and parcel of such a positivist approach is the predictable transition to machine oriented research whereby cybernetic logic replaces human imagining, given that “we take surface to mean what is [self] evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts: what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (Best and Marcus 2009).

If “surface reading” is the outright repudiation of “close reading,” this is the logical outcome of an academic tendency in the humanities to find strategies whereby to make room for oneself as a significant voice by putting establishment thinking out of business by swinging the proverbial pendulum to the opposite extreme of whatever came before. Instead of close reading, let’s have surface or distant reading; instead of psychoanalytical criticism, let’s have cognitive psychology (neuro-science); instead of epistemologically oriented criticism, let’s have materialist oriented criticism; and instead of critic-heroes, let’s have wonks good at inputting and retrieving cybernetic data.

With respect to “big data” itself, notice how a decades long attack on totalitarian conceptions of history, culture, and textual analysis—for example, the repudiation of so-called logocentricism—has been succeeded by a quest for total cybernetic surveillance whereby unimaginably vast quantities of data are swept up into visual models of enormous complexity that have been made for the purpose of showing complete networks of relationships for the sake of totalitarian apprehension and control. This, almost needless to say, is the predestined outcome of what people call “digital humanities” whose ambition is to survey, totalize, and manage. That there doesn’t appear to be an ideological rejection of this panoptical feeding frenzy is odd, because one might have thought that all the politicking against clôture and panopticism that has played so well to the liberal anti-authoritarian establishment within the humanities might have put a damper on the idea that the next literary critical vogue ought to be a totalitarian one.

Marcus and Best’s anti-hermeneutical bias is anti-individualistic in that it rejects the generally agreed assumption that literature is about meaning-making constituted in the mind of the reader as opposed to being a given (or fact) that is statistically rendered for the sake of collective apprehension. Leah Price, one of the contributors to the...


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pp. 447-457
Launched on MUSE
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