- Extreme Reading:Josephine Miles and the Scale of the Pre-Digital Digital Humanities
"The poets are treated as cases and the word counts are treated as variables" (Figure 1). This statement is posted in the heading of a continuous-printed scroll that I pulled from an archival box in U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library in the summer of 2017.1 The ruled perforated paper was pin-fed through an early dot-matrix printer nearly sixty years prior, in 1958, long before we began exalting and blaming the digital humanities (or DH). Reprising decades of painstaking statistical description by the poet and critic Josephine Miles, the factor analysis recorded in the printer pages is contemporary with and more sophisticated than the earliest experiments in humanities computing identified in standard genealogies of the digital humanities.
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But not until recently has Miles's pioneering career been identified with contemporary work in DH. Credit goes to Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan for publishing this past April the first article that asks that we place Miles at the origin of DH, replacing the Italian Jesuit, Father Roberto Busa, whose concordance to the writing of Thomas Aquinas (the Index Thomisticus) has been routinely cited as the earliest pioneering work of computing in the humanities.2 I have my own bumper sticker version of this argument and have offered as a slogan, when speaking in a similar mode of feminist recovery, Enough with Father Busa, let us praise Mother Miles. However, I have been less sure, of late, that displacing an Italian and replacing him with a woman—whether Miles or Janice Radway, another candidate and contestant—resets the distant reading agenda, clearing it of unwanted associations.3 In fact, I am twice wary of promoting the genetic fallacy and in some doubt that we can simply commend or reproach the digital humanities or the narrower practice of distant reading with which it is often identified on the basis of its original or its most notorious practitioners.
Rather, I seek to tell a story about the pre-digital scale of word-byword reading that informs the analysis summarized in the printout. The scroll is archived with Josephine Miles's papers in the Bancroft Library along with Miles's own computer-assisted concordance project (one that rivals Busa's, as Buurma and Heffernan convincingly demonstrate, both in its use of IBM machinery and in its scope). It is stored also with several cartons of personal correspondence and typescripts, and more than 300 folders of tabulations and word counts, most of which were recorded by hand in Miles's tight, tiny cursive script. The handmade counts are neatly inscribed on thousands of small three-hole punched notebook pages; they are the traces left behind by Miles's reading practice. It is these notes, the record of close quantification, assembled over decades, to which my title, "Extreme Reading," refers.4 The pages are specimens from the long history of quantification and indicate counting as a prelude to computing.5
In this essay I will reconstruct how these counts were made and consider the frustration (Miles's) and the distress (mine) they may subtend. Unlike much DH work done today, which will be difficult for future historians of the discipline to recover in its details, Miles's quantifications were carefully archived and document her reading at the far limit of descriptive literary history. But haunting my strong interest in and identification with these archival materials is my despair, brought out by the busy pointlessness of recounting Miles's [End Page 356] countings, an effort which necessarily underscores her misapprehensions and errors and complicates my effort to celebrate her scholarship. Moreover, I am uncertain how to understand Miles as a disabled woman, an identity which figures so prominently in most accounts of her critical and creative work. Where a recuperative reading might emphasize limits overcome, I would speak more generally to the scale of Josephine Miles's project, its solemn purpose, and wish to display the monumentality of her labor in a grimly reflective mood. My chosen tone may...