What is Reading, if not Proximity?: From Hermeneutic Codes to Sensory Hallucinations

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti’s definition of distant reading in opposition to close reading is more provocative or playful than actual or, even, polemical; contrary to the misconceptions of many defensive close readers, as Ted Underwood puts it the binary is not a real choice or debate; Andrew Piper’s medial term “scalar reading” is useful and could be cited more (Piper 382). However, since we’re dealing with a binary opposition, I think in clarifying either term we need to question an assumption common to both: What is reading? This axiomatic concept is so close to literary scholars and subjects of a graphic culture in general that its assumptions are hard to see; below, I compress a history of relatively gigantic leaps (bearing out any rabbit holes, Alice, with a shrinking potion à la Moretti: “distance is…not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” [95, italics his]) in order to question Western visual/sensory assumptions of reading in light of distant reading’s turn towards information visualization.

The hermeneutic practice of close reading, or interpreting a text for self-enclosed meaning (“the capacity of a critical language to substitute itself for another language, to say x actually means y” [Piper 380]), has been the mode of literary crticism. Far beyond the New Critics of one hundred years ago, the scholarly practice of close reading an exclusively small canon of literary texts can be traced back at least some 2000 years to the practice of transcribing and interpreting what was then the only literary text considered to be important: the Bible. More recently, close reading especially in an English context emerges in the sixteenth century from the Protestant Reformation, which in conjunction with the new technology of printing made it possible to distribute God’s Word in the common tongue for interpretation beyond the priestly. Nonetheless, criticism of literary saints, until (but still) very recently has been the exclusive right of academic priests gatekeeping the path to conversion from signifier x to transcendent signified y.

Lost in this history, however, is an alternative philosophy of reading emerging from the Jesuit Counter-Reformation. “[I]n reply to the new Protestant medium of the letterpress,” writes Friedrich Kittler, the Jesuits employed sensually descriptive poetry adapted from the scriptures, “a theater of illusions for all five senses (although the sense of vision took absolute priority in all of the spiritual exercises),” in order to engage a “reading practice for readers who did not stick to the letter but rather experienced its meaning immediately as a sensual hallucination” (78). Likewise nor did the Jesuits use “icons or panels on a church wall” or “miniatures” representing a Biblical story; rather, they sought to create “psychedelic visions” to experience the (often painful) story themselves, for example the Stations of the Cross or the flames of Hell (78). Thus “[i]t was a new kind of image worship, which, like the hallucinatory readings, was not directed at the image, but rather at its meaning” (79). This is not reading x for y, transposing one language for another, but of experiencing a lived reality of x through/as x itself (the signifier as meaning). By the same stroke, the Jesuit “elite” engaged in a lived writing: they “worked over weeks and months with all possible mortifications of the flesh to actually achieve hallucinations” (79).

This emphasis on experience is different from the one lamented by those who fear distant reading as an encroachment on close reading. Stephen Marche, whose misuses of the word “data” and “information” I responded to in my previous post, argues that “literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data” using such phrases as “The experience of the mystery of language is the original literary sensation”, “Meaning is mushy”, and “The very first work of surviving literature [The Epic of Gilgamesh] is on the subject of what can’t be processed as information, what transcends data [i.e. ‘the ineffable’].” These ideas of literary experience are more Protestant (or pre-Reformation Catholic) than Jesuit: while Marche advocates for reading for subjective experience and subjective meaning, that experience still involves reading for meaning – the sacred “mystery” and “original” of a “transcend[ent]” signified. Likewise, the ineffable – what exceeds (linguistic) data’s ability to represent (which Marche wrongly calls “information”) – is different from something (i.e. some data) that can’t be processed as (sensory) information, i.e. at all. Since language always fails as perfect representation (because data never translates into 100% information), the experience of language as “ineffable” doesn’t need to be elevated to something “mysterious” if “mysterious” can be reduced to “uncertain,” i.e. a bit (see previous post). If we don’t read with the expectation of being brought from x to y in the first place, then the ineffable is nothing more than the banal experience of language’s everyday inadequacy. Hence the difference with Jesuit reading: the Jesuits processed language data not as sensory information coding/representing another set of linguistic data, but as sensory information. There was no “ineffable” insofar as, to their minds, graphs (whether graphemes or graphics) could conjure the flames of Hell, 1:1.

Now that I’ve mentioned graphs, maybe you sense where I’m going with this. In today’s culture of information visualization, is writing likewise undergoing a (counter-)reformation? Perhaps the important shift marked by “distant reading” is not so much in the “distant” part as in the reading. In Jean Baudrillard’s words, “ ‘virtual’ text (the Internet, word-processing)” is “work[ed] on…like a computer-generated image, which no longer bears any relation to the transcendence of the gaze or of writing….[A]s soon as you are in front of the screen, you no longer see the text as text, but as an image” (76). This very “text” you are reading is only the output of another underlying code designed to draw that text. Languages like HTML and CSS are instructions which tell the graphic user interfaces of Internet browsers how to draw text, images, layouts, etc. So, while the purpose of these languages is, to the computer, hermeneutic (translating from x to y), it’s so limited a hermeneutic relation as to be a misnomer since the computer doesn’t engage in the ambiguity of multiple critical readings; moreover, the purpose of these languages for the human user is not hermeneutic: they are languages designed to draw images, not to be read (except by a different kind of reader: a programmer coding or decoding them to figure out how the computer is unambiguously interpreting them). In this sense, today’s texts, and any hermeneutic engagement with them, already occurs at some level of what Kittler calls Jesuit “hallucination”. Moretti’s graphs, likewise, are graphics calculated and drawn by computer-code graphemes not themselves present in his book itself. Perhaps these graphics, then, reflect not only a shift in scale of hermeneutics (to the macroscopic), but a shift in writing/reading practice: from a rhetoric of representation to a rhetoric made more convincing through increasingly direct sensory engagement. (Cf. my discussion of an augmented-reality library database in Localities.) Piper, although he contextualizes his own reading practice in differentiation from the fifth-century Augustinian religious conversion model of reading (382, 384), describes his topological visualizations of Goethe’s corpus in a way reminiscent of Jesuit reading practice: while “reading is always simultaneously a practice of visual interpretation” as well as “decoding”, “topology undoes the binary distinction between text and illustration and rethinks text as illustrative” (388).

In a broader sense, this “shift,” however, may only reflect the broader biases of a “writing” culture. Jonathan Sterne deconstructs the written-culture/orality-culture binary by showing how “orality is not a very good description of non-Western, non-industrial cultures”: “There were technologies prior to writing that served some of its functions. Painting and sculpture externalized memory and solidified institutional forms over time. Musical instruments and musical technique were disciplines of the body that subordinated collective communication to abstract codes, even if they were not semantico-referential codes like those of writing” (220, 221). It was only colonial rhetoric that promoted “writing” as a superior cultural marker, and largely because of Biblical logocentrism that we came to view writing as a self-enclosed media form.

Writing practices have always been but one medium interacting among any number of other cultural forms of collective cultural hallucination. Close reading’s faulty assumption is not only its hyper-closeness to particular literary texts, but its hyper-closeness to writing as an exclusive and exclusively representational medium. Distant readings are no less prey to Western assumptions about reading, but their use of other graphics beyond the grapheme gestures towards writing not just as a representational rhetoric but as a directly sensory one that has precedent not only in sixteenth-century Jesuit Counter-Reformational practice, but in myriads of multimedia cultural forms both pre- and post-“literate”, Western and non-Western.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The intelligence of evil or the lucidity pact. [2004] Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Berg, 2005.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London and New York: Verso, 2005. Print.

Piper, Andrew. “Reading’s Refrain: From Bibliography to Topology.” English Literary History 80 (2013): 373-399. Web.

Sterne, Jonathan. “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality.” Canadian Journal of Communication 36 (2011): 207-225. Web.

What is Reading, if not Proximity?: From Hermeneutic Codes to Sensory Hallucinations