The Clue

As an early experiment into macroanalysis, Franco Moretti attempted to uncover how generic detective stories became Sherlock Holmes. In his essay “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” one of ten in Distant Readinghe concluded that the plot device of the clue was what separated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work from other forgettable subpar detective novels in “the great unread” of the time period. The clue worked for readers because it was a connection between the past event/crime and the present discovery. Readers particularly enjoyed making this connection. The clue worked as a trackable device which Moretti could follow in his distant literary reading of the creation of “detective novels” as a genre.

But the clue is also a critical signpost for historians. Many have compared historians to detectives. Even PBS. In Teaching Hidden History, another class I’m taking this semester, we curate 12 “objects” which teach students about a period in history. Our objects act as “clues” to connect students with past events. In the pedagogical example, I used clues to create narrative just as historians work with evidence.

To return to the process of distant reading or text mining, the coder must unearth which clues they are attempting to follow, just like a historian performing a traditional close reading in the archives. What is different is the scale at which they doing this analysis. The computer “reads” every word, just like a human, but it is up to the human to determine the units of analysis  at which the computer reads. As Moretti and Matthew Jockers confirm, the skill of the user is just as essential and macroanalysis will not make close readings obsolete.

One of the criticisms of digital history, more than a few decades into its disciplinary life, is that it has not created the insights promised by the powerful technologies. The types of questions and analysis performed by distant text mining will necessarily be different than traditional close reading, but digital historians still need to follow clues to their conclusions. Moretti’s slaughterhouse was the 19th century book industry, molding literary form to popular tastes. Like Conan Doyle, digital historians must ensure that our algorithmic black boxes don’t obscure our narrative but provide clues to the past.

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