I’m mostly writing simply to thank Martin for organizing this blog. I hope it becomes a venue for informal discussion of opportunities and challenges in the field. I think we could use a forum a little less volatile than twitter and more public than e-mail, but less formal than publication or even a research blog.
I’m also enthusiastic because I happen to like the phrase “scalable reading” very much. It’s a good name for an enterprise that is difficult to describe — appropriately stressing the flexibility of a project that can range from macroscopic analysis of genres or social trends, through close reading of individual works, to philological investigation of individual words.
I’ll take the word “scalable” as a prompt to reflect on a challenge I’m now confronting — which is the difficulty, in practice, of downshifting from macroscopic analysis back to local critical observation. I’m finding this less a technical problem than a problem of motivation. Technically, I feel I have all the resources I need to make connections between different scales of analysis, and I feel that large-scale analysis has in fact helped me uncover some leads that would make good articles of a traditional kind, focused on a single author or a small group.
But the digital, and especially macroscopic, part of the project is so addictive that I find myself constantly circling back to it anyway: both because I keep tinkering (enlarging my collection or trying out a new algorithm), and because when I do write things up, I tend to choose macroscopic results rather than leads that point toward more traditional critical questions. I’m not sure this is necessarily a problem — but I am experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance, because my official stance on these matters has been that digital research can have a purely exploratory, propaedeutic function. I still believe that in principle. But in practice, if the exploration turns out to be addictive, it won’t be very propaedeutic!