(Mis)Adventures in Distant Reading

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Trained as a traditional literary scholar whose primary mode of analysis is to read texts, images, films, and other cultural products closely, I decided recently to expand my methodological toolbox and explore computational approaches to literature. What follows is my “lab report” on the “starter” analysis I conducted and what I (re)learned about methodologies in the humanities.

The Project

Departing from the perspective that in the 19th century United States neither social customs (social norms) nor the law were regulatory or organizing forces for society, I attempted to show through computational methods that 19th century fiction, through the genre of the custom sketch, alerts us to the waning of custom as an organizing principle for society and the rise of the law, particularly federal law, as the main source of social regulation. In so doing, I meant to highlight that the fiction of the time was registering a paradigmatic shift in not only how society was organizing itself but also on how national law grappled with local custom for the supremacy promised by the Constitution. This research question is intimately connected with the tensions between the country and the city, the rural and the urban, the local and the national, and the particular and the universal.

For a bibliography and a complete list of texts in my corpus, please visit the about page for this project.