[Humanist] 29.696 big vs small

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 8 07:34:29 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 696.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (33)
        Subject: local detail and global structure

  [2]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (15)
        Subject: Re:  29.692 big vs small

        Date: Fri, 5 Feb 2016 08:53:40 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: local detail and global structure

With all the qualifications of methodological blur between big and 
and small I still think, for the literary questions I know about, that 
potentially divergent trajectories of attention and effort are involved. 
My point was, I suppose, actually two points: (1) that both are 
needed for an informed reading at either scale, but that (2) the 
large scale eventually carries you off into a concentration on 
literary history, which is a different kettle of fish from literary 
criticism, related and important but different. For the set of 
interests I was trained to cultivate knowledge of the large is 
the homework you do before getting down to the individual 

For combining the two I am particularly fond of Clifford Geertz's 
words on "the characteristic intellectual movement, the inward 
conceptual rhythm" he found in the ethnographer's fieldwork: 

> namely, a continuous dialectical tacking between
> the most local of local detail and the most global of global
> structure in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view.... 
> Hopping back and forth between the
> whole conceived through the parts that actualize it and the parts
> conceived through the whole that motivates them, we seek to turn
> them, by a sort of intellectual perpetual motion, into explications
> of one another. 

This is found in "'From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature 
of Anthropological Understanding", Local Knowledge, p. 69.

Once again a both/and I would throw against the either/or of current 
faddism. Or, more politely, ask: what is the aim of the work? Or, 
professionally, what discipline is served?



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, Western Sydney University

        Date: Sat, 6 Feb 2016 11:12:28 -0500
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  29.692 big vs small
        In-Reply-To: <20160206083705.C9ABD7F60 at digitalhumanities.org>

I think the general question about scale is field-dependent and should be
considered separately from the specific question about big data vs. close
reading in textual analysis.

The problem with big data use in literary analysis is that a word is never
-a- word: it's a cluster or range of meanings produced by dozens of
interpretive decisions made while reading. I think big data only becomes
useful when it starts to inform close readings (say, word clouds associated
with specific authors). Otherwise, unless it can distinguish between
different meanings or even inferences of the same word (say, "green"), it's
comparing unlike objects. Is it green grass, a green employee, someone
green with envy, or a green initiative?

We can tag individual words with a range of context-specific meanings, of
course, to make our big data more valuable, but then that's only possible
after a close reading.

Jim R

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