Close and Distant Readings Commensurate with Close and Distant Writings


It occurs to me that one consideration regarding close and distant reading is that there are limitations of “zoom” based on the work itself. The closeness or distance with which a work can be read must be commensurate with the level of minute detail and symbolic density (for close reading) or abstract generalization (for distant reading) infused in the work by the author. That is to say, the reader cannot perform such a close reading that would involve attributing significance to individual words or phonemes or patterns of these constituent pieces if the author did not consider these minutiae when he or she composed the work. It would be like zooming in to an image to the point where the whole screen is a blur of individual pixels: while some inspired viewer might find some highly subjective interpretation of the pixellated blob, we can not say that that blob is representative of the larger, zoomed-out image in which the resolution befits content. Close readings thus work well with works whose authors, through attention to detail, have infused each component of that work, be it a phoneme or a brush stroke, with intention.

The same principle holds true for trying to scale your perspective of a work above and beyond what the author designed. In the same way that poets often design their works to be scoured microscopically, novelists often generate their works with grander messages, meanings, or morals intended to emerge out of and beyond the literal meaning of the individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. These works, in this sense, lend themselves to being read in ways greater than the sum of their parts. It is this function, to keep with the example of the novel, that enables satire and other forms of socio-political commentary. While some media and works, by design, lend themselves to very distant readings, as with microscopic readings, the cultural-consumer can be telescoping in their reading of a text. Readers can slather grander meanings onto texts never intended by the author, and can use these readings of texts for their own philosophical or political agendas.

As with too close a reading of a text, too distant a reading can allow the reader to infuse/impose meaning into a text that, though unintended by the author, can be actually meaningful to the reader. When this is done frivolously or in a way that doesn’t impact others, these hyper-readings can be beneficial, allowing the reading to subjectively experience greater meaning than otherwise might have been possible from a given text.

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