The term ‘distant reading’ resonates across DH: It is played on in book titles (Distant Horizons, Underwood 2019) and adapted to new fields (‘Distant Viewing’, Arnold and Tilton 2019). It spurs alternative formulations (‘Scalable Reading’, Mueller 2012) and is present in mainstream media (“What is Distant Reading?”, Schulz 2011). It is a popular and integrating term, but can take very specific meaning as well.
However, the semantic content carried over in each case of adoption or adaption is often unclear. Recent debates, like the special issue of PMLA (On Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading 2017) or the paper by Nan Z. Da (Da 2019) and the reactions to it, have challenged some of the assumptions of ‘distant reading’. Also, the polysemy of the term may have contributed to misunderstandings in these debates.
Therefore, our aim is to recover the historicity of the term ‘distant reading’, first introduced by Franco Moretti (2000) in his discussion of world literature as a system, by delineating how its meaning has changed over time and reconstructing some of the key theoretical assumptions it carries both as a term, a concept and a practice.
This contribution has emerged from work in the COST Action “Distant Reading for European Literary History” (CA16204, https://distant-reading.net), a pan-European, collaborative networking project launched in 2017.