Distant listening

by Rob Horning

30 December 2010


I have another Distant Listening essay up, about “Horse Latitudes” by the Doors, at Generation Bubble. These Distant Listening essays are 1,000 word pieces about a single song that seems indicative of something larger: a particular culture-industry strategy, or an emerging genre, or a dilemma that confronted pop musicians at a particular cultural moment. It’s supposed to be a play on Franco Moretti’s concept of distant reading—here is a New Left Review piece by Moretti about it, but the analogy doesn’t really work; these distant-listening essays aren’t crunching numbers and citing ngrams. Moretti defines distant reading as an approach in which specific texts disappear

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more.

My main purpose is not to write hermeneutic analyses (traditional “close readings”) nor to evaluate the songs in aesthetic terms but to use the songs as small windows onto some of those neglected “units,” or maybe take the songs as evidence of some building cultural tension or contradiction. This is sort of the opposite of what Moretti advocates, I guess, which would be to draw no conclusions until you studied an aggregate of songs. But on the other hand, he also wants us to consider how the form an object takes is a diagram of the forces which made it.

But mainly I hope my distant listening essays are funny even if not entirely persuasive. 

Twitter: @marginalutility


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