Saturday, January 14, 2006
A Hundred Flowers
Part one: Let a hundred flowers bloom
Moretti’s work only becomes a “problem” for literary studies when it claims that its method ought to replace the ones currently in use. So far as I know it does not. Ergo: what’s the problem? Let a hundred flowers bloom. The more ways we have of studying what we’re interested in, the better.
There may be problems with the metaphors or with the statistics Moretti uses. Christopher Prendergast makes the case against certain of Moretti’s moves fairly clear in his NLR response (the short version, focused on the argument in “Trees”: there’s no reason to suppose culture functions like nature). This is fine; the “rest” of literary studies is also a place filled with people arguing about the validity of one methodology or another. No one says that we should all stop using etymologies to close read because Heidegger knowingly used false ones. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
If it can be improved or modified—and of course it can—then Moretti’s method (call it distant reading, Annales-style longue durée historicism, or sociology of literature) will benefit from having more people engaged in it. Presumably these people will disagree. This will increase the number of epistemological possibilities, some of which will prove more convincing than others. Perhaps even that movement could be the subject of a Moretti-style evolutionary study. In any case: let a hundred flowers bloom.
Why, then, is Moretti’s work controversial? Partly because what he is doing is new and interesting, and partly because it comes at a moment when the last major wave of new ideas seems to have foundered. Many people seem to want a new Theory to replace the exhausted old Theory. These people need to relax. Moretti is like a guy who shows up to the party with liquor right after the keg has been emptied. Part of why he is welcome is because he is saving some people from boredom or despair (he writes: “it is precisely in the name of theoretical knowledge that ‘Theory’ should be forgotten, and replaced with the extraordinary array of conceptual constructions—theories, plural, and with a lower case ‘t’—developed by the natural and the social sciences”). People who are desperate to cling to the old keg—either because they have grown to love it, or because they think there’s still beer in there—sometimes feel threatened by the new guy at the party, and want to say that he shouldn’t be at the party at all. But surely there’s room for the beer drinkers and the liquor drinkers in the room; let a hundred flowers bloom. In this I am more catholic than Moretti himself, who in the lines I cite above seems to want everyone to move away from the keg and get to the good stuff they’re drinking over at the science fraternities.
From another perspective what Moretti is doing is not that new at all. Louis Menand points out in his Professions 2005 essay is that literary studies has always transformed itself by borrowing wholesale from other disciplinary structures. “Theory” as a branch (so thick it became a root) of literary studies produced its momentum out of encounters with linguistics (Saussure, Jakobson), anthropology (Lévi-Strauss), sociology (the Frankfurt School, Bourdieu), psychology (Freud, Lacan), history (Canguilhem, Foucault) and philosophy (Derrida, Levinas, Nancy, Lyotard, not to mention Marx, Hegel, and so on). The “real” linguists, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers go on to decry literary studies’ adulteration of their ideas; rinse and repeat. In this sense the newness of Moretti is just the kind of newness we in literary studies have always wanted. I would not be surprised if this newness operates on 25-year, generational cycles (though in the academic humanities you might have to account for the distortions produced by the nine years it takes, on average, to get a Ph.D).
Will I go on to do Moretti-style studies of literature? No; close reading mixed with deconstructive theory makes me happiest. Would I welcome someone doing Moretti’s kind of work as a colleague? Of course I would. Will I suspect such a colleague of falling too far into sociology and forgetting about language? Will I wonder if s/he has turned the longue durée into a fetish? Certainly. But that’s what argument and conversation are for; flowers don’t just pollinate themselves.
Part two: what’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and interpretation?
The most polemical thing Moretti writes appears in the last paragraph of “Trees,” where he says that his approaches “share a clear preference for explanation over interpretation.” This reminds me of Lindsay Waters’ recent piece in the Chronicle (already blogged about on The Valve by Miriam Burstein and Daniel Green). Waters claims that a recent book by Walter Benn Michaels exemplifies what’s gone wrong with English in the past forty years: “the complete and total ascendancy of hermeneutics. Instead of the erotics of art, we’ve got the neurotics of art: the meaning-mongering of interpretation for its own sake.”
What’s wrong with interpretation? It sucks the life out of beauty, says Waters. It can’t see “the larger structures within which [novels] have meaning in the first place,” says Moretti. Both these claims seem ridiculous to me, Waters’ because he has no idea what I think of as beautiful, and Moretti’s because of the word “first.”
But that’s not really want I want to talk about: rather it seems interesting to me that two people who couldn’t, presumably, disagree more about what literary studies should do and be (for Waters “beauty” is not in graphs or maps but in the ineffable experience of reading) both decide to frame their remarks as an attack on the primacy (“first” again) of interpretation. As Prendergast points out in his NLR piece, these claims are, of course, interpretations. Amateur deconstruction aside, however (not that Prendergast himself is either amateur or deconstructive), one might wonder—and this is a historical question sustained by a close reading—why right now, in January 2006, “interpretation” has become the word for what’s wrong with literary studies (as Waters points out, Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” is now 40 years old). A serious historical answer to this question would require recourse to the kind of resources marshaled by a Nora project or the gang at Google, or an army of graduate students, or perhaps just a few more hours of time than I’m willing to spend on it.
Nonetheless let me gesture towards an answer by suggesting that “interpretation” actually means something different in each case. For Waters (as for Sontag) “interpretation” valorizes the study of the text as a hermeneutic exercise blind to aesthetic pleasure. Making the text speak as an instance of pseudo-philosophy (this is what Keats is telling us about the relation between truth and beauty), pseudo-architecture (this is how Keats tells us about that relation), or pseudo-history (this is what Keats tells us about the understanding of truth and beauty in his era) instrumentalizes the beauty that is the subject of the text in the “first” place, and thus constitutes a kind of technologization of the real that is part of the life-destroying force of modernity (my rhetoric here matching Waters’, if you care to read his piece).
For Moretti, on the other hand, “interpretation” suggests a kind of belles-lettristic focus on the text at the expense of the “larger structures” and “temporal cycles” within which the form as the subject of a materialist history operates. Interpretation does not arrive at the “first” place of the text because it fetishizes local meaning at the expense of historical materialism. Though Moretti believes that no “single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system,” what he’s interested in are “production” and “social systems,” not interpretations which are themselves presumably only expressions of those systems or attempts to ignore them.
My theory of the historically negative force of “interpretation” in January 2006 will, it seems, have to account for the fact that “interpretation” means different things to different people who could nonetheless, through a distant enough reading, be seen to be arguing against the same thing. Does this “close” (not that close, frankly) reading of “interpretation” suggest that a more “distant” historical analysis of its appearance has lost all claim to the truth? No, because it still matters, I think, that the word “interpretation” is used in both cases. But I am suggesting that such a distant reading without an accompanying close reading will be missing out on at least some of the truth, just as a myopic focus on the difference between these uses of interpretation will fail to grasp the broader historical context within which they function. There is no room for “first” or “second” place in such a scheme. Rather there is an accommodating sense that no one method has all the answers, one that should produce a corresponding modesty about interpretive claims.
I say it again: let a hundred flowers bloom. This is not a simple metaphor (just ask the ones Mao beheaded). Blooming is connected to reproduction, which is, as Moretti knows, a competitive process. In a few generations some flowers will be gone, and new ones will emerge; there’s not enough room in the field for everyone. Some very good people will be kept out by the dominant modes of criticism—try writing a dissertation on “hubris in Byron” these days and see how far it gets you—and some others will flower perhaps even more than they deserve, thanks to shifts in the critical winds. But the field of literary studies is not the same as a field in nature, the difference being that in literature the blooms exert some control (never as much as they’d like) over their environment. Letting others bloom requires opening yourself to the possibility of being taken, or overtaken, by the other flowers in the field, allowing yourself to be seduced by the idea that in the long run someone else is more important than you. That admission can cripple you, or it can return as an affirmation. Molly, blooming, knew this:
“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”
Eric Hayot is associate professor of English at the University of Arizona, the author of Chinese Dreams: Pound, Brecht, Tel quel (Michigan, 2004) and co-editor of the forthcoming collections Sinographies: Writing China (Minnesota, 2007) and The EverQuest Reader (Wallflower, 2006). He is a writer and editor at Printculture.
Immanence seems to be important here. I think Benn Michaels is accused of Gordian knot slicing with his attitude towards it. A primary goal of interpretation is to recover intention, not necessarily elaborate experience. The degree to which this is achievable through a close reading of a given text is proportional to how much of the whole a given social narrative must contain. Perhaps maps, then, are needed to orient yourself through totality (Totality is a misshapen gelantinous thing in one of Vance’s Cugel stories. He eats it, Cugel does.)
Johnathan, you wrote:
“A primary goal of interpretation is to recover intention, not necessarily elaborate experience.”
I think this is right at some level but I think that I’m a lot more sanguine about what I think we’re doing in literary studies than a lot of folks, and I’m not sure that we’re in the “recovery” business at all, at least not in the sense that “recovery” implies going back into the past to find the stuff that’s been lying around the whole time. I tend to think of us as in the “invention-discovery” business. I don’t think it’s really decidable whether any given work of scholarship “invents” (figures something out that no one’s ever seen or known before) or “discovers” (finds something no one’s ever noticed before, but that was in fact there the whole time) its major proposition.
For instance: does Moretti’s work “discover” these structures (maps, graphs, trees, etc.) or “invent” them? I would disagree with anyone who had a single answer to that question, and I think that following up on the ethical implications of that non-definitive answer is what gets me to the basic position I take up in this post.
As for “how much of the whole a given social narrative must contain"--well, this is the trick. I think many scholars assume it contains all of it--kind of like every cell in a body contains the same DNA… of course the question then becomes whether the part of the cell you’re looking at actually *is* the DNA… or just some random enzyme.
I tried to address some of these issues--about discovery and invention and the problem of immanence and historicism--in my post above. I admire in some sense the gesture of creative destruction, which I see a little bit of in Moretti’s project, which tactically and perhaps intemperately, throws out entire critical projects and scholarly histories to find a new way.