Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fruits of The MLA
Moretti opens "Graphs" by remarking,
what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows - and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so.
This reminds me of a point made in my inaugural Valve post. How many members hath the MLA? The large number is largely a function of the number of college courses that need teaching, freshman essays that need marking, not really at all a function of any independent conception of a humanistic knowledge edifice that needs approximately twenty or thirty thousand toiling professorial hands - obliged to produce, even over-produce. Call this dynamic of superfluity ‘sorcerer’s apprentice syndrome’ (if you see what I mean.) It’s not the worst problem, but it deserves address from every promising angle. Moretti’s project presents a fresh angle: an institutionally vast discipline should try to find projects suitable for pursuit by vast numbers of university professors. Actually existing academic literary studies makes considerably more sense IF something like Moretti’s project makes sense. So, on behalf of the institution, there should be a concerted effort to make sense of such projects. Which is no guarantee sense can be made, of course. (Nor am I proposing all English professors be conscripted as Moretti’s research assistants, even if the sense he makes is gigantic. No, not at all.)
Let me make the same point a different way (anticipating and answering an objection). In his second paragraph Moretti lists a number of scholars on whose work he builds. "I mention these names right away because quantitative work is truly cooperation: not only in the pragmatic sense that it takes forever to gather the data, but because such data are ideally independent from any individual researcher, and can thus be shared by others, and combined in more than one way." Examples follow: graphs charting the take-off of the novel in Britain, Japan, Italy, Spain and Nigeria; data amounting to knowledge that could not plausibly be approximated by anything in an intuitive, appreciative head - however prodigiously well-read - of a different sort of scholar; a Harold Bloom, say. No one would have an aesthetic sense for what this data indicates, if it had not been gathered.
But now the inevitable objection: to suggest that literary studies take the quantitative turn is preposterous, Gradgrindian positivism. I am sure Moretti gets this a lot, so he surely has his answer down pat, but I’ll make one on his behalf (which is therefore not necessarily his.) Just as we are accustomed to the existence of a standing army of academic literary critics, so we should be pinched from time to time, to wake up to how strange this institution is - how obscure in its actual, aggregate intellectual (as opposed to pedagogic) function; so I think we are overly accustomed to the profound lack of cooperation that is the hallmark of humanities research, and could use occasional reminders here as well. Most literary scholars would no more simply use the results of a fellow scholar than they would use her toothbrush (I heard that joke somewhere.) Not without first transforming, interrogating, quite fundamentally refashioning so that this implement becomes the new possessor’s own. To look at a shelf of journals and see, mostly, rows of used toothbrushes, is not an energizing prospect.
I don’t mean to be apocalyptic about it. It’s a problem, not the Downfall of Western Civilization. I also don’t mean to suggest the problem is unique to English professors. (I think the original toothbrush joke was about professors generally, or maybe it was even about scientists.) But the problem is as acute in literary studies as anywhere, so it may as well be addressed here. I am personally in a position to say it is less severe in philosophy departments, where there is more consensus about what counts as an argument, hence more neutral portability of certain products. Of course this does not at all equate to intellectual value. Perhaps the philosophy department has purchased communication at the cost of significance, declining into empty scholasticism. But scholasticism at least makes sense for scholars. That is something. Given the fact that there are so many literary scholars, they ought to be seeking ways to make themselves more ... scholastic - while fending off decline into empty scholasticism, yes of course we need that, too. (We aren’t blind, you know.)
Obviously this is one of those pendulum things. Too many Morettis will call forth a new Edmund Wilson, making fun of "The Fruits of the MLA," which will not be funny paper titles, but mindlessly headlong factual accretions - graphs, maps and trees of no conceivable interest to anyone, except someone so inclined to the ceremonial overproduction of graphs, maps and trees that they miss the forest of hermeneutic/aesthetic interest. (Do people recall that Wilson wrote an MLA-mocking piece as recently as 1968, complaining about pedantic excesses utterly unlike the performative excesses we associate with the genre of MLA mockery?) But it seems to me the problem of too many Morettis is yet to arise, and should be dealt with when it does, not pre-emptively. Because this is one of those pendulum swing things.
It seems to me, to repeat, that the oddity of the deep incommunicability of results, within a large academic discipline - the lack of portability of the products across vast fields and subfields - should strike us more than it tends to. If it did, we would welcome projects lke Moretti’s more eagerly. An institution should look to its nature and try to find things that it is suited to do (as well as trying to change its nature so as to be capable of things it presently isn’t suited to do well, yes of course.) So again: actually existing academic literary studies makes more sense IF something like Moretti’s project makes sense.
The next objection strikes like clockwork: but you can’t just demand that literary studies professors start accepting each other’s results the way math professors accept each other’s proofs. The toothbrush joke suggests a basically arbitrary fastidiousness. But [insert your favored characterization of the ineluctably hermeneutic character of the humanistic enterprise] explains why this won’t do for, say, literary studies. Well, yes. But as an objection this has traction only if the likes of Moretti are not just quantifiers but monomaniac deniers of the possibility of anything valuable slipping through their nets of number. Which he, at least, isn’t. The final two sentences of section 1 of the first essay. "A more rational literary history. That’s the idea." Not a totally rational history, goodness no.
Why rationalize history? Well, because we CAN would have to be argument one. It is Moretti’s. Because literary studies is much less well off if we CAN’T would be argument 2, which I have made. I feel sort of odd even making it, because it seems quite obvious. Is it obvious to you?
I’d just restate the implicit argument of Gerald Graff’s “Professing Literature”: the criticism and discussion of literature has never really been at home in the modern research university. We’ve imported our professional M.O. from the sciences (e.g., the scholarly journal that comes out four times a year), and I guess our disciplinary rationale is that we’re “accumulating knowledge” in some way, even though the journal format and the model of quantitative “knowledge accumulation” does not suit literature or the study of literature at all. I’d guess that the future of academic literary study will go less in the direction of Moretti’s (deliberately counterfactual, to point up the absurdity of humanists trying to act like natural scientists?) model, and in more of a free-form, interactive model. I.e., the future looks more blog-like and less like the quarterly journal with all those footnotes that no one, not even scholars themselves, want to read.
See, this is the sort of thing - yes, right back to the initial Valve post - that makes me a little upset with you, John.
Most literary scholars would no more simply use the results of a fellow scholar than they would use her toothbrush (I heard that joke somewhere.) Not without first transforming, interrogating, quite fundamentally refashioning so that this implement becomes the new possessor’s own. To look at a shelf of journals and see, mostly, rows of used toothbrushes, is not an energizing prospect.
This is really too much, John. Learning to be a literary scholar, for better or worse, means learning to use used toothbrushes. The fundamental distinction between the precocious graduate students and the full-fledged literary scholar is staked right here.
I’m one to know, as I’m currently in the throes of transformation from precocious graduate student to proper literary scholar. Every piece I send out comes back, whether the verdict is “revise and resumbit” or “no thank you,” with the message: “Brilliant reading, but we can’t take it. Consult the critical heritage, recent and otherwise. Look at and address the findings of x, y, z.” I’m being forced to learn how to do this - because the discipline requires it. Serious gate-keeper effect: I’m not going any further with this unless I publish in prestigious journals. And I’m not publishing in prestigious journals unless I learn to do exactly what you say Lit Types don’t do - read and respond to the work of other scholars.
Obviously, this builds the thing in backwards, ex post facto. But, pavlovianly, when I start work on new stuff, you can imagine that I’ll consult the findings of my peers first before heading toward my own contribution. On-the-job training. And I’m not the only one to go through it… Nearly everyone does. You can see the signs of it in nearly everyone’s “first big publication.” The forced references, the chock-stocked Works Cited, the manditory opener with the state of the field. The thank you to the “anonymous readers” who suggested “such valuable paths to revision.” (Some have advisors in grad school who beat this into them early...)
Personally, and as I’ve probably made a bit clear, I’m a bit allergic to used toothbrushes. Too often, the previous owners been eating something not to my taste. But, whether this set-up is productive in the long run or not, the idea that the field isn’t doing it is just preposterous. Franco Moretti’s proposing a provocative new mode of doing what’s already being done. He’s quantifying where the general trend has been toward empirical narrativizing.
It still feels to me as if you lack a familiarity with how literary scholarship is actually done now, with the difference between, say, how Zizek does things and how, say, someone working on a monograph about Virginia Woolf or X in Victorian Fiction goes about their business.
What does “empirical narrativizing” mean, exactly? Listing facts in a sequential order? How could that be a trend?
Um, rendering the facts of the matter, historical, biographical, whatever, in narrative form. Conventional history writing, rather than, say, graphs.
Don’t be snarky.
Is any literary scholar at present qualified to do this type of research? Or is this another version (but a more acceptable one than that of the Theory camp, this being ‘science’ and all) of literary folk violently having their way with whatever discipline comes their way? Not that I wish to be rude, of course.
I didn’t intend to be snarky, but graphs themselves are always part of a narrative, aren’t they? I am confused about why you would say that an indispensable feature of any historical account is a prominent recent trend in literary scholarship, exactly. I don’t see that as being identical to (new) historicism, which sometimes is described as a neo-orthodoxy.
I also don’t mean to suggest the problem is unique to English professors. (I think the original toothbrush joke was about professors generally, or maybe it was even about scientists.) Scientists? Really?
I wonder (contra ‘CR’, and I think in line with your post John) whether the old chesnut regarding the humanities and the sciences doesn’t apply here? Chesnut, to whit: a modern-day scientist knows more about science than Newton or Galileo; knows more in the sense of ‘is able to do better science’; because science is aggregative. Standing on the shoulders of giants and so on. But who could name a poet who knows more about poetry than Shakespeare? (In the sense of is able to do better poetry than? Or probably in any sense). Poetry isn’t aggregrative in the same way.
This is more than a little crude, of course, but humour me. I’m taking this as the criterion for judging the worth of Morretti’s (really interesting) project. In a nutshell: is doing criticism more like writing poetry (I don’t know, La Carte Postale or something); or is it more like doing science? Do we work with the data of our forebears and push the frontiers back a little way, or do we sit in our offices waiting for the muse to move within us?
I simply meant to make the (rather uncontroversial claim, I think) that most contemporary literary scholars resort to prose rather than graphs when bringing the factual research into their work than graphs, like Moretti. His is more quantantative, the usual is generally more anecdotal. I really wasn’t trying to make an earthshattering point there. Perhaps I should have said “practice” rather than “trend.” Maybe that’s where we’re getting tangled up.
I think you’re question is a good one, the right one. I wasn’t taking sides in my initial comment - except to say that John’s version doesn’t match my version of the status quo. Evaluation I haven’t entered into, only description. I was saying what English departments are, rather than what they should be.
My apologies CR. Didn’t mean to sound like I was sniping at you.
it is less severe in philosophy departments, where there is more consensus about what counts as an argument, hence more neutral portability of certain products. Of course this does not at all equate to intellectual value. Perhaps the philosophy department has purchased communication at the cost of significance, declining into empty scholasticism
Are the ambiguity and subjectivity of literary endeavors due to the lit. people not being skilled in argumemt, or is it perhaps not being aware of facts ?—or being aware and not really minding. Basic argument structure is not that difficult (even a Joyce is not doing Goedel) and the most refined liteary type has some grasp of induction. It’s the nature of the facts--facts historical, economic, biological as much as syntactic or rhetorical--which the language refers to, or represents, instantiates, that the lit. people seem to overlook. Or, in the case of speculative fiction, the facts and details of possible worlds; which might be said to be an entailment of the present. Film dweebs used to call this verisimilitude, and that is not unrelated to logic, in a sense. If verisimilitude--the representation of facts, or the perception of facts-- is not part of the literary analysis, what is? I suggest then the belle-lettrist would do better in a course in Orchestration...........
John, I don’t think that the problem of “too many Morettis” would arise because his project, if sound, is necessarily aggregative. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.
I don’t see how this project really does much to give the putative oversupply of professors something new to work on. Surely the data collection itself is going to be done by grad students, and mere data collection generally does not lead to any kind of starring role in a career-boosting publication. And there are only so many different types of analyses that can be done with the resulting database. My guess is that you’d get a relative few professors who specialized in doing them, and everyone else would cite their results. The status of knowledge in the field as a whole might change in some way, but you don’t need an army of professors in order to make that change. Given that, I think that this type of analysis is unlikely to lead to a pendulum swing back to over-scholasticism, because it won’t be that connected to what most people actually do.
Look at even hugely influential databases like the U.S. Census database. There is indeed a huge number of people collecting it. Then it gets turned into “data products” by the Bureau and many different organizations have their census guy work on something from it. But most uses of it involve someone figuring out how to look up one particular piece of processed data that matters to them for some reason, after which they don’t have much concern with the actual processes of analyzing it.
The latest edition of the New York Review of Science Fiction popped through my letterbox today. The lead article is a piece called ‘The Exaggerated Reports of the Death of Science Fiction’ by Zachary C Wright, Eric S Rabkin and Carl P Simon. These gentlemen demonstrate the thesis implied in their article title with a whole bunch of graphs charting cultural production in SF (for instance: ‘Fig 2. Percentage of first publication stories (no reprints) from 1940-1999 set in the past’ and ‘Fig 5. Average author age at publication not including reprints’ ... each with jaggy lines marked out across their x and y axes). It looks like something out of the BMJ. It’s very Morettian, but Moretti gets no mention anywhere in the piece. Are these boys ahead of the curve, I wonder? Is it because they’re doing the ‘science’ as part of the ‘science fiction’? (Prof Rabkin is from an English dept, but the other two geezers are from depts of Biological Information and Mathematics respectively)
I think Moretti’s approach is a good one. A number of his diagrams are really useful and interesting. What Moretti does right is to follow the data rather than squeezing it to fit his thesis.
If the objections are incorrect, Galenson ; merely has found that some artists and writers are late bloomers and some peak early. Galenson’s labeling of artists most productive early in their careers as “conceptualists” and artists most productive late in their careers as “experimentalists” is arbitrary and unsupported by any data. He might as well have called them the “red” and the “blue” team, but that wouldn’t have gotten the results in the newspapers.
Joe O, your comment was corrupted, and I tried to edit it; but I can’t reconstruct your original sentence. Let me know, and I’ll change it.
I think Moretti’s approach is a good one. A number of his diagrams are really useful and interesting. What Moretti does right is to follow the data rather than squeezing it to fit his thesis.
At this site (http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001et&topic_id=1&topic=) Edward Tufte critisizes the book “painting outside the lines” (amazon link - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674006127/qid=1137009095/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/104-0965855-8349545?s=books&v=glance&n=283155) paper link- http://www.nber.org/reporter/fall03/galenson.html) that does it wrong. Even if Tufte’s objections are incorrect, Galenson merely has found that some artists and writers are late bloomers and some peak early. Galenson’s labeling of artists most productive early in their careers as “conceptualists” and artists most productive late in their careers as “experimentalists” is arbitrary and unsupported by any data. He might as well have called them the “red” and the “blue” team, but that wouldn’t have gotten the results in the newspapers.
So far as I know, Adam Roberts, Rabkin & co. have been operating independently of Moretti. A few years ago PMLA had a special issue on science fiction and Rabkin had an article in it. He discussed some of his genre evolution work there. He’s got a website for the probject:
I posted a bit about Rabkin & co. and their SF studies here. I think their project sounds quite interesting, in a Moretti-ish way.
Replying to CR: I am aware of the obligation for scholarship to bristle with footnotes. I probably should have made that clearer (and my toothbrush joke doesn’t really encode awareness of this fact, I admit.) But this bibliographic obligation doesn’t really cut against my point. Footnotes make connections, or at least purport to make connections. But the fact that someone has footnotes doesn’t mean that someone has ‘used the results’, per my post. Footnotes can be gestural and impressionistic, in their function, and I find they rather too often are. If someone writes ‘As x has brilliantly shown ...’ and includes a footnote to something x wrote, this is not a counter-example to what I am saying. This this sort of referencing happens a lot, I think you will admit. An essay with one philosophical/methodological framework can reference an essay with a different one, without thereby negotiating this difference in any definite way. What you get then is codification of Higher Eclecticism, as I call it, not cure for it. This isn’t to say that it’s evil or bad to have footnotes that merely gesture at the broad fact that ‘there seems to be some connection between this and this’, without establishing that connection. Merely that the fact that this gets done doesn’t really cut against my point.
This won’t convince you, because I’ve waggled the red cloth of ‘Higher Eclecticism’, which I know you don’t accept as a legitimate category; but let me just say that about two years ago I simply read a year’s worth of PMLA and rated each piece, giving my results in a little table (actually). I’ll just quote a bit:
“Maybe these pieces struck me as trivial because it is genuinely quite unclear why the authors themselves regard them as interesting. They aren’t well-written, and don’t make any attempt to draw the generally interested reader in - convince him or her a specific subject is especially interesting and worthy of study in its own right. I don’t mean these pieces aren’t infotainment. I am not demanding to be amused. I mean: if you aren’t leaning on something, you’ve got to stand on your own two feet or you’ll fall down. Most of these pieces don’t stand on their own feet; but they aren’t leaning on anything either. They are heavily inflected with ‘theory’, but it’s too impressionistic and amateurish to be the point. There is no sense of shared methodology, unless it is a shared sense that no methodology can really be trusted; so pieces by different scholars can’t be constructively coordinated. In the most elementary sense, there is no consensus whatsoever about what would constitute a good argument, or even good evidence. Certainly there are no overarching positive projects in view. But this really is a problem. If your piece is at best just a humble brick in the disciplinary wall, there had better be a wall. It’s OK not to believe in such a wall - i.e. to think current categories all need to be radically interrogated, etc., etc. - but then you’d better find some way to stand on your own two feet. You can’t expect to be valued as a scholar toiling worthily in some worthy little pidgeonhole if you don’t believe in the hole, and don’t believe it would be worth occupying if it did exist.”
You won’t like that either, because I think there’s such a thing as Theory, which has a certain dominance, and you don’t believe it, and this isnt the thread to argue about it. But I know you don’t think so highly of PMLA, so perhaps we can meet on that ground at least. The PMLA pieces are historicist, on the whole, but they are not written in such a way that they are readily coordinated with each other. They aren’t written like a lot of pieces in history journals. They are more methodologically eclectic. But of course they have lots of footnotes.
CR writes that the rigors of trying to get the damn thing into print will positively demand that “I’ll consult the findings of my peers first before heading toward my own contribution.” But this is a separate question. Of course you will consult, and of course you will make sure that your work is apparently engaged with all the stuff that it is generally expected that workers in your field should be engaged in. But (in philosophy as well) we call all do with a healthy dose of cynicism about this, I hope we can agree. Getting stuff accepted is like a job interview: you have to make a good impression. Looking at your work and asking ‘will this seem disciplinarily significant to a reader?’ The art of seeming disciplinarily significant is not the same as what I’m praising Moretti for, in my post.
One last real simple point about what CR says: I am not saying that everything in literary studies is eclectic and bad. I am saying there are problems, but of course it should go without saying that some good work avoids these problems entirely. But why emphasize the bad, CR asks? Why not look for good stuff? Well, yes: Moretti seems pretty good to me. That would be one example.
From Hans Adler and Sabine Gross “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature,” Poetics Today 23:2 (Summer 2002, pp. 195-220) p. 214:
Literary analysis is much less predicated upon correctness or provability of findings or the incontrovertibility of evidence. Instead, its “success” relies on such parameters as originality, appropriateness, inventiveness, or “insight value”: it may be measured by our degree of satisfaction with what is revealed or illuminated about a text. Most of all, literary interpretation generally does not aspire to the once-and-for-all-ness implied by the term solution. On the contrary, it is often unabashedly nonfinal, inviting supplementation or revision, in other words: conscious of its own historicity.
I agree - Moretti seems pretty darn good to me as well.
(Embarrassing anecdote / testimony to how good I think he is. I’m not quite sure this is absolutely true, but I have a feeling that I applied to the Ph.D. program at Columbia “to work with Franco Moretti.” Who, of course, by that time, had moved on (only just?) to warmer pastures. Big mystery why I didn’t get into Columbia. Though I’m absolutely sure they’re still getting Said applications now… Signs Taken for Wonders is the creme de la creme… Love it, reread it all the time...)
I also agree with your selfquoted paragraph, a lot of it anyway. To be honest and in particular, our wars on here have made me much, much more aware of theory franca, the sort of obligatory and empty rhetoric of the discipline. I’m still not ready to throw out my previously mentioned anthology of greatest hits.
So, which is it, I’m for little t theory, but a version of it that includes most of what one usually considers BIG T Theory? Or the other way around?
And I agree, largely with your response to my Portrait of a Scholar as a Young Man. Yes, it’s half hearted. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t done. My answer, generally, is forget all about it. Yours seems to be “Make it real!” Overall we still just disagree on which way to go, further in or back out.
Perhaps the philosophy department has purchased communication at the cost of significance, declining into empty scholasticism.
Moretti’s piece seems to me to belong to the history department, rather than the literature department. People seem to be questioning the tendency for students of literature to favor works describable as “better” than the others, but it seems to me that that is as it should be. This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to deal with novels naturalistically and positivistically, the way a zoologist would study all frogs rather than only talking about the best frogs. And the naturalistic studies of this type are valuable—in this case, for example, for reminding us that the great individual novelists appeared in a milieu where there were lots of intelligent readers trained for several generations by dozens of less-good novelists.
However, I don’t see that he’s doing the same thing at all as Fish or Edmund Wilson or whoever the other great critics are supposed to be. It seems to me that the evaluative, appreciative aspect is central to how literature should be read, and that finding the “better” literature is the whole point, in the same way that writing “better” books is the author’s main goal, and running “faster” is the athlete’s goal, and scoring “more” runs is the baseball player’s goal. In other words, there’s something intrinsically hierarchal and normative about literature.
If Bulwer-Lytton is taken as a type case of the bad novelist, I’m sure that as many or more true scientific facts could be found out about his voluminous oeuvre as about Jane Austen’s. But we don’t study literature to find facts.
Between 1750 and 1820, in fact, many more novels are published in Japan than in Britain; a fact which deserves a good explanation!)
Why? Do we also need an explanation of why Japanese ate more radishes than the English, whereas the English ate more sausages? I would expect that whatever explanation we find for such distantly-related facts will be of no great interest.
Historically, while I think that Braudel’s “longue duree” approach is perfectly fine, it’s getting pretty long in the tooth, and evenemental history should be making a comeback now that discontinuity and unpredictability has recovered some ground from gradualism and uniformatarianism. As for cycles, they’re also fine if they’re there at all, and doubly fine if they mean anything, but sometimes they aren’t and don’t.
CR ... you ... you sort of agree with me? Well, bowl me over with a feather. And when you stand me up, attend as I recite the following.
I truly did not intend my post, let alone this event, to amount to a conversion of Moretti into another club to beat Theory. (Let it be said: this event is Jonathan’s doing, and he is as well disposed to Theory as anyone on our author roll.) What heartens me about Moretti is the prospect of painstaking data collection and collation and etc.
Beyond novels, I contemplate the sheer volume of media in which we are collectively suspended: TV and film, music and advertising, from the swoosh-emblazened shoes on our feet to the mousse-encrusted hairs on our heads. Congratulations! You’ve discovered cultural studies (someone mocks the analytic philosopher rube.) No, I’ve heard tell of it. But it is my impression (perhaps merely anecdote-derived, hence mistaken) that there are many more essays on MTV speculatively spun out of Madonna anecdotes than solidly rested on compendious graphs, charting the rise and fall and rise and fall of heavy metal (for example), demonstrated with reference to playlists. The world is so full of a number of interpretable cultural products suitable for quantitative recordation by professorial humanists, that I think many more should be happy as kings, not so overproductively sharp-elbowed, nor sullen in the sight of each other’s toothbrushes. Do you ever go into a music store and hear the differential click-clack amongst the jewel cases of all the customers seeking whatever they are seeking and despair at the difficulty of STUDYING this? I very much do. John Emerson suggests that maybe this stuff belongs in the history department. It might also belong in the sociology department. Frankly, I don’t care who does it. It looks to me as though, for rather contingent reasons, there are a lot of people looking for work in the English department. I would be very happy if a lot more of them started being data collectors and miners, etc.
Of course whoever has a tremendous appreciative essay on Shakespeare in them should write it. I’m not proposing forcing anyone to study MTV playlists. But if it is a question of having one more batch of so-so Shakespeare essays, to be someone’s tenure portfolio, or one professor in the world keeping compendious track of MTV playlists and making interesting graphs, maps and trees out of them? I’ll take the playlists, thank you.
Academic literary scholars should be conservators of culture in the sense that they need to be archive-builders and cataloguers and arrangers and keepers and finders. Their natures suit them to these tasks. There is nothing culturally conservative about this, per se, but I think in an age in which few literary scholars ARE cultural conservatives, there may be a sub-optimal tendency to embrace a self-conception as a cultural recorder, in effect. And so, for example, the internet movie database is not an academic project but a commercial one. And I think the guy who does buffyology is just some guy, not a professor or anything. And there’s a little thing called google. I’m glad someone does these things. But why aren’t there more databases of cultural products built by academic humanists? Someone who gets every TV Guide going back to 1960’s and laboriously catalogues and graphs the rise and fall of every type of show and etc.
Magazines. Given that we have tens of thousands of English professors, I think we are entitled to a lot of intelligent data-gathering about the history of magazines.
I’m sure there are such folks, but it’s an ecological question: the proportion of literary scholars engaged in these types of projects is too low. I am sure it has to do with reward systems (among other things). This sort of cataloguing is, in a sense, intellectually low-grade labor. But it still has to be done intelligently, and it’s potentially valuable. It’s just the sort of thing that someone should do, and then file away in the hopes that other people will find interesting uses for it.
Anyway, these are the reasons Moretti looks good to me, not as a club to beat Theory.
Don’t get carried away, John…
All this maybe true, and I’m certainly open to it, though not for myself, oh no no no.
Perhaps we can outsource the English departments, retaining on our shores only a skeleton crew of Big Thinkers, to Bangalore and Guangzhou. Data entry mills, dissertation farms, cultural call centers.
The deskilling of American Humanities Inc.
Seriously… It seems to me that in all this swirl and whirl of aesthetic merchandise, there might also be room, nay, it might well be necessary that there’s someone around to make broad statements about all of it, “read” it as a whole or in significant parts. Someone, say, who has trained extensively in the history of entertainment, representation, and funness.
Someone to tell you, directly or obliquely, the way that Buffy, say, is playing out an old role, one borrowed from more than 2 centuries of gothic lit. Or someone to explain the ramifications of the fact that Halo takes a first-person, rather than a third person, POV on machine gunning death bringing.
I’m not saying there’s not room for the detail minded, the quantantative, and the archival. I’m just saying that in our dear sinking world, there’s a paucity of good cultural reflection going on. Too much, “huh… that’s cool.” We see it in our students, we see it at times in ourselves. We surely see it in the network schedules of the past several seasons.
Surely we can have both… But, no, I’m not volunteering to take up the task that my nature, according to you, suits me for. The argument “they’re not really up to much of anything else, so why not this” ain’t really going to fly.
Look, CR, when I say I think there should be more data gathering projects I’m certainly not denying there should be “someone around to make broad statements about all of it, “read” it as a whole or in significant parts. Someone, say, who has trained extensively in the history of entertainment, representation, and funness.” I’m not going to melt all the Big Thinkers down for Soylent Green to sluice through the feed-tubes dripping into the weeble-like data-entry drones who are reading TV Guide and extending one tremulous digit to tap-tap out how many sit-coms played on NBC in 1974. As you say: oh no no no.
There ARE settings between all and nothing. And, when we are discussing scholarly ecology - how many people should be working on what sorts of projects - those intermediate settings are almost the only ones that bear considering.
And of course when I say I would like data gathered I’m not saying ‘they’re not really up to much of anything else’. Take that SF study by Rabkin and co. I linked above. Do you really think I like the fact that Rabkin is counting different kinds of SF short story because I am independently convinced that he, personally, can’t do anything else?
You and I have been around on this point before, and frankly I’m at a loss as to why you want to misread me, when I’m sure you must be capable of reading me. When I say that I’m worried that the dynamics of overproduction induce a certain metaphysical hyperventilation - everyone is incentivized to pretend that they are engaged in tremendous transformative, paradigm-busting projects, when really it is unlikely that MOST scholars are capable of any such thing - you turn around and accuse me of wanting to give out merit badges for mediocrity (am I remembering that earlier exchange right?) But surely you know better what I am saying, right? I may be right, or I may be wrong, but I am hardly forbidding genius or ambition.
John, calmez-vous. I was agreeing with you, not misreading you. Just sort of giving it the ol’ “shotgun” when it comes to claiming seats in the minivan of genius. As I said, “Surely we can have both...”
But on the other hand…
When I say that I’m worried that the dynamics of overproduction induce a certain metaphysical hyperventilation
Every good leftist knows there is no such thing as “over-production.” In fact, it is a naughty word, a mystification. Only under-consumption, never over-production. (See Hobson, Imperialism, page 81 or thereabouts).
If I bother to turn to Hobson, p. 81 or thereabouts, will it tell me whether you are joking about there being no such thing as overproduction?
No, seriously, this is something I believe. As did Hobson. “Over-production” is a bad, bad word.
everyone is incentivized to pretend that they are engaged in tremendous transformative, paradigm-busting projects, when really it is unlikely that MOST scholars are capable of any such thing
Right. It’s almost all imitative of a handfull of paradigm-busting projects that are now 30 or 40 years old.
* * * * *
From an email I recently sent to Moretti:
These days I seem to be arriving at the view that interpretation (and its product, “meaning") is grounded in the need to talk about books (and movies and TV programs, etc) with ones friends. This is a social process, sharing texts with friends, calibrating ones responses against theirs, and so forth. The “meaning” generated in this process has as much to do with the process itself as with the texts. This is the work-a-day process of those interpretive communities that Fish talks about. You can see it on the web at any of the sites where fans gather together to talk about their favorite movie, TV show, comic, or whatever.
At a more sophisticated level you have reviewing and belletristic essays and then we have academic interpretation, which has labored mightily to distinguish itself from reviews and belles-lettres. I think the distinction is real enough, but it is more one of sophistication and erudition than of intellectual kind. And, of course, whereas reviewers are mostly concerned with current output, academic interpreters are mostly concerned with past output, provided, of course, that it is canonical. The fans, the reviewers, the academics, all are participants in the literary system. The academics may claim to be above the system, and may even try to be above it, but they are not. Their methods won’t allow it. Certainly all of the identity-based criticism is in the thick of the literary system, advocating for change in the system. And so forth.
Getting above the system so that one can examine it and, ultimately, explain and understand it, that is a different kind of business. It may well be that the avant-garde critics of the late 60s and 70s (my teachers, some of them) were attempting to do that by appropriating French thought, but that’s not quite what they accomplished. What they accomplished seems to have collapsed into Theory.
“Getting above the system”—that’s the key. Moretti is proposing some ways to do that and showing some results. I believe there are other ways to do it, some of them focused intently on individual works, even more so than is characteristic of so-called close reading.
Take a look at biology. Most known species—and there are many as yet unknown to biology—are not studied beyond what is necessary to classify them. A very few are studied intensely, for various reasons. Apes are studied because they are like us, fruit flies are studied because they are convenient for geneticists, and so forth. Well, we need to take all of literature—all of expressive culture—and see how it works.
CR: “Every good leftist knows there is no such thing as “over-production.” In fact, it is a naughty word, a mystification. Only under-consumption, never over-production.”
Can’t there be overproduction of texts? In the amateur poetry scene that’s sort of a running joke, but it’s also serious. People aren’t really satisfied with their text merely being written, they also want someone to read it. But the supply of people to read poetry is rather sharply limited, and the ratio of poems written to available reading time is always getting worse. And there doesn’t seem to be any overall way of increasing “consumption” of poetry in relation to production. Education of the public (either in general, or to appreciate poetry) would be something that would be great to do, but wouldn’t help this overproduction problem, since educated and appreciative people also are more likely to write their own poetry. The same goes with increasing population, or increasing the number of translations. And telling the people who do like to read poetry that they should spend more of each day doing it only leaves less time / mental energy for them to read other types of texts. Meanwhile, the amount of historically ratified good poetry that people could be reading instead of current production is ever-increasing. All of this has been written about most recently under the heading “attention economy”. You can describe it as underconsumption, I suppose, but the problem is that since one text can be read by many people, consumption has a limit that is reached much more quickly than production’s.
Not to suggest that professional academic texts are of the same worth, or whatever, as amateur poems. But the same problem applies: readers are also producers. Once the pool of producers grows to a certain size, there become more texts even in a sub-specialty than you can read, and adding more readers however done to that sub-specialty only adds more texts as well.
Of course you can say that some kind of analogue of competition will weed out the uninteresting poems, essays, or whatever. But that results in the same melancholy spectacle of unwanted texts metaphorically littering the ground that I associate with overproduction or underconsumption of physical items.
As mentioned above, I don’t think that Moretti’s research plan is really going to change things much in this respect—from my experiences with other kinds of database-driven work, I think that it can only become a small part of the eventual field of work, not something that would absorb the efforts of a large proportion of people.
I should add that careful study of Hirsch’s _Social Limits to Growth_ might provide a solution. Imagine that instead of academics competing in part through quantity, they had a cooperative agreement to limit their individual professional output to X number of papers and Y number of books per person per year (X perhaps being 1 and Y being fractional, but whatever). In that way, freed from the obligation to compete through quantity, they could focus more deeply on quality, and there would be more available readers for each text. If they wanted to write more, they could blog it or whatever—as long as blogs were not sources of professional esteem. (A careful study of Hirsch’s book reveals, I think, the hidden dark side of John Holbo’s “let’s blog more” proposal. As competition for lmiited, positional social goods like tenured professorships continues, it may become necessary for the successful candidate to have not only their own book and their own publications but also their own blog.)
Hobson, Imperialism, page 81 or thereabouts
>It is not inherent in the nature of things that we should spend our natural resources on militarism, war, and risky, unscrupulous diplomacy, in order to find markets for our goods and surplus capital. An intelligent progressive community, based upon substantial equality of economic and educational opportunities, will raise its standard of consumption to correspond with every increased power of production, and can find full employment for an unlimited quantity of capital and labour within the limits of the country which it occupies. Where the distribution of incomes is such as to enable all classes of the nation to convert their felt wants into an effective demand for commodities, there can be no over-production, no under-employment of capital and labour, and no necessity to fight for foreign markets.
I think CR is yanking John’s chain.
I don’t think overproduction of cultural products is by itself a bad thing. If you like reading poetry, you probably will like writing poetry. It isn’t brain surgery; you won’t kill anybody.
The combination of academic credentialism and overproduction can result in problems, but they are pretty much unavoidable.
I’m skeptical of overproduction arguments for the following reason: no one can or should be expected to read everything in a given field, unless you greatly constrict what constitutes a “field.” (I’m sure there are outlier cases.)
Scholarship is not written for the present; it’s written for the future. One of the great things about easily searchable databases (JSTOR in particular) is how often you can find relevant (not dated in any significant way) articles written on a topic twenty-five, fifty, and even one hundred years ago. The great battles in theoretical and metatheoretical literary scholarship have only affected the actual output of that scholarship, considered as a whole, rather slightly.
"I’m being forced to learn how to do this - because the discipline requires it. Serious gate-keeper effect: I’m not going any further with this unless I publish in prestigious journals. And I’m not publishing in prestigious journals unless I learn to do exactly what you say Lit Types don’t do - read and respond to the work of other scholars.”
I’m very sympathetic to CR’s complaints in his initial comment. But I have a friendly suggestion: Get out of the “literary scholar” business altogether if you think your work is better/more interesting free of the scholarly rigamarole. (I’d bet it probably is.) Write what you want to write and publish it in whatever venues will take it. Start up your blog again and publish it there. You’ll get more readers than if you published it in the academic journals.
Dan, I don’t think that all scholarly publication requires awkward obeisance to authority or is necessarily obscure. I think everyone experiences something like what cr was talking about, but I don’t think it’s universal. A couple of readers’ reports in a row can narrow your perspective here.