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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing

Posted by Cosma Shalizi, Guest Author, on 01/24/06 at 07:14 PM

A few years ago, I wrote a review of Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel, in which I presumed to tell him how to go about his business.  When he ran across it, his reaction was not (as mine would’ve been, had our situation been reversed) to tell me where to get off, but to invite me to a workshop he was organizing at Stanford on new interdisciplinary work on the novel — its motto, the quotation from Brecht about “questions that appear to us completely unsolved”, is recycled for this book — where I had a great time.  Reading these essays as they came out in New Left Review, I enjoyed them greatly, and recall thinking that Moretti could hardly have done a better job of appealing to my prejudices if he’d tried. (Said prejudices are those of someone almost equally fond of The Extended Phenotype and Main Currents of Marxism.)

With this kind of background, it comes as no surprise, I trust, that I really like this book, and finding objecting to what he actually proposes here highly wrong-headed.  In what follows, I want to say a bit about “graphs” and a bit about “trees”, and explain why this sounds so promising to me.  I am not going to say anything about “maps”, because I don’t think I have anything to add to that discussion, but I will, for the sake of getting an M in there, end with some remarks on “materialism”.  At no point can I pretend to be competent to evaluate the originality of Moretti’s work within literary scholarship, to say how much of a departure, say, the trees really are.  In a feeble attempt to pretend that my price is higher than a weekend in California and a review copy, I will make some criticisms, most about tedious extra stuff I wish Moretti had also done.  I’d like to think that what I say will also have some value for those who don’t share my rather haphazard intellectual trajectory, but my experience with trying to communicate across disciplines means I’ll get a warm glow if I’m even comprehensible, never mind persuasive.  I am accordingly very grateful to the Valve, and especially to Jonathan Goodwin, for letting someone with my credentials (viz., none) participate in this event. 


Do Genres Come in Bunches?

Moretti makes a very striking claim in his first chapter: that genres of novels appear together, in clusters, separated by about 25 years, and disappear together too.  Looking at his graph, my eye agrees, but my eye also tells me that there are faces in clouds (the East African Plains Ape is an incorrigible pattern-finder), and probability theory tells me that purely random processes can produce a lot of apparent clustering and regularity.  What reason is there to think that what looks like genres coming in clusters isn’t just coincidence? 

Let’s be a little more precise about what we’d mean by “chance” and “coincidence” here.  One natural possibility is that new genres appear at a constant rate over time, utterly independently of one another.  Every year, then, there would be a constant probability of a new genre forming, but whether it did or not would have no bearing on whether the next year saw a new genre. This is our null model — the one which says what things should look like if we’re just fooling ourselves, and there are no clusters.  To get slightly technical, the distribution of intervals between genre-arrivals should have what’s called a geometric distribution.  Assuming, for the sake of argument, that that’s true, we can use the average time between genre-appearances (3.44 years) to estimate the most likely value for the probability of a new genre appearing in any given year (about 29%). 

Once we assume that the inter-arrival distribution is geoemtric and find the parameter, we can simulate from it, and get examples of what Moretti’s graph would look like, if only chance were at play. 

The top line shows the appearance dates of Moretti’s 44 genres; the next two lines give the results of simulating from a model of uniform random appearance, with the same mean time between genres as the actual history.

Is there more clustering in reality than in the results of the null model? I couldn’t say, by eye, but I don’t have to.  I can calculate the probability of generating Moretti’s history from the null model: it’s somewhat less than 1 in 10^45.  This in itself isn’t decisive, since any particular history becomes less and less probable as one considers longer and longer intervals of time (cue Stoppard), so we need to know what fraction of all histories of that length are at least that unlikely.  I could work this out exactly, if I were willing to do some actual math, but I’m lazy, so I just had the computer simulate a million histories and evaluated all of their likelihoods.  If the null model were actually true, we’d see histories like Moretti’s only about 0.4% percent of the time.  [1] So this is actually pretty good evidence that the null model is not true, and Moretti’s history does show the kind of clustering he thinks it does. 

Of course, this only underlines the question of why Moretti’s data is clustered.  I can think of a couple of deflating explanations (maybe the clusters match the periods more intensely scrutinized by historians; maybe they tend to adjust when they report genres appearing towards certain focal dates). Or it could be due to some sort of exogeneous influence, from war, politics, economic shifts, etc.  (I did not try removing the obviously-topical genres, like Chartist novels, and repeating the analysis.) Or it could be due to some sort of endogenous mechanism within the system of literary production and consumption — generational turn-over of authors, of readers, of editors and publishers (suggested by my friend Bill Tozier).  Or: maybe there’s some space of things-people-like-in-novels, which the popular genres at any one time partition up in various ways; if one genre dies out or another appears, this might destabilize all the others as well.  I don’t think Moretti’s time series, by itself, is enough to begin to let us decide among these mechanisms (some of which are compatible), but I do think it lets us see that some mechanism is called for. 

Here is my first reproach: Moretti should have been the one to do this analysis, not me.  If testing hypotheses is too banausic and mechanical for the pages of New Left Review, then it should either be in another article, or in the book.  Moretti is a shrewd man, and in this case his intuitive analysis of the data was right, but there is no reason to rely on intuition alone for something like this.  And, if one is going to go to the trouble to collect quantitative data, one ought to use it quantitatively.  Mathematical abstraction (quantitative or otherwise) is not valuable for its own sake, but for the inferences it lets us make, when the proper tools are applied.  In this case, those tools are pretty easy to bring to bear.  They should be. 

Dissolving Genre History

Here is Moretti at the end of “Graphs”: 

For most literary historians ... there is a categorical difference between ‘the novel’ and the various ‘novelistic (sub)genres’: the novel is, so to speak, the substance of the form, and deserves a full general theory; subgenres are more like accidents, and their study, however interesting, remains local in character, without real theoretical consequences.  The forty-four genres of figure 9, however, suggest a different historical picture, where the novel does not develop as a single entity—where is ‘the’ novel, there?—but by periodically generating a whole set of genres, and then another, and another… Both synchronically and diachronically, in other words, the novel is the system of its genres: the whole diagram, not one privileged part of it.  Some genres are morphologically more significant, of course, or more popular, or both—and we must account for this: but not by pretending that they are the only ones that exist.  And instead, all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only (realism, the dialogic, romance, meta-novels...); and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history.  Too much.

On the one hand, this seems to me to be obviously correct.  On the other hand, I wonder very much why Moretti stops here.  If we look within any one of those forty-four genres, I think we have every reason to suppose that we’d find it composed, in its turn, of sub-genres, and so on, and ultimately of a shift succession of individual texts. “The” Bildungsroman (to pick one of the forty-four, not entirely at random) is a short-hand way of referring to the most common and enduring features of a historically-changing and always-various population of books, just as “the” bottle-nosed dolphin is an abbreviation for the leading tendencies of a certain population of organisms.  What Moretti hints at, in the paragraph I quoted, is that “the” novel is itself a population, either of genres, or of texts structured into genres.  But he doesn’t say outright what seems very plain to me, and so I’d like to know why, and specifically whether he thinks it’s actually wrong, or unhelpful. 

The assumptions of population thinking are diametrically opposed to those of the typologist.  The populationist stresses the uniqueness of everything in the organic world.  What is true for the human species—that no two individuals are alike—is equally true for all other species of animals and plants.  Indeed, even the same individual changes continuously throughout its lifetime and when placed into different environments.  All organisms and organic phenomena are composed of unique features and can be described collectively only in statistical terms.  Individuals, or any kind of organic entities, form populations of which we can determine the arithmetic mean and the statistics of variation.  Averages are merely statistical abstractions, only the individuals of which the populations are composed have reality.  The ultimate conclusions of the population thinker and of the typologist are precisely the opposite.  For the typologist, the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. [2]

This makes salient the question of how we mark off different populations as distinct.  The usual biological criterion is through common descent, and the possibility of inter-breeding —- Mayr’s “biological species concept”. (There is a vast controversial literature on the details.) Ruth Garrett Millikan has a closely related notion of “reproductively-established families”, which doesn’t lean so heavily on the details of biology, and which would seem to fit the case of genres of novels. One could also define classes of texts purely morphologically, which might include many unrelated lineages (just as one might consider all streamlined marine predators which live in the water all the time, a class including dolphins, killer whales, sharks, tuna, ichthyosaurs, etc.).  Just as such organic forms have appeared in several lineages, morphologically-defined categories could appear in multiple places and periods, the way novels arose, apparently quite independently, in both the Hellenistic world and in China (and elsewhere, for all I know).  Historical populations, however, are unique. 


One could ... take evolutionary bibliography as the prototypical evolutionary science and think of biology in terms of bibliographic analogies… [3]

The Cabinet of Horrors

When trying to explain cultural change and cultural variation, people have generally sought to do so by supposing culture is causally driven by something else (the climate, the social structure), or, even more strongly, that it is adapted to something else, or, more strongly yet, that it functions adaptively for the benefit of something else (here social structure, or ruling classes, are favored as suspects over the climate).  This has led to an awful lot of (if I may use the phrase) adaptationist just-so stories, and uncritical analogy-mongering on a level with the sort of thinking which leads rhinoceros horn to be prescribed for impotence.  Jon Elster is worth quoting at some length: 

In his comments on the links among capitalism, Protestantism, and Catholicism Marx set a disastrous precedent for many later writers who have attempted to find “structural homologies” or “isomorphisms” (two fancy terms for “similarities") between economic structures and mental products.  Because virtually any two entities can be said to resemble each other in some respect, this practice has no constraints other than the inventiveness of and ingenuity of the writer: There are no reality constraints and no reality control.
Marx suggests two inconsistent lines of argument.  One is that there is a strong connection between mercantilism and Protestantism, the other that there is an elective affinity between mercantilism and Catholicism.  He was confused, apparently, by the fact that money has two distinct features that point to different religious modes.  On the one hand, money (gold and silver), unlike credit, can be hoarded.  Hoarding easily turns into an obsession, which is related to the fanatical self-denying practices of extreme Protestantism.  On the other hand, money can be seen as the “incarnation” or “transubstantiation” of real wealth.  In that sense the money fetishism associated with mercantilism is related to the specifically Catholic practice of investing relics and the like with supernatural significance.  Both arguments are asserted several times by Marx, each serving to show up the essential arbitrariness of the other.  Later attempts to explain the theology of Port Royal, the philosophy of Descartes, or the physics of Newton in terms of similarities with the underlying economic structure are equally arbitrary.  Like the analogies between societies and organisms that flourished around the turn of the century, they belong to the cabinet of horrors of scientific thought.  Their common ancestor is the theory of “signs” that flourished in the century prior to the scientific revolution inaugurated by Galileo — the idea that there are natural, noncausal correspondences between different parts of the universe. What Keith Thomas refers to as the “short-lived union of science and magic” maintained a subterranean existence of which the doctrine of ideology, in one of its versions, has been one manifestation.  [4]

Even if we shutter and lock the Cabinet of Horrors, and go to look for explanations of trends in such cultural products as novels (which is, after all, what Moretti wants), I’m afraid we will find most of them in the capacious Closet of Mildly Appalling Objects.  There is no shortage of attempts to give such changes meaning as signs of something else, some aspect of the social or economic structure, of the way we live now (or the way they lived then), but very, very few of them are convincing.  In his great book on changing fashions, A Matter of Taste, the sociologist Stanley Lieberson looks at some of the reasons why these attempts at ad hoc explanation are so often bad. (He puts things more politely; I paraphrase.) First, the facts are often just screwy, both about the developments to be explained: non-existent trends, non-existent causes, weirdly mis-characterized trends, trends being explained by events which happened long after the former began, etc.  (In fairness, such “scholarly misconstruction of reality“ is a lot more common than we academics like to think.) Second, the mechanism connecting the explanatia to the explananda is left totally obscure.  Third, no attempt is made to test the explanation, by checking that it can account for the magnitude of the observed change, by ruling out alternative explanations, or by much of anything else.  The result is a steady stream of claims about how culture works which are advanced with what is, under the circumstances, an astonishing degree of assurance.  Lieberson’s book provides many fine examples of such cavalier just-so story-telling for names, the decline of hats, etc. [5]

Checking hypotheses about causation, and still more about adaptation, is really hard with just one case, arguably hopeless.  What you need is the ability to reliably detect departures from the hypothesis, if they are actually present — “power”, in the statisticians’ jargon.  It is hard to get much power when n=1.  If you want to claim that certain aspects of 19th century British novels were the way they were because those features fitted with ideologies of British imperialism — a fairly strong hypothesis about adaptation — I don’t see how you can do it just by interpreting Mansfield Park, no matter how subtle and sophisticated your reading.  On the other hand, if you look at lots of contemporary novels, and the ones which (say) depict Great Britain’s relations with its colonies in the same way as Mansfield Park does are systematically more successful, on average, than those which depict it differently, well then I don’t see how that couldn’t be good news for your idea, though even that would really only be the beginning of backing it up. 

Biologists have given a lot of thought to checking hypotheses about adaptation, and developed many means of doing so. Mutatis mutandis, many of these means could also be applied to literature, or other aspects of culture.  Eric Rabkin, Carl Simon and their collaborators have started doing just this with their Genre Evolution Project, looking at short stories from 20th century American science fiction, and no doubt there are others doing this kind of thing too. 

One way of checking adaptive hypotheses, especially relevant here, is the “comparative method", or rather methods, which work much, much better when combined with good phylogenies.  I think a literary historian who wants to study the evolution of genres and devices would be very well advised to look at the comparative methods biologists employ to study the evolution of qualitative characteristics of organisms.  (The major issue would be that literary phylogenies will not be trees but more complicated lattices.  But this is analogous to the effects of lateral gene transfer, common among bacteria, and so I’d suspect not only solvable but solved, someplace in the literature.  Whether inheritance is by means of discrete-valued, particulate factors, i.e., genes, is not a crucial issue for such methods.) What I really want to see from Moretti (or someone) is a study along these lines of clues in the detective story; I’d be even more interested in one of free indirect discourse. 

A crucial aspect of testing hypothesis about adaptation is a contrast with the outcome of a well-crafted neutral model — a way of saying what to expect if no adaptation were present, or not that adaptation anyway.  These often have surprising consequences; for instance, neutral genetic drift will tend to fix some version of a gene in a given population, even if it confers no fitness advantage.  (This is described in any book on population genetics.) So I wonder about things like whether we should expect, under a reasonable neutral model, that some formal device should become universal within a genre?  If so, did clues take over detective stories any faster than neutrality would predict?  (It’s hard to imagine a successful genre where every story relies on confessions found by accident, but whether that’s intrinsically weirder than actually existing detective stories, I can’t say.)

The foregoing shouldn’t be taken to mean that comparative literature should slavishly imitate comparative biology.  There are people who have thought about the application of evolutionary ideas to social and cultural change in ways which are much more sophisticated about psychology, social organization and human interaction than (most) advocates of memetics; I am thinking particularly of David Hull, W. G. Runciman, Dan Sperber, Stephen Toulmin’s great The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts, and even the fragmentary MS. of Adam Westoby.  As the economist Richard Nelson writes, we should expect our ideas of general evolution to change as we learn more about cultural evolution.  We should also expect to have to develop different methods of data analysis.  But, as always, we start with what we already know how to do. 


I share Moretti’s hope for a “materialist sociology of literary form”; Hell, I’d like a materialist sociology of culture generally.  But I suspect it won’t be able to do everything he wants it to. 

When Moretti quotes D’Arcy Thompson on how the form of an object is a diagram of the forces which produced it, I’m happy to go along, and even happy to agree that this gives us some ability to work backwards, from form to force.  But this sort of inverse problem generally doesn’t have a unique solution, especially if some of the forces were transient and highly contingent… Less metaphorically, something Lieberson argues very convincingly is that we often have to distinguish between the social forces causing there to be a change in some taste, and those which shape the content of the new taste.  Often the latter mechanisms are more or less internal to the bit of culture in question, like ratcheting.  Or: culture doesn’t have to express or reflect the social order.  I suspect Moretti would be disappointed if this were the case for, say, genres of novels.  Well, so would I.  But this needs to be checked.  One way would be to try to develop good neutral models, and see whether, and where, they break down

Dan Sperber has a great essay, in his Explaining Culture, on “how to be a genuine materialist in anthropology”, where he complains about treating Capital, the World-System, cultural symbol-systems, mentalities, etc. as reified causal forces, if not self-interested foresightful agents, forgetting that human history, society and culture are actually “real individuals, their activity and the conditions under which they live”.  It seems, at least to this interested outsider, that the study of literature in society suffers from this, too.  And I think what Sperber advocates there should go here, too: give actual causal accounts of how macroscopic patterns emerge from the interaction of many material bodies (notably, people and books), of the sort we know to exist, endowed with the kinds of abilities we know them to have. 

This commitment may sound harmless, because contentless, but it does actually have implications.  It means that you have to do a lot of work to justify functionalist explanations (though it’s not impossible). It should make you very dubious about ideal types.  It should make you more interested in exploring variation, and not dismissing it.  It should make you very dubious about “practices” and other shared mental objects, at least as ordinarily conceived.  And it suggests a lot of productive directions, investigating communication, cognition, and the collective patterns they produce. 

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, as in his Atlas, Moretti is basically looking at the communication end of things. He doesn’t say much about cognition, or individual thought more generally.  Elsewhere (see e.g. Signs Taken for Wonders) he has dabbled in psychoanalysis, but I hope that’s past.  A materialist theory of literary form will ultimately have to concern itself with the organic processes of reading and composition, but the way to do this is through empirical study of readers and writers, not more interpretation of texts, or armchair ruminations (whether those are on the primal scene, the environment of evolutionary adaptation, or conceptual blending).  Of course literary scholars have been making stabs in this direction at least since Richards’s Practical Criticism, but with the advent of cognitive psychology this can be done in a much more systematic way, combining modeling of cognition with experimental tests of the models.  [6] Again, many people (e.g., Jerry Hobbs, Herbert Simon) have been proposing this for some little while, but it’s only recently, with works like Bortolussi and Dixon‘s Psychonarratology, that people have begun to actually do it, taking the predictions of various theories of narrative, which say that changing stories in certain ways should affect readers’ responses, and seeing whether that’s actually right.  This, and not desk-bound speculation about analogies, seems to me the proper way to start on a cognitive psychology of literature.  It is obviously complementary to what Moretti wants to do, and (this is the sweet part) the two enquiries can be pursued in parallel; neither has to wait for the other. 

One thing Moretti does not do, anywhere, is construct models linking individual behavior to aggregate patterns.  Economists and sociologists already make such models, and anthropologists are starting to do so.  It may be premature here, but ultimately it will be vital.  If different social groups have different beliefs, is that because those beliefs express their relations to the mode of production, or is it because they tend to talk more with in the group than across group boundaries?  Adaptationist theories of culture tend to go for the first choice, but we don’t really know whether the latter could account for the specific patterns of cultural difference and change that we see. 

How Not to Learn from the Natural Sciences

What I said above about not mindlessly imitating biology deserves some amplification. 

Evolution ought to have a bad name in the study of literary history.  Reading Rene Wellek’s “The Concept of Evolution in Literary History” (or his article for the Dictionary of the History of Ideas) is actually quite depressing.  (It brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s line “they deserved to fail, because they were all so stupid”.) The many post-Darwinian ventures in this direction went, essentially, nowhere, at least as far as understanding literature better goes.  It surely didn’t help that their understandings of biological evolution were often very bad, generally some kind of Spencerian or even Lamarckian belief in tendencies of progressive development — perhaps inspiring, but hopelessly un-explanatory.  (This has vitiated far too much evolutionary theorizing about social processes; cf. Toulmin’s chapter 5.) As for the more recent wave, since the 1980s, the people who seem to think that literature exists because humanity craves dramatizations of Daly and Wilson’s Sex, Evolution and Behavior drive me up the wall.  (Their idea makes no sense even if you are very sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, which I am.)

Which said, this is not at all what Moretti is proposing, and I don’t see the harm in trying to make this all fit together as another instance of a general pattern, alongside biological evolution, because they have similar causally-relevant features, and so similar mechanisms are at work.  Many people have pointed out, in some detail, that explaining biological processes through the joint action of variation and selective transmission in populations is one instance of a general pattern of historical explanation; Toulmin is particularly clear on this [7]. There is a demography of businesses, of interest groups, even of medieval manuscripts of classical works, and so why not one of literary texts?  Inheriting discrete, particulate hereditary factors from a small, fixed number of immediate ancestors is not the sine qua non of this form of historical explanation, though the details of the process of inheritance will very strongly affect the character of the resulting dynamics.  It might be that theories of literary change cast in this form are too complicated to be useful, or that we just don’t know enough yet to find the useful ways to formulate them.  But it wouldn’t hurt to seriously try, and we’d learn a lot, no matter the eventual outcome. 

Varieties of Rational History

One way to take the bit from Braudel about “a more rational history” that Moretti adopts as a motto is simply to hope that literary history will be a rational enterprise.  There are various aspects to this — the accumulation of knowledge, a desire to give explanations, a realization that more than one explanation might be possible and a desire to check which one is right, and so on.  To do all this, it’s important to develop, use and refine reliable methods of inquiry — ones which are unlikely to lead you into error, and where errors are apt to be self-correcting.  You want to be able to persuade others, and you want to know that you’re not just persuading yourself.  As a statistician, my job is to help with that bit, so it looms large for me.  I think this is more or less what Moretti has in mind when he talks (elsewhere) about wanting “falsifiable” literary history — for ideas which have enough content that they can not only be communicated from one person to another (without tripping Liberman’s detector), but checked.  Which said, I wish that here, as in his Atlas, Moretti had done a more systematic job of checking his conclusions.  Would it be unfair to suggest that, while he sees the need for data analysis, it will be left to a successor generation to put it into routine practice? 

If you want to say that asking literary history to be communicable, testable and reliable is asking it to be scientific and that’s icky, well, it’s a free country (at least for now).  The more I think about what makes something a science, the less that seems like an important question.  But whether something is a rational enterprise of inquiry matters.  I’m sure it’s possible to object to wanting history to be more rational in this sense, but I find that thought so alien and pointless I won’t even try to engage it. 

Another take on “rational history” is that the vast mass of details in small-scale history are essentially random, or, more exactly, the connections among them are as convoluted and involved as the details themselves.  (This is one way to define randomness, mathematically.) But looking at larger scales, the randomness averages out, leaving regularities which are simpler and more nearly comprehensible by finite minds, and more reliable.  As a statistical physicist and a statistican, I am the last to disagree: “In fact, all epistemological value of the theory of probability is based on this: that large-scale random phenomena in their collective action create strict, nonrandom regularity.” [8] The small-scale details of literature and of human life have an intrinsic interest and value that is missing from the small-scale detail of molecular chaos, so there is certainly all the room in the world for what Moretti would like to do and close reading, and even essayistic appreciation.  (But there is not, I am afraid, room enough in the world for Harold Bloom.) Whether there is room in an academy organized around the production of peer-reviewed research findings for all of them, is fortunately not a question I need to have an opinion on. 

Finally, you might be tempted to go from the last sense of “rational” to supposing that large-scale history must be the working-out of some scheme which is “rational” in that it’s really deterministic, or even teleological.  This would be a mistake.  It is not at all hard to give examples of stochastic processes which combine random evolution and feedback, which converge on very nice large-scale regularities, but which regularity they converge on is completely random and indeterminate. [9] Brian Arthur, among others, argues that processes like this are important in the evolution of technology.  Is literature like that?  I have no idea.  But I don’t see any reason it can’t be, and this needs to be borne in mind. 

Go Fish

Let me close by quoting the same paragraph twice, once from the version in NLR, and then again from the closing pages of the book.  In both cases, he is enumerating themes which stretch across his chapters. 

First, a total indifference to the philosophizing that goes by the name of ‘Theory’ in literature departments.  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 by the social scences.  ‘Theories are nets’, wrote Novalis, ‘and only he who casts will catch’.  Theories are nets, and we should learn to evaluate them for the empirical data they allow us to process and understand: for how they concretely change the way we work, rather than as ends in themselves.  Theories are nets; and there are so many interesting creatures that await to be caught, if only we try.

First of all, a somewhat pragmatic view of theoretical knowledge. ‘Theories are nets’, wrote Novalis, ‘and only he who casts will catch’.  Yes, theories are nets, and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the literary field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless distinctions (high and low; canon and archive; this or that national literature...) with new temporal, spatial and morphological distinctions.

Whether this pragmatic message is what Novalis meant, I have no idea; I only know the line because Popper used it as the epigraph for The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  But that’s what Popper meant by it, and I think it’s right, and I look forward to seeing the coelacanths and tube-worms and giant squid which will be brought up from the deeps in years to come. 

[1]: More on testing the null model of genre appearance, for those into that kind of thing: Really, of course, the most suitable null model for random appearance would be a continuous-time Poisson process.  Since the data are discretized by years, however, I’m faking it by using a geometric distribution of inter-arrival intervals.  (I also tried simulating from a Poisson process and then discretizing the result; the results weren’t much different.) The only parameter of such a process is the mean inter-arrival time, or equivalently the “intensity”, the probability per year of producing a new genre.  Simple maximum likelihood estimation gives this as 0.2905405, which implies a log-likelihood for the original data of -103.9498. To evaluate the significance, I generated 1,000,000 sample paths, of the same length as Moretti’s, and then for each one re-estimated the intensity and used that to evaluate the log-likelihood.  (This sort of “bootstrapping” should account for the fact that I fit that parameter to the data in the first place. It wouldn’t be appropriate if, say, Moretti had advanced the conjecture that the mean inter-arrival time should be 10 years on independent grounds.) Of the 1,000,000 sample paths, only 3,802 had log-likelihoods as small or smaller than the original data.  That is to say, if the null model were correct, we’d see results like this only about 0.38 percent of the time. So we can certainly reject the null model at the conventional 5 percent significance level, or even the 1 percent level, and in fact this is a considerably more severe test than that. 

[2]: Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, p. 84, quoting a 1959 paper of his own. 

[3]: This is from Sidney Winter’s article on “Natural Selection and Evolution” in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (1987), where he works out the analogy in some detail. 

[4]: An Introduction to Karl Marx, pp. 183--184. 

[5]: “Adventures of a Man of Science", Elif Batuman’s wonderfully-titled review of Graphs, Maps, Trees in n+1 magazine, is a quite nice essay, but it also provides what looks like a typical example of the kind of mere plausibility I have in mind:

Perhaps the Holmes stories are not half-baked versions of the “correct” mystery story, but a different kind of mystery story, wherein the nondecodability of clues is not a bug, but a feature.  Conan Doyle was writing during the conquest of England by industry and rationalism; perhaps his readers wanted stories about the kinds of magic that are possible within the constraints of science.  Holmes categorically rejects the supernatural, not in order to show that the new, rational rules preclude magic, but in order to show that you can still have magic even if you play by the rules.  Decodable clues came a “generation” later, with Agatha Christie and the first World War, and became more rigorous after the second—by which time readers wanted to be reminded that the world was still rational. [pp. 146--147]

First of all, it seems bizarre to say that Britain was being conquered by “industry and rationalism” in the 1890s, long after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and all its social consequences, utilitarianism, etc. (Indeed, Mr. Lecky might want to have a few words...) Second, Batuman gives us no reason to think that contemporary readers saw what Holmes did as (pardon the phrase) magic within the bounds of reason alone.  Third, even if she were right about the social situation and the cultural product, the hypothesized causal connection is really just another arbitrary analogy, of the sort Elster complained about. Suppose Conan Doyle had been better about using decodable clues than Christie.  Would it not then sound just as plausible to say this expresses the triumph of rationalism, followed by a post-war weakening?  As it is, Batuman’s account seems to appeal, implicitly, to a desire to hang on to older ways of thinking.  Either the whole reading public of Britain in the 1890s is being treated, in a grossly anthropomorphic fashion, as a single person, with such a desire, or she is making a quite specific prediction about which readers Conan Doyle appealed to, one which does not seem especially plausible, though it might be tested.  (It is utterly unclear whose purposes or needs are invokes by the in-order-to’s — Conan Doyle’s? his original readers’?  society’s? — but I fear the worst.) Finally, no attempt is made to check that this is the source of the appeal, nor that the later strict decodability of clues really was caused by the World Wars, for the reasons given.  I don’t know enough to say that this suggestion is false, or that checking it would be impossible.  I don’t even want to suggest that a book review in a little magazine would be a good place to do such tests.  But it doesn’t seem to worry Batuman that there is no support for this idea (yet).  — Let me repeat that I like the essay. 

[6]: Incidentally, thinking that cognition is computational, and even that its computational architecture is strongly constrained by organically-evolved developmental processes, in no way commits one to denying that thought is also profoundly cultural and historical.  Sperber is very good on this, but also see Frawley’s Vygotsky and Cognitive Science, or the papers collected in The Elements of Reason.

[7]: Of course it isn’t the only pattern of successful historical explanation.  Even within the natural sciences, geology and astronomy provide very different ones. 

[8]: Gnedenko and Kolmogorov, Limit Distributions for Sums of Independent Random Variables, p. 1. 

[9]: More exactly, there are stochastic processes ("urn schemes") where the relative frequencies of different outcomes are guaranteed to converge, with 100% probability, but the ratio at which they converge is itself a random variable, not determined by the initial set-up in any way.  The models of lock-in developed by Brian Arthur and his collaborators in the 1980s are urn models, but actually less indeterministic than the classical ones. 


Thanks so much, fantastic essay. One rather tangential thought. You quote Elster:

“In his comments on the links among capitalism, Protestantism, and Catholicism Marx set a disastrous precedent for many later writers who have attempted to find “structural homologies” or “isomorphisms” (two fancy terms for “similarities") between economic structures and mental products.”

Of course it’s ALWAYS true that it goes back to Plato. But in this case the city/soul analogy - practically the backbone of Plato’s “Republic” - seems worth citing as the true source of the disaster. Of course it is probably still true that the writers Elster is complaining have read their Marx a lot more carefully than their Plato. But Plato’s case underscores the sheer primordial temptation to philosophise in this way: to see microcosms that mirror macrocosms. More from the Elster you quote:

“Their common ancestor is the theory of “signs” that flourished in the century prior to the scientific revolution inaugurated by Galileo — the idea that there are natural, noncausal correspondences between different parts of the universe. What Keith Thomas refers to as the “short-lived union of science and magic” maintained a subterranean existence of which the doctrine of ideology, in one of its versions, has been one manifestation.”

Here is does seem worth pointing out, again, that Galileo’s idea is really neo-Platonic, so the science/magic union is not so short-lived at all. (What are Plato’s forms but natural non-causal correspondences? It’s quite ancient and enduring.)

And, of course, one step down we have the first of Frazer’s two principles of magic:

“IF we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.”

But you knew all that already. Rhino horns for impotence and all that.

By John Holbo on 01/25/06 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin Martindale has uncovered cycles using empirical methods quite different from Moretti’s:


He uses random or quasi-random techniques to choose “stuff”—poems, pieces of music, paintings—created over decades or centuries and then codes the materials and subjects them to computational analysis (alas, his book is obscure on both the coding and the computation). Here’s some remarks on his work from an unpublished manuscript of mine:

Novelty is one factor in Martindale’s scheme – as it has been in many schemes. People seek the new. The trouble, of course, is that once one has sufficient experience of the new, it looses its capacity to excite. It has become old. Psychologists call this habituation, and it is a much-studied aspect of neural operation. How then, Martindale asks, can artists continually produce something new in the face of constant habituation in their audience? – not to mention themselves as well.

Following the ideas of Ernst Kris (1952) Martindale argues that the creative process involves alternation between inspiration and elaboration. During an inspiration phase one regresses toward a more primordial mode of being, more dream-like, in which one has access to relatively undifferentiated mental processes and objects. During an elaboration phase the undifferentiated contents are embodied in some medium using the devices and techniques appropriate to that medium. One can produce novel works either by regressing to a more primordial level or by loosening one’s technical control over that primordial content, whatever it is, in the elaboration phase. In particular, the two processes are independent of one another. Thus artists within a tradition can hold the level of elaboration constant while deepening the level of regression; this corresponds to a period of stylistic stasis. Alternatively, artists or keep the level of regression constant while loosening elaborative control, thus producing stylistic change.

What is central to Martindale’s work is that he has been able to operationalize these ideas and thereby subject them to empirical investigation. Not only has he analyzed long runs of French and British and American poetry, bit he has also examined classic music, Gothic architecture, European painting, Japanese prints, and New England grave stones. In all cases he has found cyclic variations in form and content of the sort predicted by his theory.

Note that while he has analyzed works of art, his theory is fundamentally about audience reception. From his point of view, one could imagine a large anonymous cultural fountain spewing forth aesthetic works of all kinds, with different levels of regressive content and stylistic elaboration of that content. It is the audience that decides which works it likes and it is those preferences that, in the long run, allow selected works to enter the canon. Thus when Martindale is tracking artistic change he is also indirectly tracking changes in the collective psyche.

Note that I find the reasoning behind Martindale’s model to be a bit obscure. It’s not all that clear to me just what he means by elaboration or undifferentiation, though his various examples make things a bit easier to understand. I’m more impressed by the fact that he’s done empirical analysis and that apparantly has uncovered interesting patterns.

It would be interesting to take a sample of British novels, and then a sample of text from each novel, and subject them to the kind of analysis Martindale uses. Would that uncover cycles? And would those cycles match the one’s Moretti has found by eyeballing genres?

There’s only one way to find out. The software Matt Kirschenbaum describes for nora (elsewhere in this symposium) would be useful in this work.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I bow in John’s general direction.

I thought about footnoting the part about body/society analogies in Elster, because of course it does go back to Plato (at least), and it also shows up in ancient philosophy in India and China, so far as I know independently.  But I went on far too long and far too pedantically as it was…

As for the union of science and magic, what Elster was referring to (via Thomas) was the complex of Renaissance ideas about “natural magic” working through such correspondences, sympathies, the world spirit, etc.  Perhaps it’s unfair, but this feels very different from the Galilean program of mathematical treatment of effective causality, though I suppose both have Platonic antecedents.  My understanding of the intellectual history, though (admittedly very imperfect) is that the former grew directly out of the rediscovery of the neo-Platonists, while the latter comes out of a medieval tradition in people like Oresme, Buridan, etc.

By Cosma on 01/25/06 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill — I looked briefly at one of Martindale’s books (<cite>The Clockwork Muse</cite>, i.i.r.c.), but was unable to tell how he was operationalizing elaboration and undifferentiation, and/or whether he’d tweaked his operational criteria for them to fit his theory of cycles, so I never pursued it further.  But I agree, if we could come up with a good way to do that, and then let it work without sticking our fingers in the machinery all the time, it would be very interesting to see whether its cycles matched Moretti’s — a natural conjecture would be that elaboration grows over the life-span of a genre, and maybe reaches a peak around the time they die off.

By Cosma on 01/25/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cosma, I’ve looked at his earlier book (Romantic Progression: The Psychology of Literary History) and that contains more on the literary methodology. At least part of what he’s doing with texts is using standard content analysis stuff dating back to the sixties (e.g. something called Harvard III Psychosociological Dictionary, something else called Stanford Political Dictionary, and so forth) to tag words as to category. Then summary measures are calculated over that. And the results then subjected to regression & time series and whatever else.

I haven’t got the foggiest idea how he’s scored pictures or chunks of music or gravestones. I doubt that the initial scoring is done mechanically. I assume he trains someone as judges rather than just doing it all himself.  Or lets say this: I hope he trained several people as judges and had them make their judgments independently of one another. But I don’t know.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wonderful work—I think this is my favorite Moretti contribution to date.

I wonder, though, about the usefulness of those computer simulations of nineteenth-century genre clumps. The real is always a defiance of probability. Nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture was not a featureless gray plane of randomness, and fashions in novel publishing are just one aspect of culture. To decide whether they have a cyclical life of their own, more attention would have to be paid to the extent to which novelistic fashions were independent both of more general changes and more individual circumstances (e.g., the retirement of a particular editor), and more attention would have to be paid to the definition of “genre”. But my own skepticism has probably been made plain enough by this point, and you immediately follow your statistical analysis with a set of possible deflations of your own.

Just (again) to try to be clear about my own take: I agree that more attention should be paid to falsability in literary histories (and more generally in the uninspected historicisms tossed off by literary critics and scholars), and that the sort of data that Moretti and other materialists gather and analyze is necessary to justify any claims to intellectual honesty. But their reports, no matter how number-crunched, can fall victim to (or benefit from) similarly unjustified assumptions, and need similarly rigorous scrutiny. Your essay is an inspiring example of how to go about it.

By Ray Davis on 01/25/06 at 02:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To decide whether they have a cyclical life of their own . . .

Why that? Why a life of their own? Whatever the pattern of reading preferences, I would assume it reflects something going on in the minds of people in the reading population.

Manga existed in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was a relatively minor component of the Japanese cultural scene until after WWII. It’s now 40% of Japan’s annual print output and is read by Japanese of all ages, not just children.  Why the sudden flourishing? Did WWII change Japan’s cultural landscape in such a way that mange (and then anime) was able to flourish as never before? 

This, of course, is not about cycles (unless there happens to be cycles in manga production). But it is about cultural production and the underlying society.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray: thanks, but when you say things like “The real is always a defiance of probability”, well, the honor of both my professions requires me to ask if you’d care to to step outside and repeat that.

With that out of the way: the point of the probability model wasn’t to establish that genres have their own cycles.  Look at the first simulated history: it looks pretty much like Moretti’s data to me; it’s even got a nice little burst of appearance-times circa 1850, just like the data.  I promise I didn’t fiddle with anything, though — that’s just the output of a random number generator.  My doubts concerned whether there was any more structure in the data than could be accounted for by such products of chance.  If not, looking for an explanation of the structure is obviously fruitless.  I honestly would not have been surprised to find that his data did match a Poisson process.  This would not mean that the 19th century was really a featureless homogeneous interval, but that whatever chains of events led to the appearance of genres then were so complicated, so full of irregularities and contingencies, that whatever relationships might exist between them are completely invisible, at least viewed through the lens of this data.  (Any chain of causation distinguishable from noise is insufficiently complex.) In fact, there is some detectable relationship between the observation times, but whether that is a fact about the observation procedure, or about external drivers, or about the innards of something you might want to call the literary world, or some combination, that can’t be answered just by this little model.  & of course, in answering it, it becomes key to know whether we’re looking at an artifact of the way we got our data, which is what I take your caveats to be about — whether Moretti’s data really does pertain to meaningful and comparable genres, etc.  (My apologies if I’ve misunderstood the thrust of your concerns.) That’s the kind of thing which is so far beyond my sphere of expertise that even I would hesitate to have an opinion on it.

By Cosma on 01/25/06 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why that? Why a life of their own?”

Bill, because of this: “... as possible causes multiply, one wonders: what are we trying to explain here—two unrelated individual events, or two moments in a recurring pattern of ups and downs? Because if the downturns are individual events, then looking for individual causes (Napoleon, reprints, the cost of paper, whatever) makes perfect sense; but if they are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases.”

Moretti takes his generational clumps as a problem to be solved, and he emphasizes the difficulty and ambiguity of the problem: “I close on a note of perplexity.” In turn, Shalizi emphasizes the striking unlikeliness of the problem.

Moretti expresses discomfort with “the total heterogeneity of problem and solution: to make sense of quantitative data, I had to abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, to explain figures.” And he follows this up by claiming that “the novel is the system of its genres.”

All I want to point out is:

1) “The novel” is not just a history of ill-defined genres of selected samples. “The novel” is also—irreducibly—a matter of individual works created by individual writers and encountered by individual readers.

2) Collating late twentieth century academic definitions of nineteenth century novel genres by no means avoids “morphology.” Quantitating the qualitative doesn’t banish the qualitative: it builds on the qualitative.

3) No sensible person (and I don’t claim those are the only people available) would claim that the production and consumption of literature is independent of biology, psychology, and personal and cultural history and context. That being the case, after we separate one single post-facto-defined “strand” of culture called the novel and find post-facto-delimited patterns in its production and consumption, we can’t draw conclusions about those patterns without taking other factors into account. (This is what you’re saying as well: we don’t disagree on that; we just disagree about whether Moretti’s three essays always encourage the idea.)

Let me put this way: If you want to find out how well a new treatment for prostate cancer works, you don’t compare the lifespans of patients receiving that treatment to lifespans of the general population. You compare them to lifespans of patients receiving other treatments. And you don’t treat two patients as equivalent in importance to forty patients. And if all the patients recieving the new treatments happen to live below the poverty line in a depressed urban area while the other patients live in an upper class gated community, it might be good to take that into account as well.

If you’re looking for interesting patterns in novelistic genres per se, you need to correct for the influence of other factors. Eliminate as best you can the shifts caused by obvious political or economic changes; correct for popularity. Then see if you still have a pattern—assuming you still have enough evidence to work from.

Again, I point to Moretti’s Strand diagram: much more convincing, but with correspondingly less message, and not at all supportive of the premise behind his “evolutionary tree” of clues.

By Ray Davis on 01/25/06 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cosma, I’m far too cowardly to step outside with such a formidable opponent. “Probability” should have been scare-quoted. Here’s a rephrasing which I hope is less abrasive: If any of ten outcomes are equally likely, the fact that one of them happened is not a striking problem to be solved; if all we know is that something happened, the only thing we’ve ascertained about its “probability” is that it was something more than zero. (My original choice of words was smudged by long-held hostility towards the misunderstanding of “odds” by critters like Creationists, Social Darwinists, and slot machine zombies.)

Thanks for further explaining the point of your simulations. Doing a quick lowest-level check makes perfect sense to me, and I withdraw my single qualm. (Out of curiosity, though, did it include the definitional life-spans of “genres” [something more than a fad or a shared trope, but less than would be subsumed into the definition of “novel” itself] and the likely competition between major genres?)

By Ray Davis on 01/25/06 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray: “If any of ten outcomes are equally likely, the fact that one of them happened is not a striking problem to be solved.” We are then in perfect agreement.

“Out of curiosity, though, did it include the definitional life-spans of ‘genres’?”: No, the only parameter in the model was the mean time between the appearance of new genres.

By Cosma on 01/25/06 at 07:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If the null model were actually true, we’d see histories like Moretti’s only about 0.4% percent of the time.

Perhaps I missed the place where you addressed this, but how did you decide when a history is “like Moretti’s?”

By on 01/25/06 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you very much for this carefully thought-out and erudite piece.  I second Mr. Benzon’s feelings; I think it a particularly solid and comprehensive response.

I actually study Victorian lit. and originally came from a Mol. Bio./Evolution background.  I know a (little) bit about statistical analysis of populations with regard to evolutionary predictions, and I wholly agree that as the tools already exist (and more are being developed daily) we need to work on innovative ways to adapt them.  Which is in part why I want to take up where you closed:

>But looking at larger scales, the randomness averages out, leaving regularities which are simpler and more nearly comprehensible by finite minds, and more reliable.  As a statistical physicist and a statistican, I am the last to disagree: “In fact, all epistemological value of the theory of probability is based on this: that large-scale random phenomena in their collective action create strict, nonrandom regularity.” [8]

This last point is exactly why I wonder whether a truly systematic theory of literary evolution needs to be able to account for all levels of organization, and why there may be room for a much closer interface between such tools and the armchair literary analogizing you chuckle at.  In other words, I am prompted to ask why it matters if

>One thing Moretti does not do, anywhere, is construct models linking individual behavior to aggregate patterns. 

It seems to me that individual behavior may be completely insignificant.  More particularly, individual behavior is extremely difficult to recapture any strong sense of in terms of the nineteenth-century.  What we do have is a great deal of material data—how many copies of various books were sold, when, where they were published, what material innovations and technologies went into them, etc.  It seems to me that in many cases the reason for specific changes may not be so difficult to reconstruct—say the failure of a given periodical, or the explosion in a periodical’s circulation with a specific issue.  What is needed is more subtle problems, ones that have large data sets that escape any large-scale cultural shifts/trends/currents.  I’m thinking of something like the propagation of a particular syntactic structure.  In such a case, the material behavior of a specific articulator/purchaser/reader may be nothing more than noise—what would matter is questions that could be asked about broader patterns. 

To return to the bacterial genetic transfer example you spoke of earlier: the careful physical description of any individual transfer may be much less interesting and useful than the propagation of a specific gene at the level of a population.  At the very least, a comprehensive material description of transfer may be wholly unnecessary in terms of developing useful and testable insights.

By on 01/25/06 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alex: “but how did you decide when a history is ‘like Moretti’s?’” I guess I was a bit too elliptical for clarity.  A history was “like Moretti’s” when its was at least as unlikely, under the null model, as the original data.

(A reply to Devin’s interesting comment will have to wait until tomorrow.)

By Cosma on 01/26/06 at 01:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

David Miall and Donald Kuiken at the University of Alberta have been doing empirical research on reader response for almost two decades. They’ve got a good many publications available at their website.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 09:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

II’m interested in the business of how one explains the twists and turns of cultural phases, the comings and goings of styles, such as genres of the novel. But I want to shift to another domain, if you don’t mind, Cosma (and Franco), one I’m more familiar with. While I’ve read plenty of novels, I’m not all that familiar with 18th and 19th century European history, nor have I lived there—and, of course, most of the novels I’ve read from those times and places are in the canon. Instead, I want to look at popular music in America during the last century. I’ve lived amid much of that story.

So one Philip H. Ennis has written a book that’s got some charts and graphs, The Seventhh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music. On page 278 he’s got a graph running from 1950 through 1971. On it he plots annual sales of musical instruments in three categories: piano, guitar, other instruments. The curve for pianos is almost flat at 150,000 per year through those two decades. The curve for other instruments starts at c. 350,000 in 1951, moves up to 850,000 in 1966 and then drops back to 750,000 by 1971. The guitar curve starts at 200,000 and ends at 2.6 million, a ten-fold increase. Most of that happens during the 1960s. Sales were at roughly 500,000 in 1962, then 1.5 million in 1965. Note that, alas, these figures do not distinguish between acoustic and electric guitars.

However obvious it is to attribute the guitar rise to rock and roll, let’s spell it out. Different styles of music require different kinds of instruments. Rock not only requires guitars, but emphasizes them. This is in contrast to the the various jazz styles, which emphasized horns, trumpets and saxophones. Jazz styles ruled the popular roost during the 20s, and 30s and into the 40s, where the “jazz” got leached out to leave pop vocals in the ascendency. Rock picked up the guitar from various country styles and perhaps a bit of jazz too and put it front and center. When rock came to the fore in the mid-to-late 50s, guitar sales followed. As more people listened and danced to rock, more people wanted to play the music as well. And so more guitars were sold. We need to explain the lag between rock’s rise and the jump in guitar sales, but that’s a detail that need not bother us.

The point is that there is a clear relationship between musical styles and musical instrument sales. So there’s little trouble with attributing the rise of the guitar to the rise of rock. On the contrary, we can use guitar sales as an indirect measure of rock’s penetration into the marketplace.

What really needs to be explained is the rise of rock itself. Why did it arise at all, and why at that time and in those places? The history is well-known, lot’s been written about it. But the why of it, that’s still elusive.

One thing that helps, I think, is to recognize that the rise of rock is not a one-off event. Sure, rock happened only once, but new musical styles happen at various times and places. In particular, rock is part of the ongoing flow of vernacular music in America. The critical thing about that is that it involves two populations from very different sources, a larger population variously drawn from Europe and a smaller population variously drawn from West Africa. These two populations have always had and still have different geographic distribution in this country at various scales—certainly nationally and regionally (100s of square miles) and locally (neighborhoods). And they have different cultural practices, most crucially, religious practice—think of the style of religious service, the encouragement of enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things have been changing, the differences are lessening, but this is an ongoing socio-cultural system and, so far as I can tell, it’s not yet “damped out.”

So, at the beginning of the 20th century jazz-based styles move to the forefront of popular culture and yield, first, the Jazz Age (aka the Roaring Twenties) and then the Swing Era (the 30s). Things cooled down during the 40s and early 50s; there was a war going on, first in Europe and the Far East, then a reprieve, and then Korea. And then, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Haley give us rock and roll, after which the British invaded. This is a whole new wave of musical styles. This wave damps out in the 70s and 80s and, wham! hip hop comes out of nowhere and takes over. A third wave.

None of the older styles die out completely, but the move into the background. There are still people performing traditional jazz, and swing and bebop and all the other jazz styles. But this is all pretty much museum and revival action. And had become so by the late 1970s. Classic rock is still around—that’s what all those Elvis impersonators are doing. I spent five years in the early 90s playing rhythm and blues from the 1960s and 1970s in upstate New York with the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band—that’s how I got to open for BB King, who is a full generation older than I am.

So, we’ve got waves. But still no explanation for them. I’ve given a good deal of thought to that problem, though can’t pretend I really know what’s going on. But I’m pretty sure the answer has something to do with cultural differences originating in the old country, with social structures in place in the USA, with identitiies and their negotiation and, yes, with biological human nature as well. It’s all going on and things change. Biology doesn’t, but social structure does, identity does, cultural practice does. Out of all that we get waves of musical styles.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cosma: A history was “like Moretti’s” when its was at least as unlikely, under the null model, as the original data.

Well, I don’t know any statistics, but wouldn’t it be better to come up with some sort of measure for clustering, compute the score of Moretti’s history on that measure, and instead compute the probability that a random pattern generates a history with a measure of clustering as high as Moretti’s?

By on 01/26/06 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Applying these methods to pop music might be a good, easy test, because a pop style or gimmick can go in and out of fashion in as few as three to five years. It’s like doing genetic studies on yeasts instead of pandas.

The accordion curve was a particularly disastrous one, and you can get a pretty good accordion for $30 if you look. The accordion is coming back, though, in a small way, and a top accordion still costs up to $10,000.

By John Emerson on 01/26/06 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>A crucial aspect of testing hypothesis about adaptation is a contrast with the outcome of a well-crafted neutral model — a way of saying what to expect if no adaptation were present, or not that adaptation anyway.  These often have surprising consequences; for instance, neutral genetic drift will tend to fix some version of a gene in a given population, even if it confers no fitness advantage.

The concept of a clue in detective stories has an “adaptation” advantage. Detective story readers like clues.

It is actually hard to think of something in books that truly corresponds to neutral genetic drift. Being arbitrary isn’t good enough.  For example, it was common for arbitrary details of early william gibson novels to get copied by other novelists. If Gibson would have used other arbitrary details, they would have been copied too. But, editors and readers liked the william gibson novels and they, for a while, liked the stories that copied these arbitrary details.

By on 01/26/06 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alex: “Well, I don’t know any statistics, but wouldn’t it be better to come up with some sort of measure for clustering, compute the score of Moretti’s history on that measure, and instead compute the probability that a random pattern generates a history with a measure of clustering as high as Moretti’s?”

Sure, that’s a good strategy.  (Are you sure you don’t know any statistics?) The tricky bit is coming up with a good measure of clustering.  “Good” here has to mean not only intuitively sensible, but also one which will produce a test with high “power”, i.e. a high probability of rejecting the null, uniform-randomness model when something else is at work.  The kind of likelihood test I did is one which generally has high power against many different alternatives, so it’s a good default when you don’t have a very concrete alternative model in mind, which, here, I didn’t.  Time permitting, I’ll try using some other measures of clustering here and report the results, as well as trying to estimate their power.

By Cosma on 01/27/06 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: looking at popular music sounds like a good idea to me.  I understand a little about writing, but absolutely nothing about music… but I don’t have time to work in this field in the first place, so that doesn’t make any difference.  Plus, it’s probably easier to get funding from the music industry than publishers.

Bortolussi and Dixon are also at Alberta — this is no coincidence.  From glancing at Miall and Kuiken’s description of their work, though it sounds interesting, it also doesn’t sound like they’re actually experimenting, by manipulating the stimulus [i.e. text] presented to the readers.

By Cosma on 01/27/06 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe: “It is actually hard to think of something in books that truly corresponds to neutral genetic drift.”

How about two incompatible features that people like equally well?  All that’s really required for neutral models to be applicable is competitive neutrality.  Why did we get endless clones of <cite>Neuromancer</cite> rather than of <cite>Blood Music</cite>?  Maybe <cite>Neuromancer</cite> was better adapted to readers’ tastes; maybe it got lucky.  (The process of copying irrelevant details that you describe sounds more like genetic hitchhiking, for which there are some nice models.) Bear in mind, too, that even if neutrality isn’t very common, neutral models will still be important to help us see the direction of adaptations.

By Cosma on 01/27/06 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cosma, on Bortolussi and Dixon, Miall and Kuiken, I don’t know. While I did bring M&K to this discussion, and I’ve read one or two papers, I’ve not been terribly motivated to read more. On B&D, I’ve glanced through the freebie PDF for their book and have not been terribly motivated to read more. And so it goes with lots of empirical aesthetics stuff I’ve seen over the years.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, but . . . I suspect you can’t get there from here. It may be a matter of scale, that I don’t think those types of investigation can scale up to a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play or a Coleridge poem or maybe even a haiku. Perhaps there are critical phenomena involved that simply cannot be accessed with those techniques, or, perhaps it’s that, if you can’t get it these other phenemona, what you learn through those techniques isn’t worth a whole heck of a lot.

And these days I keep thinking and saying that we need better descriptions of literary texts, that we’re operating with an impoverished sense of the phenomena we’re dealing with.

I mean, what happens if you approach the study of fruit flies with the notion that they’re like dogs, except they have wings and six legs and multiple-lens eyes? If you dissect a fruit fly with a pen knife, what’re you going to find out? Dissecting the fly is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It’s the only way to learn certain necessary things. But with a pen knife?

And if you run experiments on fruit flies using canine protocols? It’s one thing to do approach-avoidance trials where a dog has to walk over an electrified grid to get his meal? What’ll you discover if you put fruit flies in the same set-up?

I wonder if the people who do these experiments understand the distinction between literary dogs and literary fruit flies? Or, they may be aces with literature as such, but when it comes to putting them in the laboratory, they can’t see the distinction between a dog and the flies buzzing around its food bowl.

Sorry this is so vague.

By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As there is no obvious place to put this, I’ll put it here, because it purports to be based on objective evidence. I’ve not read it so I don’t have an opinion one way or the other:


Creativity in art: stylistic waves and monotonous
evolutionary trends (Information approach)

Vladimir M. Petrov
State Institute for Art Studies, Moscow, Russia

Webmaster note: The tables and figures in Dr. Petrov’s article proved to be difficult to reproduce on-line. Please refer to the print version of his article to view the tables and figures.


Recent investigations are reviewed dealing with the creativity in the arts, which are analyzed in the light of information theory. The main contraposition of “analytic” and “synthetic” mechanisms of the information processing occurs connected with the prevalence of left- or right-hemispheric activity. Appropriate stylistic features reveal themselves in the results of creative processes of composers, architects, painters, dramatists, poets, etc., i.e. the stylistic features of their works. According to the theoretical model, each sphere of creativity should show periodical “switches” between the above two types of stylistic prevalence. This mutability is correlated with changes of generations, hence it should possess the full period of oscillations of about 40 - 50 years. Besides, monotonous trends were predicted, that is, the long-range “synthetic growth” (in each kind of creativity) needed to compensate the “analytic growth” in the entire socio-psychological sphere. The evolutionary dependencies obtained characterize both separate features of creativity in each kind of art and its “index of asymmetry”. The resulting evidence favors both the 50-year stylistic cycles and the “due” monotonous trends in each of the spheres considered. The synchronism of the changes observed in different spheres confirms the theoretical prediction concerning the importance of the “general style” of the epoch.

Among numerous evolutionary models of the creativity in art (see, e.g., Martindale, 1990), those that are the most prospective are those based on the “information approach”. This approach, being of rather general character (see, e.g., Golitsyn & Petrov, 1995), embraces behavior of different systems, that is, with systems dealing with various kinds of primary materials. Hence, certain “invariants” may occur possible, relating to those features of creativity, which are inherent in different branches of the socio-cultural life, and exactly such results are described below. In the present paper the investigations are summarized which were fulfilled during last 30 years, mainly in the framework of St. Petersburg and Moscow Groups of researchers of creative processes.

By Bill Benzon on 02/02/06 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reading Cosma’s piece, I was struck by a misgiving similar to Joe’s: “It is actually hard to think of something in books that truly corresponds to neutral genetic drift.”

Cosma counters that “Why did we get endless clones of Neuromancer rather than of Blood Music?  Maybe Neuromancer was better adapted to readers’ tastes; maybe it got lucky.”

I think there are other possibilities: Neuromancer suited potential authors as a model; Neuromancer suited publishers ideologically; etc.

Also, we have to consider the possibility that Neuromancer succeeded for reasons a, b, and c, all of which were difficult to duplicate or abstract, so instead copycats duplicated traits X, Y and Z.

Cultural reproduction seems to me to be a great deal more complicated than biological reproduction: there are various contexts within which any item may “succeed,” these contexts coexist and overlap, gain and lose relative strength. And the mode of reproduction is highly imperfect.

All of which, it seems to me, makes it very very difficult to reliably trace the propagation of a genre or its popularity to particular traits.

On the genre/species question: I don’t think anyone has ever come up with a satisfactory answer as to how you distinguish between, say, the Roamntic and the non-Romantic. Every definition either leaves out something most everyone agrees belongs in, or simply lets pretty much everything in. And thus: “instead, all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only (realism, the dialogic, romance, meta-novels...); and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history.”

The whole thng about literature is that literature itself is a “cabinet of horrors”: when Marx made his extended and varied “isomorphisms” he was responding to what was essentially a literary impulse. So, for example, when you are investigating colonialism and literature, you are far from finished when you’ve discussed those works that actually depict colonialism, and it is perfectly legitimate to propose isomorphisms between things that may have only faint obvious connections--because before literary criticism did this sort of thing, literature did.

All in all, I agree with the general point that literary studies could use a hell of a lot more discipline in accepting hypotheses, but the looseness of the procedures is to some degree a reflection of the slipperiness of the object.

By Oran Kelley on 02/14/06 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For an approach to Romantic that sidesteps the definition problem:


By Bill Benzon on 02/15/06 at 12:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Richardson piece is interesting and work with statistical analysis may help with the Romanticism question . . . but it seems rather circular. The cannon of Romanticism being defined by what gets included in the canon of Romanticism. Or am I misunderstanding?

The thing about Romanticism is that for me it is vivid (from reading a lot of early 19th century writing) as an attitude or approach to life that contemporaries felt they could recognize fairly easily, not as a collection of retrospectively assembled cannonical figures.

The question of cannon (what is romanticism) seems to me to be less important than the question of what romanticism was for contemporaries for whom the category was important.

By Oran Kelley on 02/15/06 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it seems to me we have to start with intuitive judgments about whether or not a given poem is Romantic. The question is how we explicate those judgments. One way is to come up with a list of characterists that seem to apply to all and only those poems that are romantic. That’s the “classical category” approach and it seems not to work. No matter how you pick your list of defining characters, you end up being unable to accommodate some important cases.

So, Richardson proposes something else that he calls prototypes, which derives from Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances. Just what this is, in a “positive” sense, is not exactly clear. But whatever it is, Richardson’s saying that intuitive judgments are based on prototypes, not lists of explicit criteria.

I don’t think the classical approach works. But Richardson’s proposal is not altogether clear to me. It is not clear to me that prototype theory can be applied to such things as poems. It was developed in the case of relatively simple perceptual judgments about visual objects and that seems to me quite different from assigning poems to style categories. In the end, the process may be much the same, but an explicit argument needs to be made, and Richardson hasn’t made it, nor, as I recall, even recognized the need to do so.

By Bill Benzon on 02/15/06 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Follow-up: Statspeare slipped under the radar.

By nnyhav on 03/02/06 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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