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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

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)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I. “Graphs, Maps, Trees” by Franco Moretti

Posted by Ray Davis on 01/11/06 at 04:07 PM

Moretti sounds like a happy guy. And it's infectious. Why pledge allegiance to a groove and turn it into a rut? Get out of that stuffy coffee shop and into a cool refreshing stats lab. Live a little! (With the aid of twenty grad students.) An OuBelLetriPo is overdue. Let's pick a quantitative approach and a subject out of the hat: "Pie charts" and "Coming-out stories"—wait, um, I wasn't ready; can I try again? "Income distribution" and "Aphra Behn"? Perfect!

Will you end up with a demolished bit of received wisdom? A sociological footnote? Or just graphic representation of a critical triteness? You don't know! You think Perec knew the plot of La Disparation before he started?

From this set of ongoing experiments, "Graphs" seem to be going best. Those cross-cultural Rise-of-the-Novel curves hold immediate appeal.

And what they appeal for is correlation with something else. Moretti plausibly and skeptically explains who might've stepped on the brakes when the curve dips, but who revs the engine? Do accelerators vary as inhibitors do?

Even more intriguing is Moretti's report that nineteenth-century English fiction genres tended to turn over in a clump every twenty-five or thirty years, rather than smoothly year by year. But his report relies exclusively on secondary sources, and risks echo chamber artifacts. Are generational timespans a convenience for the researchers he draws from? What if dialogic genres ("Jacobin novel" and "Anti-Jacobin novel") weren't shown separately? How closely do the novel's clumps lock step with transitions in other forms? How far can we reliably carry statistical analysis of a non-random sample of forty-four?

Plenty of intrigue, then, and plenty of opportunity to re-make the mistakes of others who've tried to turn history into a "real science."

Since maps are often referred to by writers (and, when otherwise unavailable, as in fantasy genres, often passed along to the reader), their re-use by critics tends to be confirmatory rather than revelatory most dramatically when Clive Hart walked each character's path through the "Wandering Rocks". In "Maps", Moretti's diagrams make a good case for a not very startling thesis: a nostalgic series of "village stories" will most likely feature a village from which meanderings are launched but which fades into insignificance over time. (A similar diagram might be made for "taming the town" Westerns.) As he admits, his scatter plot of Parisian protagonists provides even less novelty: if you have an ambitious young French hero, you start him in the Latin Quarter and aim him elsewhere.

Judging by early fruit, "Trees" hold the least promise. As presented, the "free indirect discourse" evolutionary tree doesn't meet Moretti's own standards of rigor, since he offers no material justification for either his selection of source material or his linkages.

His other evolutionary trees may be most interesting for failing to justify their initiating assumption: that visible decipherable clues define the classic mystery genre. Extending the branches to verifiable examples of "fair play" might draw the tree-builder into unabstractable tangles. In the classic blend of detection with gothic and horror elements, consider how often the resolution seems arbitrary, delivered with a wink. Given how poorly most human beings follow a logical argument, does anything more than lip service have to be paid to rationality? To what extent was that expectation set by reviewers rather than noticed by readers? How quickly after the rule's formulation was it challenged by re-assertion of other aspects of crime melodrama in spy stories, thrillers, procedurals, and hard-boiled stories, and then how quickly was it undermined by "cross-breeding"? (My own experience of genre change seems closer to Alfred Kroeber's self-grafting Tree of Human Culture than to species divergence. You only go so hardcore before background singers return to the mix.)

More exhaustive and more focused, Moretti's "everything published in the Strand" tree carries more conviction (and much less tidiness) than his initial "Conan Doyle and his rivals" tree. Exhaustively constrained to such an extent, though, the tree may describe something less than Moretti seems to hope for. I can imagine a tree tracing certain ingredients of virtual reality stories in 1980s science fiction. But would that graph evolution or just Gardner Dozois's editorial obligation to avoid strict repetition?

Moretti closes his trilogy with two general remarks.

One is a call for materialism, eclecticism, and description. This I applaud, since the most interesting scholarship I've read lately includes interdisciplinary studies of "accidentals", histories of readership and publishing, text-crunching of non-canonical sets, whether mechanically or passionately.... There's plenty of life even in purely literary anti-interpretive experiments such as those collected in Ben Friedlander's Simulcast.

The other "constant" Moretti claims is "a total indifference to the philosophizing that goes by the name of 'Theory' in literature departments." (He doesn't define "Theory" more precisely, but Novalis is apparently not on the prohibited list.) And here, I think, I'll keep my hands quietly folded.

I agree that twentieth century philosophers and psychologists have made awful interpretation factories, and that literary studies sometimes reek of old shit under new labels. But interpretations generated from political science, economics, quantum physics, or fMRI averaging tend to be just as inane. What makes such readings tedious isn't which foreign discipline has been used to slap together a mold, but the inherent moldiness of the affair.

For a critic and pleasure reader like myself, Moretti's text-twice-removed findings fit best in the foundations and framework of aesthetics, clearing false assumptions and blocking overly confident assertions. That's also where neurobiology, developmental and social psychology, and other cognitive sciences seem most useful.

Along with philosophy. Having agreed to open up the field, why ban one of the original players? This isn't the sort of game that's improved by team spirit.

+ + +

II. "Sets Hamper Grasp" by A Contrite Form

"My interest is really, why do our senses start being filtered? And what does it do to our history and our art?"
- bhikku
* * *

Eidetic imagery the ability to retain in detail a pictorial configuration is found in approximately 8% of the school population, but almost never in adults, aside from artists.

In "Senses, Symbols, Operations" (The Arts and Cognition, David Perkins & Barbara Leondar, eds.), H. Gardner compared performances of a group of eleven-year-olds and a group of fourteen-year-olds across a wide variety of perceptual, motor, and cognitive tasks. For the most part, there was no improvement with age, or there was a slight decline. Improved: solving brain-teasers; recall of important narrative details. Significantly worse: memory of irrelevant details; dot-counting.

"...we must ask whether a cultural emphasis on operative thinking has had, as an unintended consequence, a deletrious effect upon figurative capacities. ...the decline of incidental learning, the waning of interest in the arts which is so characteristic of adolescence, and contrasting strategies of adolescents and preadolescents in the style discrimination tasks [adolescents tending to compare, preadolescents tending to describe] at least hint at the possibility...."
* * *
"Even as a schoolboy I took tremendous delight in Shakespeare, especially the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost my taste for pictures and music.... My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher states depend, I cannot conceive."
- Charles Darwin


Quantization can be used to ridicule as well. One of the best examples is the language poet Charles Bernstein’s in “Water Images of The New Yorker” where he found 86% of the poems over a 16 week period contained images of water.

By on 01/11/06 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about how much I enjoy Bernstein’s stats work—maybe I’ll finally manage it now that we’re near the topic....

By Ray Davis on 01/11/06 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Statisticians, scholars, businessmen can chart all sorts of things: if a chart of, say, some baseball player’s at-bat average over a few seasons closely correlates to fluctuations in the price of soybeans, some whack-job trader will use it as data. But correlations obviously do not imply cause; and trying to determine when one series of events or policies (say gun ownership) does have a causal relation to another indepedent series of events (say crime) may be ultimately better answered by the physics boys than lit. or philosophy. That’s not to take the Humean view that there are no correlations or that any of those sorts of inferences are mistaken, but that it’s not some matter of aesthetics. {when skimming through Maestro Moretti’s oeuvre, I can’t help keep thinking of Swift’s floating island of scholars, Laputa.............)

By Dr. Deeply on 01/11/06 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Correlation is not causation and everything, but there are no correlations given in “Graphs, Maps, Trees”. He is not doing anything statistically fancy.

By on 01/11/06 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wondered about his assertion that the detective and science fiction genres achieved their modern forms in about 1890 and have continued ever since.  Doesn’t that suggest that something about his cyclic model of genres has changed?  What if the cycles really only existed in the 19th century?  And there are other genres, like “historical fiction” and “fantasy”, listed in his scheme that may be different from their contemporary incarnations in some sense but then again may not.

By on 01/11/06 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What if correlation is causation, though?  What then?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/12/06 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K., by the proximity of your questions you have proven it.

Rich, yeah; one of the things I meant by those “echo chamber artifacts” is that there’s a post-facto academically-inclined and then selectively filtered definition of “genre” being built on: it has to be noticeable to late twentieth-century Anglo-American literature majors; it can’t be too short; it can’t be too long; then there are the outliers, like McGann starting modernism with William Morris or Aldiss starting science fiction with Mary Shelley.... When I’ve seen people try to delimit living “genres”, it’s been a fiasco, and I’m not sure distance clarifies vision. We’re not talking chromosome comparisons, or inability to reproduce. Tertiary English department results might be like restricting a medical research survey to studies financed by pharmaceutical companies.

By Ray Davis on 01/12/06 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For Moretti’s purpose genre is a unit of classification. Classification is a notoriously messy problem,k cf. the problem biologists have with the concept of a species. It’s certainly something that will have to be thrashed about as this work goes forward.

By Bill Benzon on 01/12/06 at 08:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The best research finding of EP, as I understand it, is the cheater detection module, a selected and situation-specific increased rationality. I think that one of the functions of literature is test cognitive limits--empathy and imaging, in particular, and it seems to be an interesting conjecture that the detective story as specific puzzling genre would settle at an optimally puzzling state relative to a large enough reading population. Also, is the desire to avoid repetition not itself a form of cultural evolution?

By Jonathan on 01/13/06 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It is an interesting conjecture, Jonathan, but it doesn’t seem to be supported—at least not for strict definitions of “puzzle” and “rationality”.

“Also, is the desire to avoid repetition not itself a form of cultural evolution?"

“God” “knows” I’m guilty “a million times over” of fuzzy terminology, but I get heebie-jeebies around the ambiguous causalities of “form”, “cultural”, and “evolution” in that question.

Some credos:

1) The human species evolved.
2) As a species, humans are inseparably dependent on other humans in ways that go beyond simple reproduction. We call this dependency “culture”. (Note, though, that I haven’t personified biological change over time by saying something like “Evolution’s goal was culture.")
3) Human beings are attracted to novelty-within-limits. The attraction is evidenced both culturally and by studies of individual behavior (insofar as “individual behavior” can be said to exist in a cultural species).
4) The definition of “attractively limited novelty” differs over time, and from individual to indivdual, and between cultural contexts.

So the desire of the editor to avoid strict repetition combines biology (and thus, to some unknowable extent, an “evolution” which might be figuratively treated as a motive force), biography, and culture (including a corporate capitalist economy). And, should the editor be successful, that desire could be said to (temporarily) reinforce the cultural expectations that the editor caters to.

What’s gained by calling that evolution? Where’s the oomph of the metaphor? It may be difficult for biologists to clearly define the limits of “species”, but that doesn’t begin to compare with the difficulty of defining “sub-genre” or “trend” or “fashion” in a way that can support extended analysis. To say that Dozois’s individual choices were an evolutionary force presumes what hasn’t yet been proven: that there is “a thing” that evolved from “a different thing” by divergence.

Insofar as a final “thing” could be said to have come out of the virtual reality fad I can only picture it as a set of now-shared assumptions which no longer have to be justified and which are no longer capable of producing a frisson (except among newbies; e.g., academics who’d read no sf and seen no HK movies before The Matrix came out). But such a set would be an example of convergence—a knob in Kroeber’s weirdly self-absorbing cultural tree rather than a leaf on Darwin’s biological tree.

Even if we jump exclusively to that level of abstraction—sub-genre rather than story—I don’t believe we find strict divergence. One of the appeals of VR was its obvious affinity to other meta-narrative techniques/sub-genres; it bolstered itself from the start with borrowings from mystic visions, fairy tales, theater stories, highbrow fourth-wall breaking, and so forth. It could be said to have diverged from some other sf fads of the time, but only by its freedom to re-absorb what had been (temporarily) excluded.

Rather than taking on (and glorying in) all the baggage of “evolution”, I’m more inclined to Timothy Burke‘s imagery of emergence: “dumb luck”. I think that’s more accurate, much less misleading, and—sadly for professional scholars and critics—also much less likely to grab the journalistic imagination.

By Ray Davis on 01/13/06 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But how is it that “dumb luck” emergence allows us to dispense with the baggage of evolution? Doesn’t evolution consist in the cumulative effect of numerous instances of emergence?

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Doesn’t evolution consist in the cumulative effect of numerous instances of emergence?"

If the common understanding of “evolution” was “what’s there after numerous instances of emergence”, then I wouldn’t quarrel with the use of “literary evolution”.

However, the words “evolve” and “evolution” have connotations besides “that which happens to be the case.” Deriving from the Latin for “unroll”, “evolve” implies that something is coming to light, something is being uncovered, something is moving towards fulfillment, progress is being made.... And this implication is one of the things I resist.

Of course, the same implication’s responsible for some common misunderstandings of biological evolution. It might have been better to stick to “descent” and “divergence” when describing the origins of species. But at this point “biological evolution” is a standard way to refer to descent and divergence of species under environmental pressures and through genetic mechanisms.

The point of my previous reply is that changes in cultural fashions (including literary genres) don’t follow that model either. Cultural products and changes are worth studying in as detached a way as can be managed, but starting with a biological metaphor might taint the studies.

By Ray Davis on 01/13/06 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Note that convergence is fairly common in biology. Descent isn’t just about divergence. There are substantial regions of the plant kingdom where natural hybridizing is common. Thus taxonomists sometimes talk of “reticulate” phylogeny for such species. This is even more the case for single-celled organisms, where horizontal transfer of genetic material is common. The topology of species relationships is as yet undetermined in this region of the biosphere. See:

Willliam Martin and T. Martin Embly, Early Evolution Comes Full Circle, Nature, Vol. 431, 2004, pp, 134-136.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/06 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re shifting the argument’s terms, Bill. Hybridization and lateral gene transfer are hot topics in biology right now partly because they weren’t as hot for Darwin. And Moretti explicitly wants the bifurcating tree model.

Let me put it this way: Given a science fiction scenario in which hybridization was by far the most visible method by which genetic material passed, in which hybridization could happen across almost any examples of any biological species, and in which there was near complete turnover of species every twenty-five to thirty years, do you think that the category of biological species would have developed in any way recognizable to us? Would that world’s D4rw1n have explained the origin of species in the same way?

Again, when it comes to literary fashions, marketing, and influence, what (besides confusion) is added by the evolutionary metaphor?

By Ray Davis on 01/14/06 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I really should be more sympathetic to Moretti’s project, having myself worked in mathematical/statistical modeling, but ...

1) The filtration that criticism performs to discriminate signal from noise is critical: for all the disputes about canon formation, the works considered still represent less than 1% of the total. Bringing the other 99% in to analysis may contribute to an understanding of historical context, but it may well mask more pertinent influences. Confining the sample set to recognized, if controversial, works, and to the secondary literature concerning them, may provide more insight.

2) One can’t argue against analysis, and cross-correlating concordances bears some relation to projects in linguistics; but what one ends up with is more akin to a network analysis than genealogical trees, as the passage of time does not diminish the influence of dated work. Expanding the semantic range to concept, and then to metaphor and allusion, seems beyond current computational capability—and there’s a lot of room for systematic error to corrupt the data treatment (and any sort of semantic web remains a work in progress). Genre is even more arguable as a construct, which isn’t to say it’s not there, just that the level of generalization makes lots of space for hiding places; it partakes of something of economic analysis of business cycles, where description often shades into explanation without rigor. (The usual correlation/causation concerns apply as well.)

3) There’s some confusion about how the quantification is to be interpreted:
3a) At the level of raw data, proper normalization is important. Does the production of novels correlate to rise in population, or in particular the rise of the middle class (posited as the demand side of the equation)?
3b) A statistical frequency approach is being advocated alongside a pseudo-Bayesian analysis—much can be embedded in the taxonomy (reference priors in Bayespeak). Reliance on secondary studies adds to potential distortions of this sort.

Quibbles: There’s some reliance on ‘sexy’ topical technique in the papers that seem unjustified (which is not to say farcical in some Sokal kind of way). In synchrony I happened to read Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise to see similar conclusions on stylistic cycles and on political environment (e.g., prewar peaks); envisioning via maps/diagrams was part of the Nabokov pedagogy (e.g., train compartment in Anna Karenina—oh, and he understood taxonomy); the technique of Roa Bastos (like that of Bolaño) was more a product of France than Latin America.

Chapter 9 of Jacques Roubaud’s Hortense in Exile seems relevant, especially its conclusion:
And so that’s how the system functioned. All those people who, through some mental aberration unimaginable in our day and age, had undertaken research on certain books whose contents, precisely because they hadn’t been read, were a mystery, understood after a few months of these operating procedures the utter triviality of their obsolete notions. The majority gave up: a few became financial analysts.

By nnyhav on 01/14/06 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, when it comes to literary fashions, marketing, and influence, what (besides confusion) is added by the evolutionary metaphor?

The prospect of eventually arriving at an explanation. If you are happy with the current state of affairs in understanding historical and geographic variation in cultural practices, then there is no reason to consider an evolutionary approach. If not, then you have to look to other means of explaining things. I’ve been looking to cultural evolution for some time now, as have others. Have we arrived at anything definitive? No. Is there a lot of confusion in the air? Yes.

But, what can you expect, these are very difficult problems. Sometime in the last year or two I’ve come to realize that the basic problem that has to be explained is not variation in human culture, but stability. Without stable means of passing things from one generation to the next, there can be no change and variation—hardly a novel idea, but it took me a while to begin formulating it in neural terms, some of which I have done in an about-to-be-published essay review of Steven Mithen’s new book on music.

Getting back to Moretti, yes, he’s chosen divergence. And has given two examples—clues and free indirect discourse. My point in mentioning hybridizing was simply that evolution does not require divergence. Rather, divergent evolution requires certain conditions, which aren’t always met. Moretti also brought up the example of language. I find that problematic. One of the things that happens is creolization, where populations from different languages meet and mix in a concentrated geographic area and, in three generations or so, a new language evolves. That’s not divergence.

When comparative and historical linguists look at language, they explicitly exclude vocabulary borrowing, which happens all the time. If it were included, then we’d have convergeance all over the place in language. The effect of such exclusion is that those language trees are primarily trees of phonology and morphology, secondarily of syntax, and not at all of semantics. Do languages converge or dirverge? It depends on what you look at, what you count as language.

Much of my thinking about this kind of issue has centered on vernacular music in the Americas, the USofA in particular. Here we have massive hybridization between European musics and West African musics. Just why this has happened is not entirely clear, beyond the possibilities inherent in physical proximity between people with different cultural heritage. I’ve made some remarks about the regenerative nature of that dynamic here:


But, whoops! I’m way off topic.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/06 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Concerning your hypothetical, Ray, I suspect it’s internally contradictory. An evolutionary regime such as you describe would not be capable of producing intelligent life forms. Hence there would not be any being around to ponder the nature of species and evolution.

I’m not prepared to argue the point. It’s a hunch. Take it as an indication of how, for better or worse, I think about these matters.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/06 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Convergence occurs far more often in cultural evolution. The relationship of entelechy to cultural divergence is something I talk about in my contribution, but I’ll just note for now that D’Arcy Thompson’s presence in the “Maps” chapter is important.

By Jonathan on 01/15/06 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree, Bill, intelligent organisms are unlikely to develop in such circumstances. In fact, I’d go further and say that anything we’d immediately recognize as biological organisms would be unlikely to develop. That was my point of my scenario.

Plainly you and Moretti hope to gain further insight from the biological metaphor and I’m less optimistic. (I can afford pessimism — I’m not doing the work.) But there’s not much value in arguing over the utility of a metaphor, so long as we can agree that the journalistic tendency to report newly minted metaphors as discovered facts is misguided. The proof will be in the next generation’s pudding.

By Ray Davis on 01/15/06 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, although here I’ve been focusing, like Moretti’s book, on divergent biological evolution, I do think there’s rich cross-pollination to come between literary studies, studies of other artifacts of “popular culture”, political and economic histories, and studies of linguistic change.

By Ray Davis on 01/15/06 at 07:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At my home site, I’ve posted the final segment of an essay on Brooks Adams. It alludes.

By Ray Davis on 02/27/06 at 11:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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