As some know from my previous post, and others' posts here and on other blogs and Facebook, many of us are recently returned from the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Portland, Oregon, where Ruth Evans organized a seminar session on "The Descriptive Turn" (inspired by recent debates and discussion over "surface" versus "symptomatic" reading, the so-called "turn" to flat, microsociological description versus humanist hermeneutics, premodern post/humanisms, and so on), which I described HERE, as well as shared my own contribution to that session, "Disintegrating Allure: A Call for a New Commentariat." Julie Orlemanski graciously allowed me to also post here at ITM her contribution to the session, "Scales of Reading," and Ruth Evans will also be sharing a response in a just a few days.
Herewith, Julie Orlemanski:
Thanks to Ruth Evans for organizing the “Descriptive Turn” panel at the New Chaucer Society conference in July and to Eileen Joy for inviting me to post my talk here. Also, in prefacing it, I want to respond briefly to what Jonathan Hsy (Fifth Blogger, avast!) wrote in his recent summary of NCS. Jonathan observed,
Franco Moretti's “Maps, Graphs, Trees” is suddenly making its way into medievalist discussions as of late; intriguing that there was a lag between its 2007 publication and its “moment” of arrival in medieval studies. Perhaps its recent arrival has something to do with the general Zeitgeist -- our current interests in mobile devices, e-readers/tablets, data visualizing, and geotagging -- but I'm sure there's a media theorist out there who has already made that observation.
I look forward to finding out about what medievalists at present are doing with Moretti, as I wandered into reading him entirely by way of non-medievalists -- for instance, the “state of the field” sketches offered by Heather Love and by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best. He also seems to be a necessary reference point when trying to get a handle on the “digital humanities” and literary history (along with Michael Witmore and Alan Liu). The major ideas of Graphs Maps Trees (published in 2005) actually popped on the scene in a very accessible way in 2000, with the publication of “Conjectures on World Literature” and “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” Perhaps some medievalists had a think about them then? But in reading Graphs Maps Trees I was struck by how ill-suited many of its strategies were for the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages. They seem tailored for a glut of evidence, not a fragmentary record whose contingencies of survival threaten to undermine its representative quality. Moretti’s models also presume a capitalist economy. So, for instance, categories of genre mean something quite different for mass-market novels than in compiling a pastoral miscellany or composing for a coterie audience. The great variability in the accessibility of medieval texts is worlds away from the assumed homogeneity of Moretti’s national novel markets. Not at all surprisingly, our modes of inquiry need to respond to different scales of economic and discursive organization, to the vagaries of locality and the viscosity of circulation. The scales of reading demanded by a manuscript culture differ from those for the “age of mechanical reproduction.” As to why medievalists might be turning to Moretti now, perhaps one reason is our waiting for the other shoe to drop -- to see what “the turn away from the linguistic turn” turns TOWARD, or what post-post-structuralism really does. Moretti is a remarkably clear writer and polemicist and catalyzer of thought, and reading his work has helped me think through some of those questions.
I would welcome questions and suggestions and reading recommendations! These comments are thoughts toward an essay I’ll be finishing in the early spring.
SCALES OF READING
Do the ways we study literature face a substantial challenge from the “descriptive turn,” that loose affiliation of experiments and polemics, manifestos and cross-disciplinary hybrids that we’ve brought together today under one rubric? My answer is both NO and YES. Based on what I’ve read in preparation for this panel, “the task of sticking to description” (as Bruno Latour formulates it) does not itself demand major methodological change. Description and interpretation, it appears, are never so separate that they do not bleed together at the slightest pressure.
A more decisive challenge arises instead from questions of scale. In his 2005 essay Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti remarks that “The very small, and the very large; these are the forces that shape literary history. Devices and genres; not texts. Texts are certainly the real objects of literature […]; but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” (76). Whether the “real objects of literature,” namely “texts,” are our proper “objects of knowledge” seems to me the most significant question raised by Moretti’s recent experiments with what he calls “distant reading” – “where [as he says] distance, let me repeat, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes -- or genres and systems” (“Conjectures” 57). Such a program conjures echoes of structuralism, of phonemes and morphemes, memories of Fernand Braudel’s “breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities” and Claude Levi-Strauss’s claim that “properly scientific work consists of decomposing [one’s object] and then recomposing [it] on a different plane” (27, 250). Indeed, we might wonder if our current post-post-structuralist moment is the setting for a kind of dialectically transformed structuralism. In any case, I would claim that reading what is very large or very small, very far or very close, does promise to constitute alternative “objects of knowledge” and provoke new methods of inquiry.
Before turning to Moretti’s scalar provocations to literary study, I would like to touch briefly on something that seems to me best NOT addressed through strong alterations in our method. This is a family of justifications for the “descriptive turn” that derive from the so-called “crisis in the humanities.” My conviction is that this emergency in the humanities cannot be resolved from inside the field, and it is therefore a poor justification for fundamentally revising how we do what we do. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that it is a good idea to shield our basic methods from strategic “crisis-response” as much as we can.
This “crisis,” I would argue, does not really point to one phenomenon or problem. Instead, its urgency flows from at least two sources, two opposed demands, which together create a kind of double bind for the humanities. On the one hand, university administrators, trustees, donors, and political leaders who are concerned with constructing market-driven higher education see in the humanities a failure of profitability. Programs are defunded and devalued accordingly. But to “avert” such a crisis by way of disciplinary method involves us in a project of self-negation: we “solve the problem” by ceasing to differ and stand apart from neo-liberal market values.
The other source of “crisis” is evident in the suggestion by several descriptive-turn proponents that we eschew the “ethical charisma” of hermeneuts and embrace a stance of “minimal critical agency,” suited to the “humble analyst and observer” (Love 374, Best and Marcus 122, Love 381). In other words, we adopt a method that elaborately signifies our lack of claim to social effectivity and comport ourselves with the ethos of Latour’s “ant” plodding on its unheroic path. I take it that these deflationary prescriptions express frustration, again, with the humanities’ weakness and inutility -- this time, not with regard to neo-liberal market values, but rather in the face of systemic, global inequalities of wealth and privilege, inequalities that are themselves among the conditions of possibility for our classrooms and departments (as they currently exist). Walter Benjamin famously summarizes this contradiction when he writes, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” But the humanities ought not, and cannot, take on this social contradiction at the level of scholarly method -- where it certainly cannot be solved. Both the “crisis of profitability” and the “crisis of justice” -- as we might call them -- demand our attention in so far as we are institutional and political actors, but they should not directly determine what literary study is. They each involve us in a logic that tends to dissolve rather than ground what we do.
At once more energizing and more reassuring are methodological reflections that return to the objects we study -- or at least to the business of constituting them. This is part of what makes reading Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social invigorating: he unfolds in tandem how the world works and how it should be studied, his “empirical metaphysics” and his method (47). The same can be said for Moretti. While Ellen Rooney complains of “surface reading” that “it is neither a description of the way we read now nor a description of the way anyone might read, ever” -- an evaluation with which I would tend to agree -- Latour and Moretti do show, as well as tell, the difference their respective methods make (124).
Moretti describes “distant reading” as emerging directly out of considerations of scale. The “canon,” as Moretti describes it, is calibrated for human perceptual labor: 200 novels correspond nicely to one career’s worth of thoughtful perusal. By contrast the 40,000 novels published in nineteenth-century Britain dwarf the human reader. These thousands of volumes make up a qualitatively different entity, which demands other modes of apprehension and comprehension. “One thing is for sure: [Moretti writes] it cannot mean the close reading of very few texts […]. A larger literary history requires other skills: sampling; statistics; work with series, titles, concordances, incipits” (“Slaughterhouse” 208-09).
Scale is a profoundly aesthetic matter -- of or pertaining to aisthesis, or sense-perception. It is irreducibly a concept of relation and refers us to our specific capacities for attention, cognition, perception, and feeling. As art historian James Elkins observes of abstract paintings, “what counts is that [even though the paintings are non-figurative] the body is … immediately available through choices of scale” (16). Scale influences where we locate ourselves, our own physicalities, in relation to a picture -- whether myopically scrutinizing, or conversationally attentive, or gazing from far off. The same can be said for scales of reading: they render palpable the phenomenological determinants of experiencing texts. Most of us are used to negotiating scales of reading, as we put together a syllabus or modulate our reading speed. A twenty-page essay on “Ode to a Nightingale” assumes a different calibration of “reading” to “read” than does a twenty-page essay on Bleak House.
“Graphs, maps, and trees” are Moretti’s aesthetic solutions to the problem of how 40,000 novels can be brought into an interface with our sensorium and our thoughts. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, becomes a tiny data-point in a graph. Hundreds’ of pages of chivalric adventures in Norman England are strategically re-described through the coordinates of genre and publication date -- in a way that makes new understandings of genre possible. In this way, Moretti’s efforts converge with recent projects in data imaging and digital curation -- experiments in how vast archives can be brought into different forms of perceptibility. The question of how individuals might experience literary-history-as-such also recalls Chaucer’s House of Fame -- which uses spatial and personificational allegory, among other strategies, to re-mediate the totality of discursive tradition. One of the tasks of prosopopoeia is to create an interface (a prosopon, a mask or face) for phenomena of antithetical scales and modes of appearance.
There are ways of talking about Moretti’s “other skills” of sampling and statistics, graphing and mapping, which suggest that their distance from “reading” is one of degree but not of kind. For instance, Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore, as they frame their computational analysis of Shakespeare’s plays, observe that “writing itself is a prosthetic: it allows us to overcome the physical limitations of the medium of speech and the psychological constraints of linguistic processing” (358). Their rhetoric smoothes the way for continuity between reading and computer processing. But there is also particular value in Moretti’s more polemical formulations. Moretti emphasizes the difference between his method and others and pushes his audience to recognize what is at stake in the habitual scalar decisions we make. (In one article, he implies that the very possibility of studying “world literature” hangs in the balance.) He brings us to a sticking point: close reading.
(In passing, I would note that the gist of Moretti’s challenge is not really new to Chaucer studies but rather internal to it, perhaps even constitutive. Arguments with the scalar logics of close reading have come from paleography, codicology, book history, bibliography, and philology; or, to put it another way, from the knowledge-claims of Medieval Studies as they vary from those of literature departments…. Different units of analysis make possible different kinds of knowing.)
In the passage of Graphs, Maps, Trees that you have on your handout [see below], Moretti accuses close reading of a kind of irrationalism, or at least an irrationality of the knowledge-claims made on its behalf. “Take the concept of genre,” he writes. “We choose a ‘representative individual’, and through it define the genre as a whole.” Moretti calls this “typological thinking,” which amounts to an unexamined trust in the sufficiency of our examples. “You analyse Goethe’s novel,” Moretti continues, “and it counts as an analysis of the entire genre, because for typological thinking, there is really no gap between the real object and the object of knowledge” (76). Sophisticated scholars are of course a little cannier than Moretti’s caricature suggests, but we can nonetheless recognize the contours of our field. After all, the standard recipe for a literary monograph is to argue a general condition swiftly into existence and then start close-reading – both to substantiate the broad claim and to set its limits. Moretti’s point about scale, then, concerns this very logic, or illogic, of exemplarity. Reading a handful of the “real objects of literature,” he claims, doesn’t actually tell us very much about literary history.
Practical, methodological responses to Moretti’s arguments are especially desirable right now because his claims echo and extend some of the critiques of historicism recently applauded in our field. Historicism, like Moretti’s “typological thinking,” tends to rely on the “representative individual” to crystallize something much larger and more heterogeneous. As Paul Strohm summarizes,
Although nobody believes in the ‘spirit of an age’ anymore, new historicism was no less reliant than old upon an unacknowledged belief in some kind of spirit-medium or ether in which unexpected cultural affinities might emerge and repetitions and replications occur, by an unexplained process of effortless transmission. (381)
Without an account of precisely how a given instance participates in its class, a work in its genre, or an artifact in its milieu, methods built around close-reading have tended to reproduce what Strohm calls an “‘enabling fiction’: an unspoken assumption that is demonstrably untrue, but that has, from time to time, permitted dazzling apparent truths” (381). Close-reading’s enabling fictions are the unarticulated mechanisms by which singular texts assume general, categorical, or representative significance. Moretti’s “sociological formalism,” or “quantitative formalism,” tries to sidestep “typological thinking” and aims instead at ways of assembling texts without close reading’s aesthetic and affective interface.
The distinction Moretti makes between the “real objects” of literature and literary historians’ objects of knowledge is his sharpest spur to our methodological thinking. Is there a gap between “texts” and the “right objects of knowledge for literary history”? Or, more to the point: is this gap more radical than the one that sets in motion the hermeneutic circle in the first place, our image of the interminable labor of literary interpretation?
John Frow, in his perceptive essay “On Midlevel Concepts,” identifies his focus, like Moretti’s, to be “the methodological question of the construction of an object of knowledge” (243). But in response to Moretti, Frow counters that “the dichotomy of text to smaller or greater units seems to me to beg the question of the process by which units of analysis are constructed: devices, themes, tropes, genres, and systems are neither given in advance not arbitrarily constructed by analytic choice, but are, rather, necessarily implicated in and derived from a process of reading and interpretation” (239). Frow ultimately argues for the “methodological priority” of “‘literary’ reading itself” and the irreducibility of hermeneutic labor (243). Frow’s essay thus maintains close reading and interpretation at the heart of literary study, even of the “sociology of literature” (237).
Frow’s project of producing a sociologically informed account of literary ontology, hermeneutic method, and (by extension) the logic of the example seems to me one of the most productive paths to be followed in light of the “descriptive turn.” Such theorization would not have as its primary aim the defense of our field to those outside of it (whether scientists, administrators, or the “general public”), but our own understanding of literary interpretation’s specific rationality and the knowledge claims of close reading. Literary criticism has traditionally encompassed attention to one’s own aesthetic responses (which are themselves educated and qualified) -- the images conjured, the affects felt, the suspense, the tedium, the places where the mind wanders or is gripped…. As Simon Gaunt writes, “to admit to pleasure or enjoyment in our reading of medieval texts, to acknowledge their emotive power or charm” is to help construct “a rigorous way of talking about the affects of texts that had enormous power to move, precisely as a means of understanding how this power arises” (480-81). Gaunt’s and Frow’s comments maintain the phenomenological interface of literature among the “right objects of knowledge for literary history.” Moretti’s compelling arguments insist that we account for why this is so.
The pursuit of literary study in the direction Frow indicates would also demand new accounts of literary agency. Figuring out “how a given instance participates in its class, a work in its genre, or an artifact in its milieu” will indeed involve renewed efforts of description, to show the specific modes of force, agency, and causal effectivity that link such scales and sites of literary production together. Here, I think Bruno Latour could be especially helpful, with his insistence on the “bewildering array of entities to account for the hows and whys of any course of action” and his conceptual tools for capturing the diversity and displacement of agencies (47; see “Second Source of Uncertainty: Action is Overtaken,” Reassembling the Social 43-62). Graphs Maps Trees is less help: Moretti’s claim that devices and genres “are the forces that shape literary history” and his gnomic dictum “form as force” on the final page both obscure more about causality and agency than they reveal.
Finally, we might consider the kind of work that we understand literary-critical labor to be -- or want it to be. Such considerations implicate what we teach, how we research, and how close together those are. The sciences provide a salient counterpoint, with their collaborative but hierarchized laboratories, often organized by stark divisions of labor. The “New Criticism” that came to ascendency in the era of the G.I. Bill as well as the stripped poems of I. A. Richards’s “practical criticism” have a democratizing vector to them, which passes through the validity of one’s own aesthetic responses as sources of knowledge. New Criticism’s particular species of empiricism meant that “primary research” was constantly going on in the classroom. Are aesthetic and interpretive experiences (which I’m here aligning with close-reading) methodologically expendable? If not, why not? What would it mean if we stopped treating texts as affective scripts, as phenomenological interfaces? if we starkly changed our scales of reading? Like Frow I am inclined to treat aesthetic, affective, and phenomenological experience as a dialectical “moment” in something not radically dissimilar from the traditional hermeneutic circle. Substantive challenges to such a model of practice (like Moretti’s challenge) are opportunities to reconsider our habits and perhaps to alter and revitalize them.
Quote provided on the NCS handout:
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005), p76:
The very small, and the very large; these are the forces that shape literary history. Devices and genres; not texts. Texts are certainly the real objects of literature (in the Strand Magazine you don’t find ‘clues’ or ‘detective fiction’, you find Sherlock Holmes, or Hilda Wade, or The Adventures of a Man of Science); but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history. Take the concept of genre: usually, literary criticism approaches it in terms of what [evolutionary biologist] Ernst Mayr calls ‘typological thinking’: we choose a ‘representative individual’, and through it define the genre as a whole. Sherlock Holmes, say, and detective fiction; Wilhelm Meister and the Bildungsroman; you analyse Goethe’s novel, and it counts as an analysis of the entire genre, because for typological thinking, there is really no gap between the real object and the object of knowledge.
Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21
Fernand Braudel. “History and the Social Sciences: the Longue Durée” (orig. pub. 1958). In On History (U Chicago P, 1982). 25-54.
James Elkins, Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis (Stanford UP, 1999).
John Frow. “On Midlevel Concepts.” NLH 41 (2010): 237-252.
Simon Gaunt. “A Martyr to Love: Sacrificial Desire in the Poetry of Bernart de Ventadorn.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 477-506.
Jonthan Hope and Michael Witmore. “The Hundredth Psalm to the Tune of ‘Green Sleeves’: Digital Approaches to Shakespeare’s Language of Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (2010): 357-90.
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (Oxford UP, 2007). Download the entire book here at http://www.anti-thesis.net/contents/texts/references/latour-reassembling_the_social.pdf
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (U of Chicago P, 1966; orig. pub. 1962).
Heather Love. “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” NLH 41 (2010): 371-391.
Franco Moretti. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54-68.
Franco Moretti. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Verso, 2005).
Franco Moretti. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” MLQ 61(2000): 207-227.
Ellen Rooney. “Live Free or Describe: The Reading Effect and the Persistence of Form.” differences 21.3 (2010):112-39.Paul Strohm. “Historicity without Historicism?” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2010): 380–391.