Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unreading? Ruth Evans's Response to Julie Orlemanski

Figure 1. Cornelia Parker, "Cold Dark Matter"


[Note from Eileen: Ruth Evans's post here is a continuation of the ongoing dialogue stemming from papers presented at the session Ruth organized on "The Descriptive Turn" at the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society held in Portland a few weeks ago -- Eileen Joy's and Julie Orlemanski's expanded papers already posted HERE and HERE -- and be sure to also read Jonathan Hsy's perceptive retrospective of the overall NCS meeting HERE. Tomorrow, I will also post Carolynn Van Dyke's contribution, "Close but not Closed," to the NCS session as well.]

When I started to shape my response to Julie Orlemanski’s post the last thing I expected was that I’d end up – as I have done – writing about Franco Moretti. It’s a tribute to Orlemanski’s perceptive and generous critical appraisal of Moretti that I have been compelled to reconsider his work. I first stumbled upon Moretti when I put together the syllabus for a non-medievalist 2006 graduate class called "What is Literature?" I was intrigued by Moretti’s ideas but I have never wanted my critical practice to be, or to include, “sociological formalism.”[1] My aim was to unsettle students’ uncritical acceptance of close reading as the cornerstone of our discipline (what does “reading” literature mean, after all?). Moretti was only one of the witnesses, so to speak, for the prosecution, and his brand of literary history -- one that offers, in John Frow’s well-chosen words, “a reflexive understanding of the processes, both social and experiential, by which regularities of reading are shaped” -- is only one element on a spectrum of heterogeneous practices that go under the rubric of the sociology of literature, which in turn is only one aspect of what is more widely called “the descriptive turn.”[2] My students were very resistant to Moretti’s work, for all the reasons you’d imagine: descriptive taxonomies didn’t excite them and they considered that his insights, interesting as they were, didn’t have much to do with literature as they understood it. I have now come to think that what Orlemanski felicitously calls Moretti’s “scalar provocations to literary study” are crucial to how we think about literature, including medieval literature, although I look at this a little differently from Moretti. 

First, a word about the take-up of Moretti’s work. As far as I am aware, no medievalists consciously employ Moretti’s methodology. But he is often quoted. To those scholars listed in Jonathan Hsy’s response (and I here salute your new status as ITM bloggerus quintus extraordinarius, Jonathan!), I add Jennifer Summit. Summit is a colleague of Moretti’s at Stanford and was on a panel discussion with him at the Stamford Information Systems Laboratory in2000, well before Graphs Maps Trees hit the scene. Summit’s wrap-up paper at the 2006 NCS Congress in New York (read it on the NCS website) briefly mentions Moretti’s “distant reading” in the context of discussing medievalists’ contribution to “the broader methodological challenges of literary study.” Summit argues that the study of manuscripts demands both close reading -- the minute, almost obsessive attention to every material feature of a single codex -- and a form of distant reading, namely historicism: “tracing diachronic change as it is registered on and through material objects as they traversed their own itinerant spatial and temporal routes.” [3] Analyzing the material history of texts is certainly, as Frow argues, “one of the most powerful methods available for getting at the historicity of texts.”[4] But historicism and “distant reading” can’t be easily conflated: Moretti’s “scalar provocations” involve not reading texts closely (which entails a necessary loss), while the study of manuscripts that Summit outlines requires that we “read” (examine and describe) them closely and individually. If medievalists are going to take up Moretti’s methods -- in order to gain something that they don’t currently possess -- then they need to confront the issue of loss. On a fundamental level, Moretti’s work challenges us to abandon our deep and close relationship to our objects of study. Of course this makes us anxious.

 Orlemanski observes that Moretti’s large-scale quantitative and qualitative sociological analyses work well with a superabundance of evidence but not with the fragmentary record of manuscripts -- to which I would add that the (largely) bespoke production of manuscripts also makes a difference to how we think about the processes that shape the regularities of reading practices in the middle ages. However, I don’t think we should give up yet on performing large-scale analyses of the medieval manuscript record. I want to turn Orlemanski’s critique around: if the problem with the middle ages is that the record is fragmentary, then I would argue that that requires different solutions: a set of different categories from those Moretti devised to deal with a surfeit of (printed) evidence. The fragmentary record still constitutes what Moretti calls a system. All it takes is for someone to evolve a hypothesis about that system that can be tested -- a hypothesis, that is, about themes, tropes, genres, or other literary categories (provided we heed Frow’s critique that we cannot treat these categories as givens in advance of our analysis).[5] 

In any case the middle ages does have a surfeit of evidence, in the sense of scribal variation: think of the colossal problems John Manly and Edith Rickert had with their edition of the Canterbury Tales. But scholars are now able to manipulate these variants digitally, making literary historical analysis possible in ways we cannot yet imagine. Many medievalists are tackling scale: Donald Scragg’s groundbreaking paleographical study of Anglo-Saxon scribal hands, albeit not a literary project and not one about readers (though who knows? it might turn out to be -- it’s a resource to be exploited), has identified over one thousand different scribal hands: this tells us something startling about Anglo-Saxon writing practices, scribal training, and book production.[6] 

Because I want to talk about scale, I don’t have the space to discuss the value to medievalists of two of Moretti’s challenges to literary study, but I do want to flag them up: the putting in question of the canon and the destabilizing of national literatures (not that Moretti has a monopoly on these issues: it is widely acknowledged that there has been a collapse of the cultural features that made literature -- in the sense of “national literature” -- possible, and medievalists have long known that many of their texts are not traditionally canonical[7]). Medieval “English” literature is, and should be, a constant intellectual provocation to the canon of English literature, to survey courses called “Pre-1800 British Literary Tradition,” and to the idea of a national literature. Medieval “English” literature includes works in Scots and French; it is frequently multilingual; it includes much poetry that falls outside T.S. Eliot’s “timeless” English tradition.[8] 

I also don’t have the space to discuss another issue raised by Moretti’s work that is not discussed by Frow: the traditional opposition between book history -- as a form of distant reading -- and the idea of literature. At times this is less an opposition than a violent hierarchy. This opposition is not quite the same thing as the distinction between literary studies and the social sciences (a distinction called into question by both Frow and Heather Love). The 2006 Special Issue of PMLA on The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature, edited by Leah Price and Seth Lerer (who was at one point a colleague of Moretti’s and Summit’s at Stamford, and who is also, inter alia, a medievalist), attempted a rapprochement between the disciplines of literature and book history, asking (in Lerer’s words) “What is the relation between the book as artifact and the aesthetics of the literary imagination?”[9] (Lerer does not, by the way, ever mention Moretti.) Ingenious as many of the essays in that PMLA special issue are, none to my mind really succeeds in bringing together book and text, materiality and the literary. Leah Price offers some reasons for the disjunction: “if the book has been invisible (or intangible) to most twentieth-century literary critics, it isn’t simply because we aren’t trained to analyze material culture; it’s also because a commonsense Cartesianism teaches us to filter out the look, the feel, the smell of the printed page.”[10] 

Price’s allusion to the sensory aspects of books coincides beautifully with Orlemanski’s brilliant observation that scale is “a profoundly aesthetic matter -- of or pertaining to aisthesis, or sense-perception,” and that “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.” Orlemanski offers here a tantalising glimpse of how book history and literary study might be brought together: scale is an aesthetic issue as well as a quantitative one; mass novel production -- the 99.5% “great unread” that impresses us with its cosmic dimensions (I feel that Augustine or Margery Kempe would have understood this cosmicity, even though their understanding of textuality is so profoundly different from mine) -- demands an imaginative, aesthetic response: how to encompass it? how to understand it? how to give it weight and meaning?[11]

I want now to put a different twist on Moretti’s “scalar provocations to literary study.” Pierre Bayard’s witty little vade mecum How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read constitutes a vastly different project from Moretti’s and yet it confronts exactly the same question of scale.[12] Like Moretti, Bayard (incidentally, what a great name for medievalists to conjure with -- and he is in fact quite a prancing horse) disdains the exaggerated attention to a handful of great books that we call the canon and suggests instead that readers adopt “a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning.”[13] It’s a survival manual, a sly self-help guide, born out of the anxiety provoked by the social need to talk about a mass of books and the enormous reverence that western culture accords to reading. Despite its title, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read is not a bluffer’s guide to literature but a serious discussion of how we can (and why we need to) pass judgment on books we haven’t read, because books form a system (this is the link with Moretti), in which it is possible, if one is “a cultivated person,” to “locate each element in relation to the others.”[14] In other words, one has a map of the field, what Bayard calls “the collective library,” and this -- rather than close reading -- is what “truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books:” it’s the mastery of “a command of relations, not of any book in isolation.”[15] 

Bayard does not offer, as Moretti does, a visual systematization (graphs, maps, trees) of the torrent of books. Instead he uses examples from a range of writers -- Paul Valéry, Montaigne, Oscar Wilde -- to illustrate what he means by “non-reading” (or “unreading”).[16] Valéry, for example, advocates a practice of reading that takes its cue from an author’s own practice: “Proust’s habit of drawing associations from the smallest detail might seem to encourage a critic to do likewise with Proust’s work, as opposed to actually reading it.”[17] One chapter that medievalists will savor is on William of Baskerville’s reconstruction of a book he has never read (in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose): a form of access to its contents via what others have said about it.

Orlemanski rightly argues that the “scales of reading demanded by a manuscript culture differ from those for the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’.” But if medievalists must deal differently with economies of scale (as it happens, an Anglo-Saxonist could in fact read the entire Old English corpus) they do deal with economies of loss. For medievalists this is more than the fact that one cannot read everything, master everything; medievalists often reconstruct a lost heritage, based on what has been said about missing books: think of R.W. Chambers’ The Lost Literature of Medieval England or R.M. Wilson’s The Lost Literature of Medieval England or Gottskálk Jensson’s The Lost Latin Literature of Medieval Iceland: The Fragments of the Vita sancti Thorlaci and Other Evidence” or Fañch Postic’s 2009 conference paper on the connections between medieval literature and oral literature.[18] I also want to bring in here Ardis Butterfield’s reference to the re-creation of a reading context for medieval lyrics: what she calls “a network of networks,” fanning out behind each small, enigmatic lyric, a filigree of associations that must be patiently reconstructed in order to gain a fuller sense of the meaning of each individual poem.[19] Obviously, there is plenitude here, as well as loss. But what matters is less the intimate knowledge of a single lyric or the ability to perform close reading on it (many lyrics are not especially susceptible to “close reading”) than the sense of what it has become within a critical and cultural space.

Might this not also be a way of thinking pedagogically, that is, in terms of the models of reading we attempt to put across to our graduate students? I have attended many oral exams in which highly intelligent students perform a kind of literary Pelmanism, answering questions on a hundred medieval texts with little sense of where those texts fit within a larger critical conversation: how they form a system; how each element is related to the others. Of course I expect that grad students will have read every one of those texts, but might we not encourage them also in practices of “unreading,” in acquiring a sense of where texts fit within a critical space? They need some different tools for coping with a mass of primary texts and an ever-growing mass of critical works as well. 

A final point about Bayard. Orlemanski quotes (with some reservations) Claude Lévi-Strauss’s proposal that a “‘properly scientific work consists of decomposing [one’s object] and then recomposing [it] on a different plane’,” but she then goes on to claim that “reading what is very large or very small, very far or very close, does promise to constitute alternative ‘objects of knowledge’.” I agree. It’s interesting to bring this claim into dialogue with Bayard’s psychoanalytically-inspired concept of “screen books,” modeled on Freud’s screen memories: “what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion.”[20] This is an idea with rich implications, meriting further investigation into the reader as child,[21] reading as a defense mechanism, and the book as object, in all the multifarious senses in which that term is used across a range of disciplines (which is to say that I am thinking of how Bayard gestures not only towards a new object of study – the collective library – but a newly reconstituted familiar object): one we reconstitute in our own image, or misrecognize, or love on the basis of something in it that is more than it is.

Finally, finally: I like Bayard’s characterization of the place of literary texts in our imaginary (and this may speak to Eileen Joy’s post): “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.”[22] This offers a way of thinking about the superabundance of books that addresses the imaginative, aesthetic dimensions of scale, and that allows for our creative bafflement and fascination with both the small and gross units of our analysis.

[1] Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54-68 (66).
[2] John Frow, “On Midlevel Concepts,” NLH 41 (2010): 237-252 (239. And see Heather Love’s identification of the various methods and approaches – including book history – that are part of “the new sociologies of literature”: “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” NLH 41 (2010): 371-391 (373-4).
[3] Summit 2006, n.p. Interestingly, Summit’s brilliant 2008 monograph, a work of book history, does not cite Moretti: Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
[4] Frow, “On Midlevel Concepts,” 245.
[5] See Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54-68, for a discussion of his evolution of a hypothesis about world literature. See Frow, “On Midlevel Concepts,” 241-2, for the critique.
[6] Donald Scragg, A Conspectus of Scribal Hands Writing English, 960-1100 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2012).
[7] See J. Hillis Miller, On Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 2-12; Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996).
[8] I owe a great debt to the fine roundtable “The Canon in the Classroom,” organized by Elizaveta Strakhov, at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 2012. Panellists were David Wallace, Fiona Somerset, Ian Cornelius, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.
[9] Seth Lerer, “Falling Asleep over the History of the Book,” PMLA 121.1, Special Topic: The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature (2006): 229-234 (230). Of course, “book history” and “the history of the book” are not precisely synonymous: see William Kuskin, “Introduction: Following Caxton’s Trace,” in William Kuskin (ed.), Caxton’s Trace (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2006), 1-34 (24-25).
[10] Leah Price, “Introduction: Reading Matter,” PMLA 121.1, Special Topic: The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature (2006): 229-234 (230).
[11] The phrase is Margaret Cohen’s, cited in Moretti, “Conjectures,” 55. It’s an allusion to the fact that 99.5% of books are not “canonical”: they constitute “the great unread.”
[12] Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).
[13] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 12-13.
[14] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 11.
[15] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 12.
[16] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 56.
[17] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 20.
[18] R.W. Chambers’ The Lost Literature of Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925); R.M. Wilson, The Lost Literature of Medieval England (London: Methuen, 1970); Gottskálk Jensson, The Lost Latin Literature of Medieval Iceland: The Fragments of the Vita sancti Thorlaci and Other Evidence,” Symbolae Osloenses: Norwegian Journal of Greek and Latin Studies 79.1 (2004), 150-170; Fañch Postic, “Between ‘Lost Literature’ and ‘Unobtainable Text’: Literature and Oral Literature,” paper delivered at the “Approaching the Middle Ages: Wales and Brittany” Some Connections Between Medieval One-day Conference, 24 January 2009, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. http://www.wales.ac.uk/Resources/Documents/Research/Fanchtrans.pdf.
[19] Ardis Butterfield, “Reading Lyric Networks: A Flat and Slow Performance,” panel presentation, “The Descriptive Turn,” Eighteenth Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, Portland, OR (July 2012).
[20] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, 44.
[21] See Frances Spufford, The Child That Books Built (London: Faber, 2002).
[22] Bayard, How to Talk about Books, xxi.


Chris said...

This is terrific; I'm glad to see Bayard and Moretti rubbing up against each other in this way. And I love bringing the catalog of English scribal hands into the mix.

I am similarly curious about dictionary-making as a type of descriptive reading practice, one that is in turns both close and distant, and one that also rubs up against issues of canonicity (how do different levels of canonicity affect definition writing, and thus the broader sense of the language, culture, etc. that the dictionary is depicting.)

Heather Bamford said...

Great post, really looking forward to reading the full papers. One comment about combining book history and literary study: I think in order to do this, we have to imagine ourselves outside of reading to some extent, to imagine the other uses to which manuscripts (or pieces of them, fragments) were put: apotropaic purposes, binding, compilation, recombination, etc. Oftentimes entertaining evidence of these non-reading uses deeply informs one's (mainly) literary study.