Culture Magazine

Rejected! @ New Literary History, with Observations About the Discipline

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I've now taken my posts on being turned down at NLH and uploaded them as a working paper:
Abstract, table of contents, and introduction below.
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Abstract: The author submitted an article entitled “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” to a top tier journal, New Literary History (NLH). The article was rejected. This working paper reads that rejection as a rejection of computational thinking that is ideological in nature rather than being grounded in any sophisticated understanding of computation. Back in the 1970s there was a brief window of intellectual opportunity when literary critics where open to the emerging cognitive sciences, but that had closed by the end of the decade. The discipline now recognizes that it needs new ideas but 1) has yet to figure out how to re-connect with the possibilities that were bypassed three decades ago, and 2) doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.
Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal 2 Outside looking in on the critics’ table 7 What I got out of writing the article 12 Party like it’s 1975! 19 Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History 35 What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over 42 Appendix 1: The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years 51 Appendix 2: Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds 55
Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal
Early last fall I submitted a paper for publication in New Literary History: “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” (PDF). Not only did I have high hopes. I actually had high expectations, which of course is quite different. I really thought this piece would be accepted. And yet when I got news of rejection, I was not surprised. Disappointed, certainly. Surprised, not really.
Now that just doesn’t make sense. If I really thought it would be accepted, then rejection should have surprised me, no? But it didn’t.
What’s going on? The human mind, that’s what. A strange beast. And yet it is precisely because I thought hard about the article and had specific ideas about why I would be attractive to New Literary History, ideas I’ll discuss in a later on, that it becomes both imperative and possible for me to learn from the rejection. I’ve got to revise those ideas somehow.
Thus I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out not only why the paper was rejected but why and how I misjudged things. Sure, I received comments from a reviewer. They were quite dismissive. As far as I can tell, if I wanted to wrtie something that would please that reviewer, I would have to abandon just about everything in the essay. Not very helpful.
Why not? And yet the fact that they weren’t helpful, that fact is itself helpful, for it tells me that we live in different conceptual worlds, that reviewer and me.
But Why Go Public with These Thoughts?
One does not generally make a public statement about having an article rejected at a journal. That’s private business. And it’s only quite recently that making a public statement would even have been possible. Without the internet there’d be no way to do it.
Still, what’s the point? I suppose there’s an element of vanity involved, as though my rejection would interest others. But it’s not about me; it really isn’t. It’s about the ideas. For the last four decades I have been pursuing ideas that are significantly different from those that have developed within the profession. I’ve published many of these ideas in various places. In fact, some of the ideas in the manuscript NLH rejected were first published in MLN (Modern Language Notes) four decades ago. But for the most part, these ideas are at best marginal. I was hoping that by publishing them in NLH, they would get broader exposure.
It is widely recognized that the discipline of literary criticism is in trouble; NLH certainly recognizes it. New ideas are needed. And that’s what I’ve got, new ideas, albeit some of them are several decades old.
This is about the what we might call the “possibility space” of literary studies. The discipline has explored a certain range of intellectual spaces over the past century or so. What new possibilities are open for exploration? I’ve explored spaces that few others have explored and I laid out some of that work in the article I submitted. In effect, I sent a test “probe” into “the discipline” and it said “NO”.
What has that “no” told me about the discipline? That’s not an easy question to answer and any answer I come up with will necessarily be highly uncertain. That’s just how these things are.
What Happened?
Let us consider some possibilities:
1. It is possible that I simply don’t have anything worthwhile to say about literature. If that is the case, then there’s really nothing I can do that would have resulted in an article acceptable to NLH or to any other literary journal.
However, I don’t really believe that. Given that I have already published in other literary journals, I don’t think it’s the case that I have nothing to contribute to literary studies. So I misjudged something. What?
2. It is however possible that I have nothing to contribute to NLH. It’s a first rank journal, but it doesn’t pretend to cover the full range of literary studies.
3. It is also possible that I do have something to say to the NLH readership, but I didn’t manage to convey that in my article. Perhaps a somewhat different article is needed.
Given that I reject #1, how do I decide between #2 and #3?
The reviewer’s comments, which I will get to in a later post, lead me to #2, though quite possibly the reviewer believes #1. The reviewer’s comments center on computing, which is, after all, how I framed my article. There is nothing, alas, in the reviewer’s comments suggesting that they think about computing in a sophisticated way. If the review is in fact computationally sophisticated, then those comments are damning indeed.
But those comments could easily come from someone with little sophistication and, moreover, someone for whom computers and computing are little more than ideological talismans of the anti-human. If this is the case, well, what then?
It means that they are no reflection on the basic quality of my work in that essay. It might in fact be poor because I’ve treating computation poorly, but an unsophisticated reviewer wouldn’t know that. They’d only know that I talk of computing and such talk is, in principle, suspect.
I think a lot of literary critics believe that; whether it’s 20%, 38%, 65% or some other value, I don’t know. Whatever the number, perhaps I have little to say to them. And if such critics make up a large percentage of the NLH readership there’s little point in NLH devoting scarce pages to an article that will only alienate those readers. If I want to publish computationally-oriented material I need to go elsewhere, perhaps to PsyArt Journal, an online journal where I published four substantial articles in the first decade of the millennium. All of those articles had a strong computational emphasis, much stronger than what I submitted to NLH.
At the moment I’m thinking maybe #3 is the case. It’s not so much that I’m considering writing a somewhat different article and submitting it specifically to NLH – I’ve got other projects I’m working on. Rather I’m trying to figure out whether I’ve got anything to say to a more or less mainstream audience of academic literary critics, which is what, rightly or not, I take NLH’s audience to be.
I need to get a sense of these matters in order to plan out my work. The number and variety of things I could do, and that I would be interested in doing, exceeds my resources (mostly time). Which of those projects should I work on? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, and that’s why I’ve spent so much time thinking these things through and, once again, revisiting the recent history of literary criticism.
Here We Go
Here then are the episodes I have posted.
Outside looking in on the critics table – With undergraduate and graduate work (MA) at Johns Hopkins in the 60s and 70s and PhD at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-70s I was institutionally positioned at the center of change in literary criticism. My publication debut in the Centennial issue MLN in 1976 was very visible. But it was also cognitive science, which no one was ready for. By the mid-1980s I realized that, conceptually, I had moved to the far periphery of literary criticism, if even that. I conceived of a Socratic bargain (cf. The Crito) with the academy and have been pursuing it ever since. Where is that today? Why submit to New Literary History?
What I got out of writing the paper – In the article I’d submitted, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, I assemble several different topics and modes of thought into a single document focused on two examples, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 and Obama’s eulogy for Clemente Pinckney: form, computation (the sonnet), descriptive analysis (the eulogy), psychological dynamics in a group (Obama’s performance), and interpretive analysis (the eulogy). That’s what I got from the article, seeing those different kinds of intellectual work together in one discourse. I expected the NLH audience would see the same thing, except that the discussions of form and interpretive analysis (of Obama’s eulogy) would be most familiar to them. The other materials are foreign, but ready and waiting for those critics who want to do a bit of exploring.
Party like it’s 1975! – In the introduction to his 1975 Structuralist Poetics, Jonathan Culler imagined a type of literary study that “would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). But that never really happened, not even for Culler himself. The possibility of a poetics had emerged by the beginning of the decade and had all but disappeared by the end.
Interpretation attracted increasing professional interest after World War II. By the mid-60s it had spread across the profession, but had also become problematic. The profession began to look outward to other disciplines.
Thus looking forward from early in the 1970s the profession was open to new ideas, even ideas outside the familiar discursive realm of literary criticism and scholarship. Perhaps linguistics and structuralism had something to say to literary criticism? Looking back, however, it appears that this is also when those new possibilities, the non-discursive ones, were rejected. Poetics was relegated to a distinctly secondary role in the profession and interpretation became the discipline’s central focus. One might almost say that, at least for some, interpretive criticism approached a secular theology where individual humans and texts are subordinate to transcendent systems of various kinds. Interpretive activity was directed at those transcendent systems.
As far as I’m concerned, this episode is the heart of this investigation. The disicipline had come this close to the conceptual possibilities I laid out in the rejected article. And yet it remains so far away.
Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History – One thing that struck me about the reviewer’s comments is that they echoed a different reviewer’s comments to an article I had sent out for review in the 1980s. Both thought the article they were reviewing looked like that old structuralism we’ve put behind us, and neither knew quite what to make of the diagrams. Could it be that little has changed in the discipline since the 1980s, that it remains as closed to non-discursive modes of thought now as it was then?
What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over – The Romantic hayride is the dismissal of the sciences dating back to the Romantics. This is alive and well in the humanities, though I rather suspect it’s a minority affectation, albeit an influential one. Still, this is the 21st century. What are literary critics going to do? What of description, which has been getting a lot of play recently? I introduce a hobby-horse of mine, ring-composition, as an example an opportunity for descriptive criticism. And then we have the digital humanities and computational criticism; here we have substantially new conceptual methods. I conclude with a return to Jonathan Culler’s unfulfilled proposal of a poetics.
Appendix 1: The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over that last 50 years – This is a guide to my historically oriented and autobiographical writing about the profession.
Appendix 2: Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds – This is a brief introduction to topic modeling, which showed up in Party like it’s 1975!
Toward a Common World
One reason that I decided to submit to New Literary History is that the journal, and its editor, Rita Felski, has been championing the work of Bruno Latour. Recently NLH devoted a double issue to Latour and the humanities. Here’s a passage from her Introduction (New Literary History, Vol. 47, Nos. 2 & 3, 2016, p. 221):
A final verb: composing. In a manifesto published in New Literary History, Latour articulates a vision of composition as an alternative to critique. The latter, he notes, is exceptionally skilled at deconstructing and demystifying, seeking to render things less real by underscoring their social constructedness. It is very good, in short, at pulling out the rug from under one’s feet, while failing to provide a place where one might stand, however temporarily or tentatively. The idea of composition, by contrast, speaks to the possibility of trying to compose a common world, even if this world can only be built out of many different parts. It is about making rather than unmaking, adding rather than subtracting, translating rather than separating.
Just which common world are we talking about? Certainly a common world here on earth where we must all live. In a more limited way, however, (p. 222): “In his recent Tanner lectures, Latour proposes that the humanities and sciences find common ground and create new alliances in the face of shared threats to academic institutions.”
Just what does that mean, concretely, for the humanities and sciences to find common ground? That’s what I have been doing for the last four decades and that’s what I did in that article that received a summary dismissal from NLH. It is one thing to promote common ground at conferences as something we’ve got to do, someday, you know, in the future when we have time. It’s something else to actually do it, now, in the present.
But then I’m talking about common intellectual grounds. Perhaps that’s not what Latour had in mind. Perhaps, as his statement suggests, he was only talking about institutional politics. That’s fine too, but if you really want to question the split between nature and culture that’s drives the split between the sciences and the humanities, then you’ve got to go beyond politics, no?

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