Culture Magazine

Ted Underwood on Canon/Archive [#DH]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Ted Underwood reviews Canon/Archive, by Franco Moretti (Author and Editor) and 13 others (Mark Algee-Hewitt, Sarah Allison, Marissa Gemma, Ryan Heuser, Matthew Jockers, Holst Katsma, Long Le-Khac, Dominique Pestre, Erik Steiner, Amir Tevel, Hannah Walser, Michael Witmore, and Irena Yamboliev, all authors). How, you might ask, could that be? Simple, says Underwood, more or less. Moretti worked at Stanford's Literary Lab (he's now retired from Stanford) and laboratories are (typically) sites of collaborative and collective work. People at different stages in the intellectual life, with different sets of conceptual, craft, and rhetorical skills, work together in a common intellectual enterprise. I participated in such a group when I was doing by PhD work at Buffalo (English), where I was a member of David Hays's linguistics/cognitive science group (Linguistics). It can be a good way to work, but it is not how work in the humanities has ordinarily-classically, if you will-been done.

And, despite the sense one gets in the general media that quantitative work is new to the humanities, that's not the case, says Underwood. It's been around for several decades.

But over the last 30 years, the enclaves have joined to produce a practice of quantitative interpretation that is no longer purely sociological, or purely linguistic, but able to range freely across the spectrum from single words to social trends. Computers are certainly useful in this mode of interpretation, but they aren't the new element.

What's new is a certain "human connection between scholars." Initially Moretti and Matthew Jockers, but others joined the party, and this volume presents their collective work.

Experiment is presented here not just as a test of reliable knowledge but as a style of intellectual growth: "By frustrating our expectations, failed experiments 'estrange' our natural habits of thought, offering a chance to transcend them." At moments, the point of experiment seems to become entirely aesthetic. In the book's introduction, Moretti admits that he set out to write "a scientific essay, composed like a Mahler symphony: discordant registers that barely manage to coexist; a forward movement endlessly diverted; the easiest of melodies, followed by leaps into the unknown."

I wonder, did Moretti get the musical trope from Lévi-Strauss, who uses it to structure The Raw and the Cooked, with section, chapter, and subchapter titles all derived from music (e.g. "The Fugue of the Five Senses", "The Oppossum's Cantata").

The essays within are unified by a deliberately wandering structure, which keeps its distance both from scientists' predictable sequences (methods → results → conclusions), and from the thesis-driven template that prevails in the humanities (counter-intuitive claim → evidence → I was right after all). Instead, these essays become stories of progressive disorientation, written in the first-person plural, and arriving at theses that were only dimly foreshadowed.

This narrative form has given the Literary Lab a coherent authorial persona, which may lead readers to assume that the experiments gathered here are also unified by shared methods and theories, more or less identified with Moretti. That would be a mistake. The Literary Lab is genuinely a collective project, and these essays have been shaped by many different approaches to the literary past.

Of numbers and meaning?

The most important fracture in the book involves the nature of the connection between numbers and interpretation. Several of the essays make this connection with statistical models. In chapter 1, for instance, Michael Witmore reveals that a model of textual similarity based purely on word frequencies can group Shakespeare's plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies. But when Moretti describes the book's methods in the conclusion, he downplays the interpretive connection provided by models, in order to tell a story that leaps from observation of opaque "patterns" to the "discovery of a causal mechanism." This account again reveals Moretti's commitment to framing the work of the Lab as a humanistic narrative. Scientists don't usually understand their methods as a process of pure induction that produces meaning at the last moment; instead, they tend to begin with a hypothesis, and find a way to test it (often using a model).

Except that "humanistic narrative" tends to be short on causal mechanism.

But who cares? Will it spread? Underwood notes that New Historicist criticism spread rapidly because it didn't require new skills, just a somewhat different deployment of standard lit crit skills, "surprising connections between works of literature and historical events" plus anecdotes. Computational criticism of the sort done at the Literary Lab, however, is a different kind of beast. The work requires people with programming skills, statistical skills, and a nose for experimental design in addition to a feel for literary phenomena. No one individual has to have all these skills, but all skills must be available in the group, and all members of the group need to be able to talk with one another.

Thus, Underwood assures his (humanistic) reader, "there is no danger that a quantitative approach to literature will spread like wildfire". Whew! However, "there will certainly be more books like this one." Yes, there will.

And even stranger ones. I've been exploring this territory for some time now, since the mid-1970s. Oh, not the particular regions Moretti and Underwood (and others) have been exploring so fruitfully for the last decade or two. That's new to me, as it is to the discipline. But that's not all there is here, wherever THIS is, not by a long shot. I've got to tell you, Guys, this isn't the East Indies, it's not even Kansas. It's something else, maybe not even terrestrial.


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