Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 11, 2014

different strokes

Here’s a typically smart and provocative reflection by Andrew Piper. But I also have a question about it. Consider this passage: 

Wieseltier’s campaign is just the more robust clarion call of subtler and ongoing assumptions one comes across all the time, whether in the op-eds of major newspapers, blogs of cultural reviews, or the halls of academe. Nicolas Kristof’s charge that academic writing is irrelevant because it relies on quantification is one of the more high-profile cases. The recent reception of Franco Moretti’s National Book Critics Award for Distant Reading is another good case in point. What’s so valuable about Moretti’s work on quantifying literary history, according to the New Yorker’s books blog, is that we can ignore it. “I feel grateful for Moretti,” writes Joshua Rothman. “As readers, we now find ourselves benefitting from a division of critical labor. We can continue to read the old-fashioned way. Moretti, from afar, will tell us what he learns.”

We can continue doing things the way we’ve always done them. We don’t have to change. The saddest part about this line of thought is this is not just the voice of journalism. You hear this thing inside academia all the time. It (meaning the computer or sometimes just numbers) can’t tell you what I already know. Indeed, the “we already knew that” meme is one of the most powerful ways of dismissing any attempt at trying to bring together quantitative and qualitative approaches to thinking about the history of ideas.

As an inevitable backlash to its seeming ubiquity in everyday life, quantification today is tarnished with a host of evils. It is seen as a source of intellectual isolation (when academics use numbers they are alienating themselves from the public); a moral danger (when academics use numbers to understand things that shouldn’t be quantified they threaten to undo what matters most); and finally, quantification is just irrelevant. We already know all there is to know about culture, so don’t even bother.

Regarding that last sentence: the idea that “we already know all there is to know about culture, so don’t even bother” is a pathetic one — but that’s not what Rothman says. Rather, he writes of a “division of labor,” in which it’s perfectly fine for Moretti to do what he does, but it’s also perfectly fine for Rothman to do what he does. What I hear Rothman saying is not “we know all there is to know” but rather something like “I prefer to keep reading in more traditional and familiar ways and I hope the current excitement over people like Moretti won’t prevent me from doing that.” 

In fact, Rothman, as opposed to the thoroughly contemptuous Wieseltier, has many words of commendation for Moretti. For instance: 

The grandeur of this expanded scale gives Moretti’s work aesthetic power. (It plays a larger role in his appeal, I suspect, than most Morettians would like to admit.) And Moretti’s approach has a certain moral force, too. One of the pleasures of “Distant Reading” is that it assembles many essays, published over a long period of time, into a kind of intellectual biography; this has the effect of emphasizing Moretti’s Marxist roots. Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous. What’s the point, his graphs seem to ask, of continuing to interpret individual books—especially books that have already been interpreted over and over? Interpreters, Moretti writes, “have already said what they had to.” Better to focus on “the laws of literary history”—on explanation, rather than interpretation.

All this sounds austere and self-serious. It isn’t. “Distant Reading” is a pleasure to read. Moretti is a witty and welcoming writer, and, if his ideas sometimes feel rough, they’re rarely smooth from overuse. I have my objections, of course. I’m skeptical, for example, about the idea that there are “laws of literary history”; for all his techno-futurism, Moretti can seem old-fashioned in his eagerness to uncover hidden patterns and structures within culture. But Moretti is no upstart. He is patient, experienced, and open-minded. It’s obvious that he intends to keep gathering data, and, where it’s possible, to replace his speculations with answers. In some ways, the book’s receiving an award reflects the role that Moretti has played in securing a permanent seat at the table for a new critical paradigm—something that happens only rarely.

This all seems eminently fair-minded to me, even generous. But what Moretti does is not Rothman’s thing. And isn’t that okay? Indeed, hasn’t that been the case for a long time in literary study: that we acknowledge the value in what other scholars with different theoretical orientations do, without choosing to imitate them ourselves? It mystifies me that Piper sees this as a Wieseltier-level dismissal. 


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