Friday, March 23, 2018

Near and far



Enlightenment how? Pinker on progress: Impressive evidence, not so impressive argument why

Nick Spencer reviews Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking 2018).
... Pinker presents graphs on life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases, calorie intake, food availability, wealth, poverty, extreme poverty, deforestation, oil spills, protected areas, war, violence, homicides, battle deaths, famine deaths, pedestrian deaths, plane crash deaths, occupational accident deaths, natural disaster deaths, deaths by lightning, human rights, state executions, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, violence against women, liberal values, child labour, literacy, education, IQ, hours worked, years in retirement, utilities and homework, the price of light, disposable spending, leisure time, travel, tourism… and much else besides.

All of these, he shows, are travelling in the right direction. It’s an impressive and invigorating story...Is he convincing? For the most part: yes, very. His charts are as persuasive as they are fascinating and should make even the most ardent “progressophobe” think again. Life really is better today for most people than it has been in the past, and not just when their teeth ache. Pinker admits that “any dataset is an imperfect reflection of reality” and one can’t help but wondering how solid some of the more historical data are, but no amount of footnoted data points would change his overall argument, or even do much to dent its strength.
But Spencer has doubts about Pinker's account of this, the Englightenment, for one thing:
The Enlightenment wasn’t one single thing, or even one clearly delimited period, and its thinkers did not all want the same thing, in the same way, for the same reasons. Moreover, Pinker’s vagueness about the Enlightenment is not simply a cause of his brevity. He is also ahistorical and at times verges on caricature.

The brainchildren of the Enlightenment, we are told, included “free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgement of human fallibility, and among [its] institutions are science, education, media, democratic government”. Peace was “another Enlightenment ideal”. So was “mutually beneficial co–operation [and] voluntary exchange”. “The institutions of modernity” include “schools, hospitals, charities [and] international organisations”. The Enlightenment “imagined humanity could makes intellectual and moral progress”.

The idea that human co–operation, natural rights, or international peace were undreamt of before 1750 is not tenable. Schools, hospitals and charities are hardly “institutions of modernity”.
Racism, for example:
Lest we forget, the late 18th century was the time par excellence for slave trading, a commerce that was finally abolished due to the efforts of Quakers and Evangelicals rather more than Enlightenment philosophes and deists. Pinker rightly cavils at the idea that 19th century science was intrinsically racist, or that it wasn’t coloured by the racist cultures of the time. But 19th century science did not dismantle the racist cultures in which it found itself, and sometimes spent considerable time and energy fortifying them. There was such a thing as “scientific racism” and plenty of ‘enlightened’ people believed in it. Overall, it is hard to disagree with John Gray’s judgement of a previous Pinker book, to the effect that “Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder?”
Moreover (after a bit of argumentation):
In short, Pinker’s progress ex nihilo from the Enlightenment doesn’t add up. Had he been more attentive to the historical peculiarities and details of what happened in England in 1688, the rest of Europe after it, and the rest of the world after that, he might have seen the 18th century as the period not of a new and unprecedented start, but one in which Enlightenment philosophers, politicians, investors, and inventors picked up and built on the existing institutions of European order, which had been slowly crafted over centuries.
What about Christianity?
Like it or not – and Pinker clearly doesn’t – many of those cultural conditions were Christian in formulation, as the list above will have indicated. To forestall the inevitable objection, this is not to claim all the glories of the Enlightenment for Christianity. Just as the Enlightenment gave us the calculated ‘treatment’ of workhouses alongside greater political accountability, so Christianity gave us Crusades, Inquisition, and Wars of Religion, alongside the rule of law, the invention of the individual (to use Siedentop’s title) and the notion of ineradicable human dignity and equality. History is messy and no one’s biddable slave.

The problem is, from reading Pinker’s book you would imagine that Christianity’s legacy to the world comprised only the former. Just as he is wilfully blind about the Enlightenment’s failings, he is wilfully blind about Christianity’s positive contribution. Most of his references to Christianity, Bible and Church are casual, sometimes snide, asides usually, indeed, about the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Wars of Religion. When he does engage with the topic, it is disappointingly thin or a little disingenuous.
Spencer's conclusion:
The final result, therefore, is a book whose punctilious, readable and important attention to detail and data in one regard (progress) is marred by its casual, vague and sometimes lazy inattention in another.

What Pinker says deserves to be heard and Enlightenment Now, in spite of its historical and philosophical weaknesses, merits a wide audience. Sadly, I am not convinced that being better informed about how rich, comfortable, clever and safe we are compared to our grandparents’ generation will make us happier and more grateful (Pinker is alert to the data on unhappiness and ingratitude and discusses them at length). Nor am I as sanguine as him that all this progress has improved the quality of our relationships.

However, Pinker does show that there is far more room for hope than we have in our current culture, and his take on some of the big issues that vex us, like terrorism, bio–hazards, AI, Armageddon, nuclear war, and other existential threats is a model of common sense, without slipping into complacency. Enlightenment Now deserves to be read and appreciated, but more for what it says about our future than what it does about our past.

Visual word form - "written words invaded a sector of visual cortex that was initially weakly specialized, slightly responsive to pictures of tools, and that lay next to a face-selective region"

Dehaene-Lambertz G, Monzalvo K, Dehaene S (2018) The emergence of the visual word form: Longitudinal evolution of category-specific ventral visual areas during reading acquisition. PLoS Biol 16(3): e2004103.


How does education affect cortical organization? All literate adults possess a region specialized for letter strings, the visual word form area (VWFA), within the mosaic of ventral regions involved in processing other visual categories such as objects, places, faces, or body parts. Therefore, the acquisition of literacy may induce a reorientation of cortical maps towards letters at the expense of other categories such as faces. To test this cortical recycling hypothesis, we studied how the visual cortex of individual children changes during the first months of reading acquisition. Ten 6-year-old children were scanned longitudinally 6 or 7 times with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and throughout the first year of school. Subjects were exposed to a variety of pictures (words, numbers, tools, houses, faces, and bodies) while performing an unrelated target-detection task. Behavioral assessment indicated a sharp rise in grapheme–phoneme knowledge and reading speed in the first trimester of school. Concurrently, voxels specific to written words and digits emerged at the VWFA location. The responses to other categories remained largely stable, although right-hemispheric face-related activity increased in proportion to reading scores. Retrospective examination of the VWFA voxels prior to reading acquisition showed that reading encroaches on voxels that are initially weakly specialized for tools and close to but distinct from those responsive to faces. Remarkably, those voxels appear to keep their initial category selectivity while acquiring an additional and stronger responsivity to words. We propose a revised model of the neuronal recycling process in which new visual categories invade weakly specified cortex while leaving previously stabilized cortical responses unchanged.

Author summary

Reading acquisition is a major landmark in child development. We examined how it changes the child’s brain. Ten young children were scanned repeatedly, once every 2 months, before, during, and after their first year of school. In the scanner, they watched images of faces, tools, bodies, houses, numbers, and letters while searching for a picture of “Waldo.” As soon as they started to acquire reading skills, a specific region of the visual cortex of the left hemisphere—called the visual word form area (VWFA)—started to selectively respond to written words. In every child, it was then possible to go backward in time and ask what this region was doing prior to reading. We found that written words invaded a sector of visual cortex that was initially weakly specialized, slightly responsive to pictures of tools, and that lay next to a face-selective region. Reading acquisition did not displace those initial responses but blocked their development, such that face-selective responses became stronger in the right hemisphere. Those results provide direct evidence for how education recycles the human brain by repurposing some visual regions towards the shapes of letters.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A little yellow wild flower


Talk to the Wood: Animism is Natural

I'm bumping this 2011 post to the top of the queue.

At a certain point her recent OOOIII talk, “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”, Jane Bennett broached the topic of animism, albeit with a little embarrassment. I understand, on both matters. As someone who writes about graffiti as being an expression of the spirit of the site, the kami, I feel the necessity of animist talk. As a card-carrying PhD intellectual I understand the embarrassment as well; don’t want people to think I’m nuts.

But, it’s 2011 and we’re slipping rapidly past post-modernity in a world that’s in the early phases of a global ecotastrophy. Perhaps going nuts with deliberation is a prudent move. It’s good for the circulation.


In Beethoven’s Anvil I’ve argued that primitive proto-music created a new arena for human sociality. At the beginning of “Chapter IX, Musicking the World”, I suggest that animism is what happens when non-humans are assimilated into this new social space. It is their spirits that anchor them in this new community. Here’s that passage (pp. 195-198).

* * * * *

According to Fannie Berry, an ex-slave, Virginia slaves in the late 1850s would sing the following song as they felled pine trees:
A col' frosty mo'nin'
De niggers feelin' good
Take you ax upon yo' shoulder
Nigger, talk to de wood.
She went on to report that:
Dey be paired up to a tree, an’ dey mark de blows by de song. Fus’ one chop, den his partner, an’ when dey sing TALK dey all chop togedder; an’ purty soon dey git de tree ready for to fall an’ dey yell “Hi” an‘ de slaves all scramble out de way quick.
The song thus helped the men to pace and coordinate their efforts. Beyond that, Bruce Jackson notes of such songs, “the songs change the nature of the work by putting the work into the worker’s framework...By incorporating the work with their song, by in effect, co-opting something they are forced to do anyway, they make it theirs in a way it otherwise is not.” In the act of singing the workers linked their minds and brains into a single dynamical system, a community of sympathy. By bringing their work into that same dynamic field, they incorporate it into that form of society created through synchronization of interacting brains.

What is the tree’s role in this social process? It cannot be active: it cannot synchronize its activities with those of the wood choppers. But, I suggest, “putting the work into the worker’s framework” means assimilating the trees, and the axes as well, into social neurodynamics. The workers are not only coupled to one another; by default, that coupling extends to the rest of the world. What does it mean to treat a tree or an ax as a social being? It means, I suggest, that you treat them as animate and hence must pay proper respect to their spirits.

Thus we have arrived at a conception of animism, perhaps mankind’s simplest and most basic form of religious belief. In this view animistic belief is a natural consequence of coupled sociality. In effect, the non-human world enters human society as spirits and, consequently, humans perform rituals to honor the spirits of the animals they eat, or the trees they carve into drums, and so forth. With that in mind let’s consider a passage from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, an intellectual and spiritual journey into Australia’s Aboriginal outback. In this passage Chatwin is talking with Arkady Volchok, an Australian of Russian descent who was mapping Aboriginal sacred sites for the railroad. Much of the outback is relatively featureless dessert, and navigation is a problem if you don’t have maps and instruments, which, of course, didn’t exist until relatively recently. The Aborigines used song to measure and map the land:
[Arkady] went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints ... as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.
‘A song’, he said, ‘was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.’
‘And would a man on “Walkabout” always be travelling down one of the Songlines?”
‘In the old days, yes,’ he agreed. ‘Nowadays, they go by train or car.’
‘Suppose the man strayed from his Songline?’
‘He was trespassing. He might get speared for it.’
‘But as long as he stuck to the track, he’d always find people who ... were, in fact, his brothers?’
. . . .
In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.
. . . .
‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and ask the Aboriginal with you, “What’s the story there?” or “Who’s that?” The chances are he’ll answer “Kangaroo” or “Budgerigar” or “Jew Lizard”, depending on which Ancestor walked that way.”
‘And the distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song?’
We are now prepared to answer that question in the affirmative, as Arkady Volchok did. Given the nature of navigation by dead reckoning—that it requires accurate estimates of elapsed time—and the temporal precision of musical performance, it makes sense that one would use song to measure one’s path in a desert with few discernible features. Given our further speculation that music’s narrative stream is regulated by the brain’s navigation equipment, this Aboriginal Song-as-Map seems like a natural development.

Nabakov's "Lolita" and an example of ethical criticism

I recently came across an essay by Michael Doliner, Advanced Creepology: Re-Reading “Lolita” (Counterpunch). It struck me as being a very good piece of literary criticism, and that's why I'm mentioning it here, as an example of good, if 'conventional' literary criticism. I should note that I've not read the book in decades, so perhaps it's not as good as I think it is. Still, I present it as a good way of writing about literature. Here's an example passage:
Lolita’s twelve-year-old body with it’s twelve-year-old nature reveal her as a nymphet, but Humbert remains in love with her long after it is gone. When he finds her again at the squalid home of Mr. Richard F. Schiller, he continues to love, without wavering, the woman she has become. Whatever else Humbert is, he passes Shakespeare’s test of love, namely, that love is not love that alters when it alteration finds. And since Humbert loves nymphets, she must still be a nymphet, for she is still Lolita. Humbert offers to take her away and live with her forever. Dolores declines the offer.
… and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D. — and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.
Just as the nymphet need not be conventionally beautiful, she also need not be prepubescent.

He sells everything and gives her the money. His days of being transfixed by nymphets are over. He still looks at them, but there is no Erotic connection. Lolita is his one and only love. He heads out to kill Quilty. She, that is Mrs. Richard Schiller, goes to Alaska to die in childbirth.

Nabokov had tried to write Lolita several times while still in Europe. What he had been missing came to him suddenly soon after he came to America, and he wrote the novel while he and his wife Vera were on a butterfly hunting trip. To write the whole novel while spending days out chasing butterflies and driving from place to place makes it sound like the novel must have come to him in a rush. Nabokov could write Lolita soon after coming to the United States because Lolita had to be an American girl, and Humbert had to come to America. Nabokov needed Lolita to have an innocence contending with vulgarity that he discovered here. Humbert needed to be a European discovering this in America. Europe, after the second world war, is too exhausted, too jaded, too sophisticated to support a Lolita.

Lolita, a spirit who inhabits Dolores, is visible only to one who can see her lace-like existence, one led by Eros, a desire for possession of the beautiful. But when the opportunity comes, Humbert defiles her with her willing collaboration. Until the fateful moment Humbert had been more than satisfied with possession of his furtive experiences. Humbert’s physical possession of Lolita destroys her and leaves Dolores with a deep indifference. As with butterflies that Nabokov killed so as to possess their beauty, Humbert killed Lolita spiritually when he possesses her. Lolita’s existence and her destruction have the same cause, Eros unrestrained by a sufficient respect for the divine.

However, it is Lolita who initiates the actual sex with Humbert. Before that her proximity was all he dared to hope for. It was more than enough to sense the vibrations on the strands of his web. His timidity was paralyzing. To be sure she had been seductive, but it had been playful. He would not have dared to violate her. Humbert describes Lolita’s initiation of him into sex as, for her, no big deal. The head-counselor’s son had already deflowered her in camp and she thought of sex as another camp activity. It was just a thing, like tennis or canoeing. The refined Humbert sees Lolita’s diaphanous charm within her undeniable vulgarity revealed in a matter-of-fact attitude to this monstrous sin.
 As you can see from this passage, this is not academic literary criticism, it does not employ any of the various critical theories and methodologies that have proliferated in the last half century. And yet it is certainly intellectually sophisticated. One could imagine such ideas being developed via one or more or these methodologies.

I present this as an example of what, following the late Wayne Booth, I have come to call ethical criticism, as opposed to the naturalist criticism for which I have been arguing. What place does it have in the university? That's what I want someone to tell me. Surely it has a place, certainly in the undergraduate curriculum. The sorts of things discussed in this essay are what brings one to literature, what one seeks to clarify through literature. No?


Saturday, March 17, 2018



The discipline of literary criticism and the difference between graduate and undergraduate education

Michael Meranze reviews a new book by Geoffrey Harpham,What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, which centers on the definition and role of the humanities, literary criticism in particular. After a bit of introductory material we have this paragraph:
Harvard University’s General Education in a Free Society offered the crucial conceptualization of the humanities within general and liberal education. Commonly known as the “Redbook” (for the color of its cover), General Education in a Free Society was a protean text. Its greatest influence appears to have been in promoting lower-division general education in colleges and universities, though its notion of the centrality of general education was far too capacious for postwar academic institutions. Arguably, the Redbook was the last attempt to define higher education as a humanist enterprise that was not a defensive gesture: its authors — a Committee empaneled by Harvard President James Bryant Conant — asserted that the humanities and social sciences lay at the core of higher education. The aim of education was the instillation of “wisdom,” conceived as an “art of life,” a cultivation of the “whole man.” None of these lofty terms would survive the intellectual challenges of the next half-century. But they proved to be powerful arguments in the midcentury debate over the creation of a mass higher education system in the United States.
And then, and then, until:
As Harpham shows, the New Criticism was as much a pedagogy as a research program. Late 19th- and early 20th-century English studies was divided, to use Gerald Graff’s terms, between scholars and generalists. Scholars based their authority on a Germanic tradition of philological rigor while generalists, believing this approach missed the element of genius in literature, embraced the theater of charismatic teaching. Ultimately this divide was settled in practice through the separation of graduate training from an undergraduate curriculum of appreciation. This arrangement allowed both sides to participate in a larger project of “criticism” that would, on the one hand, establish the professional status of literary critics while, on the other hand, maintaining the undergraduate enrollments that kept professors employed.

The New Criticism provided the means to bring these two visions together into one pedagogical program. As envisioned by I. A. Richards and elaborated by William Empson, the New Criticism’s emphasis on close reading and the structures of language allowed professors simultaneously to claim a new, more scientific method and to dazzle undergraduates with interpretive possibilities. Moreover, because the New Criticism opened up a seemingly endless debate about authorial intention, it made literary criticism into a powerful tool for tackling the interpretive dilemmas of American civic culture. New Criticism, in short, transformed constitutional interpretation into literary interpretation and therefore opened up the possibility of training students to read the texts of America in a more critical fashion.
And that's what interests me, the distinction between undergraduate education and graduate training. It has long seemed to me that what's most important about (lower-division) undergraduate courses in literature is the texts themselves. It almost doesn't matter what we say around and about them as long as students are taught/allowed to take them seriously (whatever that may mean).  Graduate training and professional research, however, may be somewhat different in character–a matter I discuss at greater length in a working paper, An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism. Here's the abstract:
Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguists, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


This is to say, this is my 5003rd post here at New Savanna. I reached 2500 on July 14, 2014, and did a not so long post where I took a quick look at what I've been up to here. Should I take another wack at it? That stuff seems both so recent and so long ago. In lieu of doing a post where I attempt to characterize what's happened in the three-and-a-half years since then I'll just like to a post I did in the middle of December:
Reflections on entering my eighth decade and why it portends to be the most productive one of my life
For what it's worth, that post projects an optimism that I'm not feeling at the moment, but who knows what the morrow will bring?

Two versions of it



Trump in Korea, and some more personal reflections

There’s no doubt about it, North Korea has been a knotty challenge for American foreign policy, not–mind you–that I’m a fan of that foreign policy, which has long seemed, shall we say, excessively bellicose. Until quite recently President Trump simply amped up the aggression and seemed entirely too sanguine about the prospect of war with North Korea. Then, all of a sudden, Trump tells us that he’s accepted an overture from Kim Jong-un to talk about Korea’s nukes.

What? Just like that! That’s a good thing, no?

That’s what I felt for maybe a day. And then I began reading commentary by those more deeply informed in such matters than I am. These worthies were not at all encouraging. Quite the contrary, they’ve been rather discouraging and disparaging.

Forget about Trump’s many personal flaws – lack of impulse control, narcissism, megalomania, etc. (Not to mention his misogyny, though that doesn’t seem directly relevant in this matter.) It’s not that these aren’t issues, they are; but let’s just set them aside. Rather, this just isn’t how these things are done. The right way to do this is to have underlings and deputies hash things out for months and even years, ironing out all the kinks, and only then bring in Trump and Kim at the very end. They do a bit of sniffing about, find that it’s all good, and sign on the dotted lines their deputies have drawn. Very cautious, very deliberate.

Besides, for Trump to agree to talks with Kim is to give away half the game, or more, at the very start. Regardless of what the talks produce, if they produce anything at all, Kim wins prestige and legitimization points both at home and abroad. But is that so bad? Who knows, maybe that would settle him down. And maybe not.

But the fact is, business as usual – which is what the worthies want – hasn’t been working all that well, has it?

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I’ve had one of those moments I seem to have been having every few weeks or months. It’s generally during the night when I’m neither fully awake or fully asleep. They don’t last long, a matter of minutes at most. And they’re difficult to characterize.

It’s as though my mind were trying to detach itself from my person and become Mind Itself and thereby grasp the World Whole, if that makes any sense. On the one hand the world is what it is and cannot be escaped. It is utterly necessary. And at the same time seems utterly contingent, as though it could easily have been otherwise. All we need is for that butterfly over China to flutter its wings and history is changed. But what if it’s nothing but butterflies all the way down?

There’s so much human diversity in the world, so many different ways of life, so many different individual life histories. Taken individually, one at a time, each in its socio-historical context, they seem fixed and determinate. But when you consider the differences, each seems utterly contingent and arbitrary.

What if we could circulate minds freely from one to another?

* * * * *

Does The Donald have such moments? What I’ve just said seems rather too abstract and too intellectual for him. If he has such moments, they wouldn’t manifest in such terms. The terms would be different.

Is that what was going on in his insistence that more people attended his inaugural day than any other? In his absurd insistence that the photographs of people on the Mall were FAKE NEWS? Sure, his narcissism, his need to assert his power by forcing his deputies to participate in his delusion. All that.

But beneath it all, was he attempting to find a bit of freedom?

Count me among those who believes he didn’t really want to win–noting that there are various ways one can interpret that. But he won and now THUD! he’s stuck with the job. He’s trapped–in the White House, with all these obscure and difficult responsibilities. His world is changed, utterly.

What’s he think he can do sitting across a table from Kim Jong-un? Two men, with nuclear arms between them, and the world on their shoulders. Is that how they wrestle with the Real?

* * * * *

If I were a religious man I’d be praying for them to find peace in a handclasp.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Red cabbage


Paths Not Taken and the Land Before Us: An Open Letter to J. Hillis Miller

From three years ago (Jan 2015).

I’ve been thinking about writing a guide to my work in literary and cultural criticism, but there’s so much of it that that has seemed to be no simple task. I could list the pieces, but what use is that? And in any event, you can find that on my most recent CV. But I’ve decided to take a step in that direction by addressing an open letter to one of my teachers back at Johns Hopkins, J. Hillis Miller.

That gives me a fairly specific audience. It’s much easier to address a specific audience, with known interests, than to address the General and Undefined Other. I certainly don’t know Miller’s criticism in any detail, but I’ve read several recent pieces and interviews where he talks about the profession in general historical terms. That, plus resonance from ancient days at Hopkins, is enough for me.

For those of you in literary studies, J. Hillis Miller needs no introduction. He is one of the premier English language critics of the last half-century. For those in other disciplines, Miller’s career started at a time when interpreting texts was just becoming accepted in academic literary criticism and he became central in the use of philosophy, broadly understood, in that undertaking.

* * * * *

Dear Prof. Miller:

I’ve been mulling over the wonderful profile of Earl Wasserman that was recently published in the Hopkins Magazine. That got me thinking about the state of the profession, the transit from then to now, and where are we going anyhow? Wasserman, of course, was your colleague and he was my teacher. As it was the "structuralist moment" that ultimately captured my imagination, Wasserman was not so central as Dick Macksey, but he was still very important to me, in part through the exemplary force of his intellectual engagement. I also audited one of your graduate courses (as I recall, Carol Jacobs was a student in that course). I believe you even wrote a graduate school recommendation for me.

The profession used the structuralist moment to go in one direction and I used it to go in a rather different one. On the chance that you might be curious about where I’ve ended up I thought I would write you a letter. FWIW (an abbreviation for a phrase that titled one of the great protest songs of the 60s, “For What It’s Worth”) the open letter is a form I find congenial, having addressed letters to Steven Pinker, Alan Liu, and Willard McCarty.

A Fork in the Road

For the profession the structuralist moment rather quickly gave way to deconstruction, post-structuralism, cultural studies, and various identity-based criticisms, all of which somehow became snarled in a ball that became “Theory.” For me, however, structuralism gave way to cognitive science and that’s what I grafted to literary study at SUNY Buffalo. That English department was as wondrous in its own way as the Hopkins department was in a somewhat different way. One of the small wonders is that it granted me a degree despite the fact that no one in the department was deeply involved with cognitive science (I got that in the Linguistics Department, from a polymath named David Hays).

The profession, alas, was not ready for cognitive science at that time. By the time the profession began coming around to it in the mid-1990s I had come to believe that I had misjudged the significance of cognitive science. As important and interesting as those theories and models were (and still are) I decided that cognitive science had a different message, one that echoes an older one, a Wassermanian message: stick to the text.

It was the text of “Kubla Khan” that sent me to cognitive science in the first place and now cognitive science has sent me back, not simply to “Kubla Khan,” but to any and all texts. They all need to be looked at closely, not necessarily in a New Critical or a phenomenological, or a narratological, or a deconstructive way, but closely, more closely than ever before. I’m told that the kids these days call it surface reading.

Though I’ve been publishing in the formal literature off and on, perhaps your best route into what I’ve discovered would be through a series of informal working papers I’ve recently put online. I’ve spent quite a bit of time blogging over the past several years and, in particular, have specialized in “long-form” posts, posts running 2000 words or more. When I’ve accumulated a set of such posts on one topic I combine them into a single document and then make it available online for downloading.

Such working papers are more coherent than private notes, but not so polished as formal papers. The scholarly apparatus–references, discussions of other work–is a bit thin. And they’re a bit repetitious, for which I will not apologize as skipping over things is easy enough to do.

I’ve selected five working papers:
  1. Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales (2011, 48 pp.):
  2. Apocalypse Now: Working Papers (2011, 51 pp.):évi-Strauss_and_Douglas_to_Conrad_and_Coppola
  3. Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola (2013, 12 pp.):évi-Strauss_and_Douglas_to_Conrad_and_Coppola
  4. Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology (2014, 59 pp):
  5. Reading Macroanalysis: Notes on the Evolution of Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Literary Culture (2014, 100 pp.):
You are of course free to examine them in any order, but there is a reason for that particular order. I start with a set of posts on important text that I know you have written about, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now is a rather different text in a different medium, but nonetheless intimately related with Heart of Darkness as Coppola kept a copy of Heart with him while shooting his film. Those two working papers each in its way harkens back to my structuralist roots, which come to the fore in the next two working papers. The fourth one (on ring composition) also discusses some poems: Dylan Thomas, “Author’s Prologue”, Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”, and Williams, “To a Solitary Disciple”.

The last working paper, and the longest by far, heads out into conceptual territory which I assume, perhaps mistakenly so, will be strange to you, the “distant reading” division of the so-called digital humanities. One of the things I do in that paper, however, is use Matthew Jockers’ large-scale analysis of a corpus of 3300 19th century English-language novels to make a case for the autonomy of the aesthetic realm. That is to say, I use (someone else’s) computational analysis to make a case for human freedom.

I don’t know what your thoughts are on the use of computers in literary study, but I do know that there are many who believe that they are a harbinger of the Apocalypse, which is what an earlier generation of critics thought about deconstruction and the rest. The sky didn’t fall then and it’s not falling now. But there are accommodations to be made, and they are not always easily accomplished.

Heart of Darkness

In some of your remarks about your career you talk about the importance of accidents. Well, I decided to read Heart of Darkness as a consequence of having immersed myself in Apocalypse Now, which we’ll get to in a bit. Once I’d been working on Heart of Darkness for a while I more or less stumbled into making this chart:

HD whole envelope

Each bar in the chart represents one paragraph in the text (the electronic version available from Project Gutenberg). The bars take the paragraphs in order from first to last, left to right. The length of a bar is proportional to the length of a paragraph. While the lengths vary wildly, there seems to be a shape to the distribution, which I’ve indicated by those red lines.

Is that shape real? If so, what is its significance and how did it come about? Did Conrad intend the text to be that way? Old questions, no?

I didn’t arrive at those questions and that chart through any prior interest in paragraph length. I got there because I’d become interested in one extraordinary paragraph. Until this particular paragraph Kurtz was little more than an enigma attached to a name. This paragraph gives us his history and some of his thoughts about the future. But that’s not what attracted me to it. What attracted me is that the paragraph contains proleptic elements, the only one in the text to do so. At this point in the narrative we’ve not yet arrived at Kurtz’s compound, but that paragraph contains hints of what we’re going to find there. So I was on the trail of a difference between story and plot: Russian Formalism, narratology.

Moreover, this paragraph is framed in an extraordinary way. Just before Marlow speaks this paragraph he tells us that his helmsman got speared and dropped bleeding to the deck. Just after this paragraph Marlow tells us of pushing the dead man off the deck and into the Congo. So Conrad inserts Kurtz’s story into the moments when the helmsman bleeds out on the deck.

What an extraordinary thing to do.

Well, as I was examining that paragraph, I couldn’t help but notice how very long it was. It seemed that it was the longest in the text by far. Since I had a digital text I decided, on a whim, to use MSWord’s count function to count the number words in each paragraph. It was tedious and took awhile – though not even remotely comparable to the tedium of constructing a concordance using 3 by 5 cards – but it was easy enough to do.

Once I’d done it I ran off that chart to see the results. Sure enough, that extraordinary paragraph was the longest one in the text, and by a considerable margin That’s it, at the peak of the pyramid. It was just over 1500 words long while the next two longest paragraphs weren’t even 1200 words long.

Given what’s actually said in that paragraph and its immediate context, I find it hard to believe that its length was an accident. I also find it hard to believe that Conrad was counting words. However, I have no trouble at all believing that he wanted to create some suspense by dropping the helmsman to the deck and then leaving him there while going on a grand digression. Laurence Sterne did that sort of thing some years earlier.

In that chart, it seems to me, we’re looking at the trace of a mental act, a trace we don’t know how to explain. It’s also a trace we don’t know how to convert into meaning through any of the usual conceptual tools. Maybe we need some new tools? Perhaps a different set of questions?

FWIW, I reported that chart to Mark Liberman at Language Log, a group log of linguists, because I wanted to see if linguists had done any work on paragraph length. He went to work on Nostromo and The Golden Bowl, a rather different text by one of Conrad's contemporaries, and reported the results in a post, Markov's Heart of Darkness.  This occasioned a fair bit of discussion about paragraphing.  I found it interesting and concluded, provisionally, that no one knew much about paragraphing.

In one section of that working paper I write a commentary on that paragraph. I quote the paragraph in full and insert observations into the text. I’m not looking for anything deep in those observations. I just note what’s there and establish links to other parts of the text.

Marlow’s tale of his trip up the Congo is, of course, embedded in a frame tale, set on the deck of a yacht in the Thames. If we think of that one very long and very strongly marked paragraph as a tale within the tale, that gives us a tale (Kurtz’s history in that paragraph), within a tale (Marlow’s trip), within a tale (the frame story). On that basis I argue that Heart of Darkness exhibits a loose version of ring-form composition, a topic that made its way into PMLA in 1976, where I noted it and set it aside, and that occupied the late Mary Douglas during the last decade or so of her career. I’d begun corresponding with her after she’d blurbed my book on music (Beethoven’s Anvil) and she asked me whether I had any idea of how the brain would do that. That set me on the trail of ring-composition, but I’ll get to that later.

There’s a good deal more in that working paper–a bit of Latour, some attachment theory (which I learned from Mary Ainsworth at Hopkins), a discussion of Achebe in relation to Ike Turner and Sam Phillips, psychohistory, and whatever else–but I won’t try to summarize it here. Let’s just say it’s an eclectic mix and leave it at that.