Thursday, September 27, 2012

Description and Distance at New Savanna

In the course of cruising the web I noticed that the folks over at In the Middle have had a number of substantial posts on description and distant reading, for example, this one on Scales of Reading. As I’ve blogged quite a bit in that general arena I’ve decided to assemble an annotated list of relevant blog posts.

Description is tricky. I take it as given that there is no such thing as “pure” description of the “text itself,” whatever that might. Whatever texts are, they are rich and complex beyond any hope of complete description. When crafting a description we must decide what to take note of what to ignore. As a practical matter, much of what we pass over we do so without ever having brought it into focal attention where we could consciously decide whether or not to include it in our description. Consequently descriptive projects often proceed in stages as more and more features are brought into focal attention.

Description in Biology: Meso, Macro, and Micro

In thinking about description I’ve found it useful to think about biology.


Because biology is built on accurate descriptions of complex objects, millions of them.

Darwin’s work on evolution stood on tens of thousands of descriptions his predecessors had assembled since the late 15th Century. According to Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (pp. 30 ff.), the work was prompted by a simple puzzle: Are the flora and fauna described by the ancients the same as those around and about us today? That question, in turn, led to questions of a similar kind: When I send word to Paris, how will they be able to tell whether or not the flower I’m describing here in Florence exists there?

Such questions prompted the development of standards for describing and drawing flora and fauna and for developing reference collections of specimens. Think of this as meso-scale description. You go at this for a few centuries and start comparing specimens across time and space and you begin to amass a description of the spatio-temporal distribution of species. It’s THAT macro-scale description the prompted speculation and theorizing about evolution.

What of micro-scale description? Of course we have all the phenomena revealed through optical microscopes. But I’m thinking of even smaller things, like individual molecules. These cannot be seen through optical microscopes. Describing them has been a major undertaking in the last half century or so. Perhaps the most important such description is that which Watson and Crick gave of the DNA molecule in 1953: it’s a double-helix—I discuss this in my post, Picturing the Phenomena, described below.

Watson and Crick didn’t just prop up a DNA molecule on a stand, pull out their pencils and pads, and start drawing. It was a much more complicated process. They (or someone else) had to prepare some DNA in crystalline form and then bombard it with x-rays to create images on photographic plates. Those images looked like grey smudges. They then had to throw the proper physics at those smudges to figure out what shape a crystal had to be in order for those smudges to appear upon x-ray bombardment.

And yet the result of all that work by a small community of investigators is just a description. No more, but no less. And hardly theory-independent.

But it was the right theory and the right description. Upon it, the modern disciplines of molecular biology have been built.

Describing Literary Texts

I figure that the relationship between literary texts and the underlying mental processes (and cultural processes) is at least as indirect as that between the x-ray smudges and the structure of the DNA molecule. Those smudges aren’t the phenomenon itself; they are only indices of it. The same with literary texts; they are traces of the phenomena and guides to its re-creation, but they are not the thing itself.

Whereas the biologists had good theories about how x-rays interact with crystals to produce images, we don’t have comparable theories. The biologists create those indices, those smudges on the photographic plate, using methods they understand and can control and manipulate. We find our indices ready-made, and made by processes that are invisible to us.

We hardly even know what the text is. Oh sure, it’s a bunch of signifiers, sounds in air or marks on paper. But the signifiers themselves are dead; they’re but the traces of mental processes. It’s those processes we’re after. They’re the real texts and we have little direct physical evidence of them.

How do we describe them?

I don’t know, and I’ve been working on the problem for several decades.

But I’ll offer an observation, not about literary texts, but about linguistics, about grammar. The observation isn’t mine. I don’t know who first made it, but I’ll attribute it to Chomsky.

Linguists want to describe languages. One aspect of that is to describe the syntax of a language. How do you do that? Aside from the fact that you can’t see syntax directly, but only the traces it leaves in real chunks of language, the problem is that you don’t find a language’s syntax in a single sentence, or even in a collection of a million sentences. What you want of syntax is that it characterize an infinite set of sentences. So we characterize syntax by producing a set of rules that will characterize any and all sentences in the language. The set of rules is then a description of the syntax.

That kind of description is very different from the natural historian’s description of a flower or a toad. But it’s still a description. No more, no less.

Now, it’s one thing to describe one text, and then another, and another after that. What we really want, though, is to describe the system that generates all texts, or at least all texts in a given corpus. Something like that.

Work’s been done on that, extending back to Propp’s work on the folktale. So far it’s come to naught.

* * * * *

My object is not to make the problem of describing literary texts seem hopeless. Difficult? Yes. Hopeless? No.

I only wish to make it seem rich and deep. Which it is. There is no such thing as mere description. It takes skill, patience, and experience.

Ten Posts on Description and Such

They’re not listed in any particular order.

Beyond Close Reading

The New Critics and the deconstructionists both practiced close reading, albeit to different ends. According to Geoffrey Hartman, the semioticians, the purveyors of new ‘thmatics (his term) take the critic further from the work, rather than closer, as proper reading should. I think Hartman was correct, but that that distancing is a good thing, not a bad one.

Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti

This is a somewhat revised revision of the second post included in my Working paper on Lévi-Strauss and Myth: The purpose of this revision is to recast that post as an argument that what Lévi-Strauss was doing, in particular in his study of myth in the four volumes of Mythologies, was a species of distant reading. His methods, obviously, are different from Moretti’s. Given that Lévi-Strauss worked quite “close” to the myths, it would be better to think of both Moretti and Lévi-Strauss as employing techniques for objectification. Moretti objectifies through extreme reduction whereas Lévi-Strauss objectifies through multiple comparison, which I attempt to explain in the post.

From Bollocks to Lévi-Strauss on Myth

How do you DESCRIBE, not an individual myth, nor a series of myths, one after the other, but the myth SYSTEM itself? That is, how do you characterize the grammar of myth? That’s what Lévi-Strauss attempted in Mythologies. By using a simple example—an online bot that generates fake artists statements—I attempt to explain why he failed.

The Hermeneutics of Description

This involves two real examples, two cartoons from the Golden Age: Porky in Wackyland and The Greatest Man in Siam. The point of the post is to show a descriptive process develops over time, looping through the hermeneutic circle from parts to the whole and back to parts, and so forth. It’s been my experience that description works like that, almost in layers. You start with whatever’s obvious to you, get that down, and as you do so, other things come into view. And so forth.

HD Postscript: Toward a Heart of Darkness Handbook

For some time now I’ve been thinking about the need for ‘handbook level’ information about texts and, correlatively, a professional discipline organized to produce such handbooks. The purpose of this post is to look back over what I’ve written about Heart of Darkness (in a series of posts at New Savanna) and suggest some things that should be considered for inclusion in such a handbook. In particular, I want to emphasize handbook information as descriptive, and perhaps analytic, but not hermeneutic. The handbooks I’m imagining will not be in the business of providing readings of texts.

The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure, A Program for Literary Studies

A four-part prescription for literary studies with a postscript on description in relation to the newer psychologies, cognitive, neuro, and evo:
All of which is to say that study of literary texts provide these psychologies with something they desperately need, though they may not yet know it: an ecologically valid (to use J.J. Gibson’s phrase) way to study the mind in its integrated fullness... But it is just barely possible that we can obtain such observations about the reading of novels and poems or the watching of films—indeed, such investigation has already begun. The investigation of literary texts is perhaps psychology’s best shot at a full and integrated psychology. Such investigation is possible only to the extent that one can describe the phenomenon under study. And so rich descriptions of texts become something of a precondition of full psychological study.
I've since posted a revised version of Key to the Treasure, without the postscript and using somewhat different terms (Naturalist Criticism instead of Newer Psychologies, Ethical Criticism instead of Object-Oriented Ontology):

Picturing the Phenomenon: What’s an Abstract Picture?

This post is about pictures as descriptions. Two New Savanna posts about Heart of Darkness centered on strange pictures, mathematical pictures. The object of this post is to talk about such pictures, and others equally strange, if not more so. But I wish first to begin with an ordinary photograph, and to think a little, just a little, about how such photographs made and how we understand them. And then I move on to abstract pictures, starting with the Watson/Crick double-helix picture of the DNA molecule and moving on to graphs the depict aspects of the structure of Heart of Darkness. The post contains the DNA diagram of Watson/Crick’s 1953 paper and an x-ray crystallograph from a related article.

The Varieties of Descriptive Experience

Description is not one thing. There are many kinds. A grammar is a description of a language. That’s very different from Mark Twain’s description of an ice-cloaked tree in his “Speech on the Weather” (quoted in the post). Both are different from the Watson/Crick description of the DNA molecule as a double-helix. How do we craft descriptions of literary objects and processes that carve literary culture at its joints? BTW, that joints trope goes back to Plato in the Phaedrus.

Objects, Description, and Objectification

Language allows us nominalize anything, but that does not mean that conceptually useful objects are associated with every noun or noun phrase. Nor is every description useful. And modern lingistics has given us many different and mutually inconsistent objectifications of language. Successful objectification doesn’t automatically lead to truth.

The Bathtub Philosopher: Objects, Secondary Qualities, Memes, Description, Ontological Cognition

I hesitated to list this one because, as the title indicates, it’s such a miscellany. And that, in the end, is why I decided to include it. Description is not its own isolated little world. Rather, it’s all over the place. In this particular post I’m wrestling with object-oriented ontology. And THAT’s what led me to description.


  1. Thanks, Bill, for providing these succinct statements describing your individual posts. It's a useful place to start in thinking through the issues you raise.

  2. I hope you find something useful, Margaret.