Thursday, November 8, 2018

Notes Toward a Naturalist Cultural History (with a new addendum on the paradoxical stagnation of our era)

Reposted yet again. See the addendum at the very end where I pose the paradox of our current era: we know how to create new paradigms on an almost routine basis but our economy's stagnating.
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Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley
I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify.

–Edward W. Said
This post is something of a pastiche, a bit of bricolage assembled from flotsam and jetsam floating around here and there. My ultimate target is human history, which I believe to be driven by culture or, perhaps more precisely, by human cultural aspirations. It’s an old and somewhat discredited idea. My proximal target is the New Historicism, as it is called in literary circles.

And my method is, well, Shandyian, progression through digression. First, I quote from the famous archaeology passage in Lévi-Strauss’s travelogue and intellectual biography, Tristes Tropiques. Then comes a parody of New Historicist practice that I introduced into a discussion around the corner at Language Log. Responding to an objection by Geoff Nunberg, I responded with a somewhat longer and more substantive comment. With a bit of editing that has become Reflective Abstraction in the History of Mentalities, in which I argue for directional change in that history, and do so using an example of my own (from Amleth to Hamlet) and two examples from Stephen Greenblatt. I conclude with a statement about culture as a driving force in history. That statement is lifted from an early, and unpublished, draft of Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, which is my major methodological statement to date.

Lévi-Strauss: History as Archaeology

Tristes Tropiques, published in 1955, established Lévi-Strauss as a figure to be reckoned with. This well-known passage is from Chapter 6, “The Making of an Anthropologist” (Atheneum, 1974, p. 57):
When I became acquainted with Freud’s theories, I quite naturally looked upon them as the application, to the individual human being, of a method the basic pattern of which is represented by geology. In both cases, the researcher, to begin with, finds himself faced with seemingly impenetrable phenomena; in both cases, in order to take stock of, and gauge, the elements of a complex situation, he must display subtle qualities, such as sensitivity, intuition and taste. And yet, the order which is thus introduced into a seemingly incoherent mass is neither contingent nor arbitrary. Unlike the history of the historians, that of the geologist is similar to the history of the psychoanalyst in that it tries to project in time – rather in the manner of a tableau vivant – certain basic characteristics of the physical or mental universe . . . Following Rousseau, and in what I consider to be a definitive manner, Marx established that social science is no more founded on the basis of events than physics is founded on sense data: the object is to construct a model and to study its property [sic] and its different reactions in laboratory conditions in order later to apply the observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings, which may be far removed from what had been forecast.
Note three things: First the references to Freud and Marx. These would become to go-to theorists on Continent-influenced literary study in the latter half of the 20th Century though, of course, their ideas would be refracted through, reflected from, and combined with those of other thinkers, earlier and later. Second, note the geological metaphor, and the stratigraphy implicit in it. Lévi-Strauss had set that up in a previous paragraph (p. 56): “A pale blurred line, or an often almost imperceptible difference in the shape and consistency of rock fragments, are evidence of the fact that two oceans once succeeded each other where, today, I can see nothing but barren soil.” Third, “construct a model”, yes; but just how do we study history’s “different reactions in laboratory conditions”?

Context and the New Historicism, a Parody

The need for a new historicism arose from the observation that texts depend on readers as well as writers. When readers are long-removed from writers in time, the meaning read out of the text may well different from that originally written into it. The new historicist critics attempted to compensate for this problem by taking a text or handful of texts on the one hand and then looking at contemporary texts of all sorts, not merely literary texts, but newspaper articles, legal documents, diaries, what have you, and pointing out points of continuity, themes and resonances, between the target literary texts and its many textual contexts.

Rohan Maitzen has written a wonderful little parody of what can happen when this technique gets out of hand:
Here's a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel–say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there's a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out–after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles–not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It's not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it's hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.
Not only that, but it pretty much misses history, though this brand spanking new literary history places itself before the world as a species of history. I take this up in the next section.

Reflective Abstraction in the History of Mentalities

My own sense of history dates back to my undergraduate studies and Johns Hopkins in the late 1960. I read Michel Foucault, of course (The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, somewhat later, the first volume in his history of sexuality), along with Philippe Aries (The History of Childhood), Thomas Kuhn (The History of Scientific Revolutions), Friedrich Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Walter Wiora (Four Ages of Music), Jean Piaget (Genetic Epistemology), and others. While that’s a rather eclectic list, all of those works raise questions about the history of mentalities (histoire des mentalités), an interest I continued to work on in graduate school (with e.g. readings on the history of the family).

Given that Piaget is best known as a developmental psychologist, he might seem something of an outlier in that list. But he was interested in the historical evolution of concepts, in which he saw a process of reflective abstraction similar to that he saw at work in the psychological development of individuals. Crudely put, later conceptual structures emerge from earlier ones as those earlier structures become objects on which later structures can operate. Hays and I took that notion, reconstructed it in our own terms, and published a number of articles based on that idea; Hays also published a book on the history of technology (all available online HERE).

One of the chapters of my dissertation took that idea and applied it to narrative. Some years later I reworked that material into an article, The Evolution of Narrative and the Self, which I published in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems (1993, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 129-155). Here’s a small passage from that article:
We begin with Hamlet. While Shakespeare's version is the one we know best, the story is considerably older. The version in the late twelfth century Historica Danica of Saxo Grammaticus (reprinted in Hoy, 1963, pp. 123-131) is [quite] different Shakespeare's. … Amleth—for that is how Saxo named him—faced the same requirement Hamlet did, to avenge his father's death. His difficulty stems from the fact that the probable murderer, and therefore the object of Amleth's revenge, is his uncle, and thus from the same kin group. Medieval Norse society had legal provisions for handling murder between kin groups; the offended group could seek the death of a member of the offending group or ask for the payment of wergild and a public apology. But there were no provisions for dealing with murder within the kin group (Bloch, 1961, pp. 125-130; cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974, p. 226). Thus Amleth faced a situation in which there was no socially sanctioned way for him to act. ... Amleth deals with his problem by feigning madness. Being mad, he is not bound by social convention, a social convention which binds him both to his murdered father and the father's murderer. Amleth's madness allows him to act, which he does directly and successfully. He kills his uncle, the usurper, and his entire court and takes over the throne.

Shakespeare's Hamlet was not so fortunate. He is notorious for his inability to act. When he finally does so, he ends up dead. And whether his madness was real or feigned is never really clear. What happened between the late twelfth century version of the story and the turn-of-the-seventeenth century version? The change might, of course, be due merely to the personal difference between Saxo Grammaticus and William Shakespeare. However, European culture and society had changed considerably in that interval and thus to attribute much of the difference between the two stories to the general change in culture is not unreasonable. Saxo Grammaticus told a story to please his twelfth century audience and Shakespeare told one to please his audience of the seventeenth century.

Something had happened which made Amleth's madness ploy less effective. An individual can escape contradictory social demands by opting out of society. But if the contradictory demands are within the individual, if they are intrapsychic, then stepping outside of society won't help. If anything, it makes matters worse by leaving the individual completely at the mercy of his/her inner contradictions, with no contravening forces from others. That, crude as it is, seems to me the difference between Amleth and Hamlet. For Amleth, the problem was how to negotiate contradictory demands on him made by external social forces. For Hamlet, the contradictory demands were largely internal, making the pretense of madness but a step toward becoming, in reality, mad.
What had happened between Saxo Grammaticus and Shakespeare? Well, there was some kind of historical process, almost all details of which are lost. But that’s not the question that’s been nagging at me for years. What I’m arguing in that paper is that Shakespeare’s mind was different from Saxo Grammaticus’s mind and that they were writing for populations with distinctly capacities. In particular, one can have a mind that’s adequate to Amleth, but not to Hamlet; but a mind that can grasp Hamlet will necessarily also grasp Amleth.

That, of course, is speculation, nor do I pretend otherwise. But sometimes speculation is the only way to move forward. An argument that takes that speculation seriously and shows it to be wrong would be just as useful as one that fleshes it out in greater detail.

Now let us consider an exemplary New Historicist critic, Stephen Greenblatt. In his collection, Learning to Curse, there’s a chapter, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs”. It opens with a passage from an 1831 article on child rearing by one Rev. Francis Weyland and goes on to explore how “Wayland’s struggle is a strategy of intense familial love, and it is the sophisticated product of a long historical process whose roots lie at least partly in early modern England, the England of Shakespeare’s King Lear” (p. 82). Later on, in a chapter entitled “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture” contrasts the conception of the self implicit in the story of Martin Guerre in 16th Century France with the conception of the self implicit in Freud’s psychoanalytic theorizing. Those conceptions are very different.

In both of those cases there is a difference between two historical situations that seems to me to be similar to the difference between the Saxo Grammaticus story of Amleth and Shakespeare’s later story about Hamlet. In all cases we have two historical situations such that one came before the other and the later one is in the same historical ‘stream’ as the earlier. That ordering is not, however, contingent in the sense that the reverse order is equally possible. Rather, that ordering is necessary; the second moment could only have come after the first because it builds on mental structures that were in place in that earlier moment.

The historical process leading from the first to the second consists of many readings by many people over decades and centuries and interleaved with many writings as well. In that process, I suggest, new mental structures get built. I would like to see: 1) an account of those structures, and 2) an account of how they got built over time and across a succession of populations. I have the barest beginning of the first. It’s not clear to me that Greenblatt, or others, even recognize the questions.

Thus David Perkins writes (Is Literary History Possible? 1992, p. 131):
Between the context and the event it explains, a continuity or causal connection must be posited. Yet postmodern literary histories are generally committed to models of the real that posit discontinuity between events. The use contextual studies to dissolve historical generalizations. As they expose the weltering diversities and oppositions in the field of objects they consider, the continuities of traditional literary history vanish like ghosts at dawn. Thus context is deployed not to explain literary history but to deconstruct the possibility of explaining it.
The “continuities of traditional literary history” are neither here nor there; they can stand or fall as the evidence warrants. But the use of context for slicing cultural change into discrete segments which, though contiguous in time, are causally isolated, that’s troublesome. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider whether or not that was implicit in Lévi-Strauss’s geological metaphor, or a mis-reading of it.)

Is that critique overly simple and reductive? Yes. But I also think it’s a reasonable statement of the conceptual core of what transpires in new historicist contextualizing.

As a crude parallel, there’s more to the geometric constructions geocentric astronomy than the idea that all other bodies revolve around the earth. But that’s the central aspect of the construction; most of the cycles and epicycles exist to compensate for the implications of that decision (and the decision that orbits must be circular rather than elliptical). Until you fix that, the other fixes don’t matter.

So, what has any of this to do with NLP? Well, NLP allows us to examine large piles of texts, thousands of them, and see what's in them, albeit in a very abstracted way. We can treat the texts as existing cotemporaneously (effectively outside of time) or we can bin them into time slots to see if there is any change from one bin to the text. If so, then we've got a description of historical change of a kind we've never had before.

And it is only that, a description. That description explains nothing. On the contrary, it needs to be explained. Just how do we do that? Answering that question, I warrant, is going to be very interesting.

But the techniques of NLP allow us to put the question of literary history on the table, once again, as something to be understood and explained. Furthermore, I think is that going beyond those descriptions is going to force scholars to think about texts, and the social processes of sharing texts, in new ways. Refitting Marx, Freud, Foucault, Lacan, et al. won’t work this time around.

Culture as a Driving Force in History

One of Colin Martindale’s most significant findings in The Clockwork Muse (1990) is that aesthetic evolution is relatively, though not completely, autonomous (1990, 34-35):
The empirical evidence suggests that art tends in fact to evolve in a social vacuum, and that non-evolutionary factors are comparatively negligible. Though art is not produced in a complete social vacuum, I believe there to be more of a social vacuum than is commonly thought. Furthermore, social forces are analogous to friction, in that they impede or slow down the progress of an artistic tradition. They do not cause a change in art: they distort it.
That is to say, “the main cause of change in an art-producing system is the prior history of that system” (76). All of the people in any given art-producing system – artists, audience, critics, dealers, publishers, and so forth – live in the world and are subject to current historical forces whatever they may be. These forces affect their brains and minds and thus also affect their aesthetic preferences. Those preferences, however, have mostly been trained through exposure to prior works within a tradition; it is through such exposure that one learns to read poems and narratives, to see paintings, to hear music.

In Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) I offered a principle of cultural freedom (pp. 198-199):
Cultural Freedom: While all human societies must ensure the biological survival of their members, there is considerable leeway in how that is accomplished. This creates a zone of cultural discretion that is constrained only by the group’s collective capacity for coupled neural interaction and desire for pleasure.
That cultural freedom was invoked with the very first musicking that transformed a group of clever apes into proto-humans. I take the subsequent evolution of human culture as evidence of the continued viability and potency of cultural freedom. As a consequence of cultural freedom I offer one final proposition:
Culture as Historical Force: Culture Evolution is the strongest long-term force in human history.
I do not know how to factor the complex causal interactions underlying historical process into various causal streams. In so far as climate and geography have been largely, but not completely, independent of human action, it is easy enough to conceive of them as independent causal agents. There are no doubt social, political, and economic forces as well. But culture underlies all that we do. It is with us always. Through it we change ourselves and our children’s children.

Literature has its place here, in culture; more particularly, in culture’s aesthetic stream. Thus I would like to end, in the best Viconian fashion, where I began, with the two epigraphs at the head of this essay. The first is the well-known last line from Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” written in 1821, but not published until 1840, well after his death. The second is from Edward Said’s “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA and written near the end of his career. Shelley could not have imagined the many investigations, analyses, and contemplations by generations of scholars that led Said to his perplexity about how to understand the aesthetic. I count that distance between the two as intellectual progress. I expect that progress to continue and that a new generation of scholars will resolve the questions Said has posed. But I make no predictions about when that will happen or about the terms in which those resolutions are stated. They may well be as mysterious to us as Said’s work would have been to Shelley.

But there is no doubt in my mind that those terms will affirm the existence of an autonomous aesthetic realm. It was through the pleasure and joy of stomping and hollering in unison that groups of very clever apes discovered their mutual presence and so began the evolutionary journey to homo sapiens sapiens. We were born in the aesthetic and there we remain. Its autonomy and freedom are ours. Through it we can become more than we were.

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Addendum in 2018: I'd originally posted this in Sept. 2009 and then reposted it in June 2017. Is this third time a charm? There's some notion that America (and the world?) is in the grips of a stagnation in the development of new technologies and the emergence of new ideas. For example, it's a recurring theme of Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog, as well as the title of one of his books. At the same time we do seem to be rising above, in the sense of Piaget's reflective abstraction (above), the previous conceptual era.

We now seem to know how to create (cultural) paradigms almost at will (an observation Alan Kay made to me in an interview some years ago).  What is the venture capital business about, if not a social mechanism for the creation of new paradigms – I'm thinking particularly of the recent emergence of 'accelerators' in the seed/angel space (e.g. SOSV). Advertisers and marketers talk of branding, as though it were a thing on crafts like clay pots or reed baskets. What is a brand if not (something rather like) a paradigm? For example, consider this statement by NYC design firm, imagine the next:

ONE: Advocacy and Activism to awaken our world to the extreme importance of conscious creatives and the powerful role their creations can play in creating a people, planet, spirit paradigm.

TWO: Education Revolution including creative leadership development. Our intention is to participate in the creation of a new paradigm in the creative education of the human soul from birth to adult.

THREE: Institute for the mentoring, shaping, and mastery of creative consciousness. Our intention is to hold space for creatives to cultivate their creative consciousness and create free of the current paradigm.

FOUR: Creative Studio and Agency to serve clients who are concentrating on creating a people, planet, spirit world of consciousness. To help them consciously create a culture that authentically attracts customers. Our STUDIO works on diverse scales of “frequency art” projects that open and awaken our evolving consciousness in communities around the world.
Can they pull if off? I don't know. What interests me is that they're consciously and deliberately trying.

So we seem to be faced with a paradox: On the one hand, we (more or less) know how to pump out new paradigms. On the other hand, the production of new ideas and products seems to be stagnating. What gives?

My guess: The larger institutions of our culture are in the grips of the old paradigms, the ones grounded in 19th and early 20th century ideas. They're holding back the newer ideas. In effect, the dinosaurs are stomping out the emerging mammals.


  1. I got stuck on the sick Rose parody. It makes my brain go into melt down. I cant grasp what its on about nor do I want to.

    The poem requires no thought all you have to do is make it live. You don't read it you hear it and can feel the atmosphere in the room, begin to predict how people will respond. It's not exactly rocket science. Why would you want to read a literary critic on the subject?

  2. p.s I just looked at it again, I can't read it. I can't read the comments. Poem makes perfect sense, nothing else in that post does, it just makes my dyslexia really bad as their is no sense to hold on to other than the poem.

  3. Placing the contextual argument and relating it to New Historicisim caused issues.

    Internal lit crit. argument, remove New Historicim, and English literature's need to focus on the text and a different relation with time, the issue however remains.

    If you are from this background dealing with this internal debate, you must read history in a very different way. Its odd to read.