Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Epiphenomena? Ramsay on Patterns, Again

About a month ago I posted on Ramsay’s article about patterns in the scene structure of Shakespeare’s plays. Now I’m looking at a more recent piece, The Meandering through Textuality Challenge, from a 2011 MLA panel, “Digging into Data.” Patterns come up again:
I have many times suggested “pattern” as the treasure sought by humanistic inquiry: which is to say, an order, a regularity, a connection, a resonance. I continue to insist that this is, in the end, what humanists in general, and literary critics in particular, are always looking for, whether they’re new critics, new historicists, new atheists, new faculty, or New Englanders...

This would be a banal observation ... were it not for the fact that (like these worn phrases, once upon a time) it encourages us see a connection that might otherwise be obscured. For if humanistic inquiry is about pattern, then it isn’t completely crazy to suggest that computers might be useful tools for humanistic inquiry. Because long before computation is about YouTube or Twitter or Google, it is about pattern transduction.
So far so good. I especially like that last bit, that computation is about pattern transduction. I’m not entirely sure what that means, nor am I at all disturbed by that. Whatever it means, it draws the reader’s attention away calculation and number, which is a good thing.

Ramsay goes on to say:
... we do not present the task of literary criticism or historiography as the process of finding some intact, but buried object beneath the surface. That’s because we have for a very long time now conceived of the patterns we’re looking for not as “out there,” but as “in here” — not as preexisting ontological formations, but as emergent textual epiphenomena.
Again I’m not so sure, but I want to think about this uncertainty, just a bit.

When I go looking for patterns in texts as far as I can tell I’m looking for something that’s “out there” in the sense that I am not, as a critic, projecting that pattern onto the text. Ring-composition really is there, whether in the Japanese film Gojira, or in Heart of Darkness, or elsewhere (Coleridge, Tezuka, Coppola). Now I understand that those texts, considered as inscriptions on some surface (whether ink on a page, emulsion on celluloid, or a pattern of light on some surface) must be “read” by a mind in order for the phenomenon to be fully manifest, but that certainly doesn’t make them epiphenomenal.

Textual patterns are not side-effects (“emergent textual epiphenomena”). They’re the main event. They are as real (“preexisting ontological formations”?) as the ink splotches or pixels that constitute them. That is, they are real if WE are. If, we’re not real, then...

Perhaps that’s what one gets from using computation as a model for mental process, a way of thinking about “texts” as a thinkable unity of sign and process (cf. the post, Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects). As long as and to the extent that digital critics confine their computational thinking to matters of “back office support” for the “real” work of reading they’re stuck with the existing roster of hermeneutic systems and their attendant mysteries and mystifications.

Ramsay ends his piece by suggesting that digital criticism “might be more revolutionary than anything that has happened in literary study in fifty years.” But that revolution will be still-born unless Ramsay and his colleagues can come up with some way to think of textual patterns as something more substantial than “emergent textual epiphenomena.” If they don’t want to think of the mind as, in some sense, computational in kind, well then, give me another conceptualization. But somehow we’ve got to get across the barrier that critics cobbled together between hermeneutics on the one hand and linguistics, cognition, and neuroscience.

Downing that barrier does not mean we get to enter a happy land of positivist truth. Nothing of the kind. As far as I can tell, it means, among other things, that we have devote enormous effort to cobbling together descriptions of textual phenomena (“patterns”) without the immediate prospect of explaining them. We need the descriptions so that we know what it is we’re trying to explain.

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