Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 2: Metadata and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Once I’d gone through the introductory chapters I decided to skip over Chapter 5, “Metadata”, in favor of the real goods in Chapter 5, “Style”. But I was wrong about the metadata, so here we are.

You may want to get yourself a cup of Irish coffee as this is going to take awhile.

The Lost are Found

Most of Jockers’ work in this chapter concerns Irish American fiction in a corpus of 758 texts covering 250 years. Jockers is curious about a gap identified in Charles Fanning, The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-America Fiction (p. 38):
Fanning discovered an apparent dearth of writers active in the period form 1900 to 1930, and as an explanation for this literary “recession,” Fanning proposes that 1900 to 1930 represents a “lost generation,” a period he defines as one “of wholesale cultural amnesia”.
When Jockers plots his 758 texts, however, he can’t see Fanning’s gap.

First he separates writers working east of the Mississippi from those working west and plots the two groups separately. The eastern group follows Fanning’s pattern, but the western group does not. They
make a somewhat sudden appearance in about 1900 and then begin a forty-year ascendance that reaches an apex in 1941. Western writers clearly dominated the early part of the twentieth century. (p. 39)
Jockers also plots titles by gender, which adds nuance to the emerging picture.

He then gives us this striking paragraph (p. 42):
Western authors, both male and female, certainly appear to have countered any literary recession of the East. That they succeed in doing so despite (or perhaps directly because of) a significantly smaller Irish ethnic population in the West is fascinating. Figure 5.6 incorporates census figures to explore Irish American literary output in the context of eastern and western demographics. The chart plots Irish American books published per ten thousand Irish-born immigrants in the region. A natural assumption here is that there should be a positive correlation between the size of a population and the number of potential writers within in it. What the data reveal, however, is quite the opposite: the more sparsely populated West produced more books per capita.
Jockers goes on to point out that not only were the western writers distant from the publishing industry, they “were also further removed from the primary hubs of Irish culture in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago” (42-43). In this situation, Jockers suggests, you’d expect the immigrants to shed their Irishness and assimilate to local cultures. Instead, it seems, they doubled-down and “wrote about being Irish in America at a per capita rate exponentially greater than their countrymen in the East” (p. 43).

Now we’ve got something to think about. And what I’m going to think is that perhaps Jockers’ is working from a plausible, but incorrect, assumption. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jockers does some further exploration, discriminating between texts by setting, rural and urban, and looking at THAT distinction by gender. That makes things even more complicated, but I don’t think it changes the basic picture, so I’ll skip that.

Let’s skip over what amounts to a digression on black drama and return to Irish American materials. Now Jockers is looking at book titles: Does the title contain indicators of an Irish (or Catholic) background? I’m going to focus on only one aspect of Jockers’ analysis. During the first two decades of the 20th Century – our “lost generation” period – but also after 1970, “western writers and writers of rural fiction are more likely to depict Irishness and more likely to declare that interest to would-be readers in the titles of their books” (p. 52).

What’s going on in the West? Here’s what Jockers says (pp. 53-54):
With minor variations, these historians all attribute the comparative success of the Irish in the West to the fact that these Irish did not face the same kinds of religious and ethnic intolerance that was common fare among the established Anglo-Protestant enclaves of the East. Quite the opposite, the Irish who ventured west to the states of New Mexico, Texas, and California found in the existing Catholic population a community that welcomed rather than rejected them. Those who went to Colorado and Montana found plentiful jobs in the mines and an environment in which a man was judged primarily upon the amount of rock he could put in the box. These conditions laid the groundwork not simply for greater material success but, as these data confirm, greater literary productivity and a body of literature that is characterized by a willingness to record specifically Irish perspectives and to do so with an atypical degree of optimism.
Jockers finishes out the chapter with a more general exploration of book titles, which I’m going to skip in favor of reinterpreting his Irish data.

The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Social Function of Literature

But first I want to present my conception of the social function of literature: it’s a means of sharing norms and attitudes within a population. That’s a pretty anodyne notion, though it might offend Stanley Fish, who seems to think that literature exists for the purpose of allowing literary critics to display their interpretive brilliance. But I want to formulate that truism in a particular way, one I learned from Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought.

Pinker devotes his penultimate chapter to indirect speech. As an example, there’s that traditional sexual come on, “would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Nothing is said about sex, but that meaning is understood to be implicit in the language. Or there’s the driver who offers a bribe to a traffic officer, not by baldly saying “will you let me off for $50” but by suggesting he’d like to take care of the matter “here, rather than having to go to the trouble of writing a check.” Given that both parties know what is in fact being said, why use such indirection?

Pinker’s answer is complex, subtle, and resists easy summary, involving, as it does, both game theory and Alan Fiske’s relational models theory of social relationships. So I’m not going to try. But it hinges of the fact that in these situations the speaker doesn’t know the values of the hearer and so cannot anticipate the response to an overt statement. In the event that the hearer’s values aren’t consistent with the implicit request – the woman doesn’t want to have sex, the officer is honest – the indirection allows the speaker to save face in the case of the sexual overture and to deny intent to bribe in the case of the traffic ticket.

In the course of making his argument Pinker introduces a distinction between shared knowledge and mutual knowledge. Shared knowledge is knowledge that each of several parties has. But they may not know that each has the knowledge. Mutual knowledge is shared knowledge plus the knowledge that everyone knows that they share the same bit of knowledge. He illustrates the difference by reference to the well-known tale of the emperor who has no clothes. Everyone can see that the emperor is naked. That is knowledge they share. But that knowledge is not mutual, not yet. No one knows that everyone else is aware of the emperor’s nakedness. Once the little boy blurts it out, however, the situation changes drastically. Now that shared knowledge has become mutual knowledge. And in that mutual knowledge there is potentially dangerous social power. So the difference between shared and mutual knowledge is crucial.

As I thought about Pinker’s account, I began to wonder whether or not stories could be a vehicle for providing members of a social group with mutual knowledge. Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo – as in excretory, sexual, and sacred matters – or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances.

Let us then consider oral story telling in traditional cultures. These stories are handed down from one generation to another. They are thus well known in the group. On any given occasion most audience members will have heard a story before, perhaps many times. While the teller will have his individual style, he will endeavor to tell the story the same way every time, as it was told to him. Of course, in an oral culture, the same doesn’t mean what it does in a literate culture, where texts can be compared with one another, character for character. It means only that the same characters participate in the same incidents. No more, no less. Further, because speaker and audience are in one another’s presence, the speaker knows how well things are going and can modulate the details of his performance in order more effectively to hold the audience’s interest.

The upshot of these considerations is that, for all practical purposes, we may consider the group itself to be the author of the story, not the individual storyteller. The tale is merely the social device through which the group tells the important stories.

Jockers, of course, is not dealing with oral storytelling. He’s deal with the circulation of written texts. But the mere fact that those texts ARE circulating makes them sources of mutual information. An individual reader may not know just who else may have read a given text, but they know that the text IS being read and, therefore, that they are entering into a (virtual) community when they read a text, the community of readers of that text (and others like it).

Searching for Community in the West

With this in mind, let’s reinterpret Jockers’ data. In a footnote at the bottom of page 44 Jockers tells us:
My working assumption here is that there should be a connection between a writer’s proclivity to write about the Irish experience in America and the strength of the Irish community in which the writer lives. More Irish-born citizens should mean more Irish-oriented books.
Now, if you want to tell your stories in oral performance, you pretty much have to do that locally. But writing is different. You write for yourself and for anyone who can get ahold of your book. You don’t necessarily write for your neighbors.

I’m thinking that a storyteller who doesn’t have a local community from which to draw an audience may well be motivated to write his (or her) stories. The writing process allows the author to articulate and thereby be in touch with his Irishness even in the absence of a face-to-face audience. And the ability to sell the manuscript to a publisher gives the writing a stamp of “reality” that removes it from self-indulgent escapism.

My argument then, is that those Irish in the west who were far from the eastern centers of Irish culture would have been more motivated to write, not less, provided, of course, that they wanted to maintain their sense of Irish
American identity.

This just-so story – and that’s all it is at this point, a just-so story I making up as I go along – is complicated by the fact that, no matter where a book is written, it can be read anywhere. Why couldn’t those (relatively) isolated Western Irish have read books written in the east, either by purchasing them or by borrowing them from a library? They could, but the mere reading might not have been sufficient for some who had a more active need for stories. Back east such a person could tell stories among friends and neighbors, but that wouldn’t have been so easy in the West.

It would be interesting to have data on reading habits. During the first quarter of the 20th Century were Irish Americans in the West more likely to read Irish-themed fiction than those in the East? I don’t know, and getting such data would be difficult. Even getting data of book sales by locality and library borrowing would be difficult if not impossible.

What's the Story?

Jockers accounts for the greater literary productivity of western Irish over eastern the same way he accounts for the tendency of western writers to signal Irishness in book titles: greater acceptance in the local community. That’s different from my suggestion above.

Which is correct? I don’t know. It’s not even obvious to me that they’re inconsistent with one another. It seems to me that one can be accepted as a worker and as a Catholic and still feel a need to affirm one’s Irishness in other ways.

On the other hand, one could take my argument and refit it into one that predicts greater literary productivity among Irish in the East. If you’re not accepted by the surrounding Anglo-Protestants, wouldn’t that motivate you to affirm your Irishness by writing Irish-themed fiction? Since that isn’t what happened, the argument must be wrong.

Perhaps then my argument is just too complex for its own good. Perhaps. But, if I don’t quite believe it, I’m not quite ready to dismiss it either. I’m inclined to leave it hanging in the air, like the Cheshire cat’s grin.

And I’m left wondering about the relative roles of reading and face-to-face interaction forming and maintaining one’s identity. What one reads can, of course, become a topic for face-to-face conversation. But it can also exist in counterpoint to face-to-face affirmation.

Teasing these things out is not going to be easy.

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