Friday, August 8, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 2.1: How do we make inferences from patterns in collections of books to patterns in populations of readers?

My previous post, about Jockers’ analysis of metadata from a collection of Irish American texts, got me to thinking about just what kind of inferences we CAN make given such data. In particular, how do we go from data about collections of books to thoughts, attitudes, desires and values in the minds of populations of readers? For, in one way or another, that is what both Jockers and I are doing when we propose explanations for the data.

Texts as Proxies for Minds

As a practical matter we, literary critics interested in literary history, treat texts as evidence about the minds of past populations. And one of the major justifications for computational analysis of large collections of texts is that traditional criticism, by focusing on a small number of canonical texts, is not adequately sampling the textual universe and thus is not getting a full picture of mentalities past. But what kind of conclusions can we draw from the texts themselves? Does it matter that some texts were more widely read than others? I should think it does.

At least proponents of the canon can point out that those texts have survived and are read today precisely because they have been read by many in the past. The same cannot necessarily be said about those many now-forgotten texts. We need not take the traditionalist claim at face value, of course, but we cannot dismiss it either. Readership matters, and canonical status is an index of readership, albeit a problematic one.

What to do?

I want to think this through a bit. Not in detail at all. Just thinking out loud.

Start with Oral Cultures

In the middle of my previous post I presented an account of the social function of literature in terms of shared vs. mutual information, a notion from game theory. Publicly told stories embody values and attitudes that are widely circulated in a population, but everyone knows this. That, knowing that everyone knows, is a kind of meta-knowledge.

The basic story telling situation, the one deepest in our history, is face-to-face story telling in an oral culture. Such societies have relatively small populations, are culturally homogeneous, and you spend most of your time with people you know very well. This is a world with relatively few secrets and surprises.

It is also a world where stories don’t have authors as we know them. For all practical purposes the stories come out of a well in the ground – or through a wormhole to an alternate universe. The author isn’t dead in these societies; rather, authorship has not yet been invented.

That is not the world Jockers is writing about. He’s writing about American society over the last 250 years. This is a large and ethnically diverse society, where ethnicity is linked to social class and status. For a long time the Irish have been near the bottom of the hierarchy.

But this is also a literate society. Stories can be written down and those texts can be circulated among people without any face-to-face contact with the authors. And, for that matter, authors do not write them in face-to-face contact with an audience, though serial publication allows for some distant audience interaction while the writing is moving along. If they so wish, authors can be relatively secretive about their work.

At this point I should note that I’m aware that quite a bit of scholarship has been done on the history of reading. I’m not conversant with that literature. I’m just making this stuff up as I go along, relying on general considerations. What I’m missing, in particular, is any sense of how people in the past used their reading in personal (face-to-face or letters) interactions with friends, family, and acquaintances.

To Irish American Literature

The picture Jockers presents is rich and complex. In the first phase of his presentation Jockers finds the following patterns in the data (pp. 38-44):
1. There was no “lost generation” of Irish American writers in the first third of the 20th Century.
2. There was a dip in writing by eastern authors during that period, but a (compensating) increase in writing by western authors.
3. There was a slight surge by eastern female authors after 1906.
4. There was a striking increase in western female writers in the 1920s.
5. The per capita production of Irish-themed texts was much higher in the West than in the East during the “lost generation” period and into the 1950s.
Think of that as the first phase of Jockers’ argument. It’s a rich and complex set of findings.

Now, that “lost generation” was posited by Charles Fanning, who also offered an explanation, which Jockers summarizes (p. 38):
Fanning hypothesizes that a variety of social forces led Irish Americans away from writing about the Irish American experience, and he notes how “with the approach of World War I, Irish-American ethnic assertiveness became positively unsavory in the eyes of many non-Irish Americans. When the war began in August of 1914, anti-British feeling surfaced again strongly in Irish-American nationalist circles....[T]he War effort as England’s ally, and the negative perception of Irish nationalism after the Easter Rising all contributed to a significant dampening of the fires of Irish-American assertion during these years.”
As Jockers has shown, however, there was no dearth of novel production by Irish American writers during that period. And so Jockers simply drops Fanning’s explanation and goes about analyzing his data. After all, if there was no lost generation, why say anything more about the non-explanation?

But I’m interested in how we get from the data to social forces so I want to make a simple observation. The fact that there was no drop in novel production doesn’t imply that Fanning’s hypothesized social forces didn’t exist. They may well have. But they didn’t have the effect he posited he attached to them. We don’t know.

Now, as Jockers was finishing his exposition of the first phase of his argument he noted that the western writers were distant “from the primary hubs of Irish culture in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago” (42-43) and that, in that situation, one would expect them “to drift away from ethnic identifications and write less ethnically oriented fictions” (p. 43). At this point he introduces the final pattern in his first phase, that texts were produced at a much higher per capita rate in the West than in the East.

But he doesn’t offer an explanation for why western production outpaced eastern. But he has introduced a contextual factor, that Irish culture was stronger in the East than in the West, and suggested that factor should produce an effect opposite to the one we see. And it’s at THAT point in my reading that I hatched my own hypothesis, namely that westerners wrote, and presumably read, Irish-themed texts as a way of keeping in touch with their Irishness. Since, for whatever reason, easterners were writing so much during this period, westerners had to take up the slack. And, of course, eastern readers could perfectly well read texts produced in the west.

So, in my thinking, the difference between face-to-face oral culture and “distant” reading culture is crucial. If your living in a geographical hub of Irish culture you get lots of face-to-face Irishness. If you are far away from dense on-the-ground Irishness, you have to compensate if you want to maintain your sense of Irishness. If you live surrounded by Irish culture, then you don’t have to do anything to maintain it. But if you aren’t surrounded by Irish culture, do you assimilate to local culture, or do you try to maintain your Irishness? If the latter, just how do you do it?

The existence of written culture gives you a powerful means of doing it and so, my thinking went, the western Irish Americans took that option. I note, however, that this argument is making assumptions about the texture of daily life in the East and the West for which I have no evidence though I assume evidence of some sort does exist. In particular, did Irish in the West lack for day-to-day immersion in Irish culture?

* * * * *

Having finished the first phase of his argument Jockers digresses into black drama and then returns to Irish American literature, this time examining titles. He finds that “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). Why?

For various reasons Irish Americans found greater acceptance in the West than in the East (pp. 53-54). Hence, Jockers argues (pp. 53-54):
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.

I assume that greater acceptance is face-to-face acceptance as these people went about their everyday lives. Jockers makes a particular point of Catholicism which, of course, was widespread in the Hispanic population of Texas, New Mexico, and California. That could serve as a tertium quid between the Irish immigrants and the local populace. They may have been ethnically different, but they had Catholicism in common, and in opposition to the larger Protestant culture.

So, how does this on-the-ground acceptance play against distance from eastern hubs of Irish culture, hubs which faced intolerance from better established Anglo-Protestants? That’s what I’m thinking about, and that, it seems, is what this whole post is about.

And I’m left pretty much where I was at the end of the last post, wondering who’s reading what and why. An Irish Catholic can attend mass with a Hispanic Catholic, but what does that do for his or her Irishness? An Irish miner can break rocks next to a non-Irish miner (German, Norwegian, Italian?) but what does that do for his Irishness?

At the moment I’m thinking that being removed from those eastern hubs impels western Irish along the same cultural trajectory as being accepted by non-Irish locals: you read Irish texts to maintain your Irishness AND because it’s safer to do so. At the same time, eastern Irish can perfectly well read Irish-themed texts written in the West.

What we’re ultimately dealing with is
1. a huge number of face-to-face interactions,
2. a somewhat smaller number of mind-to-text interactions, and
3. how these two interact in maintenance of ethnic identity.
The pattern and texture of face-to-face interactions between Irish Americans and other Americans were different in the East than they were in the West. From that difference we want to derive a depression in text production in the East and an increase in the West during the first three decades of the 20th Century.

* * * * *


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