Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 3.1: Style, or Measuring the Autonomous Aesthetic Realm

Yesterday I posted on Chapter 6, “Style,” in which Jockers argued, in effect, that insofar as we can measure (or estimate) the factors that affect a text’s style, authorial identity is the strongest of those factors. The key is that phrase, “insofar as we can measure,” because that’s the intellectual world in which we are now functioning.

I now want to take Jockers’ arguments on that score and refit them for use as evidence that an autonomous aesthetic realm does indeed exist, as the late Edward Said believed but couldn’t quite explain.

First I want to take up the topic that was the subject of Moretti’s most recent pamphlet, operationalization. Then I’ll introduce Said’s conundrum about the existence of an autonomous aesthetic realm and discuss how we could operationalize it. I’ll conclude by arguing that Jockers has already, in effect, all but given us an operationalization of it.


If we can’t measure it, or operationalize it, to use a term Moretti adopted from physics (“Operationalizing”: or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory, Literary Lab, Pamphlet, December 2013) then we can’t reason about it in this universe of discourse. In some other universe of discourse, sure, but not in this one.

Moretti glosses “operationalize” by a passage from P.W. Bridgeman (p. 2):
We may illustrate [the meaning of the term] by considering the concept of length: what do we mean by the length of an object? [...] To find the length of an object we have to perform certain physical operations. The concept of length is therefore fixed when the operations by which length is fixed are fixed: that is, the concept of length involves as much and nothing more than the set of operations by which length is determined. In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations [...] the proper definition of a concept is not in terms of its properties but in terms of actual operations.
If I might push the term a bit, since the middle of the last century, and a bit before, literary criticism has ‘operationalized’ the concept of meaning by the procedure of so-called close reading. That is to say, the meaning of a literary text, whether a sonnet by Shakespeare or a narrative by Murasaki Shikibu, is what the procedure of close reading determines it to be.

Alas!, or if you are so inclined, mirable dictu!, the result of this process tends to vary from one critic to another. In science, that would be a problem. In literary criticism it is merely a provocation to theory.

Many critics simply ignore it, perhaps covering it over with the anodyne topos that the multiplicity of meanings simply shows the richness of the text. Other critics assume that the concept has been inadequately operationalized and go in search of more adequate methods – the literary Darwinists, led by Joseph Carroll, are the most recent such school. And still other critics accept this as evidence that meaning is indeterminate.

But I digress. It’s not meaning we’re after. It’s style. Traditionally the concept of style has been operationalized – and here I’m again pushing things a bit – by describing texts in rhetorical, philological and, more recently, linguistic terms. Since the middle of the previous century computational humanists have operationalized the concept by counting textual features and undertaking a statistical analysis of the counts.

From the standpoint of traditional humanism that seems odd and terribly impoverished, and no doubt it is. But it is also reliable from one researcher to another and has allowed stylisticians to accomplish at least one task beyond the reach of traditional humanists, with their richer methodology. Namely, identifying the authors of otherwise anonymous texts. This is the tradition in which Jockers is working.

An Autonomous Aesthetic Realm

The question now before us is whether or not we can recast that work as an operationalization of the concept of an autonomous aesthetic realm. In one of his last essays, Globalizing Literary Study (PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1, 2001, pp. 64-68), Edward Said notes: “An increasing number of us, I think, feel that there is something basically unworkable or at least drastically changed about the traditional frameworks in which we study literature“ (p. 64). He goes on (pp. 64-65):
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. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernican transformation in the common understanding of it. Is it real, or is it only a discursive function? Where is it located? Is it individual or collective?
One way of reading Jockers’ results is that he has succeeded in locating identity in the author. That is, he has adopted a certain set of procedures for operationalizing the notion of style such that style, as operationalized, is firmly linked to the author of a given text.

If I keep hammering this word, “operationalize,” it’s because that’s all we’ve got, various procedures we employ to investigate this otherwise rather abstract notion, style. One is free of course to dream of a transcendental notion of style such that the “real” style of a work or an author isn’t directly accessible but is out there somewhere in the Platonic ether. But I don’t see that such a transcendental style is of any use to us.

The question now is whether or not we can operationalize the notion of an autonomous aesthetic realm realizing that, in the process, it’s not going to be quite what Said had in mind. Said has the notion from Adorno, whom I’ve not read beyond a deeply mistaken essay about jazz. The following passage from Geoffrey Harpham (Roots, Races, and the Return to Philology, Representations, 106, Spring 2009, pp. 34-62) sheds some light on this (p. 35):
For Said, the object of philological attention, the text, is best conceived as a window onto a particular historical world. In order to grasp that world, one must “put oneself in the position of the author, for whom writing is a series of decisions and choices expressed in words” ([Humanism and Democratic Criticism], 62). These choices constitute the process of aesthetic creation, which, because it constructs a counterworld, represents an “unreconciled opposition to the depredations of daily life” and to the “identities . . . given by the flag or the national war of the moment” (63, 80). For Said, philology leads directly from the text to an empathetic encounter with a masterful author, a deep and direct immersion in the historical world that author inhabited, and privileged access to the author’s heroic resistance to the actual, most particularly to the ideology of nationalism.
So, we’re looking for a “counterworld” to the “depredations of daily life” and to “nationalism.” That’s quite a lot, as Said came of intellectual age in an academy where the study of literature was the study of national literatures, and for the purpose of inculcating national virtues in a nation’s youth. But what does it actually require of a text, in detail?

Let me propose something else, and I’m going to propose it in an arena that seemed to have horrified Adorno, that of popular culture. Back in 2004 Arthur de Vany published Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry (Routledge, 2004). Analyzing box office receipts from a decade (the 1990s) de Vany is interested in whether or not we can “predict” the financial fate of a movie based in things we know at the time of initial release. Of course, since de Vany’s working with the past, there’s no mystery about how well or how poorly a movie did.

What de Vany is doing is investigating whether or not there’s a strong relationship between a movie’s financial fate and such things as the director and stars involved in the film, the number of theaters it opens in, the existence of a big PR campaign, or even box office receipts on the opening weekend – FWIW, conceptually this is similar to what Jockers has done by looking for various factors influencing a text’s style. What he finds is that there is no such relationship. Having bankable stars on the marquee doesn’t guarantee financial success, nor does opening on thousands of theatres across the nation, ans so forth. As I say in my review of the book, “the deep and ineradicable condition of the business is that there is no reliable way to estimate the market appeal of a movie short of putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch.”

You may not find that at all surprising, but imagine that you are a movie executive. Moviemaking is big business, and has been so for a century. Making, marketing and exhibiting movies is expensive. You’re going to do everything you can possibly do to ensure that people come to see the pictures you put out. You do your best and what you discover is that, while you can dictate what goes into a movie, you can’t dictate audience behavior.

Instead, you must chase it. As I say in my review:
I want to underscore this point as many of my humanist colleagues have spent the last several decades castigating Hollywood for its hegemonic hold over the subject masses who have little choice but to submit to having their brains scrambled by Hollywood nonsense. It’s not that simple. Hollywood would dearly love to have such control over the audience, for it would make for a much more profitable business. Alas, as De Vany demonstrates, the Hollywood suits and moguls don’t have that kind of power. The oppressed masses do, in fact, have quite a bit of autonomy in their actions. No movie can succeed without word-of-mouth recommendations, and those words cannot be dictated from on high.
That’s the kind of autonomy I’m looking for. For one thing, it’s measurable – and I urge digital humanists to read de Vany’s book; it’s got a lot of math, but you can skip over that if you need to (I did) and look at the charts. For another thing, that seems to be how culture works. People choose what they want to read, listen to, dance to, and so forth. Those choices may not be free in some ultimate metaphysical sense, but they aren’t dictated by the business establishments that try desperately to control them.

As a business, culture is very risky. Sure things are always failing and long shots keep coming out of left field and winning big.

Measuring Autonomy

Where, then, do we find something that looks like autonomy in the patterns in Jockers’ data? He’s not looking at audience behavior, as de Vany was. He’s looking at style.

And the only people he’s got in view are the authors of his texts. Is there anything here that can be taken as evidence of authorial autonomy? Well, if authors are merely conduits for social and semiotic forces, then it should be those forces that dominate style, no?

That’s not what Jockers has found. We can, and often do, think of genre as the embodiment of social forces in the literary system. And Jockers has discovered that indeed genre leaves its signal in the styles exhibited in his texts. There’s no surprise here. He’s also discovered that gender – which we know to be strongly under social control – also leaves a signal in the text, as does the decade of composition (this is, the ‘spirit’ of the age).

But the author’s signal is stronger than any of these. I am going to take the strength of the authorial signal as an index of authorial autonomy. No, I’m not saying that this is some kind of ultimate metaphysical freedom; I’m saying no more than that authors leave a stamp on the texts they write that is not simply an expression of external forces. Authors are not merely conduits.

And readers, like movie goers, are not at the beck and call of publishers. They choose the books they want to read.

Between the freedom of audiences to choose what they read and of author’s to put their individual style into the books they write, there’s your autonomous aesthetic realm. It may not be quite be the one Said, or Adorno, had in mind, but it’s one we can explore and investigate with the tools, both conceptual and computational, we have at hand.

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