Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 7.2: Hyperobjects and Large Finitude

As a way of transitioning to a concluding post in which I will recast Jockers’ work in evolutionary terms, I want to look at a passage from Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects, a book I worked through several weeks ago. Why? Because the “big data” techniques Jockers’ is using deal in hyperobjects.

When Jockers built a model of literary influence in the 19th Anglo-American novel, he constructed a model of a hyperobject: roughly, a collective mentalité or Geist unfolding through several interlinked populations over the course of a century. And the model he built took the form of a graph with 3,346 nodes (each representing a text) and 165,770 edges (each a similarity relationship between the connected texts) where each node is a point in space with 578 dimensions, with each dimension scoring a single stylistic or thematic feature of the text. That model is big, but it is also finite.

And that’s where Morton comes in, with a passage on large finitude (Hyperobjects, pp. 60-61):
These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to Earth we are. Infinity is far easier to cope with. Infinity brings to mind our cognitive powers, which is why for Kant the mathematical sublime is the realization that infinity is an uncountably vast magnitude beyond magnitude. But hyperobjects are not forever. What they offer instead is very large finitude. I can think infinity. But I can’t count up to one hundred thousand. I have written one hundred thousand words, in fits and starts. But one hundred thousand years? It’s unimaginably vast...

The philosophy of vast space was first opened up by Catholicism, which made it a sin not to suppose that God had created an infinite void. Along with the scholastic view of substances, Descartes inherited this void and Pascal wrote that its silence filled him with dread. Vast non-human temporal and spatial magnitudes have been physically near humans since the Romantic period, when Mary Anning discovered the first dinosaur fossil (in 1811) and natural historians reckoned the age of Earth. Yet it was not until Einstein that space and time themselves were seen as emergent properties of objects. The Einsteinian view is what finally gave us the conceptual tools to conceptualize the scope of very large finitude.
I’ve come to believe that is one of the most important passages in the Morton’s book.

And it is important that we keep it in mind when thinking about the evolution of literary culture. The story Jockers has been telling, about the 19th century novel, comes late in the game after all. Our literary culture extends back into the past before the invention of the printing press, and thus of mass distribution of texts, into the world of handcrafted artisanal texts. Those texts, of course, floated in a sea of oral story telling, which has as well persisted into the printing-press era and remains with us even now.

But there was a time, ever further back, when the oral tale was the only tale. Any evolutionary account of literary culture must be compatible with the dynamics oral culture, otherwise the origins of literature becomes an ontological mystery rather than merely being a set of historical events for which little direct evidence exists in the archeological record. And the origins of story telling trails off into the origins of language and of human beings.

Those origins are not a hard sharp-edged thing. But they are real, and happened in finite time in a finite local universe. Out of those origins we have a huge meshwork of interactions between human beings. It’s in that meshwork that we find expressive culture: ritual, stories, poems, dance, music, and so forth. Without expressive culture, the meshwork could not cohere.

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