Saturday, October 17, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Discipline [Literary Criticism]

It appears that I’ll be publishing a working paper on the profession of academic literary criticism sometime in the next week or three, depending on what other projects I’m working on. This is a topic I’ve written quite a bit on, so much that it seemed to me that there should be a section in that working paper that serves as a guide to much, if not quite all, of that work.

This is a trial run on that section. As such it is a lightly annotated bibliography, where the annotations mostly consist of the abstracts I prepared for each working paper. I’ve divided them into four sections: Bridges, Description, Psychology, and Computational Criticism.


How you get from here to there. The first one is how you get (how I got) from Lévi-Strauss’s practical work on myth to cognitive science. The second one seeks to justify the ways of literature and of humanists to Steven Pinker. The third places my conception of (the potentialities of) literary criticism in the context of Bruno Latour’s actor networks and his modes of being.

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Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition (2015) 30 pp.

Abstract: This is a series of informal notes on the structuralist method Lévi-Strauss used in Mythologiques. What’s essential to the method is to treat narratives in comparison with one another rather than in isolation. By analyzing and describing ensembles of narratives, Lévi-Strauss was able to indicate mental “deep structures.” In this comparing Lévi-Strauss was able to see more than he could explain. I extend the method to Robert Greene’s Pandosto, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I discuss how Lévi-Strauss was looking for a way to objectify mental structures, but failed; and I suggest that the notion of computation will be central to any effort that goes beyond what Lévi-Strauss did. I conclude by showing how work on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” finally led me beyond the limitations of structuralism and into cognitive science.

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An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015) 20 pp.

Abstract: People in oral cultures tell stories as a source of mutual knowledge in the game theory sense (think: “The Emperor Has No Clothes”) on matters they cannot talk about either because they resist explicit expository formulation or because they are embarrassing and anxiety provoking. The communal story is thus a source of shared value and mutual affirmation. And the academic profession of literary criticism came to see itself as a repository of that shared value. Accordingly, in the middle of the 20th century it turned toward interpretation as its central activity. But critics could not agree on interpretations and that precipitated a crisis that led to Theory. The crisis has quited down, but is not resolved.

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Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World, Revised September 2014 (2014) 42 pp.

Abstract: At the most abstract philosophical level the cosmos is best conceptualized as containing various Realms of Being interacting with one another. Each Realm contains a broad class of objects sharing the same general body of processes and laws. In such a conception the human world consists of many different Realms of Being, with more emerging as human cultures become more sophisticated and internally differentiated. Common Sense knowledge forms one Realm while Literary experience is another. Being immersed in a literary work is not at all the same as going about one's daily life. Formal Literary Criticism is yet another Realm, distinct from both Common Sense and Literary Experience. Literary Criticism is in the process of differentiating into two different Realms, that of Ethical Criticism, concerned with matters of value, and that of Naturalist Criticism, concerned with the objective study of psychological, social, and historical processes.


The description of literary form is the foundation of a revivified literary criticism. But description as I’ve come to understand it, both from doing and from theorizing about it, is more subtle and difficult that traditional criticism warrants. It is also more important, far more important. Without four centuries of painstaking naturalistic description available to him, Darwin would have had no empirical basis for his work. That’s where literary criticism is now: Lacking careful and detailed descriptions of the texts we’re entrusted with, we lack the basis for objective accounts of textual phenomena. Producing these descriptions should be a prime intellectual priority.

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Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature (2013) 33 pp.

Abstract: This is a series of notes in which I argue that better descriptive methods are a necessary precondition for more sophisticated and objective literary criticism. Description, though it does not give unmediated access to texts, requires methods for objectifying texts, methods which must be discovered in the doing. By way of comparison I discuss the role of description in biology and I discuss the use of images and diagrams as descriptive devices. Lévi-Strauss on myth and Franco Moretti on distant reading, though quite different, are up to the same thing: objectification.

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Description 2: The Primacy of the Text (2013) 41 pp.

Abstract: These notes consist of five posts discussing the description of literary texts and films and five appendices containing tables used in describing to manga texts (Lost World, Metropolis) and two films (Sita Sings the Blues, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). The posts make the point that the point of description is to let the texts speak for themselves. Further, it is through descriptions that the texts enter intellectual discourse.

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Description 3: The Primacy of Visualization (2015) 48 pp.

Abstract: Describing literary texts requires a mode of thought distinct from the discursive interpretation of them. It is a mode of thought in which various visual devices are central. These devices include: tables, trees and mental spaces, directed graphs and “sketchpads”. Visualization facilitates the objectification of literary form and objectification is necessary for objectivity. With objectivity comes the possibility of cumulative knowledge.


And as we develop the profession’s (new) descriptive foundation, we need to think about how we’re going to explain those formal features. Such explanations will necessarily be largely in the domain of psychology. For the 21st century that means the newer psychologies: cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. The first of these papers is a long formal article in which I lay out the basis of this psychology in computation. Then I have a critique of the cognitive poetics/rhetoric in the Lakoff-Turner tradition followed by general critiques of cognitive criticism and Darwinian literary criticism.

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Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608.

Abstract: Naturalist literary theory conceives of literature as an adaptive behavioral realm grounded in the capacities of the human brain. In the course of human history literature itself has undergone an evolution that has produced many kinds of literary work. In this article I propose nine propositions to characterize a treatment of literary form. These propositions concern neural and mental mechanisms, and literary evolution in history. Textual meaning is elastic – through not infinitely so – and constrained by form. Form indicates the computational structure of the act of reading and is the same for all readers. Over the long term, literary forms become more complex and sophisticated.

Here are the nine propositions, without commentary or explication, listed in the order in which they were introduced in the main text.
1. Literary Mode: Literary experience is mediated by a mode of neural activity in which one’s primary attention is removed form the external world and invested in the text. The properties of literary works are fitted to that mode of activity.

2. Extralinguistic Grounding: Literary language is linked to extralinguistic sensory and motor schemas in a way that is essential to literary experience. 
3. Form: The form of a given work can be said to be a computational structure.

4. Sharability: That computational form is the same for all competent readers. 
5. Character as Computational Unit: Individual characters can be treated as unified computational units in some, but not necessarily all, literary forms. 
6. Armature Invariance: The relationships between the entities in the armature of a literary work are the same for all readers. 
7. Elasticity: The meaning of literary works is elastic and can readily accommodate differences in expressive detail and differences among individuals.
8. Increasing Formal Sophistication: The long-term course of literary history has been toward forms of increasing sophistication.
9. Ranks: Over the long-term literary history has so far evolved forms at four successive cognitive ranks. These are correlated with a richer and more flexible construction of the self.

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The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science (2013) 43 pp.

Abstract: In More Than Cool Reason Lakoff and Turner offer a global reading of “To a Solitary Disciple” (by William Carlos Williams) in terms of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT). The reading itself is independent of CMT; any competent literary critic could have done it. Their attempt to explain the relationship between that reading and the poem using CMT is at best problematic and does not seem to be metaphoric as specified by the terms of CMT. Rather, their reading takes the form of little narrative that has the same form as one they attribute to the poem. Beyond the critique of Lakoff and Turner, this paper makes some observations about the poem and suggests that it has a ring form: A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’. Two sentences by Hemingway and a poem by Dylan Thomas are discussed in counterpoint with “To a Solitary Disciple.” Two appendices discuss ontological cognition in relation to Williams’ Paterson, Book V and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

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On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form (2015) 73 pp.

Abstract: While literary criticism based on cognitive, evolutionary, and neuropsychology has been relatively successful in addressing a wide variety of issues in theory, poetics, and narratology, it has been less successful in accounting for individual literary texts (practical criticism). Moreover it has been unsuccessful in identifying issues where practitioners of those psychological disciplines can benefit from literary criticism. As long as literary criticism remains grounded in discursive thought, where the primary thinking is captured by the prose on the page, it will not be of much value to disciplines where much of the critical thinking takes place in the forms of experimental design, execution, and data analysis, mathematical and formal models, and computer simulation. Furthermore, these newest forms of literary criticism have neglected computation as a model for mental processes, yet that is what precipitated the cognitive revolution. Properly understood, a computational view allows us to treat literary form as the trace of a computational process. It thus follows that literary critics should be producing detailed analytic descriptions of literary texts. Finally, the subjective activity of interpretation should be recognized as a separate intellectual activity and should reincorporate the normative activity (criticism proper) that it has put at arm’s length.

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On the Poverty of Literary Darwinism (2015) 45 pp.

Abstract: The central thesis of literary Darwinism is that literary culture is best considered as a biologically adaptive human capacity. Consequently, evolutionary psychology is the central psychology tool kit to be employed in examining literary phenomena. In practice, this has resulted in some interesting theoretical statements, some quite sophisticated. But it has also given us practical criticism that is rather pedestrian. This document has been compiled of six different articles written over a period of years, including one extensive formal essay-review, and a variety of shorter pieces.

Computational Criticism

The first of these four papers is a blog post in which I argue that digital criticism (aka distant reading) is the most important current development in literary criticism? Why? Because it’s the only mode of criticism that’s producing fundamentally new kinds of observations (things to be explained) and the only mode of criticism that forces us to think in modes other than discursive argumentation in prose.

The second of these four papers is also the oldest in this whole bunch. Think of it as a time capsule from forty years ago. It outlines a vision of computational criticism that is still in the future, a future so indeterminate that I won’t venture to guess when and where we might run into it. It’s a future in which computation converges on the psychology I outline in the morphology paper that heads up the previous section.

Think of the third and fourth papers indicating paths and approaches connecting the first two.

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The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age, 3 Quarks Daily, May 5, 2014

In lieu of an abstract, the opening paragraph: As far as I can tell, digital criticism is the only game that's producing anything really new in literary criticism. We've got data mining studies that examine 1000s of texts at once. Charts and diagrams are necessary to present results and so have become central objects of thought. And some investigators have all but begun to ask: What IS computation, anyhow? When a died-in-the-wool humanist asks that question, not out of romantic Luddite opposition, but in genuine interest and open-ended curiosity, THAT's going to lead somewhere.

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William Benzon and David G. Hays, Computational Linguistics and the Humanist. Computers and the Humanities 10: 265 - 274, 1976.

Abstract: I co-authored this piece with David Hays. It was published in 1976 in what was then Computers and the Humanities and is a review of the computational linguistics literature. At the end we imagined Project Prospero, a computer simulation of the human mind with which we could simulate reading a literary text. It wasn't possible to do such a thing then, and it still isn't, but as a way of thinking about literature it's a thought-experiment worth resurrecting.

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Beyond Quantification: Digital Criticism and the Search for Patterns (2014) 27 pp.

Abstract: Literary critics seek patterns, whether patterns in individual texts or patterns in large collections of texts. Valid patterns are taken as indices of causal mechanisms of one sort or another. Most abstractly, a pattern emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment. An ecological niche is a pattern “traced” by an organism in its environment. Literary texts are themselves patterns traced by writers (and readers) through their life worlds. Patterns are frequently described through visualizations. The concept of pattern thus dissolves the apparent conflict between quantification and meaning, for quantification is but a means to describing a pattern. It is up to the critic to determine whether or not a pattern is meaningful by identifying the mechanism that produced the pattern. Examples from Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad.

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Toward a Computational Historicism: From Literary Networks to the Autonomous Aesthetic (2014) 27 pp.

Abstract: Stephen Greenblatt has identified pairs of moments in literary history such that the former moment must necessarily have preceded the later: literary history has a direction. This can be explained by asserting that the later texts required computational procedures capable of operating on the objects created by the earlier procedures, in the manner of Piaget’s reflective abstraction. Beyond Greenblatt’s examples two such pairs are examined, Amleth and Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights. Also considered: Heuser and Le-Khac on 19th Century British novels. Three network-based network models are considered, at macro (topic modeling), meso (Moretti’s character networks), and micro scales (cognitive networks) of time.

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