Saturday, May 7, 2016

What’s Interesting? Is Moretti Getting Bored?

“The interesting” or “interestingness” came up in the Twittersphere in a response Ted Underwood made to Ryan Heuser:

This is something I think about from time to time – I blogged about it back in 2014: The Thinkable and the Interesting: Katherine Hayles Interviews Alan Liu – generally in connection with my own work on description and, in particular, the description of formal features of texts and films, such as ring-composition. I find this activity to be quite interesting, intrinsically interesting if you will. But, judging by what literary critics actually do, most critics aren’t particularly interested in such things.

Why not?

I don’t know. I assume, though, that I’ve got some unseen conceptual context to which I assimilate such description and in terms of which it is interesting. Whatever that context is, most literary critics don’t have it.

But enough about me in my possibly peculiar interests.

I want to think about Franco Moretti. In both a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books and his most recent pamphlet, Literature, Measured, Moretti has expressed misgivings about the current state of affairs in computational criticism. He ends the pamphlet thus (p. 7):
“Bourdieu” stands for a literary study that is empirical and sociological at once. Which, of course, is obvious. But he also stands for something less obvious, and rather perplexing: the near-absence from digital humanities, and from our own work as well, of that other sociological approach that is Marxist criticism (Raymond Williams, in “A Quantitative Literary History”, being the lone exception). This disjunction […] is puzzling, considering the vast social horizon which digital archives could open to historical materialism, and the critical depth which the latter could inject into the “programming imagination”. It’s a strange state of affairs; and it’s not clear what, if anything, may eventually change it. For now, let’s just acknowledge that this is how things stand; and that – for the present writer – something needs to be done. It would be nice if, one day, big data could lead us back to big questions. It would be nice if, one day, big data could lead us back to big questions.
What I’m wondering is if “big questions” is a marker for missing intellectual context. Is Moretti unable to see that these investigations will lead, even must eventually lead, to home truths? It’s not that I can see where things are going – I can’t – but, for whatever reason, I don’t share his feeling that things might be going amiss.

The curious thing is that, even as he expresses these misgivings in both these texts, he also expresses a certain fondness, even nostalgia, for traditional critical discourse. Thus, in Literature, Measured he says (p. 5):
Forget the hype about computation making everything faster. Yes, data are gathered and analyzed with amazing speed; but the explanation of those results – unless you’re happy with the first commonplace that crosses your mind – is a different story; here, only patience will do. For rapidity, nothing beats traditional interpretation: Verne’s “Nautilus” means – childhood; Count Dracula – monopoly capital. One second, and everything changes. In the lab, it takes months of work.
And maybe the explanation, if and when it comes at all, seems a bit weak. This, from the LARB interview:
But again, think of this: to make it better — it's a perfect expression because it's a comparative, it was good and now it's more good — this is not how the humanities think in general. It's usually much more of a polemical, an all-or-nothing affair. It's a conflict of interpretation. It's: you thought Hamlet was the protagonist of Hamlet, how foolish of you; the protagonist is Osric. Digital humanities doesn't work in this mode and I think there is something very adult and very sober in not working in this mode. There is also something, maybe especially for older people like me, which is always a little disappointing: the digital humanities lacks that free song — the bubbliness of the best example of the old humanities.
The thing is, that traditional critical discourse, the one in which the critic can construct a bubbly free song, is embedded in a conceptual matrix that is linked to some version of Home Truth, whether Christian humanism, Hegelian phenomenology, Marxist theory, or critique in its many flavors, whatever. That matrix gives the critic intellectual purchase on the Whole of Life.

That’s the context of the traditional humanities. That’s where the traditional humanities draw their interest: Life, the Universe, and All.

By contrast, computational criticism seems to have cut the cord. Can’t get there from here. The big questions seem impossibly distant, if not actually gone.

I wonder what sustained all those pre-Darwinian naturalists, the ones who went out in the field and were both content and even eager to describe the flora and fauna they found? For that matter, would Darwin have spent so much time describing barnacles if he didn’t find the activity itself interesting apart from whatever it might contribute to his larger intellectual enterprise? Could he even have found that larger enterprise if he hadn’t been fascinated by the details of the morphology, physiology, and lifeways of flora and fauna?


  1. As my tweet may have hinted, I tend to understand this as an aesthetic dilemma, more than a philosophical one.

    I'm more sanguine than I have ever been about the intellectual and historical payoffs for computational criticism. What I've seen in recent papers, and in forthcoming ones, makes me very confident that we are going to engage, challenge, and in some cases frankly refute important existing theses about literary history. Big Ideas and broad theories of the nature of literary change won't be scarce.

    But ... I also do feel the limitation Moretti is highlighting in the quotes above. Aesthetically, computational criticism doesn't very often have that "bubbliness" or "free song." There are several sources of the problem, but the primary one is that we're compelled to be very cautious. These are new methods, you spend a lot of time explaining them, then you need to prove what they can do, acutely aware the whole time that you will be accused of methodological overreach. So one has a tendency to back up every claim with a long table bristling with details.

    Which is good, intellectually, but not always conducive to writing playful, lively prose. The challenge I've set myself lately is to prove that this stuff can also be fun to read. I think it will be a help to shift from the article genre to the book genre, where there's more room to spread out, and where one can also take the liberty of casually summarizing previously published results instead of defending them in a cautious legalistic way.

    1. Watson and Crick, 1953, the "money quote": "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible mechanism for the genetic material." Hardly a bit of bubbly free-song prose, is it?

    2. Yes, beautiful example of how caution works. It's an intellectual virtue, but it sure interferes with certain aesthetic virtues.

    3. Though also a bit misleading. Literary critics have, from time to time, talked of the need for wit and elegance in literary criticism and have even argued for something like a fusion of criticism and literature. Science has different traditions and illusions.

  2. The point about Marx vs. Bourdieu is another matter. There, I think, we simply need better evidence than we have gathered yet. Evidence about sales, and about institutions of literary production, would be helpful, for instance.

    1. Yes. The mere fact that a book has been published tells you nothing about who read it and, if it took awhile to find its audience, the publication date for the first edition may be misleading. Etc.