Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 2: What I got out of writing the article

So, I ended the previous episode of Rejected @NLH! circling the periphery the discipline, thinking about sending an article in over the transom. Well, of course, I did so, and here it is:

Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,

What did I get out of it beyond – sigh – rejection? What did the writing do for me independently of its reception?

What’s in the article

For the most part the article was assembled from existing materials. Here’s a list of the section headings from the typescript I submitted:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering
Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour
Computational Semantics: Network and Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance
Meaning, History, and Attachment
Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text
If I had to I could go through that typescript section by section and identify pre-existing stretches of text that contributed to any given section. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that I simply edited the final piece out of those pages, paragraphs, and sentences – as though someone else could have done pretty much the same thing given those materials. But, except perhaps for the section on form, it would also be a bit of a stretch to say that I had to develop any new ideas or conceptualizations for any section.

No, what I got from the article emerged from seeing those various materials assembled in one place. What is it that holds them together? That’s a tricky question, as each section has its own distinct character. Whatever this article is, it is not a single argument sustained within a single conceptual framework.

If it’s not a continuous argument, what is it?

Let’s go through the list again, this time with brief commentary on each one. Here’s a list of the section headings from the article:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering – Engineering is about design and construction, form and function.

Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour – Macpherson and Attridge are literary critics who have addressed themselves to form. Latour is an anthropologist and philosopher, shall we say, whose work is increasingly interesting to a variety of humanists, but he has little to say about literature or form. I argue that form is an intermediary (between individuals) in Latour’s sense while meaning is a mediator (between individuals).

Computational Semantics: Network and Text – Hardcore cognitive science about the relationship between (computational) models of the mind and the process of reading a text. I use Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 as an example text.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text – Describes the overall form of Obama’s text and characterizes it as a ring-composition. Note, however, that such description is not a standard activity for literary critics.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance – Gathers a variety of material from recent work in the cognitive and neurosciences and applies it to Obama’s performance of the eulogy (which we have on video tape).

Meaning, History, and Attachment – This centers on remarks Glenn Loury and John McWhorter made about Obama’s eulogy and performance. This is the kind of material that constitutes current literary and cultural criticism.

Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text – Since Obama’s eulogy was a public performance I concluded with some remarks about how arguments about that public situation can be extended to the situation of individuals reading shared texts in private.
Leaving out the introduction and the coda, this is how I see those pieces fitting together:

article flow 2

The linkage between Form and Computational Semantics is pretty explicit: Computational semantics provides a way of reconciling the competing claims of MacPherson and Attridge. The linkage between Computational Semantics and Eulogy as Text is explicit to me but, alas, on rereading may be a bit obscure to a reader who’d never heard of an animal such as computational semantics. Still, having explained the relationship between an example text, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, and a computational model, one would reasonably assume the same thing to be going on in the eulogy, though I don’t actually provide a computational model for the eulogy. That’s the connection.

I’ve also got links between Form and both Eulogy as Text and Eulogy as Performance by way of Latour. Those relationships are not explicit in the text and are methodological, by way of Latour’s emphasis on the primacy of description (in Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory), though the somewhat different final section of an earlier version of the paper was entitled Description in Method. The analysis of the eulogy is primarily descriptive in character. I’m not attempting to explicate it, but simply to show how it’s put together. Similarly, the account of the performance is a description of it, both in obvious physical terms, but also in terms of (hypothesized) psychological processes.

The linkage between both Eulogy as Text and Eulogy as Performance and Meaning & History is given in this statement:
My purpose in hazarding these possibilities is to make apparent the difference between the interpretive reasoning those readings require and the analytic reasoning involved in describing the eulogy’s ring-composition. These are very different modes of thought, though directed at the same object, one with a dual nature as intermediary and mediator in Latour’s sense.
By “these possibilities” I mean some interpretive remarks by Glenn Loury which I’d just quoted. Loury is concerned about the manner of Obama’s performance as well as what he says. As for the fact that we’re dealing with very different modes of thought, let’s set that aside for the moment. I’ll return to that at the last section of this post.

A magic door?

A useful way to think the about the article can be found in a movie by Hayao Miyazaki, Howls’ Moving Castle. The castle has a magic door:


See that dial to the upper right of the door? Depending on how that dial is set, the door opens to one of four different places. When you leave the castle to enter one space you find yourself on the far side of a door in that space. When you move from that space through the door, you mind yourself back inside the castle. This article is like that, where each of the main sections is a different conceptual space. Yet, just as each of the physical spaces in Miyazaki’s film is in the same world, so each of those conceptual spaces is about the same phenomenon, literature and literary processes.

Two things hold the article together, the idea of computation and a single example, Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. The first section of the article problematizes the concept of form by offering two utterly different conceptions of it and the second section, computation, reconciles them. Think of them as being behind one door. We enter the castle though that door and can then go through the other doors at will. Behind one door we can examine the eulogy’s physical form. Another door leads us to an account of its performance. The last door leads us to readings of the text, as exemplified by remarks by Glenn Loury.

What I got out of the article, then, was simply seeing all those things together in one place. I have at various times explored each of those spaces. When I think about the discipline of literary criticism, it’s all those spaces (plus one or two more not directly relevant to this article).

What the article offered (I thought)

But what is a typical reader of New Literary History likely to get out of such an article? Think again of Miyazaki’s magic castle. The article begins in a familiar space, a discussion of form, and takes you inside the castle where you find: 1) a discussion of computational semantics (strange), 2) a ring-form analysis of the eulogy (likely strange, but straight-forward), 3) an account of the performance (variously strange and obvious), and 4) some first steps in explicating the eulogy (familiar). The reader can take in the familiar material and use it as a base from which to examine the strange material.

By “strange” I don’t simply mean “not seen before”. Every article offers the reader something they’ve not seen before; that’s the point of reading the article, to learn something new. The strangeness here is strangeness of kind. Literary critics do not ordinarily encounter anything like computational semantics; it’s a different conceptual world. And so it is with the psychological and neural material I marshal in discussing Obama’s performance. Even the ring-form analysis is likely to be strange in kind to most contemporary critics, though it’s not new to literary criticism.

At this point I want to recall the passage from Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) that I invoked earlier. Culler was proposing a type of literary study that “would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). The typical reader of NLH, I would imagine, is steeped in a criticism that “discovers or assigns meanings” but is likely to have little experience with one that “strives to define the conditions of meaning” and perhaps even has trouble imagining such a strange beast. THAT is the strangeness of my article.

I can imagine that some readers of NLH might object to my assertion that their mode of criticism does not, in fact, strive to define the conditions of meaning. That’s a discussion we could have, but not here, not in this series. Yet it is clear that whatever it is that Culler was imagining when he was sketching out a structuralist poetics, that has not happened, except perhaps in narratology (and it is my impression that narratology has been more richly developed in Europe that in North America). And what I undertook in the 1970s, to develop a poetics under the aegis of the cognitive sciences, that would be even stranger to readers of NLH, and, for that matter, its is strange to current practitioners of cognitive poetics [1].

My article thus gives people a chance to examine options that were before the profession back in the 1970s, but that were largely abandoned.

Latour and Ontological Pluralism (Modes of Existence)

Let’s conclude by picking up a line of thought I set aside awhile back, where I’d mentioned that interpretative reasoning about Obama’s eulogy and descriptive analysis represent two distinct modes of thought, which are, however, directed at the same object. Latour talks of modes of existence, where each mode has its characteristic “felicity conditions” (a term he has from ordinary language philosophy). Those conditions determine which “beings” are real within that mode. Applying the felicity conditions appropriate to one mode to the beings of another mode would be a mistake. That, I believe, is the kind of thing the late Stephen Jay Gould had in mind when he talked of science and religion as constituting two non-overlapping magisteria [2].

The idea is not new to Latour, and is one which I’ve explored under various headings [3]. It is at the center of his most recent project, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Harvard 2013). While I’ve not read that book, nor followed the project online, I have read, and blogged about, Latour’s work on this matter [4]. As I understand it, Latour hypothesizes 15 modes, subject to revision by subsequent work.

All human work takes place under one of those modes. Latour’s got one mode for religion (REL); perhaps that’s where we place Obama’s eulogy, for it took the form of a sermon in the African-American vernacular. Literary texts, and perhaps all artistic production would be fictions (FIC) [5]. It’s not at all obvious how Latour would treat literary criticism; perhaps it arises through reference (REF) [6]. It is my general impression that Latour’s system is not sufficiently fine-grained for my present purposes [7]. The argument I am pursuing here, however, is that literary criticism involves distinctly different modes of thought, and we must be cognizant of that fact [8].

As I’ve said, my point generally is that interpretive criticism is one mode of thought (being, or existence). It is to be judged by one set of felicity conditions. Poetic analysis, however, is judged by a different set of felicity conditions. Determining or explicating the meaning of a text is a distinctly different kind of activity from trying to figure out how it works (in terms of theories and models about signs, language, cognition, affect, whatever). The discipline of literary criticism as been build around the reading of, the interpretation of texts, not around a poetics, whether that poetics is structuralist, cognitive, neural, evolutionary (Darwinian), whatever.

In his contribution to the NLH double-issue on Latour, Michal Witmore discusses the emergence of digital humanities [9]. In particular, he is interested in computational criticism of Shakespeare, and takes Shakespeare’s genres as his case study. He begins by invoking the divide between the sciences and the humanities and goes on to remark:
Latour’s narrative of the modern bifurcation of knowledge sits in provocative parallel with the narrative of humanities-in-decline: what humanists are trying to save (that is, reflexive inquiry directed at artifacts) was never a distinct form of knowledge. It is a province without borders, one that may be impossible to defend. We are now in the midst of a further plot turn with the arrival of digital methods in the humanities, methods that seem to have strayed into our province from the sciences. (p. 353)
A bit later: “Latour urges readers to see that the protocols for knowing nature and knowing ourselves are both bound up in a process of composition: elements of the world must be set up alongside elements of our thought, as it were, in a single line of type.” In consequence, he urges us “to see that the protocols for knowing nature and knowing ourselves are both bound up in a process of composition: elements of the world must be set up alongside elements of our thought, as it were, in a single line of type” (354). Witmore goes on to argue that the digital humanities constitute one of those many hybrids that Latour has talked about, hybrids constituted across the false nature/culture dichotomy (355).

I would argue that, independently of the digital humanities, a literary criticism that encompasses both a hermeneutics and a poetics is also a hybrid, and that independently of whether or not the poetics aspires to science (a question of little interest to me [10]). Interpretive inquiry must necessarily position itself “inside the text” as it were. It is subjective, not primarily in the epistemological sense (of being different from one person to another, perhaps wildly so), but in the ontological sense of simply being experienced by a subject [11]. Poetic inquiry, in contrast, is launched from “outside the text.” Poetic inquiry is more ethnographic or psychological in kind.

My article is thus a hybrid between external examination of texts, a Shakespeare sonnet, Obama’s eulogy, and internal explication of it (via Glenn Loury). As we will see in a later post, the reviewer could see little point in the external examination. Before we get to that, however, I want to take a quick look at the process by which literary criticism became a discipline focused primarily on the insides of texts, their meanings. That’s the topic of my next post, “Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975”.


[1] See my working paper, On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form, Working Paper, December 2015, 73 pp., URL:

[2] See the Wikipedia entry, Non-overlapping_magisteria, URL:

Here’s the first paragraph of that entry:
Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is the view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the "nets" over which they have "a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority," and the two domains do not overlap. He suggests, with examples, that "NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism" and that it is "a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria." Still, there continues to be disagreement over where the boundaries between the two magisteria should be.
[3] Most generally, under the rubric of abundance, a term I have taken from Paul Feyerabend. This links to my posts tagged with that label, URL:

You might also look at posts tagged with behavioral mode, URL:

And then we have those tagged with Latour-modes, URL:

There will be considerable overlap among those posts.

[4] These posts might be the most immediately useful:

Latour’s Modes of Existence, New Savanna (blog), May 30, 2012, URL:

Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence, New Savanna (blog), June 21, 2012, URL:

Background to Pluralism, New Savanna (blog), June 24, 2012, URL:

[5] See Patrice Maniglier, “Art as Fiction: Can Latour’s Ontology of Art be Ratified by Art Lovers? (An Exercise in Anthropological Diplomacy)”, trans. Stephen Muecke, New Literary History, Vol. 47, Nos. 2 & 3, 2016, pp. 419-438.

[6] See my discussion of science in my post Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence, New Savanna (blog), June 21, 2012, URL:

[7] I assert this point in a short post, Realms and Modes, Toward a Robust Understanding of Culture, New Savanna (blog), January 4, 2013,

More generally, see my working paper, Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches, Working Paper, January 2013, 86 pp., URL:

[8] On realms of literary being, see Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 3: The Reality of Fictional Objects, New Savanna (blog), August 14, 2012, URL:

[9] Michael Witmore, “Latour, the Digital Humanities, and the Divided Kingdom of Knowledge”, New Literary History, Vol. 47, Nos. 2 & 3, 2016, pp. 353-473.

[10] See my old post, I don’t give a crap about science, New Savanna (blog), May 23, 2014, URL:

[11] William Benzon, Subjectivity vs. Objectivity in the epistemic and ontological senses (John Searle), New Savanna (blog), October 26, 2016, URL:

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