Monday, January 23, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 4: Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History

I’ve been discussing a manuscript of my that was rejected at New Literary History:
Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,
In previous posts I’ve laid some groundwork, first discussing why I decided to submit to NLH, then positioning the article within my larger intellectual project, and, most recently, recounting the history of literary criticism in the 1970s as it moved from openness to closure.

That brings us to 1980, when I decided to submit an essay about “Kubla Khan” to MLN. It was turned down on the basis of a deeply conflicted set of reviewer’s comments. Some of those comments are resonant with comments made by the reviewer who rejected the current essay for NLH. It’s that resemblance that, in part, prompted me to once more re-examine the 1970s and to write this series of posts.

In this post I begin by telling the story of being rejected at MLN. Then I discuss my rejection at NLH, in two parts. In the first part I discuss the similarities between the two rejections. In the second part I suggest that the NLH reviewer is skeptical about computing for reasons that seem more ideological than the result of well-informed study.

“Kubla Khan” – Rejected at MLN

In 1972 I filed a master’s thesis with the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. I forget the exact title, but it was a more or less structuralist analysis of “Kubla Khan,” the work that prompted me to go all-in on the emerging cognitive sciences (though the term, “cognitive science”, wasn’t coined until 1973). It wasn’t until 1980 that I decided to publish that work. I deleted a lot of the philosophical discussion, added some new diagrams of a style owing more to cognitive science than structuralism, and sent it out under the title “Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of ‘Kubla Khan’.” By that time I’d ceased thinking of myself as a structuralist, after all I written a 1978 dissertation entitled “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory”, but I presented the paper that way because I figured that a literary audience would at least recognize structuralism.

But where should I submit it? No one was publishing essays like that.

I decided to submit to the comparative literature issue of MLN. The basic reason was simple; Richard Macksey edited that issue and he’s the one who directed that master’s thesis. Moreover the comparative literature issue publishes theoretical pieces, which this more or less was. And, of course, MLN had published my first cognitive networks piece in the special Centennial Issue, “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics” (MLN 91: 952-982, 1976).

So I submitted the piece to MLN. Macksey had to turn it down because the reviewer’s report was unfavorable. The reader noted that “I found myself teetering on the edge of Kubla’s girdling wall, uncertain whether to tip one way and fall into Benzon’s enchanted ground, or the other way and run from his tables and charts”. Note the reviewer’s alarm at the diagrams [1], which were somewhat more complicated than the one’s that Mark Rose had apologized for in Shakespearean Design back in 1972 [2]. The reviewer goes on to register “surprise at encountering a straightforward, unembarrassed structuralist analysis” in the deconstructive era.

Yet the reviewer acknowledges that those same charts “have a real value in coming to terms with the text, and I will no doubt refer to them when I teach the poem.” That strikes me as a very strong positive remark, a clear statement of his approval. After all, you don’t – at least I didn’t – ordinarily base your teaching on far-out crazy ideas; you are conservative in what you present to students. The reviewer went on, however, to complain that the essay “ought to argue with itself, to put into question some of the patterns it establishes – or better, perhaps to let the poem talk back.” And after this that and the other, they [yes, I know, but I prefer that usage to the more awkward “his or her”] flatly recommend against publication, no chance for revision.

It was a strange and conflicted review. The analysis seems to have made sense to the reviewer but did so in terms so at odds with their sense of the proper (deconstructive) way to approach a poem that they were in the grip of cognitive dissonance. It shouldn’t have made sense at all. But it did, gosh darn it! What to do? The easiest way to resolve that dissonance was simply to wish my article out of existence, that is, to reject it. Whatever Macksey himself may have thought about the article, he had little or no choice but to follow the reviewer’s advice and reject it.

And you know, come to think of it, since I knew Macksey personally, I called him up and we discussed the rejection. I don’t recall the discussion in any detail, though I remember that his wife, Catherine picked up the phone, but it was amiable. Macksey acknowledged the review was strange, but I didn’t push him on it. And that was that. But I’m not in a position to call Rita Felski, the editor of NLH.

Rejection at NLH

The reviewer at NLH didn’t express any such conflict or ambivalence. The rejection was firm and unequivocal. That’s quite clear. Beyond that, however, I’m a bit up in the air since I don’t know who the reviewer was and so have no sense of what they know. In particular, what do they know of computing, which is how I framed by article?

Some remarks were reminiscent of that rejection of 30 years ago. Here’s the second paragraph (of two) of the review. Pay particular attention to the passage I’ve highlighted (the numbers refer to pages in the submitted draft, which do not correspond to pages in the publically available draft, which I formatted differently):
The introductory discussion of form feels rather thin and does not clarify why one needs computation to recognize the (uncontroversial) points that literary forms are physical (3), shaped by context (4), or dynamic, sharable, or elastic (4-5). The Shakespeare and Obama examples don’t add much to the argument; the combination of diagrams and pattern tracing seems reminiscent of old school structuralism and it’s hard to see how such an approach illuminates our understanding of either example. The later discussion of the Obama speech as a collective event also contains, as the author notes, some fairly self-evident points (18); here again it’s not clear why a computational model is needed to make these points. Or, indeed, to buttress the reasonable but uncontroversial claim that literary works are sites of negotiation and vehicles of shared meaning (21). The essay repeatedly declares the importance of computational models, but fails to makes its case through a sustained argument. There are a few token references to Latour, but it’s hard to see their relevance.
There we have it, diagrams and “old school structuralism” – so far in the past, we’ve grown way beyond that now, haven’t we? Structuralism had been eclipsed by the time I’d submitted that “Kubla Khan” in 1980 essay and now, thirty years later, all but forgotten.

In fact, however much I was influenced by that old school structuralism [3], this essay has few if any direct debts to it. The Shakespeare diagrams are pure cognitive science; they are of a kind I learned while working with David Hays in computational linguistics. The one Obama diagram (and a table as well) has no particular indebtedness. And yet I have no trouble understanding why the reviewer would reference “old school structuralism.” It’s quite simple, that’s one school of thought that did use diagrams; Lévi-Strauss used them extensively.

It is pretty clear to me that the essay involved a style of thinking that was foreign to the reviewer, though that’s not what the viewer said – not quite. Why do I believe this, given that I really don’t know who reviewer is? I have been around awhile and am familiar with a wide variety of work and have interacted with a variety of thinkers from different disciplines over the years. On the basis of this experience my default assumption about literary critics, including critics who are interested in cognitive criticism [4], is that computational thinking is foreign to them, it’s foreign to the discipline. While NLH has been be exploring new avenues, something I discussed early in this series [5], I’ve not seen anything in NLH (or, for that matter, in any other literary journal) like the article I submitted. I figure the reviewer has had little or no experience dealing with that kind of material.

This reviewer seems to think that I was invoking computation in order to make those various obvious points (listed before and after the highlighted passage). Not at all. Rather, I was using it as a way to begin thinking about those matters in new ways, ways in which diagrams are important conceptual tools, something I’ve also discussed [6].

Every inquiry has to start from a base of assumptions. Some of those assumptions may be “pure” assumptions, while others may be propositions that have been explicitly argued in neighboring inquiries. The reviewer may be content to assume those various things but I am not, nor do I think literary criticism can afford in general to allow those assumptions to be unexamined. Those matters need to be investigated and I was proposing ways to investigate them.

And so I find myself once again quoting that same passage from Culler’s Structuralist Poetics, the one about the need for “a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). That’s why I talk about computation in the essay, as a conceptual tool for investigating the conditions of meaning in a what that the discipline hasn’t yet done, in a way that some critics glimpsed, however distantly, in the early 1970s, and then backed away from – a history I’ve reviewed in a previous post (see [2]).

For whatever reason it simply didn’t occur to me to quote that Culler passage in my article. Had it occurred to me, I certainly would have used it to frame the entire discussion. Would that have made a difference to this reviewer? Of course I don’t know, but I doubt it. After all, that passage is from the “old school structuralism” that is safely in the past.

Given this incomprehension the reviewer might have said something like this:
I don’t really understand what’s going on in this essay. The author is arguing for things that seem obvious and is using strange diagrams that don’t make any sense to me. And computation? If it doesn’t make sense to me, it’s not likely to make sense to readers of NLH.
THAT makes sense to me. I don’t like it; it’s not what I would have wanted to hear. But I understand and have little trouble accepting rejection because the essay isn’t likely to make sense to the NLH readership.

What bothers me is the reviewer’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge their own limitations in the face of this material. As a consequence the reviewer treated me a bit like an unlettered ignoramus. As you might imagine, I don’t like that.

The ideology of criticism and the resistance to computing

Let us set that aside for a moment and return to reviewer’s comments. This time I want to look at the first paragraph. Here’s most, but not all, it:
This essay starts off well and it addresses some potentially interesting questions. Nonetheless, in spite of its intellectual ambitions, it comes across as rather self-enclosed and lacking the engagement with either current or historical conversations that would make it a good fit for a journal such as NLH. Why is it advantageous to use the conception of computation to think about literary processes? How does such a move speak to current debates in literary studies?
“Self-enclosed” that’s one thing. “Lacking … engagement with … conversations” in the discipline and “current debates”, that’s another thing. Being “a good fit” for NLH is a third. I’ve already conceded that one in the previous section.

But computation is itself subject to considerable debate within literary criticism, though in a somewhat different intellectual context. Consider Franco Moretti’s pamphlet, “Operationalizing”: or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory [7]. Rather than attempt to summarize his discussion, which is about Hegel on Antigone, I’m just going to jump in near the end:
Measurement as a challenge to literary theory, one could say, echoing a famous essay by Hans Robert Jauss. This is not what I expected from the encounter of computation and criticism; I assumed, like so many others, that the new approach would change the history, rather than the theory of literature; and, ultimately, that may still be the case. But as the logic of research has brought us face to face with conceptual issues, they should openly become the task of the day, countering the pervasive clichés on the simple-minded positivism of digital humanities. Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study. The time has come, to make them explicit.
Notice that it is computation that has the theoretical consequences, not the digital computer, not Baysian inference, not topic modeling, not HTML markup, not Perl, not a concordance, not visualization, not this and not that. Computation.

I note further that one of the Stanley Fish’s best known essays, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics” was originally published in NLH (1970, Vol. 2, 123-162). That’s the essay where he asserted: “What is required, then, is a method, a machine if you will, which in its operation makes observable, or at least accessible, what goes on below the level of self-conscious response.” As I argued in the previous post in this series, that is an allusion to computing, and not Fish’s only one from that period (see [2]).

Moreover I addressed other issues that are under active investigation, form, description, and the use of cognitive science and neuroscience. To be sure, the reviewer didn’t like my discussion of form, but it was there. And I spoke to description, though more by actually describing the form of a text, Obama’s eulogy, than arguing for description. And the same for the psychology; I used the psychology rather than discussing whether or not or under what conditions it should be used in literary criticism.

Thus it seems to me that reviewer’s assertion that I’m not speaking to the discipline is tendentious at best. As for self-enclosed, to the extent that that can be glossed as speaking in tongues strange to literary criticism, I’ll plead guilty.

Now let’s look at the conclusion of the reviewer’s first paragraph:
How might one respond to those skeptical of the spread of computational metaphors through the culture at large? There is, moreover, a long history of conceiving the mind as akin to a machine/calculator/computer that deserves at least brief acknowledgment.
I don’t know what to say. Am I aware of the spread of computational metaphors? Yes. Do I approve or disapprove? I don’t know. Do we want to take them case by case? What does that have to do with my arguments? Am I aware of that long history? Of course, who among us isn’t?

But here is something I did say in my introduction:
My purpose in this essay is to recover the concept of computation for thinking about literary processes. For this purpose it is unnecessary either to believe or to deny that the brain (with its mind) is a digital computer. There is an obvious sense in which it is not a digital computer: brains are parts of living organisms; digital computers are not. Beyond that, the issue is a philosophical quagmire. I propose only that the idea of computation is a useful heuristic: it helps us think about and systematically describe literary form in ways we haven’t done before.
How would that be improved by acknowledging that the philosophical quagmire goes back several centuries, to La Mettrie and, before him, Descartes, if not to the medieval golem?

No, what those two sentences signal to me is that, independently of my article, the reviewer has trouble conceiving of computation as an arena for serious intellectual inquiry. The reviewer seems to hold computing as a feature in a complex of received ideas where it functions in opposition to ... what? the human, spirit? Whatever. If so, then there’s nothing I could have said, no arguments I could have made, that would have made any difference.

In my second post in this series (see [6]), I provided a lot of connective and explanatory tissue that wasn’t in the article I submitted. Would it have made a difference if I’d included it in the article? Not if the reviewer’s objection is more ideological than reasoned.

The reviewer who rejected by “Kubla Khan” article for MLN was ambivalent and showed it. They saw value in what I did, but just couldn’t overcome their sense of deconstructive propriety to admit that the article merited professional attention. As far as I can tell this reviewer saw little value in any of it and has no awareness that perhaps they didn’t know how to read much of what I’d written.

That lack of awareness bothers me in a way the rejection itself doesn’t. As I indicated above, if the reviewer can’t make sense of the article, then many of the readers won’t either. But how can the discipline grow and change if the gate keepers are both blind to the full range of intellectual possibility and blind to their blindness?

What’s next?

Knowing what I now know, I wouldn’t have submitted that article to NLH. I attempted too much and, what’s worse, I used computation to frame the discussion. If I remove computation, what’s left? Several things, actually, but that’s a different and different kind of discussion, one that’s beside the point.

Whether or not I could have gotten some article accepted at NLH, whether or not I could get a somewhat revised version of this article accepted elsewhere – I’ve had similarly ambitions articles published in PsyArt Journal earlier in the millennium [8] – that’s not why I’m writing these posts. When it comes to individual articles and particular journals we’re dealing with a pile of contingencies around and about intellectual value.

No, this is about whether or not the discipline of literary criticism is willing and able to face the intellectual challenges and possibilities of computation as a way of thinking about the mind. The fate of particular article is worth discussing only because it presents computing in a context – the “close” analysis of individual texts – that has received scant attention within the discipline, and ... this is important ... the discipline is looking for ways to move forward. That, it would seem to, is sufficient reason to practice interpretive charity in considering ideas strange to the discipline.

The fact is, computing is not going away. Moretti is correct: “Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study.” Whether of not NLH will provide a forum for examining those consequences, that’s another issue.

I have one more piece planned for this series. At the moment my plan is to discuss digital humanities and Latour. But who knows what I’ll actually do.

‘Till then.


[1] I subsequently published the piece, Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of ”Kubla Khan”, Language and Style, Vol. 8: 3-29, 1985. There’s an online version where you can see those tables and charts,

[2] I’ve discussed Rose’s apology in the previous post, Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975, New Savanna, January 20, 2017,

[3] Something I’ve discussed quite a bit. For example, see my working paper, Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition, February 2015, 30 pp. Note in particular the section, Into Lévi-Strauss and Out through “Kubla Khan”. URL:évi-Strauss_on_Myth_Objectification_Computation_and_Cognition

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

[5] Rejected @NLH! Part 1: Outside looking in on the critics table, New Savanna (blog), January 11, 2017, URL:

[6] See the second post, Rejected @NLH! Part 2: What I got out of writing the article, New Savanna (blog), January 14, 2017, URL:

[7] Franco Moretti, “Operationalizing”: or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory, Stanford Literary Lab, December 2013, URL:

[8] I’ve published four articles in PsyArt Journal. The most recent one is a theoretical and methodological statement: Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, 2006, article 060608.

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