Monday, February 6, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 5: What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over

The Romantic hayride I have in mind is an opposition to scientific thought dating back to the Romantics and that played a role in the way the New Critics conceptualized “close reading”. Some version(s) of this opposition remains alive and well in the humanities, though I rather suspect it’s a minority affectation, albeit an influential one. Still, this is the 21st century and this reflex is getting old.

I have no particular reason to believe that my reviewer at NLH harbored Romantic anti-science ideas. But his rejection of my discussion of computation was quasi-ideological in kind – by which I mean that, as far as I can tell, it was unreflective and uninformed by significant knowledge about computation. Come to think of it, though, that rejection may not have been fundamentally a rejection of computation. Rather, it may simply have been a rejection of any kind of thought that interferes with the conflation of interpretive criticism with reading. The diagrams I used certainly did that, but so did the discussion of Obama’s performance of the eulogy, and the audience response.

What I want to do in this, the last episode in the series, is make the point is that it is not about me, for the kinds of ideas and methods I wish to advance are hardly mine alone. Thus I want to present a passage by Haj Ross, a linguist with a long-standing interest in poetics, and move from there to a more general discussion of description, with a particular focus on ring-composition. Then I’ll take up the new kid in town, computational criticism (aka digital humanities), and return to Jonathan Culler for the conclusion.

Haj Ross and poetics

I want to step aside and look at a passage by John Robert “Haj” Ross. Ross got his Ph.D. in linguistics at MIT in 1967 under, of course, Noam Chomsky. He was and is expert in those modern ‘rithmatics that Geoffrey Hartman found so problematic because they “widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” [1]. While studying generative grammar under Chomsky, however, Haj also crossed the Charles River to Harvard where he studied poetics with Roman Jakobson. As his career moved along, and he sojourned in Brazil for awhile, he devoted more and more time to analyzing poetry and has produced a dispersed body of analytical and descriptive accounts of poems.

Here’s the opening two paragraphs of a letter he addressed to a friend [2]:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
I’m not as mystified by the discussion of meaning as Haj is. After all, I was trained to sniff out meaning and I enjoy doing so. But I understand Haj’s misgivings and I share them. It’s the problem of justifying interpretations that precipitated the disciplinary soul-searching of the 1960s and after (which I discussed in the episode, Party like it’s 1975!). But let’s bracket that.

What interests me is that Haj was arguing for the description of patterns in poems, patterns of identifiable, even countable, features in poems. I am interested in those as well. When, in my rejected article, I demonstrated that Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was a ring-composition, that was an act of description, not quite like what Haj has done with poems, but descriptive nonetheless. It doesn’t tell you want a passage or a text means. It tells you something of how it was put together, of the relationships among some of its constituent pieces.

What’s at stake in description

So let us look at description. Not only did I describe Obama’s text as a ring-composition, but I also examined the publically available video record of the event. And I pointed out that the structural center of the text was also the first time in the performance that Obama got a strong response from the audience [4]. Thus there is a specific correspondence between the group process that was Obama’s performance and the structural features of the text. That, it seems to me, is not without interest. But I was also specifically interested in the fact that the eulogy was a ring-composition and that’s what I want to focus on here.

Though I’d read about it in a 1976 essay in PMLA by R. G. Peterson [5], I didn’t think much about it at the time. It wasn’t until I’d entered in to correspondence with the late Mary Douglas that I began thinking seriously about it. She had become interested in the form in the process of studying the Old Testament and had, for example, argued that the book of Numbers [6], exhibited the form. That is, the text was of the form

A, B, C … X … C’, B’, A’

where X is structurally central and the last element echoes the first, the next to last echoes the second, and so on. She went on to deliver the Terry Lectures at Yale in 2003, in which she summarized the literature on ring composition, which was mostly about classical and Biblical texts, presented more recent examples of the form, and argued that the form was grounded in the human mind. Those lectures became a slender book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring-Composition, in 2007 [7].

Having read (and blurbed) my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil [8], Douglas knew I had some knowledge of the neurosciences and wanted to know whether or not I knew of any plausible neural foundation. Alas, I did not, but she got me thinking. I quickly discovered that two episodes of Disney’s Fantasia exhibited the form [9] and that Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 Metropolis did as well [10]. Since then I’ve identified a variety of ring-composition texts and films [11].

Meanwhile James Paxson published a critique of ring-composition in 2001 [12]. In did actually demonstrate that any specific analyses were mistaken but rather argues that the enterprise represents a triumph of critical desire over, well, that’s not entirely clear, but here’s a typical passage:
But more telling is the primacy of that tectonic center in the ring text, a center often marked by an X in the notation, ABC...X... C’ B’ A’. Ring analysts look for such linear symmetries in brief, isolated passages that comprise epics, lais, romances, or novels, and they insist on coherent linear symmetry in entire narratives, prose or lyrical, however lengthy. Ring analysts look for such linear symmetries in brief, isolated passages that comprise epics, lais, romances, or novels, and they insist on coherent linear symmetry in entire narratives, prose or lyrical, however lengthy. Ring composition therefore speaks to the desire to find bilateral or biaxial symmetry, a symmetry that might seem at times, certainly to skeptical theorists, less than perfect, often too fanciful. But to the narratological ring analyst, intrinsically bilateral symmetry cannot be denied. Her enthusiasm might obscure less than perfect bilateral symmetry, revealing at times merely punctuated anaphora or redundancy. But the ringer’s tectonic enthusiasm, the rage for order, characterizes virtually all of these symmetry-seeking exercises in critical formalism. [p. 134]
Notice the word “ringer” in that last sentence, which Paxson will use again. It’s clearly playful in a way that deconstruction will try to be, and obviously pejorative; but it’s not evidence of anything except Paxson’s sense of superiority over these hapless “ringers”. Notice that Paxson also calls out ring form analysts for their use of quasi-mathematical notation, which he cites as evidence of scientism in other passages.

What are we to make of this? It is a fact that literary criticism is a difficult, messy, and imprecise business and there is little doubt that critics have a strong tendency to see what they’re looking for. Moreover, just as Paxson has not himself reanalyzed any of the “classical”, if I may, ring-form cases and shown where they are mistaken, I have not examined them and satisfied myself about their correctness. But I do think that Mary Douglas is correct in some, though perhaps not all, of the analyses she gives in Thinking in Circles (I’ve got questions about her treatment of Tristram Shandy) and I note, furthermore, that she has given explicit criteria for identifying ring-composition.

And, of course, there is my own analytic work. Obviously I am a biased judge of that work. I also believe that it needs to be vetted by other critics, though not critics who are ideologically opposed to the project, for it goes without saying that they can find flaws with the work. In the absence of well-argued disconfirmation I see no reason to continue on the assumption that there is something to this business of ring composition.

So what?

Earlier in this series, in the episode Party like it’s 1975! [3], I’d mentioned Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design (1972) for its use of diagrams. Rose devotes a chapter to Hamlet and in effect demonstrates that the play is a ring composition. He doesn’t make that argument, but R. G. Peterson does in his 1976 literature review, “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature”, where he mentions Rose’s book in the course of discussing ring-composition and points out that his analysis amounts to an assertion that Hamlet exhibits ring-form. Yet, as far as I know, no one attempted to verify that, despite the fact that Shakespeare is at the center of the Anglophone literary canon, and that Hamlet is at the center of the Shakespeare oeuvre. Why not? I don’t know, but I’d guess, 1) because it doesn’t bear directly on questions of meaning, and 2) deconstruction was on the rise and thus ascriptions of symmetry and order in text are automatically in doubt (recall the MLN reviewer’s response to my essay about “Kubla Khan”).

Late last year James E. Ryan published Shakespeare’s Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays [13], in which he argues that not only Hamlet, but 25 other plays exhibit ring-form structure. He cites Rose, of course, but, as far as I can tell, there’s really no one else to cite on this particular point. I now own the book, and have glanced through it here and there, but I hesitated to read it. Why, given that I am biased in favor of this thesis? Because it’s been years since I’ve read Shakespeare’s plays. Without having the plays fresh in my mind, I cannot reasonably judge Ryan’s analyses, and, for various reasons, I’m not at the moment interested in re-reading that much Shakespeare. It’s too early for reviews to appear in the formal literature, but I’m not holding my breath.

Why does this matter? Shakespeare is important, not only to Anglophone literary culture, but to Western and even world literary culture. Literary critics have a primary responsibility for how these texts live in our society, though others have primary responsibility as well. How can we fulfill that responsibility if we aren’t curious about how Shakespeare’s texts are put together?

Let’s be clear; I don’t think there’s anything magical about ring-composition. I don’t think it’s an intellectual silver bullet, a key to all mythologies, a Wowie-Shazam! and Open Sesame! to the literary mind. It interests me because, 1) it is something fairly specific that I can look for and, 2) I don’t understand how it works or how it is possible. I’m guessing – and it’s only that, a guess, though a sophisticated guess – that the effort to understand how ring-composition works will tell us something more generally about the human mind and about literature.

Moreover, I don’t think that the act of identifying a text as exhibiting ring-composition somehow exhausts the descriptive possibilities for that text. Not at all. It’s only a beginning. What’s wrong with beginnings?

Finally, I note that it is in literary form that the literary mind is at its freest and most powerful. To the extent that it must somehow be true to the world in what the literary mind conjures up in its texts, it is shackled to that world. It is only in formal design that the literary mind need be true only to itself. To understand those truths we must begin by describing their traces. We must develop our ability to describe literary form, not to catalogue formal devices, but so we can describe whole texts, from beginning to end.

Digital Criticism and Computation

The time has now come to talk of digital things, of bits and bytes and ASCII code, of databases and things. Digital humanities, DH – the term is so broad as to be useless. It is more useful to talk about computational criticism, what Franco Moretti has called distant reading. Yes, I find his use of the spatial trope annoying and not particularly helpful [14], but we’re stuck with it at the moment. While it has no direct bearing on the article I submitted to New Literary History, it nonetheless needs to be discussed. Why? Because my article was about computing, as is computational criticism, aka “distant” reading.

But they are about computing in very different ways. I proposed computing as a model for (at least some aspect) of the literary mind. Computational critics use computation in their work, but they do not propose it as a model for the literary mind. When proposing computation as a model for the literary mind I was necessarily proposing it as a model for what a single reader does in reading texts one at a time – for that is how texts get read. Even in the case of an audience for a play (or a eulogy, for that matter), each member of the audience hears and sees the play themselves, though they are residually influenced by the responses of their neighbors. Computational critics typically (though, as we’ll see, not always) examine a corpus of works, hundreds and even thousands, in a given investigation. Thus whereas my use of computation impinges on whatever beliefs the critic may have about how the literary mind works, the computational critic’s use does not.

That difference is no doubt important in such acceptance as digital criticism has had. It doesn’t get directly in the “space” of “close” reading and the conceptual apparatus. And computational critics seem to never tire of asserting that their work complements, rather than competes with more traditional approaches.

That is all well and good, however...

Coining the term “distant reading” was a brilliant rhetorical gesture by Moretti, for it affords the superficial comfort of thinking about the analytic process as a form of reading, but distant rather than close. But no one who attends closely to this work, much less those who do it, can think of it as a form of reading. The methodological apparatus of ordinary close reading is simple, quotation, paraphrase, and summary of primary texts, plus, of course the application of Theory to those texts (where applicable). The apparatus of computational reading is more obtrusive. From the readers point of view we have the statement of how the database was prepared and what computational and tools were brought to bear on it. The result of those operations is typically one or more visualizations, such as those in the episode, Party like it’s 1975! [3], in this series. It is those visualizations which must then be interpreted.

No, it may be called “distant reading”, but it is not a form of reading. It is social science, and fairly sophisticated social science at that, something Alan Liu made quite clear in his (quasi-Latourian) account in “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” [15]. Computational criticism thus introduces a distinctly different kind of methodology into literary studies, one that violates the “prose only” social contract of academic criticism.

Moreover, some investigations are in fact directed at individual texts. In Pamphlet 2 from the Literary Lab, Network Theory, Plot Analysis [16], Moretti is looking at configurations of characters in individual texts (this pamphlet as 37 figures devoted to Hamlet, 10 for Our Mutual Friend, and 10 devoted to Story of the Stone, a classical Chinese text). He observes:
Third consequence of this approach: once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead: you reduce the text to characters and interactions, abstract them from everything else, and this process of reduction and abstraction makes the model obviously much less than the original object – just think of this: I am discussing Hamlet, and saying nothing about Shakespeare’s words – but also, in another sense, much more than it, because a model allows you to see the underlying structures of a complex object. (p. 4)
This is an important methodological point, very important. By drawing a network of character relationships one has created a model that is clearly distinguishable from the (physical) text itself. One has objectified an (aspect of an) underlying mechanism.

I am tempted to say that, at this point, Moretti is nowhere near the kind of computational model I posited for a Shakespeare sonnet in the paper rejected by NLH, for that is, in a sense true. He says nothing about such models and, as far as I know, he knows nothing about them. But in the larger context of “how do we think about literature?” he is not so very far away either. The fact that he is thinking about those visualizations means that he is no longer in the world of conventional discursive literary thinking. He is in a world that also includes those “modern ‘rithmatics” that Geoffrey Hartman found so distressing four decades ago [1], distressing because the interfered with the illusion of closeness so necessary to his conception of criticism.

Once you have entered the world of digital criticism you have entered a conceptual and methodological world that is more like the one in which I constructed my computational model of a Shakespeare sonnet than it is like, say, the one in which Helen Vendler investigated Shakepeare’s sonnets or, more recently, in which Brian Boyd, the Darwinian critic, looked at them [17]. If contemporary digital critics do not use the kind of computational model I adopted four decades ago, that is primarily because those models are not directly relevant to the kinds of problems that interest them. And, yes, I’m pretty sure they also have prudential rhetorical concerns. They have to work hard at convincing their more conventional colleagues that their use of computation is not evil. They do not need the extra anxiety that would be created by even hinting at the possibility that computation might tell us something about the literary mind.

But these are still early days. Do you really think that students of these digital critics will not be curious about what’s in the old (and not so old) computational linguistics literature about computational syntax and semantics or story structure? What about similar work in artificial intelligence or cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics? What do you think will turn up when you google the term “computational narratology”? Do you really think that students interested in “distant reading” are so stupid and easily and intimidated that they well never look into this things?

No, I have no crystal ball. I cannot see the future of computational criticism. But unless traditional literary critics manage to crush it entirely, sooner or later computational critics will look at the kind of work that inspired my forty years ago. The might even look at the work that got me rejected at MLN back in the early 1980s and at NLH in the year the Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States (2016).

There is one final issue. It would be a mistake to think of the computational study of literary processes to be a matter of taking an existing body of computational knowledge and wrangling literature into conformity with it. Yes, there is a wide and various literature on computation and the mind, and no one with a serious interest in it thinks that these ideas are somehow fixed. If we are to make computational sense of literature, then we are going to have to create computational ideas that fit what we observe in literature. Among other things, we are going to have to create computational regimes capable of accounting for literary forms as discovered in the descriptive investigations I have indicated immediately above. Among other things that means conceptualizing ring composition as the result of a computational processes, perhaps different kinds of computational processes for different kinds of ring composition.

Interpretation and Poetics

Let us return to Jonathan Culler, our touchstone passage from his 1975 Structuralist Poetics (Cornell UP). Here it is, in a somewhat fuller version that I have previously supplied (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage 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. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.
It’s over 40 years later and we’re still waiting for a poetics, only now we’ve got cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and the kitchen sink to use in addition to old school structuralism.

Yes, there has been work in poetics, particularly in narratology, the poetics of narrative – though it’s my impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that narratology is stronger in Europe than in America. But it is at best a poor second to forms of interpretation. My sense is that there is widespread ennui in the profession: What’s next? It’s not at all a matter of replacing interpretation with poetics, but rather of establishing a parity between the two, a parity in which description and computation (something not within the scope of Culler’s 1975 imagination) are worthy of the deepest professional respect and concern.

New Literary History is certainly on the lookout for Something New, and has placed a bet on Latour. Latour has placed brackets around critique [18], but it’s not at all clear to me that that will authorize a poetics. Rather, it is most likely to authorize a kinder and gentler interpretive regime. Kinder and gentler I like and respect, but that’s not a poetics. “Kinder and gentler” not a discipline that probes the conditions of meaning with the most sophisticated intellectual tools currently available, much less places pressure on those tools to develop new concepts and methods.

I note that NLH has recently devoted a double issue to Latour and the humanities [19]. Though I’ve not read every article word for word, I’ve read an article or three with some care and skimmed the rest. My overall impression is that, for literary criticism, there is no basic threat to the ideology of interpretive analysis as but a form of reading. That is, these essays would not authorize the kind of descriptive or – the horror! the horror! – computational thinking I advocated in my rejected manuscript, “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature”.

But then we have Michael Witmore, “Latour, the Digital Humanities, and the Divided Kingdom of Knowledge” [20], which I mentioned in the second episode, What I got out of writing the article [21]. He wrote about digital humanities, computational criticism, and talked of Latourian hybrids across the (largely fictional) nature-culture divide. I cannot but agree with the fundamental implications of his argument.

But does he realize what they are? Does Rita Felski, editor of New Literary History, realize where Witmore's practice leads? Do they realize what I have argued above, that digital humanities shatters the illusion of literary criticism as (mere) reading and leads, by stages, to thoughts of the mind as somehow in some (non-trivial) way computational? I suspect not. What I think is that the inclusion of Witmore in the Latour symposium was at one and the same time an act of Latourian diplomacy and a (fortunate) mistake.

We shall see.


[1] Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading, U. Chicago Press, 1975, p. 272.

[2] Haj Ross, Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures, online at, URL:

[3] William Benzon, Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975, New Savanna (blog), January 20, 2017, URL:

[4] William Benzon, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, Working Paper, September 28, 2016, pp. 17-18, URL:

[5] R. G. Peterson, “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature”, PMLA 91, 3, May 1976: 367-375.

[6] Mary Douglas, In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). 

[7] Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring-Composition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[8] William Benzon, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, Basic Books, 2001.

[9] See the section, “Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and
Apprentice”, in William Benzon, Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, Working Paper, November 30, 2011,, URL:

[10] William Benzon, “Tezuka’s Metropolis: A Modern Japanese Fable about Art and the Cosmos,” in Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, Steffanie Metzger, eds. Heurisiken der Literaturwissenschaft: Disciplinexterne Perspektiven auf Literatur (Paderborn: mentis Verlag GmbH, 2006), 527-545. Online at URL:

[11] For a list of texts and links to my discussions of them, see the section “Ring Composition” in William Benzon, Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri, New Savanna (blog post), December 17, 2015, URL:

[12] James J. Paxson, Revisiting the deconstruction of narratology: master tropes of narrative embedding and symmetry, Style, Vol. 35, no 1 Spring 2001, 126-150.

[13] James E. Ryan, Shakespeare’s Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays, Macfarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016.

[14] See the section “Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti” (pp. 11-14), in William Benzon, Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition, Working Paper, February 2015,, URL:évi-Strauss_on_Myth_Objectification_Computation_and_Cognition

[15] Alan Liu, What is the Meaning of the Digital Humanities? PMLA 128.2 (2013), 409-423.

[16] Franco Moretti, Literary Lab, Pamphlet 2, Network Theory, Plot Analysis, May 1, 2011, URL (PDF):

[17] Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harvard UP, 1999. Brian Boyd, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harvard UP, 2012.

[18] Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 2004, pp. 225-248.

[19] New Literary History, Volume 47, Numbers 2 & 3, Spring and Summer 2016.

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

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

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