Monday, September 11, 2017

Why I’m just now seeing a quickening in The Force (in lit crit, #DH)

A short time ago I posted the following tweet:

As you can see, I was replying to Ted Underwood, who was in turn replying in a thread initiated by Max Kemman:

But what do I mean by a quickening in The Force?

What I mean is that, at long last, we may see fundamental changes in the academic study of literature. Well, that’s not quite right. And getting it right will not be easy. New things have been appearing for awhile, after all, and calls for change are not at all new. But it’s not just any new things and any new calls that move me.

Let me explain.

Back in the late 1960s I became interested in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. That led me to produce a master’s thesis in 1972 that was primarily an act of describing the poem’s form, though I didn’t think about it in those terms. I thought of it simply as doing structuralism in the mode of Lévi-Strauss and of Roman Jakobson. That was new, nor had structuralism yet been tossed into the dustbin of history.

I’d read everything I could find about “Kubla Khan”. the only essay that resonated was one by Kenneth Burke, “’Kubla Khan’ as Proto-Symbolist Poem” (from Language as Symbolic Action, 1968, 201-22). Otherwise I jettisoned the extant literature on the poem, citing none of it in my thesis. It was irrelevant to my argument. 

That was certainly a radical act, but, as I said, I thought of myself as working within an existing intellectual tradition, structuralism. Of course, change was in the air back in those days, and so forth. But I certainly didn’t see my structuralist interests as pushing me away from the profession. Nor did my teachers see it that way.

It’s only in retrospect that one can see that. Three years later Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, where he introduced a distinction between poetics and interpretation (xiv):
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.
That’s what I was up to, and I was up to it when I went off to Buffalo where I got a degree in English literature, but spent a great deal of time learning cognitive science under David Hays. I was simply enlarging the scope of literary study.

Which I was. But the profession wasn’t interested, not in structuralism, not in poetics, and certainly not in cognitive science. Even Culler himself dropped poetics. To be sure, poetics continued on, especially in the form of narratology. But it wasn’t  and isn't central to literary study.

The profession had spoken. The lines had been drawn. And the cognitive study of literature was out there in the wilderness.

What could I do? I soldiered on, doing this and that, every once in awhile checking on things in lit crit. In the mid-1990s some critics began talking and writing about cognitive literary studies. But they hadn’t made their way to the computational core of cognitive science, which is where, in my opinion, that action was. Nor had the evolutionary critics, who were on the rise at roughly the same time. Neither group of critics had much interest in form, or in description.

It was only in thinking about that work that I realized just how far outside the bounds of lit crit I had been all those years – or, alternatively, how deeply disciplinary lines had retreated in the mid-1970s. The cognitive and evolutionary critics knew that the newer psychologies were relevant to literary study, but couldn’t see their way to form nor to computation. They simply truncated the newer psychologies to modes compatible with a criticism based on interpretation. They were operating in an old conceptual space while I was operating in a different one, one I’d stepped onto with my work on “Kubla Khan”.

It wasn’t until the digital humanities came bubbling up through the ground that I sensed that others had begun exploring the land I’d set foot on years ago, though, for sure, they’re exploring a different region with different terrain, flora, and fauna. I became aware of Franco Moretti’s work in “distant reading” with a symposium held at The Valve in early 2006 on his book Graphs, Maps, Trees. I contributed to that, as did Matt Kirschenbaum, not to mention the near ubiquitous Cosma Shalizi. Moretti responded. My oldest post categorized as digital humanities is from July, 2011, Picturing the Phenomenon: What’s an Abstract Picture?. At the moment I have no clear idea about my thinking on DH between 2006 and 2011. I did a lot of blogging on cognitive criticism starting in 2012 and published The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age in 3 Quarks Daily in May of 2014.

Note the change in terminology, from “digital humanities” to “cognitive criticism”. The former term covers a lot of not very well defined ground. Much of the work done under that rubric is perfectly compatible with the old regime, the one I’d left. But “cognitive criticism” is different, and more specific. It was intuitively clear to me that much, perhaps most, of the work in cognitive criticism fits more comfortably into the world I entered years ago than into the one I left. Why? That’s what the 3 Quarks Daily article is about.

Why do I feel a quickening in The Force? Various things. A lot of people still operating within the old regime of lit crit are unhappy and looking for something new. Some of them have been calling for description, and that quite independently of cognitive criticism. That’s important, as are the rumblings of renewed interest in form. Those things have been going on for a few years, however.

Last year some cognitive critics joined up with other humanists and formed the open access journal, Cultural Analytics. We're getting warm now.

There are other things, more recent things, conversations on Twitter, specific people and events. I hear bright young voices in different quarters. But I won’t name names.

Anecdotal evidence, every bit of it. Nothing “scientific”. It’s just tea leaves, palm readings, and animal entrails tossed in the wind. Omens. Portents.

It’s just a feeling I’ve got.

A quickening.

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