Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 1: Outside looking in on the critics table

Now it begins, my examination into the rejection of my essay by New Literary History. The essay:
Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,
This post says little about either my essay or its rejection. It is deep background to both and is mostly a quick and selective trip through my intellectual biography. First I talk about how, between early publications and where I studied, I was institutionally situated for a good career. However, I went this way, the profession went that, and that was the end of my career. That leads to a Socratic bargain, modeled on The Crito, I made in my mind and followed by my history. I end by explaining why I chose to submit to NLH.

From insider to outsider: poetics vs. interpretation

Institutionally I was ‘positioned’, as they say, on the inside of the changes percolating through academic literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. I did my undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins in the middle and late 1960s. That English Department was important, and I’d studied with D. C. Allen, Earl Wasserman, J. Hillis Miller and Don Howard. I’d also worked closely with Richard Macksey in the Humanities Center. I took I don’t know how many courses with him and at least one independent study. He was one of the organizers of the 1966 structuralist convention, the one that is used to date the beginning of the swing toward deconstruction and postmodernism, and edited the comparative literature issue of MLN, which was an important voice for theoretical adventure.

When Macksey and Donato were assembling the book from the structuralist convention Macksey invited me to write a commentary on Neville Dyson-Hudson’s piece. For whatever reason, there had been no discussion afterward his presentation, so Macksey was, in effect, improvising one after the fact. I commented on Dyson-Hudson and Macksey commented on both of us. That was my first academic publication [1]. It wasn’t much, only a page and a half, but one could hardly imagine a more prestigious placement.

I got my BA from Hopkins in 1969 (Philosophy) and an MA in 1972 (Humanities). In the fall of 1973 I went off the get a Ph.D. in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which had close ties with Hopkins. Al Cook had built that department into the finest experimental English department in the nation [2]. It was there that I found David Hays in the Linguistics Department and became part of his research group in computational linguistics. While still a graduate student I published some of that research in the special Centennial Issue of MLN, which had me coupled with Northrup Frye (who headlined the issue) and with Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Walter Benn Michaels, and others [3]. That work would become the core of my dissertation. I also published on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Semiotica [4] and on computational linguistics in Computers and the Humanities [5].

The point is simply that I was well-published early in my career and so had every reason to believe that my career would go well. Or at least, as nothing is determined in advance, that I had a good shot. But things didn’t work out that way. I was heading in one direction and the profession had decided to go another way.

1975 saw the publication of Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics; structuralism is where I was coming from (though not where I ended up going). In his preface Culler imagined 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). That’s what I was after, investigating the “conditions of meaning,” but with the tools of the newly emerging cognitive sciences.

Poetics, alas, never really happened, not even for Culler himself. Structuralism was dead by the early 1980s. The profession had opted for interpretation and relegated poetics to a secondary, if not tertiary, status. By the early 1980s I found myself professionally isolated. I was on the outside looking in.

My Socratic Bargain

It was then that I made a Socratic bargain with the academy. Of course “the academy” is not a singular institution that makes formal bargains. It’s an abstraction. And so is my bargain. It was a way of thinking about my situation.

The Socratic bargain, as I call it, is from The Crito. Socrates had been condemned to death and was in prison. His friend Crito visits him there and explains that he has made arrangements for Socrates to escape. Socrates refuses, arguing that he lived his life within the Athenian state and that it is the laws of Athens that gave his actions meaning, even though he may have criticized the state. For him to run from the state even though it had condemned him unjustly would be to undermine the foundation of his life.

I had read The Crito in my freshman year at Hopkins, but it became a real document when I declared myself to be a Conscientious Objector to military service. Plato’s arguments in The Crito are central to understanding civil disobedience as a moral act.

It wasn’t difficult for me to extend that understanding to my position before the academy. I had been effectively “exiled” for unorthodox thinking but, nonetheless, that is where my allegiance ultimately belonged, to the academy. Why? Because that was and remains the institution responsible for vetting the kind of truths that I pursue. So, I accepted my exile from the critical academy but continued my work and continued to publish.

By the mid-1980s I had lost my position on the faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had become an independent scholar. I shifted my interests away from literature,. That was easy for me to do since, in the course of studying with David Hays, I had become deeply interested in the cognitive sciences.

Just before I had lost my tenure battle at RPI Hays and I had finished a long manuscript in which we gathered a wide variety of information and ideas from various psychological disciplines under the rubric, “Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence.” We were turned down by the first journal we’d submitted to, but the second one, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, accepted it after a three-year review process [6]. That began a decade long association with the journal (which changed its name to Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems in the early 1990s) where Hays and I, jointly and individually published a series of articles and book reviews on cultural evolution.

During that period Richard Friedhoff and I published Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution (Abrams, 1989), which was widely reviewed. While not an academic monograph, it was nonetheless a serious look at computer graphics and image-processing that has become a minor classic. In 2001 I published Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books), which gave me the opportunity to read widely in psychology, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, anthropology, and cultural history.

In the first decade of the new millennium I published four articles on literature in PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, a new refereed journal. I chose PsyArt because 1) it was new, and 2) it published online. One problem I’ve always had is an affinity for pieces that are too long for journal publication but too short for monograph. The fact that PsyArt published online eliminated that problem. All four articles were long, 20,000 words or more, and contained diagrams (another headache for traditional hardcopy publication). In those articles I anticipated the profession’s emerging interest in description and in form while at the same time developing a distinct approach to the use of cognitive and neuropsychology.

During that period my friend and colleague, the late Tim Perper, got me interested in manga and anime, Japanese comics and animation, respectively. I ended up publishing three reviews in the early issues of Mechademia, a new academic journal, and two essays on Osamu Tezuka in edited collections. But I have also been blogging about manga and anime, and everything else that interests me.

This is not the place to recapitulate my blogging history – you can find that in a working paper [7]. What’s important is that emergence of the Internet has made it easy to get ideas out without being dependent on traditional hardcopy means. That fact has one set of implications for traditional journalism, newspapers and magazines, and trade publishing, and a different set of implications for academic publishing. Not only do I blog extensively, but I also publish working papers though, Social Science Research Net (SSRN), and ResearchGate.

I don’t need the scholarly literature in order to communicate my ideas to others, scholars as well as interested citizens. Neither does anyone else. When I submitted “Sharing Experience” to New Literary History I also posted it to In this context why then do I even care about publishing in NLH or, for that matter, any other academic journal?

Because the academic world remains the institutional locus of a certain kind of intellectual work. I do a lot of that kind of work and so I care about institutional recognition. The fact that people read my work online and download my papers is gratifying, but it is not recognition by the institution to which I apprenticed myself when I entered graduate school. I want recognition.

But not only that.

I want to help the academy by providing ideas. There is a widespread feeling in the literary academy that things are not quite right. The thrill and excitement that was there in the last half of the previous century is now gone. How do we move forward?

Well, I have some suggestions for you, lots of them. I know about description and form, and I’ve got a fairly deep understanding of the newer psychologies, an understanding which differs in important respects from existing cognitive and evolutionary approaches. I want to join the conversation. I want to be helpful. I can’t really do that from the outside.

But why New Literary History?

For one thing it is a prestigious journal with, I assume, a relatively large readership. Prestige confers recognition, but more importantly, it increases the likelihood that my ideas will be taken seriously and, you know, actually be used.

But why would I think that NLH would be at all likely to accept an article in which I lay out some of my special sekret sauce? For one thing, they’ve been publishing some interesting articles. Several years ago NLH published Joseph Carroll’s “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism” (Vol. 41, no. 1, 2010, 53-67). While I am no fan of literary Darwinism, I can respect NLH’s decision to publish an article that, in effect, hopes for the eclipse of most existing literary criticism. More recently they published Marco Caracciolo, “Cognitive Literary Studies and the Status of Interpretation: 
An Attempt at Conceptual Mapping” (Vol. 47, no. 1, 2016, 187-207). While Caracciolo’s is not my style of cognitive criticism I can certainly sympathize with his assertion that “cognitive literary study can come into its own only by reconsidering, and to some extent moving beyond, the practice of interpretation” (188).

And then there’s Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood, “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us” (Vol. 45, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-384). That’s a wonderful article, one which I read with some care, and which blogged about [8]. On the one hand it gives us new insight into the development of the profession, which is while I will call on it later in this series. But it is also an example of computational criticism (aka digital humanities) and, as such, is a bit daring for such a mainstream journal.

And finally we have NLH’s advocacy of Latour. Several years I blogged my way through Reassembling the Social and collected those posts into a working paper [9]. NLH likes Latour. I like Latour. What’s not to like?

Go for it. And I did.


[1] William Benzon. Comment on Dyson-Hudson's essay on "Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown," in Macksey and Donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 244 - 245.

[2] See Bruce Jackson, “Buffalo English: Literary Glory Days at UB,” Buffalo Beat, 26 February 1999. Online

[3] William Benzon. Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics. MLN 91: 952-982, 1976.

[4] William Benzon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Semiotics of Ontology. Semiotica 21: 267 - 293, 1977.

[5] William Benzon and David G. Hays. Computational Linguistics and the Humanist. Computers and the Humanities 10: 265 - 274, 1976.

[6] William Benzon and David G. Hays. Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 293 - 322, 1988.

[7] William Benzon. Personal Observations on Entering an Age of Computing Machines. Working Paper. November 2015, pp. 51.

[8] Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism, Blog post, New Savanna, September 16, 2015,

Topic Analysis: Goldstone & Underwood and the "economy" of word distribution across topics, Blog post, New Savanna, September 24, 2015,

Goldstone and Underwood, #149: Foreign Language Education, Blog post, New Savanna, September 25, 2015,

[9] You can access my Latour posts (71 of them, though some of those only mention him) at this URL,

I’ve got several working papers. Reading Latour: Reassembling the Social, October 12, 2011, pp. 61,

This next one is more inspired by Latour than an investigation, explication, and application of his ideas: Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches, January 2013, pp. 86,

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