Monday, December 11, 2023

The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over the course of 50 years [& related matters]

 Partial update (two entries, the last two) 12.11.23
Updated 6.21.21.
Updated 12.9.19.
Updated 6.23.17.

In the course of thinking about my recent rejection at New Literary History I found myself, once again, rethinking the evolution of the profession as I’ve seen it from the 1960s to the present. In fact, that rejection has led me, once again, to rethink that history and to change some of my ideas, particularly about the significance of the 1970s.

This post is a guide to my historically-oriented thinking about academic literary criticism. Much, but not all, of the historical material is autobiographical in nature. For, above all, taken collectively, these posts represent my effort to understand my relationship to the academic study of literary criticism.

I list the articles more or less in the order of writing. In some cases a post has been rewritten and revised several years after I first wrote it. The link I give is to the most recent version.

Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life (1975-2015)

This is about my years at Johns Hopkins, both undergraduate (1965-1969) and graduate (1969-72). That’s when, I see in retrospect, I left the profession intellectually, with a “structuralism and beyond” MA thesis on “Kubla Khan,” even before I’d joined it institutionally, by getting my PhD. I originally wrote this while I was working on my PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. Art Efron published a journal, Paunch, and I wrote it for that. The current version includes interpolated comments from 2014 and 2015.

The Demise of Deconstruction: On J. Hillis Miller’s MLA Presidential Address 1986. PMLA. Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57.

A letter I published in PMLA in which I replied to J. Hillis Miller on the eclipse of deconstruction. I suggested 1) that deconstruction had a different valence for those who merely learned it in graduate school than for those who had struggled to create it, and 2) that it was in eclipse because it did the same thing to every text.

“NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive” NOT “Darwinian” – A Quasi-Manifesto
March 31, 2010 (originally at The Valve)

I declare my commitment to ‘naturalist’ literary criticism, thereby denying ‘cognitive criticism,’ with which I had associated myself for years, and ‘Darwinian criticism,’ with which I had never associated myself. Takes the form of a loose dialog.

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology

At the beginning of every course (at Johns Hopkins) Dick Macksey would hand out a chronology, a way, I suppose, of saying “history is important” without lecturing on the topic. It was with that in mind that I originally posted this rough and ready chronology in a comment to a discussion at The Valve. The occasion was an online symposium that interrogated Theory by discussing the anthology, Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP 2005). I then emended it a bit and made it a freestanding post. As the title suggests, it juxtaposes developments in cognitive science and literary theory from the 1950s through the end of the millennium.

[BTW The entire Theory’s Empire symposium is worth looking at, including the comments on the posts:]

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker

An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015)

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of the humanities for ignoring recent work in the social and behavioral sciences. He has also argued that the arts serve no biological purpose, that they are “cheesecake for the mind.” When I read his The Stuff of Thought (2007) I realized his later chapters contained the basis for an account of the arts. I sketched that out, added a brief account of why deconstruction had been popular, and published it as an open letter, along with his reply. It appeared first at The Valve (2007) and then at New Savanna (2011). In 2015 I posted it to a “session” at I took some of my comments in that discussion along with some other materials and published the lot at as a working paper. In a final section I propose a four-fold division of literary criticism: 1) description, 2) naturalist criticism, 3) ethical criticism, and 4) digital criticism.

Lévi-Strauss and Myth: Some Informal Notes

Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition

These are two versions of roughly the same material. Each was assembled from four blog posts. The first and fourth sections are the same in both working paper, but two and three differ. The more recent version also contains a short appendix comparing Lévi-Strauss and Latour. I published the first series at The Valve shortly after Lévi-Strauss had died. They are an attempt to explain what Lévi-Strauss was up to in his work on myth, why he failed, and why that work remains important. The fourth section (common to both versions), Into Lévi-Strauss and Out Through “Kubla Khan”, is an account of how and why I went from Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism to cognitive science. Warning: it contains diagrams. I suppose I could create a deluxe edition which contains all the posts.

The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age
(May 5, 2014)

Here I argue that digital criticism’s deepest contribution to literary criticism is that it requires fundamentally different modes of thinking. It is not purely discursive. It is statistical and visual. Moreover the visualizations are central to the thought process. This may also be the first time I’ve explicitly identified the mid-1970s as an important turning point in the recent history of literary criticism.

Paths Not Taken and the Land Before Us: An Open Letter to J. Hillis Miller
(January 30, 2015)

I had studied with Miller at Johns Hopkins (but have had no contact with him since). While I certainly say a bit about what I’ve been doing since I left Hopkins, including ring-composition, I also introduce him to Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis and Goldstone and Underwood, “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”. New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. I mention Kemp Malone, a Hopkins person, as he came up in blog discussion of the paper.

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 2: What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism
(August 24, 2015)

I attempt to explain what, in the end, I got out of my immersion in cognitive networks since I haven’t used them in my post-graduate work in literature. What I got most immediately was a powerful way of thinking about language in general where there is a sharp distinction between the object of thought, captured in diagrams, and a given text: The text is one thing, the model is another. There is no confusing the two. Moretti has made similar remarks about the diagrams he uses in ‘distant reading.’

Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism
(September 16, 2015)

I had previously argued that literary criticism can be characterized by five ideas:
1) Reading: The distinction between ordinary reading, which everyone does, and interpretive reading, the province of literary critics, is elided. Critics “read” texts and so create “readings”.

2) The Text: The distinction between the text as physical object (marks on pages, pages bound into books) and whatever it means and whatever it represents is elided. This is the world in which there is nothing outside the text.

3) “Form” becomes either a synonym for genre – tragedies and sonnets are forms – or a philosophical declaration of textual autonomy. The purpose of that declaration is to enable a critical practice that focuses exclusively on “the text” as its object so the critic can then “read” it. Thus “close reading” rarely involves sustained attention to a text’s form.

4) Characters are People: We of course know that fictional characters are just that, fictions. But more is at stake than that simple acknowledgment.

5) Theory as Critique: Over time the theory of literature morphed into critical theory, which in turn became Theory, though the capitalization of the initial “t” is optional.
I explicate these propositions using material developed by Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood, The Quiet Transformation of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”. New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. They based their work on these journals: Critical Inquiry (1974–2013), ELH (1934–2013), Modern Language Review (1905–2013), Modern Philology (1903–2013), New Literary History (1969–2012), PMLA (1889–2007), and the Review of English Studies (1925–2012).

How Failure Led Me to Appreciate the Importance of Description in Literary Study
(November 2, 2015)

The explains how going through cognitivism led me to explicitly think about literary form and thus to focus on the description of literary form as essential to the next phase of the discipline. We’re never going to understand how literature works in cognitive or neural terms until we can first describe the forms texts take.

Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri
(December 17, 2915)

I took a course in modern poetry from Altieri in spring semester of my second year at SUNY Buffalo. I wrote my first cognitive networks paper as a joint project for that course and for a course I was taking with David, in the Linguistics Department, who was my mentor in cognitive science. I tell my story from my undergraduate years at Hopkins, though PhD studies at Buffalo, more or less up through to the present.

Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism
(January 2017)

During the 1970s academic literary criticism experienced a centrifugal motion away from poetics and a centripetal motion toward interpretation. The centrifugal motion sought “to define the conditions of meaning” (in a phrase of Jonathan Culler’s) and looked at structuralism, semiotics, linguistics and even the nascent cognitive sciences, but was quickly abandoned. The centripetal motion elided the distinction between reading, in the ordinary sense, and reading, as a kind of written discourse explicating texts. It came to dominate critical discourse.

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism
(February 19, 2017) (PDF)

Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics).  Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

Rejected! @ New Literary History, with observations about the discipline
(February 28, 2017)

The author submitted an article entitled “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” to a top tier journal, New Literary History (NLH). The article was rejected. This working paper reads that rejection as a rejection of computational thinking that is ideological in nature rather than being grounded in any sophisticated understanding of computation. Back in the 1970s there was a brief window of intellectual opportunity when literary critics where open to the emerging cognitive sciences, but that had closed by the end of the decade. The discipline now recognizes that it needs new ideas but 1) has yet to figure out how to re-connect with the possibilities that were bypassed three decades ago, and 2) doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

To J. Hillis Miller, 2019: On the State of Literary Criticism
(September 28, 2019)

J. Hillis Miller is one of the premier literary critics in the American academy over the last half-century. He is a first-generation deconstructive critic. I studied with him in the 1960s at Johns Hopkins and then went a different way, toward cognitive science. This working paper consists three documents: 1) A letter to the editor (of PMLA) responding to Miller’s 1986 President’s address, 2) a long open letter from 2015 in which I discuss structuralism, cognitive science, and computational criticism, and 3) a chronology sketching out parallel developments in literary theory and cognitive science from the 1950s through the end of the century.

* * * * *

Finally, this post, in contrast, is a guide to (some of) my more programmatic reflections: Some Thoughts on the Discipline [Literary Criticism]
(Oct 17, 2015)
This is a listing of 14 working papers along with abstracts for each. They are organized under these categories: Bridges, from literary criticism to other disciplines;  Description, three working papers; Psychology, my own computationally informed approach, plus critiques of 'standard' cognitive criticism and literary Darwinism; Computational Criticism, four papers, including the review of computational linguistics that David Hays and I published in 1976. 
This post needs to be updated, which I will do when I've finished my working papers on the crisis in the humanities and on how I took one lesson from structuralism and the profession took a very different one.
* * * * *
Back to the main program, more or less.

Things change, but sometimes they don’t: On the difference between learning about and living through [revising your priors and the way of the world]
July 26, 2020

First example, the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989 and how that affect my sense of possibility.

Then my intellectual life, from “Kubla Khan” (1st rupture), to Sonnet 129 (2nd rupture), to the mid-90s discovery that literary scholars had become interested in cognitive science (albeit in ‘lite’ version)(3rd rupture). That third rupture forced me to rethink my intellectual history and brought me to the realization that it was form that held my attention.

Then some examples from visual culture, Zen and the Art of Macintosh, the visual nature of the world of computing, and then graffiti.

Why, in the course of an intellectual life, can it take years to see the obvious?
September 22, 2020

Discusses “Kubla Khan” and literary form, then brain-to-brain thought transmission.

Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 4: “Meat that thinks,” my personal quest
April 18, 2021

This is from a series of posts about John Horgan’s The End of Science. I talk about my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins, move through “Kubla Khan” to graduate school and computational linguistics and then on to the brain and eventually correspondence with Walter Freeman. And other matters.

The Word Illusion in Literary Criticism
May 18, 2021

“When I refer to the word illusion I mean to indicate difficulties that some specialized disciplines encounter when dealing with word meanings. The illusory quality results from the mistaken idea/intuition that, because you know what words mean, what this that or the other word means, you are in a position, in effect, to think about the semantic underpinnings of meaning. This post is about problems that literary criticism has as a consequence of the word illusion.”

This is perhaps the key issue in why literary critics were unable move beyond interpretation to analysis and description.

The changing terms of my Socratic bargain with the American Academy [and the larger search for truth]
June 19, 2021

This contains a detailed account of how I finally broke from institutionalized literary criticism in 2010. Of course, I’d been out of the academy since 1985, but I still held myself loyal to from my stance as an independent scholar. But in 2010 I gave up even that. I would no longer regard a favorable judgment from the academy as something to aspire to. In particular, I link to and quote from a “letter of resignation” I posted to the CogLas listserve on July 14, 2010.

A perverse sense of intellectual honor is driving humanities scholars to disciplinary seppuku: Some personal reflections on the book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age
June 21, 2021

In the course of a review-essay about a book, Permanent Crisis, I talk a bit about my intellectual history and how Plato’s dialog, The Crito, helped me understand and revise my relationship with the academy. 

The failure of structuralism and linguistics: Why did academic literary criticism turn its back on intellectual opportunity in the mid-1970s? [and why did I ignore the profession?]
June 23, 2021

This is the definitive version, so far, of the story of how I went one way during the 1970s and the profession when another. The profession decided to stay with interpretation while I decided to move on to computational semantics, model building, and, ultimately, the analysis and description of form. I note as well that things were wide open in the 1960s and 1970s in a way they are not now. Back then anything seemed possible. Now, nothing makes sense.

Symbols and Nets: Calculating Meaning in "Kubla Khan"
May 11, 2022

This is a dialog between a Naturalist Literary Critic and a Sympathetic Techno-Wizard about the interaction of symbols and neural nets in understanding "Kubla Khan," which has an extraordinary structure. Each of two parts is like a matryoshka doll nested three deep, with the last line of the first part being repeated in the middle of the second. They start talking about traditional symbol processing, with addressable memory, and nested loops, and end up talking about a pair of interlinked neural nets where one (language forms) is used to index the other (meaning).

Xanadu, GPT, and Beyond: An adventure of the mind
August, 25, 2023

This article recounts an intellectual journey that began in curiosity about the structure of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" in the late 1960s and has led to an interest in large language models at the present time. A close analysis of the poem revealed its two parts each to have a nested structure (think of a matryoshka doll) that suggested the operation of an underlying computational process (nested loops). That led to the study of computational linguistics (semantic networks), followed by neuroscience (Karl Pribram's neural holography), and cultural evolution. In the 2010s I began following the work that digital humanists had been doing with machine learning. When GPT-3 was released in 2020 I was ready, though it took me awhile to establish a link, however tentative, between that conceptual universe and that of "Kubla Khan."


  1. "Cheesecake for the mind"? Haha! Disagree.

  2. I watched ten minutes of his series on violence running on the B.B.C. before choking on my historical/ anthropological cheesecake and turning it off.

    Failure to engage. No definition of violence, no acknowledgement of the obvious criticism that would come from anthropology/ history and archeology here.

    Impossible to assesses as from my perspective as its ignoring key arguments. It leaves you with a very false impression, when the arguments you are familiar with are not simply demolished (which I enjoy, it means I am learning something new) but just ignored, it comes across as ignorant and somewhat arrogant.

    Like watching intellectual cheesecake. But that is an emotive perspective.

    His work is difficult to grasp as he is not engaging with the subject in an interdisciplinary way (or certainly the way I am use to reading it in both the social sciences and arts), very narrow and ill defined or at least to my eyes.

    Although clearly the broad interdisciplinary work on violence in history/ anthropology/ archeology, looks the same way to him.

    I think he frames it as a 'refusal to believe' clearly it is a refusal to engage and may not be a one way street.

    1. Yes. I can't recall what I was watching (clearly at the same time as reading this) it was a car crash, communicative fail, perfectly open to new ideas if they present themselves.