Monday, February 06, 2006

Continuing from here.
This [] is Cosma Shalizi's article on Franco Moretti. Here's the link to Shalizi's footnote on Elif Batuman's review. That review itself is here. I've said I find the whole thing revolting. Shalizi's piece reads as if it were written by a 14 year old prodigy and Star Wars fan, in which case I'd be impressed but unconvinced.
Read the footnote first.

Why is it that some people will argue against the notion of great art by referring to the work and ideas of those they consider great thinkers?
The most liberally construed canon of Victorian English novels, Moretti continues, runs to about two hundred titles: yet “there are thirty thousand 19th-century British novels out there, forty, fifty, sixty thousand—no one really knows.” Ars longa, vita brevis—and, even if we lived forever, it still wouldn’t be a good use of our time to closeread every book ever written, because literature isn’t “a sum of individual cases” but “a collective system,” and we can’t grasp it by simply doing more of the same thing.

How, then, are we to obtain, given our meager human life spans, a godly cognizance of every last, lost Victorian novel? Moretti calls upon comparativists to practice “distant reading,” elsewhere “the quantitative approach”: a form of collaborative scholarship relying on giant utopian repositories of shared information, such that the study of literature will eventually be conducted “without a single direct textual reading.” Instead of theology, we need “a little pact with the devil”; we surrender the reading of individual texts, and in return we will get: “concepts.”
What's the point of studying the reproductive life of mollusks? It's a rhetorical question; there are plenty of answers, the most basic of which is the mere fact of curiosity, and this has a lot do with the logic of those who actually do the work. Science at close quarters is a metaphysical exercise, otherwise Steven Weinberg might have become a lawyer. As I've said, a preoccupation with "the unending search for facts" seems rather odd. Replace "facts" with "truth" and it becomes something else (or at least it seems to).

But why treat literature or painting like clams and scallops? Why treat acts of human imagination, not entirely unlike the acts of scientists, as the equivalent of natural phenomena? And is there another way to learn from such activity and from the records of such activity than to treat them and therefore in a sense ourselves as so much rock and foliage?.

As I said, begin with the footnote.
Shalizi is the kind of man who doesn't know when he's being an asshole. He begins with faint praise: “Adventures of a Man of Science", Elif Batuman’s wonderfully-titled review of Graphs, Maps, Trees in n+1 magazine, is a quite nice essay..."
Then after a long quote from the review he continues:
"First of all, it seems bizarre to say that Britain was being conquered by “industry and rationalism” in the 1890s, long after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and all its social consequences, utilitarianism, etc. (Indeed, Mr. Lecky might want to have a few words...)
The links—in the original—make for an unnecessary, and nasty, bit of piling on. He goes on about the her unscientific observations and closes: "But it doesn’t seem to worry Batuman that there is no support for this idea (yet). — Let me repeat that I like the essay." [italics in original]
The whole thing is an exercise in the badly veiled contempt of a confused schmuck.

This is something I dropped into a note in an exhange with Brian Leiter over the weekend
In the five lectures on psychoanalysis Freud says that as the result of a successful treatment repression is replaced by 'a condemning judgment'. He doesn't explain the difference between the two. What's the difference between "I don't want to kill my father and sleep with my mother" and "I don't want to kill my father and sleep with my mother?"
Is the first louder and more nervous? More declarative? More cocksure? I don't know but it's a question conceptualists can't answer. Concepts can't remove the need and the responsibility of individual judgment.In response briefly to the criticism itself: If Shalizi were more interested in culture and less in concepts he would know that the the final conquest of the world by “industry and rationalism” was a 20th century phenomenon. Ideologies are no more than the transformation of thoughts and ideas into the language of pure concept; and the 20th century was the first, hopefully the last, century of ideology.

Shalizi is not interested in people, in what they are, what they think, or how they desire. He clearly has no interest in himself, and yet because he is uninterested in himself he is unobservant of himself. As to whether cognition is computational—or whether that is simply an argument made by men with Asperger's syndrome—though I've done it before I'll do it again, some other time.

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