Sunday, November 27, 2022

The spirit of the staircase

A short email exchange about computational literary studies, since Leiter realized who I was and blocked my response—I didn't try very hard to hide—and I still blew the chance to make what's now the best one. 

I dealt with Moretti years ago (use google for Moretti and Cosma Shalizi) but things have changed. Now it's enough to say that if Moretti thinks that we should "stop reading books", then maybe the "counting, graphing, and mapping" he prefers should be directed towards the works of Moretti, Pogge, Ludlow and McGinn, to help us to understand the correlation of pedantry and sexual harassment

I've said it all before but not about Moretti's technophilia. He makes it easy, but I'd missed it.

The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures.”

Moretti and his brother need to sort this one out.

And this ties to Leiter again. 

"Should one not teach philosophers guilty (or possibly guilty) of sexual harassment?" 

Is it still teaching philosophy if it includes subtext?

I should add my side of the email exchange. I will, later.

Dean C. Rowan responding to me at Leiter's
Collini does not mention one avenue of literary research that is inviting increasing traffic: computational literary studies (CLS). I wonder whether Guillory treats it. CLS does at least purport to say what one species of "research" should look like, and its proponents argue that it is necessary as a corrective to traditional literary criticism, which ultimately relies on subjective judgment. For a good starting point, see Nan Z. Da, "The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies" in Critical Inquiry, v.45, no.3, spring 2019. Da's article is useful, because it surveys a number of computational techniques deployed by CLS researchers, and also because it spawned an interesting debate about the accuracy of Da's criticisms. CLS springs from increases in computing power and efficiencies, but also from reaction to New Critical prescriptions of "close reading." Franco Moretti's Distant Reading is perhaps the leading text in this respect. So here we have a fork off of the tradition of Anglo-American literary studies whose object is no longer "the" literary text and whose purpose is no longer the achievement of a balance of interpretive factors--intention, history, biography, form, and so forth--to render a meaningful reading of the text. Rather, the object of CLS is expansive bodies of literary texts unreadable as such by any individual scholar. The outcome of a successful CLS study should be to tell us about formerly unacknowledged objective literary characteristics of the aggregate texts. Da has plenty to say about how reliably this model is executed. The relevance of all of this to the OP is that CLS, having the trappings of "objective" study, imports to literary studies a quality of professional discipline evidently wanting in traditional literary criticism.

I can't imagine philosophy deploying anything like a CLS. To do so would turn the study of philosophy into the study of the literature (or aggregate texts) of philosophy. But I've been blabbing here for a couple days. Thanks to Hello Again for chiming in. Anybody else?
From my email, with small changes, repeating old arguments
The end to subjectivity is a fantasy of fundamentalists—Scalia, "the constitution as I interpret it is a dead constitution"—leaving only the elite the luxury to indulge. "My subjectivity is truth"

Gombrich, Art and Illusion, [a longer quote here]

For the Egyptian, the newly  discovered eternity of art may well have held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer this evanescence. Perhaps it was not only as the maker of “substitute heads” and other dwellings for the “ka” that the Egyptian sculptor could lay claim to the famous appellation of “one who keeps alive.” His images weave a spell to enforce eternity. Not our idea of eternity, to be sure, which stretches backward and forward in an infinite extension, but rather the ancient conception of recurrent time that a later tradition embodied in the famous “hieroglyph” of the serpent biting its own tail. Clearly an “impressionist” art could never have served this outlook. Only the complete embodiment of the typical in its most lasting and changeless form could assure the magic Validity of these pictographs for the “watcher” who could here see both his past and his eternal future removed from the flux of time. 

There could be no more poignant contrast to this confidence in the spells of art than a passage from Plato's older contemporary Euripides that also deals with tomb sculpture. When Alcestis is going to die, her grieving husband Admetus speaks of the work he will commission for his solace:

And represented by the skillfull hands
Of craftsmen, on the bed thy body shall
Be laid; whereon I shall fall in embrace
And clasp my hands around it, call thy name,
And fancy in my arms my darling wife
To hold, holding her not; perhaps, I grant,
Illusory delight, yet my soul's burden
Thus shall I lighten...

What Admetus seeks is not a spell, not even assurance, only a dream for those who are awake; in other words, precisely that state of mind to which Plato, the stern seeker after truth, objected.
Plato, we know, looked back with nostalgia at the immobile schemata of Egyptian art."
I posted that on Leiter's page over a decade ago, when he rejected only most of my comments. He rejected it.

CLS would undermine philosophy as much as literary studies, and the humanist academy itself. If sentences are to be examined like "so much rock and foliage"—repeating things I wrote in 2006—then that applies to all writing, and all that's left is science. But taking that to its logical conclusion undermines science itself as a practice. Alex Rosenberg can't see that the neuroscience he champions undermines cognition, rendering his "ideas" epiphenomenal.

Determinism is a ubiquitous trope these days but popular culture faces it more directly than academia. DEVS and Westworld are just two examples. I included two youtube links in the reply Leiter rejected, once he realized who I was. [I didn't put them in the email]
But if we're left to accept on faith that consciousness is causal, then we need to accept subjectivity, and politics with all the mess. The humanist academy is democratic in form [It isn't. I was sloppy]; science—as mechanism—is authoritative and as authoritarian. It's a lousy model for politics, or at least an "inhuman" one.

Literature is the discussion of values as manifest in actions. That the actions are fictional is irrelevant. It's observational, which is why fantasy is deprecated by readers of "literary" fiction. Speculative and fantasy fiction is read by philosophers and engineers—defenders of truth—who deprecate literary fiction as pretentious untruth. The only pulp fiction accepted by readers of literary fiction are crime novels, which by definition are observational and descriptive. My father is remembered for one essay on Hammett.

Descriptive literature is a form of second-order curiosity, the sort of curiosity opposed by people for whom first order enthusiasm is paramount. It describes subjectivity. 
Library science is a technics. Second order curiosity is asking yourself why you chose to be a librarian. Someone could write a biography of a librarian, or a novel about a man who became one. Maybe the author has known librarians and observed their behavior, their relation to people and books, and the world, and has tried to imagine what goes on in their heads. It's speculative but grounded in empiricism and the interpretation of actions and events. My grandfather died when my father was an infant. My father had no memories of him. His father was a PI with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He was a killer for factory owners, in the US and Canada. When my parents were in grad school at Berkeley they marched with Harry Bridges' longshoremen. The contents of my father's mind were available to others only through the facts of his behavior. Facts are open to interpretation.

What's the point of being curious about other people without recognizing it as being curious about ourselves? There's no way to pretend we're not the object of our own study. The collecting of facts is a value worthy of study. The link's to Macdonald and Kazin.

"For the aesthetic in general as an expression of the supreme ultimate value of a system can influence the result of ethical action only secondarily, just as “wealth” is not the main goal but the side effect of individual commercial activity. And “wealth” itself is an irrational concept. It is an almost mystical process, the setting of ethical values: Arising from the irrational, transforming the irrational to the rational, yet nonetheless it is the irrational that radiates from within the resulting form."
Hermann Broch

William Heckscher on Panofsky. From his memorial essay at the end of Panofsky's Three Essays on Style.

Everything in humanistic scholarship, even the (to him somewhat comical) New Criticism, which he characterized with Pierrot's words, "Je sais bien écrire, mais je ne sais pas lire," he considered acceptable, so long as it was not "institutionalized."

"I know how to write but I don't know how to read" 


The Middle Ages accepted and developed rather than studied and restored the heritage of the past. They copied classical works of art and used Aristotle and Ovid much as they copied and used the works of contemporaries. They made no attempt to interpret them from an archaeological, philological or "critical" in short, from an historical, point of view. For, if human existence could be thought of as a means rather than an end, how much less could the records of human activity be considered as values in themselves. 

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