Moretti and the Humanities; Or, More Meta-Blogging

Franco Moretti’s proposal for a sociology of literature has been coming up in more and more (offline) conversations. More than that, some friends (enemies, rivals, etc.) have been trying to put his ideas into practice. Certainly if one is going to take him seriously one must either do that or reject them outright. As I see janedark pointed out a month ago, Moretti is not shy about insisting on the complete reconstruction of the field of literary study in the image of social science.

Thinking about Moretti’s project focuses attention on the most basic fact about literary criticism: that beyond ‘mere’ scholarship, what defines it as a distinct activity is interpretation (I was going to add the objects of lit crit as a distinguishing factor — but these days historians and sociologists read novels and poems too). To that end it has developed several specialized techniques for interpretation. Though I don’t do much of it on this blog, for a while I’ve thought that much of what even scholarly critics do is, in theory at least, better accomplished through this platform than through the usual institutional vehicles (journals, conferences, etc.), and not just because of all the obnoxious barriers to entry. To the extent that criticism is individual reflection on consumption, its ability to produce knowledge is limited by a whole host of factors: sample size, ‘bias,’ an incapacity to reliably tell when any given judgment is the exercise of taste, which is itself a more important object of study than any individual text. Traditionally the gaps and excesses of individual readings are filled in or marked out by other readings, though without the capacity to say much that is reasonably conclusive. This is not to say that interpretation is meaningless (a funny thing to say, to be sure), that social scientists don’t interpret, etc. Just that literary critics are only sporadically able to make claims that permit general evaluation.

I think these rather pedestrian, even naive observations take on a whole new significance in light of the possibility of large-scale institutional projects where entire genres and regions of literature can be ‘read’ simultaneously. Read like a computer reads – saving interpretation for the end, when the critic has a body of publicly available evidence to make meaningful (“years of analysis for a day of synthesis”). Then debates over irreconcilable differences in the always unique, personal, imaginary experience of reading stop looking like the necessary labor of a discipline groping its way to some semblance of enlightenment and begin to seem – common. That is, lacking methodology, being instead the kind of thing that ‘anyone’ could do, and does.

I would want to push Moretti’s provocation further, to include debates in politics, philosophy, ideology, and even history, where the central piece of evidence is the personal experience of a text or small set of texts. Of any genre. I’m inclined to think that these activities are common, ‘now more than ever’ since blogs connect and make public the conversations of anyone with Internet access. Such published, recorded dialogues, themselves potentially the objects of distant reading, better serve some form of statistical analysis for the same reason they enhance the experience of the participants: by being easy to access and widely inclusive.

To cut to the chase: why should anyone be paid to argue about books? One usual reply is that professors are really paid to teach, and the research is a form of social capital. But even if we reaffirm the importance of a liberal arts education, why shouldn’t the social capital of research be eliminated? It is a more or less disavowed notion of expertise that keeps not only literary study, but the humanities in general, from admitting they are what everyone says they are: the subsidization of a largely inconsequential, largely unread pseudo-elite, who claim to deserve the privilege of a ‘life of the mind’ by proving to one another they’re the best at it. The truth of course is that most professors are not even remotely free from the day-to-day stresses of the ‘real world,’ though they must still pretend to be in order to legitimate their exploitation.

It’s telling that within the academy, the arguments against Moretti’s method tend to involve defenses of reading. This is necessarily an elitist argument. Not to mention idealist. There is nothing demonstrably superior or necessary about readings provided by academics as a professional class, not only on largely discredited humanistic grounds, but also in terms of politics. Just as academics perform culture, they also perform politics, ostensibly freeing others from the responsibility by pretending to deny them the independent capacity. Just as there are expert economists, there are expert idealists, expert critics, expert thinkers. We might agree that reading and discussing the best literature and philosophy, watching the best films, are just as vital and necessary as defenders say they are, and for that reason everyone should be able to take part in the discussion on equal grounds, or at least on the basis of status hierarchies produced through practice and not guaranteed by credentials. We might go so far as to say that the published, vetted interpretation of culture by an academic is always a gesture of institutional authority, and that without accessible evidence, this authority is always illegitimate.

Though imperfect and still dependent on expert commentary in its current formulation, the no-brainer combination of Moretti + searchable digital databases further points the way to a science of culture that actually makes practical use of institutional backing, with a collectivity dependent on shared resources rather than elite assertion. Behind the cheap façade of humanist intellectualism (which is in reality its enclosure) is yet another ruthlessly exploitative service industry, the edu-factory. And again, the same applies to politics. Academic radicalism, in the sense of one who is supposedly radical in his or her capacity as an academic and not an academic who is also an active radical, is to my mind a performative contradiction, and only significant for being permitted and financially supported. As yet another type of media work, it falls under any appropriately updated theory of the spectacle.


38 Responses to “Moretti and the Humanities; Or, More Meta-Blogging”

  1. Hey Traxus–great post. I’ve been wanting to do a Moretti-inflected reading of academic philosophical work. But I have yet to work out how to do it; I’m thinking I will have to go to the econ department to get the right skill set. More thoughts later.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    it’s all a bit utopian (or dystopian depending on taste) at this point isn’t it? i’m about as far from the right ‘skill set’ as it’s possible to be. good luck with that project — though i’m surprised you said econ — not sociology or stats?

  3. I just wrote a long post and then accidentally hit back. I’ll try and reproduce it. I haven’t, unfortunately, read Moretti, so I may be missing crucial points of his argument. My worry with the attempt to turn the humanities into a science is not that it renders something like “thought” valueless (the “right to think” being a favorite formula of a certain portion of the left). Rather, I worry that it tends toward being just another techno-utopia. Of course, one could do worse than democratizing search engines and culture, and I love the Internet for that, as well as the way it has taken television media down a peg or two. Nevertheless, when I look at the ISIS people and their fantasies of digital utopias, it strikes me as utterly naive. It feels like they have completely jettisoned any materialism whatsoever, and one need only to think about the fact that the hardware for all of this data relies on the mass extraction of gold and coltan (columbite-tantalite) and the mass production in Korea or Indonesia of the silicone-coltan chips to run the machines that we love so much. Maybe one day, data will be stored and processed in air, but until that day comes, I very much doubt that we will be seeing any techno-utopias.

    Correct me if I’m completely misunderstanding Moretti. As I said, I haven’t read any of his work. This is only my take from your post, which I liked quite a bit.

  4. Sociology might do it; at my school (NSSR) there is no stats department, and I get the impression that the most ’empirically’ grounded dept is the econ dept. But… I’ll roll into the offices of both and see if there are any faculty who can help.

    Heh: I was talking to one of my profs about perhaps doing this last night at a department get-to-together, and he seemed rather interested in it, thought it might produce some usable information, etc. But his response sort of struck me: “How are you going to get philosophers to care about this? What does it have to do with philosophy?” Fuck me if I know. I guess I really am in the wrong dept, it’s not just me thinking it anymore.

  5. Alex: I think you can separate Moretti’s approach from any techno-utopic projections. He’s just interested in analyzing bodies of literature statistically, through various methods, and trying to interpret statistical patterns/changes in terms of broader historical context. That’s incredibly reductive of what he’s doing–or was doing, I think I read in his latest reply to whoever was replying to his approach in NLR that he was going to stop that sort of thing–but it is close enough for bloggage.

    As far as technology goes, we already live in a post-scarcity society. Technology is not limiting social potential… but anyhooooow that’s a different story!

  6. traxus4420 Says:

    the idea that the humanities as a whole will transform into anything like this more social scientific discipline is a bit utopian, though i think there are ‘only’ political reasons why it should be. i think any weirdness about the direction people in duke’s ISIS department are taking the ‘human scineces’ comes more from their ideological position than anything else.

    janedark’s post has a brief summary, and your university clearance will get you the NLR articles, which sum things up pretty well.

    moretti’s actual behavior have led some people i know to think he’s just fooling around — if he were a real social scientist he’d have several huge tomes of research published by now. but instead the biggest thing is the ‘The Novel’ anthology, which looks good and all but (in its translated abridged form at least) consists of experts in different subfields for the most part republishing their theories. and the timing of all this is a little irksome — he’s at the height of his profession, there’s no risk at all for him to make these arguments, and no real pressure for him to seriously follow up on them. it’s presented as a task for future generations, i.e. precarious us.

    at any rate, i’m employing it as a utopia in this post — at the very least it’s an excellent satire of the way things are in the humanities.

  7. Great post traxus4420.

    JCD: I haven’t updated this in a few weeks, but if you want a list of places to look for learning about doing quantitative stylistics (this may or may not be what you’re after), I’ve got a growing list at my site, and I’ll be updating it over the summer.

  8. abr: That’s awesome, thanks!

  9. I think I’d go about this in the other direction. The sociological imagination is, as far as I can tell, in terrible shape at the moment. The blindness or inability to understand narrative, or have any but a distant acquaintance with semiotics, among sociologists is something that has become very clear to me as I edit more and more sociology dissertations.

    I think a flow between the study of literature and sociology would be an excellent thing for both. As long as this flow is not about finding the key of keys. That, I think, is a vain quest.

    If sociology wasn’t so blind to literature, I think sociologists would be picking up on a message that I see in poll after poll – in the Anglosphere, at least, there has been a significant fall in the number of men reading novels, poetry, plays, etc. It has been a crash. And I think it is coordinate with the gendercoded rightwing turn in the countries of the Anglosphere, where conservative parties and positions find their core constituencies among men.

    Why do I relate these two factors? Because, or at least this would be my hypothesis, these conservative agenda items are increasingly things that have been stripped of their narrative bearing. Take, for instance, the Iraq invasion and occupation. One of the amazing things about it, still, is that in the U.S. and the UK, it was treated entirely from the side of the Americans or British. It wsa as if there were no Iraqi narrative. I could go on for five hundred thousand words about this, but I’ll just use one example. Chalabi, because he spoke English and knew a lot of men in power in D.C., was given an astonishing amount of news space from 2003-2006, even after it became evident that he had no base in Iraq whatsoever. Now, that an american friendly stooge might receive American friendly treatment is not strange in itself. What is strange is that there was no attempt at all to ask a basic, simple question: why? What did the Iraqis not like about him? That the answer might be: they live next to Jordan and are well aware that he is wanted in Jordan for the biggest theft in that countries history just didn’t compute. It didn’t compute because there was no novelistic vision of the Iraqis period in the American elite consciousness. Besides being color and casualties, that they have a power – call it the self, call it self-consciousness, call it whatever – that expresses itself in narrative terms was way, way beyond the ability of the Americans to comprehend.

    And by Americans or British, I mainly mean men. The gender divide on this issue was stark. That this gender happens to be the gender that has abandoned literature wholesale over the past twenty years seems to me no coincidence. Rather, you can see the narrative deficit in their thinking. Hell, I could make up a narrative intelligence scale and survey in the approved socio manner and show this, I’m pretty confident.

  10. Interesting roger: I was unaware that the decline in reading was so gender-weighted. I suppose that should have been more apparent, since by and large more women study English (and you know, there is probably something to the gender imbalance in English depts and the reflexive left-lean in politics among their students, too, insofar as these people are the people who reflect on the way things mean).

    I dunno if it’s only narrative-thinking that is on the outs in the Anglosphere. There seems to be an ascendent tendency toward data- or math-think: the stuff that is used as information appears as merely there and to be processed, self-evident in itself, and without foundation in whereever things would be grounded. You can trace this sort of thinking through op-eds and all the like; through video games and the tropes of masculine reflex-response they employ; through any of the undeveloped ‘cinematic’ stimuli that are dumbly reiterated with a definite response in mind. “Socialism” “Socialized medicine” “American dream” etc. This little datoids circulate freely and and disassociated from any meaning process.

    There is a scholastic double to this phenomenon, the sort of critical activity that picks up different “theories” and attempts to use them, as isolable little datoids themselves, to produce what amount to canned readings of events or other datoids. Success or failure, it seems to me–and this is what I think would be revealed through a Moretti-inflected reading of ‘trends’ in academic product–depends less on fashioning a successful understanding of the stuff that gets rendered into datoids and more on performing a current or contemporary execution of algorithms for processing given datoids.

  11. JCD, I’m curious about your hypothesis. There is a very male-tending narrative which uses such power figures as “the market” or “freedom”, and I don’t think these are quantitative entities. In fact, my theory is that – on the face of it – the male collapse in narrative intelligence is most evidenced by regression. The comic book figures that populate the world of action movies, war games, and Washington Post op eds about foreign policy have one thing in common: they have no real social ties to anything. The long and winding road of narrative is about, among other things, the ramifications of killing. In these new male narratives, the only ramification is to succeed in a vague sweepstakes – good guys/bad guys – and to go on. An exterminator meditates more about bugs than your average guy does about the meaning of the killings in their favorite narratives, which have become, increasingly, fantasies.

    Here’s a guardian article about a poll of male reading habits. It is fascinating. From the poll alone, you can predict a certain perpetually 12 quality to most middle and upper middle class male attitudes.

    I thought the kicker when I read that Larry Summers was appointed to the head of Obama’s economic council was the profile in which it was noted, proudly, that though he’d been president of Harvard, he didn’t read fiction or poetry.

    The post WWII anguish was that the concentration camp guards were reading Rilke, and where was the beneficient effect of culture. Well, we’v e fixed that. Now the guards read X men.

  12. just want to say great post and comments, and mention, re roger’s remarks, the somali pirate story is really pared down, just to those two words (“somali pirates”). Then I happened to watch much of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie a couple days ago. It opens with these series of hangings.

    Terroristic group hangings and gibbeting of pirates did take place of course in the early 17th century, in Jamaica for instance. But this film inflates the carnage of the repression to something Nazi like, industrial, one batch of a dozen after another stepping up to the scaffold to be dropped with a pull of a lever, again and again, with a line of condemned trailing off into invisibility- thousands to be hanged in one go, with the heaps of clothes associated with death camps. This scale and these Nazi death camp allusions is evidently necessary for death and state terror to mean anything, to arouse any reaction in the audience.

  13. …early 18th century! (sorry, tired)

  14. Chabert, on the topic of pirates – I was just sent, for possible review, a book by an economist on pirates that is quite (unintentionally) hilarious, in which the economist, obviously hatched by some terrible lab accident involving Freakonomics and Milton Friedman, triumphantly analyzes the pirates of the Caribbean using rational choice theory and explains how ONLY rational choice theory could explain the pirates. Of course, the history is dreadful, the unquestioning taking of stories from doubtful sources, the lack of any sociology or anthropology, any idea of symbolic interaction, any idea that human behavior does not just amount to getting more stuff and then getting more stuff, all of this is a given with this type of book. It bristles with the kind of platitudes that used to make Marx roar – with pain or laughter or both. Really, if I were an economist wanting a NYT spot on the biz page, I’d write a defense of Gradgrind in Hard Times. You know they’d love it! That hard nosed, and brainless – empirically deficient, puzzling and unreal view of the world – they believe that they are announcing the tough love truth.
    Oh, and the university press, as its PR ploy, put a thing around the book. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first, a rubber band and this black thing. Then it struck me: eye patch!

    This is simply a great time to be a connoisseur of stupidity.

  15. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks for dropping by, all —

    “I think I’d go about this in the other direction.”

    i do sort of overstate the case here, it’s true. but then i also want to say, not really. a flow both ways would certainly be ideal. why should interpretation of statistics be any less sophisticated and sensitive than interpretation of individual texts? and why not use statistics when it makes sense to do so?

    “data- or math-think: the stuff that is used as information appears as merely there and to be processed, self-evident in itself”

    i would say this ultra-reification of media consumption affects humanities people just as much — quantitative information is treated on a ‘look (if you must) but don’t touch’ sort of policy, while literature has a certain narrow set of acceptable parameters for reading, and (certain subgenres of) philosophy another, far narrower one. have you read eco on “hermetic drift?” he coined the term mostly to refer to excesses in north american deconstruction but it could be more widely applied. it’s a commonplace, but within the academy there really is an interpretation mill type of hermeneutic, just recombination of tropes (more complex of course: ‘the deleuzian swarm as critique of sovereignty in x-men’ or ‘spinoza avec schmitt’ rather than ‘freedom’ and ‘market’) driven by professional demands but also apathy and cynicism, i think.

    this cultural divide we’re talking about is almost hysterically gendered, now that you mention it (and thanks for the guardian link roger).

    but on both sides you have a bunch of professionals making conventionalized ritual gestures over extremely complex, interconnected entities/processes. one wishes for a different sort of close reading.

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    what really strikes me about the pirate coverage is it’s been going on for so long and hasn’t got even a little smarter — same dumb jokes, same treatment as if it were an action fantasy, with the twin alibis of irony and innocence always handy — the financial crisis coverage, even the israel/palestine and iraq coverage gradually got a few clues, but the somali pirates? pirates! arrr!

  17. Mr. T., I’d be unhappy if this settled into a qualitative vs. quantitative comments thread. I very much agree that one can use the social sciences and literary texts together. Last novemer, on my blog, I did that kind of work with the Sorrows of Young Werther, looking at Schneidman’s typology of suicide notes and Minois and Bayet’s work on suicide in early modern Europe, which – though I say it, and not a reputable social scientist – shows a hugely different pattern than suicide today (for instance, more women than men committed suicide back in the 18th century, and the rate for childen under 16 was sky high, compared to now.)

    One looks for social patterns,, and sometimes one finds a quantitative bone structure. But you can’t just stop there.

    Unfortunately, usually the division of labor would either place Sorrows of Young Werther in the social sciences area as a curiosity – did it cause a pattern of mimic suicides, as per a claim that Tarde makes against Durkheim, or you interpret the work making vague references to sensibility and Rousseau, and forget, say, real beliefs about suicide and real suicides – in fact, I don’t believe I found any critical work on Werther that inquired into the history and sociology of suicide notes (which were just coming into vogue in the 18th century – suicide was not something you wrote a note about in the seventeenth century, for instance).

  18. roger, ‘rational choice theory” being speculations about human motivations, has to be totally bogus. anyone who claims to know why people do things is lying. but constraints on actions and results – what marx analysed – are concrete and observable. you can observe that such and such a practise led to such and such a result (survival, procreation, accumulation of stuff) without implying that the action was taken in conscious pursuit of those results. Piracy names a manner of acquisition of stuff. It is certainly foolish to claim to know why individuals engaged in this manner of acquisition of stuff called piracy or why individuals in the employ of empires repressed it. You can find out how much a royal navy captain and crew made on average capturing a pirate ship, but you can’t say that the acquisition of that prizemoney was the motivation for the taking of the prize. Nor can you say anything at all about the motivation of the individuals who took the prize and made the money, however. Nobody knows why people do things and theories about why people do things are all horseshit. But people do things, we know this, we can know a lot about what people do and what the consequences are.

  19. Like you can notice that piracy interfered with various state and private revenues and the repression of piracy protected them without suggesting that protecting revenues was anybody’s motivation for ordering the capture and hanging of pirates. You can’t even assume that the capture and hanging of pirates was motivated by the preference for their no-operation on the part of those ordering and carrying out the capture and hanging. And you can notice some property was restored to merchants in the repression of pirates without suggesting that the merchants acceptance of this restored property was motivated by a desire to have it back, or by anything else. Musings on human motivations are totally pointless. But this shouldn’t prevent anyone from writing histories of what people did (driven by whatever or more likely no ‘motive’).

  20. but expectations and motivations can’t be confused either. your wonderful account of the pistolet d’assomage contains the explanation of what it does and that “it gains precious time for the butcher, who can proceed immediately, conveniently, and without danger, to stripping the animals” One cannot assume any butcher would have a motivation to proceed conviniently, without danger, to strip animals. We can know that butchers did strip animals, and how, and with what tools, but never what motivates them. But we can know that butchers have certain expectations of what will result from their actions. Is it Kant we blame for clouding the line here between acknowledging expectations and imputing motivations? It’s become a common and obviously propagandistic move to slide the latter in for the former to facilitate dismissal of an observation (the exptectations of bank consolidation, which demonstrably exist in advance of certain actions, substituted by ‘conspiracy to evil’ in order to dismiss the concrete and proven as something speculative and fanciful.)

  21. I think perhaps roger there is a tendency in liberal discourse to just assume every statement is codedly a remark about individual motivations, which is what everything boils down to in the dominant ideology. Then there is in colloquial language the custom of presenting events that way, as involving (desire-) motivated actions, as in “the US wanted to overthrow the Taliban”. It doesn’t really mean that but our habit of speaking as if actions are motivated by desire makes it unremarkable. It seems to imply a motivation to overthrow the Taliban to go with the apparent action of overthrowing, but it’s just idiomatic, we see this kind of implicit motivation can be attached to inanimate things, abstractions, as well as beings belonging to the kingdom of ends. Thus one might narrate pirates’ voyages or Woodes’ pursuit of the Pirates of the Caribbean as if the behaviour recounted was motivated by desires for their predictable or likely consequences. But doing so – and it’s nearly unavoidable – historians are not really advancing a theory of motivations, of the rationality/meaning of human behaviour; there are as you say traditions of narration and good stories often revolve around producing motivations for actions which are ‘satisfying’ in a certain way though there is no proof that human beings have anything resembling ‘motives’ or ‘rationality’ or ‘choice’.

  22. Is it The Invisible Hook? funny.

    “And this is part of this idea of what I call the “invisible hook.” It’s analogous, in some ways, to Adam Smith’s invisible hand in the sense that, of course, pirate prey are worse off as a result of pirates attacking them, but a profit-motivated pirate crew is likely to behave better toward the people they’re attacking than one that in fact was truly sadistic and didn’t care about money at all. And this is a case where we can see that.”

    Hm that’s why you see dyncorp and halliburton is better for Afghanistan than the truly sadistic motiveless barbaric evils of….

  23. Yeah, I didn’t want to give the name, cause I am not going to review it.

    Oh, I completely agree that pirates were not doing charity work, but to think that the world shaking explanation for torturing a captive is to gain a benefit – they were in it to make a profit! – is too … well, it makes me laugh. The whole rational expectations framework imposed on a diverse group who were and were not sanctioned to operate against the Spanish by the French, the English, the Dutch, and whose exploits were deeply entangled with beliefs and practices that concerned slavery, Catholicism, Amerindians, etc., is to use a big sword to butter bread. Human beings are much more, socially, economically, than utility maximizers. There’s a sense taht the pirates faced the same problem as the Spanish – they had very limited opportunites for circulating their wealth, and they refused to develop any more, not because they didn’t make the calculation as to the best ROI, but because wealth was subordinant to other values, embodied in their cultural practices.

    Also, as you will notice from your quote, the unconscious absorbtion of the ideology of the powers that be – either profit seeking (good) or sadistic (bad). We are talking, of course, of seizing legitimate wealth, which was derived mostly from slavery. Slavery! Profit seeking (good!) or sadistic (bad!).
    I laugh, but the tears of things cry out!

  24. “torturing a captive is to gain a benefit ”

    it’s ridiculous to claim to know that capitives were tortured ” to gain a benefit”, but it’s just as ridulous – rather more so – to claim “capitives were not tortured to gain any benefit” or “capitives were tortured for some other motive”. the only thing you can say is that a result was anticipated, (you can show this from the primary sources), a benefit was in fact derived from the practuse, and you can show what the result and benefit were. any greater claims are just bullshiting of course.

  25. “Profit seeking (good!) or sadistic (bad!).”

    yeah this is the real propagandistic element, this “choice”. the foil is al qaeda on the spanish main. underwriter a mystery i guess. but it’s interesting how it resembles the disney pirate pictures where they have made the pirates really caricature competitive individualists and capitalistic- you would call this ‘rational choice’ i guess – though each has his own motive none of which is endless financial gain, all are rational choosers in the sense of motivated by meaningful anticipation of preferred outcomes and choosing consistently to preference, and the story is, much like rational choice “explanation”, the cumulative total of these individual choices. these pictures also reduce the crews to other species, fungible fishfolk, and simpletons of a victorian servant caricature sort, born to serve and happy to do so, to deal with the necessity of the performance of a crew in conditions where the elite “leaders” are these radical individualists. the crews come with the ship, like parts of the machine. In the terrible peter weir adaptation of patrick o’brien’s aubrey/maturin stories, the nemesis is an invention of the screenwriter, a french privateer that is basically a terrorist ship, an al qaeda vessel. the whole crew and officers had thick long black hair and they were lawless, preying on peacable anglosaxon whalers and merchants.

    some pirates were certainly innovative merchant capital enterprises in the 17th century, no use denying the importance of piracy in the dutch and english challenge to spain and portugal. Pirate enterprise whose piracy financed the United Provinces revolt against spain transformed themselves into the VOC in the peace, a real ‘advance’-development-innovation, a private merchant enterprise financed with sophistication and empowered to make war. but this guy with his invisible hook wants pirates with some quasi legendary stature to be the fabulous founding father ancestors of today’s venture capitalists or something, glamorous heroic figures of capitalism (so much better than the dour calvinists of standard mythology) to embody these “good” values, healthy spirit of enterprise, and represent the civilising motive of profit which is intrinsically peacable and nonviolent (and reasonable, liberal etc). very funny really, though really icky too.

  26. traxus4420 Says:

    this is good, incidentally.

    “BATMAN: Wealthy man assaults the mentally ill.

    SCHINDLER’S LIST: Wealthy industrialist expands not-for-profit ventures.

    300: Gays kill blacks.”

  27. Oh, what makes me laugh is not that they were not in it to make money, but the idea that this is some God’s eye explanation. Pirates existed above water in order to breathe, but if one claimed that the only way we can understand Pirates is that they necessarily have to breathe, well, I’d find that funny.

    The mixture of motives and patterns isn’t going to be simplified by rooting around for the God’s eye view, I think. Take what we know about fighting. In the 18th century, sailors and pirates often fought drunk. In the 20th century, during the Vietnamese war, the U.S. army opened its arms and fed its soldiers as many bennies as they wanted. In between, if you go into how combat situtains were sustained, you find intoxicants of one type or another were a prety vital auxilliary. Which should interest anybody who throws about the word ‘rational” – although the U. Chi types have almost destroyed that word. Why the need for intoxicants? Could it be some irrational problem with slicing up other human beings? In Liberia, the boy soldiers, from every testimony, were given glue, cocaine, anything to make them able to go into a village and slice off the arms of every villager they found. You can’t fit such things into the rational expectations framework, so one fastforwards – but didn’t their leaders make money? This is the most scholastic, teleological kind of thinking. Follow the money, good! And follow the liquor! And follow the love! And follow the spirits! And follow the symbols. There’s a lot to follow.

  28. “You can’t fit such things into the rational expectations framework,”

    on the contrary, the ‘rational choice’ framework is precisely a compilation of this type of thing, the explanation of social historical phenomena reduced to a model robinsonade multiplied and added up. You don’t begin with Liberia in the world, but an isolated, sample child soldier, and a set of chemicals, you are creating an explanation of civil war from the individual child, what he ingests, and then just multiplying these experiences and saying enough chuldren sniffing glue will give you the modern history of liberia. It’s the same individualist fable as the one you are objecting to, but your taste in details is different.

    Is the satisfying answer to question “why was torture practised on Atltantic region ships in the 16th- 18th centuries” really “because everybody was drunk?” More satisfying than “because that was the custom”? Maybe. But even if that were somehow really the ‘reason”, it doesn’t change the fact that torture and mutilation was a well known and widely practised terroristic deterrent, much debated, discussed and refined, which was widely believed to facilitate submission and save powder for naval and private forces alike.

    Nau L’Olonnais was recorded to have left behind on raids truly vast fortunes in indigo while taking only silver. We don’t have his explanation, but that of contemporaries, and their view is he just couldn’t be bothered with finding a buyer for the indigo, since he was not really well connected to that trade. Exquemelin thought this a blunder due to despicable laziness and selfishness, since the fortune he sacrificed to his convenience was tremendous (forty thousand écus) which would of course be shared (he also reproached the whole profession at the time for their wastefulness, for wanting only the easiest booty to deal with, for throwing goods overboard they could have taken to market instead). It’s possible of course that at the time of deciding on all these destructive acts, the leaders of corsair voyages were drunk.

    But it doesn’t matter what the reason was – we don’t know, we can’t know, trying to imagine his motivation is screenwriting or method acting. How long could a pirate enterprise in competition with others survive, without being captured and without being plundered, if the principal decisions were just the whims of drunkenness? Wouldn’t the one sober enterprise – because there is always variety in human behaviours and personalities – eliminate the drunk competition so that eventually the practise of sobriety would be established? The problem with the “rational choice” explanation is not that it supposes rationality (that’s a very fair supposition) but that it is individualist to the point of absurd phantasy, and any rebuttal to it that simply exchanges the cumulative decisions of irrational (or drunk) individuals for those of rational individuals is as foolish. Seafaring was costly and difficult and required vast social resources; one doesn’t need a model of competent human beings in general to accept that only human beings with a degree of competence could persist in that undertaking for any length of time and therefore to assume competence. Of course there were cruel and sadistic people everywhere, but inconvenient sadism – sadism that interfered with the common endeavour – was in general simply eliminated, by punishment, mutiny, murder or venture failure. Exception here or there, it’s not important. People may be “more than” sailors, of course, that doesn’t mean ships would be sailed by a representative cross section of human capacities in sailing expressing at all times all their various qualities. People are today more than ballet dancers but nonetheless highly skilled ballet dancers exist and perform. People may be “more than” profit-maximisers, but that does not suggest that profit making enterprises like corsair voyages would be run by a representative sample of humanity’s capacity in raiding and plunder who would express all the moods of which they were capable at random, choosing for example to pause in the chase to admire the sunset because possessed of aesthetic capacities as well as acquisitive inclinations. Yes people have aesthetic sense, too, that doesn’t mean that in the practise of piracy – that is, of seizing vessels or their cargo at sea, or raiding towns from the sea – the capacities which are suitable to the successful completion of the enterprise are not deployed foremost, dominantly; just as we know people have erotic inclinations but I have yet to see the musicians of an orchestra on stage putting down their instruments to have sex.

  29. While it is true that the explanation for the acts of the corsairs is not that they were all drunk – I’d certainly agree with you, Chabert – I was asking about the explanation of the drunkenness. Why get drunk before a battle? That would seem to be the last time one would want to get drunk. Why would the U.S. Army be issuing bennies? Why would the Liberian gangsters be issuing cocaine?

    When you distinguish between motives and expectations, I think you are right. But expectations aren’t abstract things, algorithms teaching us about profit maximizing. Expectations are embodied in institutions. Some of those institutions are vague – the institution of piracy being one, since of course pirates, privateers, buccaneers and all the rest were in and out of official navies. Myself, if I’m looking for an expectation model of pirates, I would look more to the raiding economies of the Scots Highlands. And I’d compare those pirates to the pirates operating on the Chinese coast at the same time.

    As I said, given the fact that the world in which the pirates operated did not have even a hint of the financial services that can be used, today, to circulate “black” money, pirates had every reason not to be profit maximizers in the sense that a merchant could be. If I am supposed to use profit maximizing as the explanation for bourgeois thrift and for pirate excess, I suspect that profit maximizing has become a universal solvent, able to swallow anything. And myself, I don’t swallow universal solvents (and who would be swallowing who there?).

    Actually, I’d extend your screenwriting maxim, which gets us round to this post again. Individual or institutional explanations are not going to escape narrative by falling back upon quantification. We are screenwriting in one way or another. When we screenwrite using the word “profit”, we are introducing another explanandum – much like “mana”, or “truth” – into our narrative and shifting the powers assigned to the players. That is, I think, totally legitimate. I’d merely attack the notion that we can achieve some higher level of explanation in which we’ve purified ourselves of the narrative bent – that we’ve somehow now achieved a direct connection to the real, have burst the bonds of our favorite stories.

    Drunkenness with regard to the pirates of the Caribbean has an especially interesting twist, in that the rate of profit from primary product extraction – the silver and gold mining of the Spaniards – was clearly falling, while the profit centers in the Caribbean, raising sugarcane, were rising – and of course sugar cane was so extremely profitable because much of it went into alcohol. Why this thirst? My own explanation would have to do with the massive change in work routines being experienced in Europe and in the Americas, which was coextensive with capitalism. One of the ways in which this unnameable but palpable change in people’s lives was accepted was through alcohol and tobacco. In other words, I don’t think there was just a natural liking for alcohol and tobacco, a latent demand that found a supplier. So I think you are wrong, Chabert, to dismiss the ingestion of these things as a sideshow to the real key here, of money. I think that’s a ghost key that fits too many locks.

  30. I didn’t read the book roger, but in the interview, what the guy simply says is that pirates used torture sparingly to terrorise and impress, which saved their resources (powder, shot, and their own life blood) and that pirates were conscious of their reputations as valuable to them in this way and cultuivated them. The two factual claims are correct and can’t be theoried away, the supposition is not much of a stretch from them. These facts don’t require anyone to accept “profit maximisation” as a universal solvent. The thing is just that there is some popular propagandistic topoi which associates outlaw with psychotic and sadistic and law abiding with sane and cvilised. And this is not accurate. In fact pirates were not this psychotic excessively violent other of the society (this foil) but part of the society, sharing the moeurs and knowledges and circumstances, and in the later period, the early 18th century, notable for some practises we would consider socially and culturally progressive (democratic, co-operative, freethinking, etc). The use of torture in the period of Atlantic piracy was common, calculated and instrumental, and this goes for pirates (very minor users of torture) as well as for the principal torturers. This is obvious from the (heaps of) evidence regarding who was tortured by whom and when.

    Acknowledging this doesn’t require you to accept “profit maximisation” as a universal solvent. It’s only a banal corrective to the fabulous conception of “pirates” as the chaos to empire’s order, the irrational foil to naval and merchant rationality etc..

  31. “Why get drunk before a battle? That would seem to be the last time one would want to get drunk.”

    The last time you, roger, would want to get drunk, maybe, but that’s why the individual anecdote is so useless. In fact the use of intoxicants and stimulants by warriors before battle is a really widespread tradition in our species, and your aversion is a quirk which probably wouldn’t even affect your behaviour. Conformity to custom is enough to account for an awful lot of behaviour – this individual decision model, where you roger are the model pirate; an autonomous self fashioning agent, and you are deciding, freely, whether to drink…it doesn’t matter if you are assumed rational or irrational, it’s a hopeless procedure either way.

    But does a lot of guesswork – it can only be guesswork – about the individual motivations for drinking better explain why pirates sometimes fought battles than the benefits derived from a successful such engagement do (among them self defence and liberty-and-life preservation)? And do individual motives for drinking help us understand the tactics and means pirates developed over generations for achieving their objectives (acquisition of stuff) while avoiding battles, among them the black flag?

  32. Chabert, what you are saying about intoxication and battle seems pretty off the charts. There’s no tradition in a species. Traditions are social things. As is drinking. As is drinking before battle. As are bennies, for that matter. If it were a “tradition” of a “species”, then one would have to relegate the question purely to zoology – but, it would still be a valid question. It has as little to do with individualism per se as, well, etymology. I’m not departing from the traditions of my species (although that sounds like fun) by not drinking before battle.

    Thus, freeing ourselves from a false idea that we can explain a culture trait by the mere mention of nature, we can ask: why did alcohol use go up? And why did it go down? Because it peaked in the nineteenth century in the Industrialized countries, as far as I can tell.

    Now, I’d like to think that the “tradition of the species” is love – that an innate love of humans for each other is such that they require some stimulus to kill each other indifferently. For what distinguishes battle from the common type of murder is that the killers are indifferent one to the other. Pirates, on the other hand, might easily have known the people with whom they battled, in a way that Peasant Jacques would not have known peasant Jack at Blenheim. According to Kenneth Maxwell, there were, at the time of peak pirate activity in 1720, around 2,000 pirates in the Atlantic. And it was very easy, when the British navy moved, to clean them out. Maxwell also points out that the shift in the pirate’s image came, at this time, as the economy shifted in the Caribbean – towards sugar cultivation. Now, what that tells the astute historian is that the sources of the stories about the pirates might well change as well. From a benign view of pirates attacking Catholic enemies, we might well expect more histories about pirates torturing people.

    Anyway, here is what Leeson says about pirates: “It’s not just that economics can be applied to pirates. Rational choice is the only way to truly understand flamboyant, bizarre and downright shocking pirate practices. Why, for example, did pirates fly flags with skulls and crossbones? Why did they brutally torture some captives/ How were pirates successful? and why did they create pirate codes? The answers to these questions lie in the hidden economics of pirates, which only the rational choice framework can reveal.”

    I can’t think of a better instance of what Marx would call vulgar economics: “which deals with appearances only, ruminates without ceasing on the materials long since provided by scientific economy, and there seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena, for bourgeois daily use, but for the rest, confines itself to systematising in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds. “

  33. PS – oops, that is Kenneth Maxwell, from an essay in Naked Tropics.

  34. “There’s no tradition in a species.”

    Our species, humanity, produces many traditions. If you can’t accept that then I guess you have to stick with your autonomous irrational individual choice universal solvent.

    “I can’t think of a better instance of what Marx would call vulgar economics:”

    It’s not at all what anyone would call any kind of economics. It’s vulgar psychology.

  35. and roger isn’t your explanation the most gradgrindian of all? you’re even fitting in drinking to the efficiency calculations of individual gain maximisers? you’ve got individuals all individually deciding, when sober, to engage in violent and perilous battle for plunder. Then you have them individually deciding to drink so that they can overcome their reluctance to kill people they like;, whom they want to kill for financial gain. So intoxication – of all things! – is explained by the most vulgar and narrow utility in “profit maximisation”. No custom, no alcoholics, no gustatory pleasure, no conviviality, no sorrow to be alleviated, no fear to be overcome, no joy: drinking alcohol is reduced to simple calculated self medication to facilitate performance in the unpleasant means of financial gain. How is that less reductive or less goofily benthamite than Leeson? He doesn’t say everything pirates did including eating and drinking and loivemaking and music was calculated to maximise gain and minimise loses in the enterprise, he just says the principle tactics of the actual practise of vessel capture were so chosen. Your broadening the utilitarian logic to encompass all of life.

  36. Thanks for this post, traxus. I haven’t the time to read all the comments, but as someone who works in the field of book history, I might only add that Moretti’s “provocation” is not exactly new or interesting. Bibliographers and library scientists have been doing this kind of work for years, though the application of their research has had different ends: book collecting, library statistics, database design, and so on. What’s “new” about Moretti’s provocation is its claim to a certain theoretical capital — one that would legitimate social-scientific approaches to literature in the eyes of humanistic inquiry. In this regard, Moretti’s no different from the “academostars” (term taken from a Minnesota Review special issue) in the humanities who embark on career-making courses of study in “high” theory, Continental philosophy, etc.

    As for your comments on the way certain literary critics tend to conflate immersion in theoretical research with a disavowal of their pedestrian (you prefer “common”) status as knowledge factory workers, I couldn’t agree more. The point is made in more or less the same vein in Mark Bauerlein’s work, as well as in several entries in the Columbia University Press anthology *Theory’s Empire*. In fact, for the commenter above who wishes to engage in a sociological analysis of humanities professionals, the groundwork has been done (via Bourdieu) by the Finnish scholar Niilo Kauppi.

    I should say, however, that I don’t ally myself totally with Bauerlein, et al., in large part because these meta-critics of the academy cast a negative light on humanists’ desire to “be(come) political” through their research. These Baby Boom “anti-theorists” have a tendency to align the rise of theory in the academy with straw-man targets such as provincial “identity politics” or the Lexus-driving Marxist professor. My critique of professional theorists isn’t premised on those cheap shots, nor does it imagine a space of literary criticism immune to political engagement. In this regard, my critique is closer to yours (bringing Marxist/materialist insights about labor to bear on the academy) in spirit.

  37. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks for the great references, kinohi. i was just looking at that kauppi on google books and it looks really good.

    this isn’t quite a matter of the technology being already there, but the means to advance it are there, and as you say the major problem is political; moretti’s provocation is interesting because it claims equal and even superior theoretical status to the way things are currently done. this is how ‘innovation’ happens though right? a bunch of anonymous workers collectively develop something interesting, then a superstar picks it up and sells it. the next step it seems to me would be to make it actually useful instead of just provocative. which doesn’t seem possible anymore with ‘theory.’

    the worst of the anti-theorists is stanley fish, who i definitely don’t condone. but like him, my critique here is intended to go beyond theory to academic practice as it currently exists. i don’t think we can be ‘radical’ in some general sense as academics. that’s just pretense and careerism. we can, however, politicize our workplace in the same way any other type of worker can. an institutional cancellation of academic freedom (what fish wants) would just remove one of the few important protections against an increasingly corporatizing administration.

  38. anxiousmodernman Says:


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