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.