In the work I have been doing on Shakespeare with my colleague Jonathan Hope (see previous posts under Shakespeare category), we have approached the plays as two kinds of objects simultaneously: as historical documents of theater history and as objects of statistical analysis. We have emphasized their theatrical foundations because we believe this is the reality of what is being studied: real people on stage saying these words (or something like them) in a real situation. The forces at work in this situation shaped the final result, and the meaning of what we find there — when we find it — is most significant as a reflection of that time and place. This makes us historicists, and in my case there is also a certain sympathy for materialist rather than idealist approaches to literature (although these terms are not very nuanced).
But what does it mean to say that a text is an object of statistical analysis, and how might this “object status” be related to our broader account of what texts are in general? Is there anything to be learned from thinking in this way about texts and interpretation that might alter the basic conceptual distinctions we use to think about texts, culture, experience, and language? This post represents a first attempt at answering some of these questions.
We need to start with a frame of analysis, and for this, I’ll use recent debates in philosophy and sociology about networks, actors and objects. Some of you may be familiar with the Actor Network Theory of Bruno Latour, which provides what you might call a flat ontology of actors in the world, one that makes no distinction in kind between natural, human made (technological), animate and inanimate “actors” in any given domain of analysis. Graham Harman, who is one of the leaders of a group of philosophers now known as the Speculative Realist school, has provided a fascinating summary and critique of Latour’s work, one that I was present for in a recent symposium on Latour held last year at the London School of Economics. During this event, I asked Harman and Latour if this kind of flat ontology limited the kinds of things one can claim in any causal explanation of a given scene of change or transformation (a revolution in a government, a reconfiguration of a bureaucracy, a change of state in a gas, a change in emotions). The problem — which Harman expertly delineates in his recent book, Bruno Latour: Prince of Networks — is that if no metaphysical priority is given to any particular type of actor; and if, further, all actors exhaust all of their potential at every moment because they possess no metaphysically privileged “special stuff” that will carry their powers through to the exclusion of other powers; then it becomes impossible to account for change. If you accept these consequences, then what we call “explanation” in any kind of critical work becomes interchangeable with description, and the activity of analysis becomes — as I argued at the LSE symposium — the “serial redescription” of each new state of the world. Harman agreed that this was unsatisfactory. Latour, to my surprise, said that this was exactly what he is trying to do in his sociological work. (A book about the symposium will be published next year.)
Now, in literary criticism, we do not think of our work as being that of “description.” And yet, we are not really analyzing causal patterns either, at least not in the way that an epidemiologist would be when she links the presence of a given microbe to the development of a particular illness in a population. Somewhere in the middle of this continuum, between description on the one hand and causal explanation on the either, lies meaning — which is what my colleagues and I in the humanities are probably most interested in. There are lots of ways to think about meaning, but perhaps one way we can do so is to think of it as “purpose in pattern,” something more akin to Aristotle’s final cause than the efficient cause that brings things about causally. (I realize that there are problems with Aristotle, but I believe the distinction is useful for the present discussion.) One of the hallmarks of European modernity, arguably, is the tendency to believe that discussions of final causes, purposes (and later, meaning) ought to be kept separate from discussions of how things work (efficient causation). For the most part, I think that has been a good idea, although it has aided and abetted the creation of the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of two non-overlapping magisteria with different protocols of explanation seems like a fine truce to me. But where do humanists (i.e., members of the humanities disciplines) fit in? In literary studies, we are very much interested in patterns, and the history of literary criticism is — among other things — the history of pattern recognition among readers and users of language.
Literary genre is a pattern that human readers since Aristotle have discerned in drama, poetry and prose. This pattern is also picked out by unsupervised statistical analysis, both on the basis of the frequency of individual words (see Jockers et al.) and on the basis of groupings of words that have been tagged by a device like Docuscope. So where does that pattern exist? In the text or performance itself? In the mind that recognizes it? What is it made of? A set of relationships? A series of comparisons undertaken by the creators of texts and their interpreters? Do we learn anything new about genre when we say that it can be given multiple descriptions — either a plot formula (an amusing story ending in marriage) or a multivariate, statistical recipe (a story containing lots of I, me, my, you but very little concretely descriptive language)? Let’s take seriously the idea that genre is a formal or mathematical object, and see where it leads us.