Monthly Archives: January 2006

More in the Way of Items

Read yesterday:

  • Pickover, Clifford A. Computers and the Imagination: Visual Adventures beyond the Edge. (St. Martin’s: 1991).
    Hyperkinetic. Early sections on computer-generated mazes of interest, and the clear hand of A Perfect Vacuum and Imaginary Magnitude was visible later.
  • Sedgwick, Mark. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. (Oxford: 2004).
    Prologue reads in some ways like it could have come from the eXile. Would have liked more exposition of Guénon’s, Evola’s, and Schuon’s ideas as such.

Favorite Sopranos Malapropism/Items

“Dysentery in the ranks” (4.4). Combines foreshadowing and appealing ludicrousness.

Read yesterday:

  • Horsley, Lee. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. (Oxford: 2005).
    Where’s the Keeler? Bonfiglioni? Banville?
  • Clarke, Lee. Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. (Chicago: 2006).
    Thought that Posner’s book might have warranted a bit more discussion here.
  • Phares, Walid. Future Jihad : Terrorist Strategies against America. (Palgrave: 2005).
    I don’t know why I kept reading this. Probably to see what the next bizarre LOTR reference would be.

Guénon, René. La Crise du Monde Moderne. (Gallimard: 1946 [1927]). Let this serve as a reminder to check Foucault’s Pendulum for references to Guénon and Evola, which must certainly be there.

Intend to View:
The Call of Cthulhu. Dir. Andrew Leman (2005).

Historians and Critics

I spend some time in my dissertation with the political and diplomatic history of interwar England and was pleased to have a[n] historian on my committee, who pointed out some overgeneralizations I was tending to make about the nature of the British right in the mid-twenties, among other things. So imagine my dismay when I learned, via Jenny Davidson’s comment, that, according to Sarah Maza’s “Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and Cultural History [. . .]” (Modern Intellectual History 1.2 [2004]: 249-265) at least, “Historians often approach literary criticism with a hostility, or at least skepticism, that gets in the way of trying to understand what literary critics are really doing. In conversation, if rarely in print, historians routinely dismiss literary criticism as self-indulgent, trendy, arbitrary and jargon-ridden” (251).


Another quote from the article relevant to the Moretti discussion:

If for literary critics like Greenblatt the anecdote seems like a step forward, a liberation from the weight of “totalizing grand narratives”, for most historians petite histoire feels like a step backward. Just as literary critics understandably reject middlebrow gushing over Great Literature as “bourgeois aesthetics”, so historians are legitimately wary of a form, the anecdote, that threatens to reduce history to a People magazine of the past. Gallagher and Greenblatt seem oblivious of the longer range of disciplinary development in history; they reject grand narratives as extensions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist, socialist or whiggish programs, obfuscating the fact that such mid-twentieth century innovations as histoire totale and quantified social history, large in scale as they were, originated from a desire to make history more democratic and more inclusive. (262)

Masa goes on to note that historians are not generally interested in introducing complexity to the texts they study, as they are trying to establish broader patterns. Her counterpoint to this about literary critics is only true if they are dealing with texts that have a long history of critical comment, not to the great unread. You can’t introduce unanticipated complexities to a book no one’s ever written anything about. (The point also applies to books that have been written about, but dismissed as curiosities or oddities of one form or another, I think.) But is there literary progress? Do formal innovations or “higher” historical vantagepoints expand the ability of literature to represent the world-picture? Is there a coherent relative measure of individuality of the literary work? Can you formally measure its degree of innovation by its distinctness in non-reactionary ways to that which surrounds it?


I’m very lazy about changing a CD in my car stereo unless I’m on a long drive. I think I once listened, as Clancy can attest, to Blonde on Blonde (mind you a scratched-copy with “Visions of Johanna”–the “all night long we sang that stupid song” from “Dr. Wu”–unplayable) for at least a month’s worth of driving. I’m coming up on a month now with The Harder They Come. Even thought about playing the first track as a way of explaining my grading policy.

I’m curious about investigating the literature on skimming, repetition, and reading comprehension. I’ve always thought that there are serious flaws in high-order reading comprehension tests such as you find on the GRE or LSAT–there’s a problem of domain specificity. I had a passage of lit crit on the GRE which I was able to answer from the barest skim, but, had I looked at it more carefully, I probably would have discovered or invented problematic ambiguities.

Literariness (which is distinct from “difficulty”) is inversely proportional to what might be called “skimmability,” and I think this has important implications for the totailty/immanence questions I discuss in the post below. Furthermore, I hope that the empirical literature on reading comprehension can yield some interesting sociological data here.

Totality and the Genes of Literature

My contribution to the Moretti event:

“Suppose at this juncture we were to state the blindingly obvious: that, whatever their other properties, literary texts do not possess genes” (59). So begins the “Perils of Analogy” section of Christopher Prendergast’s response* to Moretti. Notwithstanding the Paris Review interviews, it does seem difficult to maintain that literature has genes. Does it have memes, however? Ideologemes? Maybe. And I will discuss metaphors of cultural transmission and evolutionary analogies in Moretti’s argument.

The coherence of the meme concept is by no means obvious, and memes are not by any definition atomistic.** Rukmini Nair suggests in Narrative Gravity that narrative is adapted to meme transmission (205). And the description of the Genre Evolution Project at the University of Michigan describes three versions of generic change: Leavis’s great man, Lukács’ great circumstance, and Barthes’ great form. All are distinct from the biological model of generic evolution as envisioned by that project and also by Moretti. Biological evolution is mostly divergent (gene transfer and other poorly understood mechanisms being convergent) whereas cultural evolution is largely convergent with divergence resulting from the contingencies of imperfect transfer. Prendergast criticizes Moretti for overemphasizing divergence and suggests that it lends itself analogically to market-reification (61).

Moretti ends “Maps” with a quote from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form: “We rise from a conception of form to an understanding of the forces which gave rise to it [. . .] and in the comparison of kindred forms [. . .] we discern the magnitude and the direction of the forces which we have sufficed to convert the one form into the other” (103). The phrase “diagram of forces in equilibrium” is elided in the quote and appears in the last sentence of the chapter, minus “equilibrium” (1027). Thompson, translator of Aristotle’s biological treatises, knew better than to use the word “entelechy” lightly; but I think it relevant here. A morphological divergence is where a potentiality has become an actuality; and the Aristotelian connotation of completion or perfection does not necessarily entail triumphalism, as I think Prendergast suggests. So how to analyze the form of this governing force? Must we suppose that literature is a machine?

I refer to the Galilean/Newtonian notion of the mechanism:

The modern scientific revolution, from Galileo, was based on the thesis that the world is a great machine, which could in principle be constructed by a master artisan, a complex version of the clocks and other intricate automata that fascinated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much as computers have a provided a stimulus to thought and imagination in recent years; the change of artifacts has limited consequences for the basic issue as Alan Turing demonstrated sixty years ago. (Chomsky 66)

Chomsky also observes that Newton refuted forever the “mechanical philosophy” (67). All that is left scientifically is the study of emergence in various forms.

Supposing that this is true of scientific theories about the natural world, is it true of the study of literature? Can imaginative literature be coherently described as a machine constructed by a master artisan? How about the novel, specifically? Is the novel a species of theory-construction, of modelling? Does it explain the world by simplifying it, or does it contain, through extrinsic immanence, an image (or monad) of everything possible to be believed at the moment of its production? If not, perhaps the various genres at any given moment together form the well-rounded totality. “The individual work does not do justice to the genres by subsuming itself to them but rather through the conflict in which it long legitimated them, then engendered them, and ultimately canceled them” (Adorno 202). You could apply this dialectic, mutatis mutandis, to organisms and species. Here’s Moretti on the generic speciation-event (or extinction): “where a genre exhausts its potentialities–and the time comes to give the competitor a chance–when its inner form can no longer represent the most significant aspect of contemporary reality: at which point, either the genre betrays its form in the name of reality, thereby disintegrating, or it betrays reality in the name of form, becoming a ‘dull epigone’ indeed” (“Graphs” 77 n8).

I am reminded here of Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters” from The Material Basis of Evolution, a concept and work reintroduced and recuperated to some extent by Stephen Jay Gould. Through developmental mechanisms, Goldschmidt argues, “a new type may emerge without accumulation of small steps” (251). Though not atomistic, combinable units, ideologemes may serve as an analyzable unit of developmental constraint. The word was probably first used by Bakhtin and/or Medvedev in The Formal Method of Literary Scholarship, and it appears most prominently in Bakhtin’s “Discourse and the Novel” (333-335). Michael Holquist notes there that Bakhtin intends the term neutrally (429). The most influential discussion of ideologemes is in Jameson’s The Political Unconscious:

An amphibious formulation whose essential structural characteristic may be described as its possibility to manifest itself either as a pseudoidea–a conceptual or belief system, an abstract value, an opinion or prejudice– or as a protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the “collective characters” which are the classes in opposition. (87)

Jameson further suggests that ideological analysis requires showing how the finished cultural product is a “complex work of transformation on the ultimate raw material which is the ideologeme in question” (87).

As Turing wrote in his influential paper about morphogenesis, “Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern” (71-72). Ideologemes are similar to Turing’s morphogens in that they serve as developmental constraints on the production of a given text. It’s worth supposing that narrative ecologies are optimally adapted to their historic environments and there is an inherently perfect transformation of experience in the act of narrative creation. The narrative property constructs abstract models, shares species-invariant characteristics, and integrates its individual variations into the totality of the social imagination: Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imaginations ends by noting that the latter is “essentially vital” (167). This vitality of the secondary imagination allows the close reader to invent plausible historical claims, and distant readings of the state of the primary imagination discovers their context.

*We’re pleased to be able to make Prendergast’s article available as a PDF under the same terms as Moretti’s for a limited time.
**Bill Benzon notes here a paper arguing that memes may have atomicity.

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. 1970. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Chomsky, Noam. On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London: Dent, 1956.
Goldschmidt, Richard B. The Material Basis of Evolution. 1940. New Haven, Yale UP, 1982.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Moretti, Franco. “Graphs.” NLR 24 (Nov-Dec 2003): 67-93.
—. “Maps.” NLR 26 (Mar-Apr 2004): 79-103.
Nair, Rukmini. Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, and Culture.. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Prendergast, Christopher. “Evolution and Literary History: A Response to Franco Moretti.” NLR 34 (July-August 2005): 40-62.
Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. On Growth and Form. New York: Macmillan, 1943.
Turing, A. M. “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237.641 (Aug 14, 1952): 37-72.


That’s the title of my course this semester. I’m thinking possibly of substituting Primer for eXistenZ. I think Primer‘s engagingly baffling, and it’s also one of the best movies about engineers qua engineers I’ve seen.

I did ‘solve’ Rhem, and getting the bridge to rise is really just the start of it. Clancy bought me the sequel as a present, and I’ve vowed to get through it without looking at a walkthrough, which I admit I did out of frustration two or three times in the first game. (In each case, it was something I would have figured out–my problem throughout was making the game more complicated than it actually was. You don’t need trigonometry to solve it, for example, and if something is baffling, it’s because you haven’t found the necessary information. I consistently missed out on this aspect of the game’s “puzzle rhetoric.”)

The Police in New York City

Just caught a commercial for the Super Bowl on ABC with “Heartbreaker” in the background. You couldn’t really hear any of the lyrics, which is too bad:
A ten year old girl on a street corner,
Sticking needles in her arm.
She died in the dirt of an alleyway,
Her mother said she had no chance, no chance!

Be sure to catch Superbowl XL on ABC!

This also reminds of the countless times I’ve heard “Time out of Mind” playing in supermarkets. I suppose there was also the whole Iggy Pop promotionals for, what it was, Cadillac?

Am currently reading Archaeologies of the Future and may find out the answer to all this.

Thomas Frank: Speaking Like A Southerner?

Another tidbit from the Chronicle (still subscription):

Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan, 2004), sketched out prevailing American narratives of class and the rhetoric of left and right. “The ways we’re encouraged to think about elites and elitism is the key to what’s wrong with us, and there is something wrong with us,” he said. “Indignation is the great uniting aesthetic principle of conservative culture.”

Not everybody was convinced. One audience member noted that Mr. Frank spoke like a Southerner although he hails from Kansas. “Is what we’ve received today spin,” she asked, “or is it real?”

Frank gave a talk at the MRG conference in 2000, at which he flipped the pages of his lecture to the ground after reading them and observed beforehand that he preferred sipping a forty while lecturing. This last at least was amusing. I don’t recall any speaking like a Southerner, however.

Moretti Event/A Misunderstanding

I’ve announced the upcoming Valve book event on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, about which I’m excited.

Also, Mark Bauerlein has an article (currently subscription) in the Chronicle about adolescent culture and the decline of literacy. In many ways, I think Bauerlein misses the mark here; but for now I just want to note that this:

The fact that involvement fell while access rose signals a new stance toward literature and the arts among the young. I don’t know of any research that formally examines the trend, but a snippet of conversation that occurred during a National Public Radio interview with me last year illustrates the attitude that I’m describing:Caller: “I’m a high-school student, and I don’t read and my friends don’t read because of all the boring stuff the teachers assign.”

Host: “Such as?”

Caller: “Uh … that book about the guy. You know, that guy who was great.”

Host: “Huh?”

Caller: “The great guy.”

Host: “The Great Gatsby?”

Caller: “Yeah. Who wants to read about him?”

Has another interpretation. What kind of high schooler listens to NPR? That’s right, the prankster. The caller was so funny, in fact, that I suspect that he or she skipped college and now writes for Joey. (Does Bauerlein really believe that anyone watches this? Where did that come from?)

Cf. Wolfe’s There Are Doors

I think foreign policy should definitely be taken out of men’s hands. Men should continue making machines, but women ought to decide which machines are being made. Women have far better sense. They would have never introduced the infernal internal combustion engine or any other of the evil machines. Most kitchen machines, for example, are good; they don’t obliterate other skills. Or other people. With our leaders it is too often a case of one’s little boy saying to another: “My father can lick your father.” By now, the toys have gotten far too dangerous. (Auden, Paris Review Interview 57 [1974]).

Wolfe’ novel describes a shadowland where women set different technological priorities.