Monday, January 30, 2006

Strange Rendezvous

One of the first jokes I can remember is the bit about the guy who is skeptical about Carter’s Little Liver Pills because he doesn’t understand how the pills could figure out how to get to his liver. Similar issues come up in earnest in molecular biology. There are thousands of chemical species afloat in every eukaryotic cell. How do the various enzymes find that special substrate? You’d think that all those star-crossed proteins would usually suffer the ships-that-pass-in-the-night destiny of the separated lovers in Evangeline. Well, a lot of ‘em do, but the persistence of metabolism demonstrates that cute meets don’t just occur in light comedies. In both cases, of course, something is going on besides blind luck, thanks to the script in the later case, the compartmentalization of the cell into in the former.

The statistical mechanics of scholarly reference presents related problems. Serious books are supposed to be hard to read, but the real surprise is that they are possible to read at all since nobody’s intellectual formation could keep up with very much in a brief introduction to everything if the contents were as various as the world. Yet we can read books of philosophy, literary criticism, general science, politics, and theology whose subject matters are potentially limitless. The rather disappointing secret, of course, is that the “Everything” part of the Theory of Everything is actually an infinitesimal selection, a toy immensity suitable for children.

Any reader of grand syntheses quickly learns that the same titles endlessly resurface as nodes in the tangled bank of footnotes and bibliographies in such works. From decade to decade, the hubs change. The old Atlanta used to be de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics; the Old O’Hare was Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A lot of traffic still stages through these cites as well as through key works (or paragraphs) of Braudel, Gould, Cavalli-Sforza and a few of older vintage that come in and out of common use like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, Victor Shklovsky’s A Theory of Prose, and Michael Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. I haven’t run across an allusion to Sartre or even The 18th Brumaire for a while, though, or the First Critique for that matter. What gets you on the short list is apparently something other than sheer quality. Another very general characteristic of the collection, however, is that with a few exceptions the cited works are probably quite unknown to the general-purpose educated reader. Like the protagonist of To Be or Not to Be, they are world-famous in Poland.

I was reminded about all this as I read Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, a little book that manages to reference most of the texts I’ve identified. To judge by the rapidity with which Moretti’s book has been identified as a significant work by various websites including my favorite DEW line, Crooked Timber, and perhaps more tellingly, by less visited switchboards such as Pseudopodium, the book may eventually turn up on one of the short lists. (Heck, the fact that it has even turned up here in Ultima Thule tells you something.) The subject matter of the book also recalls the topic of the general shape of the Universe of Writing—it’s subtitled Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. Moretti figures that one way of finding out something important about the history of the word is to stand back from the particulars, to look at the whole scene through a blurry statistical glass for the same reason that artists squint at their models in order to see general configurations without the distraction of the details. His writings are very far away indeed from those “Relative Pronouns in the Later Movie Reviews of Pauline Keel” epics. For example, he uses graphs to compare the rise of the novel in Britain, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Nigeria thus finding a common pattern thanks to a drastic process of abstraction where other researchers had to rely on their own obtuseness to achieve the coarseness of perception necessary to discover really big facts—that’s why it formerly took an oaf like Auguste Comte to notice the Industrial Revolution. While I will probably continue to rely on my own native gifts to attempt similar feats, I see the methodological advantages of Moretti’s approach.

A lot of Moretti’s book deals with the life cycle of genres—he identifies 44 genres of the British novel between 1740 and 1900—and finds that their average duration, roughly 30 years, matches up pretty well with the length a human generation, thus allowing him to hook up with some notions about generations via the Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge node. One would like to have an internalist explanation of the turn over of genre, something analogous to the old biological notion of racial senescence. It is certainly not implausible to think that a certain kind of novel becomes decadent when all the changes have been wrung on its fundamental premises, but that wouldn’t explain why so many genres peter out or begin at the same time. “The causal mechanism must thus be external to the genres, and common to all: like a sudden, total change of the ecosystem. Which is to say, a change of their audience.” Of course appealing to the succession of generations creates its own puzzle. “Since people are born every day, not every twenty-five years, on what basis can the biological continuum be segmented into discrete units?” That’s where Mannheim comes in. It is external events that punctuate the sequence of the generations through “dynamic destabilization.” Mannetti is thinking of 1968—1776, 1789, 1848, 1914 are other examples. I think he misses a connection here. The procession of the genres finds an obvious analogy in the way that the circadian and circum annual clocks of animals and plants, internal but imperfect mechanisms, are reset by the external inputs of the astronomical day and year. The system still cycles in the absence of external events, but the periodicity gradually drifts, just as the activities of lab animals kept in a coal mine get out of synch with the sun. Thus, because the bell hasn’t been struck very forcibly for a while, Generations X through Z are looking increasingly like cheap knockoffs.

These considerations aside, I’m very much in sympathy with the style of Moretti’s approach, his way of laying out in extenso the mechanical operations of the spirit. For example, my own amateur thoughts about genre, though aimed at a different set of questions, are similarly abstract. Rather than considering the life span or timing of the appearance of genres, I’m interested in considering their cognitive psychology. It seems to me that genres are the practical answer to the problem of how it is possible to read a book, let alone write one, granted that human beings aren’t really all that smart. If the words we read were not already largely predictable, we wouldn’t have the memory and power of attention to make sense of them. Indeed, even though most of the conventions remain the same from one type of narrative to another, learning how to read a new genre takes considerable effort—which is why it was once such a terrible chore to read Silas Marner and why even adults resort to science fiction and mysteries at their leisure.

One last note on Morretti. I found an excellent essay on his book at the Valve. You really should read it in lieu of my vaporings. Oops! Too late.

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