Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

Relocating the Literary: In Networks, Knowledge Bases, Global Systems, Material and Mental Environments

Joseph Tabbi

The present essay is about ways that literary databases can make distributed collaborative encounters with scholarship more likely and better recognized – to the degree that nowadays inclusion in a database is the publishing event and the life of a scholarly work is defined through a trail of commentaries, ripostes, and (what is a sure sign of scholarly success) further work that is seen to be along similar lines. Citability alone, of course, is not in itself enough to ensure a change for the better in scholarly practices – no more than Aron Swartz’s recirculation en masse of JSTOR documents in the year 2011 has had a noticeable effect on the institution of peer reviewed journal publication. Apart from an emotionally powerful but passing highlighting of copyright issues, the Swartz intervention did not in itself cause anyone to question the boundaries of literature – the ways that scholarship, and even authorship are currently relocating in databases, collaborative networks, and global systems of production.

Insofar as the Swartz intervention never addressed the content of the stored journal articles (let alone authorial intentions), it demonstrates a non-evaluative, even a neutral disposition toward literary publications that are themselves, presumably, all about critique and close reading. In this sense, the Swartz intervention (and a tribute to Swartz by Kenneth Goldsmith that I’ll examine momentarily), is largely consistent with two powerful dispositions that have emerged in the context of newly networked knowledge – namely, Bruno Latour’s sense already in 2004 that the hard won disposition toward “critique” in the humanities had begun to “run out of steam,” and Franco Moretti’s advocacy of “distant reading” practices, now that the mass of non-canonical writings are available in databases. The deep but largely unexamined absorption of such dispositions in the humanities is attested by several of the early career scholars whose work was commissioned by Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink for a 2011 panel on “Futures of Electronic Literature.” 1 One participant, Stephanie Boluk, noticed how the “rhetoric of ‘making’ and ‘doing’ that informs the turn towards practice-based [literary] programs” is consistent with Latour’s disposition against critique. Lucianna Gattass, for her part, notices a similar tendency toward the replacement of close reading (or any reading at all) with “Correlations, visualizations, maps, graphs, trees, and a general feeling of let-the-data-speak-for-itself.” It begins to seem as though the antagonisms of class, culture, and (yes) critique that once were thought to be themselves constitutive of literary knowledge, could be removed from disciplinary agendas altogether – so long as our written, spoken, and gestural objects are now countable, and more or less freely available to all.

Except that – the data don’t speak for themselves and Morretti, so far from denying the act of reading can be said more accurately to have expanded our readerly practices so that we can “focus” (as he writes) not on the relatively few canonical works but rather “on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems.” Whether or not we go on analyzing those select works that continue to be taught in classrooms (what for Morretti is an essentially religious holdover particularly prevalent in a never successfully secularized United States), the same conceptual skills can be applied to systems: Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system was already in place when Morretti introduced the term “distant reading” in 2000, and more recently we have the system of keywords, tags, and taxonomies that increasingly occupy literary scholars as the thousands of canonical and hundreds of thousands of non-canonical literary works are imported to databases.

While recognizing the ways that databases can help to distance ourselves “enough from distinct literary objects so as to be able to see the ‘big picture,’” Gattass holds onto the notion that reading, even if it is now supplemented by “algorithmic reading,” is still the central task of literary scholarship. Without disdaining the opportunity to build databases of her own, Boluk recommends a disposition that “resists the upgrade path and is unafraid to continue a process of painful self-reflection.” In what follows, I too explore some salient cultural expressions of the present uncritical, non-evaluative disposition. Even as our so-called social media can set up “barriers to collectivity” (Dean 120), 2 the present uncritical and distanced relation to literary databases can restrict the circulation of our own work as scholars. Close reading and critique, I want to argue, are precisely the activities that the database is capable of renewing, once it is recognized that reading, critiquing, and conversing have always been the elements of a cognitive or communicative economy and a worldly literary practice.

i. Accumulation Without Recognition

Infinity never was a very productive concept for literature, not even if we can today electronically preserve and archive all and every literary work, in print or generated digitally, along with every thought a given work might evoke. The sheer accumulation of online writing is easily grasped and just as readily visualized in the numerous photos of Kenneth Goldsmith variously positioned – standing, arms akimbo; lounging with head in hands at the Galeria Labor in Mexico City – among stacked boxes overflowing with paper sent to him from all over the world for his exhibit, “Printing Out the Internet.” In some ways, we’ve always known how easy it would be, and how boring ultimately, simply to begin collecting everything that’s ever been written and encountered (if not always read) by anyone anywhere in the world.

Historically, literary treatments of a culture’s productive power have to do not with material extensibility per se but with acts of reflection, dialogue, and contact through written words across cultures, geographical distances, institutional and national borders. Goethe’s “world literature,” for example, and Marx’s variation on the concept are clearly products of contemporary discourse networks. To be operative in the 18th and 19th centuries, these networks required the passing of selected works of textual and dramatic writing among individual minds using available means of exchange, that then change over time. Goethe’s sense of “a common world literature transcending national limits” recognized new modes of cultural “traffic,” not least between the French public who celebrated his dramatic work and his native Germany, which had not. 3 Marx also takes up a multi-national, infrastructural development in his equally well-known characterization of a “world literature” that would “arise” out of the “impossibility” of one-sided, nationalist and local literatures.

Another way of redirecting the idea of cultural production away from the numerical toward more cognitive and conceptual realms has been the literary conceit of the sublime. From Longinus to Fredric Jameson, the infinite itself is less important than the mind’s ability to grasp such a concept and so to separate oneself from the mere accumulation of works and moments passed encountering works. The sublime is a way, when confronting our human limits to make that recognition itself a part of our understanding, whether we confront a natural setting or more recent, technologically mediated environments that run beyond our abilities cognitively to “map” their workings and influencing. When things get interesting for literature, arguably where literariness itself enters, has always been when the mind reflects on its own, and our senses’, inability to grasp the infinite – even as we manage to name the concept and so overcome a sheer accumulation.

Does any of that change now? A turn to the Internet is in some ways a reminder that Kenneth Goldsmith has always been committed to an aesthetic (running now to its third decade) of “uncreative writing” whose primary discipline until now has been to avoid any and all reflexivity within the presented work, so that measurement, recording, and transcription can proceed without interruption:

While the web is effectively infinite, an archive of web pages is now seven petabytes, or 7,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. The Internet Archive, a non-profit attempt to build a web library, has about 350 bn pages in its collection. (Zak)

The stacked boxes of pages and pages, and Goldsmith barefoot in Panama cap and dark glasses may be less imposing than, say, the Romantic Sublime of Caspar David Friedrich, not least because Goldsmith’s paper stacks, unlike nature’s mountains overlooking the river Rhine, are all humanly produced and already textual, visual, or scored for sound. And they are all the same, indecipherable on most reproductions except where Goldsmith, or the photographer, has positioned one or more pages for separate viewing – a segment of a born digital work by one of Goldsmith’s art world compeers, for example, or (in the article reproduced from the Washington Post for the Guardian’s weekly edition of 23 August 2013), a photo of Aaron Swartz. These clear selective acts distinguish “Printing Out the Internet” from previous instances of Goldsmith’s transcriptive art, which by contrast has tended to equalize the archive by consistently promoting all that is uncreative, unreflective, and indiscriminate in contemporary discourse – e.g., the NYC area weather report, transcribed over months and some hundred pages in The Weather (2005); the Godard inspired tracking shot of Traffic (2007), and the complete transcript of the longest nine inning Major league Baseball game on record, in Sports (2008). This time, however, among all the papers, one carefully positioned photo belies the anti-intentionality of Goldsmith’s project. 4

“My gesture is dedicated to and inspired by him,” says Goldsmith. “Mine is a poetic gesture, a pataphysical gesture. His was a political gesture of liberation” (cited in Zak). Goldsmith doesn’t mention who exactly was liberated, and from what, by the free circulation of millions of scholarly articles. Swartz had hacked the academic database JSTOR and circulated its documents, which led to the young man’s suicide while awaiting federal charges. That one photo of Swartz then, would seem to alter the entire gist of an “uncreative” aesthetic – away from the gathering and recirculation of existing, crowd sourced texts and toward more of a reflection on the person of Swartz as an individual agent and spokesperson for accumulation as a goal in itself, and for all that is there to be made freely available to all by all.

What falls out of Goldsmith’s exhibit, as so often in works of visual art that turn on the materiality of written, typed, or scrolling texts, is any interest in the act of reading itself – and that too is consistent with Goldsmith’s “tribute” to Swartz because reading, and reflecting, was never a part of the young man’s project. (The federal courts were never interested in the political or subjective content of the stored academic documents, only in their proprietary nature.) We are able in Goldsmith’s work to locate not the text, whose materiality can only be experienced by being written, and read. Instead we have our attention drawn to the shy, smiling image of one young man who attempted a global circulation appropriate for these times of massive, though largely unreflective accumulation and mining of textual data.

The Publishing Event

There was a time, when I thought that the public life of an essay begins with journal publication. My sense is that the situation is quite different today. Inclusion in JSTOR feels more like the end of something, because the comments and criticisms an article can generate from colleagues who heard different versions, at conferences and on web sites or in editorial correspondence where ideas were worked out and talked through at various stages of composition, is nowhere visible alongside most published versions. Nor is it likely that the texts and critical arguments an author may cite, or citations and critical engagements the article may have initiated, will be available in the particular site of an article’s storage: for most of the citations in an essay collected in JSTOR or Project Muse, you need to exit the site and either locate referenced books or search elsewhere on the Internet (a task that is unlikely for scholars to undertake, or curators since the results of this tracking cannot be duplicated by scholars or curators coming later). Access to the stored article itself assumes that a reader belongs to an institution that has a subscription to the Hopkins site, or that she reaches the essay by searching explicitly on a title or keyword. That assumption is acceptable when accessing materials in support of pre-set tasks (e.g., promotion, tenure, and hiring) but it is a real block when one is in the process of researching and writing, which in my case is done online increasingly in a seamless process of enfolding sites and collecting citations from numerous web resources. (It does not help, once an essay is found, if it is presented in the ubiquitous PDF format that disallows clipping and pasting: this is one small but telling indication of the over-protection of documents and tacit discouragement of citation.)

In “Electronic Literature as World Literature,” Joseph Tabbi argues that the conversation around works was as much as anything what qualified a work as being authentically a “world fiction.” The colloquy between Goethe and his French supporters, in spoken conversations, reviews, audience reactions and the felt celebrity that surrounds the production of a play in the 18th century, may or may not be available today; I am not a specialist in this era, but I suspect the majority of such context in past centuries is lost to textual scholarship. It needn’t be lost today, not when so much of the reaction surrounding a work is generated on digital platforms and hence savable, and shareable directly and immediately within and across national borders (though not so often, as of yet, among scholarly databases). That worldly dimension of current literary practice, one would think, ought to be facilitated as a matter of course by those working within current media. And this would extend also to works of literary criticism, where contention and the exchange of competing interpretations and evaluations constitute the life of a literary work, whether performative, narrative, or critical.

That such conversations need to be trans-national and multi-lingual, as the great debates in literary theory always have been, is a criterion that should be possible to reproduce in a more robust way for an emerging world literary practice in networked media. But the presentation in academic journals, in which double blind peer review is the predominant measure of worthiness, mostly leaves out that robust, written responsiveness. Focusing on the isolated article might well serve a credentializing purpose: so long as one’s peers on editorial boards have read and commented on an essay, committees for tenure and promotion needn’t look further for evidence of influence – and hence there is little motivation for journal readers to register public responses to books or articles in the medium where these appear, by an audience that is not pre-selected.

That sort of unsponsored response is more likely to be generated not in formal review processes but rather during live presentations at conferences or during focused, online gatherings. Indeed, the presence of conversational threads on Twitter is cited as a defining feature of the current rise of the digital humanities. But not a tweet is to be seen, once a presentation is published in the majority of peer-reviewed journals in print or online. We’ve gotten used to separating publication from the collegial conversations that lead to and away from printed works; that is one of many essentially cultural (not inherently professional or scholarly) habits that is under pressure when so much of what we say in conferences and on blogs is now textual, and hence recoverable. Yet there is no real reason why, in current networks, comments on any one literary work in combination with networked keywords, tags, and taxonomies cannot lead readers organically to other, related works, essays, and commentaries: that is the single most distinctive affordance of new media for the construction of a literary field because it is a kind of record that can allow readers a sense of the life of a scholarly essay as it comes into being and generates dialogue, fosters consensus and provokes contention.

But the identifiers, the keywords, tags, and taxonomies – these need to be devised by scholars no less than the critical works themselves, if our work is not to be lost within powerful search engines devised with other, non-literary connections in mind.

Algorithmic Accolades

Matt Kirschenbaum perceives how online conversations concurrent with a work’s presentation can help to describe the newness of new media, when he notes for example the way Twitter has become one of the driving forces that brings digital humanists together and aware of themselves as part of a movement. Twitter, Kirschenbaum writes, “more than any other technology or platform is – at the very moment when digital humanities is achieving its institutional apotheosis – the backchannel and professional grapevine for hundreds of people who self-identify as digital humanists.” (417)

When conversation (like the Internet, an “essentially infinite” commodity) is made tangible in this way, there’s a tendency for people to be interested not so much in the topic of conversation as in the social activity itself – “who follows who, who friends who, who retweets who, and who links to what.” (Kirschenbaum 411) An obvious danger here is not just that a greater portion of our textual activity is given to power relations (taking time away from the description of literary works and sharing of ideas about works). That is how reputations have always been generated, not least during the formation of the “star system” of literary theory in the 1980s, which Kirschenbaum references. But an even greater danger of such community formation in the era of Twitter, Kirschenbaum notes, is that the “mappings” of influence “are self-perpetuating, so that those who are currently identified as influential users in a given topic space will accumulate even more followers as a result of their visibility through the ‘Who to Follow’ feature, which will in turn contribute to reinforcing their ranking by the algorithm.” (424)

As in Goldsmith’s Internet printout, a universal equality quickly becomes something quite different, not eliminating social and professional hierarchies but reinforcing them through programming and viral networking. That kind of self-perpetuation and reduction of collegial attention to talking points from a few notables (against the dim background of many, many power point presentations) can certainly endanger what one would want to see as the distributed conversation around a worldwide diversity of literary writing emerging with, and accessible on, the Web. That is to say, the tendencies inherent in self-perpetuating social media can reproduce the tendency in print to promote works by virtue of established reputations or positioning within a quasi-canon. The works that get read by many are those that have been read by many, and this can be more homogenizing in its effects than what could be achieved by the most hegemonic publishing conglomerate, or through the undying great books that are taught (to the tests, not to students) in schools in the United States.

Kirschenbaum’s comments reveal how Twitter, while encouraging diffuse commentary and a widespread registering of opinions, can end up excluding criticism: the interpretation of cited texts and the articulation of positions that require defense at some length, or support in the form of extended arguments by interlocutors. The self-perpetuating logic Kirschenbaum so astutely observes in the Twitter conversations, like the “apotheosis” of the digital humanities that opens Kirschenbaum’s essay, both are to do less with any newly emerging conceptual framework for literary or cultural study or alternative sets of literary objects for appreciation, and more with a group of scholars coming to self-consciousness as participating in a new mode of assembling and talking about literary objects as objects, not as works to be read. Any cognitive or critical engagement is, literally, immaterial when we can have such a focused, largely unreflective presentation of how much written work, or how many adherents to, say ‘digital humanities,’ ‘deconstruction,’ or “new historicism,’ are present at a given time; how many unread books from past centuries are at last scanned, collected, and their words mined (but still largely unread); or how many times an article or passage is cited, etc.

Franco Moretti’s coinage, “distant reading,” and the numerous data mining projects with which he has become associated, marks a fitting conclusion to the problem he noted less than a decade ago in his previous incarnation as a Comparative Literature scholar mildly guilt ridden over having focused so exclusively on a small subset of European literatures. In Moretti’s estimation, the field referenced by the term “world literature” amounted to a “modest intellectual enterprise fundamentally limited to Western Europe, and mostly revolving around the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature). Not much more.” 5 Moretti’s essay appeared in the year 2000, before his own efforts through databases (and an edited encyclopedia of 2005) to expand the availability of literary works beyond the confines of Western scholarship. In the essay, Moretti recognized that accumulation alone would not correct the fundamental problem: “there are thirty thousand nineteenth-century British novels out there, forty, fifty, sixty thousand—no one really knows, no one has read them, no one ever will. And then there are French novels, Chinese, Argentinian, American . . . .” Reading more, surely, is all to the good but “the sheer enormity of the task makes it clear that world literature cannot be literature, bigger; what we are already doing, just more of it. It has to be different. The categories have to be different.”

If it is impossible for any person or impracticable for any group to read the tens of thousands of unread novels worldwide, it certainly is possible now – easy, even, and fundable – to scan these pages and include them in databases. In this way, verbal tendencies within textual objects, rather than achieved masterpieces, might be revealed and the development of the novel for example, its shifting word frequencies and turns of phrasing, its regional variations, can be contextualized within the textual discourse we have newly available from these pre-digital times. That is the altogether new context we have – and the early results are promising – for developing through literary databases a fuller picture of a large cross-section of published authors through the ages who may have addressed common issues outside the field of canonical works and perhaps inflected and disturbed the canon in surprising ways. 6 The semantic fields observable in novels published in industrial cities of nineteenth century England are shown for example to have become over time harder, less abstract and less constrained than semantic fields observed in “evangelical, gothic, and village novels” that emerged in “traditional, smaller, rural communities.” (Liu 413) These are impressive, data driven results but are they attainable without conventional scholarly intervention? Hardly. Alan Liu, by closely reading the procedure of Moretti’s Stanford colleagues, Ryan Heuser and Long Le Khac, shows that nothing more, or less, than a conventional articulation of a scholarly program for study is needed to tease out meanings through current mining practice. The formation of meaningful “word cohorts” in the above referenced novels, for example, required nothing other than a traditional print thesaurus – specifically, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009), whose taxonomies had been assembled and categorized using paper slips, submitted by hundreds of readers working for, or more often with, the University of Glasgow from1965 onward.

After Liu’s collegial, corrective intervention in the debate on digital humanities, there is more to say about this telling turn to earlier forms of data collection – which model a true reciprocity among authors and readers, scholars and amateur collectors that is very much at risk in digital collections sponsored by corporate and commercial concerns. As John Cayley suggests in his account of the current move not simply to collect, but to capture data, the problem of searchability has implications for longstanding assumptions about what it is we’re accessing and searching – whether it is indeed the literary commons scholars in the West have long assumed to be our heritage, or if the literary field is not already being enclosed, differently but no less clearly than the way our essays are enclosed in institutional databases. Cayley turns his attention not just to literary texts and scholarly essays but the very words that writers of all descriptions offer up to corporate search engines every time we agree (knowingly or not) to the terms of use that are required by our enrolment in Google and Facebook (his two primary examples). “The underlying transactions and the relationships” devolved in such contractual relations are very different, Cayley notes, “from any that arise when you or I take down our dictionary to look up a word.” (13) Unlike JSTOR, Google lets readers search among its more than 20 million scanned books. 7 Browsing is encouraged. Reading them is another matter, however, since pages are purposely left out when the book is called up on our screen. 8 But the gathering, channeling, and filtering of what has been, until now, a literary commons, changes “[o]ur very relation to language and literature,” since now our ability to range among words and works is contractual, “made unilaterally explicit by contemporary service providers.” (14) Whether or not academic and institutional collections follow the current transactional model, or make data open access, could well determine whether mind-to- mind, reader to reader, trafficking is kept open as a potential or is reduced to a set of controlled possibilities.

A key difference between past and present discourse and publication networks, is that the conversation that takes place in a wider range of media, both print and born digital, can today be monitored, and studied, at the time when the conversation is produced and in the medium that scholars have literally at hand while participating in live presentations. These materials, unlike the circulation of papers in previous eras, mostly course through commercial devices and browser interfaces. Much of that is again ephemeral for the ones who enter thoughts into textual networks, but the omnipresence of networked communications in databases (which retain posts regardless of the intention of senders and receivers) suggests a real opportunity for scholarship, namely: by designing our own open access databases, we generate materials for a continuous and developing investigation into cultural contexts and conversations that might otherwise be lost to us, as they have been largely lost to other lives in times past.

It is all too easy, given the barriers to constructing quasi-independent databases, for scholars, editors, and curators to pass over this opportunity and leave a database literary construction to private enterprises and academic consortia. We have yet to devise the academic version of Wikipedia featuring (in John Cayley’s words) “the attributed, time-stamped editorial event on platform… for the future of scholarly knowledge building and dissemination.” We have yet to see the widespread, “active and sympathetic engagement of commensurate institutions such as universities and publishing houses,” in such crowd sourced endeavors.

One would hope, as Wikipedia has achieved a presence comparable to Google and Facebook, that these and other open access literary databases might achieve a presence comparable to that of JSTOR and The Internet Archive (where Heuser and LeKach found their sample of 19th century novels). If interoperability and search-ability among scholarly databases cannot be achieved, it would be a serious missed opportunity during a time when scholarship and teaching is certainly expanding but in ways that create a significant class divide within our ranks. Here is the kind of decontextualized posting we can look forward to, more and more often as the proportion of itinerant, untenured scholars and school teachers increases vis a vis tenured scholars working in protected enclosures. I chose, among sites presently on my dashboard, a top-level comment from one Nora, who awarded one of five stars to the Prendergast volume I’ve been citing throughout this essay, Debating World Literature:

Awful. Bordering on useless. There are solid and interesting notions in the essays I looked over, but they are so obnoxiously presented and so clearly hell-bent on limiting the discourse to the contributors and their half-dozen academic acquaintences, high-fiving each other for their acadmic prowess in department offices, that it's hardly worth the trouble for me or my students. Sometimes academic essays like these are over the readers' heads. And sometimes, as in this case, they're pompous and not conducive to a larger conversation. 9

In literary databases and consortia I myself access regularly – such as the Electronic Literature Directory, the French Language NT2, the Australian Open Humanities Press, or the European ELMCIP Knowledge Base whose contributors focus on identifying literary qualities and opening critical conversations around born digital scholarship and writing – the practice has been to extend the model of peer review beyond tenured scholars (and those aspiring to tenure) to the students themselves, whether graduate or undergrad, that many of us (like Nora, presumably) encounter from year to year, and day by day. That expansion of a properly critical and cognitive engagement might on the one hand create a new object of study available for public reflection by readers and scholars at all levels. Rather than encourage an object oriented expression of likes and dislikes, accounting for migrations to or from a given field or practice, we had better channel the vast demand for written expression toward databases designed to measure and mediate literary values. A critical cognitive orientation also has the considerable merit, on the other hand, of creating an audience for literature among our own students (and theirs, since most of my students and perhaps many of Nora’s will become teachers themselves at various levels from grade school to grad school; and some might even become lifelong readers).

iv. Current Trade in Knowledge Production

Patrick Svensson sees “the digital humanities” not (like Kirschenbaum) as a school or cultural discourse on a par with deconstruction or new historicism but rather “a trading zone or meeting place” closer to the world literature model that has inspired Moretti and Tabbi. Svensson for his part, finds in digital humanities (DH) a way of extending the conceptual and reflective level of conversations and exchange beyond the bounds of a literary discipline or Program toward cultural exchanges that promise again to infuse the literary into a wide range of performative and artistic practices, no less than academic ones:

I am attempting an alternative model based on the digital humanities as a meeting place, innovation hub, and trading zone (see McCarty for an earlier discussion of humanities computing as a methodology-oriented trading zone). Such a notion highlights some qualities of the digital humanities – including its commitment to interdisciplinary work and deep collaboration – that could attract individuals both inside and outside the tent with an interest in the digital humanities.

“Arguably,” Svensson continues, “such bridge building and the bringing together of epistemic traditions is not optimally done from the position of discipline or department.” And that is a key difference from the “school” movement of deconstruction mentioned by Kirschenbaum (which has been intensely, and by virtue of its linguistic self-consciousness exclusively, academic with a primary residence in Departments of English and Comparative Literature). The trajectory of a digital project like Svensson’s that is keyed to performance and arts practice, presumably could include Creative Writing also which, like DH, rose up largely in opposition to “theory.” 10 But Creative Writing (CW) offers a cautionary tale as well, since its rise arguably (in the U.S. at least) reinforced academic specialization rather than multiplied chances for trans-disciplinary collaboration. And this is so even if the specialty was (in the case of writing) relocated from the commercial publishing sphere to an academic address where entrepreneurial expressive practices – the forging of an individual style or voice and the cultural construction of the accomplished author of “original” works of fiction and poetry – could be developed largely without entering into conversations with what was going on in other departments, or in older literary practices. 11

By contrast with both “theory” of the 1970s and 1980s, and Creative Writing’s more widespread, exceptional institutional location in the past two or three decades in the United States, the digital humanities emerge in a “liminal” position that Svensson sees not “as a problem but rather an important quality.” (47) Instead of being either an academic discipline or an “industrial sector in its own right” (Svensson citing Matt Ratto and Robert Ree, 47), the digital humanities are to play “a mediating role, one that is uniquely facilitated by institutions of higher education with our intersectional meeting places.” Svensson’s and McCarty’s model is attractive in that it carries the meta level of a worldly literary practice and potential (one hesitates to say, “tradition” 12) into the fully technologized present and also (in McCarty’s case) brings to literature the same conceptual framework that had emerged powerfully during the rise of cybernetics in the 1970s. That consolidation was itself a second generation outgrowth of meetings of the Cybernetics group at the Macy Conference from 1946-53 that included social scientists such as Talcott Parsons and cultural anthropologists such as Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, a neurophysiologist and psychiatrist such as Warren McCullough, an advisor to wartime governments such as Norbert Wiener (who coined the term “cybernetics”), and the mathematician John von Neumann no less than representatives from the first generation of computer scientists. That institutional background is potentially as suggestive a model for trans-disciplinary conversation in DH, as is any single concept in the literary field which informs (for example) the work of “cybertextual formalists” like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, the media specific approach to electronic literature by N. Katherine Hayles (who explored the Macy conferences in her earlier work on posthumanism), and the “craft-based encounter with computational resources” that Stuart Moulthrop uses to describe his own practice as an author of literary works that employ and divert media affordances and contend with coded structures. The latter formulation informs my own position respecting the location of literature as such within databases – which in my view is the place where transactions among literature and the sciences can best be realized, and made visible to readers and scholars alike whether or not they come to the practice with programming skills.

Along with the necessary phases of para-institutional collaboration, we have also an important conceptual shift in cybernetic thought away from informatics toward more cognitive exchanges. This too might apply to Svensson’s conception of the digital humanities as a trading zone for knowledge in the literary arts and sciences. Bruce Clarke articulates the shift away from a “first order” cybernetics that had to do with problems of feedback between a system and its environment to a more self-referential, “second order cybernetics” that takes into account the observer’s influence on the systems under observation. Where first order, first generation cybernetics still regarded the “environment” as a source of information whose retrieval and analysis could help control a system’s development, second-order approaches saw the feedback loop differently. Feedback happened not so much between a system and the environment as between one system and another, across boundaries that each partially shared. That was not so much a model of control as one of self-reflection based on one’s encounter with self-contained others, an encounter in which certain operations are shared, some reinforced and others corrected, and other things are left unknown, remaining part of the unexplored environment, the ever widening potential for other concepts, other approaches to the materials at hand.

“The disentanglement between informatics and cognition is key” in the distinction between a first- and second-order cybernetics.13 The distinction pointed to by Clarke could be productively carried over into the digital humanities. Projects for “mining” literary texts, for example, would not end at a statistical analysis of patterns and frequency among verbal and alphabetical objects, but would move into areas of reflection and evaluation – not least one’s self-understanding as participants in an emerging field. Steps toward that self-understanding seem to me to be present in the analyses cited so far by Kirschenbaum and Svensson, though they might be more fully realized in the context of a second order cybernetics and cognitive economy, to which I now turn in conclusion.

v. A New New Deal for Capitalism and a Renewed Aesthetic for Digital Writing

While the literary database enables one to register media specificity and verbal content in each work referenced, making all that available for forensic purposes, the discussion around works is what enables its recognition as literature, a literature that is plausibly global in the sense that it can be accessed across databases in an Internet that is itself sustained and reproduced through the collective efforts of lawmakers, engineers, readers, and occasionally scholars in touch with one another, learning from one another or, better still, productively misunderstanding one another. (Recall David Damrosch’s criterion for world literature as that which gains in translation – presumably because one must fill in untranslatable content from one language, or field, with formulations that re-form or defamiliarize one’s own language or discipline. What is World Literature 33)

In closing, I want to suggest a way of designating current work emerging in new media that is distinct from earlier categorizations. The difference between literary arts in new media and those carried over from our legacy texts in print, can be thought of as homologous to the difference between a conventional capitalist economy grounded in assembly line work and commodity production, and a cognitive capitalism "based on the cooperative labor of human brains joined together in networks by means of computers." (Cognitive Capitalism 57) That such an economy, described by Yann Moulier Boutang, is itself as yet potential (and could also be “stillborn” after the 2008 upheavals and uneven recovery) only increases its suggestiveness as an appropriate context for an equally uncertain global literary development. Not least, excessive protections on intellectual property rights and the enclosure of gathered content clearly threaten the interoperability among databases and circulation of ideas on which a literary and economic development in new media must depend.

Boutang looks not to cultural aspects of the new capitalism per se, but rather its creation of forms of wealth that depend “on the time of life and on the superabundance of knowledge.” (4) He looks to models of production not grounded in re-industrialisation but in a revaluation of ecological resources – whose longstanding, largely irreplaceable value can only be recognized and communicated through the same immaterial labor and collective intelligence we have assembling currently in databases worldwide. Environmental resources (so-called) typically have been registered by economists as “externalities,” and then ignored; their “scarcity” has been a measure of market value only, not the value of accumulations that often exceed human lifetimes (the work of forestation over hundred-year stretches, for example, photosynthesis through millennia in the production of coal, and so forth). These processes external to human and industrial labor obviously can no longer be ignored today, and yet their value (and our real needs) still have to be determined discursively, protected through laws and enforced by governments. The laws themselves, as much as the cultivation of “[s]cience and knowledge” are themselves “quasi-goods” under development, and part of that development means imparting sufficient authority to science so that what we know through science can influence our laws and our collective consumption.

With Boutang, we can distinguish a next generation capitalism grounded in cognitive transactions that are recordable and so capable of being revalued, and distinguished from earlier, industrial figurations of the real:

The appeal to a “real” economy has to take into account both material pollination (ecology) and immaterial pollination (the economy of the mind) 14.... A new New Deal, which contented itself with “re-launching” the old material economy, would offer a bad combination of the military/petroleum complexes, the automobile corporations and the ultraconservative reflexes of rentiers and retirees. (190)

To Boutang’s list of outdated valuations from “the old material economy,” we might add the perpetuation of the old ideal of the self-standing, original author-genius whose work (and livelihood, and contribution to the wealth of the publishing industry or institutions of higher education) needs to be protected by copyright. If copyright continues to be hardened, however, we will have blocked off not only a running conversation among current works generated primarily in new media environments, but also our seamless access to a print heritage that developed mostly in the nineteenth century to encourage and protect original authorship not collaborative networked literary creation. 15 What amounts to the same thing – a hardening of authorial protections – is the determination of “fair use” on a case by case basis, which tends to give the right to define what’s “fair” to any established corporate body (a publisher, an academic conglomerate) that is capable of bringing a charge against users possessing fewer resources, not least scholars citing passages in texts (without which activity, naturally, there can be no literary scholarship to speak of).

A common critique of cognitive capitalism, is that mind to mind exchanges do not find a necessary traction in material production so that value is able to accrue: like neo-liberal capitalism generally, the circulation of cognitive capital can all too easily become “less a strategy for production than for the transfer of wealth to the rich.” (Dean 122-3) Since finance in a capitalist society always will be first among informational and communicative exchanges, the accrual of money will always come before any recognized growth in knowledge – and this is true of JSTOR whose justification is that its online institutional subscriptions provide a revenue stream that is no longer maintained by individual and library subscriptions to the print publication. 16 But since the journals and their articles in JSTOR remain unconnected to one another, there is little chance that any cross-pollination among reading minds can be observed or created in their digitized pages. What value these journals may have is referential, and it derives from the hundreds of years of cultural capital accumulated in a corpus of literary works kept in circulation by classroom use only. For Roland Barthes in the 1970s, the creation of a literary canon was already tautological: “Literature is what gets taught, that’s all.” And as we’ve seen, the tautological, once installed in databases, tends to recirculate in ever reinforcing patterns: the works that are taught, are taught again even as those scholars who are cited, are cited again and again.

Fortunately, these previously established values are renewable endlessly and they can go on being mined indefinitely, unlike accruals of geological wealth over periods extending much longer than the time of their present extraction by humans. But what’s needed, if the classics are ever to have a wider circulation (a thought that troubled Ezra Pound’s sleep), is for the conversations, precisely by the Barthes’s and Pounds of our own time, to enter into circulation along with comments by students, teachers, and what might still become a general audience cultivated within but not restricted to institutions of higher education.

And what about works that our own technoculture is producing at the present moment? What might such an accrual look like in a cognitive literary economy? The “quasi-objects” that scholarship produces, arguably, are its selection of works for continued attention (or studied negligence) in various media for various reasons. But for this to happen, as Morretti rightly asserts, the “categories” need to change and that means a studied and systematic description of literal categorizing elements that define a database construction, namely: tags and keywords and taxonomies that allow readers to collect numerous works into some recognizable genre or collective praxis. Our taxonomies, essentially, become the “quasi-objects” that belong to scholarship, and that is what we can convey to non-scholars in an extended cognitive economy. But the hesitancy in current media environments to evaluate anything at all, consistent with the otherwise admirable tendency to include all and everything in our funded databases, obscures this still operational objective for the formation of a literary and scholarly field.

It has been my contention in this essay that a cognitive literary economy, while by no means inevitable conceivably can take hold within current communicative contexts. One might cite for example the “new media object” that Lev Manovich defines “as one or more interfaces to a multimedia database.” (Language of New Media, cited in Moulthrop) The project Manovich calls "cultural transcoding," in which non-computational activities become infused by forms, practices, and ideas from information technology, can happen at the level of database construction. In fact such transcoding is happening apace, as part of the knowledge economy. For literary academia to enter that economy in significant ways, it is advisable for scholars to do more than extend computational activities to the work – its words, its letters, its paratexts. We need also to locate ourselves and extend our own social, intellectual, and creative activities within networks of our own making (rather than offering these things up to exploitation by corporate networks in which value is reduced to likes and dislikes that can be used for purposes of mining and marketing, not the creation of broad based literary and cultural valuations).

Under such conditions, a renewal of literary studies would happen not in this or that school or institutional location, but in the space of the database itself, understood as a meeting place for those conversations as well as the collaborative creation of new literary works. In an essay published in the electronic book review, Stuart Moulthrop suggests a way for writers to inflect Manovich’s definition towards the literary, namely: the work of citational composition may be regarded as itself the creation of an interface to a database. That kind of citational composition, in which any of the “essentially infinite” works now circulating through the Internet can at any time be enfolded into a current composition, be it creative or analytical, is what counts as a kind of wealth accruing to our work as literary authors. That is the “quasi-object,” what can accrue only from close reading and critique – the very practices that Moretti and Latour identified as having receded in recent times. They have rather relocated, within the very systems and networks that Morretti and Latour have studied and to some extent construct within their own burgeoning academic networks. These activities ought not to be abandoned nor their print traces merely scanned and stored in archives whose enclosures are if anything more strict than the bounded book format. Critique and close reading needn’t be reimagined or reasserted so much as relocated to current environments where the ability to count, and account for, citations is a bonus not a diversion from more properly scholarly and creative concerns.

There does not need to be an “electronic literature” within or outside the tent of the digital humanities, any more than the idea of a world literature was ever more than a potential, a direction sensed in the course of conversations among authors. To stay with our French point of reference (they were the source of Goethe’s great hopes, anyway), we might follow Antoine Campanon and call this citational writing at the interface, “Recriture.” Whatever the term we settle on, we are clearly in a moment of recombination, not originality. But we’ve yet to see, really, what might come of the recombinant practices that a truly interoperable consortium of literary databases could enable. An earlier inability to link one literary work to another, and one reader to another through an unimpeded cultural “traffic,” arguably is what held back the development, in print, of a "world literature" worthy of the name. Let us not make the same mistake at a time when the literary database can offer much more than the present, largely non-communicating accumulation of written work in protected enclosures.


  1. 1. The panel was organized by the Electronic Literature Organization for its bi-annual conference in Morgantown, West Virginia (June 20-23, 2011). back

  2. 2. As the compulsion to turn literature into data (and the “upgrade path“) inspires a return to critique in Gattass and Boluk, the exploitation by “free” media of our time, attention, and basic sociality rejuvenates older political models in Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon. back

  3. 3. Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig, cited in Prendergast 2; Marx is cited by Moretti in Prendergast 148. back

  4. 4. Swartz is there in my shelved copy of the Guardian Weekly (reproduced with this article) but is nowhere visible in any of the other reviews and photos I found on the Internet circa September 2013; the exhibit ran from July 26 to August 31. back

  5. 5. Morretti’s essay appears in Prendergast (page 148 -162) and was published initially in The New Left Review 1 (January February 2000, accessed November 2012 at back

  6. 6. I say “published authors,” not “people” because unlike today, only published authors in previous centuries could leave a textual trace in the vicinity of their canonical cousins. To track down letters by members of the public who might comment on a work or even employ tropes and techniques they had learned, consciously or unconsciously, from reading novels would require pre-screening a wide body of dispersed writings and in each case evaluating them humanely. back

  7. 7. The books, remarkably, were gathered mostly from local U.S. libraries whose collections had been freely available to visitors. Regarding conditions of labor, and the strict separation between workers on the Google campus and the scanning facility in Southern California, see Andrew Norman Wilson, “Workers Leaving the Googleplex.” (accessed November 2013). back

  8. 8. The omissions are what enabled the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to rule in Google’s favor (after a nine-year period when Google could test its legal limits) that the scanning was acceptable according to terms of “fair use” – since material could be searched and browsed but not read in its entirety. (The decision was reported in The International New York Times November 16-17, 2013.) Where “fair use” had in general protected print scholarship (which needs to cite liberally to progress), the legal term has in this instance been used to foreclose any unimpeded scholarly use of books scanned by Google in the online site where the works are encountered. The “trafficking” that was regarded as essential to 19th-century visions of world literature, is unlikely to be realized in the transactional, communicative exchanges that are envisioned by a corporate, multi-national entity such as Google. back

  9. 9. Posted August 22, 2009 and accessed 4 November 2013 in the Google Books entry: back

  10. 10. There are of course creative practitioners trained in both, CW and theory. Ralph M. Berry and Curtis White and many others in the FC2 collective, are prominent examples but that group (which emerged in the 1970s under Ronald Sukenick’s leadership, precisely as an alternative to the rise of corporate publishing) is the exception that proves the rule of separation among disciplinary activities. back

  11. 11. Mark McGurl tells the story of the emergence of Creative Writing that followed the flight to Universities of authors who made their careers in the predominantly New York City based publishing world, at a time when serious literature and the “mid-list novel” could still be subsidized by best sellers. back

  12. 12. The hesitation is lessened if, with Svensson, we speak not of a literary tradition but rather of multiple “epistemic traditions” that can join literature and science not in terms of common disciplinary objects or outcomes, but in terms of a converging ethos, ontology, or epistemological self-understanding. (Debating Digital Humanities 46) back

  13. 13. Clarke identifies the 1970s as a “seminal moment of their effective separation… when second-order cybernetics and autopoietic systems theory converge to posit a non-informatic conception of cognition. The systems theory gathering up this conceptual unfolding we are calling second-order systems theory.” Neocybernetics and Narrative, manuscript page 13 (an expanded version of the “Systems Theory” chapter in Clarke’s and Rossini’s Routledge Companion). back

  14. 14. Pollination can be understood in the words of Nigel Thrift in his forward to Cognitive Capitalism, “as the production and management of publics and their opinions, which act both as supply and as demand – fuel and means of combustion.” (viii) back

  15. 15. Even our heritage texts, many of them, are cut off from circulation in new media through the 120-year protective period given to print works in the United States and extended to the patentability of software, despite the efforts of Laurence Lessig who took this “Millenium Law” of 1998 to the Supreme Court. (Boutang 107) back

  16. 16. The various editors gathered at “The Scholarly Journal,” a panel at the January 2011 MLA in Boston, agreed that subscriptions to the online publication are now the primary way that scholarly publication is subsidized. back

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