Tag Archives: Ted Underwood

Marx, Agamben, literary history and Underwood

I think Ted Underwood’s Distant Horizonsis probably the first book about computational literary studies, stylometry that I would feel confident in recommending to anyone interested in literature and not just other grad students who analyse it via stats, for the reason that the findings are so interesting on their own terms, not just because it advances promising lines of flight for the discipline, though it does that too.

The pace of change in detective versus sci-fi writing

Some of Underwood’s most interesting findings include i) the notion that the novel is a generic excrescence from biography, with a preference for physical description and sense-perception at the expense of more intricate and conceptual language, ii) that detective fiction is a far more coherent genre across time than science-fiction is and iii) segmented gender roles have become increasingly difficult to identify in fiction over the past two hundred years, and instances in which these divisions are maintained are primarily within texts written by men. By rendering these findings in the form of headlines I omit the clarifiers to which they are subject and the methods through which they were devised and I thereby do a disservice to Underwood’s work. I can only recommend that you take the time to read it yourself, as this blog will be more invested in taking up the notion of periodisation in his work by way of his previous work, Why Literary Periods Mattered.

The words which correlate with fiction (left) and those which correlate with biography (right)

If Underwood’s two books have a common ground between them, it is to challenge the terms by which literary criticism, and literary history specifically, operates. His first book provides a short history of the various institutional, historical and national interests to which the survey course, the particular modular approach in which literary history is rationalised and doled out into discrete eras or temporally bound discourses such as elizabethan, victorian, modernist etc.

The bifurcation of fiction + biography

Underwood relates the institutionalisation of these periods in university curricula to the concerns of nineteenth century historiography, and how they sustained themselves via the pre-requisites of what Gramsci would have referred to as the cultural imperatives of Fordism. Underwood does so by way of Gellner, arguing that they formed an apparatus within the nation state’s cultural legitimation: a heterogenous but shared literary history belied by an essential deep structure provides the foundation on which a collective identity may be founded.

Periodisation is therefore enormously productive, not least because it allows us to render literary history intelligible to undergraduates within increasingly industrialised universities, but it undermines our research in a number of ways. The account Underwood presents of modernist scholars nuancing what it is that makes their subject area unique versus that of their victorian colleagues (the birth of the individual, the shifting modalities of industrialisation, the growing of a gulf between the rural versus urban) rings true, and it is in this spirit that Underwood proposes his own longue duréemodel of literary history, where these changes are subsumed within much broader histories otherwise imperceptible to scholars used to focusing on quite narrow sections of the literary timeline. This would bring us to one of the more engaging findings in the book that I mentioned earlier; Underwood’s analysis does not identify the classic rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, the achievement of its classical apex in the nineteenth and its explosion in the early years of the twentieth, but rather a differentiation from non-fiction and biography along a far longer time frame. None of this necessarily invalidates the models which have been erected upon this schema; as Underwood notes, close reading needs to be a part of any literary history and far exceeds the capacity of quantitative methods at a more fine-grained textual level.

Despite the fact that I also agree with Owen Hatherley’s contention that gradualist theories of cultural production versus ones of breach and fissure are quite boring, I am with Underwood on this, as any new re-conceptualisation of literary history does need to contend with the fact that discreet phases of time are quite rarely represent decisive shifts, so much as what Lee Oser refers to as different stages in the digestion of the same metaphysic. Since coming around to stylometry myself, I’ve become more and more drawn to this notion of literary history. I nevertheless contend it leaves us with a number of other problems which I will sketch out by way of Agamben.

I was struck, when reading Agamben over the past few weeks, just how distinct his notion of temporality is when compared to that of literary criticism. It seems philosophy has far more elastic temporal boundaries as a discipline. I wouldn’t be the first to criticise Agamben’s shortcomings in respect of his speaking in broad and idealistic terms about particular intellectual trends which were fashionable or, insofar as we can tell, dominant in a particular conjuncture and thereby taking them as as representative, so we move from Aristotle to Kant to Hegel, Arendt, Heidegger, Benjamin, early modern painters and Foucault’s tendency subsume the whole of history, from the earliest of these thinkers to the last to an Entire History, which germs of the same apparatuses, laws of capture are operating effectively in perpetuity. Agamben does allow some history to emerge here and there with regard to civil liberties since 9/11 and the securitisation of the neoliberal subject, the concentration of domestic policing is one which is often missed within an contemporary account of economic forces, but these are few and far between, his notion begins with Foucault’s notion of governmentality and the instrumentalisation of the ‘mass’.

I could go on to wonder about the highly Western nature of these accounts and why the concentration camp became, for Agamben, the paradigmatic mode of being, if we accept this, and I’m not sure we should, surely we should be starting with imperialism, the training grounds for any given security state, or Prussia, rather than the civic/political divide instantiated in Aristotle’s philosophy or how Agamben reminds me of Arrighi’s critique of Gramsci which said that between coercion and consent Gramsci never contends with the kind of real social power the capitalist class have access to by virtue of their control over the means of payment and that this state of exception is in fact a disguised norm and I sort of already have, but I won’t for much longer, suffice it to say that Agamben is fairly dead set on rendering this as a logical rather than an historical argument, which is annoying. As opposed to three diagrams of two circles overlaping to varying extents you could just tell me about the British Empire.

There’s something in Agamben’s approach that touches off some of Underwood’s institutional history of comparative literature (which I hope to see him return to, there’s the germ here of a far more substantial and lengthy study that I would really relish reading about English studies pedagogy and material interest), namely, his tendency towards perennialisation, which runs parallel I think, to critiques of new modernist studies, such as one authored by identified here by Gayle Rogers. The earliest I’ve yet heard the emergence of modernist form put back to is now the fourteenth century, whereas previously I would have understood it as a pre-war phenomenon, with some fragmentary bits of proto-modernism floating around Paris in the 1850s. As Rogers argues, modernism has accumulated some degree of cachet over the past number of years and the identification of previously overlooked authors or movements as modernist, especially when they were quite avowedly not, has become sort of necessary for a new generation of grad students. To put it in more straightforward terms, there’s significant amounts of pressure behind researchers to, in the pursuit of ever-shrinking amounts of grant money, well-paid positions, to re-invent the literary-historical wheel every time they write a book. This is why Underwood’s repudiation of Marxian historiography within this overall critique of periodisation, in the same clause as Saint-Simon and Spengler (!!) are referred to, is so mystifying, as if Marx was of a kind with these two in erecting two historical moments on either side of a crevasse and never the twain shall meet. It’s a particular bugbear of minethat people read Marx’s early and polemic writings as all about the grand and powerful dialectic bestriding the planet when anyone who has taken the time to read his major works that if you are interested in how the old contains within it the seed of the new and the new the remnants of a transformed old, there is no one but no one you should be reading more attentively than Marx. It’s a bit of a shame that Underwood, who places machine learning at the centre of a new departure for quantitative literary studies precisely because of its capacity to open up computational logic to greater degrees of fuzziness and exploration is more indebted to a notion of Marxism as stagist rather than a really good way of grounding and articulating the relationship between concept and the material evidence available for it within particular contexts.

I author this more than slightly hectoring paragraph because Underwood is very aware that the most significant issues within literary criticism are structural, which is why his anecdote about a Google founder recommending teaching literary history in computer science departments rather than trying to develop the latter within English departments so chilling; this is a properly convincing solution. If periodisation represents a problem though, there needs to be some serious thought about how a posited solution doesn’t create further problems or pass over them as if they were not there. For one, in order for us and our various regimes of knowledge production to make it to the other end of the century, history is going to have to change quite quickly, everywhere and even if gradualism is a more accurate approach, and machine learning is less messianic than many of the claims which were made for DH in its early days (which has definitely been, and remains a problem) we should be wary of shedding some sense of the revolutionary altogether.