impressionistic criticism

On trolling.

Does our fixation on the character of “the troll” obscure a deeper problem — that the Internet allows us to continuously troll ourselves?

"Troll," by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
“Troll,” by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
Since trolls monopolize every discussion they’re involved in, it should come as no surprise that reflection on trolling itself tends to be preoccupied by the persona of the troll. Wikipedia, for instance, discusses trolling only as a subtopic in its article on “internet trolls.” This sounds straightforward enough: surely, trolling means behaving like a troll. But a more interesting question opens up if we recognize that the verb can float free of the noun — that trolling pervades contemporary discourse, and is performed by everyone.

After all, why does the New York Times write about real estate in the Hamptons, for an audience that mostly can’t afford it? Why does The Atlantic scour every corner of society for trends that prevent professional women from achieving work/life balance? Why do publications for an audience that has already entered or finished grad school run articles advising them not to go to grad school?

They’re all trolling us.

“Wait,” you say. “The way you’re using the word, trolling is just another name for targeted journalistic provocation.”

Trolling may have been perfected by journalists who hold their audience captive in a filter bubble, but trolling is older than journalism. As far as I can tell, Socrates was the first person to practice it. “Why hello there, Gorgias. I hear you’re a rhetorician. By the way, I’ve always wondered, what exactly is rhetoric?”

"Socrates," photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
“Socrates,” photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
In fact, Socrates may have been a troll in the noun sense as well, because he clearly enjoyed tormenting interlocutors. But that’s ad hominem and beside the point. I call Socratic discourse “trolling,” not because it was malicious, but because it was in principle interminable. When you first sat down with Socrates, you may have thought “I’m just going to answer this one question and then go buy some olives.” But the first question never gets answered. It always leads on to deeper puzzles, and although you may finally give up and leave, the discourse will be taken up tomorrow by some other victim.

Journalism is, similarly, designed to be interminable. There’s a thin pretense that you’re familiarizing yourself with world events in order to become an informed citizen, but if you actually stopped watching once you had enough information to act, cable news wouldn’t make money.

So I propose to define trolling, generally, as a discourse that is structurally incapable of reaching the conclusion it promises. It seems to be about some determinate object, but either that object endlessly recedes as you approach it, or the rules of the discourse guarantee that other topics can be substituted for the original one, so that a conclusion is never reached.

The Internet is trolling, elevated to Hegelian World Spirit. It’s easy to imagine that people lurk on comment threads denying climate change with endlessly shifting rationales because they are personally insincere, or because online anonymity creates a cool shady place where they can multiply. But in a deeper sense trolls are merely incarnating the structural logic of the Internet. On the Internet, discourse can continue endlessly, unconfined by ordinary social limits. On the Internet, there’s always a new interlocutor — and conversely, there’s always a new provocation, guaranteed to play on your most urgent anxieties, because you designed the filter that selected it yourself.

Of course, once we define trolling this broadly, it becomes nearly useless as a normative concept. It’s hard to locate a line of division between this sort of trolling and legitimate critical reflection. Which will be frustrating, unless you’re a post-structuralist or a troll.

Postscript: The italicized subhed was added on April 22, and wording was changed in minor ways to improve clarity.

20c sociology of literature

The long history of humanistic reaction to sociology.

N+1’s recent editorial on the sociology of taste is worth reading. Whatever it gets wrong, it’s probably right about the real source of tension in the humanities* right now.

People spend a lot of time arguing about the disruptive effects of technology. But if the humanities were challenged primarily by online delivery of recorded lectures, I would sleep very well at night.

The challenge humanists are confronting springs from social rather than technological change. And n+1 is right that part of the problem involves cynicism about the model of culture that justified the study of literature and other arts in the twentieth century. For much of that century, humanists felt comfortable claiming that their disciplines conveyed a kind of cultivation that transcended mere specialized learning. You learned about literary form not because it was in itself useful, but because it transformed you in a way that gave you full possession of a collective human legacy. I have to admit that the sociology of culture has made it harder to write sentences like that last one with a straight face. “Transformation” and “possession” are too obviously metaphors for cultural distinction.

John Guillory, Cultural Capital, Chicago, 1993.
John Guillory, Cultural Capital, Chicago, 1993.
This isn’t to say that Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory are personally responsible for our predicament. I remember reading Guillory in 1993, and Cultural Capital didn’t come as a great shock. Rather, it seemed to explain, more candidly than usual, a state of imperial unclothedness that sidelong glances had already led most of us to privately suspect.

The n+1 editorial seems weakest when it tries to inflate this recent dilemma for humanists into a broader crisis for left politics or individual agency as such. If social theory necessarily sapped individuals’ will to action, we would be in very hot water indeed! We’d have to avoid reading Marx, as well as Bourdieu. But social analysis can of course coexist with a commitment to social change, and it’s not clear that the sociology of culture has done anything to undermine that commitment. The solidarity of middle and working classes against oligarchic power may even be in better shape today than it was in 1993.

That’s a bit beside the point, however, because n+1 doesn’t seem primarily interested in politics as such. They cite a few dubiously representative examples of contemporary(ish) political(ish) debate (e.g., David Brooks on bobos). But their heart seems to be in the academy, and their real concern appears to be that sociology is undermining academic humanists’ ability to defend their own institutions forcefully, untroubled by any doubt that those institutions merely reproduce cultural distinction. At least that’s what I infer when the editors write that “the spokespeople most effectively diminished by Bourdieu’s influence turn out to be those already in the precarious position of having to articulate and transmit a language of aesthetic experience that could remain meaningful outside either a regime of status or a regime of productivity.”

But here it seems to me that the editors are conflating two conversations. On the one hand, there’s a social and institutional debate about reforming and/or defending specific academic disciplines. On the other, there’s an abstract debate about the tension between social analysis and “aesthetic experience.” The rationale for treating them as the same seems weak.

Bowie, Heroes, 45 rpm, photo by Affendaddy. CC-BY-NC-SA.
Bowie, Heroes, 45 rpm, photo by Affendaddy. CC-BY-NC-SA.
For after all, aesthetic appreciation is doing just fine these days: the sociology of culture hasn’t even dented it. I don’t find my appreciation of David Bowie, for instance, even slightly compromised when I acknowledge that he concocted a specific kind of glamour out of racial, national, gender, and class identities. A historically specific fabulousness is no less fabulous.

The social specificity of Bowie’s glam does, on the other hand, complicate the kind of rationale I could provide for requiring students to study his music. It makes it harder to invoke him as a vehicle for a general cultivation that transcends mere specialized learning. And that’s why the sociology of culture has posed a problem for the humanities: not that it undermines aesthetic discourse as such, but that it complicates claims about the social necessity of aesthetic cultivation.

This is a real dilemma that I can’t begin to resolve in a blog post; instead I’ll just gesture at recent scholarly conversation on the topic broadly construed, including articles, courses, and presentations by Rachel Buurma, James English, Andrew Goldstone, and Laura Heffernan, among others.

The one detail I’d like to add to that conversation is that the concept of “the humanities” we are now tempted to defend may have been shaped in the early twentieth century by a reaction to social science rather like the reaction n+1 is now articulating.

It has been almost completely erased from the discipline’s collective memory, but between 1895 and 1925, literary studies came rather close to becoming a social science. The University of Chicago had a “Professor of Literary Theory and Interpretation” in 1903 — and what literary theory meant, at the time, was an ambitious project to articulate general laws of historical development for literary form. At other institutions this project was often called “general literatology” or “comparative literature,” but it had little in common with contemporary comparative literature. If you go back and read H. M. Posnett’s Comparative Literature (1886), you discover a project that resembles comparative anthropology more than contemporary literary study.

This period of the discipline’s history is now largely forgotten. English professors remember Matthew Arnold; we remember the New Criticism, and we vaguely remember that there was something dusty called “philology” in between. But we probably don’t remember that Chicago had a Professorship of (anthropologically conceived) “Literary Theory” in 1903.

The reason we don’t remember is that there was intense and effective push-back against the incorporation of social sciences (including history) in the study of arts and letters. The reaction stretched from works like Norman Foerster’s American Scholar (1929) to René Wellek’s widely-reprinted Theory of Literature (1949), and it argued at times rather explicitly that social-scientific approaches to culture would reduce the prestige of the arts by undermining the authority of personal cultivation. (One might almost say that critics of this period foresaw the danger posed by Bourdieu.)

humanitiesIt may not be an accident that this was also the period when a concept of “the humanities” (newly identified as an alternative to social science) became institutionally central in American universities (see Geoffrey Harpham’s Humanities and the Dream of America and my related blog post).

I’ll have a little more to say about the anthropologically-ambitious literary theory of the early twentieth century in a book forthcoming this summer (Why Literary Periods Mattered, Stanford UP). I don’t expect that book will resolve contemporary tension between the humanities and social sciences, but I do want to point out that the debate has been going on for more than a hundred years, and that it has constituted the humanities as a distinct entity as least as much as it has threatened them.

Postscript: For a response to n+1 by an actual sociologist of culture, see whatisthewhat.

* Postscript two days later: I now disagree with one aspect of this post — the way its opening paragraphs talk generally about a challenge “for the humanities.” Actually, it’s not clear to me that Bourdieu et. al have posed a problem for historians. I was describing a challenge “for the study of literature and the arts,” and I ought to have said that specifically. In fact, the tendency to inflate doubts about a specific model of literary culture into a generalized “crisis in the humanities” is part of what’s wrong with the n+1 editorial, and part of what I ought to be taking aim at here. But I guess blogging is about learning in public.

18c 19c genre comparison historicism interpretive theory methodology representativeness

Distant reading and representativeness.

Digital collections are vastly expanding literary scholars’ field of view: instead of describing a few hundred well-known novels, we can now test our claims against corpora that include tens of thousands of works. But because this expansion of scope has also raised expectations, the question of representativeness is often discussed as if it were a weakness rather than a strength of digital methods. How can we ever produce a corpus complete and balanced enough to represent print culture accurately?

I think the question is wrongly posed, and I’d like to suggest an alternate frame. As I see it, the advantage of digital methods is that we never need to decide on a single model of representation. We can and should keep enlarging digital collections, to make them as inclusive as possible. But no matter how large our collections become, the logic of representation itself will always remain open to debate. For instance, men published more books than women in the eighteenth century. Would a corpus be correctly balanced if it reproduced those disproportions? Or would a better model of representation try to capture the demographic reality that there were roughly as many women as men? There’s something to be said for both views.

Scott Weingart tweet.To take another example, Scott Weingart has pointed out that there’s a basic tension in text mining between measuring “what was written” and “what was read.” A corpus that contains one record for every title, dated to its year of first publication, would tend to emphasize “what was written.” Measuring “what was read” is harder: a perfect solution would require sales figures, reviews, and other kinds of evidence. But, as a quick stab at the problem, we could certainly measure “what was printed,” by including one record for every volume in a consortium of libraries like HathiTrust. If we do that, a frequently-reprinted work like Robinson Crusoe will carry about a hundred times more weight than a novel printed only once.

We’ll never create a single collection that perfectly balances all these considerations. But fortunately, we don’t need to: there’s nothing to prevent us from framing our inquiry instead as a comparative exploration of many different corpora balanced in different ways.

For instance, if we’re troubled by the difference between “what was written” and “what was read,” we can simply create two different collections — one limited to first editions, the other including reprints and duplicate copies. Neither collection is going to be a perfect mirror of print culture. Counting the volumes of a novel preserved in libraries is not the same thing as counting the number of its readers. But comparing these collections should nevertheless tell us whether the issue of popularity makes much difference for a given research question.

I suspect in many cases we’ll find that it makes little difference. For instance, in tracing the development of literary language, I got interested in the relative prominence of words that entered English before and after the Norman Conquest — and more specifically, in how that ratio changed over time in different genres. My first approach to this problem was based on a collection of 4,275 volumes that were, for the most part, limited to first editions (773 of these were prose fiction).

But I recognized that other scholars would have questions about the representativeness of my sample. So I spent the last year wrestling with 470,000 volumes from HathiTrust; correcting their OCR and using classification algorithms to separate fiction from the rest of the collection. This produced a collection with a fundamentally different structure — where a popular work of fiction could be represented by dozens or scores of reprints scattered across the timeline. What difference did that make to the result? (click through to enlarge)

The same question posed to two different collections. 773 hand-selected first editions on the left; on the right, 47,549 volumes, including many translations and reprints.
The same question posed to two different collections. 773 hand-selected first editions on the left; on the right, 47,549 volumes, including many translations and reprints. Yearly ratios are plotted rather than individual works.

It made almost no difference. The scatterplots look different, of course, because the hand-selected collection (on the left) is relatively stable in size across the timespan, and has a consistent kind of noisiness, whereas the HathiTrust collection (on the right) gets so huge in the nineteenth century that noise almost disappears. But the trend lines are broadly comparable, although the collections were created in completely different ways and rely on incompatible theories of representation.

I don’t regret the year I spent getting a binocular perspective on this question. Although in this case changing the corpus made little difference to the result, I’m sure there are other questions where it will make a difference. And we’ll want to consider as many different models of representation as we can. I’ve been gathering metadata about gender, for instance, so that I can ask what difference gender makes to a given question; I’d also like to have metadata about the ethnicity and national origin of authors.

pullquoteBut the broader point I want to make here is that people pursuing digital research don’t need to agree on a theory of representation in order to cooperate.

If you’re designing a shared syllabus or co-editing an anthology, I suppose you do need to agree in advance about the kind of representativeness you’re aiming to produce. Space is limited; tradeoffs have to be made; you can only select one set of works.

But in digital research, there’s no reason why we should ever have to make up our minds about a model of representativeness, let alone reach consensus. The number of works we can select for discussion is not limited. So we don’t need to imagine that we’re seeking a correspondence between the reality of the past and any set of works. Instead, we can look at the past from many different angles and ask how it’s transformed by different perspectives. We can look at all the digitized volumes we have — and then at a subset of works that were widely reprinted — and then at another subset of works published in India — and then at three or four works selected as case studies for close reading. These different approaches will produce different pictures of the past, to be sure. But nothing compels us to make a final choice among them.