We’re probably due for another discussion of Stanley Fish

I think I see an interesting theoretical debate over the horizon. The debate is too big to resolve in a blog post, but I thought it might be narratively useful to foreshadow it—sort of as novelists create suspense by dropping hints about the character traits that will develop into conflict by the end of the book.

Basically, the problem is that scholars who use numbers to understand literary history have moved on from Stanley Fish’s critique, without much agreement about why or how. In the early 1970s, Fish gave a talk at the English Institute that defined a crucial problem for linguistic analysis of literature. Later published as “What Is Stylistics, and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?”, the essay focused on “the absence of any constraint” governing the move “from description to interpretation.” Fish takes Louis Milic’s discussion of Jonathan Swift’s “habit of piling up words in series” as an example. Having demonstrated that Swift does this, Milic concludes that the habit “argues a fertile and well stocked mind.” But Fish asks how we can make that sort of inference, generally, about any linguistic pattern. How do we know that reliance on series demonstrates a “well stocked mind” rather than, say, “an anal-retentive personality”?

The problem is that isolating linguistic details for analysis also removes them from the context we normally use to give them a literary interpretation. We know what the exclamation “Sad!” implies, when we see it at the end of a Trumpian tweet. But if you tell me abstractly that writer A used “sad” more than writer B, I can’t necessarily tell you what it implies about either writer. If I try to find an answer by squinting at word lists, I’ll often make up something arbitrary. Word lists aren’t self-interpreting.

Thirty years passed; the internet got invented. In the excitement, dusty critiques from the 1970s got buried. But Fish’s argument was never actually killed, and if you listen to the squeaks of bats, you hear rumors that it still walks at night.

Or you could listen to blogs. This post is partly prompted by a blogged excerpt from a forthcoming work by Dennis Tenen, which quotes Fish to warn contemporary digital humanists that “a relation can always be found between any number of low-level, formal features of a text and a given high-level account of its meaning.” Without “explanatory frameworks,” we won’t know which of those relations are meaningful.

Ryan Cordell’s recent reflections on “machine objectivity” could lead us in a similar direction. At least they lead me in that direction, because I think the error Cordell discusses—over-reliance on machines themselves to ground analysis—often comes from a misguided attempt to solve the problem of arbitrariness exposed by Fish. Researchers are attracted to unsupervised methods like topic modeling in part because those methods seem to generate analytic categories that are entirely untainted by arbitrary human choices. But as Fish explained, you can’t escape making choices. (Should I label this topic “sadness” or “Presidential put-downs”?)

I don’t think any of these dilemmas are unresolvable. Although Fish’s critique identified a real problem, there are lots of valid solutions to it, and today I think most published research is solving the problem reasonably well. But how? Did something happen since the 1970s that made a difference? There are different opinions here, and the issues at stake are complex enough that it could take decades of conversation to work through them. Here I just want to sketch a few directions the conversation could go.

Dennis Tenen’s recent post implies that the underlying problem is that our models of form lack causal, explanatory force. “We must not mistake mere extrapolation for an account of deep causes and effects.” I don’t think he takes this conclusion quite to the point of arguing that predictive models should be avoided, but he definitely wants to recommend that mere prediction should be supplemented by explanatory inference. And to that extent, I agree—although, as I’ll say in a moment, I have a different diagnosis of the underlying problem.

It may also be worth reviewing Fish’s solution to his own dilemma in “What Is Stylistics,” which was that interpretive arguments need to be anchored in specific “interpretive acts” (93). That has always been a good idea. David Robinson’s analysis of Trump tweets identifies certain words (“badly,” “crazy”) as signs that a tweet was written by Trump, and others (“tomorrow,” “join”) as signs that it was written by his staff. But he also quotes whole tweets, so you can see how words are used in context, make your own interpretive judgment, and come to a better understanding of the model. There are many similar gestures in Stanford LitLab pamphlets: distant readers actually rely quite heavily on close reading.

My understanding of this problem has been shaped by a slightly later Fish essay, “Interpreting the Variorum” (1976), which returns to the problem broached in “What Is Stylistics,” but resolves it in a more social way. Fish concludes that interpretation is anchored not just in an individual reader’s acts of interpretation, but in “interpretive communities.” Here, I suspect, he is rediscovering an older hermeneutic insight, which is that human acts acquire meaning from the context of human history itself. So the interpretation of culture inevitably has a circular character.

One lesson I draw is simply, that we shouldn’t work too hard to avoid making assumptions. Most of the time we do a decent job of connecting meaning to an implicit or explicit interpretive community. Pointing to examples, using word lists derived from a historical thesaurus or sentiment dictionary—all of that can work well enough. The really dubious moves we make often come from trying to escape circularity altogether, in order to achieve what Alan Liu has called “tabula rasa interpretation.”

But we can also make quantitative methods more explicit about their grounding in interpretive communities. Lauren Klein’s discussion of the TOME interface she constructed with Jacob Eisenstein is a good model here; Klein suggests that we can understand topic modeling better by dividing a corpus into subsets of documents (say, articles from different newspapers), to see how a topic varies across human contexts.

Of course, if you pursue that approach systematically enough, it will lead you away from topic modeling toward methods that rely more explicitly on human judgment. I have been leaning on supervised algorithms a lot lately—not because they’re easier to test or more reliable than unsupervised ones—but because they explicitly acknowledge that interpretation has to be anchored in human history.

At a first glance, this may seem to make progress impossible. “All we can ever discover is which books resemble these other books selected by a particular group of readers. The algorithm can only reproduce a category someone else already defined!” And yes, supervised modeling is circular. But this is a circularity shared by all interpretation of history, and it never merely reproduces its starting point. You can discover that books resemble each other to different degrees. You can discover that models defined by the responses of one interpretive community do or don’t align with models of another. And often you can, carefully, provisionally, draw explanatory inferences from the model itself, assisted perhaps by a bit of close reading.

I’m not trying to diss unsupervised methods here. Actually, unsupervised methods are based on clear, principled assumptions. And a topic model is already a lot more contextually grounded than “use of series == well stocked mind.” I’m just saying that the hermeneutic circle is a little slipperier in unsupervised learning, easier to misunderstand, and harder to defend to crowds of pitchfork-wielding skeptics.

In short, there are lots of good responses to Fish’s critique. But if that critique is going to be revived by skeptics over the next few years—as I suspect—I think I’ll take my stand for the moment on supervised machine learning, which can explicitly build bridges between details of literary language and social contexts of reception.  There are other ways to describe best practices: we could emphasize a need to seek “explanations,” or avoid claims of “objectivity.” But I think the crucial advance we have made over the 1970s is that we’re no longer just modeling language; we can model interpretive communities at the same time.

Photo credit: A school of yellow-tailed goatfish, photo for NOAA Photo Library, CC-BY Dwayne Meadows, 2004.

Postscript July 15: Jonathan Armoza points out that Stephen Ramsay wrote a post articulating his own, more deformative response to “What is Stylistics” in 2012.