What use could there be for negative evidence in literary scholarship?
We all love to see evidence in argumentative writing. We drill the necessity of evidence into our students; and research stands or falls on the quality of evidence used to support the researcher's claims. In my own work I am a compulsive example-giver, never happier than when typing in a block quote, or reeling off names of authors, or works, that fit into some scheme I am making a claim for. Lately, though, I have wondered how our taste for evidence is shaped by confirmation bias: the very strong cognitive preference to look for, to notice--and to present in scholarship--only evidence that supports our larger claims and pre-existing ideas. In (my idealization of) scientific experiments, the practice of controls is supposed to guard against this bias.* What would be the controls of literary scholarship? How would we actively seek out potentially discomfirming evidence? And--here's the kicker--how can we present the confirmatory value of not finding it?**
Here's how this concern came about in my own research. The book I am working on makes a series of arguments about modernist writers who laid claim to a certain aesthetic autonomy for their work. In one chapter, I try to show that a set of aestheticist novelists--Wilde, James, Proust are my chief examples--all make use of domestic servant characters in a particular way, because of their commitment to aesthetic autonomy. It takes the whole, long chapter to flesh out my argument that these novelists' writings confirm my claim that the practice of aesthetic autonomy makes service into an icon of the dependence of the aesthete on the labor of others.
Yet maybe I could do more. I might set about finding and exhibiting authors who wrote about servants in alternative ways and showing that those writers were not committed to aesthetic autonomy as Wilde, James, and Proust were. For my carefully selected evidence, that miniature high-modernist "archive"--even if it confirms what I think it does--isn't the end of the argument. What about all the non-aesthete writers in the period? I might also want to claim that, for example, Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster is no aesthete, that Wodehouse himself is, as a popular humor writer, not a high modernist, and that Jeeves, for all his importance to the plotting and the humor of the Bertie Wooster novels, does not point up the social dependencies of literary form. (Does he?) I might go further and start hunting up many examples of servants in non-aestheticist early-twentieth-century works that don't function as Proust's Françoise does. This wouldn't just be for the (very worthwhile) reason that less consecrated writing*** deserves much more attention in scholarship, and it definitely wouldn't be to establish the superiority of Wilde, James, and Proust over other authors with other artistic credos. Rather, it would be because my claims about certain canonical figures are really also claims about the rest of the literary field, too--negative claims about the absence of similar cases outside the modernist subfield.
But would any humanist want to read those pages of negative evidence? It may be that for my current work I will decide that my pages of positive evidence suffice; I'm pretty certain, though, that I want to keep my next project under control.
*Real philosophers, of science and anything else, are free to tear me to shreds here. This is just a way-station on the road to my actual point.
**The scientists worry about that one too; it's hard to get a paper published documenting negative results on even the most beautifully-executed experiment.
***Wodehouse is not a great example, since he's a bit of a writer's writer even if he was writing Right Ho, Jeeves rather than Finnegans Wake in 1934.
Coming up in future posts:
tvtropes.org, the future of digital humanities
The world literary author, disinterested and political