Am I Turning Empirical?
February 27, 2010

Continuing my progressive descent into vulgar materialism (I use the words "progressive" and "vulgar" in positive senses!), I’d like to develop the line of thinking of my previous post, "Reading under Neoliberalism." I will use the questions Joel Burges asks in a comment to guide my reflections here. His questions are too good to cosign to the comments section of my previous post. I will begin with a caveat: everything below is, as with my previous post, provisional and only vaguely sketched. Critical comments will do much to help me sharpen my primitive ideas.

Joel asks whether my approach to literary study, at least the approach I take when I discuss historical changes in reading practice, is marked by an "empirical turn," an "operative assumption that we will know more if we get more empirical -- not just materialist in the sense of assuming that economic conditions lead to cultural elaborations, but in which we turn ourselves into something like sociologists." The short version of my answer is simply yes. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the academic study of literature more generally is swinging away from the era of theory toward an empirical orientation, if recent studies are any indication. We might recall new work in cognitive science and literature; the rise of evolutionary literary studies; "distant reading" research programs, spearheaded at Stanford by Franco Moretti, and other database-driven forms literary study; Bourdieu-inspired literary sociologies (McGurl, Casanova, Jim English come immediately to mind); the "postpositivist realist" epistemology of Satya Mohanty and, here at Arcade, of Paula Moya; the myriad anti-theoretical children of Walter Benn Michaels (one need merely look at the 20/21 series for excellent criticism in this vein); and so on.

The longer form of my answer comes with numerous necessary caveats and complications.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from theory, from, say, bridging textual analysis and conceptual thinking?"

This question assumes a stronger distinction between the empirical and theoretical that I am comfortable with. After all, isn’t the work of Bourdieu both thoroughly empirical and theoretical? Doesn’t Foucault make all sorts of empirical claims (ranging from claims about prison systems to claims about the history of science to claims about how discourse produces power relations)? Isn’t Lacan interested in correcting Freud’s fallacies, relocating psychic processes not in the minds of individuals but in relation to intersubjective processes of recognition and "within" structures of language? Do not Jameson, Žižek, Hardt, Negri, Laclau, Mouffe, and a range of theoretically sophisticated Marxists and post-Marxists all base their arguments, at least in part, on empirical claims about capitalist economies?

Likewise, all empirical studies are, I would argue, necessarily suffused with theoretical abstractions. Joel correctly identifies many of the abstractions I rely on to make my case: "literary market," "reading public," "sophistication," "literary culture," "postwar." There’s no way to study the world apart from our abstractions, theories, and interpretations, even if those interpretations are the translation of photons hitting our optic nerve into terms discernible by our cultivated mental capacities. The question is, What are our best theories? What theories should we reject?

The theory I reject is the notion that we should see in literary form an elaboration of material contexts on the model of homology. The theory I accept is that texts and contexts are dynamically linked together in a greater whole or totality, whose determinants do not necessarily operate according to a logic of homology. Causes do not necessarily look "like" effects. To the degree that “theory” in the academic humanities tends to refer to the former of these two intellectual frameworks, then I do reject theory, though in a partial and highly qualified way. I am more interested in "mechanical causality" than "expressive causality," to use Jameson’s terminology in The Political Unconscious.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from hermeneutics, from, say, textual analysis -- and what would we gain from that?"

I don’t see how we can avoid hermeneutic activities in the classroom as long as we ask our students to read individual texts -- I tend to teach individual texts in much the same way that they were taught to me -- nor do I think that there is some simple empirical practice apart from interpretive, cultural, and historically situated frameworks. That said, I think a lot of self-avowedly materialist criticism and theory today makes large empirical claims without doing the legwork to back up those claims. That’s what I take to be the source of Moretti’s frustration with literary study.

In our monographs and articles we have a habit of sliding between perfectly valid hermeneutic claims and large historical claims, often based on three or four close readings, often without explanation or with vague gestures toward some notion of discourse. This is the academic version of what the journalist Daniel Radosh calls “trend journalism” -- three examples of anything can be selected to argue for a historical trend. If we supplement textual analysis with an empirical orientation, we will possibly learn more about the material determinants of literary history and we will also learn what claims we should not be comfortable making with great confidence. Like Socrates, we will at least know what we don't know.

"Literature departments are... notoriously bad at making the normative and conventional ways in which their members read and write clear to students… So… shouldn't we also examine what knowledge we already transmit, and how we might do it better?"

Yes, I enthusiastically agree that we should study the normative and conventional ways we read and teach. We should understand how and to what effect we transmit knowledge to our students.

Indeed, my interest in empirically analyzing postwar literary culture is motivated by explicitly normative concerns. I begin from the premise that certain practices of reading are good and desirable. Reading long, complex novels is salubrious for human wellbeing. Cultivating the attention required to understand and appreciate poetry improves us. Literary reading gives scope and depth to life. These claims are normative -- and not strictly instrumental -- to the degree that they have no foundation. No empirical study will be able to prove to a persistent skeptic that literature matters. No data beyond self-reporting will explicate words like "wellbeing," "improvement," and "scope and depth."

My second assumption -- really, in a longer work, which I fantasize about someday writing, it would be my argument -- is that literary culture is unnatural, in the sense that it isn’t a spontaneous or inevitable development in human affairs and existence. We don't just decide to care about literature; and we don't automatically move from such caring to a society that enriches and supports what we care about. Our reading culture is, instead, the product of considerable investment, education, and political work. Humans may at all times have generated one sort of narrative art or another, but a society where all persons have the opportunity and capacity to appreciate literature requires hard work and years of institution-building.

If our empirical and critical work is grounded in the norm of producing such a "reading public," then we cannot help but self-reflectively understand our own teaching in relation to the broader project of the production of such a public. This doesn't mean that every critic would take or teach sociology and economics classes, but that every critic would understand that when they teach a course on Shakespeare, they are always whether they intend to or not linked to a larger public-producing machine, the University, which itself interlocks with other social spaces -- the book club, the marketplace, little magazines, and institutions of primary education.

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