Omnivorousness, Elite Taste, Literary Scholarship
January 13, 2014

Let’s talk about quantitative literary history and where you can find the best tacos al pastor.

I’ve been spending some time recently researching trends in the history of literary scholarship. For MLA this year, for a panel on “Seeing with Numbers” with Hoyt Long, Richard So, Matt Jockers, and Amy Hungerford, I was thinking about the drive to include more texts among our objects of study. On the panel we focused on efforts to see more of literary history by using quantitative methods. I find I am getting fussier about insisting on “quantitative methods” rather than “digital methods” or “computer-assisted methods.” The methodological distinction we can use is between micro and macro, as Jockers has it in Macroanalysis—or, as I’d prefer, between qualitative and quantitative: not because these terms are particularly enlightening, but because they would help us map our current methodological debates onto divisions within social sciences, directing our attention to the solutions those disciplines have found for articulating the two tendencies. Furthermore, the machine is more a fetish than a method. Quantitative analyses of many texts have more in common with quantitative social science or corpus linguistics than with a machine-driven algorithmic criticism of individual texts. Maybe everyone using quantitative techniques ought to make themselves do a small example by hand before going back to their programs. But as I was working on my analysis of the changing (or rather unchanging) distribution of scholarly attention in modernist studies, it occurred to me that it is not only the quantifiers in literary studies who articulate the impulse to include more texts.

In fact, two major transformations-by-inclusion of literary study have been underway from roughly the 1970s on: both (1) the opening of the scholarly and classroom canon by feminist, African-American, postcolonial, and ethnic studies and (2) the scholarly practice of coordinating capital-L Literary texts with other cultural texts, which is legitimated by the New Historicism. Both, in fact, reflect the changing nature of the cultural capital supplied by a literary education as well as major progress in literary-historical knowledge.

Do these transformations participate in a larger shift in taste as well? Sociologists of culture have argued that in the last three decades or so, élites have changed the way they consume cultural products. In their 1996 article “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore,” Richard Peterson and Roger Kern used the results of two surveys of musical preferences ten years apart to show that highbrow taste was changing from being based on an exclusive choice of genres (classical music and opera) to being based on having a taste for more genres (classical and country). Subsequent work (I particularly enjoyed Johnston and Baumann on food writing) has extended this thesis about omnivorousness to other cultural domains: elite taste is marked by the range and manner of appreciation. Thus the lowbrow eater likes only a few kinds of food; the highbrow eater seeks out and appreciates the best of each knowledgeably (not only the most superior haute cuisine but the best tacos al pastor. Chowhound, know thyself).

I think we can characterize literary scholars’ efforts to make expert readings of a much wider range of texts—especially formerly un-Literary or low-cultural texts—as omnivorous too. It is even possible that university literature teaching and the increasing cultural standing of omnivorousness are mutually reinforcing. The analogy between the opening of the canon to ethnic literature and the appreciation of subcultural and minority cultural production is especially close, I think. This is the point to remark that the change from snob to omnivore is not some natural turnover in fashion but produced by social changes. Two prominent possible causes are the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the ascendancy of neoliberalism: both challenge cultural snobism and favor a more pluralized model of cultural taste, though not, of course, in identical ways. My impression is that there is no sociological consensus on which of the many possible causes of the snob-omnivore transition are most significant. This would also align with literary studies’ increasing insistence that it is the manner of analysis (“reading”) that is central to our teaching—and that gives value to the text.

This suggestion of mine provoked some skepticism at the MLA panel. Was I saying that DH specialists working on corpora of thousands of novels were displaying their élite taste? Not exactly, especially since the implicit judgments about the texts subjected to quantitative analysis vary. But I am saying that the cultural omnivore hypothesis helps to explain the climate of taste in which the imperative to include as many texts as possible seems legitimate and even urgent for literary experts.

I find thinking about the omnivore hypothesis useful as a reminder that questions of canons and tastes don’t go away when scholarship tries to do aggregating or quantitative analyses. Taste and evaluation continue to be central to the practices of readers, even when we expert readers proudly seize on texts from low and high culture alike. And quantitative analyses are part of the history of literary taste in their way. Not that every quantifier is an omnivore. John Burrows’s 1987 Computation into Criticism strongly implies that its stylistic analysis of Austen shows her superiority to other writers; Georgette Heyer is selected for invidious, if interesting, comparison. And DH seems to be constantly tempted by the lure of a retrograde canon: justify the algorithm by saying it can tell us why Famous Author X deserves to be famous; justify the enormous labor of digital editing by concentrating on the most celebrated writers; etc. Thus it’s important to remember that the rise of the omnivore does not imply the end of distinctions according to taste. The studies of omnivorousness I’ve read (and I’m still reading) all emphasize that differences in cultural consumption between status groups continue, and that groups continue to make distinctions themselves. Bourdieu est mort, vive Bourdieu: instead of a homology between classes and objects of taste, there is a homology between classes and modes of taste. You enjoy science fiction novels; I read them as literature. You want Chinese take-out, I want to travel forty-five minutes for the best Sichuanese restaurant.

The cultural capital of omnivorousness might also help explain the relative—and very problematic—lack of attention to the history of reading in quantitative digital literary studies. Relative, relative. Two exceptions I have learned a lot from are Anne DeWitt on late-Victorian theological-romance readers and Ed Finn on readers of David Foster Wallace on amazon. I might also mention that if we suspend our digital fetish for a minute we can remember several decades of quantitative work on readers in book history and the sociology of literature. Some favorite examples: Janice Radway; Priya Joshi; Wendy Griswold; Bennett, Emmison, and Frow. This inattention reinforces (and is permitted by) a status boundary between expert readers and lay readers, even though it changes the manner of expert “reading” from hermeneutic closeness to numerical processing. In fact the contemporary debate opposing “close” to “distant” reading is among other things a struggle over the criteria of legitimacy in literary expertise. Could the “distant reader” be the ultimate omnivore?

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