Franco Moretti on what digital humanities can and cannot do

Here’s a snippet from Franco Moretti’s 2016 interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books as part of its series “The Digital in the Humanities.”  My book project has no connection with digital humanities; but, just as Moretti observes that one can do things in/with digital humanities that one cannot do in traditional approaches to reading and writing about texts and vice versa, the same is also true of the various critical approaches to texts within traditional scholarship.

I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work. You can’t possibly know this, but when my last two books were going to be published — Distant Reading and The Bourgeois — I convinced my publisher (and it took some convincing) to have them come out on the same day because they were for me two sides of the coin of the work I tried to do. And what I find potentially interesting is that the two sides don’t add up to a whole. I do things in the mode of Distant Reading that I could never do in the mode of The Bourgeois. But it also works the other way around. When I write a book with zero digital humanities content, or very little, like The Bourgeois, I find myself doing things that I cannot do with the other approach. Exactly what things are available in the one and in the other and are they mutually exclusive, I still haven’t figured out how to think about this. But for me, this is going to be the problem for the years to come because I don’t want to give up any of these two realities. They are equally dear to me.

For whatever it might be worth to you reading this, I’ve been thinking about this a bit regarding my own reading and writing.

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The New World as “textual drama”: Julio Ortega on Borges and “El Inca”

 

Ortega [b. 1942; apparently still living] is a poet and critic. He was born in Peru and has lived and taught in the U.S. for many years. In the passage below, he is rebutting the familiar critical observation that Borges’s work is an anomaly in Latin American writing:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in his natural habitat.

 [T]he mechanisms that produce [Borges’s] writing confirm, in fact, an operative tradition that is characteristic of the Spanish-American text. In this sense the novelty of Borges’s prose is not its negation of previous Spanish-American languages but, on the contrary, its privileged manifestation of those languages.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Inc_Garcilaso_de_la_Vega.png

Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), known as “El Inca” to distinguish himself from his uncle, the Spanish poet of the same name. “El Inca” was the son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca woman who was a member of that people’s royal family.

 Let us look, for instance, at the interaction of various genres. At least since Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas [1616-1617], Spanish-American writing has been constituted through the polyvalence of its formalization. Beginning with that text, Spanish-American writing has reflected the following characteristics: it dramatizes its manifestation in a textual space based on history understood as politics (the Incan utopia as the realized projection of the Neoplatonic order); it is formalized through a critical sum of texts (chronicles that are refuted or inserted as a probatory intertext); it is self-referring as a way of producing itself (the narrative that unfolds, splits, and is rechanneled); it shares frontiers with novelistic and philosophical treatises with criticism; and, finally, it reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama. (“Borges and the Latin-American Text,” p. 22 in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.)

This passage struck me on more than one account.  It so happens that I’ll soon be writing about de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries, but that’s less important than Ortega’s placing of Borges firmly in the mainstream of the larger tradition of writing in Latin America (and I broaden this from Ortega’s “Spanish America” because I see, certainly, Brazilian writing as fitting that list of characteristics in the paragraph above).  I’m not an expert on Borges, but it is clear that the traditional take on him is that his perceived European-ness makes him stand out from the pack–and, indeed, is one of his virtues as a writer.  Ortega clearly doesn’t have much patience with that take.

The real hook for me, though, is Ortega’s assertion that (and sure, I’ll broaden his remark here still further to include the United States) writing in this hemisphere “reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama.” 

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Wallace Stevens in Wonsevu

Wonsevu Christian Church. Wonsevu, Chase County, Kansas. Taken by me, March 2019.

The church you see here is, not counting the large barn and cattle pen facing it, one-third of the buildings in the village of Wonsevu [“ONE-seh-voo”], Kansas. There is also a small community hall and a frame one-room school house, built in 1885 and long since closed. The house nearest to these buildings (which happens to be blocked from view by the church in this picture) is between a quarter- and a half-mile away.

You are reading about this because I and some students of mine and two colleagues made Wonsevu our first stop on a driving tour of Chase County, Kansas, this past weekend. For a couple of years now in my first-semester composition classes, I have had the opportunity to teach William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth, a book whose subject is Chase County, a sparsely-populated farming and ranching county in the Flint Hills about an hour northeast of Wichita. As part of the class, I schedule two optional field trips into the county: the driving tour, in which we visit some of the places Heat-Moon mentions in his book; and a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to have the experience of walking land that still looks pretty much like it did when the Kaw and other tribes lived there. Before this past weekend, these trips, admittedly, had not been ringing successes: students wouldn’t show, or the weather wasn’t ideal. This time, though, two students attended (out of six; a third would have come except that a day or so before he’d gotten a new job), and two of my colleagues joined us as well. Last but certainly not least: the predicted drizzly day never materialized–indeed, after an overcast start, the sun broke through and the day was sunnier and pleasantly cool. But it was at our stop at Wonsevu that, in a small way, the hopes I’d had for teaching Heat-Moon’s book and making the trips out to the county became larger than the logical kind of sense they made for me.

While we walked around the three buildings situated around the T-intersection that constitutes Wonsevu’s center, I pulled out my cellphone to see if I had any messages from my wife.  There was no signal out there.  I looked around me, and I realized what I was hearing–the wind, some birds–and what I was not hearing–no road noise (the nearest paved road of any kind is about 10 miles away), no trains (the railroads, though frequently traveled in the county, are even farther away), no aircraft overhead.  I felt, for a fleeting moment, the full weight of the landscape on me; I offered no resistance to it.  I felt the meaning of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”: I was beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (l. 15).  And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty–something the rest of the day only confirmed–that I am right to want to create opportunities for our students to have moments of this full immersion in a space right next door to them that they are almost completely ignorant of, and earn academic credit to boot.

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“Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes

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The cover of the U.S. edition of Christopher Unborn

As I’d mentioned in my previous post,  I am in the middle of revisiting and expanding on a chapter whose two central texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  As part of that work, this morning I thought I would re-read the opening chapter of Carlos Fuentes’ 1987 novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), since that section in particular is one of the other texts I take up in that chapter.  In so doing, I realized that earlier remarks about another novel I’ll be discussing in that same chapter, along with commentary by Fuentes himself, will serve to reinforce some of my project’s larger claims about the Baroque and the New World, this time with a focus on literary aesthetics.  All of that, I hope, will tie in (I hope not hog-tying style) with the politics of Martí and Mariátegui that I’ll also be adding to this chapter.

(The perils of “quick re-reads”: This post’s original title, when I started on it two days ago, had in it the phrase “a few quick comments.”  So you see . . . )

Dalkey Archive edition of Three Trapped Tigers.

The other novel is by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers).  Its title (the first line of a Cuban tonge-twister) and its description by its English translators, David Gardner and Susan Jill Levine (with assistance from the author) of having been translated “from the Cuban” alert the reader that it is no ordinary novel.

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Book Project news

John processing Nash

Yes, I’d fallen asleep.  But I was thinkin’ stuff, I tell ya!  (Photo by Megan Buaas)

Spring break is here for us, and for me in particular that means a window of time has opened up that has let me return to book-project work in earnest, if only for a little while.  (In case you are wondering about how the recent posts on Edna Ferber’s Show Boat fit in, I had already written much of that material and thought that re-engaging with it might shake some new ideas loose, which it did.  At least some of that work will find its way into the book.)  So far this weekend, I have made a substantive content/organizational decision, and I will be doing some additional writing for a chapter that’s about ready to go but still feels thin.

In looking ahead to the next chapter to be blocked out, I decided that what I had originally planned (a discussion of Garcilaso de la Vega “El Inca,” Faulkner’s Light in August, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, casta paintings from Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe) would be too unwieldy.  So for the moment it has become two chapters: Faulkner and Paz will be in the new chapter, along with discussions of other works whose subject is people of indeterminate ethnicity and how their presence destabilizes social and political orders predicated upon rather clearly demarcated ethnic boundaries.  Now, I hope, everything will have some space to breathe.

The additional writing will appear in a chapter whose central figures are Cabeza de Vaca and Natty Bumppo as he appears in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Each figure, his thinking and deeply-held beliefs transformed by his long sojourn among indigenous peoples, struggles to find language to make his thought understood to his audience. The rest of the chapter takes up discussions of other writers who through various experiments with language seek to convey something of the experience of living in this hemisphere.  The additions will be discussions of José Martí’s essay “Our America,” José Carlos Mariátegui’s arguments for shaping Marxist theory to conform to the historical and economic realities of this hemisphere, and, I hope, something about liberation theology.

Below the fold, the curious can find rather chatty discussions of the chapters as I presently have them imagined.  Any comments/advice/warnings would be most welcome.

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“It probably was true”: The Curiously Incurious Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber

 Note: This is the long-promised Part II of a post on Show Boat that began here. In that post, I suggest that trying to firm up Show Boat‘s chronology introduces questions that might not have occurred to the reader to ask beforehand, because the narrator makes that chronology almost absent: just what is Andy Hawks’ family background; and does that background have anything to do with his being in Massachusetts in 1862 or ’63 instead of serving on a military warship on the Mississippi in either the Union or Confederate army?  I further suggest that on these questions the novel’s narrator, who is otherwise a conventional omniscient 3rd-person narrator, seems curiously incurious.

In this part of the post, then, I want to do what I hope is an attentive reading of these few pages of Chapter Two to show why these questions occur to me.  As of this writing, I have no theories as to why the narrator chooses this strategy–or even if it is a strategy on their part. However, I believe I have a starting point for beginning to think about how the narrator positions theirself relative to the uncertainties surrounding Andy’s–and, by extension, Magnolia’s–ethnicity. Continue reading

Show Boat, Huckleberry Finn, and Intertextuality

huck finn hamlet's soliloquy

The Duke strikes a pose during his rehearsal of (a version of) Hamlet’s soliloquy, in Chapter XXI of Huckleberry Finn.  (Illustration from first edition, via First Edition Huck Finn Illustrations. 

This is not the promised Part II of the previous post but, instead, an elaborating on the following passage from that post:

Meanwhile, beneath (quite literally) all of this, enabling the narrator’s and characters’ lack of interest in these matters, is the brute fact of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and, more to the point, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream.  In Show Boat‘s jacket art, the other unseen-yet-constant presence, in addition to the riverboat itself, is the river.  As in Huckleberry Finn, this novel is obsessed with the various features of its setting; also as with Twain’s novel, though, the river becomes, in Lauren Berlant’s words from a slightly different context, “an apparatus of forgetting” (414).  Or, more accurately, in both those novels at least some of their respective characters fervently hope, even if subconsciously, that it become such an apparatus.

In no place do the characters in Ferber’s novel mention Twain’s novel; indeed, it would be very surprising if they were to do so, seeing as most of Show Boat‘s action takes place before or right around Huckleberry Finn‘s American publication date of 1885.  Moreover, as of my writing this post I do not know if Ferber had Twain’s novel in mind as she composed hers.   Even so, the correspondences between these novels are striking.

In the world of the novel itself Andy Hawks begins his career as a riverman in the 1850s, about ten years after the time in which Twain’s novel is set.  We can fairly say, then, that these novels’ respective worlds’ starting points, at least, are contemporaneous with each other.  However, I want briefly to point out that, as alluded to in the quoted passage above, these novels have more in common with each other than the same chronological starting point, or even their shared setting of the Mississippi River. Continue reading

The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

Show Boat dust jacket

A facsimile of the dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat.   Via.

The dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat (1926) is fascinating to contemplate.  Laid flat as it is here, you can see how the procession of people moves from left to right, up the Cotton Blossom‘s gangplank to the very edge of the book’s front-right edge, their movement seeming to invite the reader to open the cover and process into the novel.  The paddle-wheel itself, though, is out of the frame; the gangplank rests not on the deck of the boat but on the text of the jacket blurb that describes the novel.  The Cotton Blossom itself is not exactly invisible (the novel’s title tells us it is there), but neither is it yet seen.

This procession toward an unseen boat that nevertheless serves as the titular character of the novel fits, I think, the reader of the book that this dust jacket enveloped.  As a novel, Show Boat itself seems on its surface to be rather conventional, its style often quite gaudy and given to flights of sentimentality.  It is, as it were, a bit show boat-like in quality.  But when we look closer at certain crucial moments in the story it tells, the novel’s narrator, ostensibly a rather ordinary third-person omniscient narrator, suddenly reveals herself** to be ignorant of important matters.  At best, she seems uninterested in knowing the truth of those matters, but it may also be the case that she would simply not rather know the truth.  Or, she does know the truth but will not say them out loud.

While it is difficult to say precisely what is the narrator’s relationship to that knowledge, there is no doubt that those matters, as it happens, are part of Show Boat‘s persistent subtext of secretiveness regarding race.  We encounter this secretiveness despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that much of the music and plays at the heart of the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe’s repertoire originates in minstrelsy, a genre whose trappings are dependent on the exaggerated-verging-on-offensive mannerisms of African-American speech and gesture.  Moreover, it is a secret regarding race that serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (and the musical’s) most famous moment, the revelation that Julie Dozier and Steve Baker, two members of the boat’s acting troupe, are a miscegenated couple.  But even as Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, sends the couple away from his boat, the subtext of racial secretiveness accompanies the rest of the novel’s plot, Magnolia’s transformation into a noted singer of songs associated (correctly or not) with 19th-century African-American folk music who performs them in an “authentic” style, shaping the novel’s subsequent action but otherwise never examined directly.

This post and one following it will explore that subtext, beginning, here, with an attempt to firm up the novel’s hazy chronology.  Because Show Boat is, as much as anything else, a celebration of nostalgia, we can safely assume that Ferber intentionally wants to impart a dreamy feel to the novel’s events.  However, nostalgia also happens to facilitate the maintaining of secrets about race, and not just in this novel, either. Whether this facilitation is also Ferber’s intention is difficult to say, but the effect is undeniable.  It seems equally undeniable to me that once we have a firmer chronology for the novel, it begins to reveal its possible secrets–or, better put, we can see that the novel has secrets that no one in it seems especially interested in but which are of the utmost importance.

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Fall Semester greetings, and an image to ponder

Happy new academic year to my students, and to whoever else might happen upon this post.  If you are a student of mine, I especially want to affirm you: the URL for this site may appear on your syllabus, but you’re otherwise not required to visit here.  If you’re here, then, it’s because you have some inclination toward going above and beyond what is asked of you.  That trait–something in you that no assessment test will ever be able to measure–will nevertheless stand you in good stead as few other traits or abilities will, and for years after your days of formal education are past.

Why we should train workers

My source for this image was via someone in my Twitter feed (which I unfortunately didn’t make note of).  Here is the article itself, from Brookings.

I am a couple of weeks late in getting this post up; the semester got up and running (it’s been good, so far), but the work of doing that and some family illnesses at home have cut into spare time for writing here.  As it happens, though, the work in class that I’m most proud of so far seems to me to run counter to the implications of the assertion in the image you see here.  We’ve done precious little thus far that overtly prepares you for work, much less prepares you as we would prepare intelligent machines for the work they do, and I’m quite proud of this fact: this past week, we’ve looked at some paintings and talked about some poems in our Comp I classes, and in Comp II we’ve talked about rhetorical appeals.  The rest of the semester, once we begin working on writing and research projects, will indeed have some value to you in your future careers and lives away from work; but, again, I won’t be training you as though you are machine-learning algorithms.  There are two pretty simple, obvious reasons for that: you already possess such an algorithm (though we still don’t quite understand how it works); and, for that matter, you’re already a far superior information processor, that even the fastest computers can only begin to approach in ability.  There’s also a third, more existential reason: You are, or should be, more than the work you will be hired to do.

It’s for these reasons that the assertion that accompanies the image is both deeply weird and more than a little lacking in awareness of what a good education should do for students.

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Jose Carlos Mariategui: An Anthology (a review)

Jose Carlos MariateguiJosé Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. and trans. by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (Monthly Review Press, 2011).  Amazon.

I want to state from the outset that I’m glad this book is available.  As Vanden and Becker note, Mariátegui is still not well known in this country, and this collection aims to both remedy that and augment the other, best-known (in the United States) collection of his writings, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality I had first run into  Mariátegui’s thought in a book on Faulkner, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s  Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, and discuss at length Mariátegui’s idea that history is comprised of “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” as it might apply to Go Down, Moses’ narrative structure in  this old post.  Thanks to this anthology, I now know considerably more about Mariátegui’s thought than I had before.

Apart from his idea about history’s non-linear development, though, Mariátegui is fascinating to me more generally as an example of a thinker from Latin America (in his case, the Peru of the turn of the 20th century) who is drawn to a philosophy from Europe (in his case, Marxism) who, instead of slapping it on his country and region to use as a kind of one-size-fits-all template for making sense of its history and culture, does something almost like the reverse: he looks closely at his region and its people, its history and culture, and borrows and modifies elements from Marxism to make it a more-fitting tool for change.  As just one example: in several writings included in this anthology, Mariátegui implicitly notes the common root in the words communism and community and argues that Inca society had been its essence a communist society because of its communities’ agricultural lands had been held in common by the members of those communities: “Inca communism, which cannot be denied or disparaged, developed under the autocratic rule of the Incas, is therefore designated as an agrarian communism” (in “The Land Problem,” p. 73 of the present edition).  A kind of communism, thus, not only pre-dates Marx but is actually autochthonous to this hemisphere.  Mariátegui goes on to note that indigenous and mixed-race communities in Peru still retain this communal impulse as they tend to organize and work together to complete large-scale projects, and he concludes that Peru’s peasant class, with training and organizing led by people from those communities, would be receptive to those parts of communism that would lead to workers’ seeking to control the means of production (in most Peruvians’ case, this would mean controlling the land).  It is thinking like this, along with Mariátegui’s full-throated argument for the necessity of myth in a culture (thus rebutting orthodox Marxism’s rejection of religion), that explains simultaneously (for me) both Mariátegui’s continuing influence in Latin America and that he remains relatively unknown in this country.  And, indeed, Vanden and Becker write that  “Mariátegui’s writings . . . . represent the dynamic, creative vein in Marxist thought that can, we believe, best nourish cogent analyses and potent praxis” (9).

So, then, why is this book so frustrating at times?

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