Development of a Genre

In this section Moretti begins by explaining that language has changed over time then poses this question: And if language evolves by diverging, why not literature too?”  I found the evolution of detective fiction very intersting.  At this point in time, hearing about any style of detective fiction before the current version seems ridiculous.  I’m fascinated by idea of the genre having to develop the use of clues, and once clues were used, their use needed to be developed as well: “This pressure of cultural selection probably explains the second branching of the tree, where clues are present, but serve no real function: as in ‘Race with the Sun’. for instance, where a clue reveals to the hero that the drug is in the third cup of coffee, and then, when he is offered the third cup, he actually drinks it.” (72).  Being exposed to the current state of story telling and detective fiction, I found myself more prone to imagine a scenario where the hero had some intricate plan and good reason for drinking the poison.  Ideas of him having built up a tolerance to the poison in order to fake the effects, knowing that they will take him back to their hideout once he is incapacitated, where he can then launch a surprise attack from within while their guard is down popped into my head rather quickly.  It took a few moments of concious effort to wrap my head around the idea of a writer not knowing how to use clues.  So, now I wonder if some writer might remake one of these old detective stories and completely throw the audience for a loop.  Could this be affective or would it now just be seen as a lousy detective story?  I would like to read this story and see how it comes to a resolution with a detective dim-witted enough to knowingly drink poison.  I would like to see if the story comes out okay or if it is just ridiculous.  The other funny thing about clues was that at one point in the progression the detective mentions the clues in his final explanation but they were never revealed throughout the story.  I think brining the audience in on the clues was a major development for the genre.  I found this part very interesting.  I have noticed a similar effect when watching old movies, so it wasn’t a terribly surprising section, but the level of detail was fascinating.

'We know the elephant died when he jumped off the roof. But the other guy? It's a mystery.'
‘We know the elephant died when he jumped off the roof. But the other guy? It’s a mystery.’

“Graphs” Digital Humanities?

In this section Franco Moretti showed a lot of research on how literature has changed over time.  He showed the number of novels written per year with different figures for different regions and showed how the genres overlapped.  The genres were interesting because of the overlap.  One genre would start falling in popularity just as another genre was emerging.  Moretti suggested a sort of generational activity behind the replacement of genres but didn’t seem to have a full theory on the matter.  I found this to be interesting research.  He sort of went behind the scenes and discussed the corelation between the novels and outside events that might have had an impact on them, displaying the novel’s place in the larger framework of history throughout the world.  It seems that there are internal and external factors affecting the timeline of novels.  Technology, wars, trade, materials, etc. all have an effect on the novel, its content, production, and distribution.  But there are also internal forces which changed the way people read, for example reading many texts once vs. reading many over and over again in great depth.  A lot of this work seemed like presenting and interpreting data, doing historical comparisons, and making conclusions, some of which seem larly speculative.

While I find this work interesting so far, I am not sure what to consider it.  Is this digital humanities?  It does seem to be a sort of macro analysis, but it all seems to be about numbers and data in terms of the life cycle of the novel in general without any analysis of content.  Is this the digital humanities of just the study of the progression of the life of the novel?  Considering it the latter is not to discredit the work in any way.  It might just be the foundation for digital humanities work in the ‘maps’ and ‘trees’ sections.  It might already be considered digital humanities, im not sure.

The Digital Humanities: Have we created a monster?

I want to start by saying that I dipped my toe into the realm of digital humanities while writing my last paper for this class.  Prof. Ferguson directed me towards the tremendous literary resource called ‘Project Guttenburg.’  It was very very helpful to be able to keyword search certain words or phrases that I wanted to locate for my paper.  I even took it a step further and looked up all the instances of a particular word in order to compare the usage throughout the novel.  Again, this was very helpful and allowed me to write a paper that would have otherwise been impossible (under the given time constraints).

My worry here is that humans tend to take any sort of progress to its logical extreme.  Everybody loves the digital, complex, and computerized, and I can see people getting too excited by the idea of digital humanities.  It can easily go from “that was a helpful and interesting way to improve my paper” to a completely detached study of writing.  I do not want the highest attainment in the field to be a job as a data analyst.  Technology can be easily taken too far, and I hope that, at least in this particular field, there is enough critical thinking ability to decide where, when, and how to use this assistive technology wisely and effectively.

When I make relations between concepts I like to stick to what I know, so I will compare this to driving.  When GPS technology became available to comerical drivers you can imagine that they were happy to have turn by turn reminders and a constant awareness of where they are should they get lost.  Setting aside the horror stories of drivers following their GPS into lakes and bridges (this is not an exaggeration), we can see the logical extreme of GPS navigation fast approaching.  Within a single decade we have seen the GPS navigation go from an assistive technology for professional drivers to a viable threat to their careers and livihood.  Fully autonomous cars and trucks are being built and tested, and semi autonomous convoys have already completed runs.  It is important that the digital humanities remains an assistive technology and does not run rampant throught the field.  All areas of our lives are becoming more and more automated and technology dependent.  We need to make sure we keep the ‘human’ in ‘humanities.’

'If I can't do it by iPhone, I don't do it.'
‘If I can’t do it by iPhone, I don’t do it.’

Close Reading, Kierkegaard, and Post-structuralism

While I was reading “Poststructuralism and deconstruction” for today I was reminded of something I read years ago by Soren Kierkegaard in his “Concluding Unscientific Postcript.”  A major part of that text was his notion that truth is subjectivity, where there is a necessary distinction between fact and truth.  Without getting into too much detail, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between direct and indirect communication, the major difference being that indirect requires appropriation on the part of the listener.

What made me think of this is the possibility that limitations in language do not necessarily imply that there will be the same limitations in reality.  For Kiekegaard, indirect speech goes beyond the level of words and their literal meaning; there is a deeper level of communication that has to be understood.  This concept illustrates the inadequacy of language but not understanding.  A very basic example would be sarcasm.  In order for sarcasm to be properly understood the listener has to be involved deerper than the basic level of words.  To treat such statements strictly on the textual level would be to misunderstand them.

This brings me to a quote of p 76:  “Once the grain of the poem is opened up, then it cannot long survive the deconstructive pressures brought to bear upon it, and reveals itself as fractured, contradictory…”  This assumption only works if you can guarantee that you are not misunderstanding the meaning, or missing the point.  Maybe what the deconstructionist is seeing as an irreconcilible contradiction is really being used intentionally to make a deeper point than the basic functions of language will allow.  The ruthless deconstructionist might be missing the indirect communication that the writer was attempting to convey.

I think the article captures the essence of this on the next page: Yet the two methods, far apart though they would see themselves as being, suffer from exactly the same drawback, which is that both tend to make all poems seem similar.  The close reader detects miracles… similarly, after the deconstructionist treatement all poems tend to emerge as angst-ridden, fissured… indeterminacy.”  I am glad this was addressed because, with this theoritical difference, it seems like we have same technique working in opposite directions.

My question is might it come down to the same question of genius and authorship?  You either accept the author and read into every minute detail as a unifying agent creating cohesion or displaying intention, or you take the same minute details and show how far removed they become, claiming that it has no unity – just like having no author there is no unifying quality.


here is a brief overview of the fact vs truth/ subjectivity I was referencing:


Seeking Meaning in the Structuralist Activity

In “The Structuralist Activity” Barthes spends much of the article explaining how and why exactly the application of structuralism is to be considered an activity.  There is one particular part of the essay that I found to be especially important.  I feel that it is here that Barthes captures the essence of Structuralism, leaving the rest of the essay to mostly definition and explanation: “…what is new is a mode of thought (or a ‘poetics’) which seeks less to assign completed meanings to the objects it discovers than to know how meaning is possible, at what cost and by what means.”  Structuralism is more concerned with the act, or process used in deriving meaning than the meaning itself, or the content of a theory.

What I am wondering here is if the act or process used is referring only at the level of language.  Let us take a feminist interpretation of Frankenstein for example.  I will use the designation ‘x’ to represent a completely articulated feminist theory on Frankenstein.  Now using Barthes’ structuralist activity, he will be interested in the act by which the meaning behind ‘x’ was derived.  Would this act include the examination of things like historical context and relationships between characters, since these probably would have been considerations for the writer who came up with ‘x’?  Or will Barthes want to stay strictly at the level of language (as I imagine Saussure would)?  Or is this simply a misunderstanding of the application of this theory?  Perhaps Barthes is speaking more generally, and the structuralist activity is not meant to be applied to specific, individual interpretations?

“…but only the act by which these meanings, historical and contingent variables, are produced.”  – when he refers to these meanings that have been produced, can these be examined case by case, or must it be examined in terms of a necessary method (be it conscious or unconscious) that will be used in order to derive any meaning whatsoever?


Is There At Least One Circumstance Where the Nature of the Sign is not Arbitrary?

It looks as if we are going deeper into a topic that I find frustrating and not entirely convincing.  This is specifically addressed by Principle I:  The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign.  In this section Saussure insists that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”  He makes claims like “The idea of ‘sister’ is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds… that it could be represented equally by just any other sequence is proved by differences among languages any by the very existence of different languages…”  Saussure basically states this idea as a fact, briefly explains it, clarifies some key terms, glosses over two potential objections, and leaves it at that.  I understand that this paper is meant to address a larger topic than this issue, but his treatment of it leaves me dissatisfied and unconvinced.  If we can find one word whose relation to the entity it represents is not completely arbitrary his absolutist stance would have to be ammended.  I feel it is generally understood that things can be expressed by sound.  For this reason, even instrumental music can trigger an emotional response.  I can’t imagine misunderstanding a dog’s growl… These are just sounds but they carry expression.  There is also the way people say things that carries an expression.  Even people who do not understand a language can get a feel for a general meaning through the sounds and the way a word is said.  Now it could be argued that you can say any word in a threatening tone, but surely the pronounciation of some words are better suited for aggressive pronounciation.  This is why we have a whole grouping of “4 letter words” whose sharp terse pronunciations are well suited for aggressive utterance.  Why is it that among those 4 letter words there isn’t a word like “lovely” or “wonderful?”  If all language is arbitrary why are there so many similarities?  I think that anyone who writes poetry could tell you that certain words and their pronunciation do have an effect in and of themselves.  How about this:  Imagine there was a “4 letter word” that was made up arbitrarily and was meant to be vulgar, and there were other’s made up that were not of the same form, something like singdelala.  Now over the years people found much more satisfaction in violently exclaiming the 4 letter word.  singdelala did not provide the same release.  These people then wanted some more words that they could violently exclaim, and so they made up some new ones based on the structure of their beloved 4 letter word.  I do not think it is right to say that this new word was made arbitrarily.  I think it is reasonable to believe that throughout the course of the development of language, situations like this have occurred.  While I understand the effect of the linguistic sign being arbitrary, I do not think that it is necessarily the case.

Foucalt and the Author

Early in the essay Foucalt brings up a key question regarding authorship: “What does it matter who is speaking?”  He says that this type of indifference carrys an ethical significance.  In order to bring clarity to the issue he talks about the ‘author function.’  One part I found particularly interesting was the effect of author’s rights: “It is as if the author, beginning with the moment at which he was placed in the system of property that characterizes our society, compensated for the status that he thus acquired by rediscovering the old bipolar field of discourse, systematically practicing transgression and thereby restoring danger to a writing that was now guaranteed the benefits of ownership.”  I think the effects of author’s rights in general is interesting, but I am not entirely clear on what he means here, with things like ‘rediscovering the old bipolar field of discourse.’

At the end he revisits the main question: “And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?”  He brings up the question again after listing several new theoretical questions that would be applicable in the future of literary studies.  They are presented as more sophisticated theoretical questions, and in light of this higher level of study the question of indifference is seen as somewhat juvenile.  I think Foucalt is talking about taking a step back and studying a text on a level where things like its reputation and application is under discussion.  What difference does it make who is speaking is a useless question.  It is counter-productive to study.  This approach shuts down an entire field of study.  The fact is that there are many readers who think authorship is very important, and they have for generations.  At the very least, the concept of authorship has had a trememdous effect on literature, and to embrace this mentality of indifference would be to ignore any aspect of authorship.  His new questions like “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?” can include considerations of authorship in one way or another.  It is not necessary to downright ignore authorship in order to check the status of an author.  There are higher level questions and lines of discourse that can include authorship in a number of ways, and to ignore authorship completely would do nothing but limit the possibilites of literary study.


The Politics of Authorship

“It is thus, logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.”

I found this relation of authorship to capitalism interesting.  Although it seems like a sound observation, I don’t see why this should carry a negative connotation.

Barthes says “For him, for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author…”  This seems to suggest that somehow language does the speaking all on its own.  It makes more sense to allow that a person speaks, and the way he attempts to make his idea clear is through the use of language.  There are many ways to read and interpret language, but we are not opening a dictionary and discussing language word by word.  It is all in a particular sequence and context that was intentionally arranged by an individual.

I wonder how Barthes feels about his own work.  Does the reader or critic have anything to say, or is all of literature an intangible web of interpretations where nothing can stand its ground?

“It is language that speaks, not the author.”  I understand the benefits of opening up interpretation beyond the limits of an author, but the consequences of this line of attack seem to go much further than authorship.  Why would the author be the only one who cannot speak?  This absolute abandonment of any shred of objectivity is ridiculous.  If it is only language that speaks then the author cannot speak, the critic cannot speak, the reader cannot speak… At this point does literature even exist?  With such limitations what can one possibly do in the field?

Maybe it is just my American disposition, but I don’t see why a comparison to capitalism is negative.  Again, my American disposition leads me to prefer the idea of capitalism to the spirit of communism found in his “power to the readers” – rise of the proletariat – mentality.  Looking at this in relation to competing political ideologies it is hard to say which is better without the influence of biases.  Without doing any objective research right now, I want to say that capitalism has a better overall track record than communism.  It has created a more favorable society while allowing people to actualize their individual potential.  I am imagining somewhat of a logical extreme to Barthes death of the author/power to the reader proposition, where a field full of eager readers are sitting around regurgitating arguments over the classics with nothing new being written.

Image result for communist vs capitalism

Implications in the Changing role of Authors

In this article Pease gave a detailed history of the term author, including how it was developed and how it has changed.  It grew out of the medieval concept of auctor, the difference being that “Unlike the medieval auctor who based his authority on divine revelation, an author himself claimed authority for his words and based his individuality on the stories he composed.” (107).  An interesting shift in authority came when literary critics became prevelant, which brings me to my questions about the future of authorship.

Barthes proposes a method of analysis where the author is dead, making “the critic… the real beneficiary of the separation of an author from a text.  It is the critic rather than the author or the reader who can render an authoritative account of the structure of the work, the internal relationships among the various textual strands and levels… the critic is free to reconstitute the text according to his own terms.” (112-113).

I understand the value in individual critical analysis of a text.  I also recognize the value in attempting to understand the meaning or message that a writer is trying to express.  My question is why can’t we allow for more than one way to study texts?  If we can approach a text with different intentions we can find value in it from a number of ways.

It seems ridiculous to acknowledge someone as being a great writer, then remove them completely from the work they produced.  It seems that Barthes does not want to allow great writers to have anything to say, which comes across as an offensive and discouraging way to treat writers.

Such treatment of writers could have a devastating effect on literature.  Why would a writer spend years cultivating an idea and articulating every minute detail, only to have his work immediately commandeered upon its release.  A writer would have to sit back and watch his work get grossly misinterpreted, potentially to the point of being in direct opposition to his intention.  Would he then need to become a critic of his own work in order to have a say in the matter?  I am imagining authors putting out works, then writing under a pseudonym as a critic.  This would be ridiculous.  It seems much more reasonable to allow an author to express his ideas and to defend and clarify them, while also having a critical realm where readers can analyze and interpret every minute detail until their hearts are content.

Authors are writing for a reason, perhaps to raise awareness or express an idea.  I think it is important to let them do so freely.  Cutting anyone off from the fruits of their labor is discouraging at the very least.  In this field, to discourage writers is self – destructive in a very literal way.  It might be interesting to examine this topic from a marxist perspective, with a possible reation to the estrangement of workers from the product of their labor:

Alienation of the worker from their work and its product[edit]

The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers), nor by the consumers of the product (the buyers), but by the Capitalist class, who, besides appropriating the worker’s manual labour, also appropriate the intellectual labour of the engineer and the industrial designer who create the product, in order to shape the taste of the consumer to buy the goods and services at a price that yields a maximal profit. Aside from the workers having no control over the design-and-production protocol, alienation (Entfremdung) broadly describes the conversion of labour (work as an activity), which is performed to generate a use value (the product) into a commodity, which—like products—can be assigned an exchange value. That is, the Capitalist gains control of the manual and intellectual workers, and the benefits of their labour, with a system of industrial production that converts said labour into concrete products (goods and services) that benefit the consumer. Moreover, the capitalist production system also reifies labour into the “concrete” concept of “work” (a job), for which the worker is paid wages—at the lowest-possible rate—that maintain a maximum rate of return on the Capitalist’s investment capital; this is an aspect of exploitation. Furthermore, with such a reified system of industrial production, the profit (exchange value) generated by the sale of the goods and services (products) that could be paid to the workers, instead is paid to the capitalist classes: the functional capitalist, who manages the means of production; and the rentier capitalist, who owns the means of production.