Less is More

In part of my ongoing dissertation proposal avoidance, I am writing here about my latest realization of the obvious: that the technological developments that permitted the widespread possibility of arriving at posterity in the eighteenth century are the same that made it more difficult to do so. This is sort of the verbose way of saying that to believe in everything is to believe in nothing. It is also the same problem that we're currently having with respect to the digitization of the archive. Anyone who's ever written anything will know that there's some as of yet indeterminate saturation point--a point at which one must simply put down the book, pick up the pen, and make peace with the knowledge that not everything that could be accounted for will be. The accessible archive grows with each pass of the scanner; the field of knowledge spreads out like a centerless universe. And here we are trying to make maps. We cannot read it all.

This of course is not new. The eighteenth century saw the same problem at work; in the field of what became the sciences, the encyclopedists sought to answer it. Chambers' Cyclopaedia aspired to be both 'compleat' knowledge and to render other texts superfluous (of course, Chambers knew it was not, in fact, complete, as some things were surely left out and the pace of knowledge production quickly rendered each edition out of date). One couldn't hope to waltz into the library, start at the lower left corner and read one's way around and to the top. One, after all, has to eat at some point before one dies. The encyclopedia was intended--or so its author-compilers professed--to make the whole field of knowledge available and relatively manageable. You can't walk around the whole circle of the library, but you could the encyclopedia (which word, of course, means walking a circle).

Of course, this period also witnessed the problematization of complete reading's other half--complete writing. The encyclopedias had their own answer to this--future editions, supplemental entries, and so forth. But the novel, which under Fielding and especially Richardon's direction tried to play the same game, couldn't quite hope to survive that way. It doesn't constitute an enclosed generic system. How does an encyclopedia arrive at posterity? By making offspring (to follow the metaphor) and its own futurity a generic convention. What on earth is a novelist to do? Once Tom Jones marries Sophia or Clarissa dies, the story is more or less over. How do you--you're a novel--remain relevant? What's your generic future look like?

What I'm getting at here, to break the flow of thought, is the extent to which arriving at posterity (sub-construed as generic and/or textual--and not necessarily material--durability) depends upon, in the eighteenth century from, say, 1700-1771, the ability of a text or genre to contain and control the threat rendered by proliferation. As an organizational function, the ability to stand in for other texts would serve a text well in keeping it afloat upon the ocean of printed material. You don't need to read epistles, poems, essays, plays, etc. separately if you can read them all in this new thing, the novel. Hence the novel becomes an encyclopedia of genres.

This is all about principles of reduction and substitution as necessary to generic durability. Take, for example, Pope's translation of Homer. It's Homer, OK, but it's Pope. And perhaps a lot more Pope than Homer. Two collapse into one; the field is reduced and contained by Pope's translation. There's a better example than this to use--translations are a tricky matter.

Concerns about proliferation came very early in the period. Swift openly fretted them. If you want to last at all--even in the short term--you have to get above the field (you're still a book). At the beginning of the century, you emulated or imitated what had already proved its ability to reach posterity--the Ancients. Pope updates and stands in for Homer--bingo, instant classic (or so he might have had it). As the century wore on, you would do this be being new, a work of "original" genius. How do you be original? Well, Fielding thought it was by combining (and thus containing) other genres within his narrative framework. He writes himself a comic epic in prose. Criticism also emerged as an organizational mechanism. Rather than represent all knowledge, a text would represent "good" or "bad" knowledge according to whatever critical standards were in place, or which critics were trying to put in place. Then the anthology, and then the canon--which is the ultimate in reduction and substitution, if not fair representation (thanks largely to criticism). If durability is usefulness over time (as I have defined it elsewhere--though this definition might be genre-specific, and in turn depends on the definition of utility, a loaded, protean term in the period, especially towards the end), then would a text not maximize utility by "doing the work" of multiple texts?

In case you're wondering, yes, I link the rise of the novel to these principles of reduction and generic durability. Novels were the frequently the longest fictional texts, but compared to the amount of print out there, they were very short--just like the encyclopedia.

Hm. Does the epic "die off" in part because it has a relatively low length-to-utility ratio in the context of antiproliferation principles of reduction/substitution? An epic is just an epic? So it can't compete with other forms that "do more?"

Enough for now.

As an aside, does my posting this stuff open my ideas to theft, or by posting them do I stake a kind of claim to them in time? Or should I not be worrying about this? Or am I revealing a shocking arrogance by suggesting that my ideas are either worthy of theft or laying claim to?


Zoom Shock

This afternoon, I had a two hour meeting with one of the members of my dissertation panel and as usual I am still recovering four hours later from what I refer to as his benevolently enthusiastic attempts to kill me. I grapple with this professor over matters of technodeterminism, systematicity, and humanism, so those of you who know me in what the kids call the meatspace will now know his identity.

It was a great conversation, and I took copious notes. I will spare you the details until I have synthesized them into a series of connected ideas that reflect more of my thinking and less of his. It began with a proposal that would essentially investigate the ways in which different genres produce different expectations with respect to temporal existence. There is a relationship between genres and futures; a relative framework that does not refer to or depend upon notions of absolute time or space. I am not interested in producing a dissertation that posits Book A as being durable for X amount of years, in that Johnsonian sense of not calling something a classic until it has lasted a century. That would be absolute time. I quite agree and have done work on generic futurity with respect to the encyclopedia, and it is from that work that most of these conversations and this professor's confidence in my ability to negotiate the abstract philosophical approach come.

I do not necessarily share this confidence, as I do not have the body of knowledge at my command, particularly with regards to genre.

This sentence, I thought, was quite interesting: "The future as a feature of a genre or system." Now that's good stuff, and I think I understand it, and that I could write about it. It's the zoomed-out look at my interest in durability and posterity. The eighteenth century is the period to choose because of print. The proliferation of print comes with a whole bunch of organizational quandaries to which genre formation, amongst other things, is the response. How exactly do we DEAL with all of this information, especially when there's no hierarchy? Well, we get a hierarchy, dammit. Who's we? We is the SYSTEM. It's self-organizing, and the possibility of literary posterity emerges as a function of that organizational imperative. Categories of ephemeral and durable emerge out of proliferation and accrual. Some number of texts, at some point (a point I shall have to determine, and which need not be a single moment or year), must be discarded, or set aside, or otherwise reorganized. Likewise, some must be retained, or elevated. Hence the distinction between literature as just any old writing and Literature as, well, Literature.

The novel and the encyclopedia, which are two very closely related genres, "make sense" in this system because they do the job of replacing and/or displacing other texts. Chambers' encyclopedia set out to do this in no uncertain terms, and that was as early as 1728. It would not be until later in the century that the novel would start to do the same thing, and I would submit that (and be kind here, I'm just talking out loud) that might be because following the epistemological split that reconstituted fiction as distinct from what became the modern fact, it took the former a few more years to reach the point of systematic organizational recalibration already passed by the latter.

Which brings us to the point whereat I introduced the problem of facticity within the literary system. The fact is the most durable form of knowledge; it is a thing (a statement, a concept) that constitutes a determinate epistemic unit. The fact, in its modern incarnation, belongs to the sciences, to things that "really" are. "Fact" has no purchase in fiction (fiction, of course, may make use of facts, but--well, wait for it). The entire system of knowledge that constitutes what we call the hard sciences is, or seeks to be, based on facts in order to produce more facts. Something, I submit, should occupy the role of "facts" in the other formerly related but increasingly distinct system--literature. "Truth" becomes the province of fiction. What do I want to call the determinate epistemic units of fiction? I think that, like the "facts" of the so-called hard sciences, they accrue over time, and require "future" usage to retroactively constitute them as such. They must be treated within the system of literature as facts are in the system of natural philosophy. The "facts" of a genre or a system are the texts (or snippets, quotations, what have you) that are "used" by other writers in the fashioning of new truths. They are the building blocks of this different epistemology. Again, it makes sense that a novel--like an encyclopedia--should be a heteroglossic collection of generic facts, organized and interpolated in order to create a "complete" self-contained system that offers Truth--which is precisely what the novels of Fielding and Richardson did. That condition of generic and textual facticity (this distinction needs WAY more unpacking) is, perhaps, a defining quality of durability.

I haven't sorted out yet what happens after Richardson. But there seems to me to be another organizational recalibration within the literary system. At nearly the same time as the Britannica did, fiction embraced a kind of disciplinarity. Romanticism elevated individuality and isolation in place of universals and connectedness just as the encyclopedia separated the various parts of knowledge into their own disciplines rather than attempting to carry on the earlier editions' attempts at systematizing. Wordsworth, also at this time, determined that it was his unique combinations of words on the page that would last by giving pleasure--a pleasure dependent on his language. For that reason he chose the language of simple men, as, according to him, it was the most durable. His words. So, well, there.

Now I KNOW there's a dissertation in here somewhere.


The Wikirstaff Papers

I don't contribute to Wikipedia, but I remain fascinated by it. For the last couple of years, I have been thinking about the war between it and the Britannica, and though I know that Wikipedia will ultimately win, I always revel in the problems that keep bringing it to the websites of CNN and the Drudge Report.

Most recently, as many of you will know, Wikipedia, or one of its contributers, got a wee bit into the Bickerstaff business with respect to the comedian known as Sinbad. Someone altered the entry on the latter to reflect that he had died of a heart attack (view CNN's report on it here). A user quickly picked it up, forwarded the link, and quickly caused a wave of mourning for the recently undeceased.

Naturally, I thought of Jonathan Swift and The Bickerstaff Papers, in which Swift declares the death of the astrologer John Partridge, much to Partridge's dismay. The following is from The Tatler, No. 1, April 12 1709:
I have in another Place, and in a Paper by it self, sufficiently convinc'd this Man that he is dead, and if he has any Shame, I don't doubt but that by this Time he owns it to all his Acquaintance: For tho' the Legs and Arms, and whole Body, of that Man may still appear and perform their animal Functions; yet since, as I have elsewhere observ'd, his Art is gone, the Man is gone.
I should very much like to think that the nefarious editor of Sinbad's entry was up to something similar, though I doubt it. We hardly needed someone to resurrect Sinbad only to inform us of his passing. His character -- his art -- has been long enough in Fortune's mausoleum to render the Wikipedian obituary superfluous. I do like the idea, though, of Wikipedia as a site of this sort of discourse. Obviously it would ruin whatever integrity the site aspires to have, but as a source of information increasingly trafficked by more and more of the world, it seems an ideal location in which to recreate the sort of "universal" stir enjoyed by the papers of Steele and Addison.

Alas, 'tis not to be. Wikipedia, naturally, locked then entry for the moment in order to prevent another wonderful phenomena of the modern age. "Knowledge" -- which is or will become as synonymous with Wikipedia as it once was with the Britannica -- is subject to vandalism. That's a hell of a thing to be able to say. Not error, not lies, not misinformation, not even satire, if it was that, but vandalism. I'm not sure what the ramifications of this are, but I'm certain they're interesting.



In a typical act of hubris, I have volunteered to lecture on the Edgar Allan Poe component of our syllabus. I ascend the scaffold in April; however, having little or no experience with either Poe or lecturing, I am already nosing about the required texts. They include: "The Raven," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Purloined Letter," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado."

I read all of these as an undergraduate, and of course I can recite a few of the stanzas of "The Raven" from memory, thanks largely to The Simpsons and James Earl Jones. I have referenced "The Imp" on occasion, wrote a term paper on the author's use of architectural symbolism in "Usher" (and "William Wilson"), and have had a least one dram of amontillado. Beyond that, my knowledge of gothic literature, and particularly American gothic, is very little.

Not on the syllabus, but well worth reading and certainly a necessary part of my lecture will be "The Philosophy of Composition," a lecture Poe wrote to capitalize on the success of "The Raven." In it, he gives a rather idealized explication of the composition process and a brief explanation of how he conceived of Pleasure, Beauty, and Art. Though participating in the discourse of the sublime, Poe did not appear to think much of Burke or Kant; he links terror to Beauty rather than the sublime, and suggests (in "Usher") that though we are obviously affected by natural objects, "the reason, and the analysis, of this power, lie among considerations beyond our depth." If I were to chart it--and I would--the relationships might look like this:

Poe is the least clear on the element of Passion -- "the truly Passionate," he claims, "will comprehend" what he means by "homeliness." Truth and Passion might be equal in impact, but Poe clearly elevates Beauty as the most pure form of pleasure, a construction represented here by the heavy black bar. I have divided the branches because although truth and passion may be brought to serve the elucidation of Beauty by contrast, the precision and homeliness upon which they depend are "absolutely antagonistic" to it. This chart, I should say, is no more precise than Poe's brief treatment in this piece, and might benefit from different ordering. I think perhaps the placement of the Soul after Beauty might want tinkering. In essence, though, it is the contemplation of beauty that elevates the soul, which elevation is the effect of Beauty. Likewise, precision satisfies the intellect, which is satisfaction is the effect of Truth, and homeliness excites the heart, which excitation is the effect of Passion. All of these effects are pleasurable.

Of still more interest are Poe's thoughts on genre and form. As I am focused (and shall continue to write about, again and again) on what I am for the moment calling the problematic of the durability of knowledge (a term itself deserving of more unpacking than it will suffer here), I could not overlook Poe's consideration of the subject with respect to genre. He addresses this quite clearly in "The Poetic Principle":
A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Beranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.
I have bolded "enduring" because it's a variant of my dissertation buzzword: durable. Poe suggests that neither a work too long nor too short can sustain a unity of effect; too short, as above, and it fails to impress. Too long, and it fails to cohere. We retain only those parts or moments that elevated our souls, and therefore have imperfect memories of the text (I am convinced I shall have to have a chapter on memory). Poe does not in this text define the soul beyond its being that entity subject to elevation by Beauty.

Unfortunately, Poe is both too late and of the wrong nation to find a home in my dissertation, but his work has informed my thinking, particularly as he uses Paradise Lost as his example of a poem too long properly to call itself such. I have very mixed emotions regarding these discoveries. They make me wonder if I'm working in the wrong period.

More on Poe to follow.


Compiled upon a New Plan

This is a plate from my latest acquisition -- a facsimile of the first edition Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768-1771). I first became fascinated by early encyclopedias in the autumn of 2005. The professor of my "Genres of Enlightenment" course kindly permitted me to borrow his, and I found it absolutely enthralling, both materially and conceptually. I wrote about the durability of knowledge and the function of the encyclopedia with respect to that durability at the level of individual edition and genre (those of you interested in encyclopedias -- that poor genre too often overlooked by eighteenth-centuryists in favor of the novel and periodical -- should absolutely thumb through Richard Yeo's Encyclopaedic Visions).

The image to the left is that of a dial, described by William Smellie (the compiler of the first edition) thusly:
An universal dial, shewing the hours of the day by a terrestrial globe, and by the shadows of several gnomons, at the same time: together with all the places of the earth which are then enlightened by the sun; and those to which the sun is then rising, or on the meridian, or setting.
The description is followed by instructions on how to build one and how to use it. Naturally, I rather want one.

The plates throughout the edition are wonderful: there are astronomical charts explaining retrograde motion that look as though they were done by spirograph; intricate drawings of various machines and engines; charts of eighteenth-century shorthand symbols; examples of sheet music, bookkeeping records, anatomical sketches. It is not difficult to imagine myself actually reading the whole thing cover-to-cover. What is difficult to imagine is why the people at Britannica decided to reproduce the thing and offer it for sale. It can be purchased directly from their website for $195. They say it "lends an unmistakable air of prestige to any home or office." That rather smacks of buying books by the yard, I think, and I don't imagine anyone who has $200 lying around would purchase the thing for the prestige of it (for the record, I received it as a gift, but if I hadn't I absolutely would have bought it eventually).

I shall be consulting the three volumes of the edition severally over the course of my dissertation. Indeed, the temptation to use the thing as an encyclopedia of the eighteenth century is nearly overwhelming. Will I go to Locke when I need Locke, or will I go to Smellie's entry on Metaphysics -- which he lifted from Locke wholesale? What epistemological traps do I risking falling into? Are they the same as those fallen into by the original users?

At any rate -- anyone who wishes to know about any part of knowledge as it stood in the last quarter or so of the eighteenth century, please let me know. I'll look it up for you.