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fact, complete, as some things were surely left out and the pace of knowledge production quickly rendered each edition out of date).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?


Marina said...

you are totally open to theft.
For example, I am stealing from you like a kleptomaniac.

S'fun though.

Scriblerus said...

Who steals my purse...