I’ve given a short workshop at a couple of conferences recently, and recently some folks asked if I might share it online. So here it is, with the caveat that it’s just my biased view.
First, I think it’s important to abandon the naive idea of Romantic Genius: if you write it they will come. Great research stands on its own and is sullied by craven attempts at promotion. NO. The truth is, the Romantic poets were just a craven and self-promoting as the rest of us. So let’s kill this Romantic idea that advertising work pollutes the system.
I generally assume ta 50/50 proposition when it comes to what gets read and why. 50% is the overall quality of the book or article, and 50% networking and leveraging of social capital.
BUT: and here is the BIG caveat: digital networking is not about promoting you and your work — it’s about promoting good work and good people, period. This means, on the one hand, celebrating work that is powerful, effective, ground breaking in various ways. But it also means paying attention to what Sarah Ahmed calls the politics of citation — paying attention to patterns in who you tend to celebrate and working to make sure that this does not simply reflect the institutions where you were trained, or the idiosyncrasies and norms of your biography.
My overall argument is that the best reason we should all be using digital networks is because they help get your stuff read and help you to find and promote other work. If someone doesn’t find your book because they didn’t know it was relevant, that’s on you.
Think of this in terms of search efficiency. Facebook, Twitter, listserves, sites like HASTAC — all are places where you can find out, from other really smart people, what good work is out there and what’s coming down the line. They are also places where you can ask questions and gather collective wisdom.
I am convinced that, in the end, it makes all the work better — makes sure that people have a better idea of where to find great work appropriate to their research and their teaching.
This means GIVE WHAT YOU WANT TO GET BACK. Give generous support, smart discussion, broadcast good work you’ve found, celebrate successes, make principled arguments, etc. I took about a year off of both Facebook and Twitter when I was revising my book. When I dove back in I noticed that it has made be HAPPIER as an academic. It promotes a wider sense of collaboration and the exciting work that is out there. It IS a collaboration.
You want networks that are both wide and deep (like your research, right?).
AND HAVE FUN!!!! Figure Out how to reach a world.
Some other guidelines:
Spend some time thinking about the relation between public and private in your digital life. It’s important to have some kind of policy. And this can look lots of different ways. I, for instance, almost never post about my daughter, even though she’s the LOVE of my life and I do a little more of the caregiving (my partner’s job makes mine look easy). There are a couple of reasons for this; (1) I like to keep some things private, (2) I’m wary of interpolating her into what is, for me, a largely professional environment, (3) I’m sensitive to the strongly hetero dimension of that dad who’s always celebrating his little girl, and (4) I honestly think my personal life is pretty great but I don’t want to make it look either too ideal or engage in humble bragging. But at the same time, I’m devoted to the posts I read from people like Stephanie Hernishow, or Claire Jarvis, or Jesse Oak Taylor, or Grace Lavery celebrating the way they’re living their lives. So to each their own.
You should also think a little about what your basic identity or thing is. E.g., do you want to promote stuff that has to do with science, science photography, etc. That’s stuff I identify with, can evaluate, and people will sort of check out if they know me. For me, it’s more sciency and environmentally focused. What are the channels beyond your academic circle that you can help others plug in to?
And just remember: it’s all public, and it will be on your permanent record. Doesn’t mean you can’t be political, etc., but keep it in mind or use it.
There are important differences between what they are good for. I’ll run through some of those differences now, focusing on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Facebook: this is more collegial. This is a network of people who are connected to you usually institutionally or socially. Family, etc., too.
People good at this: Deanna; Elaine Freedgood, Caroline Levine.
Twitter: to me is more stylish, tends to be funner, and the people who are good at it are good connectors. Note that it is about a more expansive network of thinkers, and it includes what we might call fans. Figure out where the channels are. Claire Jarvis, Manu Chander, and the V21 have been really successful in creating communities through Twitter. It also is kind of a time drain. Because it’s more ephemeral — you dip in or dip out — you kind of need to keep diving in to keep it going. But its value is that it’s a bridge to the wider world. Most of the people in the UK that I have connected to digitally have come through Twitter.
Some other good tips for using Twitter:
LinkedIn: We don’t take this seriously enough, for students and wider community. But it’s hugely important as a professional channel. As we think about making the case for the humanities degree to our students, we need to have confidence that our former students are going off and doing things that support them, that ideally, they like. LinkedIn can help with that. We might think of this in two ways: (1) as one of the ways that we can network and link what we do on campus to what happens off campus; but (2) that we should meet students at the level of their concerns (about careers, student debt, etc.) at the same time that we are cultivating the concerns of our own scholarship, and its literatures.
Blogs. Meh. Need to park stuff somewhere. But not part of the current as much. Only real exception is if you’re doing DH.
Websites. Are a PITA. But useful to house stuff if the architecture of your institution doesn’t support. Don’t need to get fancy.
Online Publications — Public Books, LARB, Valve, etc.: High prestige, big part of the new public humanities push. Who’s good at this? Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Nathan Hensley, Anna Kornbluh, Daniel Hack, etc.
Listserves — great for farming out queries to groups of experts in a field and staying on top of publications and conferences.
Academia.edu, etc.: places to share work have come under increasing scrutiny because they are for-profit and partly pay to play. There are lots of nonprofit alternatives, including Humanities Commons and Zenodo. The only problem is that they are less frequented, so people are less likely to find your stuff. There are some pretty thick ethical and practical considerations to dive in to here, but I’m not going to get in to. You can read more here: link.
Hope this helps!
It’s spring break, and I’m recently tenured, and this fine spring weather urges me to take my hobby horse out for a ride. Right now I’m reading Stephanie LeMenager’s Living Oil.: Petroleum Culture in the American Century It’s a brilliant study of energy politics and the genres of the petroleum regime. There are so many excellent things about it, and the way it talks about things as varied as car culture, the La Brea tar pits, and oil sand proselytism in Canada. She has a preternatural, I’m tempted to say, hydramatic ability to shift gears smoothly from deep time and tough energy meditations to incredibly focused and fine-grained readings of poetry and prose fiction. I love this book, and I can tell I’ll be thinking with it for a long, long time.
I came across a line toward the close that stopped me short and showed me something about the ongoing debates about historicism that have been circulating around the V21 Collective and its Manifesto:
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the belief in the value of historicity expressed through style and characteristic forms, historicism is a word that gets flung, sometimes pejoratively, at architects, urban planners, and literary and cultural critics. 
My immediate reaction: this didn’t sound right. Surely the OED wouldn’t define historicism first and foremost in terms of value rather than fact; as an aesthetics rather than an episteme. This flies in the face of how I’ve always thought about nineteenth-century historicism, and suggests a conflation between, on the one hand, historicity and monumentalism, and on the other, a sort of naive reading of antiquarianism. But LeMenager, as elsewhere, is assiduously correct here. If you turn to the third edition of the OED, these are the entries:
1. S. T. Coleridge’s term for: empiricism. Obs. rare. [Cites first use in 1825]
2. Belief in the importance or value of historicity or of the past; spec. (in art and architecture) regard for or preoccupation with the styles or values of the past; a style or movement characterized by this. Frequently used pejoratively. [Cites uses in 1856, 58, and 70]
3. a. Any of various beliefs that social and cultural phenomena cannot be considered independently of their historical context; the practice of studying something with reference to its historical context. [Citations from 1895] b. b. The belief that historical processes are determined by natural laws rather than by human choice and agency, historical determinism; the practice of studying the social sciences from this viewpoint. [Citations from 1916, through Popper 1940, 1957, etc.]
Historicist nerd that I am, the primacy of definition 2 is, frankly, shocking to me. I wrote a book that, among other things, endorsed the argument that historicism derives from German historicism of the late 18th and 19th century, as the etymology for the OED entry itself notes (“partly after German Historismus (late 18th cent.; found in sense 2 and, especially, sense 3)”).
For me, this raises a crucial question, one I wish I’d asked in my book: is it the case that the term “historicism” was used for most of the nineteenth century, at least by figures other than Coleridge, in a way essentially divorced from its use by the German historicists? That’s what the entry suggests.
But if you dig into the examples given for definition two, the confusion becomes easier to understand. It turns out that the first nineteenth-century uses cited for “historicism” are references to a specific brand of Protestant historicism (not to be confused with apocalyptic & evangelical church historicism) that circulate respond to debates over the Oxford or High-Church movement, Puseyism, and Newman’s Tracts for the Times (If you search Google books for appearances of “historicism” before 1870, they are all to these debates). It’s worth asking whether it’s fair to characterize such historicism as simply a “Belief in the importance or value of historicity or of the past.” If you read Newman’s Apologia, it seems clear he believes that his investigation of the history of Christian liturgy and dogma is historicist in a broader and more critical sense, that is, an attempt to examine contemporary Anglican arguments as part of a longer genealogy of religious debate. But the larger point is that the 3rd edition of the OED accurately tracks a shift between 19th-century and 20th-century uses of “historicism,” at the expense (common to genealogies) of suggesting a kind of continuity between these uses. It’s pretty clear that when Popper critiques the poverty of historicism, he’s giving a reading of the legacy of German historicism — not Newman.
In a world in which the editors of the OED might care about some ranting English professor, it would be great if they would reorganize the 3rd edition entry so that uses 1 and 3 are primary, and 2 moved into a subcategory as “religious historicism” — though I’m guessing this might violate some house protocols.
Out of curiosity, I checked the second (1989) edition, and it gets the intellectual history right, at the expense of overlooking Anglican historicism:
1. The attempt, found esp. among German historians since about 1850, to view all social and cultural phenomena, all categories, truths, and values, as relative and historically determined, and in consequence to be understood only by examining their historical context, in complete detachment from present-day attitudes.
2. A tendency in philosophy to see historical development as the most fundamental aspect of human existence, and historical thinking as the most important type of thought, because of its interest in the concrete, unique, and individual.
3. The belief that historical change occurs in accordance with laws, so that the course of history may be predicted but cannot be altered by human will; the resulting attitude to the social sciences, of regarding them as concerned mainly with historical prediction.
4. Excessive regard for the institutions and values of the past; spec. in Architecture, the use of historical styles in design.
Hence hiˈstoricist, an adherent or proponent of historicism (in various senses); also, one who specializes in the historical branch of a subject; also attrib. or as adj. So historiˈcistic a.
I think this definition is more accurate, if less inclusive, because it accurately characterizes the relation between modern usages. Considered as a methodology, “historicism” marks a wide and varied set of practices that emerged especially in the nineteenth century and characterized a huge range of historical writing, aesthetic practices, and modes of understanding. The pejorative use of “historicism” — whether by Popper, or in writing about are and architecture, or in the V21 manifesto — is organized through a critique of one particular reading of German historicism, derived especially from critical accounts delivered by figures like Nietzsche and Benjamin. As I’ve separately argued, I think that this critique is generally misread. Certainly, when Nietzsche argues against the uncritical historicism of his peers in his Untimely Meditations, he does it from the vantage of a more critical historicism, an historicism that is “untimely — that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come” (Nietzsche 1997: 60, emphasis added).
All of which is to say (and here I swing myself into the stirrups) I think ongoing critiques of historicism are already historicist; that is, they take up the critical charge of historicism and play it against a more static, conservative, and aestheticized account of the value of history. LeMenager asks “When narrating the ecologies of modernity, must we choose between contamination and historicism?” (190). This question only makes sense when “historicism” is read as a treasuring of the past that refuses to amend its outcomes, or even to acknowledge the violent, ongoing damage of its effluents. Conversely, any attempt to address these legacies — whether toxic waste, or Anthropogenic climate change, or the aftermath of imperial violence (whether hard or soft) — requires a extended, intelligent, and reparative historicism that seeks to understand how that past came to be in all of its complexity. Living Oil demonstrates this beautifully.
Annual Meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Brown University, 22-25 June 2018
Call for Panelists
From Coleridge’s “caverns measureless” to Shelley’s “pil’d” and “primeval” floes of ice, from Blake’s “want of … bounding form” to the “chaotic universality” of Schlegel’s fragments, Romanticism is preoccupied with forms verging on formlessness. Even as the Romantics theorized organicist models of form that privileged totality, unity and harmony, they tested forms that were interstitial, fissured, and open in contour. This panel explores the tensions and collusions between form and formlessness, and the crisis such collusions induce for thinking about the patterns of literature.
We are especially eager to consider the following questions: How do Romanticism’s open forms and fragmentary poetics call into question or model alternatives to the notion of form as rigid and inflexible—as an agent of containment and control? What is Romantic formlessness? What is its politics? Can forms, for instance, not only capture the self-contained and the (pre)determined, but also open up to the intermediary and the transitory? Are form and unform processes or states, things or actions? What is the relation between formalization and deformation? How might literature precede formalization or escape it altogether? If Romantic form is aligned to organicism and vitality, what is the relation between the unformed and the inorganic and lifeless? If formlessness is an iteration or type or instantiation of form (rather than its antithesis), what is not form in the Romantic period? If formlessness is form, where does form begin and end? Do open or intermediary forms possess particular affordances? What are their pitfalls and liabilities? Finally, do these forms ask us to read differently? What un-formalisms might Romantic formlessness produce?
We invite proposals for 15-minute papers that take up (but are not limited to) the above provocations and questions. Submit proposals for consideration by 8 December 2017 via email to Devin M. Garofalo, Florida Atlantic University (email@example.com), and Devin Griffiths, University of Southern California (firstname.lastname@example.org). Presenters will be notified of acceptance no later than January 1.
I was very, very happy to learn recently that The Age of Analogy was shortlisted for the first book prize of the British Association for Romantic and Studies. Congratulations to Siobhan Carrol, who was also shortlisted for An Empire of Air and Water, and to Julia S. Carson for her Romantic Marks and Measures, which won!
Was thrilled to find out recently that The Age of Analogy was shortlisted for the British Society for Literature and Science’s annual book prize. The prize ultimately went to Ursula Heise, for Imagining Extinction (Chicago, 2016). Pretty good company!
Right now I’m working on a long article about the cross-disciplinary history of the modern comparative method. It’s really, really interesting to read disciplinary histories from across the humanities & social sciences (mainly linguistics, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, and literature) and see how different fields and their objects inflect basic questions about the nature of change, the implications of pattern, and the relation between historical and synchronic/contextual perspectives. The article tests a key argument from my book, The Age of Analogy (a claim for the interplay of “analogy” and “comparison” in the formation of the modern comparative method), by looking at disciplines beyond literary and scientific history, and considering scholarship in French and German, as well as English.
If I wanted to be cheekily topical in that article (and I don’t), I would point to the comparisons that people are now drawing between the crowd sizes at the 2009 and 2017 presidential inaugurations. Such comparison is (1) meant to gauge something about the distinctions between two different political formations and two different moments in historical time, and (2) is necessarily structured by analogy. To read the comparison is to recognize the relation between a common structuring spatial scheme (the Mall), and its service as a framework for a series of implicit analogical relations, which can be summarized in the form “A is to B as C is to D,” or A : B :: C : D. The most obvious implied analogy here: Obama’s 2009 crowd size : enthusiasm for Obama :: Trump’s 2017 crowd size : enthusiasm for Trump. (I note that the counter arguments offered by Sean Spicer and others center on why the two situations aren’t analogous: there were white ground coverings in 2017, new delays in the security, etc.).
This isn’t an example used in the article, which will (hopefully) be out sometime toward the end of this year, but I thought I’d share here my [lightly edited] response for our MLA panel in Philadelphia a few weeks ago on “Analogy after the Enlightenment.” It was organized by Adam Sneed and Taylor Schey, and featured impressive papers by Taylor, Elizabeth Duquette, and Ken Hirschkop.
The question I want to begin with: why should we study analogy? Listening to these papers, the answers seem to be (generalizing broadly — and what is the job of respondent but to generalize?):
(1) We should study analogy because (as Taylor accurately notes) it has been positioned as a key marker for the transition between Enlightenment/Augustan poetics and Romanticism (a formulation that has helped make sure it was almost entirely overlooked in the C19). To return to analogy, in his account, then means to refigure the deep Romantic investment in relationality and uncertainty in a longer framework — one that wouldn’t require us to forget the eighteenth century (or even the rest of the 19th in the signature Romantic leap to modernism), but recognize a more continuous narrative.
(2) In Elizabeth’s account, the turn to analogy helps us rethink the philosophical coordinates of the mid-nineteenth century novel, or at least, Melville and the way that philosophical discourse presents a problem for the novel’s investment in incident and character, forcing it to tell rather than to show. So, to return to Taylor’s argument, if the Romantics put paid to analogy, and Anglophone print culture was truly transAtlantic, it should be deeply surprising that analogy remained a concern for mid-nineteenth century novels (popping up also in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt).
(3) Finally, as Ken explains (with extraordinary precision), analogy was not only important to linguistics, but perhaps the most important formal procedure for the formation of Saussure’s structural distinction between langue and parole. If this is true (and I think it is), this means that analogy is central to the structural turn — an unacknowledged founding move that helped to birth many of the critical procedures that we gesture to when we say (or used to say) postmodern or poststructural.
To these I would add that there’s a strong argument to be made for analogy’s central role in new historicism (as Alan Liu has argued) by way of Clifford Geertz and American-school social anthropology, with its focus on comparing thin and thick description, text and context. And it was also an important procedure for Marxist formalist criticism, with its profound but compulsive concern for the relation between economic or productive “base” and cultural “super structure.” Even a work like Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconscious — a book that continues to be a central pivot for our reconsiderations and anxieties about what it is that we do when we do literary scholarship — can be seen as an extended meditation on the Marxist problem of “reflection,” which is most simply just another disciplinary specification of a dynamic that, in a longer history, was called “analogy.”
So: Why do we study analogy? For lots of good reasons. Analogy is part of the story of how we got here. And in the current political moment, the story of how we got here seems really, really important.
A further question might be: How might we flesh out what analogy means, particularly in the nineteenth century, when its cultural, methodological, and philosophical meanings were (and are still) in flux?
As I have recently argued, in my book, “The Age of Analogy” (just out from Johns Hopkins Press), both analogy and comparison — as terms and as methods — were fundamentally reformulated in the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century — in the transition that put us “after the Enlightenment.”
Analogy, which had played an important role in Western philosophy, Christian metaphysics and philology, had long represented a strategy of relational analysis that studied similarity. First stop. Comparison, on the other hand, was largely incubated in the classical rhetorical tradition as a way to underline contrasts and distinctions. Second stop. The modern comparative method emerged when these two traditions were brought together and focused on the problem of studying both how things are similar and different — what we now call, in primary education, to “compare and contrast.”
When I first stumbled upon this claim, while writing yet another abstract of the book to be, it seemed so simple, it simply couldn’t be true. With the benefit of several more years I can say, not only is it true, but it applies not only to English, but to academic writing in French (where the operative terms are “comparaison” and “analogie”) and German (and the terms “vergleich” and “analogie”). Not only that, but this reformulation of analogy and comparison played an important role in the formation of the modern humanist disciplines, organizing in important ways not only how people like Matthew Arnold thought about culture, as an object and as a hermeneutic, but more generally, in the formation of anthropology, biology, sociology, religious studies, philology/linguistics, mythology, political science, and of course, literary criticism in English. At the most general level, analogy structured the linguistic and cultural turns that later dominated 20th century humanism.
Seen through this lens, analogy starts to look less like our peculiar hobbyhorse — that rhetorical figure that for some reason has seemed less sexy than metaphor, allegory, or symbol — and more like an important engine for the disciplinary formation of the modern humanities.
And yet it’s quite rare, not just in English literary criticism, but in the various disciplinary histories that I’ve been reading recently, truly rare for anyone to talk about the relation between comparison and analogy. This is true even in a field like linguistics that, despite having retained the term “analogy” for a specific language phenomenon, as Ken explained, virtually never considers the importance of analogy to the formation of the comparative method, a moment that essentially birthed modern linguistics from the older traditions of philology, translation, and rhetoric. Analogy in linguistics, as in Romanticism and most fields of comparative analysis, remains a kind of abject term that denominates outmoded or problematic practices even as we happily go along comparing and contrasting. What else, for instance, might we call the “relational comparison” of Édouard Glissant & Shu-mei Shih? Or the “equivalences that do not unify” described by Franz Fanon and Natalie Melas? Virtually all modern disciplines, comparative literature not excepted, have amassed a range of new terms that have formalized procedures that were once more loosely termed “analogies.” (A bit closer to my disciplinary home, I don’t know if anyone else here was at the panel yesterday on “‘Victorian’ in a comparative field,” but in spite of some really impressive accounts of the past, present, and future of comparative literary studies, the term “analogy” never came up.) This is surprising and truly interesting if you believe (as I do) that there is no comparatism, historically or methodologically speaking, without “analogy.”
Conspicuous absence arguments are always a kind of a critical Mcguffin, but I do think we should think more about why this is so. Why is it that discussions of comparatism don’t invoke analogy as an important critical object, and vice versa? I hope we can start to think more but also talk more about the relation between analogy and comparison. For one thing, it would help us in thinking concretely about the expressive forms and generic histories of comparative study. This isn’t simply a question of intellectual history; to overlook analogy’s place in the modern comparative method is to overlook the basic formal structure that allows comparatism to operate.
To put it differently, it might be more appropriate to think of analogy as a network of affiliated practices, each with important histories and contexts, rather than as a stable object or single tradition. To adapt Franco Moretti’s argument in his most influential essay, “Conjectures on World Literature,” (which itself draws demonstrably on disciplinary arguments over the nature of analogy within comparative literature and anthropology as well as evolutionary biology); as I say, to adopt Moretti’s argument, we might study analogy as an interplay of waves and trees. On the one hand, we might study analogies in the waves of interdisciplinary contact through which relational analysis is adapted to new phenomena — often founding or substantially remaking entire fields of study. But we might also study analogy through trees of influence, through narratives of differentiation that trace the network of those operations over time and study the patterns of these engagements. This would also help us place the importance of specific applications and discoveries of analogy within the wider humanities.
A final problem is that, if analogy is in fact central to humanist scholarship, its historical study inevitably depends on its object as method. This isn’t a new problem, but certainly demands that we think carefully about how the dynamic we identify as “analogy” plays into our study of its various applications.
So, we should keep talking about analogy after the Enlightenment. Because it might be the case that analogy helps describe a big chunk of what happened in our disciplines after the Enlightenment. “After the Enlightenment,” after all, is shorthand for modernity, so let’s keep thinking about how analogy helps explain (or perhaps pose) our modern condition. Thanks.
My Literature Compass article went live last week and I’ve been waiting to post about it; the idea for the piece was originally that it would try and locate my book (The Age of Analogy) within the subfield of literary criticism called “Romantic science and literature.” Along the way, though, I became more interested in what the field might tell us about the Anthropocene and the new “planetary” solidarity that, some argue, is required for a collective action that can address global warming.
I’ve been waiting to post the article while we worked on the html formatting of the Keats lines at the beginning. They’re the lines used as the epigraph for Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and they go:
The sedge is wither'd from the lake And no birds sing.
Looks simple, right? Turns out, though, that formatting poetry is hard in html, in part because it makes it difficult to tinker with line spacing, indentation and other formatting issues. The css that Literature Compass uses does have a block poetry class, but (ironically) it makes a hash out of the lines (when it was first published, the first line was broken at “the” and the second at “no,” producing “The sedge is wither’d / from the lake And / no birds sing”).
The folks at LC and the editor, Jonathan Sachs, have been working on it (and I feel kind of bad asking for the special attention), but the lines just look crazy when they’re not formatted right. Right now I’m seeing if they can try using the <pre> tag (as I have here) to try and preserve formatting. I suggested the following inside the block quote:
<i class=”icon icon__block icon__poem”><pre style=”font-family:Arial;”><p>The sedge is wither’d from the lake,</p><p> And no birds sing.</p></pre></i>
This article surveys recent scholarship in Romantic science and literature, exploring what such studies may offer the recent “planetary turn” in ecocriticism and postcolonial research on the Anthropocene. Situating these studies in a longer critical history, it explores their implications for how we engage modern climate science. The “Romantic century” 1750–1850 marks both the dawn of the Anthropocene and a formative stage in its sciences and technologies, from the industrial revolution to modern theories of climate change and ecology. Because ecocritical writing, including green Romanticism and ecofeminism, as well as research into colonialism, empire, and global capitalism were traditionally skeptical of Western science, their recent theorizations of “planetarity” do not adequately confront a new investment in the empirical claims of global warming. Positing that the traffic between science and social forms is asymmetric – two-way but uneven – the author argues that Romantic science and literature both furnishes a sophisticated historical epistemology for planetary studies and, in its concern for the technologies, genres, and social forms that produced the Anthropocene, an “epistemology of the climate” that may help us dig our way out.
A few weeks ago statistician Andrew Gelman posted an article that used Dickens’s social novels as an example of the perils of sampling networks (h/t to Jonathan Stray and Andrew Piper for tweeting about this). Whereas, in statistical methodologies, you can “sample” a larger diffuse or “atomistic” collection and get an accurate picture of what the larger group looks like, when sampling a few points in a large network, those samples give a very poor picture of the larger network structure. It’s a bit like the difference between picking a handful of M&M’s out of a bag and making an inference about the total color distribution (reasonably accurate), and sampling a handful of molecules within an M&M and making assumptions about what the larger shape, taste, paint pattern, etc. look like. The former doesn’t have much structure, but the latter does — and that structure matters.
Here’s how Gelman applies this to Dickens:
In traditional survey research we have been spoiled. If you work with atomistic data structures, a small sample looks like a little bit of the population. But a small sample of a network doesn’t look like the whole. For example, if you take a network and randomly sample some nodes, and then look at the network of all the edges connecting these nodes, you’ll get something much more sparse than the original. For example, suppose Alice knows Bob who knows Cassie who knows Damien, but Alice does not happen to know Damien directly. If only Alice and Damien are selected, they will appear to be disconnected because the missing links are not in the sample.
This brings us to a paradox of literature. Charles Dickens, like Tom Wolfe more recently, was celebrated for his novels that reconstructed an entire society, from high to low, in miniature. But Dickens is also notorious for his coincidences: his characters all seem very real but they’re always running into each other on the street (as illustrated in the map above, which comes from David Perdue) or interacting with each other in strange ways, or it turns out that somebody is somebody else’s uncle. How could this be, that Dickens’s world was so lifelike in some ways but filled with these unnatural coincidences?
My contention is that Dickens was coming up with his best solution to an unsolvable problems, which is to reproduce a network given a small sample. What is a representative sample of a network? If London has a million people and I take a sample of 100, what will their network look like? It will look diffuse and atomized because of all those missing connections. The network of this sample of 100 doesn’t look anything like the larger network of Londoners, any more than a disconnected set of human cells would look like a little person.
So to construct something with realistic network properties, Dickens had to artificially fill in the network, to create the structure that would represent the interactions in society. You can’t make a flat map of the world that captures the shape of a globe; any projection makes compromises. Similarly you can’t take a sample of people and capture all its network properties, even in expectation: if we want the network density to be correct, we need to add in links, “coincidences” as it were. The problem is, we’re not used to thinking this way because with atomized analysis, we really can create samples that are basically representative of the population. With networks you can’t.
Gelman goes on to argue that all of the supposed “coincidences” of a Dickensian novel are an attempt to simulate network structure or “links” where the number of sampled nodes are too small to fill out a real map of the network’s structure. So coincidences simulate what would be major linkages in the actual network of London ca. 1850.
It’s a cool idea — and it gets right to the heart of the famous question posed by the narrator of Dickens’s Bleak House:
What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!
But for Dickens, “connexion” obviously means more than association between characters. It has moral, filial, and in Bleak House, even epidemiological dimensions. One of the questions that launched my book, The Age of Analogy, was to ask what connected the various discursive registers that operate in Bleak House — what connects the legal system of the Court of Chancery to the salvage economy of Krook’s Court; what links the virtue of Esther Summerson’s narrative position to the small pox that sickens her? (Ultimately, I came to believe that one thing that links them as a new way of thinking about analogy — between characters, social formations, and discursive vocabularies — as a way to get at the sedimentary nature of history and social formations. I say “believe” because, along the way, Bleak House & Dickens fell out of the project.)
But whether this is true, Dickens’s characters do not operate “atomistically” or even as atoms linked by coincidence. What they do and how they interact displays a great deal of structure that is not pure invention. One way to get at this is that the network model has a dispersed physical and temporal dynamic that doesn’t lend itself to thinking about narrative. Narratives are not links, though narratives may feature interactions between characters (moments that would count as either “links” or “coincidences” in Gelman’s account). But they also convey important information about the transformation of individual characters, and their transit with respect to other conditions beyond the social: geographical and economic movement, maturation from youth to age, etc. And narratives, through their invocation of generic history, constantly invoke links to modes of thought and histories of representation that, in some sense, exceed the network of the novel and even the network of London at any given time.
Gelman himself brings up another kind of sampling in his paper that I think provides a better way of thinking about how Dickens attempts to get at larger social structures, something he terms “fractal sampling“:
When you do a survey, you want to learn at all levels. For example, if you’re studying politics, you’ll want to know what’s happening nationally, you’ll want a nationally representative sample. But you’ll also want to know what’s happening at the state level, the city level, and the neighborhood level. You can’t expect to get good estimates for all the neighborhoods in the country or all the cities or even all the states, but you’ll want some information at all these levels. That’s what fractal sampling is all about.
Basically, the point is that you can change the sampling methodology in order to capture specific kinds of group & scalar structure. I think this is a better description of what Dickens’s novels do. For a given social question (configured through a specific subset (or sub network?) within the larger world), each novel seems to seek out representative constellations of character that capture the key groups that operate within that network. So, to return to Bleak House, the key problem seems to have to do with poverty and responsibility, as configured by different social & class postions within the city, and as they interplay with legal, administrative, religious, medical, and domestic networks. And if we go back to Bleak House’s famous question, it basically samples along those lines: a country house, a townhome, a servant (the “Mercury in powder”), a street sweeping urchin (“Joe”), a metaphysical visitation (the “distant ray of light”), the dirty churchyard step. I used to read this as an open question that assembled a more or less random collection to pose in extremis the problem of connection that underwrites all of what Henry James would later term “loose, baggy monsters.” Now I think there’s a fair case to be made that the question embeds a set of structural relations that underwrite the fractal sampling of a wider network of encounters: country and city, estate and town, servant (and master), poor and rich, church (and the secular government that will user Jo from that stoop), and worldly infrastructure (the stone of the church) in its tenuous possible connection to divine revelation (the light from above).
Of course, as Jonathan Grossman has taught us, there are lots of different kinds of networks in Dickens’s novels. But it’s interesting to think about how single sentences, “What connexion can there be…,” can be important nodes in bringing them together and suggesting their analogies.
Today, as I’ve been relaunching my blog and migrating it from an Amazon EC2 cloud instance to a GoDaddy hosted wordpress account, I’ve been listening to the president elect hyperventilate over recent reports that Russia has compromising information on his business interests and peccadilloes, was at some point prepared to blackmail him, and had regular covert contact with his campaign. Crazy. Even crazier than the widespread reports that Russians used an army of hackers and trolls (especially Edward Snowden and Wikileaks) to help spread disinformation about the election and sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s like we’re living in a mashup of Bridge of Spies and Spies like Us.
But for me, the craziest thing of all is that I seem to have played a (tiny) role.
Let me share a bit more about why I’m moving the site. Recently my domain has been down, and I’d been struggling to figure out why, since the server seemed to be up and running. Worse, I couldn’t access WordPress or even ssh into the site, which meant I couldn’t check and see where the traffic was coming from and I couldn’t export my old posts for relaunch. Not being much of a tech wizard, I set the problem aside sometime over the summer.
Well, I finally gave up, and I’m now reconstructing the old posts by combing through the WP database backups that I was emailing to myself on a weekly basis (this is a PITA, by the way, and means I’m losing all images and documents hosted on the old site; but there’s a great tip on how to pull posts from a WordPress DB here).
Now that the site is up and running again, I thought I’d check in to Google Analytics. I hadn’t thought to look before because, since the site was down, I figured there wouldn’t be anything to track. This is what I found:
So the vast majority of visitors to the site were from Russia (and Kyrgyzstan). And their preferred language was either Russian or something called “Secret.google.com … Vote for Trump!” And the traffic spiked through election day and then collapsed in December.
Finally, if you look at the pages they were visiting, you see several pages that I never placed on the site:
Now I’m not sure what this all adds up to. They certainly couldn’t have secure shelled into the server itself (I’d done a lot to harden that). My guess is that they found some other way to exploit WordPress and take over the server, including creating content. But I am shocked. I’d be curious how much this tracks what other WordPress hosts saw over the same period. Certainly, it was the last thing I expected.
A few years ago I was complaining that maintaining your own server meant having to fend off increasingly severe and sophisticated attacks from hackers/bots located outside the US (something I’m not really equipped to do). Now it seems clear that this was more than just a hassle — it’s actually dangerous. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re basically opening up a channel for others to use against the world.
Sorry, democracy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯