The New Sociology, or, in Praise of the Middle Zone

in 20 under 40, James F. English, LATfob, new sociology, New Yorker

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Mark McGurl’s The Program Era ends with an insightful reflection on the problem of "scale" in literary study — our almost automatic assumption that we must always scale up the stakes of literary study in order to argue for our relevance.  Bigger, we commonly assume, is better, and will garner for us more funding, more attention, more significance. "[I]t is characteristic of the cognitive expansionism of literary studies… that most of its energy has been invested in extending outward from the nation rather than inward to the regions and localities, not to mention the institutions, that are equally corrective to the thoughtless assumption of disciplinary nationalism." McGurl concludes (rightly, I think) that there is no one right scale of literary study, and that a focus on the subnational — for example, on the institution — is as valid an area of critical focus as a focus on the transnational, cosmopolitan, diasporic, and global.

James F. English makes a similar point in his brilliant book on cultural prizes — both literary and nonliterary —The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value.

On the other hand, we have various attempts to survey and pronounce upon the circumstances and trajectories of cultural life as a whole, based on general theories of cultural production and consumption and broad assessments of national or global trends. What’s left out is the whole middle-zone of cultural space, a space crowded not just with artists and consumers but with bureaucrats, functionaries, patrons, and administrators of culture, vigorously producing and deploying such instruments as the best-of list, the film festival, the artists’ convention, the book club, the piano competition. Scholars have barely begun to study these sorts of instruments in any detail, to construct their histories, gather ethnographic data from their participants, come to an understanding of their specific logics or rules and of the different ways they are being played and played with. In our time, prizes have become by far the most widespread and powerful of all such instruments. But there are many other candidates for the sort of analysis I am undertaking here, especially in the areas of arts sponsorship, journalism, and higher education.

McGurl and English participate in what English has called — and what I think we should all, in our mania for naming, call — the "New Sociology of Literature" (on which there will be a forthcoming issue of NLH). Take a look at English’s course description of the same name, to get a sense of its contours:

[T]he convergence of sociology and literary studies has never been more widespread or more productive. Some instances include the history of the book, as developed by Chartier, Darnton, Stallybrass, and others; the sociological critique of aesthetics as revolutionized by Bourdieu, Herrnstein Smith, Guillory, and the New Economic critics; analyses of literary intellectuals and the conditions of academic life (Graff, Readings, Watkins, Collini, etc.); the expansion of reception studies (Radway); the impact of systems theory on literary studies and aesthetics (Luhmann); and recent scholarship on culture and governmentality (Hunter, Bennett). Meanwhile, within Sociology departments, the study of literature has acquired new energy and visibility, thanks to the revitalizing impact of Bourdieu, the influence of Konstanz school reception aesthetics (Griswold, Long), the “strong program” in cultural sociology at Yale (Alexander, Smith), and the explosive theoretical interventions of Bruno Latour. Finally, we can point to the recent impact of work by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova, suggesting as it does that the expanded optic required by comparative, transnational, or global frameworks of analysis demands a new articulation of literary with sociological method.

I think this middle zone — whether or not we want to call its study "sociology" — has much to recommend it as an area of focus. At best, our focus on the "middle" helps us keep in sight both the difficulties that inhere in individual works or groups of works and the broader "field" within which authors reflexively position themselves. For example, does this framework — English’s focus on prizes; and his discussion of the analogy between athletic and humanistic contests — not illuminate the New Yorker‘s recent cover, "Literary Field," by Chris Ware, which launches its "20 under 40" fiction issues (more of which are forthcoming)?  Is the bitter, eye-rolling, angry conversation the publication of this list has aroused not precisely predicted by English’s analysis, not in some sense precisely its point?


What is the significance of issues like this?  A similar commotion or uproar arose — entirely predictably — after The Millions released its "Best Fiction of the Millennium" list last year.  To what degree should we accept such lists and prizes as a natural part of the cultural field, or, if we don’t like such lists and prizes, what can we do to dismantle these middle-zone institutions?  I ask these questions both because I’d love to read your answers in comments and also to remind skeptics what reflexive sociology should be: not a weary explanation for why we’re all fundamentally cynical position-seekers — though who can deny that we sometimes are? — but rather a way of understanding our own situation, and the larger dynamics our individual choices participate in creating, that allows us finally to take control over that situation, to change the field or dynamic we are also analyzing and embedded within. 

The Origins of Bad Writing

in bad writing, future of the humanities

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

As Cecile Alduy points out in a recent ARCADE post, bad writing is far too common in literary criticism, which is surprising given the degree to which we are supposed to be attentive students of language and style. Cecile’s post has gotten me thinking, Why do we write so badly? This badness originates, I think, from a set of conflicting institutional imperatives, which get turned into habits of mind. Here go a few explanations I’ve come up with. Please do add more in the comments section.

(i) Despite various disciplinary innovations over the last three decades, we are still asked to become specialists in historically and nationally defined fields, but we are simultaneously told that the essence of literary study is attention to form. Thus, our object of expertise is confused right from the start. Are we formalists or historians? Can we be both?

(ii) Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that literary study must be made "rigorous" through the "application" of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in "Introduction to Theory" courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let’s read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical "mash-up" culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments. E.g., I’m a Lacanian postMarxist deeply concerned with a Spinozan debates surrounding postcolonial ethics, especially in relation to the Victorian novel!

(iii) Part of our scholarly training involves reading huge amounts of secondary material larded with jargon. We learn that to be a serious scholar or critic is to speak in a certain idiom. Canny aspiring professionals, we write in the style of what we are asked to read.

(iv) Often, despite our disciplinary self-definition, there is an attendant sense that simply writing about literature or cultural phenomena is not sufficient. If we want the grant or the fellowship that will get us through the next year, we need to concoct elaborate answers to the "so-what" question. We therefore have an incentive to aggrandize the importance of our work: we’re being political, challenging norms, overturning conventional modes of thought, etc. Who knew a close reading of a naturalist novel could do so much positive political work!

(v) Finally, after we’ve written our stylistically mangled dissertations, which try to speak to or satisfy all of the above, we’re asked to turn the dissertation into a book that has a "wider audience." Well, we’ve already written three or four hundred pages in our carefully cultivated "bad" style. We’re not likely to make much of a change, and — I’d suggest — we’ve largely internalized the habits of writing that result in the badness of our style. From here on out, this is how we’ve habituated ourselves to write critical prose. Breaking those habits — which, if we’re lucky, have led to our successful academic careers — will be very difficult, indeed.

This is, as I say, only a partial list of explanations, and certainly not meant to be a deterministic account of why any one person makes whatever choices he or she makes on the page. It is, at best, a model that offers guidance in formulating a new way forward. If we want to overcome our badness, I am suggesting, we need to become aware of why we’ve become bad in the first place. That is, we don’t write badly because we’re bad writers. We write badly because we’re canny or good writers, who write to survive in a very confused institutional ecology. As we change our writing — and we are each responsible for our own writing — we must also change that ecology. How to do so may become the subject of a future post. Suggestions are welcome.


in Alex Kudera

Over at When Falls the Coliseum — a “journal of American culture [of lack thereof]” — Alex Kudera interviews your truly. We discussed politics, literature, and doppelgangers, not necessarily in that order. Check it out.

Beard’s Women, or, the Problem with Ian McEwan’s “Solar” (2010)

in Ian McEwan, Solar

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) has received mixed reviews, and for good reason. It’s a novel that starts with remarkable strength. Unlike Adam Roberts, over at The Valve, I found the novel’s Arctic penis-freezing-and-possible-castration set piece somewhat funny, in a South Parkish sort of way; although I must, only somewhat proudly, admit to the utter baseness of my sense of humor. But after a strong start (which could almost serve as a stand-alone novella), Solar quickly peters out, dissipating much of the momentum it builds in its first part. The remainder of the novel is only intermittently successful as a satire of the global warming debate. Writing for the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer describes the novel ably as "a mash-up of the Hampstead adultery novel and a conflation of the Bradbury/Lodge academic satire, with the merest dash of politics (George W, New Labour spin), and a side order of the trusty McEwan standby of violence." "Merest dash" is absolutely right.

Told in three parts, Solar narrates the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel prize winning physicist whose best days are behind him. Riding off the fumes of his Prize, he floats from one occasional position to another, giving speeches, cashing in his cultural capital. He is also a global warming skeptic who is invited to become part of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, which is dedicated to spearheading technological solutions to climate change. As we might expect of McEwan, various complicated plot developments ensue. By the end of the novel, Beard — who becomes a believer in the reality of anthropogenic climate change — has stolen the work of a colleague at the Centre, has created his own solar cell start-up, which will deploy a new generation of solar cells in New Mexico, and stands on the cusp of his greatest triumph, a worthy followup to his brilliant earlier work. Things, as you might expect, don’t work out so well for Beard. The façade of fraud he has built his success upon threatens to crush him under its tremendous weight. And it does, in a kind of creaking or mechanical way.

The main problem with the book is Beard. As many others have noted, Solar is only indirectly about global warming, though McEwan slips in his own relatively uninteresting, New Labourish views of the debate. (Spoiler alert: The market and technology will save the day!). McEwan’s real concern is apparent in his novel’s first line: “He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.” Solar is really about Beard’s myriad farcical relationships with beautiful women, all of whom find him unaccountably attractive. Indeed, we never witness Beard being clever. The account of the seduction of his first wife — his decision to learn about Milton in order to impress her — comes across as flat and unconvincing. In the immortal terms of creative writing teachers everywhere, one wishes McEwan would do a little more “showing” and a little less “telling” about Beard’s charm, wit, and appeal.

Why does this matter? It matters because Solar‘s plot depends on whether or not we believe in the truth of the novel’s first line. That is, McEwan’s failure to “show” matters because the crescendo of the novel stages the collision of two of Beard’s women, his only child, and his solar cell project in New Mexico. By the end of the novel, one wonders why anyone would want to have anything to do with Beard. His behavior is so self-destructive, his decisions so ridiculously implausible, his grotesque fatness so disgustingly rendered, that one cannot help but conclude that Beard’s women are (1) unaccountably stupid, or (2) caricatures unworthy of our interest or attention.

This is all a backhanded way of saying I wish Solar had actually been a novel about global warming rather than a novel that uses global warming as a backdrop or fashionable context within which to paint the portrait of a boorish, narcissistic, and unrepentant protagonist. Not that I have any problems with representing “unsympathetic” characters in fiction. The problem is, even accepting McEwan’s peripheral interest in global warming, that Beard is not unsympathetic in any interesting ways and that his caddish appeal is unconvincingly rendered. In her sharp blog posting on the novel, Rohan Amanda Maitzen claims that Solar is successful at stimulating the head but not the heart. On the contrary, though I agree that my heart did not much notice Solar, the novel was not particularly successful at stimulating my head, despite its excellent opening section.

The Blank Page with the Blinking Cursor

in future of publishing

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

What does it mean to own a community?

This is something like the central question motivating a fascinating talk by Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press and founder of Cursor, a reading start-up that promises to "[t]ransform[] the social contract of publishing by restoring the writer-reader relationship to its true equilibrium," whatever that means.

I have a number of complex reactions to Nash’s argument.  Many might object to the marketing-heavy language ("brand equity," etc.) here, but I have imbibed enough marketing theory to be convinced that Nash is basically right about the need for publishers to reimagine what they’re doing.  Moreover, he is right to say that Oprah’s book club is more about injecting more Oprah into the heads of her viewers — should they consider wearing tinfoil hats, just to be safe? — than it is about giving an altruistic helping hand to a struggling publishing industry.  As though James Frey needs her pity — I suspect he has more serious problems.

My main objection is that Nash focuses too much on the management of demand for literature, but says almost nothing about how that demand comes into the world.  Who or what produces demand?  Demand for what exactly?  As I’ve argued elsewhere on Arcade, it is our educational systems, among other literary institutions, that produce demand.  To be as clear as possible, it is not the market operating on its own that produces demand — including, especially, during the so-called golden age of publishing — but rather massive quantities of public money, pumped into literary education decade after decade, your tax dollars and mine at work.

Unless we again prime the pump of demand creation — i.e., fund humanistic education at all levels, provide a decent standard of living to every person — does publishing not risk riding the demand curve down the long tail of oblivion?

Restoration, Rejoice!

in Uncategorized

It has taken a while, largely due to my laziness, but I’ve finally found a way to restore the blog postings that got lost in the shuffle when my site was hacked back around December. Their formatting’s a bit wonky, but the old posts are back. Enjoy.

Neuro Lit and Crit

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

At the risk of self-contradiction, I want to draw attention to a recent "Room for Debate" in the New York Times. Gathering together a number of critics, including Stanford’s very own Blakey Vermeule, the Times asks: 

A recent Times article described the use of neurological research and cognitive science in the field of literary theory.

“At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift,” the article said.

Does this research — “neuro lit” is one of its nicknames — energize literature departments, and, more broadly, generate excitement for the humanities? Is it yet another passing fad in liberal arts education? If the answer is both, why does theory matter, even if we sometimes don’t understand what the scholars are saying?

While I am a fan of the empirical study of literature, and have been more than willing to join the persistent chorus decrying the current state of humanistic study, and would argue that a literate, humanistically inclined public is vital to the flourishing of democracy — and would argue, as a corollary, that in an era where one in four Americans read zero books per year (of any type), we face a very serious crisis in humanistic education, and by extension democracy — something about this prompt in the Times strikes me as strange and disingenuous.

The problem:  if our problem is budget cuts and a bad job market, shouldn’t the solution be more money and better jobs?  What does any of this have to do with "neuro lit" or "crit," as worthy an enterprise as that might be?  Indeed, if "neuro lit" or "crit" answers questions such as, "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?" as the Times article on which the "debate" is based claims, some new questions come to mind almost instantly.

Why, if we care so passionately about literature and nonexistent characters, are we unwilling to fund the humanities?  If we love stories, why do we read so little?  Why does the introduction of scientific terminology into literary scholarship excite enough passion to draw the attention of the New York Times, while run-of-the mill criticism and scholarship elicits almost no commentary at all?

Very Interesting

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Is it possible to organize departments of literature, culture, or humanistic study without norms, or around “the general norm that there are no norms,” as Meredith Ramirez Talusan suggests in a provocative Arcade comment? If it were possible, would such an approach be desirable? Should we replace questions of the form “Does this person fit into our preconceived notions of what our department does?” with questions such as “Is this person’s work interesting?”

My answers, admittedly thinly defended here, are that we can’t dispense with norms; that even if we could, we shouldn’t; and that accepting norms doesn’t entail abandoning the question of the interesting.  On this last point, something like the opposite is true:  the question of the “interesting” is directly tied up with the deliberative processes through which we decide what to study and what not to study, through which we determine what we value.  After all, who claims to rely on “preconceived” notions in allocating funds?  Who advocates that norms should be passively accepted without question?  Indeed, by bringing our norms into the light of day, deliberation and conception are exactly what come into play.

I would maintain that were we to eliminate such norms — that is, were we to eliminate e.g. specified/designated fellowships — we would simply displace or temporarily delay the ultimate questions of value we’re constantly asking each other.

The problem wouldn’t be that “anything goes” in a normless department, but rather that many things would still go and not go; what goes and doesn’t go would become mystified, dependent on an unacknowledged crytonormative foundation. Everyone will jostle to figure out how to gain attention, prestige, and funding, but unknown factors — such as fashion, personal vendetta, and whim — could prevail, though they wouldn’t necessarily prevail.

As Sianne Ngai writes, in her Critical Inquiry essay on the “Merely Interesting”:

Here interesting comes to the fore as the aesthetic judgment in which this question of justification looms largest of all… the interesting doesn’t seem tethered to any features at all. Though bound up with the perception of novelty (against a backdrop of the expected and familiar), what counts as new is much more radically dependent on context…

Far from being an aesthetic without content, the deepest content of interesting is the process of its own justification.

Ngai’s description seems correct to me, and sheds light on the politics of the interesting, which is as she later suggests the politics of deliberation (as opposed to revolution): more Habermas, less Foucault.

The value of named fellowships — in “feminist studies, sexuality studies, German studies, and Southeast Asian studies” — is that they wear their values on their sleeves, or try to. Indeed, we create such fellowships, often after a process of political struggle, in order to establish new norms, new areas of inquiry, new approaches to humanistic study. Such norms, institutions, and programs intentionally proceed by shutting down the aesthetic or charismatic dimension of study in favor of the deliberative, the institutional, and the procedural.

So does a Southeast Asian studies fellowship incentivize doing work of a certain type? Yes, that’s precisely why it exists in the first place.

Should it exist? That’s precisely what we need to deliberate on, a deliberation process where new interests, programs, and norms can be proposed, examined, defended, or rejected.

The key for me isn’t to eliminate such established areas of study but to continually open up space for new fellowships, new programs, new kinds of work. But even the “opening up” process requires deliberation within institutions, whose processes and procedures are themselves guided by (often tacit) norms. That’s why I think we’re stuck with norms, all the way down, at least if we want to operate in concert with other people.

But the most important caveat to our stuckness is this: to be stuck with norms isn’t to be trapped in an uninteresting world, but to be within the very domain where we deliberate (endlessly, productively) about what we find interesting, and why.

From “Happy Days” to “Mad Men”

in Happy Days, Mad Men, midcentury, Ronald Reagan

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Some recent conversations on Arcade have gotten me thinking about midcentury America, or rather our idea of the midcentury as a privileged moment of literary production, consumption, and promise. In particular, I’ve been turning over Natalia Cecire’s query, “[W]hat is to be gained in mourning the passing of a genre or a medium”?  We might also ask, what is to be gained in mourning the passing of an era?

To begin thinking through how we might answer these questions, let’s recall two forms of nostalgia for midcentury America.

The classic form of midcentury nostalgia comes from the cultural (and often the political) right. Celebrating the fertility and energy of midcentury intellectual and popular culture was a solution to the problem posed by the 1960s. The problem was that the 1960s screwed everything up; the solution was to recall those days when things weren’t nearly so screwed up, when there was consensus, order, and good sense all around. Think of American Graffiti (1973), Happy Days (1974-84), the vision of the good life invoked by Reagan’s “Morning in America” (1984).

These fantasies saw the 50s as simpler, square-jawed, short-haired times, before all those crazy America-hating radicals took over the country. By these accounts, even rebellion against the era’s norms have nostalgia value.  Fredric Jameson ably describes the aesthetics of such rightward-leaning nostalgia in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the priviledged lost object of desire — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naïve innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs.

Lately, though, nostalgia for midcentury has come largely from the left. Left midcentury nostalgia focuses on the era’s broad manufacturing-led economic growth, relatively higher levels of economic equality, relatively more regulated markets, better capital controls, etc., while also admitting that there were endemic — and highly destructive — problems within the domains of race, gender, sexuality, foreign policy. One thinks immediately of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, but even Naomi Klein, in her recent Shock Doctrine, pines for a return to the Keynesian welfare state or the era of “embedded liberalism."  Whether one agrees in every particular with the policy preferences of these writers, there is something valuable in remembering that things were once otherwise, that our current economic, social, and intellectual environment once looked quite different. In this sense, nostalgia can be very useful, if only in a qualified form.

More often, however, left nostalgia for the midcentury fetishizes the intellectual culture of the period, longing for an era when Partisan Review–like little magazines were all the rage, when even the CIA felt obliged to pay attention to intellectuals, and when more formal social norms forced people to wear fabulous outfits. The medium-sized cult that has emerged around Mad Men exemplifies the left nostalgia I have in mind — and I admit to being a card-carrying member of the cult. Through from one perspective we might see the show as arguing for the fundamental necessity of the 1960s — and, indeed, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and corruption run rampant in the halls of Sterling Cooper — do we not also detect that the creators of the show possess a kind of obsessive love for the era’s material culture? Are we not supposed to revel in the idea of reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957) shortly after its publication? Abstracting beyond Mad Men, don’t left midcentury nostalgics wish they could non-ironically have the top of their heads (metaphorically) blown off by some symposium in the pages of Partisan Review? Be shocked again by countercultural subversion as if for the first time, all while enjoying some tasty martinis?

This second version of left midcentury nostalgia seems less productive to me. If we want to return to a dynamic, vibrant literary-intellectual culture, we shouldn’t attempt to revive the styles of some previous era, even its intellectual styles, however appealing those styles might often be. The real task ahead of us is to build new institutions, to coordinate with educational activists, to build synthetic accounts of the present moment that help us lay the foundation for the flourishing of whatever new intellectual culture will be — with luck, effort, and invention — looked back upon nostalgically by future generations.

This should be our mission. 

Am I Turning Empirical?

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Continuing my progressive descent into vulgar materialism (I use the words "progressive" and "vulgar" in positive senses!), I’d like to continue the line of thinking of my previous post, "Reading under Neoliberalism." I will use the questions Joel Burges asks in a comment to guide my reflections here. His questions are too good to cosign to the comments section of my previous post. I will begin with a caveat: everything below is, as with my previous post, provisional and only vaguely sketched.  Critical comments will do much to help me sharpen my primitive ideas.

Joel asks whether my approach to literary study, at least the approach I take when I discuss historical changes in reading practice, is marked by an "empirical turn," an "operative assumption that we will know more if we get more empirical — not just materialist in the sense of assuming that economic conditions lead to cultural elaborations, but in which we turn ourselves into something like sociologists." The short version of my answer is simply yes. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the academic study of literature more generally is swinging away from the era of theory toward an empirical orientation, if recent studies are any indication. We might recall new work in cognitive science and literature; the rise of evolutionary literary studies; "distant reading" research programs, spearheaded at Stanford by Franco Moretti, and other database-driven forms literary study; Bourdieu-inspired literary sociologies (McGurl, Casanova, Jim English come immediately to mind); the "postpositivist realist" epistemology of Satya Mohanty and, here at Arcade, of Paula Moya; the myriad anti-theoretical children of Walter Benn Michaels (one need merely look at the 20/21 series for excellent criticism in this vein); and so on.

The longer form of my answer comes with numerous necessary caveats and complications.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from theory, from, say, bridging textual analysis and conceptual thinking?"

This question assumes a stronger distinction between the empirical and theoretical that I am comfortable with. After all, isn’t the work of Bourdieu both thoroughly empirical and theoretical? Doesn’t Foucault make all sorts of empirical claims (ranging from claims about prison systems to claims about the history of science to claims about how discourse functions to reproduce power relations)? Isn’t Lacan interested in correcting Freud’s fallacies, relocating psychic processes not in the minds of individuals but in relation to intersubjective processes of recognition and "within" structures of language? Do not Jameson, Žižek, Hardt, Negri, Laclau, Mouffe, and a range of theoretically sophisticated Marxists and post-Marxists all base their arguments, at least in part, of empirical claims about capitalist economies?

Likewise, all empirical studies are, I would argue, necessarily suffused with theoretical abstractions. You correctly identify many of the abstractions I rely on to make my case: "literary market," "reading public," "sophistication," "literary culture," "postwar." There’s no way to study the world apart from our abstractions, theories, and interpretations, even if those interpretations are the translation of photons hitting our optic nerve into terms discernible by our cultivated mental capacities. The question is, What are our best theories? What theories should we reject?

The theory I reject is the notion that we should see in literary form an elaboration of material contexts on the model of homology. The theory I accept is that texts and contexts are dynamically linked together in a greater whole or totality, whose determinants do not necessarily operate according to a logic of homology.  Causes do not necessarily look "like" effects.  To the degree that “theory” in the academic humanities tends to refer to the former of these two intellectual frameworks, then I do reject theory, though in a partial and highly qualified way. I am more interested in "mechanical causality" than "expressive causality," to use Jameson’s terminology in The Political Unconscious.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from hermeneutics, from, say, textual analysis — and what would we gain from that?"

I don’t see how we can avoid hermeneutic activities in the classroom as long as we ask our students to read individual texts — I tend to teach individual texts in much the same way that they were taught to me — nor do I think that there is some simple empirical practice apart from interpretive, cultural, and historically situated frameworks. That said, I think a lot of self-avowedly materialist criticism and theory today makes large empirical claims without doing the legwork to back up those claims. That’s what I take to be the source of Moretti’s frustration with literary study.

In our monographs and articles we have a habit of sliding between perfectly valid hermeneutic claims and large historical claims, often based on three or four close readings, often without explanation or with vague gestures toward some notion of discourse. This is the academic version of what the journalist Daniel Radosh calls “trend journalism” — three examples of anything can be selected to argue for a historical trend. If we supplement textual analysis with an empirical orientation, we will possibly learn more about the material determinants of literary history and we will also learn what claims we should not be comfortable making with great confidence. Like Socrates, we will at least know what we don’t know.

"Literature departments are… notoriously bad at making the normative and conventional ways in which their members read and write clear to students… So… shouldn’t we also examine what knowledge we already transmit, and how we might do it better?"

Yes, I enthusiastically agree that we should study the normative and conventional ways we read and teach. We should understand how and to what effect we transmit knowledge to our students.

Indeed, my interest in empirically analyzing postwar literary culture is motivated by explicitly normative concerns. I begin from the premise that certain practices of reading are good and desirable. Reading long, complex novels is salubrious for human wellbeing. Cultivating the attention required to understand and appreciate poetry improves us. Literary reading gives scope and depth to life. These claims are normative — and not strictly instrumental — to the degree that they have no foundation. No empirical study will be able to prove to a persistent skeptic that literature matters. No data beyond self-reporting will explicate words like "wellbeing," "improvement," and "scope and depth."

My second assumption — really, in a longer work, which I fantasize about someday writing, it would be my argument — is that literary culture is unnatural, in the sense that it isn’t a spontaneous or inevitable development in human affairs and existence. We don’t just decide to care about literature; and we don’t automatically move from such caring to a society that enriches and supports what we care about. Our reading culture is, instead, the product of considerable investment, education, and political work. Humans may at all times have generated one sort of narrative art or another, but a society where all persons have the opportunity and capacity to appreciate literature requires hard work and years of institution-building.

If our empirical and critical work is grounded in the norm of producing such a "reading public," then we cannot help but self-reflectively understand our own teaching in relation to the broader project of the production of such a public. This doesn’t meant that every critic would take or teach sociology and economics classes, but that every critic would understand that when they teach a course on Shakespeare, they are always whether they intend to or not linked to a larger public-producing machine, the University, which itself interlocks with other social spaces — the book club, the marketplace, little magazines, and institutions of primary education.