Toward a Computational Historicism. Part II: From History to Abstraction

I examined three different uses of network vizualizations, topic models, Moretti’s plot diagrams, and cognitive networks in first part of this essay, Discourse and Conceptual Topology. When I posted that I imagined only a second part. In the writing, though, that second part grew and grew, so I cut it in two.

In this part I pose the problem of time and discuss two essays by Stephen Greenblatt, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” and “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture” and then compare Amleth (Saxo-Grammaticus) with Hamlet (Shakespeare). I then move back to cognitive networks and talk about Hays’s concept of metalingual defintion and conclude with more Shakespeare, Sonnet 129. I’ll get to Heuser and Le-Khac in Part 3: Prophesy.

Time and History

For physics, I understand, time presents a problem. It seems to have a direction, as some processes are irreversible. Why? If you drop a small quantity of ink into a tumbler of water – as I did in A Primer on Self-Organization: With some tabletop physics you can do at home – it diffuses, irreversibly so. The ink particles never collect together into the compact volume they had when first dropped into the water. Why?




For biologists the problem of temporal direction becomes the question of whether or not evolution tends towards complexity. For some it would seem that more complex species turn up in the biological record at later times than less complex. Others stop with the very notion of complexity: What do you mean, MORE complex?

For literary theorists, well, that depends on the theorist and the theory, no? But I’m not interested in the issue in its most general form. I’m interested in a particular thinker, Stephen Greenblatt.

In “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” (Learning to Curse, Routledge, 1990, pp. 80—98) Greenblatt opens with a long passage from an early 19th century magazine article on the how the Reverend Francis Wayland broke the will of his 15-month old child. Greenblatt notes that “Wayland’s struggle is a strategy of intense familial love, and it is the sophisticated product of a long historical process whose roots lie at least partly in early modern England, in the England of Shakespeare’s King Lear.” To be sure, one need not read that as any more than a statement of historical contingency, that Shakespeare’s play just happened to have been written before Wayland’s article. But when one considers the larger institutional changes Greenblatt considers – from the public space of the king’s court (and Elizabethan stage) to the privacy of the bourgeois home – one may suspect that Greenblatt is tracking the directionality of literary time, that one text must necessarily have been earlier in the historical process in which both texts exist. Later in that same collection, in a chapter entitled “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture” contrasts the conception of the self implicit in the story of Martin Guerre in 16th Century France with the conception of the self implicit in Freud’s psychoanalytic theorizing. Those conceptions are very different.

In both of those cases there is a difference between two historical situations such that not only is one later than the other, but that order is not merely contingent. It seems that somehow one set of events MUST have been before the other set.

Let us consider another case, one I examined briefly in The Evolution of Narrative and the Self, which I published in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems (1993, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 129-155). Here’s a small passage from that article:

Amleth—for that is how Saxo named him—faced the same requirement Hamlet did, to avenge his father's death. His difficulty stems from the fact that the probable murderer, and therefore the object of Amleth's revenge, is his uncle, and thus from the same kin group. Medieval Norse society had legal provisions for handling murder between kin groups; the offended group could seek the death of a member of the offending group or ask for the payment of wergild and a public apology. But there were no provisions for dealing with murder within the kin group (Bloch, 1961, pp. 125-130; cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974, p. 226). Thus Amleth faced a situation in which there was no socially sanctioned way for him to act. ... Amleth deals with his problem by feigning madness. Being mad, he is not bound by social convention, a social convention which binds him both to his murdered father and the father's murderer. Amleth's madness allows him to act, which he does directly and successfully. He kills his uncle, the usurper, and his entire court and takes over the throne.

Shakespeare's Hamlet was not so fortunate. He is notorious for his inability to act. When he finally does so, he ends up dead. And whether his madness was real or feigned is never really clear. What happened between the late twelfth century version of the story and the turn-of-the-seventeenth century version? The change might, of course, be due merely to the personal difference between Saxo Grammaticus and William Shakespeare. However, European culture and society had changed considerably in that interval and thus to attribute much of the difference between the two stories to the general change in culture is not unreasonable. Saxo Grammaticus told a story to please his twelfth century audience and Shakespeare told one to please his audience of the seventeenth century.

Yes, Shakespeare came after Saxo-Grammaticus, not before. But it seems to me that Shakespeare’s text is to that of Saxo-Grammaticus as, in Greenblat’s consideration, Wayland’s text is to Shakespeare. If you will, Hamlet is to Amleth as Wayland is to Lear.

How do we explain that? The question of course is not rhetorical. I mean it to have an answer, and I have some preferences in that matter, strong preferences in fact. But I do not intend to offer answer in the rest of this essay nor even to suggest that if we do this that and the other, that we’ll be able to hack answer together, a serviceable one, in a decade or two. I’d say that I mean to open a field of investigation, but that’s a misstatement. The field is already open.

As I said, I have a strong preference for the kind of answer I’m seeking. The historical process leading from the earlier texts to the later ones consists of many readings by many people over decades and centuries and interleaved with many writings as well. In that process, I suggest, new mental structures get built. I would like to see: 1) an account of those structures, and 2) an account of how they got built over time and across a succession of populations.

I want this account to be couched in cognitive terms, computational terms. I want it to be about how, in certain conditions, later systems can emerge from prior systems and come to treat the processes and operations of that earlier system as objects for its own operations and processes. Jean Piaget calls this reflective abstraction. It’s a process he mostly investigated in child development, but he also considered it on the historical time scale in the history of mathematics and concepts of causality (see his slender volume, Genetic Epistemology).

Abstract Definition: Cognition as the Sediment of History

Let’s return to cognitive networks, where I introduced the work of Brian Phillips. Both of us were students of David Hays. In the early 1970s he proposed an account of abstract concepts: they are defined over stories. Charity was his typical example. What is charity? Charity is when someone does something nice for someone else without thought of reward. That definition is a very generalized story, mentioning no specific acts and actors.

What Hays had in mind is that any set of actors and events that exemplifies that pattern of events IS charity. It’s the whole story that is charity. That may seem odd as we’re used to thinking of charity as some kind on mental thing, an inhabitant of one’s soul, a motive or disposition – one of those things. That, in Hay’s view, is a post facto rationalization. It’s the stories, the specific examples, that ground those rationalizations in lived experience.

This account of abstract or metalingual definition, as Hays called, using language to define language, implies history. First come the stories. Then comes the realization that these stories all exemplify some one thing; that thing is given a name. And then the philosophers rationalize that thing.

In my work with Hays I used metalingual definition in the analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet, the famous 129, “The Expense of Spirit” (I chose it because Roman Jakobson had worked on it). Here’s the sonnet, with modernized spelling:

1 The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
2 Is lust in action, and till action, lust
3 Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
4 Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
5 Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
6 Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
7 Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
8 On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
9 Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
10 Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
11 A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,
12 Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
13 All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
14 To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Let’s set the final couplet aside for a moment and consider only the first twelve lines. These direct our attention back and forth over the following sequence of actions and mental states:

Desire: Protagonist becomes consumed with sexual desire and purses the object of that desire using whatever means are necessary: "perjur'd, murderous, bloody . . . not to trust" (ll. 3-4).
Consummation: Protagonist gets his way, having "a bliss in proof" (l. 11)
Shame: Desire satisfied, the protagonist is consumed with guilt: "despisèd straight" (l. 5), "no sooner had/ Past reason hated" (ll. 6-7).

That sequence, of course, is a mini-history. The first twelve lines go back and forth through it, thus making that mini-history an object of contemplation. Line 4 looks at Desire (“not to trust”), then line 5 evokes Consummation followed by Shame; that moves forward through the history. Line 6 begins in Desire then moves to Consummation, followed by Shame at the beginning of line 7, again forward, whose second half begins a simile derived from hunting. Now line 10 begins by pointing to Shame, then to Consummation, then to Desire, moving through the sequence in reverse order. It concludes by characterizing the whole sordid business as “extreme.”

The concluding couplet then leaves that entire sordid business, rises above it (Aufhebung anyone?) and treats it as an object of contemplation:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

It is that whole sordid business that the world well knows. While that knowledge does not exempt us from that sordid business, perhaps there is some solace in realizing that we’re all in this together. When I first published on this poem – Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics (MLN Vol. 91, pp. 952-982, 1976) – I argued that it looked suspiciously like an abstract pattern that Milton would develop at epic length in Paradise Lost, the fortunate fall, felix culpa. Do I still believe that?


But that’s beside the point, which is that this poem has a pattern and that pattern is organized on three levels. The first level is the mini-history of the lust sequence. At the second level that mini-history as a whole is an object of contemplation, which is made explicit in the concluding couplet. The third level is that of the poem as a whole, which juxtaposes the concluding couplet with the rest and exhibits the overall rhetorical structure that Helen Vendler has examined (The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harvard 1999), leading her to the view that the poem works on three levels (p. 553):

For all that, the major aesthetic move of the sonnet is to paint over our first impression – the shame and blame of lust – with a second, the joy and sorrow and unreality of lust; and then to paint over that with the ironizing and totalizing third – that no matter how much we know of the aftermath, we will be unable to shun the joy. Through the third layer of ironic knowledge we see still the two underpaintings – the pentimenti – the first of a post-erotic hell, the second of a brief erotic heaven.

Notice that her three impressions don’t quite line up with my three levels. That’s fine, as we’re talking about different things. My levels are about cognitive structure; her impressions are about rhetorical strategy.

The object of this discussion is this: I suggest that this one sonnet, in its inner workings, serve as a parable, a metaphor, for the working of literary history in the large. In the poem Shakespeare spatializes time by moving freely back and forth over a particular historical sequence thereby rendering that history into a single compact object. The history comes first and then a pattern is recognized, contemplated, and rationalized.

In the third, and I hope concluding, section of this essay, I’ll look at Heuser and Le-Khac on the 19th Century novel and then compare The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights.

At least that’s the current plan.

* * * * *

I say more about Sonnet 129 in three posts:

Mode & Behavior 1: Sonnet 129 (10 August 2010). This is included in the working paper, Mode and Behavior (02 August 12 2012)

Pursuing Lust in the Web of Language: Relational Networks as a Computational Semantic Model (11 August 2011)

The Poverty of Conceptual Blending for Literary Analysis (24 November 2012). This is included in the working paper, The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science.