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Underwood and Sellers 2015: Beyond Whig History to Evolutionary Thinking

In the middle of their most interesting and challenging paper, How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change?, Underwood and Sellers have two paragraphs in which they raise the specter of Whig history and banish it. In the process they take some gratuitous swipes at Darwin and Lamarck and, by implication, at the idea that evolutionary thinking can be of benefit to literary history. I find these two paragraphs confused and confusing and so feel a need to comment on them.

Here’s what I’m doing: First, I present those two paragraphs in full, without interruption. That’s so you can get a sense of how their thought hangs together. Second, and the bulk of this post, I repeat those two paragraphs, in full, but this time with inserted commentary. Finally, I conclude with some remarks on evolutionary thinking in the study of culture.

Beware of Whig History

By this point in their text Underwood and Sellers have presented their evidence and their basic, albeit unexpected finding, that change in English-language poetry from 1820-1919 is continuous and in the direction of standards implicit in the choices made by 14 selective periodicals. They’ve even offered a generalization that they think may well extend beyond the period they’ve examined (p. 19): “Diachronic change across any given period tends to recapitulate the period’s synchronic axis of distinction.” While I may get around to discussing that hypothesis – which I like – in another post, we can set it aside for the moment.

I’m interested in two paragraphs they write in the course of showing how difficult it will be to tease a causal model out of their evidence. Those paragraphs are about Whig history. Here they are in full and without interruption (pp. 20-21):

Nor do we actually need a causal explanation of this phenomenon to see that it could have far-reaching consequences for literary history. The model we’ve presented here already suggests that some things we’ve tended to describe as rejections of tradition — modernist insistence on the concrete image, for instance — might better be explained as continuations of a long-term trend, guided by established standards. Of course, stable long-term trends also raise the specter of Whig history. If it’s true that diachronic trends parallel synchronic principles of judgment, then literary historians are confronted with material that has already, so to speak, made a teleological argument about itself. It could become tempting to draw Lamarckian inferences — as if Keats’s sensuous precision and disillusionment had been trying to become Swinburne all along.

We hope readers will remain wary of metaphors that present historically contingent standards as an impersonal process of adaptation. We don’t see any evidence yet for analogies to either Darwin or Lamarck, and we’ve insisted on the difficulty of tracing causality exactly to forestall those analogies. On the other hand, literary history is not a blank canvas that acquires historical self-consciousness only when retrospective observers touch a brush to it. It’s already full of historical observers. Writing and reviewing are evaluative activities already informed by ideas about “where we’ve been” and “where we ought to be headed.” If individual writers are already historical agents, then perhaps the system of interaction between writers, readers, and reviewers also tends to establish a resonance between (implicit, collective) evaluative opinions and directions of change. If that turns out to be true, we would still be free to reject a Whiggish interpretation, by refusing to endorse the standards that happen to have guided a trend. We may even be able to use predictive models to show how the actual path of literary history swerved away from a straight line. (It’s possible to extrapolate a model of nineteenth-century reception into the twentieth, for instance, and then describe how actual twentieth-century reception diverged from those predictions.) But we can’t strike a blow against Whig history simply by averting our eyes from continuity. The evidence we’re seeing here suggests that literary- historical trends do turn out to be relatively coherent over long timelines.

I agree with those last two sentences. It’s how Underwood and Sellers get there that has me a bit puzzled.

Commentary

In the following paragraphs I present a passage from Underwood in Sellers in italics and then my comments in plain text.

Nor do we actually need a causal explanation of this phenomenon to see that it could have far-reaching consequences for literary history.

I would emphasize that opening phrase: “Nor do we actually need a causal explanation...” What’s important is discovering patterns, especially at this early stage in the development of digital criticism. Yes, we do need to explain things, but I worry that the search for explanations will be limited to the existing inventory of explanatory tropes. Given that those ideas have been formulated without the evidence now being provided through macro-scale digital observation, why should be believe than any of them are adequate to the task of explaining those observations?

The model we’ve presented here already suggests that some things we’ve tended to describe as rejections of tradition — modernist insistence on the concrete image, for instance — might better be explained as continuations of a long-term trend, guided by established standards. Of course, stable long-term trends also raise the specter of Whig history.

But it’s not at all clear to me that the existence of “stable long-term trends” is very strong evidence of Whiggishness lurking in the conceptual underbelly of an enterprise. After all Whig historicism is not simply long-term trends, but long-term trends toward (what is regarded as) the good: onward and upward, better and better. I don’t see any explicit assertion that the observed trend is one of continuous improvement. Underwood and Sellers certainly aren’t asserting that Swinburne is a better poet than Keats, to anticipate an example they’re about to invoke, nor can I see that they’re even asserting that the editors of the review periodicals are making such a judgment.

So it’s not clear to me what worries them. Is it the mere fact of a century-long trend, regardless of whether that trend can be considered good, bad, or simply a trend? Or is it that the observed trend is in a direction uncovered by their model of reviewer preferences, but not otherwise evident in explicit contemporary statements of aesthetic value?

If it’s true that diachronic trends parallel synchronic principles of judgment, then literary historians are confronted with material that has already, so to speak, made a teleological argument about itself.

This is interesting, and I’d like to see it spelled out explicitly, without recourse to the weasel-phrase “so to speak”.

It could become tempting to draw Lamarckian inferences — as if Keats’s sensuous precision and disillusionment had been trying to become Swinburne all along.

I agree, there’s no point in trying to argue that Keats was trying for Swinburne, but just couldn’t make it. But I don’t see what Lamarck has to do with it. As it was entered popular parlance – perhaps unfairly so – the core Lamarckian idea is the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Giraffes in generation N stretch their necks to reach leaves higher in the trees and, in consequence, giraffes in generation N+1 are born to longer necks than those of generation N. Whatever you might call it, other than wrong, the idea that Keats was trying for Swinburne but failing is not obviously Lamarckian.

Maybe the idea would be that Keats was trying for something (that we find more strongly in Swinburn) and, though he didn’t make it all the way there, the poetry he left behind allowed his successors to start a bit closer to that configuration. That’s beginning to get interesting. Do we have a role for reviewers in this process? Perhaps they “amplify” the Keatsian signal by making it more visible in the population of readers (and other writers).

We hope readers will remain wary of metaphors that present historically contingent standards as an impersonal process of adaptation. We don’t see any evidence yet for analogies to either Darwin or Lamarck, and we’ve insisted on the difficulty of tracing causality exactly to forestall those analogies.

Yes, tracing causality is difficult, especially in systems with many (thousands upon thousands) moving parts interacting in multiple ways at various time scales. But I don’t see how we get from that difficulty to inserting a denial of Darwin and Lamarck in a cautionary note against Whiggishness. Yes, there was a time when talk of human cultural evolution meant Whiggish history, but that time is long gone. There was also a time when biological evolution, whether by natural or sexual selection (Darwin) or inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarck) also flirted with onward and upward (the scala naturae). But modern biology rejects that.

The default position is that biological evolution has no direction. The idea of direction is not dead, however, but it is deeply problematic and debated in terms quite different from those prevalent as recently as a half-century ago (this brief note by John Wilkins is useful, in part for the four-way distinction between teleological, teleomatic, teleonomic, and adapted systems). My point is simply that, if one wishes to entertain analogies from biological evolution, one can do so without fear that one is buying into some form of (transcendental) teleology smuggled in through a back door.

On the other hand, literary history is not a blank canvas that acquires historical self-consciousness only when retrospective observers touch a brush to it. It’s already full of historical observers. Writing and reviewing are evaluative activities already informed by ideas about “where we’ve been” and “where we ought to be headed.” If individual writers are already historical agents, then perhaps the system of interaction between writers, readers, and reviewers also tends to establish a resonance between (implicit, collective) evaluative opinions and directions of change.

It’s that fourth sentence that’s got my attention. In the first place, I note that to the extent that Underwood and Sellers are willing to consider writers as agents, they have rejected, or at least bracketed, the notion of the death of the author. The death of the author, as we know, was not about physical death, but about causal death. The text came to be regarded as a creature, not of authorial imagination and will, but as the nexus of impersonal semiotic, psychological, and social systems. The reader, I would assume, died the same death. Readers, writers, reviewers, publishers, pressmen, ink-compounders, book sellers, and so forth, all dissolved into the crash and confluence of hegemonic systems.

If, however, we are to consider them as agents – not absolutely free perhaps, but with some room to wiggle about amid the roar of conflicting hegemonies – well then I think Underwood and Smalls are on to something. That’s what we’re dealing with, interaction between “writers, readers, and reviewers.”

And that is one reason I find evolutionary thinking attractive.

Evolutionary thinking is about populations, populations of genes and phenotypes in biology, populations of people and texts in literary culture. The trick is to think about these populations without reifying them into impermeable semiotic and social forces. We also need to think about just what “resonance” means in this context: what are the parts to the machines and how do they interact?

Just what that means, well, that remains to be seen. But we can’t even get started unless we acknowledge that that’s what we have to think about.

If that turns out to be true, we would still be free to reject a Whiggish interpretation, by refusing to endorse the standards that happen to have guided a trend.

I don’t understand this. If the evidence says that a century-long run of texts was guided by certain standards, well then, that seems to be what happened, doesn’t it? Rejecting those standards – for oneself? on behalf of modern lit crit? – doesn’t change the evidence. Perhaps the idea is that what seemed at the time to be upward and onward is, in hindsight, downward and backward. But why privilege one version of historical hindsight over another?

We may even be able to use predictive models to show how the actual path of literary history swerved away from a straight line. (It’s possible to extrapolate a model of nineteenth-century reception into the twentieth, for instance, and then describe how actual twentieth-century reception diverged from those predictions.)

Well of course. A century may seem like a long period in the context of a discipline where it is natural to concentrate on a single author or two, or a movement that ran its course in few decades, but in the course of human history, that’s not a long run. There’s no a priori reason to believe that a century-long trend extends either into the past or the future.

But we can’t strike a blow against Whig history simply by averting our eyes from continuity. The evidence we’re seeing here suggests that literary- historical trends do turn out to be relatively coherent over long timelines.

What can I say but YES!?

Why Evolutionary Thinking

Let’s look at Tim Lewens’ excellent review of cultural evolution in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014):

The prima-facie case for cultural evolutionary theories is irresistible. Members of our own species are able to survive and reproduce in part because of habits, know-how and technology that are not only maintained by learning from others, they are initially generated as part of a cumulative project that builds on discoveries made by others. And our own species also contains sub-groups with different habits, know-how and technologies, which are once again generated and maintained through social learning. The question is not so much whether cultural evolution is important, but how theories of cultural evolution should be fashioned, and how they should be related to more traditional understandings of organic evolution.

The alternative, Lewens suggests later on, is that “cultural change, and the influence of cultural change on other aspects of the human species, are best understood through a series of individual narratives.” Lewens rejects that notion, and so do I.

What’s at issue, as Lewens says, is just how we’re going to construct theories of cultural evolution. The last two decades have seen a wide variety of work in cultural evolution, very little of it by humanists. As far as I know none of it is off-the-shelf ready for use in research programs such as this one. There are no explanatory models that can simply be plugged in to the observations Underwood and Sellers have made.

That is to say, the pattern that Underwood and Sellers have observed is NOT something to be explained by an off-the-shelf theory. Rather, it is something that should enter into conversations about aimed at formulating evolutionary models of human culture. Are digital critics and other humanists going to participate in the process or not?

That’s the question. It’s more important than merely avoiding the temptations of Whig history. What worries me is that efforts to avoid Whig history will keep humanists from entering into the conversation.