Category Archives: David Mazella

dh and the “discipline” of english studies; UPDATED


[image of Ermenonville, Le temple de la philosophie, courtesy of Parisette and Wikimedia commons]

I spent a few days listening in on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference at UH this weekend, and was impressed by a number of presentations. I won’t try to record everything, but will just blog about a few of the ideas that have stuck with me for the last day or so. (For those seeking a good comprehensive account, try instead keynote speaker Geoffrey Rockwell’s very helpful summary of keynotes and panels here)

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the earlier discussion of the Emory English blow-up, I walked into the conference thinking about English studies, a disciplinary agglomeration that has never had much success organizing itself around any consistent methodology or object of study. If this is indeed our disciplinary home and background, I wondered, why should it feature such persistent, distracting arguments about who belongs inside and who doesn’t?  So I walked into the TXDHC conference wondering whether I myself might belong inside their tent.

I was very pleased to see a presentation from Geoffrey Rockwell (Alberta) on Friday about a collaborative project he is developing (with Stefan Sinclair) called “hermeneutica,” In their introduction they note that includes both a printed text on methods of textual analysis and a suite of tools designed to “instantiate” those principles. They envision users looping back and forth from the printed portions to the embedded interactive panels that display their own processes and results; these panels would also allow users to enter their own values so that they could “recapitulate and experiment with” those results, and compare their own with R/S’s results. This creates an interactive feedback loop between the learner and the book/site that a “mere” printed text could not emulate. They also include case histories demonstrating what can be done with such tools, reflective essays on their analyses, and finally “recipes” that are “tutorials on how to do interpretative things with common tools.”

“Hermeneutica,” we learned at the presentation, were “little hermeneutical toys” that we could use to analyze the texts around us. Rockwell pointed out that these kinds of interactive data visualizations were already becoming commonplace on sites like the NY Times and the NYSE.

I’d need to spend far more time with this project to have more to say about its details, but what I appreciated were the following principles I gleaned from the presentation and the online materials contained here:

  • The emphasis is on collaboration, since it is unlikely that any single scholar will have all the skills necessary to do the kind of work necessary to tackle interesting projects with sufficient scope and depth to satisfy the lay audience;
  • The emphasis is also squarely on interpretation and the open-ended generation of insights, as an “art of making things more interesting” along the lines of cooking, embroidery, etc., rather than a utilitarian model of searching or pattern-matching;
  • Drawing on Franco Moretti’s discussion of “models” (e.g., “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” p. 4) Rockwell stressed that textual analysis produced by hermeneutica’s tools operated upon “surrogates“* rather than texts themselves, in just the way that scholars might work on the indices or outlines of books rather than books themselves for certain kinds of research. (Moretti: “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead”**) At the same time,’s tools were designed to “help you read,” and to “help you get back to the full text”;
  • This stress on the proliferation and discussion of surrogates in the humanities might help explain why preservation and rereading of of older material legacies are always so closely interwoven with the production of new insights; accordingly, in this presentation, Rockwell began with the little-known prehistory of DH in the 1970s and 1980s, in some of the earliest computer-assisted readings of literature like the work of John Smith on James Joyce;
  • Rockwell’s emphasis here was not necessarily on building one’s tools, or all of one’s tools, from scratch, but using and adapting what one could find from ready-made and available tools, which certainly lowers the bar for those, like myself, who would rather adapt existing tools for their own interpretive projects than devote themselves single-mindedly to tool-construction;
  • Finally, by comparing the tools and products of the hermeneutica to the surrogate-like features of 18th-century architectural “follies,” Rockwell stressed their non- or anti-utilitarian character, since they helped to resist or interrupt one’s use or production of texts, in order to draw attention to their theoretical workings;
  • The anti-utilitarian character of the folly-like hermeneutica makes their character as tools paradoxical, since they represent a class of “tools” that work against the purposeful or transparent operations of signification, slowing down or interrupting production to the point where they make their own use more available for conscious manipulation; they make it possible for creators and audiences to move to new, meta-levels when considering the use of a particular element in a composition.

I  believe that it is this conceptually suggestive, exploratory, anti-utilitarian element of the “folly” or hermeneuticon–the tool that acts like something other than a simple tool–that seems especially inviting for folks doing work in English departments.  This kind of exploration, shared I think by each of the interpretive sub-disciplines housed in English departments, distinguishes thinking in the humanities from other disciplinary forms of thinking, and distances our work from the kinds of purposiveness found in other disciplines.


[*UPDATE: GR's discussion of "models" or textual "surrogates" deployed by scholars to interpret an inaccessible "text" reminds me of Frank Ankersmit's observations about the distinction between "historical research (a question of facts)" and "historical writing (a question of interpretation)" ("Six Theses," 2.1). It also seems to me that the most interpretively productive way to regard data visualizations of individual artworks or larger groupings might be as Ankersmit's "metaphors." According to Ankersmit, metaphors help us to organize, understand, and redescribe the past in novel terms that encourage interpretation and debate ("metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else ('John is a pig'), "Theses," 5.1.1).]

[**UPDATE: Bill Benzon (H/T Alan Liu) has posted (here and here) about Moretti's uses of computers and computer-generated networks for literary works.  Benzon observes that while Moretti does not use a computer to create his network diagrams, they are "very much in the spirit . . . of computing." Benzon believes that the point of Moretti's enterprise is the movement from quantification to visualization. Ultimately, this process should produce an "irreducible" visual pattern that can serve as a usefully suggestive model for a literary work or group of works. Benzon writes:

The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis.

In my view, Moretti's "irreducible" patterns constitute "primary object[s] of description and analysis” when they fulfill Ankersmit’s definition of “metaphor,” “show[ing ] what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else.”

Moretti himself shows these visual patterns’ defamiliarizing potential when he uses figs. 34 and 35 to reveal the significantly liminal status of Hamlet‘s Horatio as a “good gateway” to the play’s “periphery,” in contrast with the courtly characters tightly clustered around Polonius (“Network” 6).  Here are the figures:

Moretti fig 34

Moretti fig 35

When Moretti is able to transform “Horatio” from a character made of words into a vertex that he is then able to describe as a “gateway,” then the transformation of the model into a new metaphor is complete.


bousquet and moral panic

A few people have forwarded me Marc Bousquet’s latest essay (article behind paywall) about the “moral panic” in literary studies, along with SEK’s follow-up, and I’ve seen surprisingly little push-back from the presumed subjects of the essay, English literature professors. Bousquet’s point is that PhD-granting English departments like his own (Emory) are seeing a widening gap between the hiring of newly-minted PhDs in “traditional fields” vs. “new fields.” (i.e., students trained in historical, period-based fields vs. those in rhet/comp or digital humanities).  As a result, the wounded and defensive professors in traditional fields have engaged in what he calls a “backlash discourse” conjuring up “a ‘moral panic’ in defense of literary studies.”

I think there’s some truth in this description, but I also think that the analysis could be deepened.  From my own experience, in a public research university, and in a pluralist department with a full complement of advanced degrees in sub-fields (literary studies, creative writing, rhet/comp, linguistics, and with a growing interest in digital humanities), it’s taken for granted that we must work together, even if it does make all our lives more complicated. It does make inter-departmental conversation more difficult at times, but perhaps more rewarding, too. (I don’t deny that we all wonder from time to time what it would be like to work in a stand-alone department squarely focused on what we  do). But I think that for all but the most prestigious and super-endowed programs, disciplinary autonomy is off the table.

As I continued to read through Bousquet’s essay, it seemed to me that all but a handful of my friends and colleagues in the academy work in similarly mixed environments.  The remaining ones work in institutions either so prestigious that they could ignore the market forces he describes, or so oblivious (or, more likely, divided) that nothing short of catastrophe could make them change direction. Frankly, by the time Bousquet writes, “the moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production,” I wondered why this essay wasn’t just an email to his colleagues at Emory? In other words, why should the rest of us care? At the same time, I do think that there’s a potentially useful discussion to be extracted from this essentially local argument.

I think in the long term and among a very broad group of working scholar/teachers, there’s a lot of justifiable anxiety about the future of what we might call “traditional” or historically-based literary studies.  This anxiety comes not (just) from the insecurities of superannuated or inactive faculty, but from the increasingly market-driven language used to justify the reorganization of academic departments wholesale in domains like hiring, tenure, enrollments, and so forth.  The once-dominant model of nation- and period-specialization has just weathered serious challenge from the MLA leadership this past winter, and left many eighteenth-century scholars wondering just what role we shall have in that organization as it goes through its own evolution (not that the MLA has demonstrated much love for rhet/comp, either).

So I wonder what sort of role literature and literary studies might have in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of “English studies” twenty years from now.  For example, in a pluralistic department organized without period categories, how would historical research be taught, or the general category of “literature” be usefully sub-divided or segmented?  How would “genre” be studied? And so forth. In my view, a large part of this “anxiety” reflects our awareness that many familiar landmarks in scholarly life are disappearing, with little concrete sense of what’s to replace them.

I have two thoughts about this stand-off between Bousquet and the resistant literature faculty he describes.

First of all, because of the depressingly straitened circumstances outlined by Bousquet many times before, a lot of literature faculty–even the ones trained in the Ivy Leagues–have made heroic or at least incremental efforts to adapt their curricula, teaching, and their research interests to their new surroundings and new students.

In other words, the period-based fields have not in any way stood still in the past few decades. This fact really became clear during the MLA dust-up, when eighteenth-century scholars were forced to argue to scholars from other historical periods against shrinking our division at the annual meeting. Not only were the proposals a self-defeating gesture for an organization purporting to represent the entirety of “literary studies,” they would jettison every trace of the field’s development over the past thirty years.  So I think anyone in Bousquet’s position would be much better off encouraging more, and better, adaptations among literature professors rather than threatening them with “irrelevance.”  I  don’t think high quality collaborations can occur under any other circumstances.

My second point is that it feels odd for Bousquet, of all people, to use the language of the market to justify the de facto institutional changes he wishes to make.  I have long admired How the University Works precisely because it questions the use of the marketplace or its organizational jargon to justify educational decisions that affect people. Anyone who has spent time in higher education knows that the market is not in any way a fair or rational arbiter, nor is it an impersonal historical force, but something that produces certain outcomes because of certain prior decisions and priorities. Assuming that this is the case, the changes taking place now are driven in part by all the forces he’s rightly critiqued elsewhere: permatemping, public disinvestment, corporatization, etc.  The economic-institutional process that elevated rhet/comp to its current position (however resisted by a few outliers) may also hollow out the academic departments that may someday be filled with majorities of rhet/comp teacher/scholars.

So the market has spoken, but why exactly should we follow its dictates here or elsewhere?  From my perspective, it might be better to envision (and enact) a version of “English studies” that is able to draw upon the expertise of all its fields, including the historical study of literature.



The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at:
The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at:

MLA 2014, pt III: The Revised Draft of the MLA Forums, Open Hearings, plus updates


Hi folks,

I won’t be attending MLA this year, but I wanted to provide a few 18c updates for those attending and those staying at home:

As always, at the Long 18th, we’re always happy to hear about any news or thoughts about the matters discussed in or out of the panels at MLA. Hit Reply if you want to pass along some bit of news.

Stay warm,


MLA 2014, pt II: sessions organized by the late-18c division, Jan. 9-11


And now for the later 18c.

Below you will find the sessions organized by the Late 18c Division for this year. As with the other post, please feel free to share your thoughts about these sessions, or about MLA more generally, below. Thanks, DM

113. Have We Ever Been Secular?

Thursday, 9 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding: Deidre Shauna Lynch, Univ. of Toronto

1. “Never: The Making of the Modern Aura,” Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Univ. of California, Irvine

2.  “Pretending to Believe, Pretending Not to Believe,” Lori Branch, Univ. of Iowa

3. “Was Sentimentalism Secular?” Lisa M. O’Connell, Univ. of Queensland

4. “Quasi-nonsecularism; or, The Eighteenth-Century Sublime,” Richard A. Barney, Univ. at Albany, State Univ. of New York

Session Description: This session revisits customary narratives about Enlightenment and secularization and explores 18th-century studies after the “theological turn.”

235. Life: Before and after 1800

Friday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature and the Division on the English Romantic Period

Presiding:  Kevis Goodman, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Speakers:  Amanda Jo Goldstein, Cornell Univ.; Heather Keenleyside, Univ. of Chicago; Catherine Packham, Univ. of Sussex;Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.

Session Description:
“Until the end of the eighteenth century . . . life does not exist: only living beings.” Our two divisions will revisit Foucault’s still influential, periodizing thesis to question its validity in the light of recent work in the field and to think about what we do and do not share.

  608. War and Literature, 1754–1815
Saturday, 11 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., O’Hare, Chicago Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding:  William Beatty Warner, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Speakers:  Siraj Ahmed, Lehman Coll., City Univ. of New York; Betty Joseph, Rice Univ.; Scott Krawczyk, United States Military Acad.; Daniel O’Quinn, Univ. of Guelph

Session Description:
In the wake of the 250th anniversary of the Seven Years’ War, considered by many as the first worldwide war, we would like to open a discussion of war and literature. On both the continent of North America and the Indian subcontinent, war for empire among the European nations swept away first nations, redrew boundaries, and inflected communal identities.

MLA 2014, pt I: sessions organized by the restoration and early 18c english literature division


In light of earlier posts urging continued representation of all three sub-periods in our 18c MLA sessions, I would urge any ASECS members attending MLA this year to attend as many sessions as possible and show your support.

Below you will find the sessions organized by the Restoration and Early 18c English Literature Division.  Feel free to comment here if you have any thoughts about the session you saw, or about MLA more generally. Thanks, DM

MLA 2014_Page_1

MLA 2014_Page_2

Gikandi, Preface: armored men and quarantines


[image of James Drummond, 2rd Duke of Perth, from National Gallery of Scotland and Wikipedia; cf. also, Gikandi, x-xii]

I believe this image is as good a place to start as any in this densely argued book.  In his Preface, Gikandi describes an early moment of fascination in the National Gallery of Scotland, where he saw this portrait of the Jacobite James Drummond by Sir John Baptiste de Medina.  As he looked on this painting, with its conscious, almost theatrical projection of power, Gikandi began to wonder:

Why would Drummond, a symbol of the Catholic insurrection against the Protestant establishment, seek to inscribe an enslaved boy in his family portrait? What aura did this figure, undoubtedly the quintessential sign of blackness in bondage, add to the symbolism of white power?  What libidinal desires did the black slave represent? What was the relation of this blackness, confined to the margin of the modern world picture and placed in a state of subjection, to the man of power with his hand on his hip? And how were we to read this diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness in relation to the center embodied by the wig and armor?   And where was one to draw the line between the gesture of incorporation and dissociation? (xi-xii)

In some sense, I think it’s not too difficult to understand the relations here in the Drummond portrait as part of the theatrics of power, the way in which the “diminished, yet not unattractive, blackness” of the gazing, enslaved boy (signified by the collar around his neck) provides a readily comprehensible image of his, and by extension, our subjection to the armored, bewigged man at the painting’s center.  In this respect, the pairing seems at least comparable to our now familiar cultural repertoire of  assymetrical cross-cultural pairings like Crusoe/Friday, Huck/Jim, Lone Ranger/Tonto, Kirk/Spock, etc. etc.

In other words, de Medina’s pairing seems designed to demonstrate that the conquest has already occurred, and now a more subtle form of subjection has begun.  This is part of what I see at stake in these scenes of “incorporation and dissociation,” emblematized by Drummond’s helmet or Crusoe’s musket:


In some sense, as I’ve said in the comments, this story of subjection and hegemony has been hiding in plain view for some time, and I don’t think it has gone unnoticed in cultural criticism.  What Gikandi adds to this scenario of a visible “incorporation and dissociation” of the enslaved Other is a notion of the black as a source of libidinal energy for civilization and Modernity, one that requires regular maintenance, or “quarantining,” to be contained and yet productively nurtured:

What surprised me in the end, however, was the discovery that the world of the enslaved was not simply the submerged and concealed counterpoint of modern civilization; rather, what made the body of the slave repellant–its ugliness and dirt–was also what provided the sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life (xii).

With this move into the “sensations and the guilty pleasures of modern life,” Gikandi has taken us into the peculiarly modern aesthetics of disavowal, what we thoughtlessly enjoy but cannot admit to having any contact with.  The libidinal pull of slavery and its  products is what takes us out of the purity and transcendence of Enlightenment aesthetics, and brings us into contact with something far more unsettling, the infrastructures of commercial modernity.  Drummond’s hand rests lightly upon his helmet, and Crusoe balances his musket on his shoulder, while these two figures set the terms for the “incorporation” of their black counterparts.


collaborative reading of simon gikandi’s slavery and the culture of taste, may 13th-19th at the long 18th

OK, I’m calling the Gikandi collaborative reading for next May 13th-19th.  Who’s in?

When I initially floated this proposal, a number of people responded on and off the blog.

Could I now get volunteers to commit to responding to a single chapter? You’ll see the Table of Contents below. I would like each chapter to be covered, but otherwise multiple respondents to a single chapter are fine.  I am also including a link to the Amazon listing.

If you are still interested in participating, either as a post-writer or respondent, please let me know as soon as you can.  Feel free to forward this to any colleagues or students you feel might be interested in participating. Just hit Reply, and let me know which of the chapters you’d like to tackle:

Ch. 1: Overture, 5/13: DELUCIA; MAZELLA
Ch. 2: Intersections, 5/14: CODR; BURNARD
Ch. 3: Unspeakable Events, 5/15: DYKE; WOOD
Ch. 4: Close Encounters, 5/16: MOWRY; COUCHMAN
Ch. 5: Popping Sorrow, 5/17: KUGLER
Ch. 6: The ontology of Play, 5/18: GOTTLIEB; HARDY
Coda, 5/19: MAZELLA

If you are too busy to do a formal post, but want to listen and respond to others, that would be fine, too.
Gikandi ToC

Thanks, DM

Proposal for a Race and Empire Caucus at ASECS

[I just saw this announcement on the Eighteenth-Century Questions group at Facebook, and thought it would be a good idea to cross-post at the Long 18th.  Take a look, and if you're interested or have further questions, please reply to Suvir Kaul or Ashley Cohen at or  Thanks, DM]


In an attempt to make ASECS a more conducive and productive environment for scholarly exchange on the issues of race and empire, we are proposing to establish a Race and Empire caucus. ASECS procedures require us to collect a requisite number of signatures. Please consider our proposal (below) and reply to or with your name and departmental affiliation if you would like to sign. We would be much obliged if you would forward this e-mail to like-minded friends, colleagues, and students.

We have also organized a Race and Empire roundtable in Cleveland in support of our efforts and would be delighted to see you all there.


Ashley Cohen and Suvir Kaul

The rise of European sea-borne trade and colonialism is the central geopolitical fact of eighteenth-century history. It is thus impossible to understand the domestic social formations and cultures of eighteenth-century Europe in isolation from a global framework that acknowledges and takes into account the histories of European exploration, commerce, conquest, colonialism, and slavery in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, and the Americas. These simple propositions form the basis for our present proposal to found an ASECS caucus dedicated to the constitutively linked issues of Race and Empire. We feel that the systematic study of these issues has been significantly underrepresented at ASECS’s annual conference in years past, even as occasional panels on such issues gather large audiences. A Race and Empire Caucus will ensure that ASECS consistently provides a forum for discussing and developing innovative critical approaches to eighteenth century histories and legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as to the strategies of racialization that were central to both of these institutions. It is our hope that a Race and Empire Caucus will promote intellectual solidarity, create community, and foster collaboration, transforming ASECS’s annual meeting into a venue that consistently offers vibrant and vigorous discussions of these issues.

one definition of a “public good”: not just unprofitable, but impossible to profit from . . .

Robert W. McChesney’s Salon piece nails the higher education/journalism analogy, and reveals something that all our talk about “business models” fails to acknowledge:

There is probably no better evidence that journalism is a public good than the fact that none of America’s financial geniuses can figure out how to make money off it. The comparison to education is striking. When manag­ers apply market logic to schools, it fails, because education is a cooperative public service, not a business. Corporatized schools throw underachieving, hard-to-teach kids overboard, discontinue expensive programs, bombard stu­dents with endless tests, and then attack teacher salaries and unions as the main impediment to “success.” No one has ever made profits doing qual­ity education—for-profit education companies seize public funds and make their money by not teaching. In digital news, the same dynamic is producing the same results, and leads to the same conclusion. (h/t Brad DeLong):

This is the extraction economy argument all over again, in which private companies make money by seizing public funds and not performing the now-privatized public serve (e.g., education, public parks, museums, etc.) . It’s a quieter, more plausible-sounding way of denying people the public services they once expected and received, while funneling money towards one’s friends and donors.

In the case of journalism, it has resulted, as McChesney observes, in a relentless attrition of the paid labor force of journalism that once provided the content, even while the quality of the now outsourced product declines to the point where no one would want to spend money on it. The internet’s effect has been to whittle away at the business model that once sustained newspapers (car dealerships and department stores once paid for local news), without leaving anything that could plausibly take their place. We might make a similar observation about all the “disruptive” models of education we’ve been hearing about lately.  How, exactly, does giving away content on the internet lead to the financial health of the institution giving its content away?  Who does end up paying for something that’s supposedly “free”?

It’s also worth noting how much the new online journalism, like the new higher education “business models” rely on massive amounts of “volunteer” labor from underemployed or aspiring laborers, who offer them free content in the hope of “exposure” rather than pay.  (And even if this kind of writing is conceived, like graduate education, as a form of apprenticeship rather than de facto pauperization of the profession, it still suggests the long-term unsustainability of the model).  I’ll leave the last word to writer/editor Teresa Nelson Hayden, who commented in this way on the value of the writing done “for free” in the public sphere:

“The role of journalism in a democracy is a public trust. It is much abused. It is a scandal. Writers aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free. If Atlantic isn’t paying them, someone else is. By not paying its writers, the Atlantic has thrown itself open to manipulation, astroturfing, and other disinformation. The principle you learn in Cinema 101 is that movies don’t film themselves. There’s always someone behind the camera. The same goes for journalism. We thought we knew what it was: this publication hires these writers. Now we know other agendas and relationships were in play, and we don’t know what they were. So yes, we feel betrayed.”


18th century blog round-up resumes: march edition

I haven’t done one of these round-up posts for a while, but it seems as if some interesting new blogs have been coming online (along with others I’ve followed for awhile), and I wanted to call your attention to them.   Here are some links:

These are just a few of the posts I’ve been reading and thinking about this week. If you’ve got your own thoughts about them, or more suggestions for this week’s round-up, please hit “comment.”