The Danger of the Longue Durée

23 Sep

The expanding use of quantitative analysis within the humanities has led to some surprising conclusions, such as when a cyclical structure seemed to appear in the course of analysing publication trends in order to graph the popularity of genres by the number of books published in those genres. In Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Franco Moretti observes that, “Normal literature remains in place for twenty-five years or so,” –and, drawing upon the work of Karl Mannheim, he concludes–somewhat uneasily–that these shifts are down to generational changes within society (Moretti 21). Uncomfortable with the term ‘generational’, Moretti feels compelled to employ it (or something like it), to describe the cyclical structure he observes when the rise and fall of genres, determined by publication data, are viewed at a considerable distance.

The only conclusion that seems to fit the data is that the election of Republican senators causes sunspots--or is it that sunspots cause the election of Republican senators?

Republican Senators and Sunspots

I believe that potential ends of this approach are subject to the underlying danger of taking a very large series of numbers (each of which are of individual interest) and then trying to create an explanation that fits the entire group, like unto the clothing of an entire school in the same bib-and-trouser combination, regardless of gender or age (the uniformity from above must look very nice, but the bib-wearing homecoming queen probably looks a bit silly up close). Moretti himself confesses that there are troubling issues with his generational argument, and I aver that it can entirely ignore what really drives the success of genres: individual luminaries who so entirely transform and transcend the canon–elbowing their way in and making a space for themselves within it–that they revitalise the genre in which they work, and encourage countless imitators to follow in their footsteps (cf. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon). These imitations, inferior though they may be, are snapped up eagerly by a reading public eager for more of what they desire. Only when the luminary has ceased to produce; when the imitators fail to satisfy with their base copies; when the reader will not be tricked into purchasing another ultimately disappointing text–only then does a genre fade away: the genre is both the beneficiary and the victim of its greatest artist.

A look at the rising and falling fortunes of the novel as a whole seem to offer perfectly just reasons for individual occurances of decline. Moretti notes that the dropoff around 1776 might well be attributed to numerous war-related concerns such as the availability of paper and the lack of artistic production. But I felt a twinge of unease when I read his concern that there was a systemic cycle at work, and that it is this cycle–not the proximate reasons behind the decline of a moment–which are the true causes for the repetition of decline.

But why is this a matter for concern? After all, cycles seem to find their way into governing every aspect of our life, whether we know it or not. Let us take as our example the income tax system. Consumer spending is affected by the annual returns issued by the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than try to explain what was so special about May 2010, May 2011, and May 2012–would it not be more logistically parsimonious to use one reason to explain them all? Very probably so–but it would also separate the analyst from the realities of monthly changes in technology advances, new productions, and price fluctuations which could be more useful as a means of understanding a particular historical moment than the broad-brush explanation of tax returns. Certainly, more money enters the public pocket after tax returns are mailed–but consumers need something to spend it on. Why are they so keen to spend it in the first place? What are they buying? Are they spending more because they have more money, just like last May, or are they spending more because companies, aware of the cycle, time their sales and new product launches to coincide with the readiness of funds? This line of inquiry is precluded in the ready acceptance of large-scale conclusions about apparent cycles.

At a distance of some six million miles, one blue planet looks much like any other; it could be Uranus or Neptune. But this particular blue planet has a significance that can only be seen up close.

Earth and the Moon, from NASA’s Juno spacecraft

We could, therefore, conclude that the rise and fall of genres is down to generational shifts: regular, to be expected, ordinary. But to be ordinary is to be unworthy of comment, and perhaps even unworthy of study. Worse, the explanation of the cycle often only explains itself: “the fall of genres is due to generational shifts,” is a statement which conflates one term with the other: genre with generation. But this still does not tell us why one generation should prefer the Gothic to the Historical, the Epistolary to the Romance. At best, the explanation of a longue durée cycle can only offer us the lowest resolution of knowledge, the most general and therefore least felicitous answer to inquiry. At worst, it risks turning moments of true genius into nothing more than productions of temporality, economics, or cultural necessity. Shakespeare’s brilliance, seen from the terrifying heights of the cyclical longue durée, was just the centre of a generational shift. If he had not been, someone else–perhaps Marlowe–would have been the centre; and if not Marlowe, someone else. No longer the producer of genius, Shakespeare is become the production of a moment: as inevitable and as unremarkable as the coming of the tide.

Hence, the longue durée quantitification of humanist systems into vast cycles and distant graphs cannot be the explanation, but only the beginning of inquiry. To see a graph of the rise and fall of genres, it is only too easy to explain it away by describing it with an analogue to itself: “a recurrence every twenty-five years? That is about as long as a generation. Ergo, it is a generational shift!” But, if we instead observe the cycle and ask what is important about a particular dip, then to compare it objectively about what is striking with another, we might begin to see something of the causes that undergird the apparent cycle. But, it may just as easily be a mirage. Perhaps, a future survey of a thousand years of human genre production will show that the past three centuries of ‘cycle’ is just a strange aberration; a coincidence. Seen from an even greater height, even those details may vanish into the background.

Moretti, too, views the data as the jumping-off point. “Quantification poses the problem,” he writes (Moretti 26). It is only when he adds, “and form offers the solution,” that we part ways.

At this level, the individual atomic bonds can be seen, as can their tiny variations--tiny variations which are of enormous importance in physics.

A Single Molecule of Pentacene

Consider the history of video games. It is easy to see similarities in the crash of 1983 and events taking place in the industry at present: consolidation, economic pressure on consumers, and ever-increasing iterative production which is even now verging on saturation. Writing from a dystopic future where the video game industry has gone to bits once again, Moretti might well say it is a cycle, and proffer the forms above as an explanation which is corollary to both moments. But, I would prefer to study Atari in the case of the former situation, or Activision and Electronic Arts in the case of the latter, because their superficial similarities–so similar at a great distance–belie the significant differences visible only upon a closer inspection: differences that are tantamount to entirely different reasons for each crash.

These lessons are not purely abstract: in fact, they are important in thinking about the shift of academia towards embracing Digital Humanities and the institutionalisation that might follow upon it. Earlier readings for this semester touched upon the perils of Digital Humanities becoming instutionalised, just like the previous “Next Big Thing”. But rather than view this as just another episode in a cycle of innovation, institutionalisation, ossification, it might be better to consider the ways in which Digital Humanities is different–indeed, so different than it might transcend the very system that would enforce cyclicality upon it. Cathy N. Davidson’s sections on Decentering Knowledge and Authority and “The Future of Learning Institutions” in “Humanities 2.0” serve as perfect examples of this result (Gold, 480-483). Awareness of what makes a particular moment unique–what allows it to resist a cycle or what causes it to be subjected to it–can inform action in the present.

Changes to the system of peer review, collaborative writing, and the fundamental nature of how the academic humanities work could be the very factors that liberate Digital Humanities from becoming just another short-lived peak. In that case, far from being subject to a large-scale cycle, the advent of Digital Humanities could become, itself, the new structure against which future rises and falls are mapped.

Wild Card
Digital History Project. Web. 23 September, 2012.
The Digital History Project is a resource maintained by professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Amongst its aims, it seeks to educate not only students but also scholars as to the uses of applying digital humanities techniques to the study of History. Numerous resources include blog entries, reviews of tools, and a directory of digital historians. Those interested in cultural studies–always closely related to the historical moment–might find this an excellent resource.
(Of immediate practicality are the reviews of online tools, which are particularly interesting given our upcoming assignment.)

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