Peter Janich, What is Information?

Translated by me and the fabulous Lea Pao, this book by the German philosopher of science known for “methodical constructivism” is now available in English from the University of Minnesota Press. Lea and I added a couple sentences that weren’t in the original, for clarity and improvement, and wrote a translators’ introduction. Purchase at Amazon.

Posted on

Travel/Talks 2018

A few talks coming up:

April 5-6 is a conference on Poetry and the World at the new UVa Center for Poetry and Poetics. I’ll be talking about the blazon, and totality.

I’ll be giving a talk, “Why Humanists Should Be Interested in Information,” at the University of Miami on April 12. I’ll also be doing a workshop on writing for the graduate students in English.

In October there’s a digital humanities/structuralism conference, Novel Worlds, being held at McGill, where I’m one of a pretty fantastic lineup of speakers. And in late October I’ll be in Rome for a DFG-sponsored conference on world literature.


Posted on

Teaching 2017-18

So this year I taught the video games class again (300 students this time). Evaluations were ok… not as good as last time, and I think I know why. I basically did more of what some folks liked last time but that meant that the folks who didn’t like it were unhappier. Also got a note after the semester ended warning me of rampant cheating on the team exams. Sigh.

In Spring 2018 I’m teaching Modern Novel–the first time in four or five years that I’ve taught an upper-level undergraduate course! 19 students, which is fun. We’re doing Barthes’s S/Z and Joyce’s Ulysses…both of which I’ve taught before but which continue to make me very very happy.

Posted on

Travel Plans, 2017

I will be giving talks (on worlds) in Dublin on May 11, and in Munich, probably May 23. Otherwise no conferences or talks planned for the Spring. I will not be attending the ACLA (in Utrecht) or the MSA (in Amsterdam) since I’m going to try to spend the summer working on the Kant book.

No plans for the Fall, but lots going on here at Penn State, including the second CHI conference in late September. Thinking about going to the SLSA conference for the first time ever, since MSA won’t be happening in Fall.

Posted on

Teaching, Spring 2017

Teaching two classes this semester, a graduate class on Derrida (syllabus) and the usual undergraduate class on video game culture (syllabus), this time with 400 students, a new record. I had planned to make a bunch of changes to the undergrad class, eliminating Will Wright as one of my auteurs in favor of someone younger and newer (I thought about the Belgian indie design group Tale of Tales, and Jonathan Braid), but I realize that basically you get lots of points for inventing a genre, even if all your recent projects have been failures (for almost a decade now!).

So I’ll still do some Wright, but I’m going to add in more Braid, more Journey, more Tale of Tales, more indie games overall, just here and there throughout the semester.

As for the Derrida class, I have to say that I borrowed (with permission) the opening six weeks from Christopher Bush, who taught a similar class at Northwestern a decade ago.

Posted on

Center for Humanities and Information

So one of the things I’ve been up to that I’m really excited about and proud of is Penn State’s new Center for Humanities and Information, which has just started up this year. The best thing (well, one of the best things) about it is that it spends 95 percent of its budget on people, including some very smart and interesting postdoctoral fellows. Read all about it here.

Posted on

Visits/Conferences Fall and Spring 2015-16

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, but here’s a quick rundown of where I’ll be:

Sept 18-19: U of Tampa (about literary worlds)

Oct 2-3: Concordia University, Montreal (the new Kant book)

Oct 22-23:  Norwich University, Vermont (talking about Elements)

Nov 5-6: University of Cincinnati (the new Kant book)

January 7-10: MLA, Austin (something from the To the Lighthouse project)

March 17-20: ACLA, Boston (on the end of the humanities)

April 8: UC Santa Cruz (the Kant/artwork project)

May 13-14: Oxford University (UK) (Elements again)

Posted on

More upcoming visits for Spring 2015

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, for which I apologize to the three readers out there. Meanwhile, a schedule of talks and travels for Spring 2015:

Feb 4-5-6: ACL(x), U of South Carolina

Feb 12-14: Berkeley, 5pm on Feb 12, on Kant and the humanities; Sat 13 all day at a conference at Stanford

Feb 19-21:at the Humanities Center at BYU, on Kant and the humanities

March 5: Rutgers, on Chinese metaphor

March 9: U of Florida in Gainesville, on academic writing

March 23-26: ACLA, Seattle

April 16: U of Virginia, topic tbd.

If you’re around at any of these places, and want to hang out, please let me know.

Posted on

Upcoming visits: Yale and Minnesota

Saturday, Nov 15: I’ll be speaking to graduate students in Sociology at Yale (along with real sociologists Elijah Anderson (Yale) and Mitch Duneier (Princeton)) on questions of academic style and writing in and around ethnography. Prepping by reading Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade, Elijah’s A Place on the Corner, and John van Maanen’s Tales of the Field. We’ll see if I manage to be helpful.

Thursday and Friday, Dec 4-5: I’ll be in Minneapolis, giving a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as talking to graduate students and research groups; topics On Literary WorldsThe Elements of Academic Style, and, for the public talk, new work on singularity, Kant, and analytic scale.

Posted on

Elements interview, with Carla Nappi

The fabulous-in-every-way Carla Nappi has interviewed me for the New Books Network. You can listen to the whole thing here.

Posted on

Center for Humanities and Information!!

I’m super excited to be the first director of the new Penn State Center for Humanities and Information. There are visiting fellowships, graduate student fellowships, and faculty fellowships, as well as a bunch of other cool stuff. And a new website!

Posted on

MLA: New Theories of the Novel

I actually spoke on this roundtable from a single page of notes, as is my preference; but then I typed up the notes for a friend and so here they are. I only spoke for 6 minutes so I’ve said more below, I think, than I said then… but for whatever reason (probably the same reason one hears one’s own voice differently from others the written stuff seems thinner… Hmm.

I have essentially six things to say having to do with the way that new theories of the novel might emerge from a more generous syncretism than the one with which we are familiar from the great examples of from the 1920s-1970s (Watt, Bakhtin, Frank, Lukacs, Auerbach).

1. Let’s say you want a new theory of the novel, with examples from beyond Europe. Quite quickly you encounter the general problem of the relationship between exemplarity and generality. At the lower limit of this problem you will find someone willing to say that the example determines the general absolutely; that is, that there can be no distance taken from the unit of the example and a general theory that would bind together examples. On this view all conceptual thought becomes impossible: even a general claim about a single novel would be merely a claim about the limited set of examples used to adduce it; only (again under this rubric) a general claim about the novel including all the sentences of the novel would be allowable, meaning that you would essentially just reproduce the novel, which would be a general example of itself.

So we need a theory of the relation between exemplarity and generality that does more than just that, while recognizing that any such theory will be potentially subject to the critique above, and also that since such a critique is inevitable and always possible it is of limited value.

The general always owes a debt to its examples; it never breaks fully free of their gravitational pull. 90 percent of the problems people have with general statements can be resolved if people simply would do a better job of recognizing the degrees to which their examples influence their theories; so for instance we wouldn’t be complaining about Ian Watt if he’d called it The Rise of the English Novel. Adjectives are good!

2. So now that you understand that, you still want a new theory of the novel. Assume you know what a novel is. Now it’s just a matter of choosing a reasonable number (and spread) of examples.

3. (a) But! This all depends on what you think a theory of something does. If you think a theory of something is supposed to explain primarily its origin and development over time then you will always have a Eurocentric theory of the novel because, honestly, the novel happens in Europe first (remember: we are assuming we know what a novel is). That’s no great tragedy—sometimes stuff happens in certain places first. But the point here is that the choice to make a theory of X something that primarily attempts to explain X in terms of origin and progress will tend to produce certain kinds of results. That would be ok if the only way to theorize something were to focus on progress, but it isn’t.

(b) Because in fact you can produce non-progress-oriented theories of things, via among other things structuralism. I have done this in On Literary Worlds so I won’t talk about it here.

4. Now, assume you don’t know what a novel is. Then you might want to think of other kinds of Venn diagrams that would include many of the things you currently think of as novels but also possibly some things that don’t (or alternatively that would include a smaller group of texts). That is, think about the ways in which your sense that you know what a novel is depends on the examples you’re using. And imagine what happens if you change the criteria for exemplarity. For instance, you could have a theory of prose fiction, which would include Genji, the Chinese classics, the Roman novels, and so on. Of course you would have to assume you know what prose is, and what fiction is.

5. Why is the question of the future of the novel different from the question of the future of the detective novel? Is this merely a matter of kind and degree, in which the larger category acquires a qualitative difference by virtue of its scope and size, one that makes the “end” of it or the question of its future terrifying? I am not scared of a future with no detective novels, a future with no novels seems completely impossible to me.

6. Nonetheless: can we imagine a future without the novel? On the ecosystemic evidence, I don’t think so. One of the things culture is good at is retaining in residual form aesthetic structures and genres that belong to (and expressed the deepest logics of) earlier historical ecosystems. See poetry and drama. Of course they survive in somewhat muted, less dominant forms. On the other hand this actually gives them more aesthetic freedom. So I cannot imagine a future in which the novel does not exist. But, pace Nancy Armstrong’s essay on “The Future of the Novel,” I feel no need to believe that the novel will always adapt and change so as to remain the dominant written form of its era. I’m not quite sure she is saying this but there is a touch of anxiety about whether the novel can continue as novel in her essay; whether the novel can weather the ecosystemic change produced by the transformation of the relation between family/individual and polity. I for one don’t care too much whether it can; if it cannot, there will be a new form. And in general I think one ought to hope for something like that—that is, one ought to hope that someday there will be an ecosystemic change such that the novel will no longer best (of the various available forms) speak to the patterns of social and historical being. To wish for something else is either to wish for a novel that can adapt to anything, or it is to wish that we are living in the end of history. I don’t think we should wish for either of those if we want to retain some reasonably ethical relation to the future… by which I mean a relation in which we remain capable of being surprised.

Posted on

The Elements of Academic Style

The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities, now out from Columbia; more or less a guide on how to write literary criticism for graduate students and faculty in literary and cultural studies. Comes free with two jokes about fascists and a picture of a Matryoshka doll.

Posted on

MLA: What is Data in Literary Studies?

Remarks I read (much too quickly) at the MLA roundtable organized by Jim English. Feed of Twitter response to the panel here. Some of this drawn from the scale piece, some from remarks on close reading in On Literary Worlds, and some from thoughts leading into the new book, now tentatively titled What Kind of Information is Literature?

I want to begin by arguing that the current state of affairs with respect to “data” and “literature,” itself a mirror of the entire structure that organizes the cultural relationship between the digital humanities and literary criticism, is bad for proponents on both sides. I mean in the most general possible way, but here I want to focus especially on the antagonism between data-based analysis of literary texts, which has been called “distant reading,” and the more historically traditional reading practice of focusing on small units of meaning, which we call, pretty loosely, “close reading.”

The first thing to say is that distant reading is not really distant, and close reading is not just close. No reading practice ever maintains itself as one “distance” from a text; rather what we call a reading practice is among other things a pattern of system of habitual distances and relations among those distances. So “close reading” is not always close; rather it pairs a certain kind of analysis of relatively small pieces of text with very powerful analytic tools—the tools of New Criticism, but also of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on—that leverage those small pieces of text into structures that are more “distant” from the text than is, say, the sentence or the phoneme. As the farthest level of distance these readings manage to make claims about some of the largest possible conceptual structures in human society, namely the nature of being (or beauty), the organization of the unconscious, the ethics of language, or the totality of an era. On the way they almost inevitably pass through other levels of what we might think of as “distance” from the text, in which they both use (as tools) and make claims about (interpretively) things like subgenres (sonnets, science fiction), genres (poetry, the novel), modes (epic, lyric), and so on.

Close reading is not, I say again, close; it is an arrangement of closeness and distance that behaves as though its epistemological fundamentals took place entirely at the level of “closeness”; whereas in fact as in any system these fundamentals operate as part of a larger pattern. You could say the same for “distant” reading.

What I want to propose is that modes of reading contain buried theories of what kind of information literature is. And I want to suggest that literature is a both a very particular kind of information but also, that this particularity constitutes not a difference in kind from other kinds of information but rather one of degree. I am willing to make this argument both ontologically and pragmatically, but for now since I have no real time I will simply say that pragmatically if we could think of literature as information—the same way we have learned to think of the codex book as a medium instead of the thing that media were against—then we would be on our way to getting rid of the somewhat stupid antagonism between the digital/data-oriented/distant model and the older analaog/close reading model, which would free us all up to do a wider variety of work, and to think our old categories through in interesting ways via new ideas.

I’m going to close by rewriting a couple sentences of the anthropologist Terence Turner’s, which are part of an argument he’s making about the role metaphor plays in the production of social life, in which he (like me) wants to emphasize the contextual, contingent, and essentially degree-oriented differences among various tropic and social practices, against those who want to make those differences differences of kind. I only mention that I’m rewriting the sentences because I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism:

“It is essential to understand the structural continuity of the step from information to literature and back again—in other words, to grasp the nonuniqueness of literature an absolute structural sense—in order to appreciate the nature and importance of literature’s relative specificity and distinctive role in the construction, and continual reconstruction, of new or distinct contexts of cultural meaning and subjective consciousness. That the difference literature makes to the history of information is not fixed and qualitative, but pragmatic and, as it were, quantitative, does not imply that such a dimension of difference does not exist, only that it is a relative, fluid, and quantitative matter.” (Turner 129)

More specifically, I want to ask what happens if we think of literature as the site for the storage l of information, and if we think of literary criticism, then, following that model, as a series of efforts to retrieve that information. We then come back to the question that organizes this roundtable, “What is Data?,” and begin with an answer, not in the form “Data is X or Y or Z,” which I suppose is the usual way to answer such questions, but rather by saying, “Literature (among other things) is data (among other things),” which leads to the question, “What kind of data/information is literature?” … which is a question I would like to answer.


Posted on

Toward a plural theory of Anthropocenes


For all I know this has been said before, but: the anthropocene is a world-concept.

The normal way to understand the Anthropocene is as a historical period, defined more or less as the era when human beings acquire the capacity to affect the ecology of the entire planet, thereby opening the door to mass extinction, disastrous climate change, and, at the limit, the disappeareance of the species. Generally people want to date it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though you see arguments for dating it to the beginning of agriculture. Since the challenge we are facing collectively at the moment (and for the next centuries) is the immediate result of the dramatic expansion in carbon-based energy (oil, gas) use that comes from the Industrial Revolution, my impression is that most people are inclined towards that date.

But that’s just because the scope of this environmental event is in fact the entire planet Earth. I want to suggest that we become aware of/wish to designate the Anthropocene at this crucial moment precisely because of that scope, that because like the various other -cenes (the Pleistocene, the Holocene) this era involves ecological/geological/meterological activity that is planet-wide, we feel comfortable declaring it to be “epoch”-worthy. That is, the epoch (that which can be designated by the -cene, that which is a scene for the -cene) is partially a temporal metaphor for spatial scale.

This is true of all world-concepts, and trivial. But now what we can do is to scale down the Anthropocene from the world to a world, and recognize that, unlike the Pleistocene or Holocene, we can use the concept to refer to any “world” (that is, any relatively closed totality, relatively closed because like our totality it can be potentially escaped from, in our case via rocket ships/space colonization) that is capable of producing self-extinction through the manipulation of its environment.

In that case there have been other Anthropocenes, some of them, perhaps, not even human. Any virus that kills its host too rapidly–before the host has a chance to infect others–is Anthropocenic in this sense. We might also think of the series of extinctions on Easter Island as one example of a quasi-Anthropocene (resolved by the arrival of European explorers). Or, an extreme and fanciful case, of a literary character like Raskolnikov.

I am not sure that it is politically useful to think of the Anthropocene this way — it may be that there’s more traction in terms of getting people to think about how to live, or die, in it if they can have the narcissistic pleasure of imagining themselves to be historically unique. But it may also be that philosophers and other humanists could benefit from a plural theory, a theory of Anthropocenes, both as a structure for comparative analysis and as a humbling reminder that self-desctruction, when it happens, is usually a matter of degrees of difference, not kinds, from ordinary life.

Source: Printculture

Posted on