Counting and scanning

This weekend, I presented a paper at Digital Britain: New Approaches to the Early Middle Ages in Cambridge, MA. My gratitude to Sam Berstler, Joey McMullen, and Erica Weaver for the invitation, and for organizing the conference. My paper, “Counting and Scanning: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Early English Meter,” is an essay in the philosophy of science, focusing on the use of quantitative reasoning in a specialized field of literary study. Here’s the opening frame:

This is a paper in defense of counting in literary studies. It’s also a paper about why counting needs defending in literary studies in 2016. First, I’d like to connect these topics to the conference theme.

The so-called digital turn in academic knowledge production poses a material challenge to the methodological status quo of the humanities. Digital technology makes a bold promise: the quantification of human experience. For constituents of the status quo, the promise of digital technology seems more like a threat. Many humanists worry about what is lost when the richness of culture and the arts is reduced to data. For others, digital tech enables the humanities to live up to their potential. To take an egregious example, Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ does not merely claim to be a good method of reading literature; it claims to be the best method. In promoting statistical approaches to literary history, Moretti taps into philosophical attitudes that predate the digital. His aggressive empiricism is at once the attraction and the scandal of distant reading.

Thus the digital turn irritates a long-standing tension in humanistic study between qualitative and quantitative methods. I propose to explore this tension by focusing on a field of inquiry that bears an unusual relationship to it. Metrics, depending on your perspective, is either the field entrusted with explaining what makes poetry poetry, or the field charged with inferring an organizational system from linguistic patterning. Metrical scholarship combines qualitative and quantitative reasoning in a way that has become uncomfortable in literary studies.

Discomfort with the modus operandi of metrics is acute in the case of early medieval literature, whose systems of formal organization lie at a great cultural remove from those of modern literature. In reconstructing early medieval meters, the value of modern experiences of poetics, and hence the network of assumptions underlying data collection, is always open to question. About the meter of Beowulf, for example, it is currently possible to hold any one of a number of mutually contradictory theoretical views. Moreover, Old English metrical theories cluster in two incommensurable research paradigms, one continuously elaborated since the nineteenth century, the other disclosed for the first time in 2008 (see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). Metrists disagree, and they disagree about why they disagree. For many literary scholars, meanwhile, metrics is a field that deploys the rhetoric of accumulation to make exaggerated claims on historical truth.

In light of these problems, what I’d like to do this morning is to sketch the function of counting in metrics, with reference to my research on English alliterative verse. I have two goals: to affirm the role of quantitative reasoning in literary study, and then to set a certain limit on that role. In what follows, I identify and address two philosophical challenges to counting as a critical method. One challenge comes from the right, framed in the language of neopositivism; the other comes from the left, framed in the language of poststructuralism. I contend that the neopositivist and poststructuralist positions both miss the full significance of counting as a way of getting at “the heart of a poem,” in the words of Simon Jarvis. Ultimately, I’ll argue that metrical study explodes the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to literature.counting and scanning header


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