The Polemics of Andrew Piper’s ENUMERATIONS

This is in response to Andrew Piper’s new book Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Univ of Chicago Press, Aug 2018).

Piper’s characterization of literary studies does not hold up to contemporary literary studies (of which he is a part). He only uses examples from Auerbach and Barthes. While both of these are mammoth names in literary criticism, there are many useful counterexamples to Piper’s claims about modeling, which he places in a false binary against literary criticism. What Piper seems to say is that literary criticism is bad at doing what it sets out to do because it fails to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it,” which is something he suggests models do inherently (9). However, I’m not sure this is so. An important counterexample to this inherent quality of modeling can be found in the critical genre of new historicism, which Piper particularly damns as failing its own premises, a “great [paradox] of intellectual history” (8). Susan Sontag is one critic who comes to mind that would remind Piper that models, like images and other cultural creations, only reveal their processes/biases of creation when they are presented with this in mind. In other words, models will only “implicate us within them” if they make explicit these means of presentation (11).

Models, though, are tricky because, as Piper points out, “much of the language of empiricism that has surrounded the initial rise of the field” centers a notion of equivalence between numerating and objectivity (ibid). This is to say that modeling may actually be a place at the bottom of a steep hill where each step is marred by the weight of the societal perception that when something is in a graph it is scientifically proven and thus objectively true. Models, therefore, do not fundamentally make explicit their biases or constructedness because they are also produced in a culture that associates modeling with objective truth. This critique of modeling is, of course, a new historicist one. I am obviously skeptical that modeling inherently prompts a hermeneutic analysis of the data it models. On the contrary, I think the perception is that when data is modeled, its conclusions are fixed truths. In the same way Piper argues against Auerbach’s misuse of anecdotal evidence, models can be and are used as anecdotal proof of ideological claims. This is what I mean when I say he sets up modeling and literary criticism (particularly new historicism) into a false binary. They need not be battling. A better argument for Piper’s book would be that modeling and new historicist methodologies ought to be employed to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it” by disassociating societal claims that models showcase objective truth.

Piper thinks criticism is “magic,” whereby “the imperious pronouncements of the literary critic who is only ever right” disseminates knowledge but this is not inherently so (11). Many critics, including those who study gender and sexuality and those who do cultural studies, seek as their onus the revealing of the proliferation of structures of power like that of the “magic” “imperious” critic. Critical University Studies does so within academia itself. Piper caricatures criticism as a big bad wolf-type villain, which frames his intervention as a vive la revolution stick-it-to-the-man. But neither of these things are true. Critical processes are developed over decades and centuries, are constantly reflexive, and are thus not fixed truths. They can make “the study of literature more architectonic and less agonistic, more social and collective” (11). For examples, a critic interested in doing cultural studies must first understand the precedent methodologies of critics like Grascmi, Althusser, Leclau, and even Marx because cultural studies did not up-and-go like the Big Bang. On the contrary, it was developed out of many questions posed by different critics using different methods and data as well as out of the critiques of previous systems of criticism in much the same way empirical science developed. The glaring difference, of course, is that only one of these things is ripped to shreds by Piper.

Piper does acknowledge that his processes are “in many ways no different from the critic’s approach,” though this is only after setting up a polemic against criticism (17). I actually agree with much of Piper’s conclusions about the ways digital computation modeling can reveal how “context is never fixed, but always perspectival” (ibid). My friction is in suggesting that modeling inherently does this without first making it an explicit goal, acknowledging that modeling exists in a system of empirical-centrist dogma that frames the conclusions of numerating methodologies as objective truth. “Focusing on the implicatedness of modeling,” in Piper’s words, “helps us see the intersections…rather than the mutual exclusivity” of “nascent empiricism or residual subjectivity surrounding reading” (19). Piper’s presentation of repetitive, implicated, distributed, and diagrammatic reading may shift contemporary studies away from binaries like “distant/close, deep/shallow, critical attached” reading. His book may, indeed, “[mark] out an end of a particular tradition, in which the technologies of the book and the photograph have been used as the exclusive tools of understanding those very same media” (21). Why, though, does Piper begin the book with a polemic against the very criticism he wishes to employ via computation modeling? In other words, Enumerations may actually be the most recent formulation of new historicism, not its enemy.