Scarcity Thinking in the Attention Economy

Talking with my class the other day about Franco Moretti’s famous “Conjectures on World Literature” (a must-read and excellent discussion stimulant), I was led once more to wonder why there hadn’t been more of a scuffle in the knowledge factory over, not the idea of “distant reading” itself (for on that, everybody seems to have lined up and had their say), but the way the necessity of distant reading was put to us. I have always felt that there was something wrong with the introduction of the problem, and the fact that nobody seems to have been scandalized may mean that nobody took it seriously or may mean a capitulation. If the latter, then I want the world to know that there is still one defender of the castle, waving a blunt butter knife against all comers.

Moretti presents the necessity for getting out of the “close reading” business thus:

Many people have read more and better than I have, of course, but still, we are talking of hundreds of languages and literatures here. Reading ‘more’ seems hardly to be the solution. Especially because we’ve just started rediscovering what Margaret Cohen calls the ‘great unread’…. [T]he trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premiss by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter. … Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. (“Conjectures,” pp. 55, 57)

The “iron premiss” is one of inflexible supply (of readers) for vastly enlarged demand (i.e., all those unread books that need to be integrated into a genuine theory of world literature). What strikes me about the way this “iron premiss” is proposed is that Moretti never considers resolving the bottleneck from the other end, that is, by increasing the number of readers. More readers reading more books, that’s not what he wants. As you know if you’ve read to the end of his essay, he’s after other game, and dismisses “reading more” outright.

What’s wrong with this skipped alternative? Here an analogy may help. If we were describing the condition of healthcare in a certain country, and noted that there are only so many doctors for so many thousands of population, we might pronounce it an “iron law” of supply and demand that only so many people can be treated for their illnesses. Some small number of the total of sick people will get treatment, and the others will not. Or perhaps we refuse this “iron law” and try to work around it: some of the doctors and nurses will be assigned the task of triage, so that the patients who can be helped will get treatment ahead of those who are not seriously ill or who are too sick to be saved. The triage alternative, however, has been implicitly rejected from Moretti’s literature clinic, because he has already called out the idea of a canon as being partial, élitist, and symptomatic of the inertia of the close-reading establishment. (Some novels are already doing fine and don’t need any more professional readers to help them reach interpretative stability; others won’t repay scrutiny; what’s left over is the fraction of “interesting” cases, that we can productively discover and argue about. But again, prioritizing, splitting the interesting cases off from the whole, is the reintroduction of the canon.)

How about the other alternative that will occur to you as Fantasy Minister of Health? Get more doctors and nurses! Open new medical schools, devise partnerships with countries that have an oversupply, recruit talent from villages and slums, set up a network of village health officers. This possibility doesn’t get a mention (though there is an expansion plan further down the line), and I have two guesses as to why.  Perhaps Moretti in 2000 had already observed the trend of downsizing in the humanities and so didn’t not waste time on the idea of adding to the number of graduate students, assistant professors, post-docs, and researchers. Or else he (and the great majority of his readers, as far as I have noticed) sees no value in increasing the amount of direct, close reading that will be done.

No, the “iron law” must be left in place (the pattern of “zombie economics,” like so much else, thus staggers from social sciences to humanities). We don’t have the resources to dedicate close readers to all the world’s literature. Rather, local informants will write up reports in some cosmopolitan language and deliver them to the offices of the Distant Readership, where these reports are digested into trends, laws, exceptions, and histories, “a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading” (57).

The irony of this proposal is that it would see literary studies reorganize themselves around a model familiar from the heyday of European industrial capitalism. The sleepy corners of the world will deliver raw materials (cotton, indigo, chocolate, furs, iron ore) to the bustling metropolitan centers, where a highly-organized, sophisticated chain of production will add value to them and reissue them at a far superior price as industrial commodities. But this is exactly the system Moretti began by critiquing–

one literature (Weltliteratur, singular, as in Goethe and Marx), or perhaps, better, one world literary system (of inter-related literatures); but a system which is different from what Goethe and Marx had hoped for, because it’s profoundly unequal (56)

— only transposed from the domain of literature to that of literary study. Masses of low-paid graduate students reporting to a few Masters of Synthesis. (And no court of appeal– the information travels up the pyramid, not down.)

To go back to my analogy: obviously saving lives is different from saving books from oblivion. Infinitely more important, too. But the style of thinking that accepts an “iron law” and invokes the saying “Less is more” in a way that slips toward saying “fewer but better” might not be one we’d like to accept without question– even in literary studies, where the aesthetic object, however much we profess love for it, has not yet been proclaimed the subject of inalienable rights. Without question: that’s my problem with the history of this discussion.