Across the Great Describe

Interpret or Describe?

by Cannon Schmitt

The essay opens with a page spread from Alison Bechdel’s 2012 graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Cannon Schmitt then begins:

UnknownWhat do we require of these pages? Or, to anthropomorphize and so shift the emphasis: what do they require of us? Such questions are at once theoretical and methodological, and the potential answers are so varied that reducing them to any binary between x or y way of proceeding would clearly be insufficient. Nonetheless, at present one pair of options stands out among others: should we interpret or should we describe? Is our task as readers, viewers, critics, scholars, and theorists the interpretive one of assigning or discerning meaning, crafting a reading, making the object of our attention speak its hidden truth? Or is it, on the contrary, the descriptive one of limning all the details, redoubling the object in our commentary on it, refusing the obviousness of the obvious by exhaustively accounting for what is to be read or seen?

I write “on the contrary” as though interpretation and description were opposites, somehow mutually exclusive. This is indeed how they figure in much recent debate. To take only one example, useful because especially explicit: in a 2010 article in differences, Ellen Rooney states categorically that “description as a mode of reading doesn’t work at all.” Attacking the “surface reading” advocated by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in the introduction to their special issue of RepresentationsThe Way We Read Now,” Rooney claims that such an approach—and, by clear implication, any similar descriptive method—naively “dreams itself free of . . . the conflicts that emerge when description is defined as always already a matter of interpretation.” But it’s superfluous to quote from the body of the article because all we really need to know appears in its title, which exhorts us not, as the state motto of New Hampshire has it, to “Live Free or Die,” but rather to “Live Free or Describe.” For its opponents, description equals death: death of critical responsibility, death of political engagement, death of relevance.

We have to go back the better part of a century to find someone with a comparably virulent antidescriptive stance. In his now-classic 1936 essay “Narrate or Describe?” the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács codified the aesthetic superiority of what he called narrating to describing. Although the distinction sounds properly narratological, as if it could be arrived at with recourse to categories of analysis such as narrative voice or focalization, in Lukács’s idiosyncratic usage it has to do with something more elusive, namely a writer’s stance toward a fictional world. Novelists narrate when they present a world in flux, riven by forces of change—change, moreover, in which the novelist and her or his narrator have a vested interest. Of necessity, then, narration is committed to action (including inner action: epiphany or disillusionment, for example). It also links every detail in a novel to the fate of that novel’s characters. Narration admits of no filler. Description, by contrast, is all filler. Novelists describe when they enumerate the details of a world in which those details do not finally matter. Description treats as mere backdrop or setting that which, in narration, would be freighted with consequentiality. As a result, description amounts to nothing more than a kind of “still life.”

Narrating and describing, as Lukács elaborates them in connection with fiction, are far from perfectly analogous to the critical approaches of interpreting and describing. Nonetheless, the overlap is significant enough to be instructive. To begin with, Lukács associates description as a fictional mode with death, just as present-day detractors (and even some proponents, including Heather Love) do with description as a critical mode. If his condemnatory labeling of the world rendered via description as “still life” isn’t clear enough on this front, we need only consider in addition the assertion that, in the work of Émile Zola—for Lukács the quintessential practitioner of novelistic description—the problems and contradictions that vex a living reality are “simply described . . . as caput mortuum of a social process.” Latin for “dead head,” caput mortuum was originally an alchemical term used to designate, per the OED, “the residuum remaining after the distillation or sublimation of any substance”: in its current, figurative usage, “worthless residue.” Thus, in “Narrate or Describe?” narration and novelistic description admit of the same relation Love has posited between interpretation and critical description: that of “the fat and the living” to “the thin and the dead.”

Animated, living narration; static, dead description: a stark opposition. But even as he wields it in the service of a partisan history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary production (on which more below), Lukács can find no novelist who only narrates or only describes. Despite the either/or choice of its titular question, that is, “Narrate or Describe?” answers with a both/and: narration and description require each other. I call attention to this apparent contradiction not as an example of faulty logic or inconsistent positions but instead as a useful model for how we might understand the related opposition between interpretation and description. The point is not that we cannot distinguish between the two. It is, rather, that they depend on and implicate each other in ways that render jettisoning either untenable. That no critical description can purify itself of interpretation is hardly news: such antidescriptive absolutism is now so widespread in the humanities as to constitute a kind of truism. But the inevitability of interpretation’s reliance on description has found few standard bearers. In what follows I make the case for that reliance by way of Lukács, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and, finally, those two pages from Are You My Mother? with which I began. Continue reading …

This essay is a contribution to our special issue “Description Across Disciplines” edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best. You can read the introduction to that issue here.

CANNON SCHMITT, Professor of English and Associate Director of the PhD program in English at the University of Toronto, is the author of two books, Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (2009; paperback reprint 2013) and Alien Nation: Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality (1997), and co-editor of Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture (2008). His essays have appeared in Representations, Victorian Studies, ELH, Genre, and elsewhere. He is now at work on the sea in Victorian fiction and the possibility of literal reading.

Three Responses to “Ulysses by Numbers”

Eric Bulson’s “Ulysses by Numbers” (Representations 127) asks the literal question, “Why is James Joyce’s Ulysses as long as it is?” Here we have three responses to his question, his methods, and his conclusions:

JAMES F. ENGLISH | The Resistance to Counting, Recounting

Eric Bulson takes it as given that “quantitative readings of literature . . . get a bad rap.”   Indeed, the presumed hostility of literary scholars toward quantitative analysis provides the necessary friction for his essay, lending argumentative force and methodological point to what might otherwise seem a rather narrowly focused piece. And it is to highlight the wider stakes involved in Bulson’s contrarian decision to count rather than simply read the words of Ulysses that the editors have invited this accompanying cluster of responses and reflections.

I’m in no position to challenge the view of literary studies as a bastion of numerophobia. I wrote a few years ago that a “negative relation to numbers” is “foundational” to literary studies, which occupies a structural position in the university as the quintessential non-counting discipline. But what strikes me now is that neither Bulson nor I, nor anyone else hoping to expand the space for quantitative analysis in literary research, has presented any quantitative evidence to support this picture of literary scholars as the determined enemies of counting. Wouldn’t “quantitative data… actually help us” in this respect, too, enabling us to take the measure of our presumed hyper-commitment to the qualitative, to calculate its degree and scale relative to other disciplines and to other moments in our own history? (Continue reading … )

DAVID KURNICK | Numberiness

“We can indeed count” words, Eric Bulson observes, and concludes that therefore “the counting must go on” (4).  The reasons to move from the first remark to the second will not be self-evident to everyone.  But “Ulysses by Numbers” gives an unprecedentedly intimate sense of Joyce’s compositional practice, offering not just a fascinating picture of how Ulysses grew but also an account of why it grew in the increments it did.  Perhaps the most surprising discovery here for Joyce scholars is the fact that, as Bulson puts it, “even after serialization stopped, Joyce was still writing by the numbers” (26): even released from the 6,000-word increments suggested by Pound for the novel’s serial installments, Joyce kept creating at scales of 6,000.  It turns out that “Circe,” which seems to obey no rules save the volcanic logics of the unconscious and Joyce’s own ambition, is dutifully designed to fit into eight installments of The Little Review.  Figure 9, where you can see this finding visualized, offers a startling picture of genius in compromise with the materiality of publication.

Bulson thus indisputably helps us get a sharper sense of how “the serial logic of length” (6) conditioned this particular masterwork.  Accordingly, my questions about his essay are less about the findings themselves than his account of them, and they concern the charisma that the rhetoric of number itself exerts in the essay.  Surely Bulson’s most provocative claim is that his method will help us get at Ulysses’ “numerical unconscious” (4).  The formulation suggests an opaque but determining structure whose revelation will be decisive for our sense of the meaning of the whole.  And Bulson does tend to connect number with causality in just this way.  “More words on the page but fewer seconds passing in the plot: that is a discovery Joyce made while writing Ulysses” (19).  This can’t really be said to be a discovery, though, since Joyce could have learned that discursive time affects diegetic time from (to pick a name not quite at random) Homer, who interrupts a classic action-movie moment—an arrow whizzing by Menelaos—with a startling simile about Athena deflecting it “the way a mother / would keep a fly from settling on a child / when he is happily asleep”[1]: the words take longer to read (or to hear recited) than an arrow to miss its mark, and even longer if you pause to think about them.  And “more words” is only one way texts slow down story-time: arcane or boring or made-up words can achieve a similar end with relative verbal economy, as can disorienting shifts in point of view, or a lot of jokes, or odd images.  Every attempted reader of Finnegans Wake knows that the number of words on the page has relatively little to do with how long it takes to read that page and how much time it seems is passing in the “plot” as you do so (if I had to quantify, I’d say that word count in the Wake isn’t even the half of it). (Continue reading … )

HOYT LONG and RICHARD JEAN SO | “A Hail of Information”: Ulysses, Topic Modeled

What can a quantitative analysis of style tell us about James Joyce’s Ulysses? Quite a lot, according to Eric Bulson. In his “Ulysses by Numbers,” Bulson uses some of the simplest forms of “stylometrics”—word counts and measures of lexical diversity—to provide new insights into some fundamental questions: why do the novel’s episodes get longer? What’s the relationship between an episode’s length and its plot? Bulson productively correlates the concrete evidence given by word counts with questions of composition and the material constraints of serialization. While the straightforward empiricism of his argument is a strength, it left us to wonder what it misses by treating words as homogenous numerical units abstracted from their semantic contexts. But not because we believe numbers and counting are unsuited to an interpretation of the novel. One of Bulson’s great insights is that counting is hardly alien to the project of reading Ulysses, an insight encapsulated in an epigraph from Hugh Kenner (“‘Words’ are blocks delimited by spaces. So we can count them.”). For us, the question is how to push this counting further. Can we count the words in ways that do not elide their contextual signifying power? Kenner too was interested not just in the number of words on the page, but the likelihood of certain words appearing with others, in what he called “space-time block[s] of words.”[1]

As quantitative approaches to text analysis have evolved, they have similarly shifted from counting words to counting collocations of words, and even collocations of collocations. One popular innovation along these lines is probabilistic topic modeling, which we propose here as a method for exposing what Kenner calls Ulysses’s larger “verbal systems.”[2] What we discover in the process is in part obvious—that topic modeling as a method of counting is also constrained by its assumptions about words as numerical units and their relation to each other. Ulysses troubles these assumptions, which amount to a highly particular theory of information. Precisely because it does so, however, topic modeling the novel also reveals something of how the novel functions as its own form of literary information. If word counts help us understand Joyce as a “mechanical counter,” topic models help us understand him as a careful “arranger” of latent verbal structures.[3] (Continue reading … )

Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Surface Reading”

“The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”


Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in identifying a shift toward a new, more empirical, method of literary study, focuses significantly on “surface reading,” the subject of an influential special issue of Representations: “The Way We Read Now” (Fall 2009), edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best.

According to Williams, “a good deal of contemporary criticism has performed ‘symptomatic reading,’ a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation…. Surface reading instead focuses on ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,’ as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.”

Indeed, as Marcus and Best point out in their introduction to “The Way We Read Now,” “The essays [included in the issue] remind us that as much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves.”

Find “The Way We Read Now” online, or read pieces by other authors working in this vein (such as Margaret Cohen, Elaine Freedgood, Cannon Schmitt, Eric Bulson, and others) in more recent numbers of Representations, especially the special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally” (Winter 2014), edited by Freedgood and Schmitt.