Why Literature is like Furniture

Do we know what literature is? Do people speak nonsense when, in ordinary use, they say that they like, study, ignore, are attached to, or fondly recall “literature?” Are they using the term without any idea of what it means?

The category “literature” is like many of our other workaday categories. To take one example, its structure is similar to the category “furniture.” Both are organized around a group of central or prototypical members: chairs, tables, couches, dressers for furniture; novels, poems, plays for literature.

Membership at the edge of these categories is blurrier.

Is a car seat furniture? Is a grand piano?

Is a legal statute literature? Is the Bible?

That there are classes called “Bible as Literature” or “Law as Literature” reflects the peripheral status of these members; conversely, a “Novels as Literature” class would be strange because we generally take it for granted that novels are literature.

Peripheral members of both categories are by degrees analogous to the central members in one or more respects. Car seats are like the chairs in our home in that we sit on them; life writing has narratives with characters much like novels do. Pianos are big solid objects that take up space in our homes like tables or dressers; song lyrics are often in verse form with meter and rhyme, rather like the lyric poems written down by poets.

Both furniture and literature need to be attached to a noun head to designate a single member of the category; the bare nouns can’t do it on their own. It’s a work of literature and a piece of furniture, not *a literature or *a furniture. Both words can be used as emphatic as well as cover terms. I can look at a Louis XV settee and say “Now THAT is FURNITURE!” or read Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” and say “Now THAT is LITERATURE!” In both utterances it is quality or exemplarity rather than category membership that is in question.

The structure and membership of both categories has changed over time. Up through the 19th-c, the category of furniture included things like drapes and linens, which I take it that most people now would regard as highly peripheral members or non-members. Likewise, a 16th-c English reader would not have had novels as a central member of the literature category, but present-day undergrads often arrive in my classroom with the category populated by virtually nothing else.

The properties that make literature a complicated category are properties it shares with  many other workaday categories. I picked furniture but could equally well have picked the category “sandwich.” It is true that we don’t have clear extensional criteria (necessary and sufficient conditions of inclusion) for the category of literature. And there are evidently peripheral cases where we can argue, or be genuinely uncertain, about category membership at the blurry periphery.

But it is a mistake to take these peripheral cases as evidence that people use the term without meaning. Or at least, if you want to argue that, you’ll need to argue the same for categories such as furniture, or sandwich, plenty of others in regular use.

We can disagree about whether a toilet counts as furniture, or whether a chronicle counts as literature. But this disagreement is evidence that we have categories of furniture and literature, rather than evidence against having them.  Experts who theorize the extensional criteria for literature and then accuse people of having a bad idea or no idea of what the word means are getting it backwards. If a theory of “literature” doesn’t account for the real ways that people understand and use the category, that’s a problem for the theory not the category.  That remains true even if, to paraphrase Marx, your goal is not to describe the category of literature but to change it.


Climate Deniers, Climate Delayers, and the Politics of Language

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently coined a new political term that, like so many of the things she has done as a Congressperson, has gotten rapid and significant media traction:

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The term “climate delayer” has real political utility. @AOC (if I may) first used it to describe Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had been filmed dismissing the concerns about climate change brought to her by a group of children. But the term picks out a larger class of real people, distinct from the “climate deniers” but hardly less destructive. Climate delayers do not deny that climate change is real, is happening, and is “manmade.” They may even accept that we will need to make structural, political changes to combat climate change. What makes them delayers is that the changes they are willing to endorse are too little and too late – totally insufficient to the scale of the problem. If they win the day, we are, as @AOC says, “toast.”

If you want to read a journalistic account of “climate delayers” and where it fits into a larger debate, you can find one here. I am interested in the term because it is yet another great example of how humanists who want to understand the politics – and indeed the rhetoric, poetics, hermeneutics, and aesthetics  – of language need to break out of the lexicalism of the cultural studies era. If you only study key words words words, you’re missing a big chunk of what’s going on with the way language works.

The term “climate delayers” is a double noun construction, a pervasive and rather banausic feature of our daily speech in which two nouns join together to form a new compound noun. The sentence “Throw that soda bottle in the trash can and drive your sports car to the service station” includes four double nouns: soda bottle, trash can, sports car, and service station. Nouns can also compound recursively, which means you can have not only a soda bottle and a bottle cleaner but also a soda bottle cleaner and even a soda bottle cleaner dispenser, and a soda bottle cleaner dispenser sculpture and so on.

Noun compounds like this have lots of interesting properties, two of which are relevant here. First, the meaning of a double noun is partly motivated by the meaning of the nouns that compose it and the compounding schema that they fill. The schema specifies that in English the “head” of a noun compound construction – the noun that is formally and semantically primary – will always be the noun on the right. That’s why a soda bottle is a kind of bottle (not a kind of soda), a soda bottle cleaner dispenser sculpture is a kind of sculpture (not a kind of soda, a kind of bottle, a kind of cleaner, or a kind of dispenser) and a climate denier is a kind of denier (not a kind of climate).

The second is that the meaning of a compound is only partially motivated by the schema and words that compose it, since the relationship between the nouns in a compound is underspecified. English speakers generally know, as part of their conventional linguistic knowledge, that a cream pop is a popsicle made of cream, while a snow plow is for plowing snow rather than made of snow, but they have to learn such facts individually for each new compound based on world knowledge, context, and use. When they encounter a noun compound they’ve never seen before, like, say, brat pillar, they can predict that it will be a kind of pillar that has something to do with brats. But they have to figure out whether it is a pillar built by brats, a pillar on which a brat is placed, a pillar that has pictures of brats on it, or some other possibility (Dowty).

Morphologists like Geert Booij formalize these (and other) features of noun compounds in the notation for a schematic construction:

[[a]Xk [b]Ni]Nj <> [SEMi with relation R to SEMk]j

I unpack this notation a bit more in another post, but here’s I’ll just note that this notation describes a sign structure, a pairing of form and meaning.

All of this lets us notice a few things about climate delayer. To start, the compound is built by analogy to climate denier and instantiates of a hierarchy of increasingly schematic constructions: climate Verb-er, climate Noun, Noun Noun, X Noun (where X can be filled by any part of speech). Second the compound is built recursively: it is composed of a previous noun compound, climate change, except that the head noun of the previous compound has dropped out, perhaps because climate change denier is a mouthful. In our brave new world with flat earthers in it, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there actually are people who deny that the climate exists, as such. But what climate deniers deny is that the climate is changing, even if the word change no longer appears in the compound. Climate denier, then, already has an extra degree of built-in opacity, over and above the usual opacity of noun phrases.  If climate change hadn’t taken the place of global warming as a soft-peddling alternative, would we now speak of global deniers? Someone encountering that term for the first time might be forgiven for thinking it referred to people who deny everything. To quote the Dude, “that must be exhausting.”

The omission of a head-word from a recursive noun compound isn’t wholly unusual. We used to speak of lap top computers and desk top computers (both recursive noun compounds), but now we usually speak simply of laptops and desktops, though we are still (obviously) speaking about kinds of computers rather than kinds of, er, tops. The meaning of desk top has become idiosyncratic and non-compositional: you can’t reason your way to its meaning based on the words and schemas that compose it.

Understanding double nouns makes it clear why proposals to expand the semantic coverage of climate denier to include people who do not deny climate change are a rather heavy (albeit not impossible) lift. A climate denier will, compositionally speaking, be a kind of denier. It is hard for that label to stick to someone who isn’t denying the reality of anthropogenic climate change. It could be – has been – argued that while politicians like Feinstein don’t deny that climate change is real, but rather, by the weakness of their policy response, they effectively deny the costly political response it demands. But to ask climate denier to cover instances like this is to layer it with a still further level of opacity and arbitrariness, to make it still less compositional than it currently is.

The virtue of @AOC’s climate delayer is not that it covers all the bad political positions that fall short of denialism. Delaying is, of course, only one bad action among others. Rather, its virtue is that, by changing the head noun, it invites greater productivity under the double noun subschemas, climate V-er and climate N, rather than seeking to expand the coverage (and with it the opacity) of the fixed term climate denier. There’s no reason we can’t use those subschemas to provide a reasonably detailed, relatively well-motivated, and still highly recognizable taxonomy of the entire rogue’s gallery of destructive responses to climate change’s cataclysmic eventualities: climate deniers, climate delayers, climate downplayers, climate dissemblers, climate ditherers, climate heel-draggers, climate cowards, climate cheats, climate chumps, and so on.

At the level of linguistic theory, adherence to Saussure’s axiom that signs are radically arbitrary has left humanities scholars without the conceptual tools for understanding the combinatory mechanisms by which our current political terminology is produced. Compounds like climate delayer, on their first utterance, are partially motivated by the signs that compose them, which is to say that they are largely non-arbitrary; that’s why we can understand (or largely understand) new compounds and new utterances. Such compounds, however, may become arbitrary through use over time, at least relative to their initial production; that’s why we can refer to a computer as a desktop even though that meaning can’t be determined from the meaning of desk and top. Humanists who seek to understand these processes need to jettison the Saussurean thesis of arbitrariness, adopting in its place Derrida’s dictum: “To tell the truth, there is no unmotivated trace: the trace is indefinitely its own becoming umotivated” (Of Grammatology, 51). A compound like climate delayer is a linguistic trace that starts its life at least partially motivated by elements of an existing linguistic system – that’s what makes it minimally comprehensible – but then undergoes a process of demotivation as it assumes a role as an element of that system in its own right, capable in turn of motivating still new ways of speaking, new ways of making sense of our political moment.


No Such Thing as Language?

How could it possibly be that, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham writes, “There is no such thing as language?” In an earlier post I looked at the “No such thing as cultural marxism” claim made by Sam Moyn. My interest was partly in the term “cultural marxism” and the politics of its current deployment, but, as is my wont, I was still more curious about the linguistic form No such thing as X, for which Margaret Thatcher is the prominent genetrix and her “There’s no such thing as society” an exemplar on which many subsequent instances of the form are based.  No doubt the linguistic form has its own revealing genealogy that would be worth tracing in another post, but it is only one of the forms that gets deployed to make a more general sort of argumentative claim: “You think this thing exists and talk and act as if it does, but it doesn’t.”

I confess myself largely unsympathetic to nonexistence claims of this sort. My antipathy arises from two related objections. First, There’s no such thing as X represents the most absolute formula of antifetishistic debunking. It is correspondingly the least generous, treating its opponents as gullible dupes who are so blinkered as to believe in what is not.

This would be only an affective objection – a mere expression of distaste or aversion on my part – were it not for the second objection, which is that There’s no such thing as X claims are usually stand-ins for less hyperbolic claims that are, I think, perfectly reasonable and worth making, although doubtless less dramatic. We say to someone we disagree with: you are mischaracterizing this; you’ve got its history wrong; it isn’t what you are saying it is; your definition is vague or inadequate or otherwise needs revising; that category isn’t actually applicable to this case; you’re missing something important; you’ve oversimplified or idealized in a way that leaves out what’s really crucial; you’ve mistaken causes for effects or vice versa; you’ve treated this as causally constitutive when really it is epiphenomenal (I really like this one and wish more humanists used it!); you’ve attributed to it the wrong kind or level of existence… or a huge range of other of diagnoses. There are, after all, so very many ways of being wrong!

Not every no such thing as X claim is a stand-in for other arguments. If you are a nominalist with a parsimonious ontology – if you hold, for example, that only atoms and the void are real – then you believe many of the other things we talk about every day are not. Maybe Maggie Thatcher’s claim about society is an expression of a genuine individualist ontology in which only people and their relations are real – or maybe not. In any event, few people outside of philosophy departments bother having parsimonious ontologies of this sort, and I don’t think ontological reductionism (or nominalism, or any explicit view that limits what is real) motivates the no such thing claims that concern me here anyway.

There are also instance of the nonexistence claim like “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” or “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” or “there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “ These look like ontological gotchas but in fact function as rules of thumb: if something looks like it’s free, look again. With these I have no quarrel.

In my field of historical study, early modern England, the standard example of a no such thing claim was made regarding the Ranters, a mid-17th-century Protestant sect whose members proclaimed their own spiritual perfection and undercut the authority of scripture in favor of the promptings of their inner light. In the mid-80s, the historian J.C. Davis kicked off a debate with the provocative argument that “There was no Ranter movement, no Ranter sect, no Ranter theology.”  As far as I can tell, that debate petered out as his opponents, Christopher Hill prominent among them, realized that Davis was really making a number of more modest and plausible claims that could be challenged, and sometimes partially adopted, piecemeal: that the Ranters were less numerous, less theologically coherent, and less of a threat than conservative Protestant propagandists claimed; that some or much of what we believe we know about them is a projection of the propagandists themselves; that key members, like Abiezer Coppe, were better identified with other sects; and so on.

Similar dynamics have played out in the case of “no such thing as cultural marxists.” If Fredric Jameson understands and describes himself as a cultural marxist cultural marxism jameson

and his intellectual output as cultural marxism, then the no such thing argument merely regroups in a lower key: Jameson is the rarest of breeds, perhaps even a sect of one, and of course he isn’t what alt-right types say cultural marxists are (those guys never get anything right); and besides the they have wrongly attached that label lots of other thinkers too. Assertions of non-existence soften into a scattering of less overstated claims.

Which brings back us to the nonexistence claim with which we began. “There’s no such thing as language” appears at the fulcrum point of Harpham’s Language Alone: The Critical Fetish of Modernity, a book that is brilliant, synoptic, and frustrating by turns. Published in 2002, a few clicks before our current posthumanist moment, it nevertheless presages one of the key developments in posthumanist thought, namely a dissatisfaction with the “linguistic turn” as it has played out in structuralist and analytic traditions of 20th-century thought. As the book’s subtitle suggests, its argument is an antifetishistic one, and “there’s no such thing as language” is just one of the forms its antifetishistic thesis takes:

The thought of language, as entertained by thinkers over the past century, is in this sense an exemplary fetish. From a “protestant” point of view, language has been illegitimately invested with powers that are properly reserved for human beings – that is, creatures capable of intentional agency…. In this way, language has “protected” human beings from full self-recognition and shielded us from the consequences of our own behavior. We – and especially the reflective portion of “we” – have “looked at” language as a way of refusing to look at humanity “itself.” Freud might suggest that, in directing our regard at language, we are refusing to confront not just the human capacity for rapacity, destruction, or cruelty, but also the disturbing possibility that there is “nothing” there, that there is no special human being or character, no divine species dispensation, no metaphysical difference between human nature and the rest of nature…. In one sense, then, language-as-fetish takes into itself a capacity for agency that relieves human beings of a certain measure of responsibility for their actions; but in the other, the fetish-object of language stands as a the most brilliant evidence of human uniqueness.

I fully understand the argument for the fetishistic character of language solicits a certain kind of resistance. Asked to entertain the absurd-sounding proposition that “there is no such thing as language” or that “language does not exist,” many will suspect another “Sokal’s Hoax,” a parody of facile postmodern antirealism advanced as a serious proposition. (66-67)

In the transition between the two paragraphs we can witness the sort of argumentative changeup that I mentioned earlier. In the first, the claim is that 20th-century thinkers attributed to language various properties that it does not properly have: agency, responsibility, power, and the secular equivalent of the divine spark that separates humanity from the rest of nature. Elsewhere the book catalogues similarly false or overblown claims about language: that it alone constructs reality, that it alone is real, that it makes and unmakes us, that it is the house of being or an ideological prisonhouse, and so on.

In the second paragraph, however, the claim changes. Instead of Language isn’t – can’t be – what the scholars say it is, we now learn “there’s no such thing as a language.” In case “no such thing” isn’t sufficiently clear, Harpham immediately offers an even less ambiguous paraphrase: “language does not exist.”  One strange feature of Harpham’s nonexistence claim is that it applies only to “reflective” types: to “theorists” and to “scholars and intellectuals in the human sciences.” The layperson can respond to the “no such thing as language” claim sensibly enough “by saying that language exist everywhere, in the form of words, sentences, books, speeches, conversations, and (with a vague waving motion) things like that.” But that is just because the layperson does not have a “fetishistic relation to language,” unlike the intellectuals who have theoretical problems that need solving. What could it mean, we might wonder, for language to exist for the average person on the street but not for the professional scholar of language?

We can think of Harpahm’s bait and switch as the swapping of Marxist fetishism for Freudian fetishism. In Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, abstract social relations are mistaken for objective value; we suppose that value resides within the commodity intrinsically when in fact it is an effect of social relations that determine who gets what. For Marx, value is misrecognized, but the commodity does not go poof, blinking out of existence. Freud’s fetish, by contrast, arises from an inability to accept “that there is ‘nothing’ there.” The nonexistence of the mother’s phallus prompts the fetishist to fixate on a substitute.

The account Harpham offers in his first paragraph is basically Marxist – he aptly calls it “protestant,” perhaps recalling the traditions of Protestant iconoclasm and anti-idolotray to which Marx was heir. Here the fetishism of language has involved a misunderstanding about where value (agency, power, responsibility) resides. By the second paragraph the claim is Freudian: like the mother’s phallus, language does not exist, and the theorists have proven themselves incapable of reconciling themselves to its nonexistence.

Harpham’s desire to convert Marxist-style fetishism into Freudian-style fetishism leads him to imagine the theorist’s counter-argument in the “formula” or phrasal template of the Freudian fetishist, Je sais bien, mais quand-même….

The theorist might respond to the suggestion that “language does not exist” by saying such things as, “I know very well that language is disorderly, multiple, mutable, and blurred around the edges, with no clear boundaries separating it from cries, thoughts, marks, gestures, and so forth; I know that attempts to determine the essence of language as grammatical structures, words, human capacities, expression, writing, communication, and cultural systems are all tendentious. I know that communication is always context specific and that rules and principles are very hard to grasp in their purity; I know that language is a kind of action and cannot be reduced to a reflection of thought, much less a mimesis of the real: I know all that – but still…” This more sophisticated response reveals the true nature of the fetish, for it conforms precisely to the Freudian formula of “fetishistic disavowal”; “I know very well that the mother has no phallus, but still…” (67)

Anticipating the responses of your adversaries is a smart rhetorical move. Ventriloquizing your adversaries’ response in a formula that discloses “the true nature of the fetish” and convicts them of the very charge they are defending against – that’s called rigging the game.

The rigged game is especially unfair because more adequate responses are available. Here’s one: I know very well that language is disorderly, multiple, mutable, and blurred around the edges… but so is virtually every other object of study we care about in the human sciences. New Historicists spent much of the 80s and 90s showing us that the category of literature has precisely the same properties, as do other big regionalizing categories like writing, communication, and culture.  As soon as one reflects on any of these categories in a rigorous way, their seemingly definite boundaries begin to shift and blur.

And it’s not just big regionalizing categories. The same fuzziness is exhibited by the very “words, sentences, books, speeches, conversations” that laypeople (but not scholars?) may gesture to when confronted with the “no such thing as language” claim. As Harpham’s favored historian of linguistics, Roy Harris, is fond of pointing out, the inability of linguistics to give a fully adequate, coherent, non-circular definition of word remains an ongoing scandal (See The Language Makers https://books.google.com/books/about/The_language_makers.html?id=_uZrAAAAIAAJ, 12). It is has proven similarly challenging  to define sentence so that it includes all the things we identify as sentences and excludes all the things we don’t. Should we accept, therefore, that words and sentences, like language, don’t exist? Does it follow that because there is, as Harpham paraphrases Harris, “no acontextual, independent object that corresponds to the word language,” there is no such thing as language at all?

Harpham’s observation that language is impossible to grasp “in [its] purity” might appear to be drawn directly from the deconstructive radicalization of Saussurean structuralism that he charges with a fetishistic view of language.  If that sort of reversal – in which the scholar rehearses the very arguments he ostensibly opposes – feels a bit trite, other lines of thinking give us more constructive ways of understanding the blurry edges of language. There is now an estimable line of thought – running from Wittgenstein through Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff to current cognitivist work – that understands concepts as having exactly the sort of radial structure that Harpham identifies for language: a set of clear central exemplars (words and sentences and “things like that”) with increasingly blurry edges (cries, gestures, thoughts). But neither the cognitive theorist nor the deconstructor draws the radical conclusion that, because something is blurry or tendentious or does not stand independently on its own, purified of relation to large system, it therefore does not exist.

How does scholarly inquiry into language make any headway without a sharply defined concept language that picks out a “pure” and independent object of inquiry? Rather well, in most cases. Even without it, we can join Chomsky in asking why in Fido is eager to please it is Fido who does the pleasing while in Fido is easy to please someone or something is pleasing Fido; or join Stuart Hall in asking why, when growing up in Jamaica, was called colored as opposed to black but when living in Britain he was hailed interchangeably as black or colored as opposed to white; or join Adele Goldberg in asking why we can say Tell me the news or Communicate the news to me but not, without raising eyebrows, Communicate me the news. Analogously, lacking an independent, transhistorical, and acontextual account of the category literature has proven no stumbling block to making new and compelling readings of a poem like Paradise Lost.

I have dwelled on Harpham’s no such thing as language claim at some length because I see its absolutization of antifetishism as an unfortunate misstep that, when taken back, might allow his book to serve as a crucial resource for rethinking the parochialism of a modernity which asked far too much of isolated language, language itself, “language alone.”  Twentieth-century humanists found in language the universal birthright that makes us free and infinite, a secular replacement for the divine spark or Cartesian cogito. Antihumanists like Foucault and Butler invested language with the power to make and unmake us, displacing the unity and agency of the human with the unity and agency of culture and discourse. Harpham is right, in other words, that theorists of modernity fetishized language. If, as I have been arguing, language does indeed exist, it does not exist isolated or unaccompanied. It lives and moves and has its being only as part of the heterogeneous and associative world that has been there all along but that various posthumanisms – animal studies, new and feminist materialisms, theories of things and objects, tools and fossils, ecologies and actor networks – have helped to bring back into theoretical view. Might we now, with their help as well as Harpham’s, be in a position to rethink the role of language in a more cosmopolitan nonmodernity?


No Such Thing as Cultural Marxism?


In a recent NYTimes OpEd, the intellectual historian Sam Moyn claims that “cultural marxism,” the bête noir of far-right and alt-right extremists, among them the mass murderer Anders Breivik,  simply “does not exist.”  “What is cultural marxism?” he asks.  The reply: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.”

I think this claim is strategically unwise, historically misleading, and verging on bad faith.

For surely there are deeply influential scholars that use marxist concepts and terms to perform a critique of culture –  of literature and art, on the one hand, and of race and class and gender identity as it is shaped by culture. Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams and Gyatri Spivak (to name just a few of the scholars I teach in my grad critical theory class this semester) are obvious examples, and they are hardly lonely figures. It’s difficult to see how the term “cultural marxism” would be misapplied to them, or indeed to Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin, the members of the Frankfurt School who those on the far right tend to treat as the fons et origo of cultural marxism.  It’s a poor slight of hand to say “Yes there exists a vibrant tradition of marxist critique of culture” – of course there is! – but cultural marxism? “Nothing of the kind actually exists.”  As I wrote earlier this year:

“As a term, “cultural marxism” is actually quite apt for Hall and the intellectual tradition he assembles. The culmination of that tradition is an analysis of the full domain of culture in terms of domination, hegemony, and struggle. At various points over the last thirty years, the term has on occasion been used to refer to Hall, Hoggart, and the Birmingham school more generally. Yet when the right warns of cultural marxism today, this is not the tradition or school they are talking about. Why not?”

I’m afraid the obvious answer is also the right one: not enough Jews.”

The key point is that dropping the nonexistence claim doesn’t mean acquiescence to noxious rightwing narratives. Those narratives offer false, conspiracy-theory versions of real but more complex and hybrid intellectual narratives, only a fraction of which go back to Marxist Jews escaping Nazi Germany.  They unify under a single aegis, in the image of a plotting multigenerational Jewish cabal, a quite disparate range of competing claims by diverse scholars who are engaged in quite different projects (feminism, anti-racism, anti and post-colonialism, etc.) and are as often at odds as in agreement. The purveyors of the “cultural marxism” label regard real claims about domination and representation – claims supported by evidence, evidence, analysis, and argument – as if they were merely the expression of a single racial agenda.

The term “cultural marxism,” moreover, is a pretty good indicator that the person using it hasn’t actually read many or any of the texts or authors for which it serves as a catchall. And most horrifically, as in the case of Breivik, those who use the term tend to be less interested in making accurate claims about the world than providing a target and a justification for violence.

Moyn’s non-existence claim is not only implausible, it cuts short a political and rhetorical analysis of the appeal of “cultural marxism,” which derives partly from the term’s ability to index something real, even if only to distort and misrepresent it.  If Adorno and Company hadn’t t trained Marxist concepts on Beethoven and jazz, Fine Art and the Culture Industry, and if subsequent generations of scholars hadn’t drawn on their writings to further their own work opposing racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, and so on, then the label of cultural marxism wouldn’t have had a century of currency on the right.  Moyn is correct that the Alt-right engages in “phantasmagoria.”  But pure phantasms make bad targets.

I suspect there’s a misunderstanding about language going on in Moyn’s nonexistence claim.  Those who take “cultural marxism” as their subject – Lind, Breivik, posters in Alt-right subreddits – attach a range of predicates to it to make false and misleading claims.  But Moyn conflates the falsity of these claims with the non-existence of cultural marxism’s referent, as when he writes that “what ‘cultural Marxism’ implies” is ” a malignant plot to convert” the “defense of the workers” and “other disempowered groups” into a “conspiracy.”  Various Alt-right types have used the term “cultural marxism” in implying – or sometime stating outright – just that.   But Moyn is mistaken to suppose that the term itself implies this, or that the falsity of the things said about it entails the non-existence of its referent.

It’s a bit like if someone said that rainbows are the highways by which the gods travel to earth.  The right response would be to say that no, a rainbow is a spectrum of light caused by the diffusion and refraction of sunlight through water droplets.  Moyn’s response is to claim that rainbows don’t exist.

The far right’s account of the left is a hydra-headed monster.   But cutting off its heads doesn’t require claiming, as if to channel Margaret Thatcher, that there’s no such thing as cultural marxism.





Making Books, Making Language

This post is about an asymmetry in the current disciplinary configuration of literary studies: scholars of my generation often possess detailed professional knowledge of how the books of their period of study, as physical objects, were made. Yet very few of them have an account of how the utterances in those books were made, apart from the patently inadequate notion of word choice (“words in their sites,” as Ian Hacking once put it) and, perhaps, familiarity with classical rhetorical tropes and figures. In the 60’s and 70s Linguistics provided the primary technical resource the discipline literary criticism; now that role is filled by descriptive bibliography.

The general asymmetry has a bevy of local expressions. My colleagues are more likely to have studied how the ink and paper of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was made than how Shakespeare made the sentences in Hamlet. They are surprisingly likely to have spent time writing about William and Isaac Jaggard’s contributions to the volume relative to Shakespeare’s own. Their working vocabularies are more likely to include bibliographic terms like catchword and signature than the distinction between intensional and extensional meaning that is of great import in the philosophy of language. They are far more likely to read and cite D.F. McKenzie arguing that the material form of texts determines their meaning than the work of Noam Chomsky (or any other linguist, for that matter) arguing that the syntactic form of sentences determines their meaning. They are more likely to have performed a collation than a syntactic parse, though they may well have done some sentence diagramming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_diagram) in primary school. They think lots about textual instability and little if at all about scope ambiguity, lots about compositors and little if at all about compositionality, lots about the conventionally meaningful elements of a title page and little if it all about the conventionally meaningful elements of a sentence. I’d wager that more of them know how to differentiate stab-stitched bindings from sewed bindings than count nouns from mass nouns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_noun). And of course the attention to books as physical objects is just one element of the larger turn, across the humanities, from the study of language to the study of media – material substrates and technologies through which communication takes place – and perhaps more generally still from “representations” to materiality, objects, and “things.”

A few qualifications are in order. There is evident vagueness built into who is included in “my generation of scholars” and what counts as an “adequate” account of language – vagueness that for the moment I don’t plan to dispel through stipulation. And I’m really speaking here about North American literary academia plus Oxbridge and London Universities. In countries where English is not the first language, as well as in non-Oxbridge UK universities outside of London, students of English literature frequently study linguistics along with the English language. (As a point of reference, here are the institutional affiliations of the editorial team of the journal Language and Literature: University of Huddersfield, UK, The University of Nottingham, UK, Universidad de Granada, Spain, Jean Moulin University, Lyon, France.) Scholars of Old and Middle English Literature are much more likely to have devoted time to the study of the English language and its history than scholars who study Early Modern or Modern English, though I can’t speak to how often this extends beyond establishing fluency and factual knowledge to theoretical matters. It is also plausible, though not clearly the case from where I sit, that comparatists working across multiple languages are more likely to engage with the technical study of language.

More obviously, it is inherently difficult to generalize about what people know: there are a lot of people out there, and they don’t always exhibit their knowledge in person or document it in published scholarship. I am acquainted with many scholars whose wide and voracious reading has led them to corners of linguistics and the philosophy of language that were not otherwise part of their coursework and training. (My own education in linguistics has been entirely extracurricular.)

Finally, I don’t doubt that my sense of this disciplinary asymmetry is perspectival, in part a product of selection bias. I work on the early modern period, the era of what Elizabeth Eisenstein called the “Printing Revolution,” and as a frequent denizen of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am unusually likely to meet and socialize with a particular subset of early modern literature scholars: those who choose to leave their home institution and travel to a library filled with physical early modern books and those who get funding to do so. I have friends and colleagues who work on marginalia, typography, fonts, punctuation, bookbinding techniques, miscellanies and anthologies, Sammelbände, paper and ink making, printhouses, booksellers, waste paper, secretary hand, commonplacing, title-pages, and more. A surprising number of them have tattooed early modern printer’s marks, punctuation marks, manicules, or other reader’s marks somewhere on their body.* This milieu is not everyone’s milieu.

Yet even taking these qualifications into account, I believe the disciplinary asymmetry remains. We can characterize it more definitely by speaking not about the knowledge of individual scholars but about the institutions that train them. At the University of Virginia’s Rare Books School (rarebookschool.org), founded in 1983, academics across disciplines mix with “antiquarian booksellers, book collectors, bookbinders, conservators, curators, rare book librarians, teachers, and professional and avocational students of the history of books and printing” (https://rarebookschool.org/admissions-awards/faqs/). At this “mainstay of bibliographical education in the United States and the English-speaking world,” (https://rarebookschool.org/about-rbs/a-brief-history-of-rbs/) scholars can take courses in “The Printed Book in the West to 1800,” “The Book in the Manuscript Era,” “Printed Books to 1800: Description & Analysis,” as well as courses in paleography, papermaking, illustrations, photographic printing, typography, and bookbinding (no less than nine courses on bookbinding are listed on the website.)

For each of the past 17 years, the Texas A&M Book History Workshop has offered a 5 day workshop in which “participants to create a complete facsimile of an eighteenth-century pamphlet by setting, correcting, and imposing type on an English common press, then printing the book in three octavo formes.” (https://printinghistory.org/texas-book-history-workshop/). Workshop activities include “casting type in a hand mould, setting type and preparing it for the press, printing on a period-accurate common press, papermaking, creating marbled and paste papers, and experimenting with a number of book illustration techniques.” (https://library.tamu.edu/book-history/about). Participants do not merely study books, they “experience a complement of practices used to create books.” In the words of R. B. McKerrow, that experience includes “all the processes through which the matter of the work before them has passed, from its first being written down by the pen of its author to its appearance in the finished volume.”*

So far as I know, there are no comparable summer programs geared to provide literary scholars specialized training in what happens as a text is “first being written down by the pen of its author.”

This doesn’t mean that students and professors of literature receive absolutely no such training, only that the linguistic paradigm in which they are trained is (looks at watch) more or less a century old. A literary theory course built around the Norton Anthology (https://media.wwnorton.com/cms/contents/NATHEORY3%20TOC.pdf) will include extensive passages from Saussure’s Cours (1916), selections from two essays by Roman Jakobson, and a chunk of J.L. Austin on performative utterances. (The Rivkin and Ryan theory anthology drops the Austin and adds Derrida on semiology.) And of course so much of literary theory, through structuralism and post-structuralism, depends on the foundation of structural linguistics, with more or less explicitness. Even if they haven’t spent time with Saussure, scholars are likely to have encountered in later theorists – Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, Kristeva, Butler, Hall, etc. – the notion that the linguistic sign is an arbitrary pairing of signifier and signified that gains its identity only as part of a larger system of differences. This foundation serves as a support for one of the core activities of current humanistic inquiry across disciplines – antifoundationalist, historicist, lexical semantics – which has persisted largely unchanged through so many claims to methodological novelty over the past several decades.

What about graduate programs and the courses they offer, since this is where the profession reproduces itself? Short of a big data analysis of grad curricula, I am wary of making claims about a domain this big. But a leisurely morning stroll through the current course offerings of a dozen or so top programs reveals a regimen of explicitly labeled book history (and/or bibliography) courses, spread across institutions. Courses with an explicitly linguistic topic or aim are almost entirely absent; a lone exception, of precisely the sort that seems to prove the rule, is the graduate course “Linguistic Theory and Poetic Structure,” offered by a linguist, John Bowers, at Cornell University.

There’s certainly more work that can be done to establish and characterize this asymmetry. But I want to move on to the question that I’ve been pondering for a little while now: how did this come to be? How come current Shakespeareans study in great detail how a leather binding is stitched, embossed, and stamped, without having more than a rudimentary account of how the sentences written by Shakespeare were produced?

I think the most crucial part of the answer has to do with the current disciplinary organization of knowledge. Because there are whole departments of Linguistics devoted to studying language, with a faculty, major requirements, grad programs, and course offerings, and so on, the burden of studying and understanding language has been effectively offloaded. Book history, by contrast, has nowhere else to live, no disciplinary home of its own, outside of departments of Literature, History, and scattered programs in Media Studies, communications, etc. (That it also lives in libraries, archives, and rare book shops is another thing altogether.) Grad students who want to understand recent theories of how language works – how we produce and understand utterances we’ve never witnessed before, how the meaning of those utterances is composed of the meaning their parts, etc. – can take courses in Linguistics… in their spare time, with spare credits, which is to say rarely if at all. What gets offloaded gets forgotten or left out.

This disciplinary division tracked onto one of the biggest intellectual divides of the second half of the 20th century. By the latter 1960s, language took on entirely opposed functions for the opposing camps. For Foucault and the humanities work he inspired, language was the “mankiller,” the premier “positivity external to Man” that constituted human being historically, producing it as a contingent “figure,” and the goal of studying language was to detranscendentalize the claims of the human sciences. Around the same time, by contrast, the study of language in the Chomskyan paradigm became the most prestigious domain for the production of truths about universal human nature.  It purported to establish the biological transcendentals and species-specific endowment of human beings abstracted away from cultural and historical difference. Once it was clear, circa 1980, that literary studies would embrace the detranscendentalizing project, claims about language beyond the cultural specificity and contingency of the lexicon became suspect.

Language itself became a divided terrain: to the linguists went grammar, generality, and universality; to humanists went words, arbitrariness, and cultural specificity. Book history lent itself rather easily to the historicizing project, or at least travelled alongside it without conflict, since the material supports for communication, publication, and distribution vary quite dramatically across periods and cultures; better still, book history compensated for the tendency to idealism of various linguistic, social, and cultural constructivisms precisely because of its hard-nosed and workmanlike empiricism (see “the new boredom”). In this sense, book history didn’t come “after theory” at all but was theory’s easy companion and (depending on what one supposes is the current status of “theory”) survivor.

A further element of an answer has to do, I think, with the strange character of linguistic knowledge, as part of what has sometimes been called the “unrepressed unconscious”: unconscious because readers may to one degree or another share Shakespeare’s linguistic knowledge – know very well how to comprehend his lines – without knowing what they know; unrepressed because that knowledge is gained through experience (a controversial claim in linguistic theory), it never appears explicitly in conscious experience in in a way that could be forgotten or pushed into the unconscious. Scholars sit down to look at the 1623 Folio already possessing most of the linguistic knowledge they need to read and understand it, and they unconsciously learn the rest just by reading Shakespeare and others of his linguistic community.  In short, you don’t need a graduate course for that.

Early modern printers, publishers, compositors, papermakers, and typesetters possessed a rather different kind of knowledge. They learned their craft by consciously watching others operate a hand press and by operating it themselves. Likewise, a scholar sitting down to inspect an early modern book does not already possess the expert knowledge of its production but must reconstruct it, based on artifacts from the period and the evidence of the book itself. When scholars learn how a book was made, they learn it consciously and explicitly, knowing what it is they know.  That’s what classes and summer schools are for.

Still more speculatively, much of the rhetoric around book history has to do with visibility, experience, and tangibility: the object of the book is there to touch, to inspect, and even, potentially, to take apart and put back together again. You can see and handle the tools of the printer’s or binder’s trade, try out for yourself the techniques of production, and hold in your hand the final product: the book itself. McKerrow’s “process” is open to “experience” and direct inspection in a way that the process of making or understanding an utterance is not. (Chomsky observes, somewhere in Rules and Representations, that the primary barrier to such inspection is ethical rather than technological.) In a discipline that otherwise tends to abstraction, scholars have obviously found in the touch of the material book a kind of consolation that attribute value charts or categorical constituency trees or the rules of a context free grammar do not offer.


*I’ve heard that linguists sometimes get Wug tattoos, but I’ve yet to see it in person. But linguists also strike me as less likely to get tattoos overall.  I don’t have the confidence to offer an analytic for this difference.

*R. B. McKerrow, “Notes on Bibliographical Evidence for Literary Students and Editors of English Works of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Bibliographical Society12 (1911–13): 220. Quoted from Todd Samuelson and Christopher L. Morrow, “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 1 (March 2015): 83-109.


Other Than Scale: Abstract Signs in the Digital Archive

[Delivered as part of the “Mid-Range Reading: Manifesto Edition” panel, organized by Alison Booth, of the DH2018 Conference in Mexico City]

A great deal of digital humanities work over the past decade or so has employed scale as the concept that distinguishes it from other methods of literary and cultural study. Quantitative scholars in particular have quite naturally chosen scale as the specific difference of their method. They speak of the computer as a “macroscope” that permits “macroanalysis.” Critics counted words and documents before computers, but computers let them count and compute lots of them. Contrasting themselves with close readers, “distant readers” propose, with the help of machines, to step back from the individual pages and books to see more and see bigger. When the popular press sees fit to feature DH, it is scale that gets touted and scale that gets maligned.

Claims of scalar difference are often apparently precise. Instead of offering a reading of a single novel, distant readers study the titles of 7,000 British novels from 1740-1850, or ask how not to read a million books, or search through (as of last count) the 60,237 full texts in EEBO TCP I and II. For nearly all quantitative analyses of texts, the authors tell (or could tell) the reader exactly how many words they are counting in exactly how many documents over how many years, since these numbers are the basis of more sophisticated metrics and models.

The concept of scale is not wrong or misguided in any simple sense, and I plan to issue no prohibitions on its use. Nor do I plan to offer a brief for the micro in opposition to the macro (As Roopika Risam and Susan Edwards did at DH2017). I want instead to argue that we should displace scale from its marquee role in differentiating data and corpus based digital inquiry from other approaches. That displacement has perhaps already begun. Surveying recent work by a range of scholars in an attempt to forestall attacks on the use of data in literary study, Ted Underwood observes that “None of them, as far as I can tell, have stopped doing close reading.”  “We also do close reading” is a totally sensible line of defense, albeit one that fortifies distant reading at the expense of its distinctiveness. This is all to the good.

My argument is twofold. First, I want to suggest that in spite of quantitative precision – so many words, so many documents, so many years – we often don’t have a clear idea of what we talk about when we talk about scale. Even when bag-of-words approaches are forthright about discarding word order and syntax, they rarely operate with even a rudimentary account of the range of phenomenon they are discarding. Individual texts, as competent readers make even basic sense of them, are much bigger and more informative than is usually acknowledged by even the most sophisticated quantitative approaches. What has been characterized as an increase in scale can usually be more accurately described as the sacrifice of one sort of information for another. I happen to think (contra Wai Chee Dimock and all talk of fractals) that this sacrifice is very often worthwhile – and it is in any case inevitable. But we ought to know what has been sacrificed, what hecatombs digital approaches to literary history have placed on the altar of scale. As it turns out, digital methods and tools are increasingly well suited to this task too.

My second argument is that the dominance of scale in accounts of digital methods has occluded other, non-scalar distinctions that may, in the long run, prove no less consequential for digital humanities research, including quantitative research. Those include notions like explicitness, falsifiability, reproducibility (!), modeling, prediction, gradualness, sampling, and more, but I want to focus today on one in particular: abstraction, specifically the abstraction characteristic of the linguistic sign. I turn to the insights of construction grammar and corpus linguistics to suggest possibilities for qualitative and quantitative investigation that have so far been overlooked by digital humanities work operating under the rubric of scale.

Let me illustrate using a relatively simple example, the bigram thought leader. The thought leader has assumed a particular preeminence in the Age of TEDx, but the OED gives its earliest appearance as 1887, when it was used to describe Henry Ward Beecher,[i] and some quick Googling antedates this use by a decade.[ii] If the bigram were part of a corpus modeled as topics or vectors, it would be counted as two words – a token each of the types thought and leader – though it functions as a single semantic and syntactic unit, a compound noun, which is why, for example, we pluralize it as thought leaders, not thoughts leaders. The loss of the compound, however, is only a small part of what gets left out of just about any bag of words approach.

What we actually know, when we understand an English noun compound like thought leader, is a hierarchy of abstract signs, pairings of form and meaning. So in addition to being familiar with the conventional expression thought leader, we also know the partially abstract form NOUN leader, as in group leader, squad leader, ring leader, house leader, student leader, and so on. These partially unspecified compounds have a built in under-determination: leaders can be included in or excluded from the groups they lead. A student leader may or may not be a student herself. The compound thought leader has an additional quirk. Presumably a thought leader is a thinker who leads other thinkers, rather than thoughts per se. But the compound thinker leader is blocked by singer songwriter, hunter gatherer, and other [VERB-er]N [VERB-er]expressions which indicate coordination rather than compounding.[iii]

The partially schematic NOUN leader is itself an instance of the still more schematic construction NOUN [VERB-er]N, which finds ample use in Richard Scarry’s classic children’s book Busy Busy Town.


What kids learn when reading, if they haven’t learned it before, is that someone who empties the wastebasket is a wastebasket emptier, someone who makes beds is a bed maker, and, by extension, someone (or something) who wugs wigs is a wig wugger.

And NOUN [VERB-er]N is, in turn, an instance of a still more schematic double noun construction, NOUN NOUN, like media lab and nominal compounds in general X NOUN where the X is any part of speech (and perhaps even a fully general compounding schema X Y, about which I won’t say more). Here then is the hierarchy of constructions for thought leader:


X X                       > Snow white (adj), freeze-dry (verb), stormcloud (noun)

X NOUN               > digital humanities (adj n), downdraft (adv n), flyboy (verb n)

NOUN NOUN     > railroad, party bus, textbook, fire drill, media lab

NOUN [VERB-er]N  > table setter, cherry picker, cake baker, motherfucker

(wig wugger = someone or something who wugs wigs)

NOUN leader     > majority leader, party leader, squad leader, Senate leader,

team leader, student leader, ringleader

Thought leader

Geert Booij (2010) gives the following formulation of the nominal compound construction, drawing on the notation of Ray Jackendoff (2002):

[[a]Xk [b]Ni]Nj <> [SEMi with relation R to SEMk]j

Don’t get intimidated by the variables and symbols. If you are a fluent English speaker, it’s already part of your linguistic knowledge, something you know even if you don’t know that you know it. Humanists trained in the structuralist tradition that looks back to Saussure think of the linguistic sign as looking like this:


But the nominal compound construction is also a sign – a conventional pairing of form and meaning – that looks unfamiliar only because of its abstraction.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.27.54 AM.png

Elements of form and meaning are left blank, unspecified, so that they can be filled in with new words to produce an open-ended set of utterances, including ones no one has ever said or written before.

Basically what the notation says is that in a compound noun the rightmost noun (b) is semantically primary, while the word to the left (a) bears a semantic relationship (R) to the noun (b).  The letter X means that the left word can be any part of speech (adj, verb, prep, etc.).  The letters i, j, and k map elements of the signifier to elements of the signified.  It’s because you possess this construction that you know that a gun show is a show and not a gun, an oven mitt is a mitt and not an oven, and a wig wug (whatever that might turn out to be) is a wug and not a wig. It’s because this form is part of your linguistic knowledge that you might have noticed something strange – I mean morphosyntactically strange – about the “Squatty Potty” – namely that its order is wrong, since if it is anything, it is a squatty and not a potty.


The nominal compound construction is language specific, though many languages have a cognate construction. In Spanish the order is reversed, with the noun head (the semantically determinate noun) occupying the left position as in El abrebotellas (lit. open bottles, bottle opener), or El comeflor, (lit. eate flower, a derogator term for hippy). There’s no explicit morpheme –er to indicate agent or instrument, as in the English, but the compound as a whole contributes that meaning without needing to posit an empty or “deep” morpheme without surface realization.

The most interesting part of the English compound noun schema is the variable R, which stands for the relationship between the two concepts specified by the two nouns. The compositional meaning of noun compounds, at least at this level of abstraction, is significantly underdefined by convention (Downing 1977). If you didn’t already know that a party bus is a bus in which parties occur, rather than a bus that takes you to parties, or a bus that looks like a party (here I have a stage direction to push my glasses up my nose), you would have to infer it using a complicated combination of linguistic convention, situational knowledge, and world knowledge (about parties, about busses, etc.).  If someone referred to the bus taking you to a party as a “party bus,” it would be the most unobtrusive and minimal sort of pun, the sort of pun that we pass over all the time without conscious notice,

Nominal compounds are not only productive – you can make new ones that no one has ever used before – they are also recursive. Because a nominal compound is a noun made of nouns, you can compound compounds, and compound the compounds of compounds. On the corporate side, there’s an entire section of glassdoor.com for “[[[ThoughtN LeaderN]N liaisonN]N JobsN]N,” with, the last time I checked, 491 listings, more than half the number of jobs as last years’s MLA Job List.  One add invites you to ““Join us as the Leader of our [[[ThoughtN LeaderN]N LiaisonN]N TeamN]N.

But compounds aren’t just for corporate speak.  Poets sometimes use recursive compounding to special effect, as in George Herbert’s “Prayer 1”: “Reversed thunder, [[[ChristN-sideN]N-piercingADJ] ADJ spearN]N,” or the first line of Gerald Manly Hopkins’s “The Caged Skylark” “As a [[dareV-galeN]N [skyNlarkN]N]N scanted in a dull cage.”  These examples have different compounding patterns:

The first is left branching, like this:  [[[[  ]  ]  ]  ], while the second is formed through adjunction, pairing like this: [[ ][ ]] [[ ] [ ]].  (If there are more precise technical terms for these kinds of compounding patterns, I’d be glad to learn them.)

So far I’ve been telling you bits of knowledge that, if you are an English speaker, you know implicitly and use virtually every day, when you understand the utterances you hear and read and when you produce new ones. Yet the role that abstract signs like nominal compounds play in culture and history have gone virtually without study by humanists. Alphabetical print tools like dictionaries, indexes, and concordances are great for finding words, but they are nearly useless for finding abstract constructions that have little or no fixed alphabetical content. That’s where digital tools come in, especially those built by corpus and computational linguists. Using corpus search tools like those at CQPweb or corpus.byu.edu, you can retrieve instances of NOUN leader or NOUN NOUN.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 10.16.23 AM

Using the morphological analyzer features that are part of most NLP packages, you can sort the NOUN NOUN results for instances where the second noun is a VERB stem plus the suffix –er, yielding only instances of NOUN [VERB-er]N.  It also wouldn’t take too long to sort through the list of double nouns by hand to exclude false positives like bell pepper, which is a nominal compound but not a NOUN [VERB-er]N compound.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.28.24 AM

In diachronic corpora, like the Corpus of Historical American English, or the texts of EEBO TCP, which run from 1473-1700, you can study the way these schematic constructions change and vary over time. You can see how they instantiate in a variety of  distinct expressions. Our ability to study abstract constructions will improve as NLP and corpus query tools do, and this happens to be precisely the sort of semantically important feature of language that computational linguists have recently been hard at work on.

My work on abstract constructions, as in my book, Cyberformalism, has been primarily qualitative – I find all the instances and tell philological stories about them – but with sufficient recall and precision in the right corpora, we could study the quantitative distribution of their instantiations, chart how they change over time, and formulate hypotheses about their role in culture and society based on the trends that are revealed. I’d hypothesize, for example, that the type variety of NOUN [VERB-er]N tokens correlates with labor and instrumental specialization. In other words, the type to token ratio of the construction would increase dramatically with the division of labor characteristic of a post-Fordist society, and increase still more in a digital economy that has not only computer engineers, computer programmers, and software developers, but information systems security engineers, JAVA database application programmers, and multimedia web application developers, and so on.  If the trendline for the type to token ratio doesn’t rise with the rise of labor and technological specialization, or if it reveals more complex patterns, then there would be more hypothesizing to do.

Obviously finding, counting, and computing nominal compounds is more complicated than finding words. Their abstraction means that they won’t be matched by any fixed string.  Their orthography is unpredictable: one text’s sky lark is another’s skylark.  Their recursive, matryoshka-like potential means that we don’t even know how many words long, how many constituents, they will have.  We’d have to make judgements about how to count recursive compounds: presumably “[[dareV-galeN]N [skyNlarkN]N]N” would count as three instances rather than just one.  But here is the question: do we study only the aspects of language that are easy to find and count, like words, or do we seek also to make our methods adequate to the nature of the language we study?  I ask the question without offering an answer.

Abstract constructions like noun compounds are constitutive of everything that we write, say, read, or hear. They contribute to the meaning of complex utterances and provide a basis for both everyday linguistic creativity and the extraordinary creativity exemplified by poets. Understanding them is essential to understanding form and meaning at the level of the sentence, the utterance, the line of verse. Studying them expands the possibilities of close reading in a way that, so far as I have seen, identifying large-scale lexical trends do not.  I could also imagine it being helpful for a writer or poet: making unconscious knowledge conscious makes new possibilities for use and misuse.  Abstract constructions are constitutive of what we read when we close read, but measuring words at scale – even the small or function words that signify grammatical relationships rather than lexical concepts – flattens out or discards just these abstractions. In topic models or word embedding models, thought leader becomes just two more words – two tokens of two types – conveniently separated by spaces. In the age of print, it made sense that cultural studies didn’t attend to the history or cultural significance of abstract constructions: we didn’t have the tools or the digital texts to study them. Increasingly we do.

Of course, questions of scale won’t go away if we take a fuller account of the information even in the shortest bits of text. We will always have to make decisions about the proper scale of inquiry, to ask what archive, set of texts, or sample subset of texts is the proper evidentiary basis for our claims, and to determine what scale of analysis fits the scale of the phenomenon. But these will be primarily technical questions, taking their place alongside many others. Scale will cease to serve as the banner concept that sets digital inquiry apart or defines its promise for humanistic understanding.


[i] OED: 1887   L. Abbott & S. B. Halliday Henry Ward Beecher i. ii. 56   Mr. Beecher retains his position as the most eminent preacher and one of the great thought-leaders in America.


[iii] Thanks to Amir Zeldes for this point. My interest in noun compounds began with reading Livio Gaeta and Amir Zeldes (2017) “Between VP and NN: On the Constructional Types of German -er Compounds.” Constructions and Frames 9(1).


A Construction Grammar Syllabus for Humanists

Over the past few years, a number of colleagues have said to me something like this:


“Yeah, I know the folk theories we pick up in humanities curricula aren’t plausible accounts of everyday language use and especially language creativity. But linguistics is a big field, and I don’t know what to read or where to start.”


This post – somewhere between a syllabus and an annotated bibliography – is here to help. I want to caution, emphatically, that the readings it lists do not provide a full or neutral overview of the whole field of grammatical theory at present, much less a history of the field over the last half-century and more since the Saussure or Jakobson that literary scholars are likely to have encountered in an Intro to Theory Course. It does not include work by Noam Chomsky or those working in successive Chomskyan paradigms (transformational grammar, government and binding, principles and parameters, X-bar theory, minimalism). I’ve invested quite a lot of time and effort in reading and grappling with this work, often with great pleasure, and I regard Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax as intellectual monuments of the highest order. But for various reasons (many of them controversial) I hesitate to recommend these works to literary critics, literary or intellectual historians, or cultural theorists who aren’t already independently invested in the questions they address. As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, one reason why most humanists, since about 1980, have worked with either inadequate structuralist accounts of language or even less adequate folk models (often picked up while studying a second language) is that the methods, concepts, claims, and aims of the Chomskyan paradigm are either largely irrelevant or directly inimical to the goals of humanistic inquiry.


Luckily, that paradigm is not – is no longer – the only game in town. (There are lots of games now.)  The following bibliography of work in Cognitive and Construction Grammar aims to offer humanists a point of entry to an approach or school of linguistics that is, I think, especially well suited to the kinds of work that scholars do in literary, historical, and interpretive disciplines. Taken together what this approach offers to humanists is a more rigorous, adequate, explicit, and empirically grounded account of how we routinely produce and understand utterances that we’ve never encountered before, how signs are structured, how the meaning of complex utterances are composed of the meaning of their signifying parts, how those elements come to be part of our linguistic knowledge, and how languages vary over time.


Because the constructionist approach to grammar is “sign-based” – treating our linguistic competence as a repertoire of variously abstract and complex signs – it is remarkably well suited to the intellectual traditions of structuralism and post-structuralism that are foundational to much literary and cultural theory. (It also forces us to rethink some of the central dicta of those traditions, such as the arbitrariness of the sign, but more on that anon.) Unlike the “autonomous grammar” of the Chomskyan paradigm, it offers a holistic account of grammar that is linked at every point with meaning and discursive function, even while adopting the central, paradigmatic problem of creativity posed especially well by Chomsky: how is it that we make (potentially) infinite use of finite means. Because Construction Grammar is not primarily oriented towards establishing the features of a universal grammar by isolating invariants across the grammars of natural languages, it does not need to cordon off an essential, biolinguistic grammatical “core” from the epiphenomenal cultural “periphery.” Instead it adopts, as Kay and Fillmore put it, “a commitment in principle to account for the entirety of each language,” including aspects usually deemed “peripheral.” a commitment which orients it towards the task of taking full account of cultural, linguistic, and historical specificity.


Here’s the Syllabus. I’m posting it now, but it’s far from finished, and I plan to add to and enrich it in stages. Though it bears some resemblance to an annotated bibliography, it isn’t organized alphabetically or chronologically. Its order is instead pedagogical: it aims to lead the inquisitive humanist through a fairly comprehensive theory of language.

1. The best place to start – a worthwhile read even if you read nothing else – is a short, brilliant, informal lecture by the Berkeley linguist Charles Fillmore on idioms and idiomaticity. Idioms (as the term itself suggests) have usually been treated as idiosyncratic, inessential, peripheral, or marginal epiphenomena of language. But Fillmore argues that “idioms are the irreducible units of description for the way a language works,” such that “almost every grammatical model is a theory of idioms, since the job is to isolate those principles which are in themselves irreducible, that is, which are not explained by other principles in the same language.” This is an argument of the “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” sort, in which what have usually been regarded as marginal or inessential (idioms) are shown instead to be the “irreducible unit of description” (constructions of various complexity and abstraction).

2. Fillmore, Kay and O’Connell’s conception of constructions builds on important work on idioms happening at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. Here is the key paper by Nunberg, Sag and Wasow, which shows that idioms aren’t readily assimilable to either a rule based conception of grammar or to a list-based lexicon. Get ready for a good bit of string pulling and bucket kicking!

Even literary scholars who are uninterested in grammar can, I think, profit from some time spent thinking about idioms, which have in the past 40 years probably been the most important driver of changes in the way that linguists and philosophers of language think about the structure of the sign. We are best able to see and study the things that we are able to name.   I think it’s plausible that generic forms are essentially abstract, partially demotivated idioms, with abstract and minimally constraining slots generalized over characters and events rather than lexical items.

3. A more developed version the argument that idioms or idiom-like units are the basis of our grammatical knowledge is Fillmore, Kay, and O’Connell, “Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone,”  which is one of the founding documents of Construction Grammar. It uses the analysis of a single construction (X let alone Y) to propose a total rethinking of the edifice of grammar and ends by suggesting that the abstract and semantically autonomous principles characteristic of Chomskyan grammar are “degenerate instance[s]” of phrasal constructions like X let alone Y, that are both combinatorial and paired with a conventional meaning.

4. It’s worth reading one further account of an unusual construction – What’s X doing Y? – by Kay and Fillmore. A payoff of this article is a new understanding of the threadbare joke:

Diner: Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?
Waiter: Madam, I believe that’s the backstroke.

But the larger stakes involve learning A) how to identify individual constructions, instantiations of which have conventional meanings that are “neither given by ordinary compositional processes nor derived from a literal meaning by processes of conversation,”  B) how to determine the various but constrained ways that lexically unfilled variables in a construction like What’s X doing Y? can be filled, C) how to position a construction in a larger “inheritance hierarchy” of constructions that constitutes the grammar and lexicon of a language.

5. With a few key arguments in under your belt, it’s worth stepping back to take a more synoptic view of construction at grammar. Those who would like it in a single book should get their hands on Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure (1995) by Adele E. Goldberg. Goldberg is the current standard bearer for and an impressive champion of constructional approaches, and her first book covers issues of form, meaning, compositionality, information structure, synonymy, and more. Where Fillmore, with whom Goldberg studied for her doctorate, worked mostly on purportedly “peripheral,” idiomatic, or culturally specific constructions, Goldberg tends to focus on constructions that it would be implausible to exclude from our core linguistic capacities, like Subj V Obj1 Obj2, as in Pat threw Sam the ball, or Subj-Aux inversions, as in Am I on the hook for this? Her second book Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language (2006) provides a similarly synoptic account of Construction Grammar while focusing especially on how children learn constructions through experience. Since the second book, her research has involved more controlled experiments and statistical evidence for mechanisms of language learning. I am eagerly awaiting her third book, Explain Me This: Creativity, Competition and the Partial Productivity of Constructions.

Goldberg’s publications are listed here, and many of them can be downloaded directly. I have yet to read one that does not repay close attention.

6. Those who would like a chapter-length rather than a book length synopsis should look to Chapter 9 of William Croft and Alan Cruise, Cognitive Linguistics (Cambridge 2004), which offers a clear and succinct introduction to the commitments of constructional approaches and how they differ from those of the Chomskyan paradigm.


So far this syllabus has included work on the nature of constructions and of their systematization in a repertoire (often called a “constructicon”) that stretches from individual morphemes and words to the most general phrase structures of a language. But while construction linguistics began in grammatical theory, it has had significant influence on other areas of linguistic research that are relevant to understanding literature, culture, and history.

7. Most obvious is historical linguistics, which study the ways that language changes over time. A compelling early essay that used a constructionist framework to understanding language change is Michael Israel’s cleverly titled “The Way-constructions Grow.”

8. More recently, Elizabeth Traugott and Graham Trousdale’s book, Constructionalization and Constructional Changes (2013),  recast the key mechanisms of language change (grammaticalization, lexicalization, etc.) in a constructionist framework. Literary and intellectual historians looking to study signs more abstract than keywords will find exemplary models in this volume.

9. Most constructionist approaches are more or less explicitly committed to the notion that grammar is an emergent phenomenon of language use rather than a pre-existing structure (biological or otherwise) that is merely fixed by experience and implemented in use. The idea of emergence was first proposed by Paul Hopper, who remains its most radical exponent, arguing that much of grammatical structure arises in the course of conversation between speakers.

10. The term “usage-based” expresses a similar idea: that we learn the resources for what can be said through our experience of what has been said. Joan Bybee’s usage-based theory is explicitly quantitative: which constructions we learn, and the character of the learned constructions, depends on frequency of use. Quantitative digital humanists are more likely than  humanists at large to take up the statistical claims of usage-based theories.

But Bybee also advances a distinct claim that is, I think, of great relevance to literary history at large. She argues for conceiving of “grammar as based on constructions and as having an exemplar representation in which specific instances of use affect representation.” The productivity of grammar, in her account, is not fully captured by abstract constructions (with open or unfilled variables that we fill in new ways). These constructions are stored with exemplary instances, which also play a role in the production of new utterances. To give an example that I’ve published on: when someone asks What would Michael Jordan do?, they are not just filling in a partially unfilled construction, What would X do? with a new name, they are also basing their utterance on a prefabricated exemplar, What would Jesus do?

Usage-based grammar, in other words, gives us an explicit model of how existing literary works form a linguistic basis – exemplary as well as abstract – for the production of new works.  Though linguists elaborate the theory at the level of the phrase or sentence, it is clearly applicable to generic form as well.  The cultural competence that allows authors to write new novels includes  exemplars (the actual novels that they have read) as well as the repertoire of forms that they possess by abstracting from and generalizing over their reading.

Galaxy Brain.jpeg

So far I have deliberately focused on construction grammar without saying much about the cognitive side of things. To study constructions is to study the nature of the linguistic sign and of the system of signs as, in Saussure’s terms, a “social product” (13), “a collective phenomenon” (19) that is “social by nature” (16). But even if signs are social and collective, they must also have a psychological existence “in the brain of one individual” (11). And to one extent or another, all of the work I’ve cited makes or at least relies on claims about the nature of human cognition – about what human brains do, how their categories are constituted and organized, how they represent knowledge, and what their capacities and limitations are.  This is true, of course, of Saussure (and structuralism more generally): his concept of langue presupposes a particular theory of mind, even if that theory is minimalist and mostly implicit.  Cognitive linguistics, as one might expect, aims to be explicit about its theory of cognition.

Claims about human cognition make humanists like me a bit uncomfortable. I’ll have to explicate the character of this discomfort another time; suffice it to say that it’s not at all obvious where an account of the sign ends and an account of human cognition begins.

11. Eleanor Rosch is a psychologist whose work on categorization has provided one of the foundations of cognitive theory and construction grammar.  She uses ethnographic study and controlled tests to argue that human categorization across cultures is not the product of historical accident but is the result of psychological principles.  Her account of categories, however, is markedly different from the “classical” accounts of philosophers like Aristotle, for whom a category specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions of its members.  Building on Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblance,” she shows that categories are not like empty boxes which clearly delineate what things are included in them or not.  Instead they have an internal structure.  They are organized around a “prototype” or best example (as a chair and table are best examples of the category furniture).  They are “graded,” which means that members participate in them to greater lesser degrees as they resemble the prototype (a penguin is a less good example of the category bird than a sparrow ).  They are radial, meaning that the gradations extend along different attributes (a piano is big relative to the prototype of the category furniture, a car seat is more less domestic and more mobile relative to that same prototype).  Their boundaries are frequently fuzzy (color categories fade into one another), and they frequently overlap with other categories (a piano is a peripheral member of furniture but a prototypical member of instrument).  Rosch also challenges the Aristotelian taxonomy, or system of categories, in which categories stack in a relation of genus to species.  She argues (with Brent Berlin) that in human categorization schemes, there is a “basic level” category that, in most taxonomies, is not the highest level or lowest level category, .  So, for example, children learn the category “dog” before “Mammal” or “Dachshund.”

12. George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (1987).  Lakoff builds Rosch’s experimentally-based prototype theory of categories along with work of others (like Paul Kay on color) into a full-blown account of cognition that is embodied, imaginative, holistic, and ecological.  This is a big and multifarious book, and I won’t summarize it all here.  (Lakoff himself is quite adept at summarizing his own claims in bullet point form.)  Literary scholars are likely to know Lakoff for his work on how metaphor is basic to thought, but so far as I can tell they have not picked up on his central role in developing construction grammar as an alternative to the Chomskyan paradigm.  Along with  Fillmore, Kay, and O’Connell’s “Let alone” article, with whom Lakoff collaborated,  the book’s third case study, on There-constructions, published at about the same time, is a founding document of construction grammar.  The study shows how grammar might be conceived of as pairings of linguistic forms and cognitive models (meaning in a capacious sense).  But it also rethinks the nature of linguistic structure using the theory of categories developed by Rosch and others.

When Saussure conceived of langue as a system of differences without positive terms, he supposed that the system – the “structure” of structuralism – was built out of two kinds of relations: syntagmatic and associative (which Jakobson later dubbed “paradigmatic“) relations. Differences along these two axes (which can also be considered as the operations combination and substitution) can be treated as binary oppositions or simplified to a set of oppositions.  What’s clear, however, is that the relations acknowledged by Saussure – while not at all spurious or superfluous – are on their own insufficient for accounting for the structure of our linguistic knowledge. Lakoff shows how constructions – partially or fully schematic signs – are arranged into radial categories, with less central members that are based on more central ones.  The open slots in these constructions have radial structures as well.  As parings of form and meaning, the relations between constructions are motivated, not arbitrary, though not always strictly predictive.  Metaphor, metonymy, and analogy are constitutive of the grammar, not supplements to it.  The system of constructions is also hierarchical, with more concrete child constructions inheriting the formal and semantic properties of their more schematic parent constructions.

13. Ronald Langacker, The Foundations of Cognitive Grammar  (1987).

Langacker was developing Cognitive Grammar at the same time as scholars in the Berkeley linguistics department were working on the first case studies of Construction Grammar.  But where Fillmore, Lakoff, and others tended to devote extensive attention to a single, representative idiom or construction (X let alone Y, What’s X doing Y) or family of constructions (There-constructions), and then draw out general consequences for our knowledge of language as a whole, Langacker set out to rebuild the system of grammar from the ground up.  Cognitive and Construction Grammar, while conflicting on occasional theoretical details, are deeply compatible enterprises, and Goldberg and other practitioners tend to draw liberally from both.



#. And, of course, humanists interested in seeing how studying abstract constructions with the help of digital tools can expand the scope of philology, and with it our understanding of literary and cultural history, should have a look at my book, Cyberformalism: Histories of Linguistic Forms in the Digital Archive.