Totality and the Genes of Literature

Mon Jan 16, 2006

My contribution to the Moretti event:

“Suppose at this juncture we were to state the blindingly obvious: that, whatever their other properties, literary texts do not possess genes” (59). So begins the “Perils of Analogy” section of Christopher Prendergast’s response* to Moretti. Notwithstanding the Paris Review interviews, it does seem difficult to maintain that literature has genes. Does it have memes, however? Ideologemes? Maybe. And I will discuss metaphors of cultural transmission and evolutionary analogies in Moretti’s argument.

The coherence of the meme concept is by no means obvious, and memes are not by any definition atomistic.** Rukmini Nair suggests in Narrative Gravity that narrative is adapted to meme transmission (205). And the description of the Genre Evolution Project at the University of Michigan describes three versions of generic change: Leavis’s great man, Lukacs’ great circumstance, and Barthes’ great form. All are distinct from the biological model of generic evolution as envisioned by that project and also by Moretti. Biological evolution is mostly divergent (gene transfer and other poorly understood mechanisms being convergent) whereas cultural evolution is largely convergent with divergence resulting from the contingencies of imperfect transfer. Prendergast criticizes Moretti for overemphasizing divergence and suggests that it lends itself analogically to market-reification (61).

Moretti ends “Maps” with a quote from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form: “We rise from a conception of form to an understanding of the forces which gave rise to it […] and in the comparison of kindred forms […] we discern the magnitude and the direction of the forces which we have sufficed to convert the one form into the other” (103). The phrase “diagram of forces in equilibrium” is elided in the quote and appears in the last sentence of the chapter, minus “equilibrium” (1027). Thompson, translator of Aristotle’s biological treatises, knew better than to use the word “entelechy” lightly; but I think it relevant here. A morphological divergence is where a potentiality has become an actuality; and the Aristotelian connotation of completion or perfection does not necessarily entail triumphalism, as I think Prendergast suggests. So how to analyze the form of this governing force? Must we suppose that literature is a machine?

I refer to the Galilean/Newtonian notion of the mechanism:

The modern scientific revolution, from Galileo, was based on the thesis that the world is a great machine, which could in principle be constructed by a master artisan, a complex version of the clocks and other intricate automata that fascinated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much as computers have a provided a stimulus to thought and imagination in recent years; the change of artifacts has limited consequences for the basic issue as Alan Turing demonstrated sixty years ago. (Chomsky 66)

Chomsky also observes that Newton refuted forever the “mechanical philosophy” (67). All that is left scientifically is the study of emergence in various forms.

Supposing that this is true of scientific theories about the natural world, is it true of the study of literature? Can imaginative literature be coherently described as a machine constructed by a master artisan? How about the novel, specifically? Is the novel a species of theory-construction, of modelling? Does it explain the world by simplifying it, or does it contain, through extrinsic immanence, an image (or monad) of everything possible to be believed at the moment of its production? If not, perhaps the various genres at any given moment together form the well-rounded totality. “The individual work does not do justice to the genres by subsuming itself to them but rather through the conflict in which it long legitimated them, then engendered them, and ultimately canceled them” (Adorno 202). You could apply this dialectic, mutatis mutandis, to organisms and species. Here’s Moretti on the generic speciation-event (or extinction): “where a genre exhausts its potentialities–and the time comes to give the competitor a chance–when its inner form can no longer represent the most significant aspect of contemporary reality: at which point, either the genre betrays its form in the name of reality, thereby disintegrating, or it betrays reality in the name of form, becoming a ‘dull epigone’ indeed” (“Graphs” 77 n8).

I am reminded here of Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters” from The Material Basis of Evolution, a concept and work reintroduced and recuperated to some extent by Stephen Jay Gould. Through developmental mechanisms, Goldschmidt argues, “a new type may emerge without accumulation of small steps” (251). Though not atomistic, combinable units, ideologemes may serve as an analyzable unit of developmental constraint. The word was probably first used by Bakhtin and/or Medvedev in The Formal Method of Literary Scholarship, and it appears most prominently in Bakhtin’s “Discourse and the Novel” (333-335). Michael Holquist notes there that Bakhtin intends the term neutrally (429). The most influential discussion of ideologemes is in Jameson’s The Political Unconscious:

An amphibious formulation whose essential structural characteristic may be described as its possibility to manifest itself either as a pseudoidea–a conceptual or belief system, an abstract value, an opinion or prejudice– or as a protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the “collective characters” which are the classes in opposition. (87)

Jameson further suggests that ideological analysis requires showing how the finished cultural product is a “complex work of transformation on the ultimate raw material which is the ideologeme in question” (87).

As Turing wrote in his influential paper about morphogenesis, “Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern” (71-72). Ideologemes are similar to Turing’s morphogens in that they serve as developmental constraints on the production of a given text. It’s worth supposing that narrative ecologies are optimally adapted to their historic environments and there is an inherently perfect transformation of experience in the act of narrative creation. The narrative property constructs abstract models, shares species-invariant characteristics, and integrates its individual variations into the totality of the social imagination: Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imaginations ends by noting that the latter is “essentially vital“ (167). This vitality of the secondary imagination allows the close reader to invent plausible historical claims, and distant readings of the state of the primary imagination discovers their context.

Notes *We’re pleased to be able to make Prendergast’s article available as a PDF under the same terms as Moretti’s for a limited time. **Bill Benzon notes here a paper arguing that memes may have atomicity.

References Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. 1970. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. Chomsky, Noam. On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London: Dent, 1956. Goldschmidt, Richard B. The Material Basis of Evolution. 1940. New Haven, Yale UP, 1982. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. Moretti, Franco. “Graphs.” NLR 24 (Nov-Dec 2003): 67-93. —. “Maps.” NLR 26 (Mar-Apr 2004): 79-103. Nair, Rukmini. Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, and Culture.. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Prendergast, Christopher. “Evolution and Literary History: A Response to Franco Moretti.” NLR 34 (July-August 2005): 40-62. Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. On Growth and Form. New York: Macmillan, 1943. Turing, A. M. “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237.641 (Aug 14, 1952): 37-72.