Assemblage Theory digital humanities digital rhetoric

Underwood, Jockers, and literary evolution

To begin with a caveat: I’m not in the literary studies business, let alone in the digital humanities area of literary studies. So my interests in these two recent books (Jocker’s Macroanalysis and Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered) are likely idiosyncratic when viewed from within the context of those fields. [Let me say by way of immediate digression that these are two excellent books, accessible to those without technical DH expertise, and I would think germane to any literary scholar, as well as anyone interested in DH.] Though I don’t do lit crit, I do share an interest in theories/concepts of rhetorical composing, and obviously there is at least some historical association between literary studies and rhetoric that has shaped both fields approaches to this issue. As curious as I am about digital methods, and particularly “big data” analysis, what I want to focus on here is the way both Jockers and Underwood encounter and address the concept of evolution.

To be clear, Underwood doesn’t really employ the term evolution; that would be my imposition. Instead, he talks about a tension between a tendency to view history in terms of rupture and contrast and the tendency to see history as a more continuous process of change. Underwood argues that literary studies emphasis on rupture helps to explain the enduring role of literary periodization in the field. As he writes,

The introduction of quantitative methods in literary history is controversial for a host of reasons, but I would argue that it matters above all because it opens up new ways of characterizing gradual change, and thereby makes it possible to write a literary history that is no longer bound to a differentiating taxonomy of authors, periods, and movements.

Jockers does write more directly about evolution, though he is careful to make clear that “Evolution is the word I am drawn to, and it is a word that I must ultimately eschew” at least in part because “books are not organisms; they do not breed.” Instead, he suggests that “Information and ideas can and do behave in ways that seem evolutionary” (my emphasis). Both Underwood and Jockers are ultimately cautious about any claims regarding gradual change, just as they are cautious about any claims they make for DH/quantitative methods (only going so far as to suggest these methods can compliment traditional literary studies). Perhaps this is their genuine position; maybe it is a rhetorical decision. Generally speaking, being conservative about the claims that come from research is admirable. I won’t fault them for not sharing my own rhetorical faults, which make it difficult for me to adopt caution.

Instead, when it comes to such decisions, my tendency is to burn that bridge when I come to it.

My willingness to push this matter (not in terms of literary studies necessarily, which is not my field, but more broadly in our understanding of rhetorical composing) is fueled by my long-term interest in Deleuzian philosophy. Underwood references Guns, Germs, and Steel as an example of a trend toward gradualist historiography (though he also notes that historians have less disciplinary issues over gradual change and that literary periodization can be read as a way that literary scholars have sought to distance themselves from historians). When I was reading this though, I immediately thought of DeLanda’s Thousand Years of Nonlinear History as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the concepts of onto- and phylogenesis:

We may distinguish in every case a number of very different lines. Some of them, phylogenetic lines, travel long distances between assemblages of various ages and cultures (from the blowgun to the cannon? from the prayer wheel to the propeller? from the pot to the motor?); others, ontogenetic lines, are internal to one assemblage and link up its various elements or else cause one element to pass, often after a delay, into another assemblage of a different nature but of the same culture or age (for example, the horseshoe, which spread through agricultural assemblages).

And as that passage indicates, these concepts are closely connected with assemblage theory. When we start to think about biological evolution and speciation, one argument we might have is whether species are “real” or only epistemological categories, and then, if they are real, what relationship might pertain between a species and one individual member of that species. For example, in A New Philosophy for Society DeLanda argues, “a biological species is an individual entity, as unique and singular as the organisms that compose it, but larger in spatiotemporal scale. In other words, individual organisms are the component parts of a larger individual whole, not the particular members of a general category or natural kind.” Needless to say, there are a lot of sides to that conversation. I don’t want to get into that now, so I’m just going to take DeLanda’s passage and run with it.

We can recognize from Latour, the Modernist impulse to assert ontological differences between nature and culture. I read this tendency at work in Underwood’s study of literary periodization, a belief that literary production (at least) is not governed by natural laws. That is, Underwood explains how the development and maintenance of literary periods reflects a disciplinary-paradigmatic insistence on a certain ontology for literary production. Of course the Latourian argument is no more that culture must obey natural laws than it is to say that our understanding of natural laws is nothing but culture. What we might get from Deleuze/Guattari, DeLanda, Latour, and others is a different ontology. So, if one were to investigate influences on Melville and Moby Dick or stylistic/thematic similarities across a massive corpus of nineteenth century novels (two examples from Jockers), how might assemblage theory interpret the “seeming” evolutionary relationship among texts that might suggest that novels are a species of rhetorical composing? I couldn’t give a specific answer to that question, but in principle it would not argue that a species has essential characteristics that it imparts to its members. The point is that “the novel” would not exist in some ethereal plane imparting qualities on texts. The novel “species” is the entity that is made up of all the novels. It doesn’t exist anywhere else anymore than I exist somewhere beyond all the cells that make up my body. And yes, my cells come and go and I persist, though at any given moment I am only my cells. Novels come and go too, disappearing out of print, but the novel persists. (Ok there are philosophical issues that require more time than I can devote to here.)

Nevertheless from this perspective, one can study the species of novels just as one could study an individual novel (different methods would be required, but my point is that these entities share an ontological foundation; they are equally real). Sure one might object that one could never find “all of the novels” and there would be all these boundary issues (is this a novel or not?). There are similar “problems” in biology, but to study species of birds you don’t have to study every individual bird. And there are boundary issues with assemblages, though they aren’t a problem philosophically. To the contrary, assemblage theory is designed to address ontological complexities. Epistemologically, as researchers trying to understand rhetorical composing (literary or otherwise), the construction of knowledge is always about the selective reduction of complexity in the pursuit of usable knowledge.

My point here is that I believe there is a theoretical/philosophical basis in the various strands of speculative realism/nonhuman turn/etc. that would really work with the kind of work Jockers and Underwood are doing. So let me try to end this post by bringing it back to their two books. I think there is more to what is happening with big data analysis than something that will complement (or compliment) traditional literary studies. I think there is more going on here than literary studies maybe needing to recognize that the discontinuous periodization approach to literature might be balanced by a more gradualist analysis of literary practices (which is where Underwood ends up, I think). I do agree with both Jockers and Underwood that DH is not about computers providing a more authoritative, objective, or scientific account of literature than close reading. Instead, as I think they both recognize, big data analysis introduces a different ontological foundation for rhetorical composing. The result is that close reading can no longer mean what it once did. What it will come to mean for literary studies is anyone’s guess. For my own field of rhetoric and composition, which has its own history of close reading from rhetorical philosophy/analysis to our understanding of student composing and learning, I think big data and assemblage theory must necessarily reorient our approach to the way we understand how texts are produced and the role they play in the world.


5 replies on “Underwood, Jockers, and literary evolution”

Alex, this is an awesome post. Jason Whittaker and I gestured toward an “evolutionary” reading of literary studies in our book William Blake and the Digital Humanities, which also has a big Deleuzian/OOO bent to it. We focus more on the question of the adaptation of Blake’s work in the twentieth century and what this means about understanding creativity. At one point, we invoke Grosz’s reading of Deleuze/Bergson/Darwin to start discussing a form of “natural selection” for literary works.

“Inasmuch as evolutionary adaptation presumes a form of invention that coincides with an organism’s survival needs in a specific environment, and which is (at least according to [Levi] Bryant) mediated by selection, literary adaptation could also be imagined as a biological process whereby specific environments accept or reject attempts to invent new survival mechanisms. It could also help explain how, for example, a multimedia artist like William Blake survives online whereas other famous authors from the nineteenth century who are particularly wedded to print culture […] have had a more difficult adaptive path. In the foregoing example, Blake’s imaginative erasure of the line between nature and culture provides a powerful connection to other media objects that may have an obvious connection to Blake” (161).

I can totally see how the ideas about evolution and gradual change in Jockers and Underwood could help support some of our more speculative (and not at all careful) ideas here.


Great commentary. I’m glad someone well-known in the field isn’t discounting “gradualist,” “evolutionary”–or, the scary word, “Darwinian”–approaches. I’m currently trying to study the gradual evolution of the rhetorical canon of memory as it wound its way from Athens, through the Caliphate, into the monasteries, out again, across the Atlantic, and into Departments of English and Communications, meeting with various socio-political pressures along the way.

A few scattered comments:

how might assemblage theory interpret the “seeming” evolutionary relationship among texts that might suggest that novels are a species of rhetorical composing? I couldn’t give a specific answer to that question, but in principle it would not argue that a species has essential characteristics that it imparts to its members.

True, the titular term “species” does not impart essential characteristics to members of its class, but then, you would never place a member X under that titular term unless it did indeed possess certain essential characteristics.

The novel “species” is the entity that is made up of all the novels. It doesn’t exist anywhere else anymore than I exist somewhere beyond all the cells that make up my body. And yes, my cells come and go and I persist, though at any given moment I am only my cells. Novels come and go too, disappearing out of print, but the novel persists.

I think there’s a question of scale and emergent complexity here. Populations behave differently than any individual within them because populations–regardless of the ontological status that we grant our titular terms–are influenced by the granular variations that exist from individual to individual. “The novel ‘species’ is the entity that is made up of all the novels,” but not all the novels are the same. The great or granular differences between them, coupled with the contextual pressures under which they exist, are precisely what set the stage for gradual change. Whether or not the novel species “exists” is a dull question, IMHO, similar to the debate over whether or not race exists. The more interesting question is how change at the macroscopic scale emerges from changes or pressures at the microscopic scale. Change in alleles (microscopic) over time drives evolution and the emergence of new ways of living or not living (macroscopic). I think this is the main point in Moretti’s study of clues in detective novels.

“books are not organisms; they do not breed.”

Luckily, there’s such a thing as horizontal gene transfer, which, I think, might end up being metaphorically valuable to “gradualist” thought in the cultural realm, where synchronic horizontal influence is probably a primary driver of diachronic change.


That’s my million dollar question. Short answer: Yes, there’s tons of early data. James Murphy’s bibliography of rhetoric manuals published during the Renaissance has 3800 titles. And that’s just one historical period.

There are two problems, though, one minor and one major. The minor problem is that the texts are multilingual. However, since I’d be coding the texts according to fairly surface-level treatments of memory (e.g., are spatial metaphors used or not; is it connected to spiritual concepts, etc.), dealing with several languages would not be insurmountable with the help of my own language background, dictionaries, and a couple friends who happen to be classicists!

The major problem is that many texts have not been made available online. The further back in time I go, the more likely it is that any given manuscript is sitting in a vault in Paris or Oxford. The texts that are available online (via, e.g., Early English Books Online) are almost never OCR’d. And unfortunately, I don’t think I can get a PhD with a dissertation entitled “I Spent A Year Writing and Implementing an OCR Program for Ancient Rhetorical Manuals.”

There are enough available data to make the project worthwhile. It’s just slow-going. And certainly, the closer to the 20th century I get, the easier it is to build large corpora. Really, to do a project like this right, the work has to be distributed. A proper “distant reading” of anything is a long project. Indeed, Moretti’s first chapter in Graphs, Maps, Trees would have been impossible without the decades of work in literary bibliography he drew upon.


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