A Two-Day Workshop Presented by the Interacting with Print Research Group


March 15-16, 2018

Concordia University LB-361, 1400 Maisonneuve Blvd W, Montreal, QC, H3G 1M8


Ever since Pliny the Younger said “read much, not many,” debates about quantity have been central to debates about culture. For much of its existence, print too has been suffused with notions of quantity, whether by contemporary scholars or historical actors praising just how much information was now readily available or complaining about information overload. This workshop asks participants to confront the problem of quantity in the broadest possible sense. How does quantity impact what counts as evidence when making arguments about culture and how we count evidence? But also, how does thinking about quantity help us not only to elicit the role that it plays in a range of methodologies but also how it might serve as an object of study in its own right? Ultimately, we seek to think across topics about methodologies of analysis and to strike a dialogue between questions about what (and how) we count quantity and what counts as knowledge in cultural debate: what is the appropriate quantity of evidence? And what are the appropriate scales (temporal, geographic, numeric) in which to evaluate it?


To register, contact craigmelhoff@gmail.com.



Thursday, March 15

12.00-1.30: Lunch

1.30-2.00: Andrew Piper (McGill University), Introduction

2.00-3.00: Daniel Rosenberg (University of Oregon), “How Words Count”

The term keyword was coined independently by literary critic Raymond Williams and by computer engineer Hans Peter Luhn in 1958, and for four decades the literary concept and the information concept evolved in relative independence from one another. But with the emergence of electronic search as an important cultural device in the 1990s, these two trajectories merged in a consequential way with implications for both information theory and literary and cultural studies. This paper examines the history and future of the keyword keyword along with that of the quantitative humanities.

3.00-3.30: Coffee

3.30-4.30: Paula McDowell (New York University), “Marshall McLuhan’s Eighteenth Century”

Marshall McLuhan is remembered today as a media theorist, but he was a literary scholar by training and an English professor by occupation. Attention has been paid to McLuhan’s contributions as a literary critic of modernism, and his thesis on Renaissance author Thomas Nashe has recently been published. But his lifelong relationship with eighteenth-century authors from John Dryden to Jane Austen has gone virtually unremarked.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan drew on Pope’s Dunciad in advancing his influential arguments about the “consequences” of the spread of print. “It is to the Dunciad,” he pronounced, “that we must turn for the epic of the printed word. . . . For here is the explicit study of [the] plunging of the human mind into the sludge of an unconscious engendered by the book.” McLuhan used Pope’s satire to support his theories about the quantity of print: both the quantity of print on a page (“visual quantity”) and the quantity of printed texts in toto. In his reading, “Pope’s Dunciad indicts the printed book as the agent of a primitivistic and Romantic revival. Sheer visual quantity evokes the magical resonance of the tribal horde.”

This paper will examine McLuhan’s reading of the Dunciad in order to raise questions about how we perceive, measure, represent, and respond to quantitative change. If McLuhan’s proclamations about the “Gutenberg era” and the consequences of print were deeply shaped by his reading of eighteenth-century literary texts (chiefly printed ones), what are the consequences for us today as literary critics, teachers, and media theorists?


Friday, March 16

9.00-9.30: Welcome

9.30-10.30: Josephine McDonagh (University of Chicago), “Quantity and Character in Nineteenth-Century Fiction”

In this paper I want to explore the oblique ways in which questions of quantity, measurement and scale are drawn into discussions of intimacy, desire and character in early nineteenth-century book culture.  My starting point is an episode in the biography of Walter Scott, his response to the revelation of his friend, the bibliophile Richard Heber’s homosexuality. A shared love of books had drawn the two men together.  But on this revelation, Scott was utterly panicked, and contemplates what might have been had he, for instance, let his son travel with Heber.  The thought produces a confusion of scales:  distance would have created closeness, closeness intimacy, and intimacy contagion, shame, horror, if not death. Here and elsewhere, measuring seems to be a way of regulating desire; so that when desire is unregulated, the possibility of measurement is disturbed.   It is this conjunction of disordered measurement and disordered desire that intrigues me.  I want to think about moments in which we see the encoding of a kind of discordance of measurement, when things are suddenly too big or too small, too many or too few, too heavy or not heavy enough. How should we account for the emphasis on quantification at this juncture? I will explore the consequences this has for characterization in Scott’s fiction.

10.30-11.00: Coffee

11.00-12.00: Mary Favret (Johns Hopkins University), “A Fear of Small Numbers: Reading Walter Scott”

This paper began as an inquiry into pattern recognition: how many instances make up a motif? Or a thematic pattern? And these questions inevitably led to questions of when and why a reader might resort to the concept of statistical relevance in making her way through a novel. For example: Walter Scott’s Old Mortality may have the highest mortality rate of all his novels. How does the quantity, let alone the frequency of death, shape our reading of the novel?

In his canny way, Scott stages the question of quantity, its measure and significance, from the very outset of the novel–as if an historical novel cannot help piling up various registers of quantity. But learning from Arjun Appadurai’s The Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, we begin to see how the drive for quantification harbors political tensions and, as the novel reveals repeatedly, justifies violence.

Striking in Scott’s fiction is the insistence of linking questions of quantity to the number of the enemy (troops, rebels) and the number of the dead, in ways (like Appadurai’s) that twist our assumptions about quantity, affect and value. My aim for this paper is to pull together the two strands of inquiry: the pull toward pattern recognition and statistical relevance, and the unsettling political and affective dimensions revealed when we focus on quantities, especially of human groups.

12.00-1.30: Lunch

1.30-2.30: Sophia Rosenfeld (University of Pennsylvania), “Coping with Quantity, or Two Texts about Choice-Making”

The idea of choice is central to modern political and consumer culture alike.  This talk will consider two different French texts—one a poster printed during the French Revolution with instructions on voting,  the other a social dance manual from the mid-19th century—as instances in the long history of the navigation of choice.  The point will be to show how new social practices that required picking from menus of options were, in the post-revolutionary world, a) formalized through print and b) designed both to encourage and to delimit the growth of quantity, or abundance, in multiple domains of human life.

2.30-2.45: Coffee

2.45-3.45: Chad Wellmon (University of Virginia), “Quantifying the Soul: Philology, Physiology and the Two Cultures Debate about 1870”

In this talk, I will argue that the Geisteswissenschaften––and the modern humanities more broadly––first took institutional shape in late nineteenth-century Germany as a reactionary project designed to compensate for the purported deprivations of a culture hollowed out by modernity––industrialization, science, and technology. And one of the focal points of this compensatory project concerned the efforts of physiologists such as Hermann Helmholtz and Emil Du Bois-Reymond to quantify human perception and sensibility. The modern humanities or Geisteswissenschaften took shape, then, in an effort to counter attempts to quantify the soul.

 4.00-5.00: Maurice S. Lee (Boston University), Closing Discussion