ENGL 582 B1: On Scale

N. Hurley

In March 2017, The Economist published a short essay on “Why literature is the ultimate big data challenge,” tracking the rise of what its author calls “number-crunching literary criticism” as a form of “cutting-edge research” over the space of a few decades.  Whatever one thinks of The Economist, the question of scale more generally stands as an explicitly salient one for literary and cultural criticism today. It has recently been the subject of serious debate as the focus of the most recent English Institute meetings held in October 2017 at the University of California Irvine and it appears more and more in scholarly conversations not only about big data, but about the anthropocene, the vast unfolding of capitalism, debates about population, and the statistical and representational politics of diversity.  This seminar takes up the question of what scale means and what it has meant for reading, for politics, for cultural criticism more generally. 

Scale, we will see, operates in two directions at once. Conjuring up the idea of bigness, scale is key term in debates about reading methods (“surface reading” distant reading”; in the work of the digital humanities and approaches to large-scale data models; in conversations about the limits and possibilities of “world literature” today; and in scholarship that tracks print circulation and social networking as indices of cultural success). Imagining the largeness of scale occasions, in turn, attention to its diametric opposite—the small scale. The idea of scale thus puts pressure simultaneously on the singular, the small, and the status of the example. In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant captures this shuttling between the large and the small, the general and the particular, when she describes her own method as tracking “the becoming general of singular things”: “the singular becomes delaminated from its location in someone’s story or some locale’s irreducibly local history and circulated as evidence of something shared.”

In an effort to understand the demands of reading for scale, this seminar will approach the question of scale by reading both large novels and theories of the miniature; by investigating what it might means to read cultural texts demographically or statistically; by tracking vocabularies of world-making in cultural criticism; by investigating the status of close reading as evidence for claims about “the world” and populations today; by approaching scale as a structure of feeling; by tracking the critiques and invocations of “the world” in cultural criticism. We approach scale in terms of case studies, in terms of writing style, and in terms of politics as we consider what it means to shuttle back and forth between large-scale explanations of phenomena and attention to small-scale examples of those phenomena.

Texts for this course may include the following: Franco Moretti Graphs, Maps, Trees Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism, Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass; Sharon Marcus and Steven Best “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Theodore Adorno Minima Moralia, Susan Stewart On Longing, Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Herman Melville Moby-Dick; Emily Apter Against World Literature; Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space; Michel Foucault Timothy Clarke “Scale: Derangements of Scale”; Susan Gal “Scale-Making: Comparison and Perspective and Ideological Projects”; Willa Cather My Antonia; Michelle Abate The Big Smallness; Georgy Lukacs History and Class Consciousness; Karl Marx Capital.