From evolving systems to world literature and back again?

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Facebook group "Rethinking World Literature" hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions around the topic of what constitutes "world literature."  The Evolving Systems project on Serendip hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions exploring the common usefulness in a wide array of contexts, academic and otherwise, of emergent and evolving systems ideas.  The conversation documented below is archived from a discussion on the Rethinking World Literature Facebook site and will be added to as that discussion continues. 

The conversation started January 10, 2010; for the most recently added material (from February 2) see here.  Wai Chee Dimock and Karla Mallette are involved with the Rethinking World Literature group; Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke are participants in the Evolving Systems project.  Individual posts can be linked to using the numbers in parentheses (eg 

This archive is being made available on Serendip to give wider and more open access to  to Rethinking World Literature discussion, as well as because of its relevance to the the Evolving Systems project and to Serendip's ongoing exploration of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discussion generally.  For more on the latter, see On Beyond Disciplinarity and Education: Between Two CulturesA second discussion from Rethinking World Literature, focusing on "Literature and Neurobiology," is available here

Visitors are warmly invited to add their own thoughts to this conversation using the on-line forum below.  People interested in joining the "Rethinking World Literature" discussions are invited to go to Facebook, search on "Rethinking World Literature" and put in a request to join.   


Paul Grobstein - January 20, 2010 (1)

Having agreed to visit with the members of the interdisciplinary Evolving Systems project here at Bryn Mawr College (, Wai Chee invited me (a biologist/neurobiologist) to look in and perhaps join your World Literature conversation [on Facebook].

I've enjoyed browsing through your conversations, was particularly struck by the "Is world literature a coherent concept?" discussion, by several people there referring to themselves as "outsiders" (which I am even more so), and by Wai Chee's response to the question of whether "world literature" is an "archive or concept."

One might, of course, ask the same question about "Evolving Systems" and perhaps offer a similar answer. To borrow Wai Chee's words with only slight emendation: "the heuristic concept of ["evolving systems"] must bear on every text, thickening its operational ontology, and spurring us on to explore the manifold ways it's constituted by the world and connected to the world. This thick description might also be a good way to get around the reductively idealist/ reductively materialist split."

It intrigues me to think this might be worth exploring further, and that there might be additional instructive and mutually useful parallels between trying to unite "outsiders" around "world literature" and trying to unite an even wider array of "outsiders" around "evolving systems." Perhaps some of the ideas and experiences we've been developing in the Evolving Systems project might be useful in the World Literature context, as some of yours seem already to be in ours?

Among the things we might bring to the table is a notion that it is precisely from the intersections of existing expertises and understandings that as yet unconceived and useful new understandings emerge, not only in the academic realm but in human society generally, and in the biological and inanimate worlds as well.

I'd be delighted to make common cause with any of you who share a sense that there is a potentially productive exchange to be had on ways that thinking about world literature might shed light on thinking about evolving systems and vice versa. Our Evolving Systems conversations are intended to be both open and world wide (see They are documented on-line via links from, and most include open on-line forums to which you're warmly invited to contribute.

Perhaps we could in addition use this Facebook discussion area to exchange thoughts more specifically related to the world literature initiative and ways our evolving systems project might productively intersect with it?


Wai Chee Dimock - January 22 2010 (2)

Simply on the level of analytic vocabulary, there're intriguing parallels between the spread of world lit and the spread of biological evolution. On the Bryn Mawr Evolving Systems website, you write about "niche displacement" -- with "objects taking up new locations in configurations that have not previously existed, and where the position of each object has been influenced by the others."

Franco Moretti suggests something similar in Graphs, Maps, Trees, when he urges us to study morphological variations triggered by geographical movement: "Take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformations: the opportunistic, hence unpredictable reasons for evolution, in Ernst Mayr's words." This points to a large-scale paradigm, with the database coming from across the planet -- hence the necessity for "world literature." One of the worries among humanists is how to link this large-scale model back to the specifics of close reading (or whether one should try at all). I wonder if there's a similar problem in your field: how to link the large-scale paradigm of evolutionary biology back to the specifics of neurobiology?

(In your picture, there's a striking resemblance between the human brain and the globe -- perhaps that's the beginning of an answer!)


Paul Grobstein -  January 22, 2010 (3)

Yep, my guess is that lots of people puzzle at one point or another about "how to link the large-scale paradigm of [fill in the blank] to the specifics of [fill in the blank]." That's certainly part of why its only 150 years after Darwin that biologists (including neurobiologists) have begun to actually begin recognizing and functioning in terms of a relatedness of their various subdisciplines reflected in an evolutionary perspective (a work in progress; see And probably why there is still a not always entirely comfortable split in physics between theoretical and experimental physicists. Maybe its why there remains a split between novelists and poets?

My own take on this is that its actually a good thing that we have novelists and poets, theoretical and experimental physicists, neurobiologists as distinct from evolutionary biologists. Without them, and the various specifics they generate, there wouldn't be anywhere near the wherewithal that you and I and Moretti need to look for "large-scale" patterns.

In evolving systems language, I would think of "world literature" not as a replacement for all the existing life forms but rather as new form of life that has been made possible by them, a new "niche" their existence has created. And the same, of course, for "evolving systems." Its not intended to replace biology, physics, etc, nor science and humanities, but rather to be a new sort of organism which both draws from and nurtures existing organisms.

I think of both "world literature" and "evolving systems" as an expression of the "opportunistic, hence unpredictable reasons" for change in the intellectual and hence in the academic world. The current state of things is such that it occurs to people (at least some people) to try something new and so it is being tried. Whether "objects taking up new locations in configurations that have not previously existed, and where the location of each object has been influenced by the others" proves to be generative, and how it relates to other forms of intellectual/academic activity, we will see.

That said, I continue to think your earlier comments about "thick description" remain an important touchstone. All reasonably successful organisms have certain characteristics in common, including a measure of attentativeness to their environments. This is what I suspect is the deep core of what a humanist means by "close reading" and a scientist would call "rigor." Both "world literature" and "evolving systems," if they are at all successful, will have that characteristic. What will be different is not how closely one ties ones inquiries to observations nor how rigorously one derives possible interpretations from them but only the scale at which one poses questions, makes observations, and offers interpretations.

Can I link "evolving systems" back to neurobiology, in ways that will matter to neurobiologists? Yes, I think so, in some pretty useful ways. And that's important. Equally importantly, though, I think I can link it to, among other things, world literature. Its not the link to any particular existing organism that's important but the web of links to a variety of other organisms, including newly evolving ones.

Maybe there is something to the world/brain resemblance? World literature is among the things that evolve as the brain discovers itself as an evolving system?

Delighted to play more with this. Equally happy to hear about, further explore any additional parallels/issues at the world literature/evolving systems interface that occur to you and your colleagues.


Wai Chee Dimock - January 23 2010 (4)

I really like your idea that world lit need not replace what already exists -- understandably, there's considerable anxiety on this point! The "niche" that it hopes to occupy is an opening generated by new ways of thinking about the traditional, national literatures, not a niche created at their expense. (I continue to teach American literature, but because this is now mindful of a larger context, it is kindred to world lit, and in fact requires the latter as a companion and a horizon). Still, the academic landscape does seem to be changing. It shouldn't be a zero sum game, and I'd like to hear more from you about non-competitive relations within evolving systems, maybe the relation between the new neurobiology (which seems to involve physics and chemistry as well as biology, am I right?), and the older disciplinary formations.

And I'd like to think that there's a similar, non-competitive relation between micro and macro analyses. Thick description does require "close reading," involving not just rigor, as you say, but often an obsessive engagement with smaller and smaller textual units (phrases, words, parts of a word, even punctuation). The "split" between poets and novelists probably comes down to this. It also seems that large and small scales each has its forms of blindness. So it would be great if we could have a built-in oscillation in our work, switching back and forth between the large and the small. (I now encourage students to think of projects that emphasize the filiations and cross-references between poetry and fiction.) If our brains are still evolving, maybe we could try, collectively, to preserve both the fine-grained and the long-distance in our cognitive capabilities?


Anne Dalke -  24 January 2010 (5)

I've been enjoying this conversation, w/out being able to find a moment til now--as the semester begins--to put in my oar. Part of what I've been busy doing is inviting the students in my newly re-figured course on "literary kinds"
to think both "like" evolutionary biologists and literary scholars, to attend to webs and networks and affiliated kinships among texts and other aspects of the world -- the geographies where they arise, the cultural contexts in which they are created.

In the process, I've been quite struck by how much the students seem bound to conventional forms of likeness, how unwilling they seem to go beyond the categories they've been taught. To get 'em thinking about the constructedness, and revisability, of such forms, I kicked the course off w/ some ambiguous images. One student wrote, in response,

'the in-between nature of the images seemed to cause discomfort to me and others. Why objects elicit disgust?...Why is maintaining the open mind to the evolution of genre that Dimock and Owen call for so difficult? Do we need computers to do this for us? Does the emergence of technology that eliminates the idea of an "authoritative" version of a particular story or work, such as that behind the Walt Whitman Anthology, make it more possible for us to wrap our minds around the existence of "in-between" objects and stories?'

I, too, am particularly interested in the role that the newly arising and rapidly evolving field of digital humanities might play in this process of nudging us into the "in-between" (see here for how Facebook has connected a neurobiologist w/ some literary scholars; that's a start...) How much can digital work push @ what Bruce Robbins calls those "pseudo - anthropocentric, lazy norms" of period and nation around which we continue to organize our field of study? How much might it open up the questions of literature’s temporal and geographic scale?


Paul Grobstein - January 30, 2010 (6)

I too think the digital age hold special promise not only for change in general but for the future of broader perspectives (such as "world literature" and "evolving systems') in particular (cf Like all innovation it doesn't, of course, come without new challenges (cf

At the same time, I also share a sense that there are barriers to both change and broader perspectives that won't be overcome by technological innovation alone (at least in the short run). Among them, as per Anne above, is a discomfort with "ambiguity" and non-"authoritativenss". And, as per Wai Chee, a concern about "zero sum" situations, competitiveness and "survival." Let me take a crack at those issues, first in a representative case that Wai Chee asked about, and then more generally.

Neurobiology (my preferred term for what others may call neuroscience or, more recently, cognitive science) emerged about forty years ago out of a fusion of elements of biology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, pharmacology, psychiatry, and psychology. More recently it has indeed added elements of physics and chemistry, as well as computer science, anthropology, and sociology. What's noteworthy is that it hasn't replaced any of those disciplines. Like neurobiology itself, each discipline has followed its own distinctive course of evolution, reflecting interactions with neurobiology and with other disciplines as well as its own internal dynamics. Each has adapted to the existence of the others in a variety of ways, including niche displacement. This history of neurobiology, as I would hope will prove so for "evolving systems" and "world literature," is one of expanding the repertoire of forms of inquiry and of co-evolution rather than one in which existing forms of inquiry are replaced by new ones.

Something along these lines, rather than "survival of the fittest" is actually the typical pattern for biological evolution, and perhaps individual and cultural evolution as well? Things don't "survive" or fail to survive in fixed states. Instead they are continually changing, in response to their own internal dynamics and their interactions with things around them. As they do, they create the opportunities for new kinds of things that derive from existing forms of exploration and in turn influence them and are influenced by them. The process is not one of progressive moment toward an optimal form but rather one of continuing exploration of viable forms. Its an expansive rather than a zero-sum process. Extinction and death is, of course, a part of this process, but they rarely or never occur because one form is "better" than another. Instead, death and extinction reflect a failure to adapt to the continually changing surroundings.

Anxiety about "survival," "zero sum games" and "competitive" position vis a vis others is, I suspect, a peculiarly human trait, perhaps one related to our patterns of social/cultural organization and an associated discomfort with ambiguity and non-authoritativeness (cf Trees don't have any of these concerns, so far as I know, and seem to do perfectly well without them. In fact, my guess is that most existing organisms don't have them, and that in fact there are several billions of years of quite successful evolutionary history that took place without such concerns. To put it differently, I'd argue that "non-competitive," ambiguous, and non-authoritative relations are very much the norm rather than the exception over the cosmic scales of "deep time" (

Could we make them more so in the academy in the present? in the ordinary day to day human world we all live in? I'd like to think so, and don't think its that unreasonable an aspiration. "Switching back and forth between the large and the small" and "using both the fine-grained and the long-distance" doesn't require future biological evolution; its actually something our brains have already evolved to do. We each have a very sophisticated "cognitive unconscious" that is committed to keeping track of the details in a variety of realms and an equally sophisticated consciousness/"story teller" that is always looking for broader patterns and alternative ways of making sense of things.

The needed change in social/cultural rather than biological. We need to do a better job of helping people to see these two parts of themselves as complementary rather than in competition, to recognize that the different understandings they represent at any given time, and the resulting ambiguity and non-authoritativenss within oneself, are not a threat to survival but rather an opening for the creation of new understandings. My hope is that conversations in "world literature" and in "evolving systems" can play a role in achieving this. "an ecology allowing for preservation as well as transformation" because of the essential role the small scale, the existing, and the ambiguous has to play in the conception of new futures?


Wai Chee Dimock - January 30, 2010 (7)

Many great ideas here -- for now I'd like to concentrate on just one: co-evolution. It suggests that, in any reproductive environment, there're always going to be multiple variables, each with its input, and each adapting to the input of others. I'm also intrigued by the idea of non-integral survival: continuing in partial, fractional, and more complexly modified forms.

Our changing academic landscape is very much a test case here. So too is the internal dynamics within the field of literary genres. I'd like to think that the novel isn't just evolving on its own, but in conjunction with the epic, lyric, and indeed poetry in all its forms and varieties. Literature then is indeed an arena where the small-scale, the existing, and the ambiguous can have an input into our collective human future, even as large-scale cognitive processes are necessitated by globalization...


Paul Grobstein - January 31, 2010 (8)

"there are always going to be multiple variables, each with its input, and each adapting to the input of others."

Yep. And I like the examples of the novel not "just evolving on its own but in conjunction with ..." and literature as "an arena where the small-scale, the existing, and the ambiguous" AND "large scale cognitive processes" all interact to create "our collective human future." With various things persisting in "partial, fractional, and more complexly modified forms."

And I like, of course, the notion that such a picture provides a useful working understanding of the "academic landscape" in general, a picture that would provide a better guide for negotiating the academic landscape than the older picture of simple cause/effect relationships and "winners" and "losers." For more along these lines, see On beyond a critical stance ( which argues that an appreciation of co-evolution might usefully transform not only the academic landscape but human social interactions in general (political and otherwise).

What intrigues me even more is that a picture of reciprocal and contingent interaction among multiple causal agents seems increasingly useful not only in social and biological realms but in inanimate realms as well (cf Maybe there really is a commonality underlying our differences? Its not perhaps so much a shared "reproductive" environment as a shared engagement with exploring new forms of existence?


Wai-Chi Dimock - February 2, 2010 (9)

By "reproductive environment," I simply mean any system that persists across time, allowing newness to come into the world, but also allowing particular features (or clusters of features) to be carried over, into related and modified forms. This process isn't necessarily based on biology -- in fact, non-biological reproduction seems especially worth thinking about, since it breaks down the dividing line between the animate and the inanimate, highlighting their possible interfaces.

For me, the evolution of literary genres is one such example of non-biological reproduction. There wouldn't be epics, novels, etc. without human beings -- without human bodies -- and yet they're life forms significantly different from those bodies. So, maybe we should really try to construct an evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate?


Anne Dalke - 3 February, 2010 (10)

I'm picking up, Wai Chee, on your proposal for trying to construct an evolutionary history "from the standpoint of the inanimate," and trying to get my head around this idea. What would it mean to organize the world not as we generally do (around our own egotisms), but rather around other objects? How might we actually do that, except by simply projecting our experiences onto other things? How could I possibly 'speculate' what 'life' might like for an atom? My fingernails? An alpaca? A plant? A poem?

With another colleague here @ Bryn Mawr, Liz McCormack of the Physics Department, I'm preparing a talk for our Evolving Systems group on "OOO," or "object-oriented ontology," which we learned about on a recent foray to the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts: The experiment here is to think "from the perspective" of things. OOO is a "faction" of a larger movement known as "speculative realism," which imagines--from the "point of view" of objects (or animals--anything but humans!) how they exist and interact. (The basic challenge here is to the thesis that every relation is human-world.) But I'm finding myself stuck @ step one: how can an object even have a "point of view," a "perspective"? The terms w/ which we work are themselves so anthropomorphic....


Paul Grobstein - February 3, 2010 (11)

Happy with "reproductive environment" as "any system that persists over time, allowing newness .. but also allowing particular features to be carried over into related and modified forms." Its "descent with variation" coupled with "differential persistance" and yes, "exploring new forms of existence" occurs not only in biological systems but in a variety of different systems at different spatial and temporal scales (cf "Evolution times three" at

And I like of course the idea of looking at such systems in general, to explore both similarities and differences. The evolving systems project, for me, grew out of exactly that motivation. I do though think there are some hazards in thinking of that program as an effort, in Wai Chee's terms, "to construct an evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate."

One problem is the one Anne alludes to. "Science" was conceived, and continues to be seen by many, as an effort to adopt a non-human perspective or "standpoint." And it seems to me we don't want to give up at this point the hard won lesson that all knowledge is embodied, that a non-human standpoint is not something that can be achieved by humans. We can try and change, even expand, our human perspective by using other entities to expose limitations in our existing perspectives, but there is no more a definitive "evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate" than there is such a thing from the the standpoint of humans. The situatedness of human knowledge, its subjectivity and dependence on a human perspective, is not escapable. We ourselves can evolve but we cannot escape a distinctive and idiosyncratic place in a larger evolving universe.

The other problem is an ambiguity in the term "inanimate." I think its going to prove important for the project to make a distinction between two classes of "inanimate" things: those that can exist independently of human activity (and perhaps that of other living organisms) and those that are primarily products of human activity (and perhaps that of other organisms). Making sense of the former is, I suspect, a quite different and simpler task than making sense of the latter.

The deep time discussion is relevant here. It seems likely that one form of the inanimate is not only largely independent of human activity but has an evolutionary history that long predates not only the activity of human beings but of living organisms in general. And that this evolutionary history is part of what makes sense of the evolutionary history of life in general and humans in particular. Similarly, the evolutionary history of life and of humans is part of what makes sense of the later produced human produced inanimate. To put it differently, the non-human inanimate probably gave rise through an evolutionary process to the animate and human which in turn gave rise to the human inanimate.

Yes, as Wai-Chee suggests, the evolution of literature is not reducible to the evolution of human beings. Literary evolution has its own characteristics and dynamics, but it is also not independent of human evolution nor is it equivalent to the evolution of other non-human forms of the inanimate. My guess is that the same will hold true for the evolution of other human cultural artifacts, the human inanimate, including language, technology, and cornets (see "Phylogenetics and material culture evolution" by Ilya Temkin and Niles Eldredge, Current Anthropology 48: 146-152 (2007), pdf available at

It is not at all my intention to discourage people either from adding the inanimate to their inquiry repertoire or thinking about the the human inanimate in terms of evolving systems. Indeed I very much think looking at evolving systems at all levels is useful for each (cf my "From complexity to emergence and beyond" in Soundings (2007); word file available at I do think we need to be careful though not to set too concrete a goal for the program. It is, after all, the unpredictable that frees cultural evolution from biological evolution (and biological evolution from the evolution of the non-human inanimate). What I (at least) am looking for in an evolving systems project is not a place to get to but a process that will take us to places we have yet to conceive.

So maybe we should try and construct an evolving understanding of the processes of evolution, one that has neither foundation nor fixed objective but consists only of ourselves making sense of what we find around ourselves and changing both ourselves and the surroundings in the process?


Wai Chee Dimock - February 3, 2010 (12)

The "human inanimate" is a wonderful concept -- this is what I initially meant when I refer to literary genres as instances of nonbiological reproduction -- they are created by human beings, and yet they do not replicate the human life form. For me, this is one way to move away from the tendency to use our life span as the measure of time (and of space). I agree that it would be impossible to construct any evolutionary process from the "point of view" of objects, but I don't think we need to go so far. Couldn't we construct those processes by placing objects in the foreground and following their trajectories (for example, tracking the movement of sugar), without necessarily claiming to see from their perspective?


Paul Grobstein - February 4, 2010 (13)

Sounds great to me. And think trying to treat the "human inanimate" in the way chemists/biologists treat sugar is an apt parallel. Lean over backwards to avoid giving it human characteristics (as per Anne, avoid anthropomorphizing) and try and avoid treating it as serving primarily a human function. As much as possible, observe patterns without presumptions as to meaning.

The complication, of course, is that literature and cornets (and other components of the human inanimate) are human products and so one is, at some point, going to have to address their relation to humans both in terms of characteristics and function. Maybe the key here is something along the line Clifford Geertz advocated for anthropology: look for the patterns in culture without presuming one knows their their meaning and then try and infer from those patterns the place/meaning of particular things and their patterns in particular human worlds.


Wai Chee Dimock - February 6, 2010 (14)

Yea, chemists/ biologists can have a field day with sugar. Humanists need to think about it too, for sugar happens to be intertwined with the history of slavery, woven into the fabric of race and colonialism across the planet. So, while it's straightforwardly inanimate in one sense, in another sense it's very much a "human inanimate," an index to our world, with countless human lives blighted in its wake...

I just finished teaching Monique Truong's The Book of Salt, a novel about a Vietnamese man who cooked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris. The book is about France, Vietnam, and the U.S. It's about a larger-than-life author and her companion. And it's also about food, about being attached to the world through the faculty of taste, and the fancy sauces as well as sea water, sweat, tears, and other fluids in which salt figures -- a deep play worthy of Geertz. I wonder if there's also a neurobiological dimension to this story?


Paul Grobstein - February 6, 2010 (15)

"Be still my beating heart
Or I'll be taken for a fool"

And have been because of questions like you posed. Just last night I offended most of a group of assorted physicists, economists, biologists, and philosophers by suggesting that there was a significant "neurobiological dimension" to all of those activities.

What the hell. Yes, I think there is also a "neurobiological dimension" to salt, to colonialism, and to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As there is as well to world literature and, of course, to evolving systems. None of these exist independently of the brain, and so they all have properties that can be better understood by thinking about them in relation to the brain.

Just as "the evolution of literature is not reducible to the evolution of human beings" so too neither it nor any of the other things mentioned are "reducible" to the brain. But just as it is useful to keep in mind the human origin of the "human inanimate", it is useful to keep in mind the brain origin of .... everything we think and talk about. Among other things, it serves as a reminder that they are all "stories," perspective dependent ways of making sense of things that could be otherwise and are likely to change in the future. When we forget that, we tend to get trapped by our own creations rather than using them as tools to create things as yet unconceived.

Sorry you asked?


Wai Chee Dimock - February 8, 2010 (16)

I'm definitely willing to entertain that possibility -- could you say a bit about how neurobiology is embedded in these substances and processes?


Paul Grobstein - February 8, 2010 (17)

Sure. Maybe start with salt? Without it, there wouldn't be stories, either of the kind I mean or the world literature kind. The movements and interactions of salt (inorganic ions) underlie the ability of neurons to receive, integrate, and transmit signals. No signals, no stories. Our stories (of all kinds) are little more and nothing less than untold numbers of very rapid little tiny flows of salt. No salt, no Gertrude Stein, no Alice B. Toklas, no colonialism.

On the flip side, the details of the salt flow are pretty much the same in Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, in the colonist and in the oppressed (and, for that matter, in humans and dogs, frogs, and octopi). So while you can't have stories without salt, you need particular patterns of salt flow to get stories and its the particular patterns of salt flows that differentiate Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and different stories. The message is in the architecture, not in the building blocks.


Wai Chee Dimock - February 10, 2010 (18)

I agree -- the building blocks of neurons (and even literary texts) are pretty much the same, it's the architecture that produces different patterns of movements and interactions. In my class, we read Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas along with Monique Truong's The Book of Salt. Both books deal with Gertrude and Alice; but the deliberate juxtaposing of France, Vietnam, and the US makes the flow of salt descriptive of human history in the latter book, in a way that it does not in the former. In that sense, literature is a kind of empirical evidence for the multi-directionality of the neural networks, and the complex patterns generated by ions in motion...


Paul Grobstein - February 11, 2010 (19)

The term I use for it is "combinatorial explosion." A small number of building blocks and some simple assembly rules suffices to yield an infinite number of possibilities. It works for arithmetic (take a number, add 1 to it, repeat, yields an infinite series of numbers), for chemistry (take protons, neutrons, electrons, combine in a ratio of more or less 1:1:1 and you get an infinite number of elements (of which only the first 100 or so persist for any length of time), for English writing (take 26 letters plus some punctuation symbols, combine according to linguistic rules/rules of transformational grammar, and you get an infinite number of sentences, books).

Yes, building blocks, combinatorial explosion, and resulting architectures seem to me common to biology, brain, and literature. But there's more, of course. One doesn't see all possible architectures but only a subset of them, a patterned subset. In biology, because of constraints of successful reproduction? In literature because of constraints due to semantics and culture? In the brain, because of .... ?

Speaking of which, a student in one of my courses posted some interesting thoughts recently about the relation between the brain and art/literature. See She suggests that art/literature may have as much to offer to neurobiology as neurobiology does to art literature. So let me turn an earlier question around: could you/others say a little something about how literature (world or otherwise) is "embedded" in the brain?


Anne Dalke - February 13, 2010 (20)

I've started a new topic--or a new branch off the tree that is this topic--on World Literature and Neurobiology @!/topic.php?uid=184235448148&topic=13391

[also to be mirrored on in connection with evolsys on Serendip, URL to come]


Karla Mallete - 13 February, 2010 (21)

Is anyone following this thread anymore? I have questions, you have answers! To wit: when you talk about "evolving systems," are you building on systems theory? When you're talking about the "human inanimate," are you talking about what some have taken to calling the post-human? Finally, Paul, your critique of competition - your resistance to the centrality of competition in certain kinds of scientific thinking in particular - is this a common sentiment in scientific (or sociological) circles these days? I ask b/c I have been trying to put these ideas together myself. Briefly: it seems that one could (and in fact probably should) use elements from systems theory to talk about literature. But one of the sticking points that you run up against in so doing is the notion of competitiveness as the driving force of change over time. If you could only get rid of the presupposition that competition for survival is the logic of (literary) change - which inevitably generates agonistic Romantic narratives, at least when you use it to talk about literature - I'm convinced you could use systems theory to write an incredibly lucid account of some chapters of literary history that have fallen between the cracks. Kind of like Moretti without the Marxism, if you follow me.

Also, about literature that is "embedded" in the brain: this has got to be poetry, rather than narrative, right? It's the rhythms and the aural effects of poetry which get hardwired, like alliteration for us anglophones. Try to resist it. Futile.


Paul Grobstein, February 14, 2010 (22)

Yep, this thread has branched (see Anne Dalke above) but the trunk is very much alive. Glad to have you aboard. No "answers," but happy to share exploring the questions.

For more on the evolsys perspective, see The perspective derives most immediately from "complex systems" and, more recently, "emergent systems" lineages, but those in turn have important antecedents in "systems theory" (see

I very much share your sense that all this provides useful openings for thinking about literature in particular and humanities in general (cf and And I think that Moretti has been charting one path in this direction. My own doesn't involve Marxism but it would be interesting to think more about what a Marxist perspective does/doesn't contribute. Maybe we could get Moretti to weigh in on this?

The role of competition in biological evolution and, by extension, in human affairs and culture, is ... increasingly under re-examination. I wouldn't call my perspective a "common sentiment," but I am not at all alone in suggesting that there is much more to biological (and cultural) evolution than "competitiveness as the driving force over time." Stephen Jay Gould, Lynn Margulis, and Stuart Kauffman, among others, have written extensively about the significant roles that chance, cooperation, and self-organization play in biological evolution. Yep, I think its time to move beyond "agonistic Romantic narratives,"

I'm not sure I (and anyone else) fully understands what is intended by "post human." Most of the history of humanity involves the creation of physical artifacts that reflect and extend the capabilities of human beings (axes, arrow points, cooking pots, decorations, books, airplanes, dwellings, cities, libraries etc). That's what I mean by the "human inanimate." We are certainly doing more of this than we did thousands of years ago, but I see that as continuous with the evolution of humanity rather than "post human."

I'd be delighted to share further thoughts about literature "embedded" in the brain. Yes, poetry and its grabbiness is relevant, but I think there is more to it than that. Maybe though that's a conversation better had in the new branch on World Literature and Neurobiology? Post your thoughts there and let's see where we (and others) can go with it?


Wai Chee Dimock, February 14, 2010 (23)

Yes, let's move the "brain" branch of the discussion over to the new thread started by Anne. But I just want to put in a brief word about a literary history that looks beyond "agonistic Romantic narratives," giving primacy instead to chance, cooperation, and self-organization.

Systems theory, proposed by Moretti and others, would be very helpful. (Franco is a member of this group and says he follows our posts regularly -- I hope he'll feel inspired to join this discussion.) Genre, for instance, is largely a non-competitive paradigm. I'm thinking especially of migrations and cross-fertilizations among genres -- from poetry to fiction, for instance -- where the antecedent text need not be undone to be cited. Richard Powers begins Galatea 2.2 by quoting Emily Dickinson, and honors her poem in the process:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease, and you beside.


Paul Grobstein, February 14, 2010 (24)

Speaking of migrations and cross fertilizations, that particular Dickinson stanza has been the take off point for my Neurobiology and Behavior course for many years (for the current incarnation see I read it as reflecting an understanding by Dickinson (for reasons yet to be fully explained) that everything we experience/understand (the "sky" and "you" among other things) is a construction of the brain. Amusingly, and appropriately, its not a reading all students agree with (see

Yep, let's move the brain re literature over to the new branch, but I reserve the right to talk about the brain here as well when its relevant. Whatever the "correct" interpretation of Dickinson, the idea that all experience/knowledge/under standing is constructed by the brain provides, for me at least, the opening that allows new lines of thinking (evolsys and worldlit among them) to come into being and, potentially, prosper.

Franco, if you're listening, I'm seriously curious about the relation between systems theory/emergence/evolving systems and marxism. Speaking of migrations and cross fertilizations.

Karla Mallette, 14 February, 2010 (25)
Thanks for your responses to my questions! These questions are inspired by - well, first and foremost by my own ignorance, but also by efforts to apply Moretti's insights to premodern literature. The most obvious obstacles to this project are the deplorable rate of survival of medieval mss, the relatively small number of extant works that have been published in modern editions, the relatively minute number of works that a single human being can read. But what really catches my imagination - what makes me think it's worth trying anyway, despite these difficulties - is the fact that the medieval literary record is full of evolutionary dead ends: it's full of stories that subsequent literary history doesn't tell. So I find myself asking of the medieval record the question that Jessica Brent asked Moretti in "Slaughterhouse of Literature": if we look at the literary record in terms of what it will become - the *successful* genetic mutations that will define subsequent literary history - then we're missing a lot of what happened, and in particular some of the most fascinating literature that happened. And it seems to me that systems theory could be used to reread the medieval literary history I'm interested in (and presumably other literary records as well, premodern and otherwise), taking Moretti's work on modern lit as a point of departure.

Hence my questions: Can we use systems theory to shift the focus of our inquiry, to account for the multiplicity of voice (rather than focusing on those that would prove subsequently productive, the "successful mutations")? If we shift the focus from the individual genius to the literary system that generated and supported him/her, has our inquiry become "posthuman" - studying literary tendencies that are the result of human action but not of human design (in the words of F. Hayek)? If we read for a logic other than competition as the engine of historical change, does it make this project easier? Here is C.S. Holling describing Complex Adaptive Systems, maybe suggesting a way to achieve this: "the structural, top-down aspect of hierarchies has tended to dominate theory and application, reinforced by the standard dictionary definition of hierarchy as a system of vertical authority and control. Therefore, the dynamic and adaptive nature of such nested structures has tended to be lost."

In other words, what appear from one perspective to be evolutionary dead ends might become, using this optic, central to the "dynamic and adaptive nature of nested structures" and hence constitutive of subsequent developments, even when those subsequent phenomena don't consciously remember them. It's a cultural logic of agglomeration rather than ramification - crystals, rather than trees. Maybe. I think. I'm eager to hear your response.
Wai Chee Dimock, February 14, 2010 (26)
Agglomeration rather than ramification, crystals rather than trees -- I like your metaphors, but would like to suggest that maybe the crystals should be prisms to non-actualized worlds, no less than to actualized ones. Literary history, as it is currently constituted, mostly pays attention to texts that have successful (or demonstrable) genealogies of reproduction or mutation. But "evolutionary dead ends" point to a field far more extensive and complexly populated, not evident in and not reducible to what is empirically present. One way to recover that field is by just those nested structures that you talk about, constituted not by a logic of linear succession, but by indirect or nonsequential embedding. And I think another concept might be helpful as well: the "subjunctive." (I have an essay called "Subjunctive Time" in the current issue of Narrative, which argues that we need to supplement the indicative sentence with a counterfactual modality, in order to restore the world to a pre-processed fullness...)
Karla Mallette, February 15, 2010 (27)
Thanks, Wai Chee, I have downloaded the essay. I can't say that I have yet read it as carefully as it deserves (time...), but carefully enough to know that it is gorgeous! I love your attentiveness to the materiality of language, I love your ghost-haunted grammar. I think you make it possible to deconstruct the opposition between what is "actualized" and "non-actualized" in the literary text (or am I introducing ghosts into your machine?). This seems to me the necessary move: to represent the non-actualized, without going all mystical. And this is what systems theory seems to make possible. Cary Wolfe argues that systems theory historicizes the deconstructive move, and I want to believe him, b/c that's the crucial move: reading the trace of the possible as historically productive. (And there is Marx again!)

Also, Wai Chee, you talk about fortune, the aleatory. This is something I'm thinking hard about too ... just in case you want to, you know, expand ...
Wai Chee Dimock, February 20, 2010 (28)
Hi, Karla -- sorry for this belated response (somehow I missed your post)...

Yes, the trace of the possible as historically productive -- this is probably the best way to acknowledge the non-actualized, without bowing too much to mysticism. Wittgenstein might be a helpful supplement to Cary Wolfe here: he isn't mystical, but he does see the world as broader than the empirical, broader than the final outcome that prevails, solid and self-evident. A systems theory that goes further back -- restoring the playing field to an antecedent moment, with the outcome not yet in place -- seems crucial if "evolutionary dead ends" are to be recognized for they once were, not dead ends, but possible beginnings. And I think this is also where fortune comes in, a disruptive force that keeps the playing field active, a force that allows final outcomes to be revisited, de-finalized...
Paul Grobstein, February 20, 2010 (29)
I'm very much intrigued by the project of taking a fresh look at "premodern literature" in terms of the "the multiplicity of voice (rather than focusing on those that would prove subsequently productive, the "successful mutations") (Karla's post above). And by parallels between that and explorations in other realms. And suspect that in all cases the challenge isn't so much an absence of available material but rather an interesting switch in mindset to a fuller appreciation of the evolving systems perspective and its implications.

Prior to the Darwinian revolution in biology, natural historians tended to make sense of the diversity of organisms is terms of some fixed and eternal pattern into which they all fit it. Even after Darwin (and to some extent still today), many people still think of traces of the past in terms of their relevance to accounting for the present (the "ancestors" of existing organisms, including ourselves).

What's increasingly clear is that most traces of the past don't actually fit easily into any simple "explanation" for the present. The fossil record can, in general, be read as containing ancestors of existing organisms, but it can equally be read as a continuing process of exploration, one in which the present in only an instance of many possible presents (Stephen J. Gould, among others, so reads it).

Driven in part by advances in dating technologies, paleontologists have begun to recognize that existing fossils previously organized as a sequence leading to modern humans actually make better sense as an exploration of possible forms of human bodies, with in the recent past several alternative forms co-existing (cf Ian Tattersall's The World From Beginnings to 4000 BCE). And, similarly, anthropologists are beginning to recognize that there is no single progression to the present state of human culture, that the relevant artifacts are better understood as revealing a variety of different explorations of what human culture might be (cf Colin Renfrew's Prehistory: The Making of the Modern Mind).

Yes, one can indeed conceive the world as "broader than the final outcome that prevails" and do so without "mysticism" (Wai Chee's post above). The trick here is to treat inquiry not as effort to account for what is, but rather as an exploration into what might be, not only in literature, not only in biology but in general. The "actualized" and "non-actualized" (Karla's post above) are, from this perspective, less interesting than the potentially actualized but as yet unconceived (, both in the past and the in the present (cf and

That there can be things other than what is or has been doesn't require a mystical perspective but only an appreciation of evolution as always generating "possible beginnings" and of the human brain as an amplifier of that process. And yes, an appreciation of "a disruptive force that keeps the playing field active, a force that allows final outcomes to be revisited, de-finalized..." (Wai Chee above and
Karla Mallette, February 22, 2010, (30)
Fascinating and suggestive comments! In the shameless self-promotion department, I should point out that I have been playing with the idea of restoring possible futures (that's a part of this project: And I don't mean to denigrate mysticism. Others would disagree, but I see a kind of mysticism in some philological scholarship that honors the linguistic particularities of the object of study - that refuses translation. Language itself is a map of the potential, in a way, whether you phrase it as "non-actualized" or "conceivable". Look at a page of Lane's Arabic-English dictionary, for instance, or read Emilio Garcia-Gomez's description of the Alhambra in Silla del Moro, which achieves the same end through poetic description rather than plurilingual hijinx: lapidary linguistic sculptures that insist on juxtaposition or agglomeration, rather than synthesis and translation, as analytic strategy.

Systems theory, maybe, can help to explain historical interactions between languages in a way that simultaneously historicizes and de-finalizes (lovely word, Wai Chee) literary history. But I still have a question about fortune - the aleatory, chance. I'm not sure why it feels like a problem: I guess it's to do with understanding the mechanism by which potential becomes actual. (In your essay on James, Wai Chee, in another happy phrase, you talked about the tension between luck and logic.) I have used etymology to expose the persistence of the possible. Words bear the record of possibilities and plausibilities into a brave new future never imagined when they were coined. I will have to search Wittgenstein for ways to think this through. What about C.S. Peirce's tychism, Paul? Did that notion go anywhere - do evolutionary biologists still use Peirce's coinage?

Paul Grobstein, 23 February, 2010 (31)
As above (see 22) I hesitate to speak for the class of "evolutionary biologists." But many do indeed acknowledge an important role for chance in evolution. Stephen J. Gould is perhaps best know at this point but Jacques Monod's earlier Chance and Necessity makes the point in a broader biological context.

What particularly intrigues me is that chance "feels like a problem" not in one discourse community (eg literature) but in many. Within physics there is a long and continuing debate about where or not "God throws dice" (cf and the same is true of biology (, mathematics and philosophy, and ordinary everyday human life (

Problems like this one that surface in a variety of contexts intrigue me because it suggests there is something involved beyond that can't be made sense of in terms of the idiosyncracies of particular contexts (cf In this particular case, my guess is what is at issue is whether one thinks of inquiry (and evolution) as moving toward an answer or as creating new possibilities ( If the former, chance is a problem (a bug); if the latter, its appealing (a feature).

Seems to me we've turned up in the conversation already several different interesting "transdiscipinary" problems: chance, definalization, competition versus cooperation among them. Looking forward to seeing what else we turn up along these lines. And thanks, Karla, for tychism. I'm a CS Peirce fan but was unaware of that term. No, evolutionary biologists don't, to my knowledge, use the term. But perhaps it will re-emerge in the future.
Wai Chee Dimock, February 23, 2010 (32)
To go back to Karla's earlier point about etymology -- I do think it is a faithful witness to the persistence (as well as breadth) of the unactualized (still think it's a helpful term), since it shows that our current usage is the result of a severe winnowing process, with much that is vital being winnowed out. I think in Anglo-Saxon, the word "silly" meant "blessed" or "joyous" -- the loss of that meaning not only signals a corresponding loss of that particular emotion, but serves as a reminder of a past that, though winding up as an evolutionary dead end, did flourish once upon a time, its erasure undeniable, but not necessarily deserved.

Karla: I took forward reading you book on the new philology and counter-Orientalism. The "Arab Mediterranean" does seem a good place to think about possible futures that came to nothing, as well as possible futures that might yet come to pass... For me, "chance" is a way to come to terms with the fundamental arbitrariness of history, the fact that our "present is only an instance of many possible presents," as Paul says, and maybe not the best. It's mind-boggling, for instance, to think what the world would have been like if the history of Andalusia had gone the other way....
Paul Grobstein, February 23, 2010 (33)
For an amusing fictional exploration of "if the history ... had gone the other way" in the case of human evolution, see Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, Hybrids).

So, add to my list above, "undeserved erasure," as per Wai Chee's latest. What else have we/might we turn up as "transdisciplinary problems"? And how might working on them return benefits in their own right as well in dealing with disciplinary problems? That, more or less, is where this conversation started as I remember it.
Karla Mallette, February 25, 2010 (34)
Thanks, Paul, for your list of transdisciplinary problems (and transdisciplinary [potential] solutions). To complicate things further (why not?), wouldn't it be interesting to add an economist to the mix? Here's a contrafactual history for you: what if, instead of Darwinian evolution, the mega-narrative that emerged from the nineteenth century came from Marx? I'm thinking not of the historicizing narrative of Marxist thought - the march toward revolution and liberation - but of the hinge between the material and the cultural in Marx's thought. Maybe I'm just arguing in favor of a culture-based understanding of historical development, rather than science-based.

This, at any rate, is what I find most intriguing about Franco Moretti's graphs and maps and trees: they propose new ways to think about the hinge between material history and cultural history. I still think we need another model to describe literary development in the premodern world: the networked relations between languages (vernaculars and lingua francas), the migrations of languages and their attendant literary circus. That's why I'm thinking about crystal growth, about agglomeration, about chaos or systems theory, as ways to image literary history. Imagine Marxist thought that draws not on the narrative and imagery of evolutionary theory (ramification, competition for survival and survival of the fittest) but on systems theory (graphs, maps, trees; but also agglomeration, crystallization, cooperation as a strategy for systemic survival, chance; the long-term endurance of deselected mutation, aka definalization ...)
Wai Chee Dimmock, March 2, 2010 (35)
Another thought -- how about Darwin as the "hinge" to introduce chance into the Marxist evolutionary narrative? Marx (I'm oversimplifying him, of course, but not to the point of caricature) seems to assume a fully rationalized and fully recuperative relation between cause and effect, between input and outcome. Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, allows for a much wider margin of unpredictability between those two (and in that way is much closer to chaos theory, with a radical asymmetry or non-correspondence between input and outcome). This might be one way to grant maximum latitude to the deselected, and to see the literary field at any given moment as a state of unstable crystallization...
Karla Malette, March 3, 2010 (36)
Very interesting, Wai Chee. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the possibilities this might open up - especially your "state of unstable crystallization" (which is poetry, as well as divinest sense), and what kinds of readings this invites. I first started playing with Franco Moretti's "distant reading" because I'm trying to figure out a parallel problem to what Moretti describes, but in pre-modern literatures: looking at the movement of literary works (and tales, and characters, and so on) across languages, as a way to track literary communications. It seems like a way forward, around the impasse presented by various ideologically charged readings - "translatio studii et imperii," the "Arabic thesis" (which states the influence of Arabic poetics on troubadour poetry), and so on: "distant reading," as Moretti formulates it, seems a way to step back and take a fresh look at intransigent old questions. There have been 1001 studies on Dante and Islam, and the question has never been satisfactorily answered; but at the same time, the Italian peninsula was awash in works of literature known to have been translated from Arabic into the European languages - from Kalila wa-Dimna and Barlaam and Josaphat and the 7 Sages of Rome to even Aristotle's Poetics, known in the medieval West through translation from the Arabic. During the Cinquecento, as Byzantines fleeing Constantinople brought Greek texts to Italy, Europe discovered the "real" Aristotle, and 8 new translations of the Poetics from the Greek into Italian or Latin were published; but during the same century, 10 new editions were published of the "old" Poetics - translated from Greek into Syriac into Arabic into Latin into the vernaculars, and commented lavishly in the process.

Talk about a state of unstable crystallization! How to capture the contingency of that century of literary historical negotiation? The problem in thinking about these questions (inter alia) is the overwhelming number of works you have to track: each of these works translated across the Mediterranean exists in a dazzling number of versions, in a dazzling number of languages. For this reason scholars have tended to prune the branching tree of literary ramifications - in many cases (though not all) they look at the French tradition or the Italian tradition of this or that text in isolation. You simply can't do it all. This, I think, is where you need some kind of "distant reading": a device, an abstraction that can represent the complexities of the tradition. This is why I resist the tree, which is particularly good for representing lineal descent: we *know* where the road ends. What literary historians need to do is to restore a sense of the possibilities that seemed plausible at moments like this.

Here's one more tale, to illustrate the intersection of chance and economy: Islamic finance is motivated in large part by an effort to eliminate the effects of chance from business transactions. It's a noble impulse, though quite futile, but it has borne lexical fruit: our word "risk" comes from an Arabic source (al-rizk). It originally referred to unanticipated profits that came from trade - that's what it means in some medieval Italian documents - then came to refer to any unanticipated outcome that resulted from trade. I think it's possible to use Moretti's models of distant reading to restore some historical texture to our understanding of premodern literary history and even to individual words, but I also think we need to supplement his repertoire of images in order to describe premodern literatures and robustly inter-lingual literary negotiations - to capture this sense of instability and definalization, and to represent the layering of linguistic traditions that's so essential to this history.

But I'm still tinkering.


Wai Chee Dimock, March 10, 2010 (37)


It's fascinating that, even as 8 translations of the Poetics were done the new way, from Greek to Latin or Italian, 10 more were still done the old way, from Greek into Syriac into Arabic into Latin. Moretti's "distant reading" would allow us to keep track of those bedeviling numbers. But, beyond that quantitative tally -- if only to have some conjecture about that peculiar ratio of 8 to 10 -- we'd probably need to delve pretty closely into textual specifics, to see how the new translations might differ from the old, and why the old would persist even under the new dispensation. So, to supplement our repertoire of images, maybe we could try to visualize this alternation between the macro and the micro in terms of the maximizing / minimizing functions of the digital screen, making it possible to scale up or down, zoom in and out?


Karla Mallette, March 14, 2010 (38)

To me, the metaphor that best represents that problem is the fractal: a complexity that repeats itself at different scales, and bedevils (love that word, Wai Chee) the scholar trying to create an abstract description that can describe it.

Also, here's another thought about fortune: maybe that is simply a literary historian's way to describe a complex system that's both deterministic and unpredictable?


Wai Chee Dimock, March 18, 2010 (39)

Yes! the fractal is a great metaphor for "self-similarity" repeated across different scales (Douglas Hofstadter has a brilliant discussion of this scalar recursion in Godel, Escher, Bach). For literary history, though, I find "self-similarity" less useful than another aspect of fractal -- Mandelbrot's counterintuitive point that the small can never be recuperated from the large. In his essay, "How long is the Coastline of Britain," Mandelbrot says that, if we were to use the feet of a snail as the scale of measurement, that coastline would get a lot longer, since all the tiny indentations would get measured. This micro level of detail can never be deduced from a macro analysis. In my book Through Other Continents, I used Mandelbrot to argue that close reading remains indispensable even when we're working with the largest possible scale. It now occurs to me that the obverse is true as well -- that the macro can't be deduced from the micro either. So a fractal universe is indeed both deterministic and unpredictable, since we know that, no matter which end of the scale we start out from, things are going to get unknowable down the road! "Fortune" is probably the name we give to this kind of complex system without resorting to mathematics. I was just at Bryn Mawr, and had a stimulating discussion with the "Evolving Systems" group about formation and deformation, the animate and the inanimate; fractals seem a great way to think about those dynamics as well. (I've uploaded Mandelbrot's Julia set, as well as M.C. Escher's "Smaller and Smaller.)


Karla Mallette, March 18, 2010 (40)

I'm going to have to look at Through Other Continents - thanks for the reference. This is Zeno's paradox (Zeno again!) - the length of the coastline is unmeasurable because you can always reduce the scale of your measurement and thus increase the length of the coast. What confuses me, still, is the matter of toggling between scales - how do you reconcile the macro and the micro? And, especially, how do you create an abstraction to characterize a recursive system - one that exhibits fractal complexity? Truthfully, I began to think about fortune b/c it shows up in some of the literature I'm reading - but it sticks with me as a useful way to describe some of these paradoxes: self-similarity, fractal complexity, the chaotic system that is at once deterministic and unpredictable. At the end of the day we're literary historians, not mathematicians. I'm in the market for metaphors to describe literary phenomena - and if I stay a step ahead of my kid's math homework in the bargain, all the better!


Wai Chee Dimock, March 23, 2010 (41)

What fractals would say is that toggling between scales is probably always going to involve some degree of uncertainty: there's no sure way to predict the micro from the macro, or vice versa. This can be frustrating, but I think it also gives us some latitude in conjuring up a range of scenarios under any set of determinants, since the path from the systemic input to some particular outcome isn't at all a foregone conclusion (a work produced under a system of patronage, for instance, isn't necessarily what the patron wants!) So it seems OK to me to proceed with two parallel descriptions, macro and micro, related to some extent, but not reducible to each other, and aligning the universe of the possible with that coastline that keeps getting longer and longer...


Paul Grobstein, March 31, 2010 (42)

Intriguing serendipitous intersection of paths. Was dropping by to report that one of the seeds planted earlier in this conversation (see Karla, February 22) has begun to germinate. An inter(trans)disciplinary conversation on chance/tychism/the aleatory is now underways at Anyone interested is invited to chime in.

And, lo and behold, what I find here is a concern about moving between scales, an issue that had emerged independently there, in much the same terms. Yep, things going on at different scales (or at different levels of organization) are related to one another but not necessarily reducible to one another (

Fractals are indeed a not bad metaphor for that. As Wai Chee says, there is no way to go uniquely from the coast of England drawn at one scale to a drawing of the coast of England at any other scale, even though one is referring to the same "thing" in all cases.

On the other hand, there is a problem with fractals as a metaphor. Real fractals (leaving aside whether the coast of England actually is one) are time-invariant and deterministic systems, which is to say that there exists a single description adequate to generate related descriptions at all scales, a single equation that is used to plot the fractal at whatever scale one is interested.

My guess is that that is not the case for evolution, either biological or cultural, that instead these systems require related but different descriptions not only at different spatial scale but at different times as well, in large part because of the central role of ... chance. An amusing consequence of this is the notion that methods (of interpretation, of science) need also to be fluid, adapted to the particular space/time scales being explored. "With the only constancy being skepticism, responsiveness to the challenges set by the materials one is working with, and an interest in "shared subjectivity"? (


Wai Chee Dimock, April 17, 2010 (43)


Yes, there's a problem with fractals -- what mathematicians like about them is that there's a single description adequate to generate related descriptions at all scales; but for humanists, that's what makes them not strictly applicable to our work. (It just occurred to me, though, that Marx might actually like fractals, since there would then be "self-similarity" between economics, politics, and literature...)

However, if we relax this insistence on self-similarity, and use fractals instead to sharpen our awareness that the choice of scale is non-neutral, leading to different kinds of data being collected, then the concept would in fact alert us to the primacy of variance -- different patterns observable at different dimensions of time as well as dimensions of space. In that sense, fractals might turn out to be a good ally for evolving systems, giving us fine-grained descriptions at different points in time. What do you think?


Karla Mallette, April 18, 2010 (44)

Maybe the chief difference between fractals and evolution is what we literary people would call genre. Evolution is a narrative; the fractal is a metaphor for a spatial rather than chronological configuration of elements - if it were a literary genre, we might call it lyric. I still resist the evolutionary narrative - flying in the face of reason, and your patient and detailed explanations - for the simple reason that it's a narrative; thus inevitably it flattens the splendid variety that I'm trying to tease out of the literary record, in favor of a deterministic outcome. To mix metaphors beyond all decency, the evolutionary template turns all narratives into tragedies - there is only one possible outcome: the winner of the great evolutionary lottery; tyche, fate - and I'm looking for a comedy.

And, in fact, there may be a kind of fractal complexity in the transmission traditions I'm thinking about. The kind of radical complexity we see in the elaboration of genres exists also in the elaboration of individual works (I'm thinking in terms of the manuscript transmission of premodern works, but there are parallels in the modern world, e.g. in the complex narrative traditions studied by Franco Moretti) and also even in the complex etymological history embedded in single words. In other words, the fractal complexity is there, but you need the patience and the diligence to unpack and describe it - this is what makes Moretti's "distant reading" so dazzling. And the hazard of evolutionary thinking is that it shuts down fractal complexity in favor of the one inevitable outcome.

Does this make sense? Here's a further wrinkle: once you start talking about fortune - fate, chance, tychism - you're wandering away from the mathematicians, and into the province of the moral philosophers. At least, as long as you're interested in fortune as it affects the lives of human beings. And who isn't?


Wai Chee Dimcok, April 21, 2010 (45)

Literary history as comedy rather than tragedy: I'm intrigued by this mapping of genre not onto individual works, but onto the field as a whole, as an active decision not to bow to what might seem an ironclad outcome, turning it instead into something much more wobbly, a perpetual "what if?"

I just taught Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 today -- it has a description of what happens when the meaning of a sentence settles down and sinks in:
"Each word converted to a token, a matrix of strengths. These tokens laced
together into sentence vectors. The vectors rolled around through the net
landscape, marbles seeking the most available basin. The place they landed,
they way they fell, was what they meant."
A tragic account of this would say that the outcome is inevitable, fully scripted. A comic account would say that things could have gone the other way, that it was no more than fortune -- or luck -- that produces this particular outcome. There's still a narrative, I think, but it's a potentially reversible narrative, one that allows for a "backward propagation" (the phrase is also Richard Powers') to a prior state of amplitude and fluidity.

So, maybe fractals should be theorized not only as recursivity, but also as reversibility?


Paul Grobstein, April 23, 2010 (46)

Maybe the trick here is to move past arguing about the adequacy of metaphors drawn from other disciplines, and look instead for consistencies, despite our different disciplinary backgrounds, about what we are in common looking for? Yes, there are biologists who see evolution as involving "deterministic outcomes," as there are literary scholars who treat literature the same way. And there are both biologist ands literary scholars who prefer a "comic" view, one that not only leaves space for "luck" but celebrates that ingredient. So we agree that we'd like to develop an approach to inquiry (scientific, literary, and otherwise) that includes the "comic view"?

And, if we ignore disagreements about the details of fractals, we have in common a distaste for presuming that there is a particular privileged level of analysis? We'd prefer an approach to inquiry that acknowledges that that there are important differences in how things look at different levels of scale in both space and time, that none of these are "reducible" to any of the others, but that there are significant causal relationships among them. And, perhaps, that some modes of description are applicable simultaneously at several different scales.

Seems to me that's not bad progress at all for the start of an effort to find "ways that thinking about world literature that might shed light on thinking about evolving systems and vice versa" (an aspiration voiced at the outset of this conversation). Or for trying to find an answer to the originating question of whether World Literature, or any other interdisciplinary enterprise, is 'coherent" (ie has some identifiable, distinctive directions/methods of its own).

And do think its only the beginning. I like taking a "perpetual 'what if'" as an additional commonality. The point of inquiry isn't restricted to making sense of what has been or is but extends as well to conceiving what might be.

And I think the problem of genres, or more generally, the origin and significance of "categories" (cf, will turn out as well to be a common concern.
Maybe relevant, along these lines, is an effort to distinguish several kinds of "stories," some narrative and others not (

The issue of "reversibility" and the existence of lack thereof (at different scales) of "backward propagation" also seems to me worth more discussion as a common concern. It, along with the issues of randomness as well as context-dependence and "non-locality" are closely related, at least in some disciplinary discussions (cf, and would be worth teasing apart more in multi/trans-disciplinary terms.

Looking forward to seeing what we can do with these, and what else turns up.


Wai Chee Dimock, April 24, 2010 (47)

Yes, generic reversibility and backward propagation do seem to point to a world less than fully deterministic -- things don't go in just one direction, chance might intervene, and what seems lost might be obliquely resurrected, even if not fully recovered. But a word of caution: while it's tempting to think that such a world is "comic" (and that comedy itself is the most capacious of genres, encompassing tragedy and subordinating it), there's no guarantee that this is indeed the case.

I finally got to see the William Kentridge show at MOMA -- his stop-motion animation, "Soho and Felix," is especially interesting. To make this, Kentridge filmed small groups of charcoal drawings over and over again, continually augmenting, erasing, and shifting each one. What results bears the traces of all these marks and erasures.

I'd call this stop-motion animation "comedy." Kentridge himself calls this procedure "thick time." He writes: "Everything can be saved. Everything is provisional. A prior action is revised by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revived by the next drawing. The smudges of erasure thick time in the film -- a record of thinking in slow motion."


Paul Grobstein, April 25, 2010 (48)

Yep, part of what is exciting about Kentridge is indeed "Everything is provisional. A prior action is revised by that which follows." But I think we need to unpack "reversibility and backward propagation" a bit to avoid later confusion.

"Backward propagation" certainly exists for Kentridge and many other human constructs but probably does not exist for the frog brain and inanimate processes. It depends on the story telling character of the human brain, on having conceptions in the present of the past, conceptions that can be made otherwise. There is, for far as I know, no actual change of the past, only change in one's conceptions of it. Along the same lines, history (of literature or anything else) independent of our telling of it is almost certainly neither "tragic" nor "comic." It acquires either character only in our telling of it.

Whether history involves chance is a different question, one might hope to take a position on relatively independently of one's preference for either the comic or the tragic. And, interestingly, if it does involve chance than, in an important sense, history is not "reversible." For physicists, at least, "reversible" means that not only can one predict the future from a knowledge of the present but one can fully reconstruct the past as well. Chance events not only make the future unpredictable but equally make the past fundamentally unreconstructable.

Maybe that's a truly "comic" story? Things do go "just in one direction" in our absence, "chance might intervene" and so we have the wherewithal to construct, challenge, and reconstruct our own conceptions of both the future and the past? Or maybe its a truly "tragic" story, depending on how we tell it?


Karla Mallette, April 25, 2010 (49)

Absolutely fascinating comments, Wai Chee and Paul ... I have been distracted and didn't get back to this, but I think you figured out that when I used the term "comedy" I was thinking like a medievalist: using the term as shorthand for stylistic complexity, density of plot lines, unpredictability. I wish I could scroll back to reread my comment and explain more precisely where I was going with it, but Facebook is acting up and I can't find a big chunk of the posts. Between you and me, I suspect that it is changing our history on us.... I'm really fascinated by this business that Paul points out about the physicists' view of "reversible" history and reconstructing the past. It's evident to me that two things that historians pointedly and repeatedly are not able to do are 1) reconstruct the past or 2) predict the future. We come up with rereadings of the past that are useful in the present - revisionist histories that promise to finally do justice to this or that chapter of our past - but we never really know what happened, not really. We're telling stories about the past and those stories change to fit circumstances in the present. A corollary of this, of course, is that historians can't predict the future. We do it all the time, of course, but it's nonsense. That doesn't mean that it can't be beautiful and even true - the best histories are both - and even funny, why not? - but I don't think it's possible to fully know the past (when you're talking about human history or literature) or to predict the future.

Maybe this is why the physicist's certainty is so breathtaking to us. Those fractals - so crystal-clear, literally! All the complexity you could wish for, but without sacrificing clarity! History is, in comparison, so murky. Anybody who has looked deeply into historiography knows that we *can* change the past - historians do it all the time. And we're able to do so in part because the raw data is baffling, contradictory and almost always imperfectly recorded and imperfectly gathered. I hope this doesn't sound facile or banal. I actually think it's one of the most intriguing, beautiful, optimistic things you can say about the practice of history - and it's also what makes history comic, in the best sense, in the medieval sense: truly complex, truly dense (or thick), truly unpredictable. Kind of like what Paul is saying in his last paragraph above. Or am I selling history short?


Paul Grobstein, May 3, 2010 (50)

"we *can* change the past - historians do it all the time. And we're able to do so in part because the raw data is baffling, contradictory and almost always imperfectly recorded and imperfectly gathered" (Karla, above)
Nope, I don't think you're "selling history short," and trust you don't think I was either. Its precisely because the "raw data" doesn't compel a singular story, because of the "murk," that historians can "come up with rereadings of the past that are useful in the present." Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a wonderful play on that theme. And the result can indeed be "beautiful and even true" as long as by "true" one means, as per the pragmatists, useful in the present for conceiving alternative futures. This was, if I understand correctly, Michael Oakeshott's characterization of the business of history (cf

And I suspect that the same murk that makes the past revisable instead of reconstructable makes the future conceivable in alternative ways instead of predictable. "complexity ... without sacrificing clarity" certainly has an appeal, but it leaves one, as Dostoevsky characterizes it in Notes from the Underground, as nothing more than a "piano key." I'd rather be "an agent, to matter, to not only be shaped but to shape" ( And to conceive others that way. For better or for worse, tragic and comic.


Wai Chee Dimock, May 7, 2010 (51)

The murk is fine with me, it seems more life-sustaining than clarity. It's also much more common -- it's not just the past that's murky, but the present for the most part, what we're going through right now, of a piece with a future we can glimpse only very imperfectly. If we accept this as a given, then every point in time is revisitable, revisable, a work of reconstruction never done to everyone's satisfaction, dogged every step of the way by gaps of knowledge.

In the Poetics, Aristotle famously tragedy as a genre defined by a reversal of events that takes everyone by surprise, bringing down somebody noble, of high station. Comedy, on the other hand, is a "low" genre, bringing no harm to the world: "Comedy is... an imitation of persons who are inferior, not, however, going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part. The ludicrous, that is, is a failing, or a piece of ugliness, which causes no pain or destruction." I think of Beckett's characters, crawling around in the mud, saying: "I can't go on, I go on." Not the beauty of mathematics, or the beauty of the highborn. But an ugliness, a ludicrousness, that keeps the world afloat, hoping always for the impermanence of harm -- how about this as a scholarly aspiration?


Paul Grobstein, May 7, 2010 (52)

"convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go ... One must imagine Sisyphus happy." ... Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Yep, the murk is an essential element in what "keeps the world afloat," just as randomness and associated disarray is an essential element in evolution. But being "eager to see" is equally important for cultural evolution, and for the role of humans in evolution generally.

"Gaps of knowledge" exist only because of that eagerness. Ditto whatever regret one feels at our being able to reconstruct the past, understand the present, predict the future "only very imperfectly." Ditto "the beauty of mathematics" and "ugliness," "ludicrousness" and concern about "harm."

We can have our cake and eat it too (cf, by taking the murk as the incentive to create light and the light we create as in turn the source of additional generative murk. "the night has no end" but it can be always a new and interesting darkness? A permanent "impermanence of harm" as well as of nurture and delight? How about that as a "scholarly aspiration"?


Wai Chee Dimock, May 12, 2010 (53)

Yes, generative murk. We -- our species -- wouldn't have evolved to this point if we hadn't been egged on by the dark, by the urge to see through it, to get to the bottom of it. Scientists and humanities have this in common, in fact. But, as we also know, getting to the bottom doesn't guarantee a better view. So there's no danger that we wouldn't still be wallowing in the mud for quite some time, maybe even getting nurture and delight there. One of my favorite moments in Walden:

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud... If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Do you think, though, that Thoreau's cimeter is the same as Occam's razor?



To be continued


Additional conversation in on-line forum below.  Please join in.


Paul Grobstein's picture

a formatting adjustment

To make it easier to refer to particular contributions to the archived conversation, I've added identifiers.  Individual contributions can now be linked using the numbers in parentheses (eg

alesnick's picture

Oh, I see!

Thanks, Anne -- so "special" comes about in the dynamic of looking, not from the appearance of what is seen. I agree.  Anything/everything is thus potentially special.  A better way to say this is that everything is different.  So it's funny that from the engagement with the world via "specere" we get to its exhaustion/emptying via overly formal categories, kinds, or species.  This reminds me of Paul's listing of teachings from Warren Hampe, including this one: "Pay attention to the verbs, not the nouns" (  [Btw, right now my computer isn't showing any pictures, so I can't see the picture by Purcell or the little icons that would let me create a live link to that text.  When I sort this out I'll w/b.]

Anne Dalke's picture

exhaustion/emptying...and renewal

Not so "funny," I think, but eminently logical: we see, we discriminate what we are seeing, we label it, "fix" it...and so the slide: from "special" to "species" to "not special" a'tall! A couple of years ago, when Wil Franklin and I were co-teaching a summer institute about "change over time," we did this lovely --and revelatory-- exercise in which the students sorted multiple images into "species" (and so realized both the constructedness and the revisability of our category-making). Following on that, we searched for homologies of ourselves in the skeletons of other species, and our own: that, too, was revelatory: all the echoes and --as you say-- all the differences.



alesnick's picture


I've been thinking about Paul's statement above that, "All reasonably successful organisms have certain characteristics in common, including a measure of attentiveness to their environments" and the idea that this attention is "the deep core of what a humanist means by "close reading" and a scientist would call 'rigor.'"  This broader discussion of texts and animals, academics and attention, led me to notice as connected the words "species," "special," "specific," "speciality," etc.  To me, the connection speaks to something important about human perception and meaning making.  We arrive at these by way of particulars, by enabling forms.  This pertains to the classroom -- the necessity of specific somethings to attend to, even when more general understandings/questions are sought,  to fields of study and the way they grow, and to interpersonal relationships.  Not just the devil is in the details.  At the same time, though, art and science can teach us how to perceive (or imagine) forms, and shifting states between them, not available to everyday attention.  These shifting states exist in classrooms, fields of study, and relationships, as well, but it seems we find them more easily by indirection.



Anne Dalke's picture


Musing, Alice, over the linked terms --"species," "special," "specific"--that you found, I went to the OED (a favorite way for me to think about, and through, such patterns). Turns out that all these words derive from the single Latin term "species," meaning "appearance, form, kind, etc.," which derives itself, in turn, from "specere": "to look, behold." Riffing on this connection, I'd  say that it is actually the act of beholding, of looking attentively @ our world, which makes it (or "specific" aspects of it) special. So many examples of this, but one very striking illustration might be the photography of Rosamund Purcell, who can see--in the skull of a hydrocephalic child--a head opening like a flower:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.