Structures of management: capital and postindustrial capital

Alan Liu’s analysis of Frederick W. Taylor’s “functional foremanship” model of manufacturing allows for a much-needed re-examination of Jean-François Lyotard’s description of the capitalist construction of “professional” and “technical” intelligentsia, contextualizing Lyotard’s argument to a post-Y2K and Web 2.0-era postindustrial capitalism:

“The other management idea to emerge in step with mediation is distributed management or what Taylor called functional foremanship. When manufacturing could be charted out on paper as an interlocking sequence of operations, operators, locations, and resources, then responsibility for the entire plan could be distributed piecemeal to an organization chart of managers that broke the gang-boss mold of management, according to which individual managers directly oversaw platoons of workers. Managers matched up instead with discrete, transposable, and re-programmable functions that bore no necessary relation to individual workers or work group formations, which in turn could be restructured piecemeal as needed. Workers, in other words, no longer had a boss per se; they were minded instead by a buzzing hive of “order of work and route clerks,” “instruction card clerks,” “time and cost clerks,” “shop disciplinarians,” “speed bosses,” “inspectors,” “repair bosses,” and so on who bossed them by bossing around pieces of paper (SM, pp. 102–4). Freed of the need to be directly bossy, indeed, managers in Taylor’s argument could even be “friendly,” or what we might today call user-friendly systems of management. In short, Taylor’s functional foremanship was the origin of today’s professional-managerial or professional-technical-managerial new class” (68).

— Alan Liu, “Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn 2004)

Reading data into literature

For several years, I’ve been following trends in data analysis in literary studies. As my PhD begins to come to a close, I turn my attention to a comprehensive study of ideas and methods of literary analysis that emerge from reading data into literature.

So, a short sweep:
Ten years ago, literary scholar Franco Moretti published Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, a fascinating re-approach to literary study whereby the data visualization of hundreds of literary texts’ narrative content (through graphs, maps, and trees) allows us to grasp larger trends in literary history.

Five years ago, Google Books & Harvard physicists attempted to quantify the English language through a database: drawing from millions of digitized literary texts, they mapped patterns in the literary usage of words through what is called “culturonomics,” whereby language is proven to reflect cultural atmospheres and change.

In the past five years, and with increasing urgency and interest, digital humanists and literary scholars have expanded methods of database analysis to consider the quantification of narrative. For example, through Stanford’s Literary Lab, Moretti combined network theory with plot analysis in theory and practice, furthering the intent of the digital humanities to unite new media tools with humanistic interpretation.

Given that we have created our own burden of information overload through the database (what I’d describe as a gluttonization or perversion of the archive that is less Foucault and more Kittler), it is inevitable that we now have to fix the repercussions of what once seemed to be “useful” strategies and tools, much in the same way that we must address pollution and climate change. With digital access to an abundance of literature that cannot be read by one person in a lifetime, the coping method is to read in a way that is described as “surface”-level or “shallow.” NK Hayles has described the practices of “hyper reading” and “machine reading”; Moretti, “distant reading”; and the research team of HathiTrust, “non-consumptive reading,” to name a few. My approach to the changing environment and stakes of literary analysis and humanities scholarship is to trace shifts in narrational method and comprehension. How do emerging approaches to literary analysis impact how we make narrative meaning?

And since this research project is in its nascency, that’s all I’ll post for now. Look for more in the upcoming months, or come see my paper “On the Value of Narrative in a Reflexive Digital Humanities” at CSDH (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) at the Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences in two weeks.

“Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature”: Where Cultural and Media Convergences Meet

In May 2014, I gave a short talk (scroll down for audio) at the annual meeting of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association in which I discussed the conceptual and disciplinary parameters of the literary vis-à-vis emerging notions of comparative textual analysis. “The work of comparative literary study,” I argue, “inherently involves diffusion through limits–the surveying of how definitive borders between and among texts, languages, cultures, disciplines, and theories are breached. And though we all study a form of literature or textuality, the pervasion now includes that of media and modes” (Fan 2014).

Rather than point to the demise of Comparative Literature as a discipline, the breaching of boundaries has fostered new theories and methodologies for comparative analysis–including the study of comparative textual media, spearheaded by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, and explored in their 2013 collection, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era.

As the state of Comparative Literature continues to be negotiated, Pressman (@jesspress on Twitter) shows how a comparative media framework contributes to our current and developing comprehensions of comparative textual analysis:

In this piece published by the American Comparative Literature Association, Pressman inquires into the place of electronic literature in/as comparative literature, identifying a form and style of contemporary literature that necessitates comparative reading and thinking.