Sheila Liming responds to Paul Fyfe

Fyfe views computational methods as “opposed” to some of the goals stated in the V21 Manifesto—namely the adoption of strategies that amount to the “accumulation of mere information”—while still noting the linkages between these two movements. In particular, Fyfe’s comment that the two comprise “the two most conspicuous developments in Victorian studies in the last decade” is an important one, as it exposes the way that such debates about method often hinge on an antithetical set of allegiances. Were it not for the provocations of one we might not have cause to think seriously about the insights of the other, and vice versa. This observation usefully repackages and reflects some of Allison’s thinking in Reductive Reading.

But if Fyfe is right, and Allison is actually engaged in what Ramsay once called “algorithmic criticism,” then we might argue that one of the chief takeaways here is that the knowledge that it is really the word “criticism,” and not any descriptors that might appear attached to it, that is in most confusingly in flux and, thus, causing all the trouble. Other critics have come to similar conclusions, most notably Rita Felski, who laments the way in which critique itself has been reductively understood as a process of “drawing out the nonobvious.”[1] Allison does not “criticize” in the traditional sense, meaning that there is little or no close reading happening in this book. But neither do her largescale readings of Dickens, Elliot, and others end at the simple conversion of literary text into “mere information.” What this suggests, I think, is a dilative and still-expanding view of criticism as a field of knowledge production that, as Fyfe notes, “clears space” for myriad approaches to the project of textual complexity.

[1] Rita Felski, Limits of Critique (Chicago UP, 2015), p. 83.

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