An Account of David Hoover's DHSI 2015 Keynote: Performance, Deformance, Apology

David L. Hoover of NYU gave the opening keynote during week 2 at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (#dhsi2015) this year. It was an intense event, partly because Hoover used certain euphemisms about the poet Joyce Kilmer that some members of the audience perceived as homophobic or transphobic. Another issue was perhaps a bit less urgent, but certainly at least one audience member noted it publicly and it struck home for me as well: Professor Hoover, throughout his lecture, adopted a somewhat comic and facetious tone when describing the ideas and methods of scholars whose work he was criticizing: Jerome McGann, Stephen Ramsay, and Stanley Fish.

As a service to those who weren't in the room, I'll try and summarize the controversy a bit briefly here. I did take notes at the event, but there were limits as to what I was able to record on the spot and my memory of some of what happened may be imperfect. (If anyone reading this wishes to correct my account or offer an alternative version of events, please do so in the comments below -- or send me an email at amardeep at gmail dot com.)

I should also say upfront that despite its flaws, I actually learned a lot from Hoover's lecture; it was, in fact, the first time I had ever seen a lecture strongly oriented towards this type of stylistic analysis. I have been thinking quite a bit about the contentious parts of the lecture, but the more 'bread and butter' arguments and analyses have been thought-provoking for me as well, as I'll describe below.

Hoover has a really impressive CV and extensive credentials in the stylistics (stylometry) subfield in the digital humanities. Here is his page at NYU: among other things, he recently edited a volume for Routledge called Digital Literary Studies: Corpus Approaches to Poetry, Prose and Drama, with two of his own essays in that collection. He also published an essay using cluster analysis to analyze the evolution of Henry James' style in an issue of Henry James Review (accessible via Project Muse presently). Most directly salient for our purposes, however, I would recommend readers look at his essay "Hot Air Textuality: Literature After Jerome McGann." Many of the rhetorical moves Hoover made in the talk he gave are worked out at greater length and with greater care in that published paper (indeed, one of my biggest problems with Hoover's talk is that he seemed to be skipping important steps in his critique of McGann in particular -- he at times came across as contemptuous of McGann; the published critique is actually more respectful of McGann's main arguments).

The most controversial parts of Prof. Hoover's lecture were related to his critique of two essays by Jerome McGann now printed in Radiant Textuality: "The Alice Fallacy; or, Only God Can Make a Tree," and "Deformance and Interpretation" (co-authored with Lisa Samuels). In "The Alice Fallacy," McGann pays considerable attention to Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees," This is a poem that was denigrated by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in the classic New Criticism-oriented textbook Understanding Poetry as a textbook case of "a bad poem" that is (unfortunately, in their view) incredibly popular. As part of a larger argument that close reading can be a highly subjective and idiosyncratic project, McGann uses the methods of New Critical close reading to show here that in fact there are complexities in Kilmer's poem that perhaps Brooks and Warren simply hadn't noticed, specifically a hint of a sexual narrative that comes to a climax in the fourth and fifth couplets:
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
It's easy to overlook the word "intimately" here, as well as a possibly sexual connotation to the last line of the poem ("Only God can make a tree"; McGann, following the developing anthropomorphic metaphor of the poem, suggests there might be good reasons to read "make" as a metaphor for "have sex with").

In his comments on this essay of McGann's, I did not hear Prof. Hoover really address the larger argument McGann is making here -- that New Critical methods are highly subject to error, especially if we couple close reading strategies with contextual information. One of the key moves McGann makes in his reading of the poem entails bringing the 'paratext' of Kilmer's original dedication "To Mrs. Henry Mills Alden," as well as biographical clues regarding Kilmer's possible connections to his dedicatee. In effect, McGann strongly implies an attraction on the poet's part to this "charismatic" older woman). At least in the talk he delivered at DHSI, Hoover's main response to McGann's reading of Kilmer was effectively to say that he saw McGann as "showing off with the text": "My own definition of literary criticism is 'showing off with the text.'”

Hoover also made his most controversial comment at this point. After showing a slide showing an image of Kilmer's face, he suggested that a person could also read a certain seeming effeminacy in his facial features that might be seen as rhyming with Kilmer's decision to drop his first name ("Alfred") for his more feminine-sounding middle name ("Joyce") when he started to publish. He also showed us a slide containing the text of a parody of "Trees" authored by Hoover himself (this shows up on Prof. Hoover's CV as: "'Trees,' an Interpretive Parody of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees'" -- the text does not appear to be online). Somewhere in here Professor Hoover made a comment suggesting that if we were to think this way we might be inclined to connect this to Kilmer's propensity to dress up in women's clothes.

(Incidentally, if anyone has a more exact transcription of this part of Hoover's talk in their notes, I would welcome it... I did not put this comment in my notes, and my recollection of the exact wording used here may be imperfect.)

As I heard it, Hoover was not saying that this is what he really thinks about Kilmer, but rather, if we're going to read a silly, chaste little poem like "Trees" in a sexual light, we might also be inclined to "show off" in those types of ways as well -- we're subject to a generalized interpretive excess. However, as I said above, the tone of Hoover's comments here was a bit slippery, and in the Q&A period and from the Twitterstorm that erupted amongst attendees while Hoover was speaking, it seemed that many in the audience saw this whole line of thought disturbing and offensive ("transphobic" was one word I heard used to describe it). I have to agree: these aren't matters to joke about.

Several questions were raised about Hoover's comments about Kilmer in the Q&A, and when it became clear that a sizeable constituency in the audience found Hoover's comments about Kilmer troubling, he forthrightly and unequivocally apologized. I also heard from friends that in the reception that followed elsewhere on campus, Hoover apologized further and again for the tone of his remarks. Finally, Hoover apologized on Twitter as follows:

(All that said, I also heard that one senior scholar in the room later grumbled in response to this critique that the new generation of academics is overly politically correct and obsessed with "beating up on straight white men." So the response to these comments of Hoover's was by no means unanimous...)

I personally think these remarks of Prof. Hoover's were a mistake and a distraction, but I am comfortable with the attempt at remediation represented by his immediate public apology. Unfortunately, they fit into a larger pattern of critique of McGann, Ramsay, and Fish that was a bit too jokey and familiar for my taste. At the time I heard this talk, I had not yet read "The Alice Fallacy"; now that I have, I tend to think that Hoover was in some ways missing the forest for the trees by dwelling at so much length on McGann's comments on Kilmer's "Trees"; McGann's point is that even the most established and familiar of New Critical interpretations can be questioned or, indeed, totally reversed with no loss of analytical rigor. I don't think McGann cares all that much about whether "Trees" is a good poem or not, nor is it particularly eccentric of him to imply that there might be a sexual connotation in the final stanzas.

I have similar misgivings about Hoover's parodic approach to McGann and Samuels' main arguments in "Deformance and Interpretation." Again, the main point of this essay co-written by McGann and Samuels is to extend the performative ideas in Bloom's "anxiety of influence" to critical practice. If every poetic composition can be seen as a revision of an earlier poet's work ("misprision"), every performance is in a way a "deformance." We as critics can engage in our own acts of deformation intentionally and heuristically rather than in an attempt to show up the poets whose works we attempt to interpret.

Admittedly, the examples of critical deformance that McGann and Samuels give (in "Deformance and Interpretation") in the service of a reading of Wallace Steven's "The Snow Man" aren't always entirely persuasive. But even if the examples of deformance McGann and Samuels adduce (i.e., showing a diagram with just the nouns in the poem, and then just the verbs) aren't that impressive, I don't think they're silly or ridiculous, as Hoover seemed to suggest in his talk (Hoover created his own parodic deformances that were patently absurd, and showed us these as slides in his presentation). McGann's deformances of "The Snow Man," at the very least, do give us an idea of certain internal patterns in the syntax of Stevens' poem that might not be superficially evident.

In his essay, "Hot Air Textuality," Hoover spells out his issues with McGann and Samuels' approach to "The Snow Man" more methodically and at greater length than he did in this talk. That said, there's a broader point in this essay that seems important and correct even if the examples might raise questions. The key idea McGann and Samuels are attempting to convey might be this one:
A deformative procedure puts the reader in a highly idiosyncratic relation to the work. This consequence could scarcely be avoided, since deformance sends both reader and work through the textual looking glass. On that other side customary rules are not completely short-circuited, but they are held in abeyance, to be chosen among (there are many systems of rules), to be followed or not as one decides. Deformative moves re-investigate the terms in which critical commentary will be undertaken. Not the least significant consequence, as will be seen, is the dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features, however neglected in neo-classical models of criticism that search imaginative works for their "objective" and general qualities. (Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, "Deformance and Interpretation")
Here again McGann/Samuels are insisting on the slipperiness of interpretation -- even when using their own inventive tools. And again, I didn't hear Hoover acknowledge that self-deprecating (self-deconstructing?) element in the McGann/Samuels essay.

In the talk itself, it sounded as if Hoover found McGann and Samuels' approach to "The Snow Man" flawed at best, silly at worst. In fact, in "Hot Air Textuality," Hoover makes clear that he isn't opposed to this kind of textual alteration; in fact, he's performed it himself on numerous occasions in his published works (see p. 79 of "Hot Air Textuality"). If I had known about any of that, I might have understood Hoover's relationship to McGann and Samuels' idea of deformance a bit differently -- this is not a practice that he thinks is silly at all (he is only taking issue with McGann's execution of it). But even in the published version of the critique, Hoover's criticisms of McGann and Samuels' deformance of "The Snow Man" come across as somewhat nitpicky: should "himself" be counted as a noun? Is the poem actually "noun heavy," as Mcgann implies? Hoover disputes it -- and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so, going so far as to conduct an entire study of modern poetry quantifying noun frequency. (According to Hoover, Stevens is only in the mid-point in the scale with regards to noun frequency amongst modern poets, in case you were wondering. Hart Crane is the most "nouny," while Edna St. Vincent Millay is the least.)

The long section of Hoover's talk on McGann (and McGann/Samuels) was followed by a much briefer (but to me, fascinating -- and math heavy!) section on Stephen Ramsay's Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Hoover's focus here was on some of the claims in the introduction to Reading Machines regarding the voices in Virginia Woolf's The Waves.

It is natural for a Modernist critic to pursue patterns of difference amid this apparent unity, in part because, as [Miriam] Wallace points out, subjectivity is a major concern for "the historic moment of Modernism:' Are Woolf's individuated characters to be understood as six sides of an individual consciousness (six modalities of an idealized Modernist self?), or are we meant to read against the fiction of unity that Woolf has created by having each of these modalities assume the same stylistic voice? (Ramsay, Reading Machines, 10)
Ramsay goes on to do word frequency analyses of the six characters in the novel using the TF - IDF formula. He finds that the voices of the male characters and those of the female characters appear statistically pretty different, and makes certain other claims about the stylistics similarities and differences of Woolf's six characters. Ramsay's broader point might be this:
If algorithmic criticism is to have a central hermeneutical tenet, it is this: that the narrowing constraints of computational logic-the irreducible tendency of the computer toward enumeration, measurement, and verification is fully compatible with the goals of criticism set forth above. For while it is possible, and in some cases useful, to confine algorithmic procedures to the scientific realm, such procedures can be made to conform to the methodological project of inventio without transforming the nature of computation or limiting the rhetorical range of critical inquiry. This is possible because critical reading practices already contain elements of the algorithmic. (Ramsay, Reading Machines, 16)
If I am understanding Ramsay's approach correctly, he is saying that both traditional literary critical interpretation and quantitative methods can tell us valid things about literary texts. However, many of our intuitions and "sense of the text" (i.e, the general or gestalt question we might consider as we read: how different are these six voices in Woolf's novel from one another?) are themselves roughly based on quantitative evidence that may not always appear as such. Statistical methods can help confirm or deny those intuitions. As he did with McGann, in his critique of Ramsay, Hoover focused on what seemed like smaller points of method rather than those big-picture types of questions (i.e., the question of the value of stylistic analysis).

By running Ramsay's numbers using his own methods and configuration, Hoover did put forward a strong case that some of Ramsay's conclusions about the voices in Woolf's novel could be questioned. For one thing, the seeming disparity between the words Woolf's female characters have in common and the words her male character have in common ought to take into account the fact that Woolf gives much more time to her male characters than she does to her women. Hoover also looked closely at Ramsay's specific number counts, and raised questions about whether his "tokenizer" settings might have been off (i.e., whether you tell your counting software to count "beast" and "beasts" as a single word or two separate words; this is called tokenizing). Even slight adjustments in tokenizer settings can have statistically significant implications when you're looking at stylistics issues in a single novel. Hoover showed, persuasively, I thought, that there are potentially serious problems with Ramsay's results tied to the way he delimited his word counts. Hoover also ran his own stylistic analyses of the different voices in the novel, and suggested that the apparent gender-linked differences between Woolf's various characters might not be as telling as the differences linked to the ages of those characters. Hoover then showed us, very quickly, a series of dendrograms showing us exactly that.

Hoover's broader lesson for literary critics dabbling in stylometry might be this: if we're going to pay attention to numbers, we'd better be prepared to nitpick about them as Hoover does with Ramsay's numbers.

Another thing I couldn't help but feel watching slide after slide with different kinds of statistical visualizations was a certain amount of envy: I want to be able to produce dendrograms with R! (I may have to go back to DHSI next year to learn a little bit about how to do that -- perhaps from David Hoover himself, if he is inclined to return...)

So: much food for thought (and for me, many new concepts and terms). Unfortunately, the compelling statistical analysis -- especially the critique of Ramsay -- towards the end of Hoover's talk did not become the story of this event. Instead, Hoover's unfortunate comments about Kilmer and the odd, facetious use of humor turned off many listeners.

The open challenge to Hoover along those lines from the audience at the talk itself was impressive to see, and necessary. I do hope that that challenge is seen by all parties as it I believe was intended: as a request to Hoover to be more respectful and inclusive in his language and method in the future, not as an attempt to shut out "straight white men."