In the middle of their most interesting and challenging paper, How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change?, Underwood and Sellers have two paragraphs in which they raise the specter of Whig history and banish it. In the process they take some gratuitous swipes at Darwin and Lamarck and, by implication, at the idea that evolutionary thinking can be of benefit to literary history. I find these two paragraphs confused and confusing and so feel a need to comment on them.
Here’s what I’m doing: First, I present those two paragraphs in full, without interruption. That’s so you can get a sense of how their thought hangs together. Second, and the bulk of this post, I repeat those two paragraphs, in full, but this time with inserted commentary. Finally, I conclude with some remarks on evolutionary thinking in the study of culture.
Beware of Whig History
By this point in their text Underwood and Sellers have presented their evidence and their basic, albeit unexpected finding, that change in English-language poetry from 1820-1919 is continuous and in the direction of standards implicit in the choices made by 14 selective periodicals. They’ve even offered a generalization that they think may well extend beyond the period they’ve examined (p. 19): “Diachronic change across any given period tends to recapitulate the period’s synchronic axis of distinction.” While I may get around to discussing that hypothesis – which I like – in another post, we can set it aside for the moment.
I’m interested in two paragraphs they write in the course of showing how difficult it will be to tease a causal model out of their evidence. Those paragraphs are about Whig history. Here they are in full and without interruption (pp. 20-21):
Nor do we actually need a causal explanation of this phenomenon to see that it could have far-reaching consequences for literary history. The model we’ve presented here already suggests that some things we’ve tended to describe as rejections of tradition — modernist insistence on the concrete image, for instance — might better be explained as continuations of a long-term trend, guided by established standards. Of course, stable long-term trends also raise the specter of Whig history. If it’s true that diachronic trends parallel synchronic principles of judgment, then literary historians are confronted with material that has already, so to speak, made a teleological argument about itself. It could become tempting to draw Lamarckian inferences — as if Keats’s sensuous precision and disillusionment had been trying to become Swinburne all along.
We hope readers will remain wary of metaphors that present historically contingent standards as an impersonal process of adaptation. We don’t see any evidence yet for analogies to either Darwin or Lamarck, and we’ve insisted on the difficulty of tracing causality exactly to forestall those analogies. On the other hand, literary history is not a blank canvas that acquires historical self-consciousness only when retrospective observers touch a brush to it. It’s already full of historical observers. Writing and reviewing are evaluative activities already informed by ideas about “where we’ve been” and “where we ought to be headed.” If individual writers are already historical agents, then perhaps the system of interaction between writers, readers, and reviewers also tends to establish a resonance between (implicit, collective) evaluative opinions and directions of change. If that turns out to be true, we would still be free to reject a Whiggish interpretation, by refusing to endorse the standards that happen to have guided a trend. We may even be able to use predictive models to show how the actual path of literary history swerved away from a straight line. (It’s possible to extrapolate a model of nineteenth-century reception into the twentieth, for instance, and then describe how actual twentieth-century reception diverged from those predictions.) But we can’t strike a blow against Whig history simply by averting our eyes from continuity. The evidence we’re seeing here suggests that literary- historical trends do turn out to be relatively coherent over long timelines.
I agree with those last two sentences. It’s how Underwood and Sellers get there that has me a bit puzzled. Continue reading