Formidable Instruments: Formal Analysis and the Invention of 'Theory'
The goal of this project is to historicize the French and American linguistic turns, in part by showing how granting organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation shaped the research programs and itineraries of U.S. and émigré structuralists like Roman Jakobson, steering them to import a new brand of structuralist linguistics into Occupied Europe. In France, rationalists like Michel Foucault, the subject of this seminar paper, found radical political potential in the quantification andlogical description of language associated with structural linguistics. For reasons I seek to understand, the French connection between formal analysis and radical politics was destroyed when U.S. literary scholars invented a new genre known as ‘theory’ in the 1970s. This project is driven by the belief that we need to revisit this moment of methodological fermentationin order to develop new ways of combining the ethical imperatives of the humanities with the technical tools developed by analytic reason, tools that in my discipline of literary studies banner fly under banners as various as cognitive science, neuroscience, the digital humanities, and materialism.
Though an indispensable part of the theoretical toolkits of literary critics, genre has not received the kind of historical attention it deserves. This project builds off of my article on the long history of local color. In tracing the itineraries of the concepts that would come to name the major literary genres in America, I seek to understand both how these genres came to be named and how we might best map out genres. This kind of mapping has become newly possible through the introduction of computational methods and large digital archives. I believe that it is consequently important to understand how well the names we use to designate our genres actually describe their leading features. Finally, I believe that we are now in a place to test a core moral belief of the humanities: that archives are inherently exclusionary and oppressive. How might an investigation of the history of American genres double as a test of the digital archive itself?