Some Thoughts on DH and Canons

Below is a draft of the talk I’m giving next week at Austin for the first of three DH symposia this semester sponsored by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies. The theme of this first meeting is “Access, Authority, and Identity“; my paper is an attempt to think through some of the implications of working beyond the canon (however construed) for straight literary and cultural scholarship and for DH alike. It’s also a nice excuse to show a little preview of the geolocation work I’ve been doing recently.

A prettier PDF version is also available.

Undermining Canons

I have a point from which to start: Canons exist, and we should do something about them.

I wouldn’t have thought this was a dicey claim until I was scolded recently by a senior colleague who told me that I was thirty years out of date for making it. The idea being that we’d had this fight a generation ago, and the canon had lost. But I was right and he, I’m sorry to say, was wrong. Ask any grad student reading for her comps or English professor who might confess to having skipped Hamlet. As I say, canons exist. Not, perhaps, in the Arnoldian–Bloomian sense of the canon, a single list of great books, and in any case certainly not the same list of dead white male authors that once defined the field. But in the more pluralist sense? Of books one really needs to have read to take part in the discipline? And of books many of us teach in common to our own students? Certainly. These are canons. They exist.

So why, a few decades after the question of canonicity as such was in any way current, do we still have these things? If we all agree that canons are bad, why haven’t we done away with them? Why do we merely tinker around the edges, adding a Morrison here and subtracting a Dryden there? Is this a problem? If so, what are we going to do about it? And more to the immediate point, what does any of this have to do with digital humanities?

The answer to the first question—“Why do we still have canons?”—is as simple to articulate as it is apparently difficult to solve. We don’t read any faster than we ever did, even as the quantity of text produced grows larger by the year. If we need to read books in order to extract information from them and if we need to have read things in common in order to talk about them, we’re going to spend most of our time dealing with a relatively small set of texts. The composition of that set will change over time, but it will never get any bigger. This is a canon. [Footnote: How many canons are there? The answer depends on how many people need to have read a given set of materials in order to constitute a field of study. This was once more or less everyone, but then the field was also very small when that was true. My best guess is that the number is at least a hundred or more at the very lowest end—and an order of magnitude or two more than that at the high end—which would give us a few dozen subfields in English, give or take. That strikes me as roughly accurate.]

Another way of putting this would be to say that we need to decide what to ignore. And the answer with which we’ve contented ourselves for generations is: “Pretty much everything ever written.” We don’t read much. What little we do read is deeply nonrepresentative of the full field of literary and cultural production. Our canons are assembled haphazardly, with a deep set of ingrained cultural biases that are largely invisible to us, and in ignorance of their alternatives. We’re doing little better, frankly, than we were with the dead-white-male bunch fifty or a hundred years ago, and we’re just as smug in our false sense of intellectual scope.

So canons, even in their current, mildly multiculturalist form, are an enormous problem, one that follows from our single working method, that is, from the need to perform always and only close reading as a means of cultural analysis. It’s probably clear where I’m going with this, at least to a group of DH folks. We need to do less close reading and more of anything and everything else that might help us extract information from and about texts as indicators of larger cultural issues. That includes bibliometrics and book historical work, data-mining and quantitative text analysis, economic study of the book trade and of other cultural industries, geospatial analysis, and so on. Moretti is an obvious model here, as is the work of people like Michael Witmore on early modern drama and Nicholas Dames on social structures in nineteenth-century fiction.

To show you one quick example of what I have in mind, here’s a map of the locations mentioned in thirty-seven American literary texts published in 1851:


Figure 1: Places named in 37 U.S. novels published in 1851

There are some squarely canonical works included in this collection, including Moby-Dick and House of the Seven Gables, but the large majority are obscure novels by the likes of T. S. Arthur and Sylvanus Cobb. I certainly haven’t read many of them, nor am I likely to spend months doing so. The corpus is drawn from the Wright American Fiction collection and represents about a third of the total American literary works published that year. [Footnote: Why only a third? Those are all the texts available in machine-readable format at the moment.] Place names were extracted using a tool called GeoDict, which looks for strings of text that match a large database of named locations. I had to do a bit of cleanup on the extracted places, mostly because many personal names and common adjectives are also the names of cities somewhere in the world. I erred on the conservative side, excluding any of those I found and requiring a leading preposition for cities and regions, so if anything, I’ve likely missed some valid places. But the results are fascinating. Two points of interest, just quickly:

  1. For one, there are a lot more international locations than one might have expected. True, many of them are in Britain and western Europe, but these are American novels, not British reprints, so even that fact might surprise us. And there are also multiple mentions of locations in South America, Africa, India, China, Russia, Australia, the Middle East, and so on. The imaginative landscape of American fiction in the mid-nineteenth century appears to be pretty diversely outward looking in a way that hasn’t received much attention.
  2. And then—point two—there’s the distinct cluster of named places in the American south. At some level this probably shouldn’t be surprising; we’re talking about books that appeared just a decade before the Civil War, and the South was certainly on people’s minds. But it doesn’t fit very well with the stories we currently tell about Romanticism and the American Renaissance, which are centered firmly in New England during the early 1850s and dominate our understanding of the period. Perhaps we need to at least consider the possibility that American regionalism took hold significantly earlier than we usually claim.

So as I say, I think this is a pretty interesting result, one that demonstrates a first step in the kind of analyses that remain literary and cultural but that don’t depend on close reading alone nor suffer the material limits such reading imposes. I think we should do more of this—not necessarily more geolocation extraction in mid-nineteenth-century American fiction (though what I just showed obviously doesn’t exhaust that little project), but certainly more algorithmic and quantitative analysis of piles of text much too large to tackle “directly.” (“Directly” gets scare quotes because it’s a deeply misleading synonym for close reading in this context.)

If we do that—shift more of our critical capacity to such projects—there will be a couple of important consequences. For one thing, we’ll almost certainly become worse readers. Our time is finite; the less of it we devote to an activity, the less we’ll develop our skill in that area. Exactly how much our reading suffers—and how much we should care—are matters of reasonable debate; they depend on both the extent of the shift and the shape of the skill–experience curve for close reading. My sense is that we’ll come out alright and that it’s a trade well worth making. We gain a lot by having available to us the kinds of evidence text mining (for example) provides, enough that the outcome will almost certainly be a net positive for the field. But I’m willing to admit that the proof will be in the practice and that the practice is, while promising, as yet pretty limited. The important point, though, is that the decay of close reading as such is a negative in itself only if we mistakenly equate literary and cultural analysis with their current working method.

Second—and maybe more important for those of us already engaged in digital projects of one sort or another—we’ll need to see a related reallocation of resources within DH itself. Over the last couple of decades, many of our most visible projects have been organized around canonical texts, authors, and cultural artifacts. They have been motivated by a desire to understand those (quite limited) objects more robustly and completely, on a model plainly derived from conventional humanities scholarship. That wasn’t a mistake, nor are those projects without significant value. They’ve contributed to our understanding of, for example, Rossetti and Whitman, Stowe and Dickinson, Shakespeare and Spenser. And they’ve helped legitimate digital work in the eyes of suspicious colleagues by showing how far we can extend our traditional scholarship with new technologies. They’ve provided scholars around the world—including those outside the centers of university power—with better access to rare materials and improved pedagogy by the same means. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that they’ve also often been large, expensive undertakings built on the assumption that we already know which authors and texts are the proper ones to which to devote our scarce resources. And to the extent that they’ve succeeded, they’ve also reinforced the canonicity of their subjects by increasing the amount of critical attention paid to them.

What’s required for computational and quantitative work—the kind of work that undermines rather than reinforces canons—is more material, less elaborately developed. The Wright collection, on which the 1851 map that I showed a few minutes ago was based (Figure 1), is a partial example of the kind of resource that’s best suited to this next development in digital humanities research. It covers every known American literary text published in the U.S. between 1851 and 1875 and makes them available in machine-readable form with basic metadata. Google Books and the Hathi Trust aim for the same thing on a much larger scale. None of these projects is cheap. But on a per-volume basis, they’re not bad. And of course we got Google and Hathi for very little of our own money, considering the magnitude of the projects.

It will still cost a good deal to make use of these what we might call “bare” repositories. The time, money, and attention they demand will have to come from somewhere. My point, though, is that if (as seems likely) we can’t pull those resources from entirely new pools outside the discipline—that is to say, if we can’t just expand the discipline so as to do everything we already do, plus a great many new things—then we should be willing to make sacrifices not only in traditional or analog humanities, but also in the types of first-wave digital projects that made the name and reputation of DH. This will hurt, but it will also result in categorically better, more broadly based, more inclusive, and finally more useful humanities scholarship. It will do so by giving us our first real chance to break the grip of small, arbitrarily assembled canons on our thinking about large-scale cultural production. It’s an opportunity not to be missed and a chance to put our money—real and figurative—where our mouths have been for two generations. We’ve complained about canons for a long time. Now that we might do without them, are we willing to try? And to accept the trade-offs involved? I think we should be.

My 2011 MLA Session

For those attending MLA in Los Angeles this week, I’ll be taking part in a “digital roundtable” organized by the ACH. Details below. Lots of smart people and interesting projects. The session abstract:

The Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) is pleased to sponsor an electronic roundtable and demo session featuring new and renewed work in media and digital literary studies. Projects, groups, and initiatives highlighted in this session build on the editorial and archival roots of humanities scholarship to offer new, explicitly methodological and interpretive contributions to the digital literary scene, or to intervene in established patterns of scholarly communication and pedagogical practice. Each presenter will offer a very brief introduction to his or her work, setting it in the context of digital humanities research and praxis, before we open the floor for simultaneous demos and casual conversations with attendees at eight computer stations.

A complete session description, including a list of presenters and individual project abstracts, is available on the ACH site. MLA’s session description (less info but with up-to-date annotations) is available to MLA members.

Session details:

  • 193. New (and Renewed) Work in Digital Literary Studies
  • Friday, 7 January
  • 8:30–9:45 a.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

    Books I Read in 2010

    As I did last year, here’s a list of the books I read for the first time in 2010. Just fiction; no criticism, theory, journals, etc.

    • Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake.
    • Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange.
    • Camus, Albert. The Plague.
    • Capek, Karel. R.U.R.
    • Davis, Kathryn. The Thin Place.
    • Donoghue, Emma. Room.
    • Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
    • Gilb, Dagoberto. The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña.
    • Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. (OK, I read this in high school, but that doesn’t count. Ditto Animal Farm, which I also reread this year, though I’m reluctant to cop to it.)
    • Johnson, B.S. Albert Angelo.
    • Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. (An exception here; a serious reread for the book manuscript.)
    • Lee, Andrea. Lost Hearts in Italy.
    • Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall.
    • Markson, David. Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
    • Millet, Lydia. Everyone’s Pretty.
    • Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
    • Peace, David. Occupied City.
    • Petterson, Per. I Curse the River of Time.
    • Powell, Padgett. The Interrogative Mood.
    • Russo, Richard. Straight Man.
    • Saro-Wiwa, Ken. Sozaboy.
    • Williams, Joy. The Quick and the Dead.
    • Yu, Charles. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

    Oh, and I’m in the middle of Adrian Johns’ Piracy, which isn’t fiction, but which I’m totally reading for the plot. Does that count?

    Read bits of a few others (Parrot and Olivier in America, Super Sad True Love Story, The Pregnant Widow, Death of the Adversary) to which I hope to return.

    Should post some thoughts on these eventually. Or maybe something more formal for the new Post45 journal. We shall see.

    First up in 2011: Alexander Theroux or Péter Esterházy, I think.

    Finally and unrelated: I have awesome maps of nineteenth-century American fiction. More to come.

    Translation Numbers

    I came across an interesting summary of books translated in 2009 hosted on the blog “Three Percent” at the U of R (w00t!). A resource new to me.

    Headline numbers: 348 total new, first-time translations of fiction and poetry into English published in the U.S. this year. The blog reports that translations make up around 3% of the total publications in the States, and only about 0.7% of literary titles. Not much information on methodology that I could see (on a very cursory look), but I assume the list comes from Books in Print or similar. In any case, I’m grateful to have an answer to one of the questions that’s been on my to-do list for a while.

    Next question: How do these numbers compare to those for other countries and to the size of various publishing markets? If a country has a large domestic literary market, do more of its books (proportionately speaking) make it into U.S. translation?

    Books I Read in 2009

    In the spirit of year-end lists, and for my own future reference, here are the books I read for the first time this year. Most of them, anyway – I didn’t keep a running list and my memory is imperfect. Also: Just primary literature, no scholarship (too many, too complicated, too fragmented).

    • John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy
    • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
    • Junot Díaz, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
    • Dave Eggers, What Is the What?
    • Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    • Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances
    • Dagoberto Gilb, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña
    • Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
    • Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones
    • David Markson, The Last Novel
    • Nick Monfort, Book and Volume
    • Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
    • Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars
    • Emily Short, Bronze
    • Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation
    • Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

    Picked up and put down Sacred Games, a couple of Jonatham Lethem novels, Let the Great World Spin, and some other things I’m sure I’ve forgotten. Will update as I remember more.

    First up in 2010: The Interrogative Mood.

    Supplemental Readings: Contemporary Edition

    This semester’s “Contemporary U.S. Novel” syllabus has six primary texts:

    • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996, 1104 pp.)
    • Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998, 576 pp.)
    • Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (2001, 389 pp.)
    • Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005, 368 pp.)
    • Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007, 352 pp.)
    • Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (2008, 256 pp.)

    Six texts aren’t a whole lot to cover a decade, especially when there’s no consensus concerning what’s important. If you’re one of my students and you’re looking for reading that will extend what we’re covering in class, here are some suggestions. All of these are texts that I considered putting on some version of the syllabus; not all of them are American and not all are from the last decade (but very few are more than twenty years old):

    • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
    • J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace
    • Edwidge Danticat, Farming of Bones
    • Don DeLillo, Falling Man
    • Louise Erdrich, Tracks
    • Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
    • William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic
    • Dagoberto Gilb, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña
    • Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land
    • Nathaniel Mackey, Bedouin Hornbook
    • David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
    • Toni Morrison, Beloved and Song of Solomon and A Mercy
    • Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
    • Marilynne Robinson, Home and Gilead
    • Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
    • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses
    • Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead
    • John Edgar Wideman, Fanon and The Cattle Killing

    Even this list is much too short, but it’ll point you in some interesting directions.

    Why I’m in Favor of the Google Book Search Settlement

    When Google announced their book-scanning project five years ago, most academics I talked to about it were pretty happy. These days a lot of that enthusiasm seems, if not to have disappeared, then at least to have been tempered by serious doubts. I share some of these, but on the whole the settlement is a profoundly good thing. I support it, and I hope my colleagues will, too.

    About the settlement

    First, two notes: One on the underlying legal issue and one on what’s at stake. The publishers and authors (via the AAP and the Authors Guild, respectively) sued Google for alleged “massive copyright infringement” shortly after Google began scanning books from several prominent libraries. The theory is that because Google makes a copy of every book they scan, they require the rightsholders’ permission to assemble their book search database. Google says the process is covered by the fair use exception in copyright law and is no different from their Web search business, which also copies texts in order to index them. How this would be decided in court is unknown, mostly because the legal definition of fair use is extremely and deliberately vague.

    But it’s clear that Google has a lot more to lose than do the publishers and authors if the case were to go against them. If the publishers were to lose, Google could index their stuff without further permission. But it’s hard to see how they’d be hurt by that, since it would only help people find books and wouldn’t change the strong basic copyright protections they already enjoy. Google still wouldn’t be able to sell or give away in-copyright books, for instance. Google, on the other hand, could be destroyed if they were to lose. They’d be on the hook for God knows how much in damages, of course (willful infringement of copyright carries maximum statutory damages of $150,000 per instance). But—and this is much more important—because there’s no fundamental difference between the copyright protections for Web pages and those for books, a decision in favor of the publishers would effectively outlaw search as it currently exists. Would a court dare do that? I have no idea, but Google obviously took the threat seriously enough to settle rather than to fight, especially since Web search is everything to them, whereas books are a comparative hobby. I wish Google had chosen to go to trial, because I think (and hope) they would have won, thereby clarifying and solidifying fair use rights in computational contexts, but it’s neither my money nor my business that’s at stake, and I understand why they chose to settle.

    This dispute about fair use is interesting in its own right, but it’s not in itself the main objection to the settlement from most of my academic friends. (Most academics, though certainly not all, are in favor of more liberal fair use rights, and would therefore usually side with Google on copyright issues.) They’re concerned instead about a missed opportunity for real reform, and about the perceived market power the settlement would grant to Google and the rightsholders. How so? Not over works that are already in the public domain; these are free to copy and redistribute already, and there’s nothing in the settlement that would (or could) change that. Anyone else could create a competing database of public domain works (see the Open Content Alliance, for instance). And it’s not about current books, whether in or out of print, which the rightsholders are free to dispose of as they wish—they can be bought, sold, and licensed according to the whims of the publishers and authors. Again, nothing in the settlement could possibly change this, since to do so would involve rewriting American copyright law. The issue, then, is over so-called “orphan” works, books for which an appropriate rightsholder cannot be established or contacted.

    Here’s how things stand now with respect to orphan works: They’re simply off limits for anything beyond ordinary fair use. They can’t be reissued, corrected, or adapted. You can’t assign them in a college course, because no one can produce a new edition and you can’t make copies of your own or your library’s (rare) copy. You can’t use an orphan sound or video clip in a new song or film. And, absent a real answer to the fair use question raised by Google’s scanning project, you can’t include them in a search tool, because you can’t get a rightsholder’s approval to do so. It would be an exaggeration to say orphan works may as well not exist—they still do sit in libraries and archives—but they’re a lot less useful than either public domain or current works.

    The settlement would establish a “rights registry,” a clearinghouse tasked with identifying and tracking rightsholders (if any) and copyright status for all books. As a practical matter, “all” would mean “those scanned by Google,” at least at first. Google would pay $34.5 million to establish this registry, which would then operate as a non-profit and work on behalf of rightsholders, distributing whatever funds it collects to the appropriate parties. In exchange for setting up this registry and paying a chunk of cash ($125 million in all), the publishers and authors drop their copyright infringement claims (so Google can go on scanning). Maybe more importantly, as far as my uncomfortable academic friends are concerned, Google gets the right to scan, process, and sell orphan works, even though their proper rightsholders can’t be determined, and they get indemnity from lawsuits if they make honest mistakes about the copyright status of a work (and sell it or offer it for free when they shouldn’t, for instance). Rightsholders can opt out of this arrangement at any time, though of course they’ll then lose the benefits of being available through Google.

    Some objections

    This all looks pretty win-win. Google gets to do what they do, maybe opening up a big new market in the process, and they remove a significant legal cloud hanging over them. Publishers and authors get a pile of cash, a new outlet for their goods, and they get to sell a bunch of old stuff that’s currently out of print. Users win because they get a search and information resource that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.

    The concern, though, is that Google is the only would-be scanner to benefit directly from the settlement. The settlement leaves unanswered the fair use question about book scanning. It leaves unchanged the status of orphan works, but allows Google alone (at least at first) to make use of them. And it gives two private, for-profit entities (the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers) control over the rights registry.

    Wouldn’t it be better, these friends of mine say, to resolve these issues legislatively, so that the law would be clear and everyone would stand of level ground? Couldn’t we create a limited right to use orphan works, to store “non-consumptive” copies of texts for computational use, and set up a public rights registry? Wouldn’t that provide better and fairer competition in the marketplace? Absent those changes, don’t we risk creating a situation in which there are only two (cooperating) players (Google and the rightsholders) in the marketplace? Would any other company be able to negotiate an equivalent agreement with the rightsholders? Especially since those rightsholders wouldn’t have any incentive to help set up a competitive market for their products? Would any other company have the resources to scan millions of books, especially after Google has a head start on both the technical and the business sides? Isn’t this our one big chance to get scanning done right? Aren’t we missing a great opportunity to reform a badly out-of-whack U.S. copyright regime? And won’t libraries be almost required by their patrons to subscribe to Google’s digital products, available at only monopoly prices?

    My answers

    I share many of these concerns. But I still think we’ll be much, much better off with the settlement than without it. Here’s why:

    Copyright reform

    We do need copyright reform, including provisions for orphan works. But I don’t think we’ll ever get it, especially in the absence of the settlement. When has Congress ever scaled back any part of copyright protection? Is there any reason to think it will do so now or in the foreseeable future? Even if it were to, how long do you think we’ll have to wait for it, given our current political priorities, making no progress on things like book search and computational analysis rights in the interim?

    Our current copyright regime—which allows for effectively endless copyright protection without any provision for an evolving public domain—is totally out of alignment with the social cost/benefit analysis that authorizes U.S. copyright law. I don’t think there’s any chance that’s going to change, but if the settlement is approved, there will at least be large, powerful, monied interests (cf. Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo, all of which recently [re-]joined the Open Content Alliance) lobbying to create specific provisions relaxing aspects of copyright control like those affecting orphan works and computational use. This differs from the current situation in which all the money and influence is on the other side. And they’ll have a legislator-friendly argument, namely that they’re just trying to compete in the marketplace on terms equal to Google’s. So far, they haven’t had to make this push, because no one has been making much money there. The settlement will change those incentives.

    [Note in passing that the Berne Convention is always going to pose problems, since it’s built around absurdly strong European-style (“moral”) copyright provisions that prohibit things like registration requirements. The U.S. has never, of course, been especially keen on international agreements, but copyright protection is one of its long-standing hobby horses. It seems unlikely that the U.S. government would push for serious changes to Berne.]

    An open market

    There’s no reason to believe other entities won’t be able to enter the marketplace. The settlement provides only non-exclusive licenses to Google, and will serve as a ready-made template for a legal agreement between the rightsholders and any future scanners. Moreover, there would surely be serious antitrust scrutiny if the rightsholders were to withhold similar terms from others who wanted to enter the market. And why would they, really? More outlets means more differentiated products and more opportunities to sell their goods. Plus, with the registry already in place and both scanning and storage getting cheaper by the day, the barriers to entry are falling with time, not rising.

    The status quo

    What’s the alternative? If the settlement isn’t approved, no one can go ahead with any scanning projects. Not even those limited to the public domain (which, as noted, is less relevant by the day, because nothing new will ever fall into it); it would only take one mistaken scan of a protected work to expose a scanner to bankrupting litigation. Our current copyright system, written exclusively for content creators without even a nod to the public interest, will go on unchanged. And the public, academics and normal people alike, will have lost a terrifically promising resource, one assembled at significant cost and risk (if not with strictly altruistic motives) by a private company at almost no expense to us.

    Library costs

    Finally, libraries will, as always, have a choice to make about how they spend their subscription money, including whether or not to buy extended access to Google’s offerings. But they’ll already have free access (albeit at a single “terminal,” whatever that will mean in practice) to all of Google’s digital holdings. If prices are too high and they choose not to subscribe, they’ll still be better off than they were to begin with, since they’ll have one terminal with millions of in-copyright books, rather than none, as they do now. And how different is this situation from the one that holds with respect to commercial presses and journal publishers? Those publishers are already effective monopolies, and no one (alas!) seems to be suggesting legislation to change that fact. Do you think Google will be better or worse? How much do you pay for Google’s services now? Plus, if I’m right and other companies or not-for-profits enter the market, any monopoly concern disappears.


    My argument here isn’t so different from the one progressives are now making about health care reform: The current situation is really, really bad. This plan makes things a lot better, with minimal downsides. I’d like real copyright reform as much as I’d like single-payer healthcare, but I think they’re about equally likely. So let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Now, there’s a chance that a defeat for the settlement would be galvanizing in its own way, and that it would give rise to serious copyright reform. My own feeling is that if Eldred v. Ashcroft didn’t do it, nothing will. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d much rather have Google Book Search and all it entails, plus the settlement-provided computational research corpus, a useful and well-funded rights registry (a significant public good), the plausible prospect of a thriving marketplace for digital texts and products based on them, and the first ever relaxation of at least a few copyright protections, than torpedo the settlement in hope of getting a marginally better legislative result that’s a huge longshot.

    There are Parallels and there are Parallels

    Finally, my answer to the first of the questions I posed about Disgrace. I’m answering it last because it’s the most important and because the solution depends on the positions one has taken on the others.


    • What is the relationship between the two rapes?

    Short answer: As a moral matter, they are unrelated. It is tempting to read them otherwise, but to do so produces unworkable interpretations of the novel as a whole.

    It’s probably necessary to begin by affirming that there are indeed two rapes in the novel. Lucy’s is straightforward (that is, the fact that Lucy has been raped is never in dispute), but I’ve sometimes been asked (by colleagues and students alike) about Melanie’s, whether it’s altogether appropriate to call her treatment by Lurie rape. I believe it is, and that this isn’t a hard call. The problem, such as it is, is that the only account we have is Lurie’s own, from the much quoted passage in which he refers to his second sexual encounter with Melanie as “not rape, not quite that” (25). A fine distinction, coming from the perpetrator. But Melanie has already said no to his “words heavy as clubs” that “thud into the delicate whorl of her ear,” and she has struggled in his grasp (24–25). Once it is clear that “nothing will stop him,” she “does not resist [further]. All she does is avert herself … As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck” (25). The language here is plain in its associations. There is also Lurie’s own acknowledgment that what he does to Melanie is “undesired to the core” (25). All this added to the necessarily unequal relationship that exists between them as teacher and student. One could go on, but this is surely enough. It is rape. The circumstances are different from Lucy’s, but that doesn’t change the nature of the crime in question, which is not simply “mistreatment” or “harassment.” (The latter terms are technically appropriate to the limited content of the inquiry, but not to the totally of Lurie’s actions.)

    So, two rapes. Are they related? At a first level, no. The victims are different, the perpetrators are different, the circumstances are different, the associations are different. Lurie is involved, one way or another, in both, but not in a simple reversal as perpetrator and then as victim, which eliminates one potential point of direct continuity between them. At a second level, though, they obviously have something to do with one another. Lurie commits a rape that he is not inclined to see as an especially egregious crime. Later, he experiences at (nearly) first hand the trauma of rape and becomes its second-order victim (he is not raped, but his daughter is), after which (simplifying greatly) he expresses views about justice and punishment that are at odds with his earlier positions.

    The second level, in which there is obviously some sort of connection between the rapes, raises questions that range in difficulty from “tricky” to “oh sweet Jesus.” Has Lurie reformed, having seen the error of his ways? Does the second rape offset the first? Which rape is worse? On what basis can one compare crimes in general and rapes in particular? How does sexual violation compare to other kinds of violation or loss or suffering? To what extent do historical and social factors mitigate or aggravate the seriousness of different crimes?

    This is the stuff of philosophy and law. With respect to Coetzee’s novel, the answers will be terrifically complex and highly fraught. I, for one, don’t especially want to take them on in their full form, especially absent strong guidance from the text. But must we answer them? Well, we must if we think that Lucy’s rape serves as either a punishment for David’s crimes—be they literal or historical—or a commentary on their true nature. Why is that? Because punishment, as we often understand it, is supposed to fit the crime it redresses; if David suffers too much or too little as a result of Lucy’s rape, and if that rape serves as his punishment for raping Melanie, then his punishment will have been inappropriate. If Lurie in turn serves as a figure for South Africa’s privileged white minority, and if his crime stands in for his community’s historical abuses (both of which figurations I think are well supported in the text), then the novel’s position on the appropriateness of his punishment is critically important, assuming we do indeed see this as a matter of punishment.

    The key here is that our usual concept of punishment is strongly related to our understanding of debt. See this post for a more complete argument, but the idea is that punishment is intended to extract from the perpetrator of a crime a loss equivalent to that imposed on the victim by the crime itself (plus an extra margin for deterrence). I think this is an imperfect but reasonable and ethical way to organize the law, though I don’t envy the task of equivalence-setting it imposes on legislators and judges. But is this really what Disgrace is up to, trying to figure out exactly how much a rapist should pay (in the currency of suffering) for his sins, or how much a privileged ethnic group should rightly expect to suffer at the hands of those it has wronged? And if so, what’s the answer? Does a beating, a grand theft auto, and the brutal rape of one’s daughter offset a milder rape one has committed oneself? (Incidentally, I use “milder” here in the sense of “a milder beating”; the comparison is obviously not to be confused with “mild” tout court.) Who among the current inheritors of racial exploitation must pay how much in the compensation of what suffering to whom?

    These aren’t altogether absurd questions to ask of the novel, but I think Coetzee’s answer is something other than a straightforward position on the appropriate contours of compensation. Instead, the book says in effect “Who knows? As a practical, political, legal question, we’ll need to find a practical, political, legal answer, probably one that accounts for expediency as well as strict justice. This is important, but it’s not my concern (witness the obvious difficulties and unresolved tensions of the inquiry/TRC section). My concern is moral, about the ways in which one atones for one’s sins, if such a thing is possible.”

    I think this question, about atonement, is the real core of the novel. And I think the answer is that as far as morality is concerned, debt doesn’t work as a model for atonement; you don’t repay your sins by suffering for them. The novel makes this point largely negatively, by showing the problems in which we become embroiled if we try to behave otherwise. Specifically, we end up needing to answer questions like the ones above; we need to say whether or not Lurie’s suffering is equivalent to Melanie’s, and whether Lucy’s is equal to those of apartheid’s victims. The book suggests that to do so in any strict sense is either impossible or objectionable, since it resembles much too closely a calculus of two (incalculable) wrongs making a right.

    This leads us, finally, to a third view of the relationship between the rapes, which is that, so far as the book is concerned, they simply exist as brute facts in moral isolation. Their juxtaposition is an occasion for reflection, maybe even a prompt to ethical action, but they’re not meant to be weighed against one another. You can’t undo your sins, except to the extent that you can make your victims whole. If you can’t do that—and it’s not at all clear that one ever could, certainly not in the present case—your sins simply go on and on. You may well be more sinned against than sinning, but that’s not the point, since the relevant question doesn’t concern the balance of your moral accounts. The best you can do is to sin less (and less egregiously) in the first place and sin less in he future.

    So that leaves us with Lurie as a sinful man, unredeemed and unredeemable. This was the point of many of my earlier thoughts about his actions; time and again, we’re presented with things that might be understood as redemptive, or at least as opportunities for redemption. And time and again they don’t pan out. This isn’t conditional; it’s required, the novel argues, by the nature of moral transgression itself.

    This feels a little sketchy, but this post is already too long and I’ve gone on at some length about it elsewhere (see especially the paper linked from that post). One last thought, though. I promised to say something about the perfective (by which Lurie is seemingly fascinated), so here it is: We’re meant to understand many of the events in the second half of the novel as culminations of processes set afoot in the first. Lucy’s rape is the apotheosis of David’s sexual violence, its appalling perfection. David’s final abandonment of the dog is the perfection of his disgrace and destitution. The attack itself is the culmination of colonial exploitation, its necessary conclusion. The situation as a whole is one of finality, completion, the end of things (or, better, the end of a personal and historical situation) … perfection in the grammatical sense. And yet even these actions carried to perfection—to their retributive, debasing endpoint—don’t undo the sins that occasioned them. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to sustain the idea of atonement by (even perfect) sacrifice.

    On Lucy’s Response to the Attack

    Answers to two more of the basic questions about Disgrace, this time concerning Lucy’s reaction to her rape.


    • Why does Lucy refuse to report her rape or otherwise pursue legal remedy for it?
    • Why does Lucy remain on the farm after the attack?

    Short answer to both: Because Lucy represents one, abnegatory pole of the novel’s imagined range of potential responses to guilt.

    These questions are tricky, they’re related, and they’re absolutely central to making sense of the novel. Lucy offers several iterations of her thinking on both matters, always in conversation (of a sort) with Lurie. So we have her words, presented in direct dialogue, plus Lurie’s own speculation, both put directly to her and contemplated on his own.

    Lucy’s words first. Immediately after the attack, she asks David “would you mind keeping to your own story, to what happened to you?” “You tell what happened to you,” she continues, “I tell what happened to me” (99). So from the beginning (minutes or hours after the attack), not only are their stories separable, but they are individual, personal. This is important, because it’s the basis of Lucy’s later claim that what happened to her isn’t properly public. “As far as I am concerned,” she says the next day, “what happened to me is a purely private matter” (112). This is true, according to Lucy, not because rape is always so, but owing to the historical contingencies of her situation:

    “In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.”

    “This place being what?”

    “This place being South Africa.” (212)

    Later still, however, Lucy confesses—in her only unprompted discussion of the attack with David—that she was baffled and shaken by exactly the personal investment of her attackers:

    It was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was … expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them. (156, ellipses in original)

    It is in response to this question, in an attempt at palliation, that Lurie offers his much-quoted hypothesis that “it was history speaking through them … it may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t” (156).

    The distinction here between personal and historical motives matters because it bears directly on Lucy’s reasons for not pressing charges and for staying on the farm. The problem, though, is that the public and private aspects of the attack and of her response to it are inseparable; Lurie is right that the attackers are motivated by impersonal forces, but that doesn’t preclude a deeply personal cathexis on Lucy as the specific object through or in which those forces find expression. So the attack is both personal, which means that these specific men remain a threat to Lucy, and impersonal, which means that apprehending them will do nothing to remove the general threat under which she lives.

    That’s the attackers’ side of the equation; on Lucy’s, the problem is no simpler. As she says, what happened to her is personal; she has the right to respond to it as she sees fit and is under no obligation to treat it as a public matter (or, by the same token, as a private one). Moreover, what happened to her did not happen to David, except in the much different sense that his child was raped (an important point when we finally turn to the relationship between the novel’s rapes). But of course Lucy is aware that the attack was also fundamentally impersonal (that is, political) and that her response to it, whatever it might be, cannot but be public and political. She seems determined nevertheless to come as close as possible to removing herself from the public sphere, aware as she is of the reality that to press charges is to enter into a national phenomenon and debate concerning black-on-white violence. But it’s not as though simply accepting the situation avoids an entanglement with those same politics. That’s what she means when she says that what happened to her is a purely private matter: she can only treat it as private, else the consequences to her ethical and political self-image will be disastrous. “I must make the political decision,” she is saying, “to treat this as a nonpolitical matter.”

    So that’s why she doesn’t press charges, because it is (to her) the least objectionable political response to an act that, under the circumstances, can only be construed politically.

    Note that this addresses, at least in part, two of Lurie’s speculations about Lucy’s motives (see pp. 112 and 156). She doesn’t believe that by failing to press charges she will be spared further attacks, so hers is not an attempt to buy individual peace or reconciliation at the price of rape. I’m not so sure, though, that Lurie’s second guess—that she is trying to work out “some form of private salvation” (112)—misses the mark entirely. In the crudely psychologizing sense, yes, that’s wrong; she doesn’t want to suffer, and therefore doesn’t see the attack as a welcome opportunity for salvation. But in a political and moral sense, Lucy takes seriously the suggestion that she specifically and whites generally owe a historical debt to those who suffered under a social system that favored (and in a way continues to favor) people like her. “What if [another attack] is the price one has to pay for staying on? … Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?” (158), she muses. “Subjection. Subjugation,” she calls it, the new arrangement under which she is prepared to live (159).

    Is this salvation? Probably not, and Lucy herself rejects the term as inappropriately religious. Still, she is plainly trying to work out an ethical sense of her obligations, ones that, as she acknowledges, are more (but not entirely) collective than individual.

    This is then also the beginning of the answer to the second question, about why she stays on following the attack. Following the logic above, the problem is that she has not yet adequately atoned for her sins, not yet paid off her historical debt. So although she will likely be attacked again (or else give up to Petrus all she possesses in return for protection), that is what she understands to be demanded of her. This is at once absurd and obviously correct. Absurd because her suffering is so clearly out of proportion to her individual debt, particularly to these three men (whom she has “never seen before”—I suppose one could do something with the optics of power here, though I’m not so inclined). If she must expect, justly, to be raped, then nothing is prohibited in the aftermath of apartheid. But it’s also obviously correct if we accept the hypothesis that she is merely an object through which historical wrong begins to find redress; there is nothing she can give and nothing she can suffer that can possibly offset the wrongs of apartheid, which are very plainly greater than what can be undergone by any one person. If it is Lucy’s ethical obligation to compensate those victimized by her race, then she must be prepared to pay endlessly.

    This is an unattractive conclusion, and I certainly don’t think it’s Coetzee’s, but I do think it’s one that the novel presents and works through, and I think it’s something that Lurie also confronts. (It would be worth thinking in particular about Life and Times of Michael K. in connection with this point, a novel that I think is underaddressed in studies of Disgrace.) My position is that Lucy is mistaken concerning the nature of her obligation, largely because she’s wrong about the metaphor of debt and repayment (see two earlier posts on ethics and debt, “Disgrace and Debt” and “Debt and Punishment“). But if she’s wrong, the error is hardly hers alone; it’s deeply embedded (rightly, perhaps) in our thinking about law and punishment. The novel’s suggestion, however, is that it’s misplaced in the case of moral transgression and obligation (again, see those earlier posts for the details of this argument).

    There is also one further explanation of Lucy’s decision to stay on, one that’s closer to her own direct claims, namely that she has kind of blind, unreflective compulsion to carry on carrying on. “Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t think in those terms,” she says (112). Later she writes (to Lurie) “I am a dead person and I do not know yet what will bring me back to life. All I know is that I cannot go away” (161). Both of these declarations mirror her claim, the day after the attack, that although Lurie sees returning to the farm as “a bad idea … not safe,” “it was never safe, and it’s not an idea, good or bad. I’m not going back for the sake of an idea. I’m just going back” (105).

    There’s a certain modified sense of existentialist ethics here insofar as Lucy remains committed to a kind of cause, but it is absent the important component of a meaningful decision or any guarantee that the course itself is a laudable one. And that’s a significant “but.” In fact it’s this blind drive that makes Lucy serve more as a totem for, or principle of, atonement without limit than as a full ethical actor in her own right. If there’s a full-fledged individual ethical figure in the novel—and I’m not at all convinced there is—it will therefore have to be Lurie or no one.

    That’s it for questions two and three. One to go, the most difficult of all.

    On the Killing of Dogs

    Answers in this post to two more of the baseline questions about Disgrace, both of which concern Lurie and the significance of his relationship to dogs.


    • In what sense, if any, is Bev and Lurie’s euthanasia of the dogs an ethical/merciful/loving act?

    Short answer: As ethical in sum, but complicated by the awareness that one could always do more.

    • Why does Lurie give up the dog at the end of the novel?

    Short answer: From kindness and in atonement, but with persistent overtones of the flagellant’s self-involvement.

    Hmm … these questions are getting harder. First, to the text: “The dogs suffer … most of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them” (142). Note in passing a related allusion to Jude the Obscure in “because we are too menny” (146), which adds an obvious note of pathos. What Bev and Lurie offer isn’t treatment (they are untrained as vets and lack the resources to do much for the animals even if they were) but the relief of a painless death. Bev, we are told, has a particular talent for “easing the passage” of each dog, to which she “gives her fullest attention” (142). Lurie is less skilled, but finally no less devoted. He is shaken by the work, and takes over, metaphorically speaking, the role of “dog-man” from Petrus. It is he who takes the dogs’ corpses to the incinerator and feeds them individually into the flames in order, he says, to preserve an image of the world “in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing” (146). Finally and maybe most importantly, there is this description of their shared enterprise:

    Sunday has come again. He and Bev Shaw are engaged in one of their sessions of Lösung. One by one he brings the cats, then the dogs: the old, the blind, the halt, the crippled, the maimed, but also the young, the sound—all those whose term has come. One by one Bev touches them, speaks to them, comforts them, and puts them away, then stands back and watches while he seals up the remains in a black plastic shroud.

    He and Bev do not speak. He has learned now, from her, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty calling by its proper name: love. (218-19)

    A couple of things here. The fact that this is all happening on Sunday (as do all the euthanasia sessions; cf. “What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays!)” [219]), plus the persistently religious rhetoric (the communion-like procession of animals “one by one”; the crippled, the maimed, etc.; the shroud; love), plus the scene’s position on the penultimate page of the novel, push any reading toward terms of redemption. On the other hand, there’s the Holocaust-related Lösung (cf. Elizabeth Costello and The Lives of Animals), plus the decidedly non-euphemistic “killing,” plus Lurie’s decision at the end of this scene to give up Driepoot, the dog he could have saved (on which more below). So there’s real tension here, and we should be careful about flattening it out in any interpretation of the acts.

    My take is that we are to understand Bev’s actions as driven by a love of animals generally, whose collective suffering it is her project to minimize. This is plainly both ethical and laudable. That part’s easy enough, and if the book went no further, things would be pretty simple (and uninteresting) on this point. It might be distasteful to kill the dogs, but it wouldn’t be a shattering experience. The reason, then, that the killing is so difficult—why it “gets harder all the time”—is that what’s good for the dogs collectively is in at least some cases (and perhaps most of them) bad for any one dog. That’s to say that while there clearly are instances in which killing an individual dog is an act of kindness (as when we put an aging pet “to sleep,” a euphemism the novel refuses), Bev and Lurie are aware that their toll includes as well “the young, the sound”—dogs, in short, that might go on living happily enough past the day of their execution, were it possible to do so.

    A relevant question, then, is whether or not it is possible to save any one dog, something Lurie contemplates in the case of Driepoot:

    He can save the young dog, if he wishes, for another week. But a time must come, it cannot be evaded, when he will have to bring him to Bev Shaw in her operating room (perhaps he will carry him in his arms, perhaps he will do that for him) and caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle finds the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up. He will do all that for him when the time comes. It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.

    He crosses the surgery. “Was that the last?” asks Bev Shaw.

    “One more.”

    He opens the cage door. “Come,” he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does not stop it. “Come.”

    Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. “I thought you would save him for another week,” says Bev Shaw. “Are you giving him up?”

    “I am giving him up.” (219-20)

    It is Lurie’s claim that he cannot save the dog, not in the long run, and if that’s true of this dog, it is surely true of any dog. I will admit frankly that I find this scene, which ends the novel, deeply affecting. And so I want to believe what Lurie says, that he can’t save the dog, not beyond the next week or the week after that, thus that his decision to give him up is a matter of mature acceptance rather than weakness. Such a reading works nicely with a larger interpretation of the narrative as one of ethical development and redemption, showing Lurie as finally able to cease clinging to his own interest (he enjoys the dog’s affection and company, even if he holds himself slightly aloof from it, knowing its inevitable fate) and to do instead what must be done, even at significant cost to himself.

    [Incidentally, Lurie’s fascination with the perfective (“burnt, burnt up”) is a recurring feature of the novel and might certainly be related to this reading, both concerning the dog and his own developmental arc. Why this is the case might have been elevated to question of its own. There’s a bit more on it below, and if I remember I’ll say something more about it in connection with question one, on the relationship between the two rapes.]

    I think there’s much in the novel that points toward this reading, which sees the “giving up” of Driepoot as the symbolic culmination (perfection) of a larger process of learning to live with less (or with nothing), i.e., without the historically determined advantages of Lurie’s initial position. This is a reading that restores maximum political advantage to the novel, though it might also be possible to tint it with irony and to complain (crudely, I think) that Coetzee thus likens the abuses of apartheid to losing a (potential) pet.

    Still, even the unironic version of this reading strikes me as too neat by half. It aligns Lurie too closely with Lucy, who (for reasons I’ll talk about in a later post) serves as one (flawed) pole of a potential response to the crimes of history. It also removes much of the productive ambiguity that accounts for the bulk of the novel’s value; it is an intriguing and valuable book precisely because it refuses to give us obvious moral precepts (James Wood is wrong on this point), or perhaps more accurately because it takes seriously the defects of a field of related and competing precepts.

    What’s the alternative? Well, that Lurie might indeed have saved the dog indefinitely and that while doing so would constitute only a small mercy in a field of enormous suffering, it would still be better than the alternative. The issue turns in part, I suppose, on what we’re to make of Driepoot’s life at the clinic, assuming Lurie cannot simply adopt him as a proper pet: the dog’s existence seems dull, of course, and he’s crippled, but he appears otherwise happy and certainly enjoys Lurie’s company. It’s hard not to feel a bit foolish trying to think this through, evaluating the utilitarian happiness of a lightly-described fictional dog, and I suspect I’d be unhappy with Coetzee if Lurie did save it (cheap sentiment, an animal better loved than humans, a minimal piece of literal grace or salvation to close the novel, etc.). But still, it’s not clear to me that killing the dog is as strictly required as Lurie claims; Lurie has come far down in station, but he’s not so utterly destitute that he can’t afford a bit of kibble. What he clearly cannot do, however, is save every other dog in Driepoot’s position.

    The larger question, which hangs over not only this novel but much of Coetzee’s fiction, is what to do about problems so large that any individual action is dwarfed in proportion to it. Saving a dog will do almost nothing (“little enough, less than little: nothing”). The quote is pulled slightly out of context (it refers to what Lurie will do for Driepoot as the dog dies) but still, the slide from “little enough” to “nothing” is one that we ought not to overlook, which is the novel’s point. Lurie helps the dog’s passage because it is not nothing, even if on another level the result is the same in the end. The dog is still dead, but its final moments have been easier than they would have been otherwise.

    The consequence of this final action, though, is to leave Lurie without salvation except in the most roundabout of ways. He cannot or will not save the dog, he cannot save Africa’s dogs, he cannot find companionship with an animal in lieu of a human. He has almost nothing. At best, he eases the death of dogs that do not wish to die and ought not—in a better world he is powerless of bring about—to need to. If there is atonement, it is through his affirmative role in the mortification of his own experience by killing Driepoot as a part of his (Lurie’s) world, that is, by seeing the dog as a part of himself that he is willing to give up. But to do that is to instrumentalize the dog as Lurie has done with people in so many earlier cases. A lesser sin, surely, than most of the others, but of a piece with them. If he is reformed, the novel tells us in the closing line, it is imperfectly.

    Note that one of the features of our investigation of this and almost every other question to this point has been to undermine the prospects for reading the novel redemptively, with the result that it’s looking harder and harder to construct such a reading. Properly critical questions to keep in mind, then: Is it a problem if there’s no redemption here? And if there’s none, what’s the novel about anyway?