While recently writing a review of Mark C. Taylor’s Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo for the online Los Angeles Review of Books, I was struck by the complete absence—one might even say, the aggressive absence—of any references to literary criticism in Taylor’s book of literary criticism. He evidently felt free to ignore entire books that had been written on the texts he interrogates, such as John Johnston’s fine Carnival of Repetitions on Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the subject of a fifty-one page chapter in Taylor. Suppose, as a comparable example, that I were to write a book on Heidegger, Hegel and Nietzsche and never referred to any previous work on these figures by philosophers, and moveover was able to convince Duke University Press to publish it (Taylor’s book is published by Columbia, where he teaches). Clearly, something unusual is going on here, and it led me to meditate on the contemporary state of publishing in the humanities.

One of the issues is cross-disciplinarity, and the extent to which a scholar primarily based in one field may be held responsible for mastering the criticism in another field. Taylor, described as a “secular theologian” in a back-cover comment, writes primarily on religion, philosophy, and art. Is this sufficient reason for exempting him from the basic requirements of consulting the literature of the field into which he is entering? I would say no, on the grounds that had he consulted the criticism on these books, his interpretations would have been richer and more informed. He presents as new discoveries many insights that have already been the subject of extensive commentary, and he misses some important textual features relevant to his argument that he would have noticed, had he read the criticism. But there is an ethical dimension as well. The scholarly enterprise, in whatever field, is necessarily a collaborative venture. It develops as a group conversation between whoever is interested enough, and trenchant enough, to contribute ideas, proposals, counter-proposals, arguments and rebuttals. When someone pretends that he is starting a new conversation and ignores the ongoing, lively and robust dialogue around him, he implicitly subverts this value and elevates himself above it, as if he were too exalted to notice (ironically for this notable lack of dialogue with literary criticism, Taylor’s subtitle places him “in conversation” with the four literary authors about which he writes, one of whom is dead).

Beyond the particularities of this instance, Taylor’s book—and especially its publication by a university press—raises a larger issue about the growing masses of scholarship in all fields, accelerated by the rapid retrieval of information that the web makes possible. If one were literally to research everything that has previously been written on any given topic, it is quite possible that such a task would take a lifetime, preempting the possibility of adding anything new. The sciences have largely solved this problem by deciding that anything published more than five years ago—seven or eight at the outside—may safely be ignored as obsolete and relegated to the history of science, a field identified with history departments rather than actively working scientists. In the humanities, by contrast, it has been traditional to regard the history of the discipline as central to the ongoing work of the field. In my Literature department, and in many similar departments, the one required graduate course is the History of Criticism. Is such a stance feasible today, given the massive and accelerating amount of material?

In practice, the humanities solve the problem not by temporal limits such as those implicitly at work in the sciences, but by fashion. Certain theorists and writers emerge as central; one cannot be a respectable scholar without knowing them and their work intimately (with the caveat that this is a moving target and changes over time, so that someone once central may fade into obscurity, and new names may emerge with startling rapidity). One may safely disregard almost everything else, except perhaps other scholarly books and articles written precisely on the topic one is investigating. This has the effect of bringing the material necessary to know within manageable scope. It also has the effect of narrowing the scope of inquiry, so that there are, for example, innumerable articles and books on Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, and almost no recent ones on Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, or Marvin Minsky, as well as a host of others no longer fashionable.

The role of web searches in determining who is cited is another factor increasingly pressing on scholarly work. A recent study of scientific articles revealed that the scope of references has shrunk in contemporary articles compared to those published twenty years ago, and that the range of references correlates strongly with articles that appear on the first screen of Google or other search engines. This is, of course, a self-reinforcing mechanism, since the more a given source is cited, the more it will tend to appear on the first screen, and hence the more it will continue to be cited.

The conclusion I draw from these thoughts appears at first counter-intuitive: the more information and instant access we have, the more group-think prevails, and the more privileged become the barriers to communication between fields. Both of these can be seen as strategies to manage too much information. Mark Taylor can ignore literary criticism because he is primarily a philosopher (and presumably the press can publish his book because his manuscript was sent only to other philosophers, not to literary critics). What we need are more eccentrics, more idiosyncratic thinkers inclined to excavate the ignored, the unfashionable, the offbeat. Unless, of course, such a thinker succeeds and becomes a fashion icon in turn . . .

Recently I had the strange and pleasant experience of re-visiting one of my books with a couple of graduate students doing an independent study with me on computation.  I have suspected for some time that My Mother Was a Computer is the least-understood of my books, and my session with the students confirmed my view.  The problem, of course, is not with readers but with my writing; somehow I did not sufficiently convey the powerful idea at the center of that text.  So I will give it another go here.  Intermediation refers to an idea that originally came out of research on simulations and complexity science.  One of the long-standing problems with simulation is how one bootstraps from emergent patterns on one level of complexity—let us say, the one-dimensional cellular automata that Steven Wolfram shows can simulate a Universal Turing Machine—and more complex phenomena such as we see all around us.  How do we get from cellular automata to cells, from cells to organisms?

The answer “intermediation” proposes is this: many agents interacting through sets of simple rules such as one sees with cellular automata generate emergent patterns more complex than the agents themselves (see the cover of Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science for a beautiful example).  However, to progress up the ladder of complexity, these patterns have to be captured in new kinds of material configurations that in turn will become the primitives of the next level up.  For example, electrons, neutrons and protons are the subatomic particles whose interactions are captured in a different kind of material entity called atoms; the interactions of atoms create yet further kinds of patterns captured in molecules; the emergent patterns of molecules are captured and materially instantiated in proteins, and so forth.

The essential dynamic here is that the interactions between agents at one level result in emergences that are “locked in” by changing material forms, which in turn create new emergent patterns “locked in” by yet other changes in material forms.  Each level contributes patterns for the next level up, but any given level doesn’t cease to contribute once the next level emerges.  Rather, all through the daisy chain of different levels, each continues to contribute dynamically both through continuing interactions between agents at that level (themselves dynamically generated by the lower level), as well as contributing to the next level up through its emergences  Because each level is interdependent with both the levels above and below it, it would be misleading to think of this as a hierarchy.  “Hierarchy” might tempt us to reify the different levels and see them as static rather than continuously emerging entities.  To forestall this conceptual misprision, better to think of this as a dynamic heterarchy.  The generalized form of this dynamic is what I called “intermediation,” where “mediation” refers to the essential feature of changing material forms between levels, and “inter” evokes the dynamic interactions crucial for the operation of the entire system.

If you find this idea intriguing, I invite you to re-visit My Mother Was A Computer for the intellectual genealogies that created it and to explore its implications between physical systems to cultural and textual interactions as well.