Xanadu meme, a case study

From: William Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Date: Wed 25 Jan 2006 - 05:29:44 GMT

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    Posted over at The Valve, where we're discussing Franco Moretti's *Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History.* I've written a piece on Xanadu.

    Bill B

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    One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text

    As my review makes clear, I hold Morettiıs work in high regard; I like it and I want to see more like it. Beyond that, I too believe that we need to bracket the search for meaning and put it on the shelf. I do not, however, believe that requires us to shift our attention away from the scrupulous examination of individual texts. I have argued that point in a series of posts on this site and, more importantly, I have shown how to do it in a small body of critical studies written and published over a period of three decades.

    That leaves me with one major issue: How do we bridge the yawning chasm between the phenomena Moretti examines and the particularity of individual texts and individual acts of reading, apprehension, and discussion? I certainly do not have an answer to that question, nor do I think anyone does. But I would like to have a little fun playing around in that chasm and thereby indicate something of what can be done. My objective is to convince you that that "space" is not a chasm at all, but "fertile ground" containing gardens "bright with sinuous rills" interspersed among "forests ancient as the hills."

    I take as one starting point Steven Johnsonıs remark that "a systemic theory has to work at all the relevant scales." Iıve done most of my work at the scale appropriate for an individual reading a single text. To get from that scale to Morettiıs we need to consider many readers reading many texts over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That is to say, the phenomena Moretti examines are summary measures of the activities of a population of individuals over decades-long periods of time. As my other starting point I have Sean Mcannıs wonder over Morettiıs "stunner of a line" about deducing operative forces from an objectıs form.

    Iıve chosen "Kubla Khan" as my example. I have two reasons for doing so. On the one hand I am familiar with the poem and have a reasonable grasp of its form. Beyond my work, there is the rather different but complementary work of Reuven Tsur and some unpublished analytical work by Richard Cureton. On the other hand, the poem is about, among other things, a place called Xanadu, and that word, that meme if you will, is rather wide-spread. If you google the term you get roughly 2,000,000 hits ­ Iıve gotten as few as 1.6M and on one occasion I got 7M; I have no idea what accounts for that upper figure. Thatıs the Xanadu cultural system, or rather, a highly distributed manifestation of the Xanadu cultural system. With 2M hits, itıs on the world-wide scale at which Moretti is operating.

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