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Falsifiability, Confirmation Bias, and Textual Promiscuity
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Oh! For simpler days of evidence!—when literary critics happily husbanded the best things thought and said, when formalists dallied with favored texts in intimate isolation, and when even dusty historical researchers wending their way through the archives found direction and protection from the delimitations of source study and shelving space. But then the fall into superabundance! Texts under theory became contingent and porous; multiculturalism opened the canon; and the New Historicism made any cultural discourse fair game for critical use. Interdisciplinarity further multiplied domains of possible evidence, as did the weakening of nation and period as bounding paradigms. Now the rise of digital archives has made an unimaginable quantity of evidence not only available but also searchable. This last point might bring a happy ending to our pastoral in that algorithms promise guidance in a world awash with texts. And yet targeted searches of immense databases combined with evidentiary inclusiveness and confirmation bias allow literary critics to discover support for an amazing range of claims, so much that interpretation sometimes feels like playing tennis with the net down. Scholars can celebrate the myriad possibilities of literary criticism and still wonder: After our fortunate fall into superabundance, is interpretation sufficiently falsifiable? Do we have—or do we need—theories and practices for countering and excluding potential evidence?

I offer these as honest, preliminary questions, for despite general commentary on information overload and confirmation bias, there is no sustained work in literary studies on evidentiary superabundance. Scholars of literature and law treat evidence as a historical and narrative practice but seldom as a metacritical issue. Work in philosophy and literature dwells on epistemology though usually approaches the topic of evidence through subjectivity, not sampling. Sianne Ngai has shown how the proliferation of possible evidence makes literary judgments hard to justify, a concern that impels Stephen Burt toward close reading and Franco Moretti in the opposite direction. As Stanley Cavell has written of aesthetic claims, “The danger is not so much that evidence will be lacking as that there will be evidence for everything and nothing, that theory will not warrant enough confidence to repudiate ill-gathered evidence to test what tests it.”

Scholars may be habituated to the sense that there is no arguing about taste, but even historicists seeking supposedly harder truths can find the issue of evidence discomfiting. Most threatening are longstanding poststructural challenges to what Barbara Herrnstein Smith has called “the supposedly autonomous corrective force of brute facts.” Such theorizing counters naive empiricism but also compromises the very premises of falsification and evidence, which are only vital concepts under an empiricism aware of its fallibility. Literary critics as yet are under no mandate to meet scientific standards of proof, but I do think we should follow Bruno Latour’s turn by questioning empiricist certitude and postmodern skepticism alike. Theoretically driven criticism has long been subject to charges of unfalsifiability (psychoanalysis sees a lack of evidence as evidence; deconstruction takes all evidence to contain its refutation; ideology critique—to quote Latour—is “always right!”). Yet given that today’s fact-based interpretation can so determinedly find evidence for its claims, empirically minded historicist scholars might take some of our own realist medicine and consider the falsifiability of our work.

This is hardly to suggest that historicist criticism lacks counterar-gumentative practices. The trick is that they often go unexamined and vary considerably—from factual corrections and the leveraging of countervailing facts, to interpretive redescriptions, to disagreements over causes, implications, and internal inconsistencies. Less confrontationally, we exclude evidence all the time, not only when leaving texts unread and pertinent facts unmentioned but also when not engaging the evidence of other scholars: inattention may be the best way to quash an argument in our surplus scholarly economy. It remains difficult to theorize, let alone generalize, about our practices of falsification, which are best understood not in terms of formal logic but as rhetorical moves made in various idioms directed at diverse interpretive communities at specific moments in critical history. Discussions of our pluralistic evidentiary methods should thus be narrow in scope, and so I turn to a specific, powerful, and sometimes worrisome tendency in nineteenth-century historicist criticism—what might be...

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