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This forum has arisen from the conviction that recent debates about historicism and reading have not fully addressed the evidentiary questions of text-based scholarship or the bewilderment, excitement, and material insights that distinguish aesthetically informed work with archival sources. Recent critiques of historicism, we suggest, have not allowed for the fact that archival work often doesn't feel like "work" at all. Reconceptualizing "evidence" through its etymological relation to vision (videre, to see) we argue that the "flat" information that statistical purviews, data-mining, and keyword searches tend to provide is only one type of evidence--and it is not obviously superior in nature to the qualitative forms of knowledge once associated with close-reading. Without recuperating the hermetic logic of formalism or feeling behold to historicism's tendency to value typicality (over variation) this forum stresses that archival research and aesthetic interpretation are not mutually exclusive--and that aesthetics is as much a part of the fabric of the archive as it is of the individual texts within it.


archive, evidence, data, digital archive, close-reading, formalism, surface reading, information

When did we turn to the archive? Historians have long been there, but literary scholars have unquestionably made their way. Indeed, Fredric Jameson’s call to “always historicize” has been so thoroughly absorbed into our disciplinary unconscious that some critics have begun to historicize the historical turn in an effort to leave it behind.1 The sense that contextualization and periodization are obligatory2—coupled with the anxiety that we’ve run out of things to say about canonical texts—has brought critics to the archive in unprecedented numbers. We go to the archive for new ways of seeing old texts and for new texts by which to understand old problems. But what exactly do we mean when we speak of the “archive”? The word has become so omnipresent that it’s begun to lose the sense of methodological grounded-ness it once seemed to offer; the “archive” has lost its edge. There are multiple reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is digitization. Doing archival work used to require going to a physical site—whether a library, museum, or private collection—that houses rare and unique records. The digitization of an almost unthinkable number of printed and manuscript materials has made it possible to do similar forms of research from the comfort of our computers. With the stroke of a few keys we can alternate between research and writing, finding “evidence” as we go. Projects like Google Books have helped to break down the logistical barriers that limit the accessibility of physical archives, and [End Page 155] in so doing have given new meaning to the publicness that ostensibly distinguishes archives (from the Greek, arkheia: public records).

What counts as an “archive” is of course a matter of rich debate—and the question is not limited to distinctions between physical and digital collections. The ambiguity of the term also bespeaks changing disciplinary assumptions about the relational value of individual texts and the types of evidence they offer. In its colloquial use, the “archive” can refer to any group of texts—even the hypercanonical “masterpieces” of a book like F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance.3 That Matthiessen would not have understood his archive as an “archive,” and that we would, speaks to the profound influence of historicism in literary studies. No longer as invested in the unique characteristics of texts (conceived as works of art), literary critics in the age of historicism tend to privilege exemplarity, valuing texts for the evidence they offer about the past. The term “archive” is more suited to this purpose than “art,” because it borrows the epistemic authority associated with the discipline of history (postmodern critiques notwithstanding).4 Yet with borrowed terms come borrowed methods, and as literary scholars came to think of all groups of texts as “archives” they also began to do more archival research: devoting their time to finding lost, unknown, or unfamiliar texts and trumpeting such findings in their scholarship. David Reynolds’s revision of Matthiessen in Beneath the American Renaissance neatly encapsulates this shift; its titular rhetorical gesture of uncovering celebrates recovery work as a hermeneutic of discovery.5

Reynolds’s book appeared at the end of the 1980s, a decade in which New Historicism helped to domesticate the archive as a resource for literary scholars. The canonical reformations spurred by new scholarship on gender and race also contributed to this archival zeal, giving it political currency and allowing critics to see textual discoveries as a form of retroactive cultural reparation. We traded “canons” for “archives.” We came to see the “archive” (both as a term and a practice) as a way of guarding literary studies against accusations of interpretive triviality. However, our frequent archival visitations—physical, digital, and heuristic—have also augmented the underlying disciplinary identity crisis that brought us to the archive in the first place. Given mounting fatigue with historicism in general and New Historicism in particular; the proliferation of new models of reading, born from such fatigue; and the bewildering expansion of digital resources, we ask: what is the current status of the archive? And, perhaps more significantly for a discipline still haunted by anxieties about its own value, what is the status of [End Page 156] the epistemological category that brings us to the archive in the first place: evidence.

This forum has arisen from our conviction that recent debates about historicism and reading have not fully addressed the evidentiary questions of text- based scholarship or the bewilderment, excitement, and material insights that distinguish aesthetically informed work with archival sources. Recent critiques of historicism, we suggest, have not allowed for the fact that archival work often doesn’t feel like “work” at all. Reconceptualizing “evidence” through its etymological relation to vision (videre, to see) we argue that the “flat” information that statistical purviews, data-mining, and keyword searches provide is only one type of evidence—and it is not superior in nature to the qualitative forms of knowledge once associated with close-reading. Without recuperating the hermetic logic of formalism or feeling beholden to historicism’s tendency to value typicality (over variation), we stress that archival research and aesthetic interpretation are not mutually exclusive—and that aesthetics is as much a part of the fabric of the archive as it is of the individual texts within it.

The discovery of new literary texts has always happened in the archive (from Herman Melville to Frederick Douglass to Leonora Sansay), but our interest is not mainly in canon reformation. We address aesthetic experience on another register: the aesthetics of the archive itself. In speaking of the “aesthetics” of archival evidence, we mean to designate not only the importance of linguistic form but also the evidential significance of our sensual experience in the archive: the nontextual features of material texts, size, format, paper quality, watermarks, bindings, and so on. As Rodrigo Lazo emphasizes in his discussion of a printer’s receipt from the 1820s, “There is an entire process of reading that goes beyond the text itself.” Variations in language within and between texts and the numerous elements that distinguish each copy of a text are introduced by different creative agents—writers, publishers, book binders—but these variations matter and the type of evidence they provide is both irreducible and difficult to translate.

Numbers cannot replace words, and digital images cannot replace embodied encounters with texts in physical archives. As Paul Erickson emphasizes in his contribution to this forum, there is no obvious digital equivalent for heft, no way of reproducing the tactile feel of an embossed cover, the unwieldy contours of manuscript pages, or the heavy must of decaying paper. The material features of texts are, of course, what digitization most struggles to capture in its virtual translation of [End Page 157] physical copies. However, digital archives needn’t foreclose aesthetic analysis; they also open up new arenas within which to understand the play of signification. As Maurice Lee suggests in his discussion of an eerie image of the hand of a scanner in Google Books, digitization creates idiosyncratic artifacts of its own. Digitization may flatten material texts, but it also adds sensual effects.

The growing magnitude of the digital archive makes it seem possible to give almost any argument the appearance of credibility. One response to what Lee aptly terms “the fall into superabundance” has been to make the amount of evidence, rather than its quality, the new standard for interpretive rigor. Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” is illustrative in this respect: Moretti is interested in the “collective system” of the literary field, and he makes it clear that the type of knowledge gleaned from a “large mass of facts” is fundamentally different from the heuristic of close-reading, which exalts the “exceptional” text and the “uniqueness” of individual words.6 The recent surge of new models of reading are not equally invested in empirical data, but like Moretti’s “distant reading” they have tended to privilege scope over interpretative depth. Take Stephen Best’s and Sharon Marcus’s model of “surface reading.” Although their polemic does not concern the quantity of textual evidence, surface reading can be understood as a heuristic strategy for managing textual overabundance. Best and Marcus resist the hermeneutics of discovery as it relates to textual interpretation: namely, symptomatic reading’s insistence that things are not as they seem. Surface reading “refuses the depth model of truth,” but it places an unspoken premium on the generic/typical nature of linguistic evidence. For Best and Marcus, the “surface” is the “location of patterns that exist within and across texts.”7 Surface reading exchanges interpretive depth for argumentative scope.

Quantity over quality, surface over depth: no wonder the scholarly “mood” is one of “deflation or drift,” as Nancy Bentley remarked in a recent piece.8 At times, the wealth of archival materials seems to translate into hermeneutic dearth. However, more evidence needn’t translate to thin evidence. As Brian Connolly argues, “Evidence is not a priori ‘symbol-poor.’ ” The point bears emphasis. For if linguistic difference was the idol of formalism and high theory, typicality is the (anonymous) archetype of digital research. The investment in typicality threatens to obscure what distinguishes one example from another. Keyword searching is a case in point. It both valorizes and delimits the heuristic value of language; it treats words as the telos of linguistic expression but [End Page 158] omits the linguistic variations that make word choice meaningful. In this sense, the predicament is not merely that we’ve traded quality for quantity but that we’ve begun to acquire textual evidence with tools and methods that undercut the basic importance of the techne (art) of language itself: style. We thus find ourselves with a surplus of texts, without a clear sense of the evidential importance of textuality as such.

It would be misleading, of course, to judge the scholastic merits of digitization solely on the basis of OCR technology or keyword searching. The ready-availability of an unprecedented array of materials in digitized form is a tremendous asset. And the fact that digitization is an information technology doesn’t mean we need to reduce the materials it has made newly accessible to mere “information.” One way of avoiding this methodological pitfall begins with the recognition that “information” and “evidence” are not objective categories. As Mary Poovey argues in A History of the Modern Fact (1998), the idea that numbers are “preinterpretative or even somehow noninterpretative” is a distinctly “modern epistemological assumption.”9 The contributors to this forum—two literary scholars, a historian, and a scholar/librarian—outline different ways of dealing with the interpretative quandaries of archival research, but they are united by the conviction that making our evidential assumptions and practices visible is as important as the knowledge we infer and collect.

One way of exposing these assumptions is to actually test them. In “Falsifiability, Confirmation Bias, and Textual Promiscuity,” Maurice Lee narrates the predicament posed by technological resources, which support “an amazing range of claims, so much that interpretation sometimes feels like playing tennis with the net down.” He urges us to consider “falsifiability,” that is, the extent to which the digital archive can in any particular instance provide as much evidence against our interpretations as for them. Lee’s proof of falsifiability is a “pilot experiment” that pairs randomly chosen canonical texts (taken from the Norton Anthology) with equally random nineteenth-century texts from Google Books. He finds a number of unexpected connections that are hard to differentiate from the kinds of readings usually offered in the form of contextualization. The very randomness of Lee’s sample allows him to expose how devastatingly arbitrary such “connections” can be. Attending to the “intertextual promiscuity” of the nineteenth century, Lee suggests, can be generative— as long as we acknowledge the practices that enable it. [End Page 159]

In “Against Accumulation,” Brian Connolly challenges the more-is-better attitude of scholarship that embraces the sheer evidential scope traversed through the use of data-mining and “extranational scales of analysis.” The “celebratory tone” of accumulation, he argues, has led to a “neoempiricism” that “mimics the neoimperial, techno-determinism of global capitalism.” As a historian who values the “depth and critique” of “interpretation,” Connolly expresses surprise that empiricism’s most “forceful assertions can be found in some recent literary criticism.” The “antihermeneutic move” that is “variously called ‘surface reading,’ ‘distant reading,’ or ‘descriptive reading,’ ” he observes, presumes that “critique . . . is no longer necessary.” Connolly uses Lacan to insist that no archive can adequately yield “the real” and urges us to see that “the digital and the spatial are not new avenues to the truth”; they are contingent frameworks that are profoundly determined by our contemporary moment. Acknowledging the “imperatives” that bring us to the archive, he suggests, can help to check the creeping empiricism that threatens to colonize both historical and literary scholarship. “Perhaps subjective bias in the archive and in the production of evidence is not a flaw,” Connolly contends, “but the sources of critical wonder.”

In “Accounting for Textual Remains,” Rodrigo Lazo begins by taking stock of his own experiences of archival “wonder.” “I was ecstatic,” he exclaims, in a description of an encounter with a printer’s receipt at the American Antiquarian Society. The receipt, from the Mathew Carey papers, provides new information about Spanish-language publishing in 1820s Philadelphia, but it also throws open the meaning of “evidence.” Lazo argues that “disconcerting” finds in the archive can defamiliarize our preconceptions and illuminate the “alien” language of even the least aesthetic of archival materials. The “archival threshold,” Lazo suggests, is also a disciplinary one. “In the interdisciplinary realm of archives,” “the distinction between texts that are literary and those that are historical is not always clear.” Lazo uses this ambiguity as a catalyst for thinking about “the hermeneutics of archival materials.” “How does close reading a literary text differ from reading archival holdings, particularly something like an account book,” Lazo asks. The answer, he suggests, has to do with recognizing that the fragmentary nature of “textual remains” is not “transparent”; it requires its own form of decipherment. For Lazo, the archive is “a strange realm,” where serendipitous finds push scholars into unknown terrain and documents pose questions as much as they answer them. [End Page 160]

Few are better situated to provide insight into the archive than Paul Erickson, director of academic programs at the American Antiquarian Society. In “Where the Evidence Is,” Erickson gives an inside view of the “disciplinary divide” that shapes archival research, arguing that the kind of “evidence” one gathers has less to do with an item’s intrinsic nature than the interpretive lens through which it is viewed. Erickson brings much- needed precision to the term “archive.” For “specialists in information management,” he explains, “archives” and “libraries” are understood to be “fundamentally different in both organization and purpose”: a library is a collection of non-unique published works, while an archive contains unique materials. At stake for Erickson is how libraries and archives shape the way evidence is conceived, gathered, and utilized. “The organizing logic of an archive generally makes it clear why those materials are grouped together, so scholars will often focus their attention on what is missing,” Erickson writes. “A library, on the other hand, has been assembled intentionally, so scholars will more frequently ask questions about what is actually present.” Erickson’s reflections on the “organic” nature of the “archive”—its uniqueness, organization, and visible absences—underline how much evidence is lost in the unbounded recesses of digital collections.

The pieces in this forum address the art of the archive, the style of evidence, the aesthetics of history. They suggest that bringing our aesthetic sensibilities to bear on archival materials can provide historians with new ways of understanding the resources literary scholars initially borrowed from them. By addressing what Eric Slauter terms the “trade gap” between the disciplines of history and literature,10 the forum challenges the idea that the archive is merely a repository of information. For scholars who are invested in both aesthetics and history, the aesthetic character of the archive might seem self-evident. Yet, the point is more urgent than ever. The explosion of digital archives only amplifies what Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt identified as the “impossible” question at the heart of historical method: “How can we identify, out of the vast array of textual traces in a culture, which are the significant ones, either for us or for them, the ones most worth pursuing[?]”11 Arguments require limits, but where do these limits come from? These questions can be answered in many ways, but it is precisely their open-endedness that makes them so instructive. The disorientation we experience in the archive is arguably more valuable than the promise of objectivity that draws us to it. The archive is a contingent theater of aesthetic [End Page 161] encounter; it offers its own unique sense (and we mean sense) of vertigo, pleasure, and surprise.

Carrie Hyde
University of California–Los Angeles
Joseph Rezek
Boston University
Carrie Hyde

Carrie Hyde is assistant professor of English at the University of California– Los Angeles. She is currently completing a book, Literary Originalism: The Extra- Legal Development of U.S. Citizenship, 1776- 1868, which offers a literary genealogy of citizenship in the period prior to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Joseph Rezek

Joseph Rezek is assistant professor of English at Boston University, where his teaching and research focuses on American and British literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is completing a book titled The Aesthetics of Provinciality: London and the Making of Irish, Scottish, and American Literature.


1. Two special issues are at the center of recent debates about historicism: “Surface Reading,” in Representations 108, no. 1 (Fall 2009) and “Context?” in New Literary History 42, no. 4 (Fall 2011). See also “Forum: In the Spirit of the Thing: Critique as Enchantment,” ed. Nancy Bentley, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 147–78.

2. Rita Felski, “Context Stinks!” in New Literary History 42, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 573–91; Eric Hayot, “Against Periodization: or, On Institutional Time,” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 739–56.

3. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), vii.

4. Cathy Davidson issues a passionate reminder about such critiques (including White, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze) in an essay about the debate surrounding Olaudah Equiano’s birth, in which traditional archival sources (baptismal records, ship logs) are measured against other types of evidence. Davidson pointedly asks, “What exactly constitutes archival truth?” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 40, nos. 1–2 (Fall 2006/Spring 2007): 27, 35. See also Tim Cassedy, “The Long Tail of Literary Studies,” Archive Journal 3 (Summer 2013). Accessed November 27, 2013. http://www.archivejournalnet/issue/3/notes-queries/the-long-tail-of-literary-studies/.

5. David Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

6. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 2, 3.

7. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 11.

8. Bentley, “Forum: In the Spirit of the Thing: Critique as Enchantment,” 147.

9. Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), xii.

10. Eric Slauter, “History, Literature, and the Atlantic World,” Early American Literature 43, no. 1 (2008): 154.

11. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, introduction to Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 14.

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