Featured Reader: June 26, 2015
Eric Banks is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.
We live in a new age of counting, so there is a delicious irony in the fact that Caleb Crain’s brilliant Harper's essay,
“Counter Culture,” isn’t freely available online. (Unless you’re among the happy few, you’ll have to buy the July issue.) You can’t like it on Facebook, and you can’t share it with your digital imagined community, so its impact can’t be given a number by an algorithm. What makes it ironic is that Crain’s piece is ostensibly about the incommensurability of aesthetic value (here, literary value, but it would be easy to apply his argument to other forms of expression) and “value” reflected in the age of analytics. Digital bean counters can say all kinds of things about books, from the micro level of how far, on average ,a reader made it through an e-book to the big-data picture of research projects like the Stanford Literary Lab, which crunches thousands of historical works to arrive at insights no individual reader could conceivably process. But mistaking quantification for qualification is an error with particular ramifications for how we think about the life of literature. Maintaining the distinction between the two, Crain eloquently argues, is worth the fight.
I say that this is ostensibly what Crain’s essay is about because the question offers him the opportunity to think about how our own digital-age myths of what can be counted have undercut a sense of literary community in surprising ways. Publishers, booksellers, critics, and readers all played a part in the (older) myth of why a particular book mattered, and literary value — the idea, in E.M. Forster’s words, that “the final test of a novel will be our affection for it” — put faith in the future judgment of an ideal and passionate community of individuals. Call it a canon. Unlike the feeling of certainty that analytics glean in the age of likes, what the canon produces is a “mystical sum, which can never be tallied; its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts.”
Crain defends the ideal critic at a time when averaging purports to be a guide to value. He provides a convincing argument that numbers without context are meaningless. What makes his essay worth reading is his artful navigation of the pitfalls — nostalgia, naïveté, despair — that could swallow up most critics of digital culture. It’s one of the most thoughtful brief examinations of the dependence of the individual on a sustaining community. I think you’ll like it.