Several months ago, a group of us from the Stanford Literary Lab wrote and sent out for review the article that now appears in Pamphlet 1 of the Lab. The article, titled “Quantitative Formalism: an Experiment” was submitted, peer-reviewed, and approved for publication in a prestigious literary journal. There was, however, a catch. The editors of the journal asked that we trim the number of charts in the article and that we alter the tone and character of the article to make it less of a narrative. In other words, the article was of a style and content that the editors found to be too foreign to their traditions.
Rather than revise the article in ways we felt would misrepresent its function and intent, we turned to that most traditional of literary forms, the pamphlet. Considering the largely quantitative and digital methodology employed in our research, a pamphlet was a seemingly ironic choice. The most obvious venue would seem to have been the web. After all, aren’t the blog and the web site, the pamphlet forms of the digital age (see, for example, Pamphleteers and Web Sites)? We certainly considered an electronic format, and we have posted a pdf version of the essay on our web site, but we decided to print.
Why print the pamphlet? As a literary form, the pamphlet has a long tradition of going against the grain; it’s an alternative form that is malleable. In the pamphlet, George Orwell wrote, “one has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and ‘high-brow’ than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals.” It has been used in campaigning and marketing, but most famously, the pamphlet has been employed by political, religious, and social “provocateurs” and “radicals.” Many of these objects have been lost, but the best have been preserved, such as those crafted by talented satirists (Swift) sober thinkers (Paine) and social critics (Voltaire). And they are preserved because they are historical objects, “ephemera” as the librarians say. The pamphlet is an ephemeral object, an object “lasting only for a day.” As “an experiment” our “quantitative formalism” pamphlet is a middle point, a hash mark on the line of time, not an end point or destination not even a beginning.
It’s interesting to consider how the preferred citation style of literary scholarship, the MLA Style, places emphasis on page reference over time, over moment of publication. With some obvious exceptions, the basic logic here is that what someone says about Shakespeare today has the same validity, the same scholarly purchase, as something said fifty years ago. As a discipline, our “results” tend to be qualitative and interpretive, not bound in time or subject to revision based on the introduction of new evidence. They are, of course, subject to reinterpretation, but that is fundamentally different from the changes wrought by new discoveries. The date-based citation style, on the other hand, places emphasis on points in time and acknowledges the fast-paced and ephemeral nature of certain fields of research. This is most obvious in the sciences, in medicine, for example, where new experiments and new discoveries are constantly and quickly changing the field. One need only eavesdrop on the the Digital Humanities twittersphere for a few hours to note the similarities; the pace of change is rapid.
So why not a pamphlet? Why not recognize in both form, title, and narrative style that ours is an experiment? It is a bit of research that is useful for today but also something we entirely expect to change. Indeed, we are already working on the next iteration(s), the next experiments. Unlike the neatly closed arguments of our traditional work, these experiments of our Literary Lab open as many doors as they close. In fact, in the course of our research on novel genres, it became apparent that we could, must, go on forever. Each test led us to some new idea, some new direction to explore. There are some discoveries to be sure, and some of our results will likely, hopefully, stand the test of time. But my co-authors and I understand, or perhaps simply “believe,” that there is still much, much more work to be done. If it reads more like a lab report than a traditional essay, it’s because it is a lab report and self-consciously so, intentionally so.
Readers wishing to experience the full pleasure of a touchable paper pamphlet may contact me with their name and address. No charge, while supplies last:-)