The Searcher of Patterns and the Keeper of Things

REMEMBER THE LAST TIME you entered a museum? How did you negotiate it? Did you have map in hand, a favored object or new exhibition in mind? Or were you just visiting because it was raining outside and you needed a place to drift in comfort between things? Perhaps there was only the pace of impatient children scampering ahead too quickly through the long rooms, or the winter afternoon hope of encountering the coffee shop sooner rather than later. 

Think about how negotiating the space of a museum compares to using a reference book. How would you begin? Do you use the index; start at the beginning; let the pages fall open? And how does that repertoire of bookish movements connect to the way we occupy our virtual habitats — spaces where distances are crossed in great leaps of electronic association, minds anticipated by invisible algorithms, thoughts extended by keyword searches that return the unlikeliest affinities?

We find ourselves these days at a strange point in the history of intellection, where the “how” of finding out often looms larger as a form of innovation than the “what.” And so it is fitting that questions of method frame these two new books, each of which begins with an essay reflecting upon the getting in and getting along in a world of information. Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind begins as a dictionary of key terms — coinage, metal, rooms, writing — in which flipping and searching is facilitated and foreseen as an activity that joins the 18th-century reader of books to the 20th-century reader of data. Sean Silver’s The Mind Is a Collection stages itself as a series of cases stocked with exhibition pieces: cases whose specificity is designed to put generalizations under pressure.

As if to forefront both projects’ interest in the form information takes, each exists in two states itself: first as a book, with its mechanics of linearity and indexicality contextualized, and then also as a website. In Silver’s case, this involves a born-digital museum containing high-resolution images of the objects discussed in his book; in Pasanek’s a fully searchable and still-growing database of metaphors, of which his chapters are to be read as samples, continues to be updated. These websites illuminate, expand, and feed back into the books they serve, but they also concretize the lessons Silver and Pasanek have to offer about the mechanics of information-gathering and retrieval. If you followed either of the links above, you’ll get the picture, as well as the practical feel of this claim. Silver and Pasanek both study cognition as it has been imagined physically, through metaphor and the early history of extended cognition. But both also insist at the level of media use that it really has always had a physical substratum.

Silver works very consciously by example, zooming in on one case after another of Enlightenment thinkers who have done the same. His chapters gather “exhibits” — a 17th-century bed, an ampulla filled with blood — that couple mental process and physical fact. The 17th- and 18th-century owners of objects turn out to have been propped up by their possessions in a variety of curious ways. A coin from a fallen empire was used to liken history and memory, a bladder stone in a case to stage the relation of interiority opened to the outside world. Garden pathways were tangled up in strands of thought, blank pages with the effort to imagine a point of biological origin for life.

Compelling individually, collectively these 28 objects stage Silver’s fascination with cases. The museum case, the wooden case, the patient-as-case; the case of this example rather than another — this is the meta language of his book, begging the question of what it means to find ourselves here rather than there, to recover what floats accidentally to the surface rather than to look for patterns in the past. Many of the people Silver writes about take this approach to objects that appear in their own daily life: a “gritty pebble” found on a London street “swims into significance” as the centerpiece of John Woodward’s rock collection. It’s easy to imagine Silver sitting in the same spirit for long summers in the small museums, medical collections, and grottos of England, open to what the past might yield up to him.

For Pasanek, finding 18th-century descriptions of the mind also involves a search process performative of his topic. The first decade of his database’s existence maps closely to the history of keyword-searching in the electronic archives, a process no 18th-centuryist today can avoid. While looking for metaphors of mind might once have involved tracking down known examples and following up scholarly hunches, now it involves weighing evidence that accumulates on very different scales. Like the “desultory” readers Pasanek recalls flicking, rifling, indexing their way through books, making connections that never quite line up or that exhaust those that could be made, Pasanek himself works with a large and still-growing stock of somewhat random examples.

Pasanek’s chapters, each focused on descriptions of mind that use one category of metaphor, are presented neither as exhaustive nor representative. He writes that he “compiled examples until the activity gave way to argument.” The iterative process here matters. Changing the keyword, like changing the metaphor, is everything. Pasanek is screener and organizer, manager of a system, maker of interpretative matches that surprise him quite differently from the way lost and found objects seem to surprise Silver.

I began this review confident of these being two books that needed comparison. They are works of scholars in the same sphere, the same generation, of the same impressive institutional resources. Two books on the way Enlightenment thinkers use objects to think and write about the mind, The Mind Is a Collection and Metaphors of Mind have sat next to each other on my shelf companionably. They have whispered of a time that is come when scholars no longer have to choose between words and things, minds and bodies. Intellectually, they speak of duality overcome. What happier coalescence could a reviewer ask for?

Yet, the more I have thought about these books together, the further apart they have seemed to stand, even in their solidarity, as beacons of the kinds of thinking that scholars of the past are now in a position to do. As books about that “how” of information-gathering, they diverge meaningfully. Silver is interested in objects — real ecologies, as he calls them. He positions himself as a craftsman, a scholar of practices, joints and places. His website exists largely to illuminate the three-dimensionality of his finds, to show us these exemplary, beautiful things. Metaphor, in his account, involves “the leaning of concepts on haptic experience.” Words land on the page with one foot in the world. His whole approach serves this posture.

Theoretically, he draws quietly but steadily on Latour, for whom metaphors call into question the distinction between objects and subjects. Literary scholars are privileged in Latour’s account because they are primed to know just how truly things are ideational, and words concrete. Language teaches them what is true anyway. This aids Silver’s case for a past populated by men whose thoughts travel outwards via objects and whose possessions travel back to them in the form of ideas about ideas. It explains Silver’s level of comfort with the idea of extended cognition as a two-way street.

It also makes sense of why The Mind Is a Collection is a literary study despite referring rarely to literature. Although some poets and diarists are discussed (Milton, Pope, Pilkington, Pepys), the literariness of this project lies in Silver’s being a native to the proposition that the way you think about something is as likely to shape the world as the world is to shape your thinking. This is not his argument; it is the premise with which he sets out. No other discipline, except perhaps those of cognitive science and computational theory, with which his study is on good terms, would have allowed him to cover this ground so quickly.

Pasanek, on the other hand, is concerned with much more obviously literary material. He sees metaphor as crucially linguistic; as the lying of word to word to word, all without object; as the world made word. The metaphors he studies confront difference with sameness: they make minds into the riders of body-animals, blank pages into selves whose blankness is both obvious and in question, mirrors into surfaces where the self is seen by the self. This all happens on the plane of linguistic comparison; it involves mind as the original missing referent: “beyond alphabetization there is no a priori taxonomy.”

But Pasanek’s method is not literary, at least not traditionally so. Indebted to poststructuralist criticism, Pasanek is a student of Franco Moretti, caster of nets, search engines, interested in “multiplying examples” and “small repeatable elements.” His website exists as evidence of this; it is a place where everything that has been said might eventually have to be tagged as metaphor.

Gifted these two works for comparison, I find myself wanting to make something of their differences. They perform two operations that have become equally but distinctly indicative of what literary scholars are now able to do. Silver, whose career involves looking at objects, uses his literary training to work by example. He takes something that is both fascinating in itself (a certain inky dot on a certain preserved page) and shows how this object can expand under scrutiny (the magnified dot becomes, in the mind of Hooke, but also under Silver’s curatorship, a point of digression, a whole world within a world). The joy of a good close-reader zooming in on meaning, even when texts themselves are aren’t in focus as discourse, is evident.

It is Silver’s gift to show how words, concepts, figures might all flow from and back to this — this gallstone, this pebble, this blank page, this inky dot. He insists firmly that there really is and must in renewed terms be a “this.” His writing about objects does not mean writing about the representation of objects. A project looking at 18th-century coins is different from one looking at the description of 18th-century coins. Silver vitalizes this distinction. But those with an eye for the real stuff are not let off the literary hook. If those objects are to lead back into the realm of words and concepts, Silver suggests, literary scholars need to be there to interpret them.

Pasanek’s ability to handle the results of his electronic searches also evidences a new form of literary scholarship. His searches are unfriendly to real objects. Although there’s a lot of thoughtful glossing of the industries and processes associated with, for instance, metals and paper in his book, there are no real objects here. Big data searches — the new darlings of the empirically minded — work here in tandem with the proposition that everything is language. If everything is language, then all the searching in the world can still only produce language. Pasanek gives the impression of being able to do the technical stuff in his sleep, but this is because for him the real work of making sense of a quantitively large data set still remains interpretative. When large spikes in the use of mirror metaphors don’t correspond to a change in mirror technologies, we’re going to need to explain that spike in terms of processes internal to discourse after all.

Of course, to emphasize the different kinds of timeliness at work in these two studies is not to slight what they have in common. They are erudite, beautifully written, and long-prepared, and both set high standards of legibility for literary history. Whether they draw on objects or computation, strong scholarly projects, these books suggest in tandem, are still likely to be good to read. Together, Pasanek and Silver bring to an end a scholarly era when it was possible to blame the Enlightenment for the desire to screen out the messiness of the material world from the activity of thought. And they help inaugurate one of it being necessary for current scholars to put their own methods on show, right in the center of whatever else they have to say. This turns out to be a new era in the humanities, not because we’ve all gone digital or New Materialist, but because having these different ways of reading on hand at the same time in relation to the same topic makes for unprecedented levels of methodological diversity.


Christina Lupton is the author of Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).