A Theory of Topological Reading

I have a new piece out on reading topologically instead of bibliographically in a special section on “Reading” in the journal ELH. The following is a brief excerpt.

While the term topology covers a variety of fields that extend from graph theory to the mathematics of continuous spaces to thinking about “topos” or space more generally, I am using it as a means of modeling linguistic patterns to understand the spatial connectivity of literary texts.[i] I am interested in the extent to which the language of a particular theoretical category or concept circulates within a given textual environment and structures a literary field.

The value of topology, I want to argue, is the way it allows us to rethink our inherited critical models of literary circulation, from the bibliographically-inflected notion of “social text” of D.F. McKenzie or Jerome McGann to the poststructural idea of intertextuality of Genette, Kristeva or even Harold Bloom.[ii] Instead of understanding literary relationality according to such bibliographic categories as titles or adaptations, or such lexical categories as keywords, motifs, or even citations, topology attempts to conceptualize — and visualize — relationality as a function of a more diffuse lexical coordination. Topology helps us see how groups of words recur over time according to complex patterns, the way they form, in Foucault’s words, “fields of regularity.”[iii]

Instead of the binary on/off of the keyword, title, or even citation, topologies create ways of visualizing a more latent sense of one text’s presence in another, not just as more or less present – a question of succession – but also present in this or that way –a question of differentiation.  Topology allows us to track the different ways that a particular lexical category circulates through the writing of a particular period. To take but one example from our work, according to topological thinking there is not a singularity out there called Werther, but rather different kinds of Wertherisms that allow different kinds of new literary arguments to take shape.  Topology brings into view these heterogeneous concentrations of literary discourse, what Deleuze would call in his Foucault book, “the relation of the non-relation.”[iv]

If topology allows for a different kind of thinking in more global, systemic terms (at the level of fields, influences, and vectors), it also has an important bearing on our more local interpretive practices as literary critics.  Unlike more traditional hermeneutic work, whose success lies in a kind of divinatory act of identifying a meaning that is not immediately there – a beyond of language – topology attends to the recurrence of words, the way language repeats itself at a distance (a different kind of thinking about the beyond).  Instead of understanding language in significatory terms (what it says), topology allows us to think more about language in agential terms (what it does).  It shows us how the patterns of lexical repetition within texts produce meanings that are not localized in, or inherent to, those patterns.  Meaning is not a function of signification in a topology, but organization.[v]  In so doing, topology brings to light what we might call the latency of the lexically manifest, the meaning of the distributed recurrences of language that otherwise escape our critical consciousness.  Topology enables a deep engagement with the redundancy of reading.

The larger point I wish to argue for is the way reading topologically brings into view (quite literally through the form of the diagram) an intertextual presence that is not otherwise legible to the naked eye, a presence that is based upon decidedly different modes of reading than have historically been operative within the discipline of literary studies.  Reading topologically does not just mean reading topologies.  It implies a new kind of Lesetechnik, a reading technique in the double sense of the term, in which lexical recurrence – a highly insignificant way of thinking about how words mean – and dimensionality – a highly spatial way that words relate to each other, supra-syntactically we might say – are the two primary means through which new semantic configurations and new textual concentrations are brought to light within a given textual field.[vi] In rethinking our engagement with literary history in topological terms, my aim is to visualize precisely those spaces marked by the absence of attention, where critique is arrested in the face of the habitual, the familiar, and the so-called insignificant. The automaticity of computational reading helps undo the automaticity of our own critical reading. In attending to the significance of non-significance, topology introduces a different, perhaps more elementary order of meaning into the field of language and the space of literature.

Andrew Piper


To read more please see the article on a theory of topological reading.

[i] For a detailed history of the meaning of topology, see I.M. James, History of Topology (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1999).

[ii] D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999); Jerome McGann, “From Text to Work: Digital Tools and the Emergence of the Social Text,” Romanticism on the Net, No. 41-42 (February-May 2006): http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/013153ar; Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue, Novel,” in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); and Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997). On intertextuality and Werther, see in particular Arnd Bohm, “‘Klopstock!’ once more: Intertextuality in Werther,” Seminar 38.2 (2002): 116-133 and Ehrhard Bahr, “Unerschlossene Intertextualität: Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ and Goethe’s ‘Werther’,” Goethe-Jahrbuch 124 (2007): 178-188.

[iii] Michel Foucault, The Archeaology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 55.

[iv] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (London: Continuum, 2006), 55.

[v] The connection to thinking about language genetically here, as a form of code or instructions, should be explicit. One of the crucial sources for topological thinking derives from the related field of bioinformatics where a four-letter code is understood in instructional terms.  Repetition in an organic setting is the condition of producing enormous degrees of variation. As the idea of life is increasingly understood in textual terms, it warrants thinking how knowledge of organic textual processes can be brought to bear on the understanding of the history of cultural textuality and in addition how models of cultural textuality might generate insights into organic processes.

[vi] For a thoughtful discussion of the problem of identifying meaning through mining, see D. Sculley and Bradley M. Pasanek, “Meaning and mining: the impact of implicit assumptions in data mining for the humanities,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23.4 (2008): 409-424 and Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, “Learning to Read Data: Bringing out the Humanistic in the Digital Humanities,” Victorian Studies 54.1 (Autumn 2011): 79-86.