Modelling Change: ALCA 2023
“Things change,” no doubt, and for many decades now changes in literature and the visual arts have often been conceptualized in two interconnected ways. First, artifactual change is taken as a sign of or proxy for deeper, systemic modifications (from old-fashioned “periods” to master changes like “rationalism,” “capitalism,” and “modernity”). To “historicize,” as Frederic Jameson enjoined us to do, means to imagine artifacts as registering the complex conditions that made them possible in the first place. Second, this brand of change is thought through the trope of rupture, since the various systems that relay one another — call them paradigms, epistemes, horizons or regimes — are held to be incommensurable, despite possible surface similarities. Thus historicizing means asserting the specificity or difference of phenomena that could not have occurred or would be unthinkable at other moments or in other places.
What is the content and value of these images of change today? How are rupture and historical condition thought now? And what are the limits of such a conceptualization of change? How might our preconceptions regarding “historical specificity,” for example, deform our understanding of the way cultural artifacts are transformed over time? Would we do better to revert to the familiar metaphors of birth, growth, and death, or to Raymond Williams’s revised trinity of the emergent, the dominant, and the residual? Are “archaeologies” and “genealogies” preferable to the search for origins? Or should we instead be thinking with other terms: “evolution” and “adaptation," “diffusion" and "adoption,” “sedimentation” and “variation,” “patterns” and “trends,” “novelty" and “obsolescence"? Would such thinking better get at what George Kubler once called “the shape of time”?
We are interested in theoretical reflections on the subject—including clarifications and elaborations of traditional models of thinking historical difference—but we also suspect that a more satisfactory way to decide between these alternatives is to gather some data. We therefore particularly welcome empirical studies — drawn from traditional literary and art history, but also from material history, micro history, quantitative history (DH), or diachronic narratology — that offer lessons in how we model change (and we may need different models for different sorts of cultural objects).