Overdetermined Accumulations: Towards an Understanding of the Power of Creative Writing
Over the course of the 20th century, the humanities and social sciences have developed from being merely descriptive disciplines towards having an increased interest in conducting emancipatory interventions. With an ethical imperative to use the knowledge derived from their research towards ameliorating the circumstances of those they have studied, these projects have given rise to the scholar-activist, who has dreams for practically applying their social research. But while the topics and applications of scholarship in the humanities have expanded, knowledge production across these disciplines has widely constrained itself to a single prose mode, that of the research paper. Additionally, demonstrable behavioral change has been relied upon as the viable unit by which to assess the impact and value of a project—research is more effective if it changes more minds, and can be considered failed if cannot convince its audience.
In this paper, I contend that holding demonstrable behavioral change as the sole unit of evaluation for project efficacy in the humanities neglects to account for the subtle scale at which creative writing operates. From the vantage of overdetermination, which complicates intuitive cause-and-effect correlations, I posit that the overdetermination of language itself warrants an adjustment of the scale used to evaluate the social impact of a text. Through an analysis of the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I propose the aggregate as an alternate unit of analysis that might complement traditional frameworks while allowing for greater flexibility of scale. Ultimately, by registering the communicative phenomena of the act of reading at new scales, I will argue that such an adjustment allows for literacy of the academic work already being accomplished within non-academic texts.
From institutional resources for research projects to the financial stability of faculty tenure, the university provides many of the material conditions of possibility for scholarship to occur. Yet this productive symbiosis carries with it certain institutional biases. Significant among these biases is the demand for scalable, reproducible knowledge, reflecting the western university’s origins in the natural sciences. The deterministic logic underpinning such research is notable for its efficiency, asserting the presence of intuitive cause-and-effect relationships even within complex phenomena. Breaking down analyses into fundamental units in this way also lends to ease of publication, contributing to the explosive growth of academic journals in the latter half of the 20th century. However, the journals have not simply been passive instruments of knowledge dissemination; by contrast, key figures in the mid 20th century reoriented academic publishing into a staggeringly profitable enterprise with the power to influence what research projects are considered viable undertakings. In the 1970s, “impact factor” became a central concern of journal editors. As reported in Stephen Buranyi’s genealogy of the contemporary publishing oligarchy, “where you published became immensely important” at this time, with the effect that “almost overnight, a new currency of prestige was created in the scientific world.” The most prestigiously curated journals like Cell, Nature, and Science—whose editorial preferences favored flashy research promising big results—thus established significant influence over the directions in which scholarly production evolved in the subsequent decades.
The institutional influence of capitalism cannot be understated here: with the consolidation of ever-more journals across all academic disciplines under a select few profit-oriented publishing bodies, there is reason to not exempt the curatorial biases of the journals themselves from the same analytical rigor they demand of the research published within them. Buranyi’s own analysis—significantly published as investigative journalism in The Guardian rather than as a journal article—characterizes the result of these trends as follows: “These days, given a choice of projects, a scientist will almost always reject both the prosaic work of conforming or disproving past studies, and the decades-long pursuit of a risky “moonshot”, in favour of a middle ground: a topic that is popular with editors and likely to yield regular publications.” Economically, this is a safe decision, and an important choice for the scholar looking to secure the publication count necessary to sustain the material conditions of possibility of their work (i.e. by meeting tenure assessment and productivity standards). Yet it is in the accumulation of these individual decisions that gaps in the collective body of scholarly knowledge are liable to emerge. The results-oriented ethos of mainstream academic publishing favors projects designed to trace clear lines of causality coupled with actionable proposals for change or advancement. However, complex objects of study in unclosed systems do not always lend themselves so easily to this demand for deliverables.
Take as an example Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. The matsutake mushroom thrives in forests disturbed by human activity and has become a highly-prized commodity on the global market. However, Tsing finds that the particularities of matsutake complicate many attempts to analyze the economies and ecologies in which it is found. The growing conditions of the mushroom are elusive, and despite international efforts, matsutake have never been successfully cultivated. Additionally, as the fruiting bodies of complex fungal networks, matsutake mushrooms subvert common expectations regarding units of difference. Fungal networks challenge assumptions on how to define an individual organism—a single fungal body may contain several genetic signatures simultaneously. Ironically then, while DNA sequencing technology has allowed for greater precision in identifying different species of fungus, the application of that technology in this case simultaneously “undermines confidence in the species as the basic category for understanding kinds.” For Tsing, the quest to understand matsutake dislocated the very units of measurement used to identify them. Through consultation and comparison with Japanese matsutake researchers, Tsing came to understand that objects of study can resist analytic frameworks. By consequence, units and kinds must be regarded not as transcendental, objective categories, but rather “as frames that must be continually questioned to retain their use. [. . .] Kinds are always in process because we study them in new ways. This makes them no less real, even as they seem more fluid and beckoning of questions.” The ability of the object of study to call analytic frames into question becomes supremely pertinent when applied back to considerations of how the value of a project of scholarship is determined.
Within the social sciences and humanities, the preferred unit of evaluation is the capacity of a project to provoke demonstrable behavioral change that is also traceable through a line of causality. In simpler words, research projects and interventions are most valuable when it can be shown that they change minds. For most purposes, this deterministic framework proves to be conveniently practical. However, as shown above with matsutake mushrooms, complex phenomena can also defy capture within the units of determinism—those being cause and effect. For scholars in cultural studies and philosophy, the framework of overdetermination has helped to circumvent some of these complications. Theories of overdetermination have worked to complexify models of causality by acknowledging that even a determinant cause may not have even been in play within the specific causality of a given phenomenon. As articulated within Vincent Lyon-Callo’s application of overdetermination to analysis of the causes of homelessness, this approach is “not simply a matter of finding the key determinant or adding more determinants. Rather, the challenge is in understanding how social situations like homelessness cannot be delinked from the overlapping interplay of material, historical, psychological, ideological, and other aspects of society that are woven together and not easily untangled into one or several determinants.” By changing the unit of analysis from determinant to influence, complex objects of study like social phenomena can be represented with greater fidelity, and this additional nuance allows for the imagination of novel solutions that might have previously escaped consideration.
For Lyon-Callo’s own analysis of homelessness, acknowledging the complexity of an overdetermined phenomenon warranted a reframing of the issue as a whole. Rather than addressing the determinants of individual cases of homelessness, Lyon-Callo ponders the effect of reconceptualizing homelessness "as just one aspect of a larger web of discursive processes." While analysis at this structural level provides no material relief to the targeted population, Lyon-Callo emphasizes that the complexity of the problem demands collaboration between a variety of approaches. His suggestion is not meant to displace more pragmatically-oriented strategies, but rather to participate in the construction of a new discursive environment within which the foundational assumptions surrounding homelessness (specifically, that homelessness is ubiquitous) have been shifted. In this way, Lyon-Callo's proposal is profoundly informed by his background in overdetermist theory. Rather than searching for the mythical right way to solve the problem of his object of study, his intervention is modest: "different understandings make different entry points for activism and social policy possible and desirable, which would lead to different sorts of interventions that would have different impacts upon the world. Approaching the problem in that way could help move us beyond the no-win debate of how to divide up limited supplies" among populations in need. By changing perspectives, this approach to problem solving alters the unit of what can be accepted as change, thus radically broadening the scope of solutions that might be considered viable. This adjustment of scale—looking for influences rather than determinants—proves tremendously impactful towards articulating complex phenomena such as the social work accomplished by literature.
Ta-Nehisi Coates rocketed to fame as one of the most prominent critics of race in present-day America due to his prolific output as an author. It is easy to characterize Coates as an influential author, whether by critical acclaim garnered by his writing, by his status as a New York Times bestselling author, or just by even the sheer volume of his publications. Coates' brand has been characterized by the integration of rigorous scholarship into reader-friendly digital essays, as most famously published within The Atlantic. Coates gained an initial following for his thought-provoking work as well as his direct engagement with the comments sections of his Atlantic blogs. "The Horde," as his following was affectionately known, grew rapidly as Coates continued to publish hundreds of entries per year, and this popularity allowed Coates to write as a guest contributor in other outlets such as The New York Times. By the time "The Case for Reparations" came out in June of 2014, Coates already wielded significant celebrity, and the award-winning essay only cemented his fame.
Literary critic Howard Ramsby II observes that Coates and his publishers were able to capitalize on his success through accumulative advantage: “His early years as a journalist begot him opportunities to become a blogger and journalist for The Atlantic, which in turn begot him a large following, which also begot him publishing opportunities with Spiegel & Grau and Marvel Comics, which, combined with various other factors, gave him more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.” Shrewd advance marketing of Between The World and Me ensured its commercial success, topping the New York Times Best Seller list for the first three weeks of its publication in August of 2015. Coates' next book, We Were Eight Years in Power, also landed on the Best Seller list upon publication in October of 2017, nestled between entries from household names Bill O'Reilly and Hillary Clinton. Coates' first adventure into book-length fiction, The Water Dancer, similarly debuted at the top of the Fiction Best Seller list upon release in October of 2019. These sales have been paralleled by critical acclaim and celebrity endorsements for Coates' work—Oprah Winfrey even chose The Water Dancer as the text with which to relaunch her book club. By these metrics, Coates is easily recognized as an influential author. But how might the actual social impact of his texts be measured?
Coates' books all tackle the issues of race in the United States from distinct vantages. Between the World and Me is an epistolary narrative from Coates to his son, explaining the traumas of the black American experience. We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of Coates' most influential essays, including "The Case for Reparations." The Water Dancer is a fiction set in the antebellum period exploring the emotional effects of slavery and family rupture on the black psyche. Of these books, We Were Eight Years in Power speaks in the language and rhetorical structure most familiar to scholarship. The efficacy of Coates' arguments within the anthology might be evaluated with the same technical criteria used to grade essays in a university classroom, yet this measurement does not actually reveal whether the text has had a demonstrable social impact on American society. The critiques of literary studies can similarly explore the work operating within Between the World and Me and The Water Dancer, uncovering the social messaging veiled within the characters and plot structures, but once again, these analytic frameworks account only for the textual object, not for its social legacy. Psychology and sociology might offer techniques to attempt to quantify the influence of the books upon their readers, yet isolating the impact of any one text within a given reader's discursive environment and social context is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Measurement in these fields also tends to rely upon the observation of demonstrable behavioral change, yet one might dare to call the capacity of the unit of analysis itself into question here. Perhaps the search for evidence of a book's impact asks the wrong questions to approach the actual work accomplished by the text. Yet adjusting the framework of the analysis, altering the unit of what might be recognizable as change, may in fact prove illuminatory towards this goal.
Conveniently, Coates has been candid about his choices as an author. During the publicity circuit for The Water Dancer, Coates discussed certain advantages granted by creative writing compared to his short-form argumentative essays. Coates observed that reactions to his deeply-researched nonfiction projects like “The Case for Reparations” would reduce the works to their titles, and the discourse prompted by those pieces was “more reacting to something that was maybe briefly related to the writing but wasn’t the writing itself.” Coates to explain that in contrast, with creative writing “you gotta actually read the book to have something to say about the book.” The Water Dancer is positioned by its author as a work of fiction set in the antebellum period that seeks to highlight the emotional tolls of family rupture suffered under slavery, yet that message is not conveyed by its title, which refers instead to the magical powers possessed by its protagonist, Hiram Walker. By comparison, “The Case for Reparations” struggled to free itself from readers’ preexisting attachments to the discourse around reparations, despite the strength of the article’s actual argumentation. As a novel, however, The Water Dancer resists the simplifications of headline culture because the problematics of the text are presented in a manner distinct from Coates' nonfiction essays.
Within creative writing, topics are often not explained explicitly but are rather narrated, which means that concepts are encountered enmeshed within the particularities of the plot, even as analysis distills generalizable concepts from the text. To recognize the work performed within a novel then, the scale of the fundamental unit of communication must be changed from discrete semantic signifiers (i.e. words) to accumulations (intra-, inter-, and meta-textual relationships). This is not a matter of choosing a smaller or larger scope, but rather shifting the axis of analysis away from the words themselves. Accumulations themselves are an overdetermined unit—they can be recognized by the presence of plurality but have no substance of their own. Much like the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, the essence of the accumulated load depends entirely on the composition of its components. When Coates' nonfiction essays such as "The Case for Reparations" are abstracted as accumulations of arguments towards a persuasive or educative goal, the unit of communication (the individual fact) can still be traced down to individual words or phrases. However, within creative writing, the substance of the accumulation may be only tacitly present within the text.
Take as example a scene from The Water Dancer, in which Thena speaks to Hiram before they are taken from the fields to reside in the master's house:
"Hiram, I know how much you see. And I know that even though we all have to handle the brutal ways of this world, you have handled them better than some of your elders. But it's bout to get more brutal," she said.
"White folks come down to say your days in the fields is over, that you going up top. But they ain't your family, Hiram, I want you to see that. You cannot forget yourself up there, and we cannot forget each other. They calling us up, now, you hear? Us. "
A basic literary analysis understands that in this passage, Thena is warning Hiram to not forget his roots. While Hiram—who is the mixed-race son of the plantation owner and a slave mother—has received favor, Thena urges him to not be seduced by whiteness Thena also makes a claim that family is not determined by kinship, but is rather a relation established upon emotional ties, a theme explored throughout the rest of the novel. Thena's speech also observes a precarity of identity, reflected in her anxiety that Hiram not forget his personal identity (as black) nor his relational identity (as a sort of adopted son to her).
But while this analysis emphasizes the topic of racial allegiance, the traditional vocabulary of racial positioning is absent from the original text. The presence of blackness in the passage cannot be found at the level of the word, but is accumulated through context (the prior and succeeding content of the novel) as well as implication (such as the contrast implied by Thena's reference to "white folks"). The following paragraph comes the closest to naming blackness, but once again only implies blackness as Thena claims "We have our own world down here—our own ways of being and talking and laughing, even if you don't see me doing much of neither." Both "we" and "down here" imply membership within the community of black slaves on the plantation, but do so only through metonymy and context, rather than the semantic definitions of the words themselves. Recognition of how meaning occurs at scopes beyond verbal semantics allows for acknowledgement that language itself is overdetermined.
The meaning of a text cannot be atomized down to the semantics of individual words and phrases; rather, adjusting the unit of analysis allows for recognition that meaning is constructed across multiple scales simultaneously. Analytic tools tend to specialize in deciphering a specific scope, from the careful attention words and themes practiced by literary deconstruction to the considerations of meta-textual phenomena explored by affect theory. The overdetermination of language allows for the juxtaposition of competing interpretations; the novel becomes a Foucauldian heterotopia. The meaning of the text is thus not the cumulative sum of its parts (as a multiple deterministic approach might claim), but rather is fluid, shifting as diverse elements slide in and out of salience within any given reading. Understanding the units and scale of the work in play within creative writing in this way allows for a broader conception of the work accomplished within the novel as well as a new lens to consider how those effects may manifest as change within readers.
When read in this way, Coates' novels influence readers rather than determining reactions. Because behavioral change is overdetermined by the content as well as the context of the reading, the unit of observable change may be occasioned by a determinant argument within the text, or it may also be the accumulation of smaller trace influences, or even both of these simultaneously. It hardly bears asserting that different readers will have different understandings of a given text, but as Lyon-Callo reminds, "different understandings make different entry points for activism and social policy possible and desirable, which would lead to different sorts of interventions that would have different impacts upon the world." Consequently, encounters that stymie factual argumentation may yield to the subversive effects of fiction, but the accumulations through which fiction exerts its force may not be legible if the value of reading is limited to evaluation of the arguments extracted from the text.
Within the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the move from factual essay to creative fiction with The Water Dancer was a deliberate attempt to work through this dynamic. Interviewed by Stephen Colbert to explain the power of fiction, Coates establishes a distinction between arguments of fact and arguments of myth, in which facts cannot be disentangled from the stakes invested in their belief. Consequently, no degree of intellectual rigor or primary source evidence could render Coates' essays convincing to those with a topical aversion to his claim, as referenced previously with Coates' stated disillusionment with headline culture. However, rather than viewing such arguments as lost causes, Coates changed scope to realize that “what they were actually resisting was not the facts, but the implications of the facts.” What Coates then refers to as an argument of myth might be framed as a discourse with a larger fundamental unit. However, rather than trying to overcome disagreements by assembling ever more forceful arguments with higher stakes, as might be observed in the debates sparked by his nonfiction essays, Coates uses The Water Dancer to shift the scale entirely. Through its own accumulation of traces, The Water Dancer then participates in an accumulation of discursive traces that may (or may not) result in change on the part of the reader. However, the dynamics of this phenomenon are missed if demonstrable behavior is the sole unit of analysis for social change—such is the equivalent interrogating only the qualities of straw itself rather than the accumulative load that broke the proverbial camel's back.
This analysis of the phenomena occurring within the novel is not meant to replace more traditional frameworks premised upon cause-and-effect models. Rather, it is meant to complement those analyses by revealing additional dimensions of work being performed. In doing so, a parallelism might be drawn between the complexity of work accomplished by non-academic textual forms and the complexity of analysis aspired to by traditional academic scholarship. Overdetermination also provides a framework by which to understand that while the study of influences complements the study of determinants, both may be active or absent simultaneously within a given object of study depending on the lens applied to it. However, considering the overreliance on direct factual frameworks within scholarly discourse, this project has aimed to reclaim the legitimacy of the academic work already being accomplished by non-academic texts and artforms. Calling the units of analysis into question allows for a greater openness to alternative forms of knowledge production and literacy, and it is possible that this form of imagination may help move us towards the innovative approaches required to address the complex social problematics of the humanities.
Buranyi, Stephen. “Is the Staggeringly Profitable Business of Scientific Publishing Bad for Science?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, June 27, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Water Dancer. One World (2019).
Coates, Ta-Nehisi, interviewed by Stephen Colbert. "Ta-Nehisi Coates: Works of Fiction Can Communicate Real Facts." YouTube video, 8:09. Posted by "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," September 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cswUl9a0nFI
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986): 22- 27.
Giorgis, Hannah. "What Ta-Nehisi Coates Wants to Remember." The Atlantic, September 29, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/09/the-water-dancer-ta-nehisi-coates-on-writing-fiction/599002/
"New York Times Best Seller List: Hardcover Nonfiction, August 16, 2015." https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/2015/08/16/hardcover-nonfiction/
"New York Times Best Seller List: Hardcover Nonfiction, October 22, 2017."
"New York Times Best Seller List: Fiction, October 13, 2019."
Lyon-Callo, Vincent. "Homelessness as Violence: Bad People, Bad Policy, or Overdetermined Social Processes?" in Knowledge, Class, and Economics: Marxism Without Guarantees, ed. Theodore Burczak, Robert Garnett, and Richard McIntyre. Routledge (2018): 438– 449.
Rahmanan, Anna Ben Yehuda. "Oprah Winfrey Selects 'The Water Dancer' by Ta-Nehisi Coates As First Pick For New Book Club." Forbes, September 23, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabenyehudarahmanan/2019/09/23/oprah-winfrey-selects-the-water-dancer-by-ta-nehisi-coates-as-first-pick-for-new-book-club/#43a051f8af56
Rambsy II, Howard. "The Remarkable Reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates." African American Review 49.3 (2016).
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.