Why Error Now? A Few Thoughts After SAA

The question that lingers the most for me after SAA was asked by Michael West in the second session of Adam Zucker’s Error seminar: “Why error now?”

Looking around the conference, it felt like many different conversations were convening around mistakes, failures, badness, glitches, and error. I heard it not only in the two full seminars devoted to Error, but also in at least two of the plenaries and in a host of other conversations. At least in the sessions I intended, these negative categories seemed to be a real source of intellectual energy.

But why? Or rather, why now?

One answer is that these are categories that are exploding in the wider culture as well: even the bank recruiting ads that went up around Princeton in the fall sought applicants with the promise that they would “fail better.” So, too, over the past five years, recuperating “failure” has become a perennial topic in the self-help circuit. Here, for instance, is the ad for a South by Southwest talk this year:

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Right alongside this entrepreneurial reclaiming has been an academic reinvestigation of these issues. I wanted to suggest a bibliography (running from Carla Mazzio and Julian Yates up through Halberstam and Juul), but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a project that’s happening in multiple fields simultaneously. Michael West suggested it’s related to a return to psychoanalysis; I’ve been tracking debates in video game studies; Paul Hecht has been reading about Agamben and punk rock; and I heard countless other intertexts while auditing the Error seminar. We’re simply not all triangulating the same thinkers.

Rather, I think, error offers a particular set of scholarly affordances that seem valuable at this moment. I want to try unpack those here. Best I can tell, error offers three scholarly moves:

1. Error, Ahistoricism, Empathy, and Identification

In the middle of the sentence at the start of his plenary talk, William West fumbled his script, tumbling a cascade of paper off the side of the podium and onto the floor. The room went silent, as he slowly collected his work, returned to the podium, and finished his sentence.

Then he asked us: “How did that make you feel?”

The rest of the paper brilliantly explored the experience of the ‘unperfect actor on the stage’—he who forgets his lines, misses his queue, or otherwise errs. Our own complicated reaction to his errors—finding it uncomfortable, frustrating, amusing, perverse—brought a new set of ideas to a comparable early modern moment.

One way that scholars use error is to find a moment of affective intensity, offer it up to the audience as a site of identification, and then use the complexities of that moment (ahistorically) to open up a particular historical text or idea.

In a terrific paper at RSA a couple of years ago, Adam Zucker used the same move, talking about a moment of his own misunderstanding as a way of thinking through being the butt of the joke in early modern jestbooks and in Twelfth Night.

With this move, our own individual experiences of error come (at least rhetorically) to illuminate the past. Part of what’s powerful here is that it’s a totally different approach to the anecdote than we tend to find in new historicism: more personal than political, more affective than cultural, intentionally diachronic if not downright anachronistic. There is a rough magic in forging a connection rooted in common feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, or inappropriate pleasure.

2. Error and Allegorizing the Process of History

Error’s insights come not into the ‘ideal’ texts we imagine lurking behind worldly copies but rather into the imperfect and partial meanings produced by those texts in the world. That is, if the old editorial dream was to recover the authorial original, the new one is to understand the messy process of textual making.

To generalize wildly: this is a critical moment that is more concerned with the processes of meaning than the structures. This is the common ground among the sociological turn (particularly in poetics), the history of the book and the study of manuscript, debates over queer historicism, the return to institutional and collaborative accounts of theater, object-oriented ontology (at least so far as I understand it), the turn to rhetoric and economic criticism, and the so-called material philology: all imagine meaning as something contingent, emergent, historically inflected, not necessarily intended, and owing much to its scenes of production and reception.

What is nice about error is that it makes process visible: we learn something about the process of print from the turned letter, about habits of reading from the mistakes in transcription, about the purposes of playing from the ‘bad’ quarto.

At the same time, there is (I think) a real longing to weave together insights drawn from these concepts of texts as emerging from historical process with insights drawn from close-reading a given (often canonical) text. More: we wish the two to explain each other, even knowing the incoherence of this desire.

Error lends itself to allegory, allowing these two approaches to meaning purchase on each other. Mix-ups, errors, failures, and confusion are common topics in dramatic and lyric writing, even as they are also ways that we gain access to how this writing is produced. As such, they let us ventriloquize texts to allow them to speak to their place in the ongoing historical processes which lends them meaning. In Fair Copies, Matthew Zarnowiecki, for instance, turns to error in Shakespeare’s sonnets to relate an editorial tradition of objecting to various sorts of flaw to the poems’ own visions of badness.

3. Errors and Conceptual Binaries

This is the move I’m worst at explaining, but here goes.

Errors, failures, and flaws, by definition, represent breaks in the smooth operation of order. One response is to attempt to repair the order: to remedy the typo, clarify the crux, rewrite the self-deprecation as sign of mastery. Another, as in (2) above, is to peer into the gap, to see what we can learn about the procedures of order from its failure. The third is to treat the break as somehow conceptually fundamental, as negating our previous understanding of order.

This is the third move I find repeatedly in the error scholarship: a particular instance of error, badness, or roughness serves as a moment of conceptual confusion that the critic then expands into a reconfiguration of some-or-other adjacent theoretical boundary.

Thus for Margaret Ferguson, the inconsistencies of defenses of poetry suggest the impossibility of “an aesthetic realm uncontaminated by rhetoric.” In a later chapter, she moves from the “faults” of Sidney’s heroes to a more ambitious version of this same claim:

It is an irony of literary history that those who rely on Kantian, Aristotelian, or other theories of aesthetic formalism to fence off a sphere for innocent art (and innocent criticism) simply repeat a defensive strategy which Sidney himself employs in a dialectical and self-reflexive way.

The fault is the site of a “dialectical and self-reflexive” collapsing of binaries.

Carla Mazzio, similarly, has written about innumeracy in order to argue:

Before the divide between the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities, facilitated by the development of disciplinary and professional specialization as well as shifting cultural conceptions of knowledge, truth and meaning, numbers and words were understood to have a great deal more in common than they do today.

And, so, too, François Rigolot writes:

Thus, for the Renaissance writer error can be identified as a regrettable mistake, an unforgivable faux pas; or, on the contrary, something he or she should be proud of, because it signals another order of truth, one that the common reader might not have grasped if it had been couched in the straightforward language of truth. This duplicitous level of meaning powerfully exemplifies the conflicting status of an important cognitive category that, in early modern times, triggers an ambiguous attitude, both of rejection and appropriation, condemnation and condonation, and prosecution and propitiation.

For all these authors, error is a place where boundaries collapse.


All three of these moves are both valued and valuable in contemporary academy. Error offers a model of embodied, allegorical thinking that collapses distinctions while attending with great specificity to the individual object.

I would also propose, however, that many of us working on error are also thinking about academic precarity: about our own risks, shortcomings, and anxieties. How do we know what we know? What value is there to the sense of failure that can sometimes feel fundamental to academic life? How can we recuperate the value of our own ugly feelings?

These are important questions, too. And I suspect the next direction in Error Studies will be to take them on directly.