Archives | Graphs, Maps, Trees
Monday, January 02, 2006
Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: A Valve Book Event
On January 11, we will begin posting a series of short essays and comments on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, an event similar to those past on Theory’s Empire and The Literary Wittgenstein. Several Valve regulars will contribute, and we also hope to have pieces from Cosma Shalizi and Scott McLemee. Anyone who has read or would like to read Moretti’s book and/or the essays in the NLR from which it is drawn and who has an idea for a guest-post for the event is welcome to contact me with a proposal. Before too long, we hope to be able to make PDFs of Moretti’s NLR articles available to interested readers for a limited time.
Franco Moretti is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford and also the author of Signs Taken for Wonders, The Way of the World, Modern Epic, and Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900. Graphs, Maps, Trees is an ambitious work, seeking to “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” through “a shift from close reading of individual texts to the construction of abstract models.” These models come from quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory, areas which Moretti suggests have had little interaction with literary criticism, “but which have many things to teach us, and may change the way that we work.”
Explanation before interpretation, a materialist conception of form, and “a total indiffierence to the philosophizing that goes by the name of ‘Theory’ in literature departments,” which should be “forgotten, and replaced with the extraordinary array of conceptual constructions--theories, plural, and with a lower case ‘t’--developed by the natural and by the social sciences” are what Moretti proposes for a “more rational literary history.” We’ll review Moretti’s evidence and arguments and speculate about what they mean for literary studies as a whole (and their likely degree of acceptance). Previous discussions of Moretti’s work include Bill Benzon’s “Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism" and Timothy Burke’s “Franco Moretti: A Quantitative Turn for Cultural History?"
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Graphs, Maps, Trees Files
The first posts in the Graphs, Maps, Trees event will appear later today. We are pleased to be able to offer PDFs of the original NLR articles Thanks to Jacob Stevens at NLR, Verso, and Franco Moretti for allowing us to make these files available to our readers through the end of February. (The NLR retains exclusive copyright of these files, which are not Valve content.)
Also, if you haven’t yet done so, read Elif Batuman’s “Adventures of a Man of Science", which n+1 has graciously agreed to put online.
Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fruits of The MLA
Moretti opens "Graphs" by remarking,
what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows - and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so.
This reminds me of a point made in my inaugural Valve post. How many members hath the MLA? The large number is largely a function of the number of college courses that need teaching, freshman essays that need marking, not really at all a function of any independent conception of a humanistic knowledge edifice that needs approximately twenty or thirty thousand toiling professorial hands - obliged to produce, even over-produce. Call this dynamic of superfluity ‘sorcerer’s apprentice syndrome’ (if you see what I mean.) It’s not the worst problem, but it deserves address from every promising angle. Moretti’s project presents a fresh angle: an institutionally vast discipline should try to find projects suitable for pursuit by vast numbers of university professors. Actually existing academic literary studies makes considerably more sense IF something like Moretti’s project makes sense. So, on behalf of the institution, there should be a concerted effort to make sense of such projects. Which is no guarantee sense can be made, of course. (Nor am I proposing all English professors be conscripted as Moretti’s research assistants, even if the sense he makes is gigantic. No, not at all.)Continue reading "Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fruits of The MLA"
I. “Graphs, Maps, Trees” by Franco Moretti
Moretti sounds like a happy guy. And it's infectious. Why pledge allegiance to a groove and turn it into a rut? Get out of that stuffy coffee shop and into a cool refreshing stats lab. Live a little! (With the aid of twenty grad students.) An OuBelLetriPo is overdue. Let's pick a quantitative approach and a subject out of the hat: "Pie charts" and "Coming-out stories"—wait, um, I wasn't ready; can I try again? "Income distribution" and "Aphra Behn"? Perfect!
Will you end up with a demolished bit of received wisdom? A sociological footnote? Or just graphic representation of a critical triteness? You don't know! You think Perec knew the plot of La Disparation before he started?Continue reading "I. “Graphs, Maps, Trees” by Franco Moretti"
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Many thanks to everybody writing about the book - and four brief rejoinders.
Does work like mine belong in a History department, rather than in English? I take the idea as a compliment - trying to make literary study a part of historical research has always been a fixation of mine. Does this abolish the pleasure of reading literature? No - it just means that between the pleasure and the knowledge of literature [or at least a large part of knowledge] there is no continuity. Knowing is not reading.
Are literary cycles limited to the 19th century? I doubt it. Virtually all the evidence I know of [from studies in French, British, and other western european literatures] points to the existence of genre cycles well before then, and the 20th century largely confirms the pattern, in literature and outside [think of war films, or westerns]. Of course, it remains to be seen how much of the literary [and cultural] field is affected by cycles. But even if it’s only 50%, wouldn’t that be a significant find?
Is it possible that relying on secondary sources may produce distortions? Of course. Point out a large enough number of distortions, and I will abandon the enterprise. But I’m not going to do so simply because of the “possibility” of a distortion. I firmly believe in falsifiability, but falsification is a matter of fact, not of possibility.
Do maps reveal very little about literature? Well, it depends. Those of village stories, for instance, bring to light a type of spatial perception that would be hard to envisage otherwise. The map of Paris from the Atlas - especially in connection with the London maps from the same book - explains why youth and social class play such different roles in the two traditions. And so on. Still, a lot of people have that reaction to maps - “Of course things are this way. What’s the big deal?” So, may I suggest a little wager-experiment? Sometime in the future I’d like to make maps of regional narratives [Hardy, Verga]. Why don’t map-skeptics write in advance what I will “obviously” find - and we compare the results once the maps are done?
Moretti and Other Genre Theorists
Scott McLemee accurately and amusingly describes the buzz surrounding Stanford professor Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory: Moretti is a heretic; he wants to abolish close reading; and he asserts that we should count books rather than interpret them. Moretti claims to have developed a new, quasi-scientific approach to literary history. When I opened the package from http://www.amazon.com, I was prepared for something strange, scandalous, innovative, and unconvincing. I expected to feel threatened. I not only like interpreting books, I happen to do it for a living.
I was surprised to discover that I liked the book and found it largely persuasive. I also found the book’s methods and arguments strangely familiar. This is a book of genre theory, with a particular emphasis on how new subgenres of prose fiction emerge, develop, and disappear. Moretti suggests that paradigms and methods from evolutionary biology and the social sciences might help us to analyze the development of literary genres over time.
My largest quibble with the book is that Moretti’s approach is perhaps a bit less innovative than he claims. One would think from looking at this book that literary historians had never before counted, graphed, or mapped anything, and that all of us had focused on a small number of canonical texts. Moretti is ignoring entire subfields, like the history of the book, theater history, and the study of manuscript transmission (also known as scribal publication).Continue reading "Moretti and Other Genre Theorists"
Poetry, Patterns, and Provocation: The nora Project
What follows is a brief introduction to nora, an ongoing and experimental project in literature and computation. My thanks to The Valve for the opportunity to make our work part of the conversation here. While not directly inspired by Moretti’s writing in Graphs, Maps, Trees, nora exhibits many of the same priorities: an emphasis on quantitative method, large-scale data analysis, visualization, abstract modeling, cooperation and collaboration. These are methods foreign to many in the humanities, as are our actual technologies which run the gamut from XML and Java to a toolkit developed by the Automated Learning Group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Yet nora (which, depending on who you ask on the project team, originated as either an acronym for no one remembers acronyms or a character in the William Gibson novel Pattern Recognition--though we’ve since located other noras), is also about provocation, ambiguity, and ultimately, interpretation--in short, still the stuff most of us would identify as central to academic literary studies.
Texture Words and Data Mining: Two Examples (Woolf and Sassoon)
It's a pleasant coincidence that Matt Kirschenbaum posted an introduction to Nora, the data-mining literary studies collaborative project he is involved with, just as I've been working on my own post on a proposed project to use search and semantic tagging (del.icio.us and other XML-based services) to study the representation of texture in literary texts. In his post, Matt asks:
Literary scholars, however--here the force of Moretti’s arguments make themselves felt--traditionally do not contend with very large amounts of data in their research. A significant component of our work is therefore basic research in the most literal sense: what kinds of questions do we seek to answer in literary studies and how can data mining help, or--more interestingly--what new kinds of questions can data mining provoke?
The following is my own proposal for a very specific kind of linguistic data that could be gathered from searchable digital texts.Continue reading "Texture Words and Data Mining: Two Examples (Woolf and Sassoon)"
Friday, January 13, 2006
Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees
Of all the odd things I’ve heard in recent years, one of the oddest would be that there are objections in principle to the research paradigm that Franco Moretti describes in Graphs, Maps, Trees. It really doesn’t matter what your interest in cultural or literary analysis is: what Moretti proposes is useful grist for your mill. There is no requirement to purchase the entire methodological inventory he makes available, or to throw overboard close reading or aesthetic appreciation or focus on a small and rarified set of texts. Frankly, when academics propose that we only do what they’re doing and stop doing everything else, I tend to ignore such propositions in the same way that I ignore commercial hyperbole while deciding what things I want to buy. I enjoy my iPod: I’m not required to think that it has changed my life or should lead me to chuck my stereo out the window. Whatever you think literary analysis and cultural history are, quantifying the subject of their domains is a very good thing. Indeed, it is a kind of knowledge long inferred and rarely acquired, and though its acquisition unsettles some assumptions made in the inferred known, it equally clarifies and strengthens many other claims--or least puts new and productive burdens on them.Continue reading "Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees"
A brief note on Moretti and Science Fiction
Towards the end of ‘Graphs’ Moretti touches briefly on SF: neither Detective Fiction nor SF, he says, are included on his chart ‘although both genres achieve their modern form about 1890 (Doyle, Wells) and undergo a major change in the 1920s, in step with the overall pattern.’ Nevertheless, he concedes, ‘their long duration seems to require a different approach.
Well, I’ve just published the result of several years work designed to argue the case that SF has enjoyed a longer duration even than Moretti is inclined to allow. Not that he takes an unusual position with regard to the genre. There are, in a nutshell, three main views as to when SF ‘began’: it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818; it began with H G Wells Time Machine in 1895; it began with Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, and Gernsback’s prosodically-hobbledehoy coinage ‘scientifiction’. Moretti is arguing, broadly, that novel genres have about a quarter-century lifespan, which, even if we chose the latest possible starting place as a launching point, does indeed give SF a ‘long duration’.Continue reading "A brief note on Moretti and Science Fiction"
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Maps, Iconic and Abstract
Though I am rather interested in maps, I admit to being a bit puzzled by the maps chapter of Moretti’s book. Part of my problem is that I am comfortable, not only with the iconic maps of physical space that Moretti uses, but with the notion of a cognitive map as used by psychologists and neuroscientists, and with abstract maps of conceptual spaces used by cognitive and computer scientists. I have given considerable thought to the use of those abstract maps of conceptual spaces in the study of (literary) textual semantics. Moretti is not doing that sort of thing in this chapter, which is fine. My problem is that I don’t quite see how to relate what he has done with iconic maps to thinking that I - and others - have done in terms of abstract conceptual maps.
I say this, not as a criticism of his chapter, but as a statement of my difficulty in engaging with that chapter. This document is a set of comments around and about that, but arriving at no particular conclusion. It is an essay into possible sites of exploration.
A Hundred Flowers
Part one: Let a hundred flowers bloom
Moretti’s work only becomes a “problem” for literary studies when it claims that its method ought to replace the ones currently in use. So far as I know it does not. Ergo: what’s the problem? Let a hundred flowers bloom. The more ways we have of studying what we’re interested in, the better.
There may be problems with the metaphors or with the statistics Moretti uses. Christopher Prendergast makes the case against certain of Moretti’s moves fairly clear in his NLR response (the short version, focused on the argument in “Trees”: there’s no reason to suppose culture functions like nature). This is fine; the “rest” of literary studies is also a place filled with people arguing about the validity of one methodology or another. No one says that we should all stop using etymologies to close read because Heidegger knowingly used false ones. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
If it can be improved or modified—and of course it can—then Moretti’s method (call it distant reading, Annales-style longue durée historicism, or sociology of literature) will benefit from having more people engaged in it. Presumably these people will disagree. This will increase the number of epistemological possibilities, some of which will prove more convincing than others. Perhaps even that movement could be the subject of a Moretti-style evolutionary study. In any case: let a hundred flowers bloom.Continue reading "A Hundred Flowers"
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Moretti Responds (II)
Some more thoughts:
More thanks, and apologies for the slowness of my replies - I am travelling with my 1-year old, with VERY little time of my own. So:
First, a few details. I am less alone than I claim. Excellent. I didn’t even know of the existence of the nora project, which seems very interesting, and I have now several new titles on my reading list, which is great. As for evolutionary approaches, I would be more cautious; some of them - like memetics, or the recent Literary Animal collection - strike me as naïve in their disregard for formal analysis, and passion for fuzzy or crude units of content.
Maps, no, there I am really alone, unfortunately (the idea of a literary atlas began as a collective project, and I ended up working on my own only when the first project was denied funding, and dissolved). Even Bill Benzon’s very interesting post, as he says right away, is on a different type of map (his final question - how is it that the world makes its way into the mind there to be transformed into texts? - is however one of the truly Great Questions in front of us. I wish I knew what to answer).
One caveat for the more optimistic contributors. The field of, loosely speaking, science and literature is full of false starts. The best example of quantitative analysis ever done - Burrows’ multivariate analysis of Austen’s style - was published 20 years ago, and has had, if I’m not mistaken, hardly any effects. (No one has mentioned it in the course of this discussion either). We’re all working uphill, and I’m not sure it’s going to change soon.
Close reading and abstract models, or, interpretation and explanation. Bill Benzon is absolutely right in saying that even in the sciences research is not evenly spread, but clusters around specific issues - the fruit fly is a particularly neat example, because detective fiction is a sort of literary fruit fly (with few and clear variables, easy to manipulate). But this is not close reading, it’s actually much more similar to the “experiments” (on village stories etc.) that I try to do in the book. So, I still think that the strategies I outlined are antithetical to the mainstream of literary criticism. It may be tactically silly for me to say so now, given that the general consensus is that what I do could be interesting, as long as it doesn’t want to get rid of current procedures, but what can I do, this is not a matter of bragging, or of originality (originality, in a book that borrows all its models?!), or of democracy (a hundred flowers, yes, and more) - it’s a matter of logic. Between interpretation (that tends to make a close reading of a single text) and explanation (that works with abstract models on a large groups of texts) I see an antithesis. Not just difference, but an either/or choice.
This said, I understand Eric Hayot’s skepticism about how I formulate the antithesis at the end of the book: I am not happy with it either, and in the response to Prendergast’s article I will try a different take, stressing the causal aspects of explanation, which are usually absent from interpretation. In a formula, interpretation posits a relationship between a meaning and another meaning, and explanation a (causal) relationship between an external force (or constraint) and one or more meanings. And then again, it may well be that the study of literature will always require, or be enriched by, both close reading and abstraction, interpretations and explanations; but this will amount to saying that literature requires two conceptually opposite approaches. Which is odd, and will make for some interesting speculation on why it should be so.
Finally, Tim Burke’s “dumb luck” argument. (My favorite formulation comes from the extinction specialist David Raup: “Bad genes or bad luck?") It is certainly possible that dumb luck plays/played a much larger role than we imagine - probably larger and larger as we move back in history, and cultural products can disappear more easily. I will enlarge on this in my reply to Prendergast, but I may as well admit right away that every time I have studied competition, success, and failure, I have never found that luck played a major role (the only one exception I know: Austen’s novels, despite having soldiers, include no reference to war, unlike most of her contemporaries, and the so-called “Hundred Years’ Peace” that begun in 1815 rewarded her enormously for her choice: sheer external luck changing the world, and hence the expectations of generations of readers). (Needless to say, this is not the only ingredient in Austen’s long-term success). But I admire Gould too, and would have liked to find instances of dumb luck. If anyone comes up with convincing examples, I’d love to see them.
And I do need to add, I don’t ignore book history (it’s the starting point of “Graphs”, and about 50% of my last book), nor punctuated equilibria (which I first applied to literary history 20 years ago, and have used in the three books I have written since).
Thanks again to all of you for the ideas and the challenges.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Totality and the Genes of Literature
“Suppose at this juncture we were to state the blindingly obvious: that, whatever their other properties, literary texts do not possess genes” (59). So begins the “Perils of Analogy” section of Christopher Prendergast’s response* to Moretti. Notwithstanding the Paris Review interviews, it does seem difficult to maintain that literature has genes. Does it have memes, however? Ideologemes? Maybe. And I will discuss metaphors of cultural transmission and evolutionary analogies in Moretti’s argument.
Distant Reading Minds
Full disclosures first: Moretti is a friend, and was my advisor for several years during my grad school days at Columbia in the early nineties. I was there at the beginning of this project; I can still remember the slightly baffled silence the followed his announcement—over dinner with a half dozen grad students—that the future of literary criticism was going to lie in mapmaking. I spent an insane number of hours generating some of the first maps for him over the next year, using some now-obsolete cartography software that was, to say the least, not optimized for mapping narratives. So perhaps I’m biased by my fondness for Moretti—or by the desire not to think of all those hours generating maps as wasted ones—but I really do think that the two books that eventually emerged out of this research (Atlas Of The European Novel and Maps, Graphs, and Trees) constitute a welcome and significant turning point in recent literary criticism. Just the density of ideas in Maps, Graphs, and Trees alone is noteworthy; most scholars would have spun the analysis of genre cycles into an entire book, but Moretti gives you ten pages on it, and marches on to the next case study. It’s exhilarating stuff, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does feel like we’re going to be spending the next ten years unpacking some of these examples.Continue reading "Distant Reading Minds"