Archives | Graphs, Maps, Trees
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
The Next Cigarette and a Modest Garnish
Something makes me yearn for certain brand-new books like a smoker plotting how to get her hands on the next cigarette, so that I will order Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest at great expense from Amazon UK because of a release date three weeks earlier than in the US (worth every penny, by the way) or hit three different Cambridge bookstores in search of a non-sold-out copy of On Beauty in its first week of publication (perhaps not so satisfying an investment of time and money). I can’t put my finger on exactly what produces that yearning in me, but it is far less likely to be prompted by a work of literary criticism than by a novel, and I was surprised to find myself coveting Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History to the point of being unwilling to wait for it to turn up at the library.Continue reading "The Next Cigarette and a Modest Garnish"
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Judging Books By Their Covers - or - Chance Favors the Prepared Meme
In "Trees" (PDF) Moretti speculates about literary ‘character’ traits that may confer ‘evolutionary advantage’. A candidate case: the clue as detective fiction device [see figure 3, p. 49]. Moretti sketches a tree. I’ll quote the expository accompaniment:
Two things were immediately clear: the ‘formal’ fact that several of Doyle’s rivals (those on the left) did not use clues - and the ‘historical’ fact that they were all forgotten. It is a good illustration of what the literary market is like: ruthless competition - hinging on form. Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct). This pressure of cultural selection probably explains the second branching of the tree, where clues are present, but serve no real function: as in ‘Race with the Sun’, for instance, where a clue reveals to the hero that the drug is in the third cup of coffee, and then, when he is offered the third cup, he actually drinks it. Which is indeed ‘perplexing & unintelligible,’ and the only possible explanation is that these writers realized that clues were popular, and tried to smuggle them into their stories - but hadn’t really understood how clues worked, and so didn’t use them very well.
Let me jump a paragraph to an objection Moretti tries to answer. The tree in question assumes morphology is key. "But why should form be the decisive reason for survival? Why not social privilege instead - the fact that Doyle was writing for a well-established magazine and his rivals were not?" Moretti tries to solve for this variable by establishing that Doyle’s choice perch in Strand Magazine was shared by others. Not only that, there was more ‘genetic diversity’ just in Strand than even fig. 3 suggests (see fig. 4).Continue reading "Judging Books By Their Covers - or - Chance Favors the Prepared Meme"
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Moretti Responds (III)
First, public thanks to Bob O’Hara - years ago I read his “Homage to Clio”, and it helped me think about evolution and historiography. I have started reading some more of his work this morning, and look forward to the rest.
Tim Butke’s new version of the ‘dumb luck’ idea makes much more sense to me, especially in John Holbo’s version that “luck favors the prepared meme”. Here, a morphological tree allows to recapture, not the luck exactly, but at least the initial proximity between the winner and the rivals - a proximity that market mechanisms quickly magnify into a galactic gap. In this sense, there is a continuity between the morphological argument (that establishes the -often tiny - difference in initial conditions) and the social one (that explores the path dependency created by, in our case, literary markets). Going back to the issue of luck, every lock-in is a piece of luck [Doyle may have deserved to fare better, but not THAT MUCH better!] But if the mechanism behind “social” luck is known (it a feedback loop, as Arthur and others have shown), it remains to be seen what is the mechanism behind “morphological” luck.
Steven Johnson’s question - How is the reader influenced by formal properties without being fully conscious of the influence? - is similar to Bill Benzon’s “how is it that the world makes its way into the mind there to be transformed into texts?” Once more, I wish I knew an answer. What I did in the book was to leave a black box in the explanatory chain: given how the text is made, and given the success decreed by its readers, there must be a passage in between where certain formal properties are perceived by those who are reading, even though we have no actual evidence that the latter are aware of them. “There must be”: that’s the black box. One should open it up, and explain how it works. When I will start studying a solution, I think I’ll follow Steven’s advice, and assume that the cognitive sciences will be more relevant than evolutionary psychology.
Jenny Davidson finds the project “Pied-Piper-esque”, because too dependent on my own knowledge: without which, she writes, “doesn’t the soul go out of the whole enterprise?” Thanks for the kind words, but if you remove the person who has done most of the work, doesn’t the soul go out of ANY enterprise?
Sociological coda. As for my having at my disposal “the human-graduate-student-equivalent of a commodity-cluster supercomputer”, not to mention the hints by John Emerson about grad students voting en bloc at the MLA - I have been teaching in the US for 15 years, and have never been a member of the MLA, so that’s unlikely. As for grad students doing the primary work on which I later build castles in the air, this has happened a few times - but MUCH more often in the opposite direction, with me gathering the primary data, and placing them at the disposal of students or readers. [Incidentally, it’s amazing how few people are willing to work on data that you have collected. Don’t ask me why]. Grad students are in general wary of projects like Graphs, Maps, Trees. They realize they are very time-consuming, as one may work for weeks gathering data that reveal nothing. In my situation, I can afford the waste [although I hate it], but they can’t. And then, they are a lot less sure than some contributors to The Valve that this will be a significant trend in literary studies. Conclusion, of the many students who work with me only one in five, maybe one in ten, works along the lines of my last book. Professionally, this is bad for me [my research needs more data, gathered by different minds, etc]. Personally, I like it better this way - leaves my students and myself with our own paths and intellectual personalities.
Once more, thanks to all,
Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees
I love Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Who couldn’t? If you’re not dazzled by the erudition and the data set, how could you fail to find instruction and delight in the nimbleness of Moretti’s mind and the brio of his prose? But, love it thought I do, like Matt, Ray, and Jenny Davidson, I’m not so sure that GMT can really “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” as Moretti suggests (NLR 67).* I applaud Moretti’s remarkable commitment to research. I admire his interest in “explanation” as against “interpretation” (even if I’m not sure the distinction finally holds up). I’m attracted to his emphasis on “devices and genres; not texts.” And I welcome his enthusiasm for analogies and examples drawn from all sorts of disciplines arguably related to literary scholarship. I’m still more taken by his intellectual seriousness and his evident appreciation for the artfulness of literary creativity. But looking at the essays in combination and considering some of the many different sources of insight I think they combine, I don’t see a new methodology for literary study so much as a sterling example of comparative literary scholarship at its most inspired—a la Auerbach, Spitzer, Bakhtin. Here’s an unscientific prediction. There will be no school of Moretti, because only Moretti will prove able to do what’s on display here.
A few minor thoughts about why that might be so.Continue reading "Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees"
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text
As my review makes clear, I hold Moretti’s work in high regard; I like it and I want to see more like it. Beyond that, I too believe that we need to bracket the search for meaning and put it on the shelf. I do not, however, believe that requires us to shift our attention away from the scrupulous examination of individual texts. I have argued that point in a series of posts on this site and, more importantly, I have shown how to do it in a small body of critical studies written and published over a period of three decades.
That leaves me with one major issue: How do we bridge the yawning chasm between the phenomena Moretti examines and the particularity of individual texts and individual acts of reading, apprehension, and discussion? I certainly do not have an answer to that question, nor do I think anyone does. But I would like to have a little fun playing around in that chasm and thereby indicate something of what can be done. My objective is to convince you that that "space" is not a chasm at all, but "fertile ground" containing gardens "bright with sinuous rills" interspersed among "forests ancient as the hills."
I take as one starting point Steven Johnson’s remark that "a systemic theory has to work at all the relevant scales." I’ve done most of my work at the scale appropriate for an individual reading a single text. To get from that scale to Moretti’s we need to consider many readers reading many texts over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That is to say, the phenomena Moretti examines are summary measures of the activities of a population of individuals over decades-long periods of time. As my other starting point I have Sean Mcann’s wonder over Moretti’s "stunner of a line" about deducing operative forces from an object’s form.
I’ve chosen "Kubla Khan" as my example. I have two reasons for doing so. On the one hand I am familiar with the poem and have a reasonable grasp of its form. Beyond my work, there is the rather different but complementary work of Reuven Tsur and some unpublished analytical work by Richard Cureton. On the other hand, the poem is about, among other things, a place called Xanadu, and that word, that meme if you will, is rather wide-spread. If you google the term you get roughly 2,000,000 hits I’ve gotten as few as 1.6M and on one occasion I got 7M; I have no idea what accounts for that upper figure. That’s the Xanadu cultural system, or rather, a highly distributed manifestation of the Xanadu cultural system. With 2M hits, it’s on the world-wide scale at which Moretti is operating.
Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing
A few years ago, I wrote a review of Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel, in which I presumed to tell him how to go about his business. When he ran across it, his reaction was not (as mine would’ve been, had our situation been reversed) to tell me where to get off, but to invite me to a workshop he was organizing at Stanford on new interdisciplinary work on the novel — its motto, the quotation from Brecht about “questions that appear to us completely unsolved”, is recycled for this book — where I had a great time. Reading these essays as they came out in New Left Review, I enjoyed them greatly, and recall thinking that Moretti could hardly have done a better job of appealing to my prejudices if he’d tried. (Said prejudices are those of someone almost equally fond of The Extended Phenotype and Main Currents of Marxism.)Continue reading "Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing"
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
The End of The Valve?
The vibe around here has been terrible of late. Dismissive. Drained, nay! desanguified. Why? An unhealthy percentage of our readership responds rigidly and unthinkingly to what we publish. Constitutionally incapable of actual research, this lot prefers to think intuitively. They are frequently hostile, with bitter and ill-tempered dispositions. They flap their corrosive tongues in an attempt to dominate conversation.
You heard me, ladies, I’m calling you out. I learned all about you in an article I read today:
Intellectual activities unsex a woman, and she pays a high price for her intellectual life. As a result, she is prone to all sorts of nervous disorders and may become severely maladjusted. There is little hope she will marry, and, in a few cases, her intellectual activities are said to make her frigid. In any case, intellectual activities seem to make some women cold and lacking in human warmth.
Of course, that only applies to our unattractive female readership, as the rare “hottie” (as the kids say) isn’t even “credible to many, and ingenious explanations are necessary to accont for her scholarly interests. Usually the explanation is some type of early psychological experience.”
“Unattractive women,” however, “are perfectly credible as scholars and their interests in intellectual activities do not require any explanation.” Better unspeakably traumatized than unattractive, as “no greater misfortune can befall a woman than to be physically unattractive, and this misfortune of physical unattractiveness warps her soul and makes her a spiteful creature.”Continue reading "The End of The Valve?"