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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Moretti Responds (III)

Posted by Franco Moretti, Guest Author, on 01/19/06 at 02:34 PM

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,

Franco Moretti


My suggestion for the data collection problem: set up a database-backed Web site with form fields for the kind of data you want collected, then get volunteers to do it.  If you can get volunteers to proofread electronic texts, as was recently posted here, surely you can get volunteers for this.  Setting up a server to handle the data is cheap (I set one up for about $2000 plus $150/month in server hosting, which you could probably avoid through being at a university) using open source LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) software. The problems I’d anticipate would be: 1) finding someone to program the database interface (but maybe a CS grad student would be interested?), 2) getting too many volunteers entering data at once, which might overwhelm a cheap server, 3) untrained volunteers might not enter data accurately enough, 4) the primary data sources might not be available to volunteers.

If you decide to do this and want any advice, feel free to Email me.

By on 01/19/06 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t so much concerned about your own graduate students, but more with a metastasis of your research program until graphs-maps-trees ended up being one of the restricted options ambitious graduate students everywhere had to choose between.

What I said about the MLA, inaccurate in detail though it was, related to my perception that changes in “the sense of the field” as what is worth doing are ratified in big conferences, and afterwards are authoritative.

I am an eclectic-generalist and never really did find a place in the university, in considerable part because I’ve never been able to fake it if the particular methodologies in force didn’t appeal to me.

So I was OK with Moretti’s proposal as such, but was annoyed when he seemed to be setting up an interpretation versus graph-map-tree either/or choice.

By John Emerson on 01/19/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A few further thoughts on the soul/enterprise question.  Of course it’s a perfectly fair objection.  Here’s what I meant, though.  I like Jonathan’s invocation of Auerbach--it seems to me that really this book is part of a whole “whither comparative literature?” conversation that’s happening right now.  But certain new approaches to literary study come with evolutionary advantages, so to speak.  Take new historicism, it’s the most obvious example.  Its rapid growth in the academy didn’t depend on the personal charisma of Stephen Greenblatt, though of course that contributed to its success.  Greenblatt proposed a way of approaching texts that handily took advantage of the skill set that graduate students in English and other literary departments _already possessed_ (close reading, relatively limited archival research compared to history departments but a sense of the prestige of the primary source, a post-Foucauldian model of discursive fields); his own work in this vein provides a clear set of instructions for doing the same thing at home, so to speak.  And while new historicism is often charged with sausage-factory-making (we’ve all heard this a million times), it did indeed prove an extremely productive mode of literary study for one or more generations of scholars in America.  (More broadly, the same could be said for feminism: you read Gilbert and Gubar or the early Heilbrun, you saw a very obvious gap in the existing work & went to “recover” women authors who hadn’t been extensively studied or to approach canonical texts with a view to rather different issues.) But the graphing/mapping thing doesn’t key in to an existing humanities skill set in the same way; and graphing/mapping without the knowledge, for instance, of several different national literatures in their original languages starts to sound a much less attractive enterprise.  I don’t know, what does everyone else think about this?

By Jenny D on 01/19/06 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thank Franco for his kind words, and I hope that some of the things I’ve written may continue to be of use to people interested in “trees of history” in the broad sense.

I’ve wanted to join the conversation here at a number of points, but as in any cross-cultural encounter, it’s not just ignorance of the facts that proves to be an obstacle, but also a general mode of discourse that’s somewhat alien to me, and this makes it hard to get a purchase on the issues.

I’ll just jump in with a thought or two, which people may or may not connect with what others have said.

I think those of you who are interested in the tree idea will want to be careful to distinguish between what we might call “classificatory trees” on the one hand, and genealogical trees or “trees of history” on the other. Classificatory trees illustrate abstract relationship only, and can be applied to all sorts of things:

   chairs   tables
      |        |

This is *not* a genealogical diagram; it does not mean that at some point in the past there existed a thing called “furniture”, and that the things today called “chairs” and “tables” are the descendants of that earlier thing.

Trees of history *do* illustrate actual, genealogical relations of ancestry and descent. Replace “chairs” with “Latin” and “tables” with “Greek” and “furniture” with “proto-Indo-European” and you have a “tree of history”: there existed in the past a language we now call proto-Indo-European, and the later languages Latin and Greek are the modified descendants of that earlier language.

Also, those interested in exploring the tree idea further will want to ask themselves, when looking at a tree: “This tree shows the ancestry and descent of what sorts of things exactly?” You probably don’t want to label the branches of the tree “Melville” and “Poe” unless you think they shared a grandmother: what you are talking about (to make up an example) is the possible historical relations of “Poe’s use of the semicolon” or “Melville’s use of indirect discourse.” The more precise you are about the “units” of study that the tree connects, the clearer the issues will become.

Anyone who’d like to try to cross the cultural gap in the other direction might find this introductory paper of mine, which talks about how to “read” a tree, helpful (a pdf version with the needed illustrations is linked from the page):

“Evolutionary history and the species problem”

By Bob O'Hara on 01/19/06 at 11:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Bob—that was much clearer (and much less dyspeptic) than my last comment about Moretti’s “Conan Doyle’s rivals” tree.

By Ray Davis on 01/20/06 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . .  a proximity that market mechanisms quickly magnify into a galactic gap.

The notion of amplification is important. In neuroscience 101 you learn that the nervous system amplifies small differences. That makes it easier to segment the world into discrete objects.

But amplification happens in groups of people too. The epidemic is a classic example. Someone gets the pterodactyl-flu, boards a plane, and breathes there-in a densely populated closed space for 6 hours. The plane lands, the passengers exit and go about their business. Some board other planes, some go home, some go to hotels. Three days later we’ve got an epidemic spread out over half the globe.

What doe these two cases have in common? Networks, scale-free networks as they are called. It’s six-degrees of separation and <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacon_number" target="new">six degress of Kevin Bacon. More generically, it’s about small worlds. What makes these worlds “small” is not the number of elements they contain, but how those elements are connected to one another. That’s a subject of intense scrutiny these days.

The brain has billions and billions of neurons. But each of them is connected to 10,000 or so other neurons. That means that any two neurons in the brain a connected by a handfull of links—at least that’s the conjecture, we don’t really know as it is very difficult to follow individual neuronal chains through large brains. That sort of connectivity can amplify differences. In the small, it helps us make sensory discriminations. In the pathologically large, it’s what allows a small reverberation in one circuit to capture the entire brain in a grand mal seizure.

Word of mouth seems to be quite important in the success of movies beyond the first week or two. How does work of mouth spread? It spreads through social networks.

And so on. Networks of neurons, networks of people. The trick to understanding culture, so I believe (and have, in effect, argued in Beethoven’s Anvil) is that to understand culture, we must understanding networks of people in terms of networks of neurons. That’s tricky and obscure. But not, I believe, as reductionist as one might suspect.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/06 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But the graphing/mapping thing doesn’t key in to an existing humanities skill set in the same way . . .

Jenny D, yes.  If you look at the variety of work being done in the name of cognitive criticism (or something like that) you’ll find a lot of it draws on the cognitive linguistics of George Lakoff, Mark Turner and others—conceptual metaphor theory, cognitive blending theory. It is relatively easy to assmilate that work to rhetorical criticism—hence, Mark Turner talks of cognitive rhetoric. And, not surprisingly, this work has been criticized as being old wine in new bottles. Similarly, Darwinian literary criticism seems to use evolutionary psychology to advance views of human life that look like they come out of 19th century realistic novels; and this criticism is written in an analytic and expository idiom that would have been comfortable in 1950 but for a term or three.

But the real killer, I suspect, will be to bracket the search for textual meaning and set it on the shelf, at least for awhile.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/06 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve started reading the paper Bob O’Hara linked (above) and I recommend it. I wish I’d known about it when I was writing Culture as an Evolutionary Arena, in which I take up a number of issues involved in conceiving of cultural evolution. Working through that paper forced me to think about this trees business, which is quite tricky.

Let’s consider an ordinary taxonomic tree, like this, which indicates that eagles, wrens, and osterichs are all kinds of birds:


Notice that stuff off to the right. Those are descriptions of the various items in the taxonomy. What makes the tree so useful is that descriptive terms and propositions that are true of a parent node in such a tree will also be true of child nodes. Birds have two wings, two legs, a tail, a head, a beak, and so forth. That’s going to be true of the various kinds of birds as well. Thus a taxonomic tree is a relatively compact way of representing information about a large body of objects, for it allows you to elminate redundancy by moving common descriptors as high in the tree as necessary. (I believe—correct me if I’m wrong, Bob—that something like this information economy was involved in developing classical taxonimic trees in biology. Foucault discusses this in the “Classifying” chapter of The Order of Things.)

But, as Bob’s paper makes quite clear, phylogenetic trees are now understood to be different from taxonomic trees. In the case, however, where evolution is divergent, there is a “transparent” relationship between the two trees that looks like this (from my Cultural Evolution paper):


In the lower part of the diagram we see one species evolving into two different species over the course of time. In the upper part of the diagram we see the taxonomic relationship between these three species. Note that the two later populations of organisms are not classified as the subordinates of the parental population. Rather, all three are classified as species of the same superordinate genus.

Now consider a rather informal diagram showing the history of jazz styles (which I got here):


I don’t know how this was derived, but it seems reasonable to me (I’m pretty familiar with jazz and with at least some of the literature about it—which is growing rapidly). Notice that there’s a lot of convergence indicated on the map. That’s what people mean when they talk of culture as being convergent.

So far as I know, no one has attempted to development a rigorous taxonomy of jazz styles nor, for that matter, of musical styles in general, that’s comparable to the taxonomies that have been developed for language. Given all that convergence, it’s not at all clear that a strict taxonomy would be possible.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/06 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Notice that there’s a lot of convergence indicated on the map. That’s what people mean when they talk of culture as being convergent.

There’s an important terminological difference here: this is *not* what a biologist would mean by the word “convergent.” What the jazz diagram shows is “horizontal transmission” (or perhaps “hybridization"). “Convergence” in biological evolution is the *independent* acquisition of similar features. The streamlined shape of whales and fish and penguins are convergent: they arose independently of one another; whales and penguins didn’t inherit the shape from fish or from each other. In the jazz diagram, I suspect all the arrows indicate inheritance, not convergence.

By Bob O'Hara on 01/20/06 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, that’s correct, Bob. Thanks for the clarification. And it’s a very important one too.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/06 at 07:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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