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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

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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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Next Cigarette and a Modest Garnish

Posted by Jenny Davidson, Guest Author, on 01/17/06 at 10:55 PM

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. 

Indeed, the book has proved just as enjoyable as I expected, a highly stimulating read though not perhaps as shocking as the flap copy suggests (in addition to the “heretical” counting and mapping there is a great deal of reading and thinking and arguing of a more familiar humanistic kind).  What follows below: a few reflections on the book’s style and methodology from the perspective of a reader at once seduced and rendered wary by a distinctive quality of Moretti’s writing that Elif Batuman (http:www.nplusonemag.com/moretti.html) has labeled “the irresistible magnetism of the diabolical.”

For me, the puzzle of the book concerns how seriously we’re meant to take Moretti’s grand flourishes in celebration of the quantitative.  Moretti is of course aware of the self-contradictory aspects of his exercise.  Following his quite wonderful bar graphs of the longevity of British novelistic genres between 1740 and 1915 (all the way from the courtship novel through the industrial novel and the school story to the New Woman novel and the Kailyard School), Moretti offers this admission in a footnote:

See here how a quantitative history of literature is also a profondly [sic] formalist one—especially at the beginning and at the end of the research process.  At the end, for the reasons we have just seen; and at the beginning, because a formal concept is usually what makes quantification possible in the first place: since a series must be composed of homogeneous objects, a morphological category is needed—‘novel’, ‘anti-Jacobin novel’, ‘comedy’, etc.—to establish such homogeneity. (25 n. 14)

Is this a damaging admission, or a savvy one?  The latter, I’d say, but it also only hints at my reservations about the claims of the chapter on “graphs.”

As a scholar working in the field of eighteenth-century British literature and culture, I find Moretti’s work around these questions fruitful but its distinctiveness or originality somewhat overstated.  You don’t have to be a heroic scientific pioneer and experimentalist to uncover the patterns in long-forgotten British novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Ruth Perry’s recent Novel Relations, for instance, reaps the rewards of a lifetime of reading eighteenth-century fiction to discern patterns (the rise of the novel of the second attachment, the trope of the cri de sang) that are as illuminating as Moretti’s graphs about literary and social history.  Moretti does not toil alone, in other words, and though his professional peers may lack his flair, they possess their own sorts of acumen; I’m thinking in particular of Gary Kelly’s excellent work on the fiction of the 1790s and of Katie Trumpener and Claudia Johnson on the novels of Austen’s generation and beyond.  In a footnote to an earlier essay titled “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” Moretti dismisses as socially insignificant the canon-bashing English professors who want simply to replace Jane Austen with Amelia Opie, but reading Opie’s fiction alongside Austen’s offers unusually clear and convincing evidence for why it’s worth reading “minor” authors alongside their “major” contemporaries (Franco Moretti, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” MLQ 61:1 [2000]: 207-27; 209 n. 3).  Elsewhere, in an essay called “Recovering Ellen Pickering” (Yale Journal of Criticism 13:2 [2000]: 437-52), Mary Poovey—prompted by the wording of an invitation from the British Women Writers Association—“gave some thought to the entire project of canon revision” and “decided to choose, virtually at random, a woman writer I had never heard of, read as much of her work as I could, then determine how, if at all, I could ‘recover’ this writer for modern scholars and students.” And she includes some great diagrams!  (Poovey’s essay is followed by thoughtful responses from Margaret Homans and Jill Campbell [453-65], both well worth a look.)

Moretti isn’t interested in chronicling these parallel developments in recent scholarship; nor does he acknowledge what is at the very least a broad family resemblance between his own work and that of another remarkable literary scholar who has also recently invoked Braudel in her call for the study of culture to become “planetary in scope” (Wai Chee Dimock, “Planetary Time and Global Translation: ‘Context’ in Literary Studies,” Common Knowledge 9:3 [2003]: 488-507; and see also the full elaboration of this argument in her wonderful recent essay “Genre as World System: Epic and Novel on Four Continents,” Narrative 14:1 [2006]: 85-101, which includes a discussion of Moretti’s “distant reading” [90-91]).

Graphs, Maps, Trees is a short manifesto, of course, a call for change rather than a survey of the field, so such exclusions are entirely understandable.  More troubling for me is the undisputable fact that the vast quantitative-collaborative research project whose virtues Moretti propounds has something Pied-Piper-esque about it; without Moretti’s own imagination and critical intelligence and deep knowledge of world literature driving it, doesn’t the soul go out of the whole enterprise?  We’re speaking here about a scholar whose powerful intellect and imaginative scope have meant that he himself can make wonderful use of the human-graduate-student-equivalent of a commodity-cluster supercomputer; but without Moretti directing the whole enterprise, the prospects for communal enrichment come to look rather more bleak.

I don’t dispute the striking insightfulness of Moretti’s treatment of the distinction between village stories and provincial novels, in other words; he concludes in this case that villages and regions are homelands, whereas provinces are defined against a more desirable metropolitan center and are thus “‘negative’ entities, defined by what is not there,” unmappable forms since “you cannot map what is not there” (53).  And perhaps the most alluring instance of Moretti’s diabolical charm comes in the sentence immediately following, which is both eminently reasonable and provocative to the point of being dandyish: “It happens, there are un-mappable forms (Christmas stories are another one, for different reasons), and these setbacks, disappointing at first, are actually the sign of a method still in touch with reality: geography is a useful tool, yes, but does not explain everything” (53).  Oh, go ahead, do tell me why Christmas stories are unmappable!  (I’m not being at all sarcastic; I really want to know. . . .) Might you be thinking in particular of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the most famous Holmesian Christmas story, or does this sentence itself mimic the effect of the unreadable clues of Conan Doyle and his contemporaries, providing something that looks awfully like a clue but resists interpretation because of an absence of meaningful context?

Moretti’s surely poking a bit of fun at himself here, writing in a style close to self-parody, as when he offers a flippant aside right after that modest disclaimer about geography’s failure to explain everything (“For that, we have astrology and ‘Theory’”).  But this is Moretti’s own personal insightfulness, not a blueprint for cultural development; despite the easy availability of quantitative techniques, in other words, it’s hard for me to think of a school of literary interpretation less suited to reproduction on a mass scale. 

I take the richest payoff here in terms of literary history, then, to be an insight that has also been arrived at elsewhere and by other routes.  The “real content of the controversy,” Moretti says, “is our very idea of culture”:

Because if the basic mechanism of change is that of divergence, then cultural history is bound to be random, full of false starts, and profoundly path-dependent: a direction, once taken, can seldom be reversed, and culture hardens into a true ‘second nature’—hardly a benign metaphor.  If, on the other hand, the basic mechanism is that of convergence, change will be frequent, fast, deliberate, reversible: culture becomes more plastic, more human, if you wish.  But as human history is so seldom human, this is perhaps not the strongest of arguments. (81)

The relationship between trees and contingency (and the chapter on “Trees,” with its treatment of the clue in the detective story of Conan Doyle’s time, seems to me by far the most interesting) is something about which Moretti is even more explicit in the earlier article-length version of the piece.  There he calls the failure of Conan Doyle’s rivals—and indeed of the creator of Sherlock Holmes himself—to explore the full literary potential of the clue “a good instance of the rigidity of literary evolution”:

you only learn once; then you are stuck.  You learn, so it’s culture, not nature: but it’s a culture which is as unyielding as DNA.  And the consequence of this is that literary changes don’t occur slowly, piling up one small improvement upon another: they are abrupt, structural, and leave very little room for transitional forms. (“Slaughterhouse of Literature,” 222)

The tree’s payoff, in other words, mainly concerns contingency: “What the tree says is that literary history could be different from what it is” (ibid., 227).  Interesting, true; but didn’t we know that already?  And culture can be as deterministic as nature, no surprise to Montesquieu and the eighteenth-century climate theorists (or for that matter to William James).

In the book’s version of the “Trees” piece, Moretti’s discussion of the clue segues into a really wonderful treatment of “the still numerous ‘ways of being alive’ discovered between 1800 and 2000 by that great narrative device known as ‘free indirect style’” (81).  This, for me, was the most thought-provoking part of the discussion and yet also the one that bore the least resemblance to the polemical version of “distant reading” and looked most like good old-fashioned twentieth-century literary criticism, with a kind of geographical expansiveness that owes more to earlier generations of scholars of comparative literature than to recent work in the life sciences.  Moretti’s figure 33, “Free indirect style in modern narrative, 1800-2000,” has this legend below: “This figure reflects work in progress, and is therefore quite tentative, especially in the case of non-European literatures, and of the diachronic span of the various branches” (84).  But isn’t this just a way of fancying-up, so to speak, the insights of Moretti’s critical prose, itself a supple and powerful enough tool to operate diagramless?  We don’t need this “schematic visualization” (82); Moretti’s thoughts on Austen and Flaubert and Dostoevsky-by-way-of-Bakhtin are the meat here, the figure possibly just a modish garnish to be set aside before tucking into the main dish.

Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  She is the author of Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen; she blogs at Light Reading


After reading Wai Chee Dimock’s article, I wanted to ask what you thought of her use of the fractal metaphor as it would relate to the inward-force or telos of the genre. Dimock seems to suggest that there is a recursive pattern of growth. Also, I’m curious about how the emphasis on self-similarity relates to the question of immanence; does the individual text contain some recoverable reflection of the historical whole if there are self-similar patterns all the way down?

By Jonathan on 01/18/06 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see the fractal metaphor particularly as a useful counterbalance to historicism, which has surely been a dominant factor in literary studies for the past 20 years or so.  I don’t know how far you can take it, in other words, but recursivity/self-similarity seem to me useful ways of avoiding assertions about _historical_ wholes.  This is why we’re using words like “pattern of growth” (and I think it’s part of the appeal for Moretti of these different kinds of diagrams), or “family resemblance.” Hmm… that’s a rather roundabout answer to your straightforward question.

By Jenny D on 01/18/06 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whats the relationship between the fractal metaphor and the Leibniz’s notion of the monad?

The equations that generate fractal patterns may be recursive, but I wouldn’t identify the two notions. Recursion is a different kind of notion from fractals. Fractals are geometric; recursion seems more algebraic. There are recusive systems that are not fractal.

By Bill Benzon on 01/18/06 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the Dimock reference, Jenny, I’ve just started reading the article.

On the factal metaphor, it’s very very tricky. But . . . right around the corner in The Valve I’ve been exploring the /xanadu/ meme. Now that’s pretty “small” as a single entity. But it’s plastered all over the web, 2,000,000 hits, which is, in some sense, large.

And in that exploration I introduced the notion of passing a flame from one candle to another as a metaphor for cultural circulation. Though fire can rage and be huge and intense, candle flames are rather small and fragile. That’s why I chose the metaphor. They are small and fragile and passing them on has to be done with care.

What I’m really thinking about is passing fragile “states” from one brain to others, something I explored in some detail in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. If we start thinking in those terms—the collective neural nets of a bunch of people interaction directly and indirectly across space and time—then I can dimly see the possibility of recouping the fractle metaphor. In my work on music I have relied on the neuroscience of Berkeley’s Walter Freeman. He’s deep into complex dynamics, and that gets us into fractle territory. And I should note that, not only have I used Freeman’s theories, but I have extensive (email) correspondence with him, for whatever that’s worth epistemologically.

I have no idea what’ll be required to reconstruct the metaphor in a technically rigorous way. But I’m convinced that that is what must be attempted. I’m sure that we’ll learn much in the attempt, even if we don’t succeed. Note that I’m not ready to make the attempt tomorrow. Lots of work to be done.

By Bill Benzon on 01/29/06 at 06:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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