Franco Moretti. Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract Models for Literary History. Afterword by Alberto Piazza Verso: New York-London, 2005. 119 pgs.
A few years ago, I was conducting a research project on Colombian novels. The idea behind the project was to not only look at particular works by renowned novelists, but to also determine the patterns that cause scholars, publishers, and readers to venerate some novels and dismiss others. In conducting the project, I decided to combine traditional literary approaches with methods from sociology and semiotics among others. With the collaboration of some colleagues –too few to be honest- and a group of eager students, I examined archives, consulted historiographical texts, and reviewed current and historical literary outlets to trace the main structure of the field. In addition, we read hundreds of novels, consulted catalogs from public and private libraries, interviewed publishers, and created databases with information in order to understand why some novels become popular and well regarded while others were simply ignored at various levels. To accomplish the task, we used basic tools for a traditional literary research: paper, pen, books, and a laptop. With these tools we annotated bibliographies, stored specific information, and typed in research reports in either a mainstream or an open source word processor. Graphs and visual models –made in handwriting- were also part of the project, at least as means to organize and plan next steps.
By the time I started the project in early 2005, Franco Moretti, a Professor of Italian and English Literature at Stanford University, and a former Marxist literary critic educated in Italia, had published a provocative book that has become a landmark for the Digital Humanities, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). In this book, made up of one introduction, three chapters and an afterword by Italian geneticist Alberto Piazza, Moretti proposes “distant reading” as an approach to take literary studies and literary history in particular –“the old territory”- towards a fresher terrain (1). The use of graphs, maps, and trees as well as other interdisciplinary approaches will allow scholars to grasp the way literature as a cultural field behaves. According to Moretti, what matters is looking at the literary field as a complex system in order to determine patterns, emergences, and cycles at various levels beyond the overvalued text. His three chapters account for three modes of approaching literature and doing literary history: graphs, maps and trees.
In his first essay, “Graphs”, he begins by asking a provocative question that goes to the foundations of literary and hermeneutic practices at large: “What would happen if literary historians […] decide to shift their gaze from the extraordinary to the everyday, from exceptional events to the large mass of facts? What literature would we find in the large mass of facts? (3). Thus, the chapter is an example of how graphs allow readers and scholars to focus on large data sets that go beyond canonical texts to identify ways in which a given field changes. Being able to look at large amounts of texts and numerous connections is “not a matter of [the] time” invested to read each and all of the texts in the field at hand. Instead, it is a matter “of method” to deal with large sets of information and to determine rational interpretations (4). Using data from numerous scholars, Moretti shows more than ten graphs to represent and visually understand the novel as a field that raises, evolves, and falls in relation with categories such as genre, gender, market, and reception among others. By the end of the chapter, Moretti concludes that his approach, based on quantitative data and visualization analysis, attempts to understand the novel not as an object that requires interpretation –even interpretation based on quantitative analysis- but as a cultural field that evolves and needs to be explained in its “diversity” (30). To readers’ astonishment such explanation is not tackled by graphs but by trees as the last essay in the book.
In the second chapter, “Maps,” Moretti proposes the use of maps as a model from Geography to grasp other dimensions of literature, an art that uses forms to represent time and space. By analyzing village narratives, specially Mary Mitford’s Our Village, the author tries to answer a question that opens up the chapter: “Do maps add anything to our knowledge of literature?” (4). Through more visual models, maps and graphs, Moretti gives an affirmative response to the question. In his view, maps are good to prepare texts for analysis. Once you choose a category and ‘pour’ the narrative information in a given map, the model becomes a source to be interpreted by the analyst. This method will show “emerging qualities which were not visible at the lower level” (53). However, when the reader comes into contact with this chapter, especially after reading the way graphs are used, he is not completely clear on Moretti’s definition of “low and high,” “local and global” levels. The argument becomes even more entangled when readers realize the chapter is based on the analysis of couple of primary sources and some secondary ones that, in turn, analyze and classify other several works. The questions that arise here is how many texts are too many? How much information is too much? However, the main takeaway from this part of the book is the use of visualization and localization as a way to make invisible qualities emerge in the study of literature and literary history.
While graphs and maps are employed to trace changes on literary fields at different levels, trees provide a visualization approach to represent the evolution at “the microlevel of stylistic mutations” (91). Inspired by evolutionary biology, Moretti harnesses trees to identify traits that evolve in time and space guaranteeing the endurance of one genre and the death of others that lack such a trait. When a genre mutates or changes in time, trees account for what Alberto Piazza at the afterword calls “a process of transmission” (97); a process that goes from convergence to divergence tracing familiarity, evolution and diversity in a very local level of the literary field. Trees, then, function as a perfect ending for questions opened by graphs and maps, as they try to respond to the divergence of genres and traits as well as to their adaptation to particular environments. As Moretti posits, all of his attempts respond and extend “a materialist conception of form” (92). In this light, the reader could consider this endeavor as an evolution of the “Marxist problematic of 1960s and 1970s” (92). Nevertheless, it is different in the sense that his project seeks to solve literary problems not by focusing on a particular structure but by connecting the whole system of structures at different levels. In his undertaking, Moretti traces a network that analyzes literary fields diachronically (from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century) and synchronically (works from some countries of Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America).
When analyzing Colombian novels in the project I mentioned at the beginning, I was precisely looking to connect different levels at which literary and particularly novelistic texts function. I was also aiming to create a matrix not only of primary texts but also of critical comments (readers) and messages by the publishing houses (mediators), in order to understand and identify patterns of convergence and divergence –as Moretti would posit. If I had discovered Moretti’s book in time, my life would have been easier in the sense that this. Having a preference for “explanation of general structures over the interpretation of individual texts,” Moretti asserts at the end of his final chapter, is another way to do literary studies; it is not the only way, nor necessarily the best way, but another option (91).
What is clear about the book is that its proposal is not new. In 1992 Pierre Bourdieu published Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, translated and published by Stanford University Press in 1996. Almost two decades earlier Seymour Menton, a Professor of Spanish at University of California at Irvine, published Novela colombiana: planetas y satélites (Colombian Novel: Planets and Satelits). Both publications relied on an interdisciplinary dialogue to understand subtle patterns in the literary fields they studied. Both projects also employed graphs and maps as models to explain patterns and preconditions for movements, productions and publications in France and Colombia respectively. Both did it before Moretti, and they helped me to understand the literary field in a different manner. But at the same time, both prepared me to understand Moretti’s project and to look at it in a more productive and open manner.
Moretti’s book raises a number of questions. For instance, if he is looking at the literary field from several levels, from the global to the microscopic, how is the analyst going to assemble the scattered pieces and models in order to have the big picture Moretti intends to analyze? What role would the analyst play when it comes to interpretation? Is the analyst considered part of the field and therefore as an element that changes the way that the field works?The book responds to none of these questions. In addition to these questions, current readers may find Moretti’s proposal a bit outdated because of new developments in cultural and literary analysis based on visualization, topic maps, networks and geospatial analysis among others.
With the continuous development of applications, Graphs, Maps, Trees, is a groundbreaking book that opens up fascinating ways to discuss humanities and the ways humanists conduct research. It is a pioneering attempt in North American academia to question the role of our approaches to literature and culture at large. When reading Moretti’s book, I remembered my experience doing the research project I mentioned at the beginning of this text. Happily, I managed to finish the project and published the results in a book that does not owe anything to Moretti (at least in an explicit manner). However, I was fascinated with the coincidences and the ways that the cultural, social, and academic arenas function: divergence and convergence, similar ideas and diverse results. In any case, Moretti’s book is provocative, entertaining and eye opening for those who are still breaking disciplinary walls. It is also a book that speaks of our current endeavors to think of the Humanities and Social Sciences from divergent points of view.
This has to do with the principle of reflexivity that comes into play when there is an alleged objective approach to human actions and systems.