I recently had the pleasure of reading Franko Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History and, although it is a gross mistake to equate any one particular work with the totality of the movement it represents, I do feel his book highlights much of the promise—and many of the risks—of the data-driven impulse within the Digital Humanities. Given the title and structure of the work, I think it best to tackle each interpretative device, graph, map, and tree; separately.
The graphs portion of Moretti’s work is the most conventional, although even here his methods are bound to produce controversy. Rather than undertaking an exclusive reading of a particular text or specific set of texts, Moretti analyses the publishing history of all works produced during particular historical intervals. His approach is egalitarian by design, seeking to understand not the Canon, if such an apparition still exists, but the whims and fancies of the book buying public. The move is not an unwelcome one, and goes a long way towards dismantling the conception of literary scholarship as focused exclusively upon the crème of the literary crop. Moretti’s conclusion is that literary movements move in cycles coterminous with the rise and fall of discrete generational passings; as the generation shifts, the literary tastes change. Many have pointed out the problems with this approach—many of them concerned with the unreliability of the data, or accusations that Moretti’s data are pre-determined by the results. However, my concern is broader: I worry Moretti leaves out the most essential aspect of the cultural-literary work interrelation. Yes, it is certainly true that literary works respond to their cultural climate—but one need only look to the scandal following suicides imitating The Sorrows of Young Werther to see that literary moirés have a reciprocal influence on culture. Personally, I find literary works fascinating for their mediation of the cultural climate. Obliviously, no one work can fully exemplify all the social variables operative at the time of its construction. Yet the cultural currents it does inscribe and the manner in which they are inscribed into plot, character, or narratological structures speaks volumes. In other words, Moretti’s approach is a fascinating first step—but I feel that first step requires the additional leap of ‘drilling down’ into specific literary texts to examine the trends found at the macroscopic level.
In the Trees section, Moretti implies a Darwinian, genealogical reading of the appearance of ‘clues’ within the rise of the mystery genre, ‘survival of the fittest’ here referring to the success of those works that correctly divine and exploit the public’s tastes. The method is intriguing inasmuch as it views texts not as individual occurrences but as interconnected phenomena within a larger cultural network; however, I see the same problems as with the Graphs segment. Moretti’s approach assumes that literature merely responds to rather than creates its cultural milieu—more troubling, the approach assumes that cultural tastes are static. In other words, Moretti reads the ‘genealogy’ of the clue is teleological—the literary culture producing iteration after iteration until it finally finds the right approach for its public. But what if public tastes changed in tandem with the evolution of the genre? Personally I believe, and I think Darwin is on my side here, that evolution provides only problems, not solutions. That is, an eye exists in response to a particular problem, that of the organism acquiring and interpreting visual data. Moretti’s conclusions about the evolution of ‘clues,’ then, should be read as literature’s response to a cultural preoccupation, not to have a particular type of clue, but rather a concern with criminology in general. The scope of this post forbids me from elaborating this further, but I do believe there is a connection between the detective who reconstructs events from emperical evidence and the Victorian concern with statistics, surveillance, and a society ruled by science and data.
Lest it be said that I am overly harsh towards GM&T, I hasted to add that its section on Maps is to my mind brilliant and endowed with limitless potential. Moretti provides various topographic ‘maps’ of the physical landscape presented by the literary text—but he does so in an attempt to understand the author’s spatial conceptions and the socio-economic impetus behind them. There have been concerns raised over the verisimilitude of Moretti’s judgments here—chief among them, his charting of textual places in a circular rather than a linear arrangement. Whether or not the concerns are justified, what matters is Moretti’s reconceptualization of how literary analysis should work. Texts have been tied to socioeconomic factors before—New Historicism is practically dedicated to this endeavor. However, Moretti’s approach looks not to individual textual quotations but to the structure of the text as it might have appeared within the author’s mind. It goes without saying we are never going to break into the author’s imagination; however, we can and should try to map the author’s conceptualization of the textual events as if they were real events, and then understand how these events are rendered within the semiotics and narrative. This presents the possibility of looking not to the text for what was going on in the ‘real world’—that is easy enough to discern by cracking open a relevant history book—but rather the mechanisms by which these forces were inscribed into the text via the author’s own mediation.
On the whole, Moretti’s attempt to bridge the gap between data-driven methodologies and the Humanities is promising, but I feel it overemphasizes the data to the point of eliding the more abstract interpretations required in close-readings of texts. The act of interpretation is still present, but it seems sidelined—consciously or unconsciously—by the authoritative verisimilitude the data is supposed to purvey. This is a great concern for me—the promise of literature, in this critic’s humble opinion, is the ability to look beyond the horizon of prevailing ideologies, problematize the unquestioned status quo, provide a space for self-reflection and cultural criticism. I must echo Adorno and Horkheimer here—the empirical, data-driven approach is the reigning ideology of our day, and although its benefits are legion, the unquestioning belief in data as the answer to all problems calls to mind Ginsburg’s Terror through the walls, and crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.