Revolution Lullabye

January 25, 2013

Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2005.

Moretti uses three distant reading approaches, borrowed from the social and natural sciences (graphs, maps, trees) as an way to investigate literary history on a large scale.  He argues that the corpus of literature is so large that it is necessary, in order to understand its evolution, to use quantitative approaches, like maps, graphs, and trees, which place emphasis not on individual texts but on larger movements in the field.

His book is divided into three main chapters – Graphs; Maps; Trees.  In each chapter, he demonstrates how the particular distant reading approach helps him see patterns that are not discernable on the level of the individual text.  He is interested in the history of the book, and his work builds off of other literary historians.  He argues that his quantitative approach is a more methodical or “rational” way to approach literary history, and he argues that the forms that emerge in the process illustrate the forces that shape the texts and the field.

Moretti asks how his graphs, trees, and models work as a theories to change how literary scholars think about their work and the distinctions that have been made in the literary corpus – do they still hold true?

Notable Notes

Graphs – looks at the rise and fall of the novel in both Britain and in Japan, Italy, Spain, and Nigeria over 300 years.  The number of books published a year seems to intersect with political and social movements, revolutions and wars

Maps – focuses on the mapping of locations, characters, events, in the five volumes of Mary Mitford’s five volumes Our Village (1824-1832)  The novels map onto concentric circles, but over the course of the five volumes, the activity becomes more and more distant from the village at the center

Trees – draws on Darwin’s evolutionary tree, shows the divergence, emergence, and divergence again of syntax-specific constructions (free indirect style in modern narrative 1800-2000)

Trees have horizontal and vertical movement, space and time

Quotable Quotes

“The models I have presented also share a clear preference for explanation over interpretation; or perhaps, better, for the explanation of general structures over the interpretation of individual texts” (91).

His name for the what his graphs, maps, and trees have in common: “a materialist conception of form” (92)

Maps – they help us understand and see forces that shape texts: “form as a diagram of forces” (64)

“Each pattern is a clue” (57)

“What do literary maps do…First, they are a good way to prepare a text for analysis. You choose a unit – walks, lawsuits, luxury goods, whatever – find its occurrences, place them in space…or in other words: you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them from the narrative flow, and construct a new, artificial object like the maps that I have been discussing. And, with a little luck, these maps will be more than the sum of their parts: they will possess ‘emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower level” (53)

“Not that the map is itself an explanation, of course: but at least, it offers a model of the narrative universe which rearranges its components in a non-trivial way, and may bring some hidden patterns to the surface” (54).

“I began this chapter by saying that quantitative data are useful because they are independent of interpretation; then, that they are challenging because they often demand an interpretation that transcends the quantitative realm” (30).

**Important point: quantitative models and research “provides data, not interpretation” (9).

“A field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole” (4)

Purpose: “A more rational literary history. That is the idea.” (4) – “a quantitative approach to literature.” – methodical, patterns, groups.

“From texts to models, then; and models drawn from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory” (1-2)

“‘Distant reading,’ I have once called this type of approach; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models.” (1)

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