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Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees

March 4, 2013

Ah, it is nice to get some exposure to a seminal work in the digital humanities. It is an important and timely topic, and as some of my readers may have guessed, one that has supplanted much of my other research interests of late.

That said, I will continue my refrain of perpetual frustration.

The enormous blind spot of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees cuts to the heart of questions I have asked in the classroom that have not adequately answered. For those of you not lucky enough to be present in said classroom, this is what I asked: Yes, knowledge and human experience is being systemitized, categorized, and organized. In theory, this should be a huge benefit to historians; but for whom and why?

I noted that organizing and tracking changes in literature is a major boon for this particular era in history writing. We have this thing called the “linguistic” turn. We have the “cultural” turn. Once we started turning, we never stopped. Much, if not most, of this history is the study of language and ideas. Intellectual currents shape human thinking. Culture are those ideas translated into things beyond words. Looking backward, it is reasonable to suggest that historians got tired of looking at the elements that are more in your face that guide changes in human history: rich and powerful white guys. institutions. economics. diplomacy.

Now ideas are the big game. And in Moretti’s world, the only game. Isn’t it wonderful that we can track the evolution of the spy novel? Sure. In the same way that it is great that a person can obtain a PhD in such a topic and never do anything useful other than aggrandize themselves.

Am I being harsh? Yes, probably. But the fact remains that Moretti’s work appeals to a certain audience of intellectuals that does not distinguish between reveling in human experience and recognizing a duty to attempt to improve it. Am I right to judge those who derived enjoyment from Moretti’s observations? I suppose it doesn’t matter because here I am…doing it in the here and now. That said, his work does little for me in uncovering systems of oppression and/or deriving methods of dismantling them. It is very easy for the affluent and well heeled to sit back and get excited that we are systematizing human experience without ever recognizing the problem of unequal distributions of power – and what role the intellectual elite have on that (much more important) system.

Moretti’s discoveries about how to organize changes in literature over time are interesting to the well read. But are they any more than that?

As I may or may not have uttered in class last week: People are starving out there. Make it count.

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4 Comments
  1. Jay, you’ve articulated some of my concerns with whole-heartedly embracing quantitative analysis. My motivation as a historian is to uncover past human experiences and recovery the agency of these individuals in my own small way. It seems rather cold-blooded to reduce that human experience to a numerical value. It reminds me of Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery- she struggles to take quantitative data and reveal the very real tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade. Maybe that’s a potential middle ground approach we can try to emulate?

    • Jay Weixelbaum permalink

      Exactly. And to what end? My beef with Moretti is that he is extolling the virtues of quantifying historical changes without weighing the value of its various applications. Can I just stop the dialog for a minute and ask an obvious question? Why should I care about the evolution of detective novels? I am an overworked and underslept graduate student. Sell me.

  2. “People are starving out there” can be used in an effort to motivate anything from eating peas to, to promoting genetically modified agriculture, to inveighing against learning about literary genres. What is the politics there? Be careful of letting your sense of being overburdened be the source of your critique of the work of others. Changing the world takes the efforts of many. Furthermore, while it appears that everyone loves Nazis, we shouldn’t assume that a study of American business support of Nazi’s is automatically going to solve the imagined hunger crisis of today.

    Intriguingly, Moretti identifies himself as a Marxist and I believe it was Marx who shared your view about the goal being not to study the world but to change it. To some extent he is challenging the western bourgeoisie notion of individual authorial creation. I would argue he is not so much interested in ideas, or the content of ideas, as he is interested in their form. And certainly as we are attempting to understand oppression and inequality, we are looking at patterns and forms that shape, limit, and are reformed by individual experience. Certainly there is some value in taking a step back to understand “systems.” Do you use statistics in your work? Can we understand the individual story without situating her in a larger context? And take this from someone who does local and community history and who relies on individual narratives.

    • Jay Weixelbaum permalink

      That’s not really the point I was making, Dan. I wasn’t literally referring to a hunger crisis. I *was* noting that faced real oppression, inequality, and suffering, I have a reduced amount of patience with intellectual exercises I don’t feel do much more than add to a discussion that is happening solely between intellectual elites. Sure, it has its own merit in extending human knowledge, and that’s great. I’m just a little bit tired of being among affluent individuals reveling in this narrow utility.

      I also understand that the world is made of shades of grey.

      By virtue of the professionalization of my chosen field, I had to pick a topic of study. I also don’t think it’s fair to pigeonhole me by comparing my studies to its merit to promote social justice. What I’m working on now is only the beginning.

      And for what it is worth – since we continue to have these discussions where you bring up Nazis – that is *not* the focus of my work. The corporations that are still with us today that control large aspects of our lives are. I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in wanting to make those actors the focus of my activism.

      The Nazis happen to be a pretty good model of illustrating the abuse of power, which is what I’m chiefly concerned with.

      I hope this explanation is clear – it would be frustrating if I had to repeat such an explanation again, since I’ve now had to do so multiple times this semester. There are plenty of places on this blog where such ideas are articulated.

      **

      Here’s a thought – what could have Moretti applied these notions to instead? What if we applied textual/statistical analysis to memos of board meetings of the Fortune 500 companies in a 10 year period? The knowledge we could glean about power structures could be quite valuable.

      But we can’t. That information is locked up. Yes, we can analyze spy novels instead and track changes in literary movements. I’m just not terribly excited about it.

      And again, as we discussed in class, I am fully aware that archives of corporate data exist, but let’s be real here: much of what we could learn from this important information is locked up.

      For my part, I’d only add further that I’m looking forward to actually having the time to locate and analyze these corporate sources before they are locked up.

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