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Reading Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Responses to Franco Moretti

Reading Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Responses to Franco Moretti

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Published by David Blakesley
Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History is one of the most provocative recent works of literary history. The present volume collects generalist and specialist, academic and nonacademic responses by statisticians, philosophers, historians, literary scholars and others. And Moretti’s responses to these responses. Originally written as contributions to an online book event hosted at The Valve (www.thevalve.org), and edited for this volume, these essays explore, extend and criticize many aspects of Franco Moretti’s work. They will be of interest to anyone interested in Moretti’s brand of “distant reading”; or in the prospects for quantitative approaches to literary style and genre; or recent interdisciplinary work in the humanities generally.

Contributors: Bill Benzon, Tim Burke, Jenny Davidson, Ray Davis, Jonathan Goodwin, Eric Hayot, John Holbo, Steven Berlin Johnson, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Sean McCann, Franco Moretti, Adam Roberts, Cosma Shalizi.
Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History is one of the most provocative recent works of literary history. The present volume collects generalist and specialist, academic and nonacademic responses by statisticians, philosophers, historians, literary scholars and others. And Moretti’s responses to these responses. Originally written as contributions to an online book event hosted at The Valve (www.thevalve.org), and edited for this volume, these essays explore, extend and criticize many aspects of Franco Moretti’s work. They will be of interest to anyone interested in Moretti’s brand of “distant reading”; or in the prospects for quantitative approaches to literary style and genre; or recent interdisciplinary work in the humanities generally.

Contributors: Bill Benzon, Tim Burke, Jenny Davidson, Ray Davis, Jonathan Goodwin, Eric Hayot, John Holbo, Steven Berlin Johnson, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Sean McCann, Franco Moretti, Adam Roberts, Cosma Shalizi.

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Published by: David Blakesley on Feb 20, 2011
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08/30/2014

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Full disclosures frst: Moretti is a friend, and was my advisor
for several years during my grad school days at Columbia in
the early nineties. I was there at the beginning of this project;
I can still remember the slightly bafed silence the followed
his announcement—over dinner with a half dozen grad stu-
dents—that the future of literary criticism was going to lie in
map-making. I spent an insane number of hours generating
some of the frst maps for him over the next year, using some
now-obsolete cartography sofware that was, to say the least,
not optimized for mapping narratives. So perhaps I’m biased
by my fondness for Moretti—or by the desire not to think of
all those hours generating maps as wasted ones—but I really
do think that the two books that eventually emerged out of
this research (Atlas Of Te European Novel and Graphs, Maps,
Trees
) constitute a welcome and signifcant turning point in
recent literary criticism. Just the density of ideas in Graphs,
Maps, Trees
alone is noteworthy; most scholars would have
spun the analysis of genre cycles into an entire book, but
Moretti gives you ten pages on it, and marches on to the next
case study. It’s exhilarating stuf, and I wouldn’t have it any
other way, but it does feel like we’re going to be spending the
next ten years unpacking some of these examples.
When Jonathan asked me to contribute to this discus-
sion, he suggested one of the topics I might address would be
the connection between my work in Everything Bad Is Good

Steven Berlin Johnson

82

For You, and Moretti’s model in Graphs, Maps, Trees. As it
happened, Moretti and I had just been exchanging a series
of email messages remarking on how our thinking had devel-
oped along parallel lines since we both lef Columbia. I talk
about this a little in the Appendix to Everything Bad: the shif
from a symbolic model to a systemic model. Most criticism
ultimately involves, in one fashion or another, decoding the
literary work to fnd the hidden meaning that lurks behind
it. What form that meaning takes depends on the kind of
critic you are: the genius of the author, the zeitgeist, the class
struggle, the unconscious, the subaltern, diférance. But the
systemic approach to culture isn’t looking for hidden mean-
ing in the same way. Tis is how I described it in Everything
Bad
:

My argument for the existence of the sleeper efect
comes out of an assumption that the landscape of
popular culture involves the clash of competing
forces: the neurological appetites of the brain, the
economics of the culture industry, changing techno-
logical platforms. Te specifc ways in which those
forces collide plays a determining role in the type of
popular culture we ultimately consume. Te work of
the critic, in this instance, is to diagram those forces,
not decode them. Sometimes, for the sake of argu-
ment, I fnd it helpful to imagine culture as a kind
of man-made weather system. Float a mass of warm,
humid air over cold ocean water, and you’ll create an
environment in which fog will thrive. Te fog doesn’t
appear because it somehow symbolically re-enacts
the clash of warm air and cool water. Fog arrives in-
stead as an emergent efect of that particular system
and its internal dynamics. Te same goes for culture.…

Distant Reading Minds

83

Diagramming not decoding: you can hear the Moretti
disciple loud and clear in that language. (You can also hear a
little Manuel DeLanda, for what it’s worth.) But the passage
also points to an area that I hope Moretti will turn to next.
You can’t analyze the literary system purely from the bird’s-
eye-view of distant reading. You need to zoom in as much as
you need to zoom out: all the way to the human brain itself.
Consider this passage from Graphs, Maps, Trees:

Everybody, from the frst readers onwards, had no-
ticed the country walks of Our Village; but no one
had ever refected on the circular pattern they project
on the English countryside, because no one—in the
absence of a map of the book—had ever managed to
actually see it. (53)

Tose readers might not have seen that circular pattern,
but on some level, they must have perceived it; it must have
shaped their experience of Our Village in some meaningful
way. Otherwise, it’s just a random pattern, formalist trivia, like
discovering there are the same exact number of words begin-
ning with “c” and “t” in the novel. Te same goes for Conan
Doyle and his rivals: the reading audience isn’t consciously
analyzing the formal properties of a stack of detective stories,
and saying: “You know, I really like the ones with decodable
clues.” But nonetheless they’re somehow processing those
formal innovations, and building a sensibility around them, a
preference for one confguration over the others.
So my question for Moretti is: how does this happen?
How is the reader infuenced by formal properties without
being fully conscious of the infuence? Graphs, Maps, Trees is
silent on the question—understandably so, since he’s got his
hands full persuading us of the birds-eye-perspective. But a
systemic theory has to work at all the relevant scales. All the
science and empiricism of distant reading disappears when

Steven Berlin Johnson

84

you get down to the level of the reader’s mind: we’re lef with
watered-down Freud: somehow the reader unconsciously
digests the form, emphasis on “somehow.” (I tried my hand
at this approach for a few pages in Everything Bad—explain-
ing how the formal architecture of reward and exploration in
gaming connects to the brain’s so-called “seeking circuitry.”) In
flling in the gap, I suspect that the cognitive sciences will be
more relevant than evolutionary psychology, despite the fact
that the Darwinian approach to literature has been attracting
all the buzz lately. I’m less interested in where the brain’s capac-
ity for apprehending formal variation came from, and more
interested in how it works. No doubt some these cognitive tools
for apprehending literary form will turn out to be spandrels, or
even exclusively the product of cultural training. Tat won’t
make those tools any less interesting. But we need to be able
to talk with some rigor about how those semi-conscious assess-
ments take hold in the brain—the same rigor that Moretti has
applied to the system of literature itself. Right now all we have
is superstition …

originally posted, January 16, 2006

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/distant_reading_minds/

85

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