The rise of the abstract model

After reading many books that made us philosophise about the implications of new technologies and media and their possible uses to Digital Humanities, we have got to one that shows the practical uses of applying computational analysis to literature.  This is Franco Moretti‘s Graphs, Maps and Trees. Abstracts Models for Literary History (2005).  However, he won’t mention computers as the needed tool to create a new envisioning of literary history.

First of all, the nature of this kind of study  is going to interconnect shapes, relations, structures, forms and models – connections that have been avoided in literary studies. Moretti believes in the many possibilities that the natural and social sciences can offer to our field as models, though abstract, can show “what literary history has accomplished so far (not enough), and … what still remains to be done (a lot)” (2). Hooray! I think this statement is sufficient enough for the book to be read, as it tells us humanists that we can still have a future, unlike those claiming that it is a field on its deathbed. But that is not the point today. Lets see how the author exemplifies how his abstractions can “widen the domain of the literary historian” (2).

Why turn to graphs? Because their quantitative approach (besides empowering cooperation) can force the study of the collective system of published works. It can lead to the discovery of new facts regarding literature as a whole – for studying the canonical works does not show the complete literary field and its collective system. In order to provide an example of the extent of this type of work he focuses on the so called the rise of the novel. Graphs allow the study of its pattern as a whole, or cycle, in Britain, India, Spain, etc. Genres being the primary cycle that produce the rises and falls on the graph. This allows to theorise about the longevity of genres along history. “Is the wave-like pattern a sort of hidden pendulum of literary history?” asks Moretti (18). Unlike what could be interpreted by the hegemonic market system, a study of data shows that over 44 genres play their part on 160 years: they cluster both to rise and to fall. Another question arises then: why the clustering? Audiences/generations; or ideologies; or none of them. Data doesn’t offer the why directly. These cycles indicate “a conflict that remains constant throughout the period” (Pomian, 117). Like the discussion about the bleeding death and rebirth of Humanities. Like Doctor Who’s regenerations over his 50 years on TV.

Now, the book brings us to maps. Or, better put, diagrams (check Carmen’s post for further reading). What knowledge can diagrams add to literary studies? In his first example Moretti demonstrates that the space of narrative can take several different shapes. In this case it takes a circular one and, as with data, this allows further exploration of the literary system. Maps are not “already an explanation; but at least it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained” (39). They can elucidate those experiences of social systems in the past, that we usually want to analyse in books, in order for us to understand how people framed their thinking, their ideologies. A map (see Christaller’s Central Places in Souther Germany) in which it is possible to see that daily life needs no big urban space – till things changed. Commerce and industry develop and with them the central region gives way to stronger, or new, networks and grapevines. Interconnections that pluralize needs, novelties, products, memories, emigration, crime, repression. The village against the city, the province in between. These kind of maps are going to show “a matrix of relations, not a cluster of individual locations” (54). And I reckon he has a point here: with maps we can easily visualize the connections as a matrix, a diagram of forces, in order to establish the meaning of society as a collective realm.

The third diagram in the party is the morphological one: the tree.  How are they practical to literary studies? Well, “a tree is a way of sketching how far a certain language has moved from another one, or from their common point of origin. And if language evolves by diverging, why not literature too?” (70). Interesting point of view, for he compares Darwin’s natural selection to languages and literature; “literary survival” (71) he calls it. When “a genre is visualized as a tree […] the genre becomes an abstract ‘diversity spectrum’, whose internal multiplicity no individual text will ever be able to represent” (76). No particular work can stand as the representative of the genre. Like graphs, trees can show the entire compound of literature – as “technology-of-language” (80)- to manifest the barriers in culture and their transformations. In the end, this creates a new conception: the study of literature both as it “moves for forwards and sideways” (91), being inclusive to all the participants in the corpus.

All in all, I loved the book! The reason why I liked it is because Moretti gives a great example of how to apply these abstracts approaches to literature. They can change -not that the traditional models are wrong- our theories, redesign them. Also, he doesn’t get lost in without actually showing himself in the kind of desperate need of  attention to computing/coding/digital/maths that I noticed on other writers, and that made their text somehow muzzy.

And because Whovians have created a lot of graphs, and maps, and trees, and diagrams, about their favourite show, which is on its 50th anniversary now, and has this “conflict that remains constant throughout the period” a little video I post.

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One thought on “The rise of the abstract model

  1. Pingback: Reading in the Information Age. On Hayle’s “How We Think” | My computer ♥ literature

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