Franco Moretti’s Historical Machinations

I told a costume designer that I was reading this book called Graphs, Maps, Trees and said it’s about visualizing the history and story of literature. She immediately replied that she kind of does that, too—in a costume action plot. Her pragmatic point of entry into a play is tracking how costumes work within the space and time of a play. I told her she might like to read this guy named Moretti.

Visualizing literary history is basically using big data techniques on things you were taught not to think of quantitatively—novels are supposed to be artworks not databases. Right? Franco Moretti, however, has helped me think differently about literary history, and in turn, about how to think about doing public history.

Moretti, who teaches literature at Stanford, focuses on three types of visualizations in his book: graphs, maps, and trees. By elaborating on those methods, Moretti encourages “opening new conceptual possibilities” in the realm of literary history, or how we think about literature through time and space (92). In Moretti’s discourse he lights on evolutionary theory as well as the essence of art; and he looks at centuries of genre and then the physical movement of significant action in a single story. One could argue that his methodology can help expose the dark matter heretofore sensed but not seen in literary history.

vera-rubin-young“Science progresses best when observations force us to alter our preconceptions.”  –Vera Rubin Young

So, how can this different kind of thinking and seeing help our understanding of literary history, or any other kind of history? Moretti readily acknowledges that this theory and methodology doesn’t work all the time, but when it does, it’s very interesting.

In his first section on graphs he convincingly demonstrates that graphing the publication frequency of different genres next to each other can show literary cycles in history. Explanations on how and why certain patterns emerge are correlated to economic, political, and generational trends, which in turn can be used to help better interpret the time and the literature as well. Sometimes these graphs, maps, and trees create “a fingerprint of history—almost” (57). Furthermore, and most interesting, Moretti’s asserts, “the form of an object is a ‘diagram of forces’” because he is building his case upon materialist conceptions of history (i.e. the belief that we are chiefly shaped by economic and social circumstances and forces). Through the creation of graphs, maps, and trees Moretti argues that when fewer elements surface “a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” will follow (1).


This kind of “distant reading” could be applied to digital public history in ways familiar and new: For example, we have learned that HistoryPin allows for possible multi-dimensional interaction with time and space—a map that stacks photos from different time periods that you could see while standing in that very place with a smart phone. What if we re-imagined how to see a painting? Could we visually deconstruct paintings by graphing drafts? What would it tell us about a painter to map where all their work is currently displayed? What if we graphed or mapped Mark Rothko’s color palette? Or, threw all of Barbara Kruger’s text and images into something like Wordle? Or, threw all of different tweets from all the different UMD Twitter handles into Wordle? Or, what would mapping the geolocations of the majority of Civil War photographs tell us? By applying or riffing off of Moretti’s ideas, what other possibilities conjure innovative, progressive, and/or participatory projects?

Franco Moretti first published this book (which is based on some of his other writings) in 2005. Since then, I am fairly confident in asserting he has influenced peoples’ thinking about “opening new conceptual possibilities”—I know he has at least given me a new framework from which to work and explore.

There are, of course, those who do not necessarily agree with what Moretti is advocating. In Franco Moretti’s “Distant Reading”: A Symposium by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alexander R. Galloway & James F. English the authors upbraid Moretti in varying degrees for his assertions which can be knocked over easily, or easily trivialized. Each throws solid punches at Moretti and his computational obsessions, but in the end the authors essentially tell him not to go overboard with his theories, and not to forget that the literature is still the thing in which everything revolves around—no matter what kind of data he manages to maniacally mine.

One Reply to “Franco Moretti’s Historical Machinations”

  1. Having a BA in English Literature, I was fairly shocked to read literary theory in this way- but for me, like you, it was very positive. Morretti really broke open the genre for me, especially the graphs and trees that help to explain the phenomenon of form.
    In response to his critics, I’ll answer with an excerpt from his book:
    “What to literary maps do……. 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…. 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.”

    Here he admits that these visualizations play a very specific role- a role that doesn’t presume to replace the words of literary works, but uses them at a macro scale to express only the qualities that can work at scale. The critics err when they try to directly compare his visualizations to close reading of the text because one is not more or less relevant than the other. They are different ways of studying literature, and frankly they compliment each other.

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