Aesthetics and Poetics of History: Franco Moretti, in Graphs, Maps, Trees

By Alexandra A Jopp

In a series of three short essays, Franco Moretti, in Graphs, Maps, Trees explores methods of analyzing literature through a framework grounded in cartographic theory. As an example, during this process, Moretti uses diagrams to demonstrate the rise of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries in countries such as England, Spain, Italy, Japan and Nigeria. The charm of numbers along with Moretti’s erudition and Italian temperament – his style and voice are very excited, it seems to me – offers a controversial new paradigm for how critics may approach literature.

Moretti’s book focuses on defining the cultural stratification of literature. He believes that human culture is closely connected with the geography of a country, and that the history of each culture is, in large part, a function of its topography. Therefore, geographical conditions generate those ideas that are the bases of any artistic products. His argument appears to be a literary cousin to the one offered by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel that human history has largely been shaped by geography and environment.

Moretti is trying to make literary studies a part of historical research. He approaches these studies from different angles and proposes reforms that could affect scholarship, teaching and the job market in the field. “Theories are nets,” he claims, “and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the literary field, and re-design it in a better way replacing the old, useless distinctions with new temporal, spatial, and morphological distinctions.” His idea of counting books rather than interpreting them offers a diachronical approach that borrows from scientific models that are far from literature, including charts from quantitative history, maps from geography and some treelike diagrams from evolutionary biology. He does not focus on any specific works. Instead he “counts, maps, charts” and integrates them into graphs in which “the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction.” He purposefully guards his argument regarding “distant reading,” claiming that “distance is not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge.”

Moretti, I believe, is a Marxist, which means that he starts off buying a load of horseshit, having never lived in a country in which the ruling elite took Marxism seriously and tried to put it into practice. His writing is often impenetrable, which makes it attractive to some graduate students and others who want to appear to be more clever than those who prefer to read literature than listen to someone like Moretti explain it in pretentious ways. His theory is probably incomprehensible to anyone who has not spent years studying literature and critical approaches to it.

Moretti’s method suggests getting to know literature without reading it, and this is where I disagree. I am interested in reading and languages, in insight and meaning, not in counting books. Moretti would surely respond that his approach is an important new way of studying literature, that “now, opening new conceptual possibilities seemed more important than justifying them in every detail.” If nothing else, Moretti is certainly ambitious, seeking to cover subjects as varied as world literature, the village stories of 19th century Europe, the syllable structure of detective stories and more in a geographical context, all in a 92-page book. His goal is nothing less than to describe the chaotically self-organizing evolutionary stream of creative process.

Having had the opportunity to study geography and English in both the United States and Europe I see the differences in trends, with deconstruction being popular on one side and interpretation of texts (or micro-reading) dominant on the other. Moretti looks at English studies as if they were at an end. He seems to argue that literary critics should stop interpreting canonical texts, that we should give up the ideas that make us value some texts over others. While he assures readers that “texts are certainly the real objects of literature,” he also writes that that “they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history.” The forces that shape literary history are, in his view, not texts but genres.

I have serious doubts about whether Moretti’s attempted interface between world systems analysis and cultural science is a success. Notwithstanding the postmodernist skepticism that he and certain others embrace, the literary environment remains “old-fashioned” in its regard for texts. Innovation is wonderful, but new isn’t necessarily better.