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Every decade since the 1950s, a literary doctrine or two has dominated the academy. In the Sixties it was structuralism and reader response theory; in the Seventies, deconstruction. The Eighties saw the emergence of New Historicism and cultural studies; and the Nineties gave us a canon-smashing smörgåsbord of postcolonialism, feminist theory and gender studies. The Aughts proudly declared the end of theory, but the declaration proved to be premature. In this second decade of the new millennium we are seeing the emergence of a new tool for cracking open the text and telling the story of the novel. It is custom-built for a world where information comes not from an encyclopedia but from a Google search, and it partakes in an aspiration legible to the techno-utopians whispering Big Data. This fat little tuber grown off the back of the digital humanities is none other than Franco Moretti’s distant reading.

Moretti has ridden his doctrine to rock star status—such astonishing cultural capital that Stanford gave him a whole “literary lab” while most humanities professors scrape by on scraps. Though he no more invented distant reading than did Bill Gates invent the graphic user interface, Moretti has, like the software pioneer, grabbed a monopoly share of the credit. Distant reading is perhaps best thought of as the culminating stroke in that century-long process reversing the hegemony of the New Critics. Whereas their close reading consolidated the practice of scrutinizing a single passage, which every student now learns to do as a teenager, distant reading instead sifts through everything from afar, looking for patterns and clues in the aggregate.

Moretti is primarily an academic, which means his primary purpose is to produce knowledge for other academics. That said, his prose and the stories he tells about his data may speak to anyone who cares about literature. For instance, “Style, Inc.,” one of Moretti’s best-known and most interesting studies to date, charts how the average length of novel titles declined from roughly fifteen words in the 1750s to just six words in the 1790s—and then, by the nineteenth century, to just a word or three (think Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, all those Dickens and Balzac novels). Looking closer, Moretti finds a full-scale narrative carrying us through the nineteenth century—style and the market engorging upon one another and spinning off new sorts of titles that make for new sorts of novels: first the abstract title (e.g. Sense and Sensibility), which conditioned readers to believe that novels should move teleologically toward a final point; and then the metaphorical title (Heart of Darkness), which revealed a text’s central “ideology” like a seductive flash of thigh right on the book’s cover. Just by looking at titles, Moretti is able to sketch an entire shadow history of the novel’s rise, culminating with a fascinating theory on what might distinguish the nineteenth-century novel from the twentieth:

By the end of the [nineteenth] century [titular metaphors] are everywhere (The Belly of Paris; The Doll; Ghosts; The Octopus; Heart of Darkness; The Beast in the Jungle), so they must have taken root sometime in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and the glimpses one gets suggest a lot of hesitation on the part of writers: Gaskell shifting at the last minute from Margaret Hale to North and South (proper name to metaphor); Dickens doing the opposite, from Nobody’s Fault to Little Dorrit. Announcing a story with a metaphor must have seemed strange—and it is strange: if abstractions are removed from the plot, then metaphors are twice removed: interpretations that require an interpretation, as it were. But it is precisely this “difficulty” of metaphors that holds the secret of the title-as-ad. Eighteenth-century summaries told readers a lot of things about the novel, yes; but they never really engaged their intelligence. And instead, by puzzling and challenging readers, metaphors induced them to take an active interest in the novel from the very first word. If you are trying to sell a product, that’s exactly what you want.

This is great stuff, even if it’s not exactly sui generis. Seen from a wide historical perspective, Moretti’s distant reading looks a lot like structuralism minus all those lusty paeans to the pleasure of the text. Recall that Claude Lévi-Strauss discovered patterns by sifting through the world’s myths, and Roland Barthes taught us that these very same patterns were played out in local wrestling matches and soap advertisements. Moretti clearly builds on such traditions, updating his methods for a time when data capture is becoming indispensible to our way of life, like an omnipresent machine that we’re not sure we wanted to turn on but certainly can’t turn off: everything from the mindboggling databases that allow Amazon to ship millions of different goods, to the energy grids that keep the lights on, to the schedules that organize the world’s flights (and the scanners that warn who should be kept off of them)—even the algorithms that let you sort through carriers and routes to purchase the lowest-priced ticket.

Which is to say, Moretti’s technique is important in part because we’re ready to receive it. It was not always so. When the New Critics did their pioneering work, close reading made sense. It was an intuitive technique to generations raised on Bible study, and there was an authoritative set of texts that anyone aspiring to be “well read” might hope to consume in a lifetime. Later generations added nuances appropriate to their own eras: as the structuralists gained currency, they declared that any canon was just a reflection of power imbalances based in our politics and economy; later, as minorities, women and the queer community took their share of academic authority, they tore the white-male canon to shreds. Herein we see the roots of distant reading: the content of the books is still important, but the conversation starts to move beyond the text. By the time we get to New Historicism, postcolonialism et al., there is an entirely new orthodoxy: everywhere you look is a text ripe for analysis, and it’s no longer radical to suggest that everyday anecdotes are just as worthy of scholarly attention as Shakespeare. Anyone who grants undue importance to the latter—like Harold Bloom and his 26-author Western canon—is a living anachronism.

Insofar as there is something genuinely new in Moretti, it has to do with what Big Data is now doing to our concepts of quality and authority. We’ve all read enough customer reviews to know that the institutionalized critic is a diminished concept. And we also know that the explosion of computing power available to the average person has curtailed the authority of gatekeepers. Yes, the New York Times is still the New York Times, but its authority has been eroded by a horde of Lilliputians. Technology allowed this, just as it has permitted statistics to become a measure of quality. Witness the low sales figures that now follow mid-list authors around like a contagious disease; that self-perpetuating prophecy known as the Amazon sales rank; the cult of Nate Silver; the citation of download figures as a measure of an app’s success; the count of retweets and Facebook shares that now appears on every conceivable web page; the thermonuclear explosion of lists of all varieties on the web. Metrics have become radicalized elsewhere, too, from No Child Left Behind’s obsessive insistence on test scores to Walmart’s quantification of its employees’ daily performance.

“It felt like the entire history of literature could be rewritten in a new vein,” Moretti has written of his essay “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” where he first used data to put his “falsifiable” theories to the test. Data, Moretti believed, could end longstanding arguments or upset orthodoxies. It might reveal a new history of the novel, a whole new geography of literature. And Moretti is, unlike most literary critics, a natural with numbers. The childlike glee he takes in his charts and diagrams is clear to anyone who takes a moment to read his work. But the most important thing that numbers do for Moretti is answer new kinds of questions. He makes the point clear in Graphs, Maps, Trees: the corpus he wants to tackle is so gigantic that, even if we read “a novel a day every day of the year,” this work “would take a century or so.” A man with such aspirations needs machines.

But what sorts of revolutionary narratives does he wish to unveil? For one thing, Moretti is a formalist. He cares about books not for their plots or characters but because they can tell us secrets about the world that produced them. Likewise, he cares about grammar because he finds understanding the syntax of a given age akin to understanding the age itself. In Distant Reading he calls what he does “formalism without close reading,” borrowing the phrase from literary theorist Jonathan Arac; this involves “identifying a discrete formal trait and then following its metamorphoses through a whole series of texts.” Moretti is also a historian, to a much greater degree than most other people considered literary theorists: in The Bourgeois he flatly tells us that he’s interested in writers like Defoe and Ibsen because they allow “the past to recover its voice.” And how does the past speak to us? “Only through the medium of forms.” Distant reading turns distance into “not an obstacle but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models.”

These are the things Moretti cares about. In Atlas of the European Novel he tells us, “What quantitative methods have to offer the historians of literature [is] a reversal of the hierarchy between the exception and the series, where the latter becomes—as it is—the true protagonist of cultural life. A history of literature as a history of norms.” That is, a history of literature where it is not the individual that dominates but the structure, not Jane Eyre but the bildungsroman. It is in this connection that he often draws on biological evolution for concepts and terminology, frequently citing Charles Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould. Likewise, he professes admiration for the Russian formalist par excellence Viktor Shklovsky, who ascribed an uncertain, at times haphazard, trajectory to the development of the novel, and whom Moretti reminds us said that literature develops via a “canonization of the cadet branch.”

As that last quote implies, Moretti likes to play up his fixation on what he repeatedly terms the “periphery,” and what we’d call, in the faddish language of today, “the long tail.” This may be a physical periphery—like all those far off European countries ignored when we study Dickens and Austen—but it can just as well be a literary one, like those reams of middling detective fiction that Arthur Conan Doyle effectively put to dust. Of course, there is a good reason the periphery tends to be ignored by most critics: its quality as literature is low, something even Moretti readily admits. Which leads us to a strange fact about Moretti—as invested as he is in counter-narratives, his new findings tend to enshrine the same old books. In one of his many moments of enthusiasm for the overlooked, Moretti quotes Hegel’s downright Rumsfeldian pronouncement that “the well-known in general, being well-known, is actually not known.” Thus Moretti combs through every last ignored detective novel he can find in order, ultimately, to better understand the success of Sherlock Holmes. Or take his most recent book, The Bourgeois, which he says is “a dialogue between Defoe and Weber.” He isn’t out to discover writers to replace Defoe and Weber; he just wants to understand them better, and with them, that most commonplace of all literary classes, the middle class. The pages of his studies are dominated by names familiar to all: Hamlet, Dickens, Austen, Buddenbrooks, Don Quixote, Balzac and so on.

There is therefore a curious reaffirmation of the status quo in Moretti’s work. True, he often starts his analysis in the periphery, but time and time again he ends up right back where traditional literary critics start. There are no little-known additions to the canon in Moretti’s work, no elimination of pretenders, no rediscovered genres or hidden gems. None of this. Unlike many of his iconoclastic forebears in literary theory, Moretti attempts to give us new narratives about why the center is central.

In a sense, then, distant reading is another of those data-driven technologies that merely promises to threaten existing sources of power. I do not deny that Big Data still offers the best shot at disruption that we have at the moment. The collective known as Anonymous, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and even Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign have all used data to bring new perspectives into the public consciousness. But for the most part Big Data has been co-opted by the empowered, just like various promising technologies before it: radio, film, telephone, television and audio/video recorders. Moretti claims that, by bringing the benefits of data to literature, he is speaking up for the forgotten—the uncounted libraries of ignored books that no one has ever bothered to submit to literary analysis. His argument hinges on the idea that literature should benefit from technology and science because that’s what’s going on in so many other spheres of society. But is it really so clear that technology is benefitting these other spheres?

Moreover, Moretti sometimes fails to recognize that literature is a very strange place. Our theorist may give the impression that it is a backwards field that needs a technological tune-up, but the inconvenient truth is that literature is out of step because it really is different. Perhaps this is why Moretti’s inquiries tend to start with data, but his conclusions are hardly more scientific than those of any other theorist. Most of the time he seems aware of this, carefully arguing from well-founded premises and tip-toeing around the fact that he’s not really a scientist. He rarely attempts to disprove the ideas of his fellow theorists, and it’s a good thing, because literary studies doesn’t function like a science, where one experiment can shatter orthodoxies and enshrine a new order. Although there are better and worse responses, there is no definitive response to any given text: a brilliant analysis of Balzac, for instance, can inspire my own interpretation without rendering it obsolete.

In science, access to better data counts: the Large Hadron Collider tells us more about our world than weaker supercolliders; bigger telescopes and more sensitive instruments can solve questions previously considered unanswerable; even in a social science like economics, having more and better data can often yield more convincing results. Not so with literary criticism. One of Moretti’s favorite, most relied-upon studies, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, was written while the author was marooned in Istanbul during World War II, far away from almost all his favorite works of Western literature. Indeed we might say that this classic was made possible by the radical contraction of the data available to its author. Likewise, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a brilliant, compelling work, no matter that it’s based almost completely on the writing of dead white men and that its scientific theory of literature has been declared obsolete.

It may be that all great work is based on hubris, and Moretti’s is simply more obvious than most. I admit that I get weak in the knees when Moretti talks about “the role of the gerund in Robinson Crusoe,” but I in no way expect that the story he tells will refute all the other stories told about Crusoe. Moreover, its worth has less to do with the amount of data Moretti feeds into a computer than it does with his capacity to articulate what he finds. No man who writes prose like this could truly disbelieve in close reading, or claim that every question has its answer:

There is something ghostly, in this history where questions disappear, and answers survive. But if we accept the idea of literary forms as the fossil remains of what had once been a living and problematic present; and if we work our way backwards, “reverse-engineering” it to understand the problem it was designed to solve; if we do this, then formal analysis may unlock—in principle, if not always in practice—a dimension of the past that would otherwise be hidden. Here lies its possible contribution to historical knowledge: by understanding the opacity of Ibsen’s hints to the past, or the oblique semantics of Victorian adjectives, or even (at first sight, not a cheerful task) the role of the gerund in Robinson Crusoe, we enter a realm of shadows, where the past recovers its voice, and still speaks to us.

It is beyond doubt that reading will change with technology, and Moretti has ample incentive to cheerlead such developments: his generous funding and star position, not to mention his professional reputation, is premised on them. But it may be no accident that he comments very little on the enormous questions that his methods stir up. For all his talk about dragging literary criticism into the digital era, in The Bourgeois he admits that he cannot relate the insights he makes about the rise of the novel to contemporary problems. This is a lament that hangs over all his work. Yes, his data is big, but it is also old: the verb patterns of Robinson Crusoe, the concentration of publishing in nineteenth-century Europe, the character geography of Hamlet. Taken individually, Moretti’s books and papers tell us much about history, but his only grand idea appears to be that data is the future of literary studies.

But perhaps Moretti’s work will help young critics see how data can be used to address new questions about today’s authors. One example of a satisfying fusion of Moretti’s methods and contemporary concerns—Ed Finn’s essay “Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception”—uses Amazon’s recommendation algorithm to construct a data set around the books of David Foster Wallace; it also uses data sets made from professional reviews of Wallace in national newspapers and customer reviews from Amazon. Based on these, Finn uncovers ways in which readers viewed the alleged postmodernist differently from his peers. For instance, he finds that, whereas the critics most often liken him to a familiar clique (e.g. Pynchon, Barth and DeLillo), the everyday readers make different comparisons: Ulysses, Moby-Dick and (most surprisingly) Les Misérables. Whereas critics see Wallace in terms of his postmodernist peers, readers see him in terms of the Great Books. In turning Moretti’s methods to such an analysis, Finn raises important questions: Why do we consider Wallace so original? Whose appreciation of him is most valid? And who now holds the most authority— computers, critics or consumers?

Not that long ago, the answer to that final question would have been obvious. The literary doctrines that have emerged in the past few decades have made it much more of a debate, as have changes in the texture of culture and communications. Teasing out the consequences of these changes will be an important part of discovering the novel’s place in the twenty-first century. Moretti has played a substantial role in advancing this conversation (Finn notes him as an inspiration for “Becoming Yourself”), but his work looks backwards, not forwards. Perhaps a new generation of writers will ask the questions his methods only hint at.

Image credit: Stefanie Posavec, from the “First Chapters” series

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