Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading (Franco Moretti)


Before coming to Graduate Center’s Theatre Program, I studied in English program (in Korea) for about six years. Back then “distant reading” was not part of the academic curriculum (not sure if it is now) and I remember how canonical “the rise of the novel” (Ian Watt) was. My provocation is partly based on my journey from literary to theatre studies, although not always exclusive, so please do correct my response and add comments if there is any misreading/interpretation (as I am reading it alone for the first time).

Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti

In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti provides an alternative/radical methodology of doing literary studies, which has traditionally been based on close reading of an individual text. Moretti’s interdisciplinary approach proposes “distance reading” as a new form of knowledge, based not on individual (canonic) texts but three “deliberately” abstract models—graphs (from quantitative history), maps (from geography, though closer to geometry), and trees (from evolutionary theory). The book was first published in 2005 and developed out of three essays that Moretti wrote for New Left Review.

The Polemics?

The recent New York Times article on Moretti (as well as the book cover of GMT) states that he is “famous for urging his colleagues to stop reading books.” Moretti might have been more polemical and radical in proposing his views in other places (please add comments if you know more about it) and I also understand that it might have become a signature of distant reading. However, I think that more helpful way to read GMT is learning different ways of engaging with the “books” to find out patterns, structures, and relations that are independent of/or unavailable from interpretations (close reading).

I find it worth noting that Moretti’s work received criticism for comparing natural evolution with cultural change or for not providing connections with other fields of study. In addition to that, Harold Bloom’s dismissive reaction toward Moretti, described in another New York Times article published in 2004, is also worth noting as Bloom said “with an audible shudder” that he is interested in reading and that’s all he is interested in. Bloom’s definition of “reading” here is that of interpretive reading, a traditional way of engaging with the books (remember: he is the author of The Western Canon).

Based on the assumption that people in our class might have varying degrees of acceptance/rejection of Moretti’s argument, I would like to ask the following questions: Do you buy Moretti’s concept of distant reading in literary studies? How about for other fields? Have the scholars in your field of study accepted, criticized, or wholly abandoned this type of reading? Is Moretti’s argument helpful in understanding and expanding our discussion on “what is text” and “what is data” last week? Reading GMT in 2017, I wonder if digitization and database (in the context of data visualization) have played (or will play) an important role in circulating and/or expanding Moretti’s models. As far as I know, distant reading has not been a big thing in theatre studies (other than Shakespeare-related work), but as I have recently discovered an example of “distant watching” (visualizing Broadway project), I would like to hear about any interesting projects in your fields.

The Canon, the Genre, and the Model?

Rather than discussing the specific examples-figures Moretti provided, I would like to focus more on a methodological perspective. On the one hand, Moretti’s GMT can be understood as a political project (or can it be?) as the approach problematizes the literary history written out of “the one per cent of the cannon and the ninety-nine of forgotten literature” (77). Since the 1960s, feminist, queer, postcolonial theories (to name but a few) have challenged the construction of the Western canon, but in a way they have also created other sets of canon that are now frequently part of the curriculum. I think Moretti’s approach is fundamentally different because it is not about evaluating the aesthetic quality of the canon or would-be-canon, but about teasing out the relations between the canonical and the non-canonical work (either by abolishing all qualitative difference or articulating the very difference). Then, is there a place for aesthetic connoisseurship as such? How will it change the status of the canon (or the “high” and “low” forms)?

Moretti’s analysis in GMT is grounded in literary genres. By discovering patterns and devices of genres/cycles, he often aims to understand the structural whole which is larger than the sum of individual parts (in case of the literary maps, 53 & also in the New York Times articles). I am mindful of speaking the language of “the whole” and wonder if this seemingly “scientific” view would provoke any backlash. Although larger sample sizes can offer more accurate analysis, we should also be mindful of differentiating large “samples” from “the whole.” After all, as an extension of last week’s discussion, what is available in the archive or database can influence directions and results of the studies proposed by Moretti. Thsn, is it always the better way to map the “world literature” as such?


In sum, I like that Moretti does not propose his models (“materialist concept of form”) as “the ultimate” model for rational literary history. He states in the last sentence of GMT that “opening new conceptual possibilities seemed more important than justifying in every detail” (92). Are we still at the stage of opening new possibilities, or now it is time to justify details? What Moretti said as a “dream” in 2004, which is “a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy,” is still a dream? How can you (or do you want to) use the methods of distant reading in your classroom?

Have a great weekend!

1 thought on “Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading (Franco Moretti)

  1. Thanks for this provocation Kyueun! Here’s my take on literary genres, and an additional question regarding visualization’s pedagogical potential.

    Franco Moretti is adamant that his model is “formalist”. I’d say he does so partly to prevent his approach from being understood as yet another form of historical reductionism. Nonetheless, I am not convinced by his contention that literary criticism can, or may, or should be explanatory as opposed to interpretative. I think that what he does belongs to literary history or sociology.
    But there is a twist: Moretti does build on genres – he needs them, even. On the other hand, genres are indeed core components of formalist approaches. That convergence seemingly sustains his claim that his approach is formalist.
    My sense is that formalism’s main contribution has been to seize the dialectical relationship between a discursive construct (a “genre”) and individual responses to it. For instance, it is impossible to account for the path-breaking dimension of Cervantes’ Don Quixote without analyzing its deconstructing of chivalry novels. I do not see how Moretti’s model could ever grasp such process. Moretti is provocative because he contends that deconstructing the Western canon amounts to deconstructing tools for critical analysis altogether. In the process, what he does effects in depriving formalism of its core theoretical asset, even raison d’être – with no interpretative model replacing what he undermines. I have not read responses to Moretti’s essay, but I can easily see literary critics going ballistic.

    However, I am not entirely reluctant to give Moretti’s model a try, especially in the classroom. I can imagine the pedagogical potential of visualization, and the powerful tool it could be to kindle engaging collaborative projects. For instance, the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course at Emory includes an assigned project that consists in mapping the path of Mrs. Dalloway throughout London. I wonder how successful this kind of activities is, and what its pedagogical outcome is. Would some of you be familiar with such pedagogical uses of tools of visualization?

    The link to the syllabus
    And its digital outcome:

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