What can Graphs, Maps and Trees Do that Cannot Be Done with Words?

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 “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected,” as Reif Larson wrote. But does that mean maps explain everything or do they “add anything to our knowledge of literature?, as Franco Moretti questioned (35).

In fact, while maps are useful to concretize provinces and “bridges between here and there”, they are still opaque when it comes to explaining reading habits of a particular setting or place. In this frame, Moretti examines the influence of literature on different places through social scientific tools and methodologies such as maps, graphs and trees. In other words, he offers a geography of reading, of representation of country-by-country reading habits rather than an analysis of geography per se.

Through these discursive methods, he decentralizes the old narrative of novels, being a story-delivery tool or a piece of opinion. In doing so, his stories-collections examine a changing world, a world of power and hegemony, a world of abstraction. So, “to make sense of quantitative data,” he said “I had to abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, in order to explain figures” (24).

But these figures, in fact, miscarry the significance of literary history in that the quantity outweighs and transcends the quantitative realm, which in turn falsifies literary explanations and reduces different nature to limited characterizations. While these representations reproduce certain features of the material environment, they remain oblique and often elusive proportions (63).

In Moretti’s words, “I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution” (26). However, by using these discursive tools beyond literary disciplines, he brings new questions, new challenges and thus merges one of “the most backwards disciplines in the academy” into a new scientific spirit.

He explains the chronological dominance of literary genres through “artificial constructs … in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction.” This abstraction, however, is “not an obstacle but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” (p. 1).

Moretti claims that evolutionary trees constitute morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form. It is a new way of reading history, but not necessarily history itself. On the other hand, he uses maps to transcend the old tradition and offer “a model of the narrative universe which rearranges its components in a non-trivial way” (53-54). But it seems that Moretti prefers trees over graphs and sometimes maps, as they “are not really models, they are not simplified, intuitive versions of a theoretical structure in the way maps and especially evolutionary trees” (8). While “graphs abolish all qualitative difference among their data, trees try to articulate that difference” (77), he even wonders whether his use of maps is more geometrical than genuinely geographical.

Moretti’s abstraction and representations of literature through these three realities concretely change the way literary historians work, in that “they replace the old with new temporal, spatial, and morphological distinctions” (91).

These three models—graphs, maps, and trees—or the “materialist conception of form”, as Moretti describes them, share a clear explanation of general structures over the interpretation of individual texts (91-92).

While Moretti’s “materialist concept” sets the goal of shifting focus from narrative to simultaneity, from literary to abstraction and from story to setting, his new mode of expression of literary studies is not necessarily expression itself, but a genre among others. Perhaps, more in-depth study might move us beyond such anecdotes towards firmer generalizations.

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