Moretti at The Valve: Space, Maps, and Reading

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

The discussion is in full swing over at The Valve concerning Franco Moretti’s book Graphs, Maps, and Trees for those interested. One particular quote strikes me from one of the author’s responses

Close reading and abstract models, or, interpretation and explanation. Bill Benzon is absolutely right in saying that even in the sciences research is not evenly spread, but clusters around specific issues – the fruit fly is a particularly neat example, because detective fiction is a sort of literary fruit fly (with few and clear variables, easy to manipulate). But this is not close reading, it’s actually much more similar to the “experiments” (on village stories etc.) that I try to do in the book. So, I still think that the strategies I outlined are antithetical to the mainstream of literary criticism. It may be tactically silly for me to say so now, given that the general consensus is that what I do could be interesting, as long as it doesn’t want to get rid of current procedures, but what can I do, this is not a matter of bragging, or of originality (originality, in a book that borrows all its models?!), or of democracy (a hundred flowers, yes, and more) – it’s a matter of logic. Between interpretation (that tends to make a close reading of a single text) and explanation (that works with abstract models on a large groups of texts) I see an antithesis. Not just difference, but an either/or choice.

The discussion is unfolding as a “what to do” variety that often comes up as a basic question in literary studies. Method takes a huge amount of time here and it should, I think. When someone proposes a new look at an old thing, method’s surface (yuk) takes on new textures. Eric Hayot’s post prior to Moretti’s has extentions to this.

Why, then, is Moretti’s work controversial? Partly because what he is doing is new and interesting, and partly because it comes at a moment when the last major wave of new ideas seems to have foundered. Many people seem to want a new Theory to replace the exhausted old Theory. These people need to relax. Moretti is like a guy who shows up to the party with liquor right after the keg has been emptied. Part of why he is welcome is because he is saving some people from boredom or despair (he writes: “it is precisely in the name of theoretical knowledge that ‘Theory’ should be forgotten, and replaced with the extraordinary array of conceptual constructions—theories, plural, and with a lower case ‘t’—developed by the natural and the social sciences”). People who are desperate to cling to the old keg—either because they have grown to love it, or because they think there’s still beer in there—sometimes feel threatened by the new guy at the party, and want to say that he shouldn’t be at the party at all. But surely there’s room for the beer drinkers and the liquor drinkers in the room; let a hundred flowers bloom. In this I am more catholic than Moretti himself, who in the lines I cite above seems to want everyone to move away from the keg and get to the good stuff they’re drinking over at the science fraternities.

From another perspective what Moretti is doing is not that new at all. Louis Menand points out in his Professions 2005 essay is that literary studies has always transformed itself by borrowing wholesale from other disciplinary structures. “Theory” as a branch (so thick it became a root) of literary studies produced its momentum out of encounters with linguistics (Saussure, Jakobson), anthropology (Lévi-Strauss), sociology (the Frankfurt School, Bourdieu), psychology (Freud, Lacan), history (Canguilhem, Foucault) and philosophy (Derrida, Levinas, Nancy, Lyotard, not to mention Marx, Hegel, and so on). The “real” linguists, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers go on to decry literary studies’ adulteration of their ideas; rinse and repeat. In this sense the newness of Moretti is just the kind of newness we in literary studies have always wanted. I would not be surprised if this newness operates on 25-year, generational cycles (though in the academic humanities you might have to account for the distortions produced by the nine years it takes, on average, to get a Ph.D).

and this on the concept of interpretation

For Moretti, on the other hand, “interpretation” suggests a kind of belles-lettristic focus on the text at the expense of the “larger structures” and “temporal cycles” within which the form as the subject of a materialist history operates. Interpretation does not arrive at the “first” place of the text because it fetishizes local meaning at the expense of historical materialism. Though Moretti believes that no “single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system,” what he’s interested in are “production” and “social systems,” not interpretations which are themselves presumably only expressions of those systems or attempts to ignore them.

My theory of the historically negative force of “interpretation” in January 2006 will, it seems, have to account for the fact that “interpretation” means different things to different people who could nonetheless, through a distant enough reading, be seen to be arguing against the same thing. Does this “close” (not that close, frankly) reading of “interpretation” suggest that a more “distant” historical analysis of its appearance has lost all claim to the truth? No, because it still matters, I think, that the word “interpretation” is used in both cases. But I am suggesting that such a distant reading without an accompanying close reading will be missing out on at least some of the truth, just as a myopic focus on the difference between these uses of interpretation will fail to grasp the broader historical context within which they function. There is no room for “first” or “second” place in such a scheme. Rather there is an accommodating sense that no one method has all the answers, one that should produce a corresponding modesty about interpretive claims.

Seems to me that discipline areas have always needed a kick in the ass, which is something we’ve been talking a lot about around here. But I think that the more important discussion will come with a question of the suitability of questions that open disciplines to others. What one can learn from Keats is certainly a different question than what one can learn from the gravitron. But this has to do with THE QUESTION. This will be a persistent problem. Nothing’s really grabbing my eye in the discussion yet but for the few mentions of maps/cognitive maps.

I don’t know if literary theory has failed? At what could it have failed? Even as a student no one could say what the program was. But I still think that metaphors for sight and a spatial awareness is important to a future of literary knowing and experience. For nora to work, there must be some determination of a radius. Amardeep Singh’s essay on texture and Bill Benson’s comment have something to do with determining a sense of “what to do with” what we can see and seek out and perhaps build.

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