Graphs, Maps, Trees: Thoughts on Moretti

            Unlike McCarty, who tended towards generalization, Franco Moretti uses specific projects as exemplars, showing the possibilities of quantitative data and distant reading for the humanities. While my focus is on the “Graphs” chapter, the other two sections impacted my thinking as well. “Trees” made me consider diagramming the representational differences occurring for a single symbol: Dog – Ears Up/Down – Sitting/Standing etc. (see Moretti 77). In “Maps”, Moretti argues that the locations on the map were not at “significant” as the “relations” revealed by the diagrams (54-55). My project is akin to mapping because I wish to look at the relations between symbols; and I could use weighting (see last post) to indicate physical/metaphorical closeness/distance; for example, when the Iconclass tags all refer to aspects of the same ‘figure’ or when a literal image stands in for a metaphorical idea.

            While my project is quite different from Moretti’s study of the rise and fall of genres, several of his comments in “Graphs” are applicable. In general, his comments on the disappearance of genres (18) made me wonder: “How ‘stable’ are the emblem symbols over time?” More importantly, Moretti states “[Quantitative research] provides data, not interpretation” (9, emphasis in original).[1] The data is thus another text, a meta-text, which, akin to close reading, is the object of interpretation. Moretti also mentions how he gathered his data on genres, using the multiple sources and comparing them (18). Unfortunately, while I will be gathering data from other scholars, the Iconclass tagging projects tend not to overlap. Thus, I am limited to one set of tags for most books. Perhaps this fact is mediated by internal double-checking by different scholars within the projects, but it is still something I have to deal with when gathering data.

            Additionally, Moretti discusses the difference between “individual events” and “patterns” each requiring different explanation types (13). I suspect both of these types will occur in my project: symbols that are unique to one author/illustrator, and ones that appear and group repeatedly. Finally, Moretti admits to an instance of not being able to explain something presented by his data (26). This led me to the profound yet simple thought: “It is okay if I do not have an answer.” Such a situation is grounds for further questioning and research.


Works Cited

McCarty, Willard. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2007. Print.


[1] Moretti states that “ideally” data should be “independent of interpretations” (9). That “ideally” hints at, but does not enter into, the problem of interpretation during the data gathering phase. Here is where McCarty’s emphasis “complete explicitness” regarding what one is doing (choice-wise for example) and “absolute consistency” come into play (McCarty 25), hopefully bringing the data as close as possible to the ideal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *