30 November 2013

Distant Reading, by Franco Moretti

In the rather frenetic world of literary criticism, theoretical speculation enjoys the same symbolic status as cocaine: one has to try it.
--Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders

I don't always agree with Franco Moretti, but I usually enjoy reading his books, and this one was no exception. Not only because of his writing style, which is lively and straightforward, but also because it is generally interesting and often exhilarating to watch someone puzzle over completely new approaches to literary studies. Distant Reading is a collection of pieces from the last ten or fifteen years, with brief headers added to them to explain their position in his intellectual trajectory, or to explain why he thinks he was wrong. This is a remarkable, and extremely admirable aspect of the book: Moretti's willingness to say that he was incorrect. One might wonder why go to the bother of reprinting them then, but I think there are two very good reasons to do so: 1. though parts of the essays (particularly the now-infamous "Conjectures on World Literature") have been rather thoroughly refuted, other points he makes hold true, and remain original and important. 2. they attest to a process, and helpfully illuminate certain dead-ends of study -- here's what doesn't work (something I always wondered about in the hard sciences, when friends complained that their hypothesis had proven false and therefore they couldn't publish a paper from it--wouldn't it be helpful to let others know not to try this approach?). As Moretti puts it, "Once you have been really proved wrong, the argument is no longer about you; it’s about a world of facts that everybody agrees to share (and respect); about hypotheses that have an objectivity of their own, and can be tested, modified, or indeed rejected." This is the most delightful thing about this book (and Moretti more broadly): he is brave enough to just suggest some ideas for general consideration, even ones that might seem kind of out-there. Sure, it takes some ego to do that, but to me at least, it doesn't come across as an arrogant move; he seems genuinely interested in furthering knowledge, trying out new approaches, throwing out hypotheses and seeing what happens. There is this wonderful sense of exploration and possibility and willingness to experiment, which I absolutely love.

At the same time, the comparison between theory and cocaine might have a more unfortunate accuracy as well. The speculation is interesting, yes, but occasionally seems untrammeled to any sort of... reality. When you're talking about global literature, in particular, it's very easy to paint in extremely broad strokes and make sweeping generalizations, and very difficult to provide concrete evidence for them. Sure, you can make a graph of the number of novels published in a year and the amount of words in the titles of those novels, and marvel that the shapes of the two appear to be in inverse relationship (more books, shorter titles). But correlation--or graphs of the same shape--does not equal causation. I am extremely skeptical of some of his claims about the way Chinese or Brazilian literature developed, precisely because he often relies on other critics (distant reading!) rather than an intimate knowledge of the texts. But he doesn't seem to account for the fact that critical approaches are themselves shaped by accepted paradigms, hence people discussing 'peripheral' literature often consider it in terms dictated by the 'center.' So, while Moretti is arguing that it's the novelists who write texts trying to shoehorn local ideas into imported form, I'd suggest that the real problem may well be critics trying to shoehorn those local ideas into their own preconceptions.  If that's the problem, Moretti's fail-safe -- if a critic is wrong, the insights won't be born out in other critical works -- will not detect it. Though there's not much sign that he's even checking: the evidence Moretti cites, too, is often flimsy or just scant. In the "Conjectures," for instance, he cites one phrase from the introduction to one Polish novel as shorthand for including ALL of Polish literature in his system. That's just poor scholarship. Sure, we can't read everything. Maybe this kind of scholarship needs to be a team effort. Elsewhere Moretti cites his research assistant by name (indeed, he is extraordinarily generous with specifically naming others who deserve credit, which is wonderful) -- perhaps he needs to hire more of them.

Secondarily, as I discuss in more detail in a paper I'm working on (which, if it gets accepted, won't appear for another year at least, what with the way academic publishing works...ugh), there is a very real question, I think, as to what kind of questions such research seeks to answer, and whether this is really what literary scholars are trained for. Moretti is the first to admit that he doesn't have the mathematical chops to know much about data analysis. As a biologist friend of mine noted after seeing Moretti deliver a lecture on analyzing titles a few years ago (which appears in essay form in this book), he could farm out these data sets to some graduate students in statistics, let them play with it for a day and see what they come up with. Because his use of data isn't actually that impressive. Though I suppose this is precisely his argument: that we should be training humanities scholars to work with this kind of data (instead of schooling them in the art of close-reading). But...isn't that what we have sociologists for? I mean, maybe we need more joint programs in sociology and literature, or this is exactly why so many places are hiring in digital humanities, but to me at least, it does seem like what he's talking about is a slightly different discipline. More broadly though, he is essentially trying to figure out why literary traditions develop the way they do; why some techniques catch on and others don't. I'm not sure it's possible to answer that question: how, maybe, but why

I suspect that part of the problem is that Moretti wants to retain a strong link between history and culture, and a strong sense of political engagement. Whereas I believe in both of those ideals but think that systematizing them tends to be reductive and deny precisely what is most interesting and powerful about literature. But I'm still puzzling through all that myself. 

And that's ultimately what makes Distant Reading so rewarding: not the content of its claims, but the way it makes you (or me, rather) think about a set of questions in a new and different way. I am curious to read The Bourgeoisie as well, but in less of a hurry to do so, which is actually kind of telling, and suggests that Moretti might be onto something in his predictions about where the field is going...

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