Diagramming for Clarity’s Sake

8 Feb

Public historians read hundreds of pages only to distill that information into short text blocks. Franco Moretti’s book, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models For Literary Analysis, is about the abstraction and reduction of text and how that reduction transforms meaning. Or, as he wrote, “fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection.”[1] The key to choosing the right diagram depends upon what a person wants to express. Trees demonstrate divergence and diversity; graphs equalize quantitative data; and maps pin-point patterns. The tools and theories Moretti discusses can help public historians with their craft.

In the public history world, we most often think of meaning making when talking about exhibit design and museum education. Moretti is dealing with disseminating knowledge, but we are also tasked with thinking about how the public receives that message. As professionals have come to realize, “[w]hat ends up in people’s head is very often not identical to the sender’s intention nor the message content.”[2] Like Moretti, public historians must build frameworks that best convey information and still allows viewers to fit that information into their own schemas. Meaning making is an important process to consider, not only when thinking about the public but also when considering how historians analyze their own research material. Moretti urges his readers to evaluate their theories and methodologies and note how they “concretely change the way we work.[3] The public historian can also benefit from reflection. History has power. Sharing that power with the members of the community has changed our sources, our methodologies, and our message.

Moretti has some advantages over many historians in that his research is under the umbrella of literary history. He can literally count every source and see a full picture because his data set includes only published works. Granted that is still an astronomical number of sources, but there is a definitive end to that source base. As Timothy Burke pointed out in his critique of this work, counting is not possible for most historians. “If we confine our understanding of what was typical or normal within a cultural form to what we can find in archives, in libraries, in catalogs, in records of publication, we’ll ultimately have a deformed conception of the totality. Beyond everything counted there is always another mountain of the uncountable.”[4] Archives are selective about what they let into their stacks. So a complete tree, for example, would never be possible for most of us. By focusing on literary criticism Moretti was able to “take the lost 99 per cent of the archive and reintegrate it into the fabric of literary history.”[5] Since a large part of the past has fallen through the cracks of collection policies, most historians need to think of alternative methodologies. I think, partial trees are possible through analyzing oral histories.

The inability to count sources also forces historians to think about the appropriate scale for their project. In some ways, public historians are fortunate in that their historical institution’s mission often binds them. Historical society museums are often focused on the local setting. However, the local was part of national history. Wars, for example, involved many local players on an international scale. Perhaps some form of diagram, whether that be a map or a graph, could help distill some of that necessary context without spending an exorbitant amount of time outside the realm of the mission and still add to the field.[6]

What is most impressive about Moretti’s book is the applicability of what he says to most fields. All of his examples are literary, but breaking down the essence of what diagrams do and say is a helpful exercise for all professionals, especially those of us who are winnowing massive amounts of information into a few dozen words.


[1] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (New York: Verso, 2007), 1.

[2] Lois H. Silverman, “Meaning Making Matters: Communication, Consequences, and Exhibit Design,” Exhibitionist 18 no. 2 (Fall 1999): 10.

[3] Moretti, 91.

[4] Timothy Burke, “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Tress,” The Valve: A Literary Organ, entry posted January 13, 2006 http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/book_notes_franco_morettis_graphs_maps_trees/ (accessed February 5, 2013).

[5] Moretti, 77.

[6] John Lewis Gaddis has a useful discussion about how fractals can help historians with issues of scale. John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 81-84.

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4 Responses to “Diagramming for Clarity’s Sake”

  1. apcurtin February 9, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    Hi Jenny,

    I really appreciate how you related Moretti’s work to the field of public history. Your point regarding meaning making was especially profound for me. I had not thought of Moretti’s book in relation to the necessity of creating text-limited exhibit panels, etc., so I really liked your idea that trees, for instance, could be used as an alternative way to present information to the public when trying to work within different constraints and limitations. As you pointed out, audiences don’t always receive information in the way that we intend them to, so it is important to present stories about the past in diverse ways….as we discussed a few weeks ago, sometimes the medium is more important than the message.

    • jkalvait February 10, 2013 at 12:52 am #

      Thank you for your comment Abby! I like your connection to McLuhan. I definitely think the diagramming tools Moretti analyzed are important mediums for us to take advantage of, if only because they require less reading and we all know how little people want to read. If the medium isn’t easy for people to use/read/understand, they will never get the message.

  2. Nick Sacco February 11, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    I share Abby’s sentiments. This is an excellent post, Jenny. I agree that many people’s reading habits are changing. I would argue that many people still read quite a bit, but that it involves reading hundreds of webpages, texts, and visual diagrams rather than 400 page books. If someone wants or needs information, he or she will find the medium that best helps them obtain that information easily, quickly, and efficiently. Reading is still important, and I think the big takeaway from Moretti’s book for me was the fact that we can use spatial mediums to convey information effectively. Public historians are often under severe time constraints that require us to think like diagrammers more so than book authors when creating interpretive speeches and exhibits.

    • jkalvait February 11, 2013 at 12:56 am #

      Thank you, Nick! I like your point that public historians are under time constraints. We are under time constraints concerning how much time we have to prepare exhibitions and speeches. Then, we have to deal with the realization that we also have the time constraint of how much time visitors are willing to spend taking in the information we are offering. Diagrams can help relieve that pressure on both ends.

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