Graphs, Maps, Trees, or “How to find questions without answers”

            In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti presents literary scholars with a series of challenges. Two in particular caught my attention. First, he urges them to shift their vantage point, to “widen their gaze from the extraordinary to the everyday.”[1] Second, he summons them to “abstract” texts and construct new objects from them in order to recognize new patterns. What lessons can we, as historians, learn from Moretti’s work, which is pointed at literary scholars? Ultimately, Moretti’s challenges revolve around the issues of scale and perspective. These are aspects of most types of analysis, and historical analysis is no exception. Especially as we explore digital methods for research and dissemination, new concepts of scale and perspective are moving to the forefront of historical inquiry and are changing the way we interpret the past. 

             Moretti begins by explaining how distance can be characterized as a “specific form of knowledge.”[2] He thus establishes “distance” as a distinct perspective, or vantage point, that can illuminate new understandings of what was once familiar. He then uses graphs to demonstrate how a widened gaze can allow a researcher to see whole patterns and cycles in literature that exist over long periods of time, as opposed to just looking at isolated texts, linked to finite dates of publication. If we apply this concept to history, and specifically to historical research facilitated by digital technologies, we see that more distant vantage point might similarly allow us to better understand patterns linked to change over time, and to reinterpret narratives that have become familiar, or that are often seen as isolated in a specific date or era. Reading this section reminded me of an article that Dr. Kelly shared on Twitter last week. “Stop Hyping Big Data and Start Paying Attention to ‘Long Data’” discusses the potential of large spans of data to facilitate new interpretations and provide larger context for past events.[3] This is very much along the lines of what Moretti is challenging us to do in this portion of his book. 

            Moretti’s call to “abstract” texts can also be of use to us historians. All we have to do is apply Moretti’s method for texts to specific historical events. Mapping, or the creation of diagrams, becomes a tool that enables one to analyze events from a spatial perspective. Such diagrams of interaction allow us to recognize potential patterns of influence within social networks, as well as relationships between people and place.[4] Again, Moretti discusses a method that would fundamentally shift our vantage point and alter how we look at the past. Abstracting people, places and events in diagram form and placing them overtop of cartographic documents is facilitating what some have come to call the “spatial turn” in history.[5]

            Ultimately, these two challenges that Moretti presents are realistic ones due to the emergence of digital humanities. Specifically, digital humanities (digital history in our case) offers the opportunity to shift our vantage point. With the ability to generate vast data sets and create spatial representations of past events and social interactions comes the ability to recognize things like extremely gradual change over time or social/spatial relationships that we might not have been able to see before.

            The emergence of digital history certainly holds great promise for those who wish to change their vantage point to reveal previously unrecognized aspects of the past. However, these digital methods also have their limitations. As Moretti acknowledges and Timothy Burke reiterates in his notes on Graphs, Maps, Trees, quantitative research provides data; it does not provide interpretation or meaning.[6] This is something that we need to keep in mind as we explore the new types of quantitative analysis that digital history enables. For instance, an historian might use graphing to reveal cycles in and patterns of electoral participation in U.S. presidential elections over a large period of time, but that graph alone cannot interpret the meaning of the patterns, or reveal the motivations of those individuals involved. That remains the work of the historian herself. Thus, while digital and quantitative methods hold great promise for the field, historians cannot depend entirely on the tools to do most of the work.

            My favorite part of Moretti’s book was his ability to take this limitation of the digital methods that he describes, and turn it around so that it becomes something constructive. The fact that digital and quantitative methods cannot provide meaning or solutions is a good thing, Moretti says, because “problems without a solution are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer.”[7] Moretti’s methods might have their limitations, but at least they have the ability to push us, as historians, to explore questions that we might have never asked before.

[1] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (New York: Verso, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Samuel Arbesman, “Stop Hyping Big Data and Start Paying Attention to ‘Long Data’,” Wired, (accessed February 7, 2013).

[4] Moretti, 57.

[5] Scholars’ Lab, “Spatial Humanities: What is the Spatial Turn?” University of Virginia Library (accessed February 7, 2013).

[6] Moretti, 9; Timothy Burke, “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees The Valve (13 January 2006).

[7] Moretti, 26.


3 thoughts on “Graphs, Maps, Trees, or “How to find questions without answers”

  1. Abby, I really enjoyed your blog entry and especially your title. I agree that Moretti’s work forces historians to ask new questions, especially relevant in the burgeoning world of digital history. I wonder about abstraction though. Do you think that by abstracting sources we loose their context? Does that make interpretation suffer?

  2. Abby, I really enjoyed your post. I was really inspired by your statement, “All we have to do is apply Moretti’s method for texts to specific historical events. Mapping, or the creation of diagrams, becomes a tool that enables one to analyze events from a spatial perspective.”

    In practice, after playing around with this a bit, it is more difficult to do than it would seem. I think that it requires new types of readings of the evidence and documentation stratgies that require both new techological skills as well as information processing skills.

    But like learning to ride a bike, I guess I need to be willing to fall off and practice.

  3. Angie and Callie,
    Thanks for your comments! I think that you are both asking really good questions about abstracting historical events. I agree with you, Angie, that this would probably require new ways of reading and interpreting historical evidence. And to address your question, Callie: we might need to start paying a great deal more attention to context in order to create quality abstractions that enhance our understanding of the past. I’m intrigued by how Moretti’s work ties into the spatial turn, and based on my own experience with historic site interpretation, I don’t think context is given adequate attention when exploring the significance of the spaces/places that make up our cultural landscapes. I see potential to use some of his concepts and methods to create new interpretations of the built/natural environment.

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