Beans, Leaves and Grass: Franco Moretti Lost in Translation

10 Feb

tree_graph_exampleI have to admit, I left my reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees a bit perplexed. As an inherently visual learner, I have always loved graphs and maps, both as sources and as a unique interpretation for material. However, I got very lost within Moretti’s labyrinth of maps and graphs and his forest of trees. This could be due to the fact I am not a literary history, nor will I claim any sort of inherent joy in playing with statistics. Or, it could be contributed to the works adaptation from lecture, into monograph. In an case, the book left me feeling as a complete outsider, as though I had been invited to the play a game, but wasn’t privileged to the rules needed to understand, let alone participate. Some of Moretti’s choices perplexed me, especially within the novels he choose to highlight or time periods included within many of the figures. I think what I wanted was more from Moretti: more explanation, historical background, context, and details.

These translation issues aside, once I parsed my way through Moretti’s rather lengthy syntax, some of his theories apply well to digital history. The book challenges the notion of solely documenting classics, the primary tradition of interpretation through literary history. Fueled by theoretical philosophy of the Annales School, Moretti strives to look at literature across time. The inclusion of both acclaimed and lesser-known works permits him to find patterns for interpretation within a larger context. Moretti explains that if events are “parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases.”[1] This philosophy allows Moretti to treat literature as a discipline, instead of interpreting singular pieces. He treats history as a “collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole – as the graphs that follow are one way to begin to do this.”[2] His use of these graphs, as well as maps and trees, make a longue durée understanding of history that much easier to follow. It provides a method to interpret large, sometimes disparate, amounts of data, to support his conclusions.

These methods are particularly pertinent within the world of digital history. Faced with an abundance of source materials, easily available and searchable, these visualization methods provide a concrete technique to break down this data and work through it concretely. Moretti finds a concrete way to analyze this change scale of source quantity. This inherent shift in interpretation also changes how historians do their work, as Moretti explains, “by finding the common mechanism which is at work in all those instances. But, it’s also true that if one re-frames individual instances as movements of a cycle, then the nature of the questions changes.”[3] Though I am not sure if I agree with Moretti’s assertion that history is cyclical (which in itself creates a plethora of pot holes), I think this re-framing of questions is important. As digital history has shifted the inquiries which historians ask, Moretti’s methods too, allows for a change in the conceptualization of the historian’s methodology. Although this work has some major issues, it pushes readers to examine their own interpretive techniques, and possibly find a use for graphs, maps, and trees within them.


[1] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verson, 2005), 13.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 27.

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4 Responses to “Beans, Leaves and Grass: Franco Moretti Lost in Translation”

  1. jkalvait February 10, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    Callie,
    I like how you point out the usefulness of the tools Moretti discusses for visual learners, yet his book was hard to follow for those people. I am also intrigued by your idea that there are pot holes in Moretti’s theory of history as cyclical. Would you elaborate on this, even if it just to me before class?

    And, do you think the major issues in the work were related to his syntax or his logic?

    • Callie February 11, 2013 at 2:58 am #

      Hi Jenny,
      Thanks for your questions. To your first, I personally, don’t believe that history is cyclical. Repetitive, sometimes. Patterned, yes. But, I interpret cyclical to be predictive, and I am not quite sure that I buy into that idea. In hind sight, maybe it isn’t a pot hole, but a theoretical difference between me and Moretti.

      As for the latter question, I think that realistically, Moretti’s logic is sound. But, as a student reading his work, I found it lacking on certain basic levels, such as grammatical construction. I think that if this issue was resolved, and if there was further elicitation to some historical background surround his key arguments, the work would have been stronger for me. If there was more of this, I think the arguments would have resonated more for me.

  2. angelabpotter February 11, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Callie,
    I too am a visual learner, and I also found the disjuncture between the text and pictures difficult. I preferred when he put the analysis of the graph on the graphs themselves, which I had never really seen before.

    I was interested in you comment, “As digital history has shifted the inquiries which historians ask, Moretti’s methods too, allows for a change in the conceptualization of the historian’s methodology.” While the digital environment has the potential to do these things, it would seem that many of these digital projects are delving deeper into the traditional cannon and not looking at new avenues of research., The sheer cost as well as scholarly interests has fueled numerous Shakespeare and British literature projects, and few post-colonial projects. I am not sure that Moretti can assist in this process with his hostile tone and disjointed presentation;.

    I like your image of the pothole! Very graphic.

  3. ngoodlin February 11, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    Hey Callie,

    I’m surprised that you felt you needed “more from Moretti,” given that you conclude that the work “pushes readers to examine their own interpretive techniques.” While I can definitely sympathize with having trouble pushing through certain portions of the book, I felt much more inclined to cut Moretti some slack in regards to historical elision. The reason I would give for that perspective comes from his conclusion, where he notes that he’s well aware he hasn’t thought through everything in the book to its fullest extent. Some of the diagrams that he includes are in a preliminary phase as well, emphasizing that his research on this isn’t fully formed. To me, this book was more about addressing the stagnancy of the field than the specific points about literary history that Moretti was making. He wanted to show that by playing with the data in new and unexpected ways, new and unexpected results could be found. Although the specifics of genre cycles and such are no doubt interesting to literary historians, I think it’s the process that Moretti is more concerned with here. Would you be more inclined to give him credit in that regard?

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