Visually Problematizing the Past with Maps, Graphs and Trees

11 Feb

Can a book that leaves you confused even after multiple readings still legitimately challenge the way you think about “doing” history? Since reading Franco Moretti’s Maps Graphs and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, I’ve struggled with this and other questions. His discussion of using visual abstraction to explore literary history includes several insightful points, yet comprehending these is sometimes hindered by odd composition. In spite of this, I think his argument for using graphs, maps and trees to study and visually interpret nonlinear transitional and morphological patterns in history outlines several issues of historical scale of interest to public historians in general and digital historians in particular.

Just as the title implies, Moretti’s book involves looking at the chronological progression of literary history in different countries and between different genres and authors through three titular visual representations. Each one displays the possibility for unique insights achievable only through visual representations instead of text. In looking at graphs, Morreti attests to the usefulness of quantitative analysis to overcome problems of diversity as well as scale. As a field characterized by many divergent genres, he argues that literary history “cannot be understood by stitching together bits of knowledge from individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases; it’s a collective system that should be grasped as such, as a whole.”[i] By spreading data, we reveal new patterns and connective threads. His use of maps outlines the value of spatial analysis by creating a sense of space. Applying a map of geographic connectivity to Our Village, the author demonstrates that maps “help prepare a text for analysis” by giving us a sense of the interconnected, isolated nature of the village (and by extension, any particular past culture or society) and its changing relationship to the world outside its small, concentrically centralized social spheres.[ii] His final discussion of trees focuses on understanding the past through “morphological diagrams, where history is correlated with form,” allowing us to track the progression (or perhaps evolution?) of past people, places and subjects.[iii] All three of these approaches address the problem of scale and the need to visually communicate history to audiences, especially when the information is primarily told through dense collections of text.

Moretti’s discussion of the importance of quantitative analysis, while not altogether new, helps me to see how I might apply his techniques in my own work. For example, when studying the regional makeup of a single Indiana Civil War unit based on information gleamed from serialized diaries and letters of its members, mapping would allow me to augment my discussion of the ethnic and political demographic makeup of the group and provide a sense of how the local geography affected them. In so doing, Moretti posits, I can use the maps to “process ‘emerging’ qualities that were not visible at the lower [textual] level.”[iv] And considering this information will come from a caches of letters, a tree would make an excellent visual representation of the changing semantic importance attached to certain words over the course of the war. For example, how did the soldiers’ use of the word ‘freedom’ change between the start of the war and the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation?  A graph would let me chart how often special ‘buzzwords’ like ‘freedom’ ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ are used. All of this is especially useful when the historian’s goal is to track change over time.

But this raises the issue of historical scale. What amount of time should I attempt to chart on a graph? How many words are important enough to warrant a spot in my lexical tree? It may be possible to limit the scope of these representations—in fact, the sources I have at my disposal may force me to. But this issue becomes more complicated when we consider the implications for digital history, where an overabundance of sources and perspectives can be just as problematic. How is the historian to choose what eras, demographic populations and issues to study in his exploration of the past? Can we do so in a way that is representative without overwhelming our audience? Too many pictures can be just as damning as too much text, even in a museum setting. This issue of scale encompasses questions of practicality as well. Creating an interactive database that allows users to scan and hierarchically organize caches of Civil War letters from multiple archives according to certain words and phrases used over time would be a boon to historians and other members of the public looking to study the Hoosier experience in the Civil War, but how big (and costly) would such a project need to be? Moretti offers few answers to these questions, but the fact his work inspired me to consider them is encouraging.

Although Moretti focuses on the visual representation and abstraction of data, his goal is much the same of any public historian’s; he seeks to communicate his findings in readily digestible and thought-provoking ways. But he reminds us that such visual abstraction “is not an end in itself, but a way to widen the domain of the literary historian and enhance his inner problematic.”[v] This statement is particularly relevant to digital historians. We are so often concerned not only with how to maximize the effectiveness of our available technology to explore new interpretive avenues. More importantly, digital history emphasizes constant awareness of how using this technology can challenge our audience, our peers and our own willingness to continue problematizing the past. Smart history is built on good questions, and Moretti certainly inspires plenty of those!

Despite this capacity to inspire thought, the fact remains that Moretti stumbles in the one area public historians are most concerned with: good communication. To be fair, part of this confusion comes from his choice of subject matter. Literary history is something I have only passing knowledge of and jumping into the thick of things as Moretti’s work requires initially left me feeling somewhat disoriented. Even so, his insightful ideas (and somewhat unnecessarily arduous compositional style) have equally impressed me for different reasons. A graph or tree on Civil War era jargon may help us understand the average Northern soldier through visual representations of his changing thoughts, but text (and, for public historians, spoken words) remain the central tether to our audiences. I certainly believe in the importance of Moretti’s message and think it is a useful tool for any blossoming digital historian because it reinforces the need to explore all avenues of interpretive representation, but I also think it is indicative of some of the difficulties academically-oriented historians face in communicating with broader audiences. And as public historians, we must always strive to do our best in this regard.

[i] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2005), 3.

[ii] Ibid., 37-40, 53.

[iii] Ibid., 69.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 2.


2 Responses to “Visually Problematizing the Past with Maps, Graphs and Trees”

  1. angelabpotter February 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Good job summarizing the complicated reading in clear prose.

    • Tim Rainesalo February 11, 2013 at 6:35 pm #


      Thanks! I’m still trying to be more concise in my delivery, but I know that will come with more practice.

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