Franco Moretti, How Graphs can Unearth Literary Truths

In Franco Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature,” Moretti joins the discussion of New Critics seeking more detailed, updated mechanisms of action through which we can interpret literature today. He begins his argument commenting on the current topic of interest in the literary debate: how can we claim to be experts in the field of world literature or comparative literature when we are only studying the less than 1% of authors, only those who’ve made their way into the literary canon? He quotes Matt Weber who asserts that world literature is a “problem that asks for a new critical method.” Instead of focusing on this very small demographic, Moretti wonders, “What would happen if we shifted our focus from exceptional texts to the large mass of literary texts?” Moretti’s proposed solution to this, in part, is the introduction of distant reading (as opposed to close reading) and the announcement of digital graphing using Principal Component Analysis (PCA). His solution to the problem of modern literature analysis requires critics to call in the support of mathematics, specifically, big data.

His proposition has merit. “Quantitative research,” Moretti notices, “is ideally independent of interpretation…it provides data, not interpretation.” A notion popularly discussed by many new critics, Moretti makes note that data is something that would be an absolute truth about literary text, history, and trends. There would be no arguing any points deciphered about the canon or textual history when graphs cited from Principal Component Analysis were the critic’s main source. The benefits of using graphing (not unlike the other benefits sourced from Principal Component Analysis) include wider perspectives of possibilities to be applied to literature deciphering and the opportunity for readers and critics of literature alike to look at the patterns present in cultural literature instead of close-reading one sentence from one of the canonical texts (those Moretti feels have been beaten to the ground). He also points to the fact that his proposed solution would involve the study of a wide variety of scholars as “always a good corrective to one’s desires.” The more opinions and resources, the better the outcomes of literary analysis. “Graphs make us see the constrains and the inertia of the literary field.” Data will encourage critics to ask better questions, questions more detailed that will unveil truths about texts about which we’ve never before thought. “The most interesting aspect of those data was that I had found a problem for which I had no solution.” Like philosophy, our increased knowledge does not give us direct answers, but affords us the privilege of being able to better articulate the right questions. The most important and direct benefit of data is, as Moretti puts it, would be that data serves to “[challenge] existing interpretations.” Any drawbacks would be in troubleshooting and technicalities; computers and graphing technologies would need to be an area of both fiscal and energetic investment of certain powers that be. Staffing would be needed to improve PCA analysis; legislature would need to be erected regarding copyright and other laws. For the majority, however, graphs appear to be a good idea to draw analytic conclusions of text.

written by Shawna Marie Rodgers