Franco Moretti, PCA-Driven Questions

Franco Moretti’s usage of Principal Component Analysis broadens the horizons for readers and critics alike to analyze varying bodies of text. In his essay, “Graphs, Maps, and Trees,” Moretti delves into the sea of what he calls “distant reading.” Distant reading, Moretti proposes, is the much-needed solution to the ever-expanding world of textual analysis. By using Principal Component Analysis, entire genres of literature can be seen and mathematically equated to an inter-textual meaning previously unknown in the contemporary world of modern literature. Individual words, phrases, and references can be collected as data from a far and wide range of corpus to conceive an entirely new argument surrounding genres and text. In the section dedicated to graphs, Moretti unveils why certain genres tend to rise and fall within a limited time frame: a genre that is popular for the general reading public for 25-30 sequential years will suddenly disappear from the charts; only to be replaced by another genre some 10-15 years following. His discovery of the “why” behind this graphed phenomena is that the genres appeal to a certain generation; once the generation in question is no longer reading (or breathing), the demand for the supply the genre once provided will be deemed null and void. The major takeaway from the “Graphs” section of the Moretti essay is that genres of literature can be observed from a distance using Principal Component Analysis to formulate more advanced questions of interpretation, and thereby espouse the conception of a more advanced theses for the literary critics of modern times.

Using Moretti’s techniques we, as readers and critics of literature, travel into new realms of possibility provided by the texts we study. We can discern how one genre may have been popular at one time in history in northern Europe, and then ask how that same genre grew in notoriety in South America some 20+ years later. We might call into question, using trees, how one far-our branch of linguistics has made its way into the tree of a biological neuroscience genre of literature. From this questioning, we can allow the process of discovery to be transcribed and thus, create our written thesis. When reading Chaucer, readers can use Moretti’s provided technologies to find the previously unseen paths connecting the Middle English genre to its wide-ranging classical Greek references. While Moretti’s graphs and maps provide plenty of context that could be the birthplace to a host of questions regarding distance reading of a text, his trees offer a visual direction that most resonates with my own learning style. I’d initially look to trees to explain wherein Chaucer lies in the timeline of progressive English textual development, and additionally search to find Chaucer’s lesser-known predecessors and potential influences. A corpus I could use to compute said question would be statistical graphs of the writers most commonly taught in the immediate 20 years preceding Chaucer’s publication. I’d additionally like to use distance reading and Principal Component Analysis to plot the variety of cultural references used in Chaucer’s poetry and use a map to see where lay the most heavily-concentrated areas of influence. Having a visual of cultural references, one could easily claim those that most readily influenced Chaucer and thereby conclude new claims about the hidden meanings and intricacies of his poetry.

written by Shawna Marie Rodgers