Thursday, August 30, 2007

Franco on form

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. (London: Verson, 2005.)

Graphs, Maps, Trees seems significantly more interesting and worthwhile to me now than it did a year and a half ago when I first looked at it. I guess that means the education is working. I came across it in the process of writing on a Barthes essay on literature and literary history from which, incidentally, Moretti pulls a sentence or two to comment on one of the graphs in the first chapter. At the time I thought it was sort of hare-brained. What has happened since then? I’ve spent a further one and a half years in graduate school, read up on my Marxist literary criticism and (this is the sort of thing to which I’d like to pay attention) heard Moretti’s work briefly discussed at the AHA round-table in honor of Roger Chartier. So now he has the approval of the professional organization to which, one day, I will probably be obliged to belong. More important, I have a pretty good idea of what tradition he means to evoke when he says, at the end of his little, pumice-polished book,

“Were I to name a common denominator for all these attempts, I would probably choose: a materialist conception of form.” Is this reminiscent of the Marxist ‘60s and ‘70s? “Yes and no. Yes because the great idea of that critical season—form as the most profoundly social aspect of literature: form as force, as I put it in the close to my previous chapter—remains for me as valid as ever. And no, because I no longer believe that a single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system...” (92)

Certainly, Moretti is Marxist-inflected. Happily, I’m hearing about Marx on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from Fred Jameson this semester, so when I read Moretti: “As long as a hegemonic form [of genre] has not lost its ‘artistic usefulness’, there is not much a rival form can do” (17), I hear an echo: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed...” (426, Early Writings). This points to a major theoretical issue that I have with Moretti, which I suppose he, Marxist-inflected as he is, does not think is a problem. I mean that he takes for established fact that the role of literature (or, prose fiction, anyway) is to help its readers somehow ‘think’ society. From a footnote on the same page as the above quote: “a genre exhausts its potentialities...when its inner form is no longer capable of representing the most significant aspects of contemporary reality” (17). The representative quality of the novel is crucial because he invokes the troubled idea of the ‘generation’ in order to explain his data about the life-cycle (usually 20-25 years) of the genre: “if what attracts readers is the drama of the day, then, once the day is over, so is the novel” (30). No doubt this question is worked out elsewhere. But it rankles for Moretti to be so cavalier about this when scholars like Lyon-Caen (see previous post) take such trouble to demonstrate the particular historical conditions under which it is indeed the case the people use the novel to read their social world. Moretti needs a more sociological explanation.

Which is odd, because his project is largely to bring sociology to literary history. He describes, on the very first page, his project this, “Within that old area territory [literary history], a new object of study: instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs [graphs, maps, and trees] which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction. ‘Distant reading’...where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection”(1).

Then again at the end:

“Three chapters; three models; three distinct ‘sections’ of the literary field. First, the system of novelistic genres as a whole; then, ‘the road from birth to death’ of a specific chronotype; and now, the microlevel of stylistic mutations. But despite the differences of scale, some aspects of the argument remain constant. Fist of all, a somewhat pragmatic view of theoretical knowledge...In the second place, the models I have presented share a clear preference for explanation over interpretation...” (91)

This is all very sociological. Indeed, I found myself turning back to Randall Collins in the later part of the book, during Moretti’s discussion of Sherlock Holmes. Moretti is attempting to arrive at an evolutionary chart for a particular genre—in this case, the detective story, through treatment of the clue, as presumably, today, a determining feature of the genre.

(I might as well say here—I also find it odd that Moretti discusses collections of stories and novels proper as though they were indistinguishable. A central problem of any quantitative history is the definition of terms—where does Moretti draw the line? What about history-as-literature, which it was most of the way through the 19th century—indeed, ‘non-fiction’ titles still sometimes outsell fiction, right? Where would I get numbers about this?).

This is fine, and tries to take in to account readership and market forces (pgs 72-77). It seems to me, though, that Collins’s idea of ‘attention space’ would be quite useful here. Perhaps Moretti feels that ‘market’ implies ‘attention space.’ Survival in the market means commanding a certain share of it, certainly—but I would think that especially where literary sub-genres are the subject, a sufficiently full attention-space could, in a manner of speaking, split, and spawn new niche markets. That is, perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were good enough that other writers, who treated the material differently to a sufficient degree, were pushed out of this market, and into another? That doesn’t sound so good, but I’d like more of a treatment of this sort of question from Moretti.

‘Graphs’ is polemic about the 99% of novels written that critics ignore (must, by simple numbers), but it’s downhill after that. ‘Maps’ manages to squeeze a bit more ideology out of what you might call the virtual geography of certain village stories, but forgets his own sensible advice from the previous chapter to find questions to which he hasn’t already got the answer. The last chapter, ‘Trees,’ is unconvincing with Sherlock Holmes, and then, when we get to free indirect discourse, it sounds to me simply like old-fashioned (good, mind you, but still old-fashioned) literary history. A few books, here and there, which typify a way of writing, through time.

The interesting thing about Moretti’s three ‘models’ is that they are all tied to physiological life processes. He himself refuses to believe “that a single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system,” and he does not use any such framework. Yet the analysis of his graphs turn on generations of readership, that is, human life-times. His maps are also of vectors of human movement, and take, for the most part, a comfortable walk as a basic measure. ‘Trees’ assumes genealogy for novels as clear as that for living beings. The very model is deeply biological, even if he tries to hide it behind technology. So is it all about the body? Is not the individual human body the only possible locus for a genuine cultural materialism? Or do I only think this because I read the first part of Fiction of a Thinkable World?

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