Moretti — Graphs, Maps, Trees

Moretti, Franco.  Graphs, Maps, Tress: Abstract Models for Literary History.  New York: Verso.  2005. Print.

One Sentence Summary

Distant reading, a data-driven approach that produces visual models, is an underutilized method for approaching literary texts that affords explanatory power through pattern surfacing.


Distant Reading, Methodology, Visualization, Graphs, Maps, Trees

Key Quotes

“Event, cycle, longue duree: three time frames which have fared very unevenly in literary studies.  Most critics are perfectly at ease with the first one, the circumscribed domain of the event and of the individual case; most theorists are at home at the opposite end of the temporal spectrum in the very long span of nearly unchanging structures.  But the middle level has remained somewhat unexplored by literary historians; and it’s not even that we don’t work in this time frame, it’s that we haven’t yet fully understood its specificity: the fact, I mean, that cycles constitute temporary structure within the historical flow” (14).

“Do cycles and genres explain everything, in the history of the novel?  Of Course not.  But they bring to light its hidden tempo, and suggests some questions on what we could call its internal shape” (29).

“Not, of course, that the map [of the nineteenth century novel Our Village] is already an explanation; but at least it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained.  One step at a time” (39).

“What do literary maps do … First, they are a good way to prepare a text for analysis.  You choose a unit–walks, lawsuits, luxury goods, whatever–find its occurrences, place them in space … or in other wards: you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them from the narrative flow, and construct a new, artificial object like the maps that I have been discussing.  And with a little luck, these maps will be more than the sum of their parts: they will possess ’emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower level” (53).

Further Reading

Arnheim, Rudolf.  The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination.

Kuhn, Thomas, S.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


While a distant reading approach applied to objects within composition studies may not provide definitive answers to research questions, the visual models it affords may surface patterns that lead to further inquiry; inquiry that may not have been possible (visible) before such modeling.

One of the shiny questions I’m turning over in my hands: How small a corpora (or data set) can distant reading be applied to and still create informative graphs?  In other words, Moretti uses distant reading to study the totality of novel genres over a hundred-year period in Britain; would the method be as effective, or effective at all, in a ten-year time frame?  Would smaller-scale cycles surface?

I’m also thinking of the possibilities maps and trees hold as they may applied to objects of study in rhet/comp.  I specifically appreciate the distinction Moretti makes between maps and diagrams.  My typical default when playing with data is to geolocate information on a base map; rereading Moretti’s discussion on the move to reduce>abstract>construct/compose to reveal “emerging qualities” reminds me that maps aren’t necessarily restricted to the most common base forms already in circulation.



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