Diagrams, and Then Some

One assertion in particular caught my eye, while reading Franco Moretti's (in)famous Graphs, Maps, Trees (again) this week. In his even shorter introduction (or preface?) to the already quite short triptych, Moretti (naturally) proposes "a new object of study: instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs — graphs, maps, and trees — in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction" (n.p.). As he goes on, however, Moretti seems to make an important distinction between the three. In Chapter One, he asserts that "graphs are not really models; they are not simplified, intuitive versions of a theoretical structure in the way maps and (especially) evolutionary trees will be in the next two chapters" (8, emphasis in original). In this sense, then, is Moretti suggesting here that graphs offer the means of abstraction he mentioned earlier, whereas maps and trees constitute simplifications?

In this distinction, then, Moretti seems to follow Willard McCarty's findings in "Knowing…: Modeling in Literary Studies" — an article which I incidentally read only a few weeks ago for another class — in that "a model-of is made in a consciously simplifying act of interpretation" (n.p.). According to Moretti, as quoted above, maps and trees may constitute models — although he himself seems uncomfortable with the term 'model' and rather tends to refer to them as diagrams — but graphs are clearly not. So, what are graphs, then? The most obvious answer, of course, here would be that graphs provide a visualization of quantified data displayed in such a manner that its qualities as a "collective system" (Moretti 4) are revealed. And yet, as Moretti goes on to explain, "that quantitative data are useful because they are independent of interpretation, [while also being] … challenging because they often demand an interpretation that transcends the quantitative realm" (Moretti 30). Even more importantly, Moretti asserts, "we see them falsifying existing theoretical explanations, and ask for a theory" (30, emphasis in original). And yet, cautions McCarty, "theoretical modeling, constrained only by language, is apt to slip from a consciously makeshift, heuristic approximation to hypothesized reality" (n.p.).

So, then, theory or no theory; interpretation or no interpretation? And, is this dependent upon what type of quantitative method is displayed, or, in other words, whether we're dealing with graphs, maps, or trees? And, since graphs are clearly distinguished here from maps and trees as abstractions (rather than simplifications), do graphs evade interpretation due to their abstract quality? Do graphs, to use Moretti's words, provide those "problems without a solution [which] are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer" (26)? And yet, as Moretti suggests on the same page, "quantification poses the problem … and form offers the solution… if you are lucky" (26). Well, let's just say, as in the search button even Google provides, "I'm feeling lucky"!

Where to find form? Oh, wait! In Chapter Three, Moretti explains that "after the quantitative diagrams [graphs] of the first chapter, and the spatial ones [maps] of the second, evolutionary trees constitute morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form" (69, emphasis in original). Great. Not only are we now back to the somewhat contradictory seeming assertion that a simplified visualization may offer the solution to an abstracted visualization of a problem. Now Moretti also throws all three of these tools back into one big pot again, and refers to them simply with the umbrella term 'diagrams.' Since, at least according to Wikipedia, the term 'diagram' is often used synonymously with the term 'graph', we seem to be back to square one here… or, at least, there seems to be some more established terminology and differentiation missing. In other words, theoretization — but maybe, I'm taking this too far.

Perhaps this is precisely the value of Moretti's triptych (I really like this word!) — not so much to offer a thorough explanation (however interesting, by the way) of his usage of diagrams to explain problems in literary history such as the cyclic appearance and disappearance of novel genres, the spatial organization of novel plots, and the evolution of free indirect discourse, but rather to provide a more differentiated taxonomy (and or theory) of data interpretations. He certainly provides us with a different way to look at literature and literary history (literally). As McCarty cautions, this then is "dangerous to us only if we miss the lesson of modeling and mistake the artificial for the real" (n.p.). And this is precisely the question here (and has been through large parts of this semester's readings): What is reality; what is real, and what is not — especially when we are talking about representations in the technological sense? For now, I'm not giving up; I'm just feeling lucky.

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