Towards a Materialist Conception of Form

Traditionally, close reading is approached as the key to unlocking and understanding the nuances of history, meaning, and ideology in literary texts. Nevertheless, by conducting close readings of a select range of texts, one only engages with a minuscule and insignificant percentage of the literary corpus. Franco Moretti’s approach towards this issue in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History argues for the implementation of quantitative and “scientific” methodologies in literary study as a solution to this dilemma. This implementation leads to the widening of the literary scope in order to focus on general historical developments rather than specific literary events, which in turn offers a fresh and bold conceptual approach towards the study of the novel. At first, his attempt at elevating the status of the quantitative, the spatial, and the genealogical as the heart of literary history seems questionable and even impractical within an academic tradition built upon subjectivity and creativity. Nonetheless, by pushing the scholar of literature to focus on notions such as genre and trends rather than on close readings of selected texts, Moretti manages to highlight the creative and intellectual possibilities of approaching literary history from a renewed perspective, which exemplifies the distinctive insights that literary graphs, maps, and trees can offer to the discipline of comparative literature.

Moretti begins his discussion by arguing that close reading only allows the reader to engage with a small percentage of the total amount of texts that have been published. This is problematic because it leads to the prioritization of canonical texts, leaving aside peripheral texts that were not favored or circulated by a wide audience. He points out that close reading strives to present certain texts as representative of literary history; however, this representative approach essentially ignores the entire spectrum of texts necessary to create a complete and representative understanding. Basing himself on previous research developed by other scholars, Moretti focuses his attention on illustrating general notions such as the rate of publication of novels within certain locations and time spans, and on the prominence of particular literary genres (epistolary, Gothic, etc,) across time in order to comprehend trends, rises, and falls that demand interpretations and explanations that shed light to the problems and gaps in literary history.

In order illustrate these general notions and trends, Moretti divides his book into three different sections that discuss the tools/ approaches that can be used to study novels from a general and encompassing perspective, which he dubs a “materialist conception of form” (92). In the first section on graphs, he discusses the use of quantitative diagrams to illustrate shifts, trends, and cycles that have appeared in the genre of the novel throughout time. In his second section on maps, he illustrates the use of spatial diagrams to give shape to the coexistence of the real and the imaginary in novels, and to point out the relationship that exists between social conflict (or social forces) and form. Lastly, he discusses the use of evolutionary or genealogical trees to analyze novels morphologically, thus tightening the bonds that exist between history and form. In due course, the use and implementation of positivist tools and methodologies in the study of literature stresses gaps and ambiguities that demand to be explained qualitatively in order to get a true and encompassing sense of literary history. Graphs reveal trends and cycles within novelistic genres, which require a historical or content-based explanation; maps are based on the reduction of the text into elements and their reconstruction into diagrams that might “possess ‘emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower level” (53); trees illustrate literary genres from an evolutionary perspective, underlining the devices and contexts necessary for the typological survival and extinction of particular novels.

Moretti’s book pushes the reader to ask a central question: what would be the effects if the literary scholar’s attention would shift from the exceptional to the general? Indeed, Moretti raises an intriguing question at this point, and it leads the reader to wonder what new knowledge or insights can be obtained by approaching novels from a bird-eye view rather than the microscopic view that has traditionally been favored in this area of study. Moretti, however, is not promoting a look at both the general history of literary texts and the thematic and ideological idiosyncrasies within particular novels (i.e. close reading). But, with his usage of the term “shift” of perspective, he is suggesting a complete change from the exact towards the general. Moretti grounds the need for this shift on valid claims; after all, it is virtually impossible to get a complete historical sense of a literary era or period simply by analyzing a minor percentage of texts written during those times, and it is even less feasible to get a true sense of the richness and variety of said period, especially when many texts are subjectively deemed to be representative of a particular period or genre. Ergo, Moretti suggests that a more “rational history” can be achieved if one were to put aside the traditional view of focusing on one text, and focus instead on the notions of world literature and comparative morphology: “take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformations” (90). By doing so, one can arguably create a whole representation; a more collective and comprehensive approach, which can be achieved by employing the use of quantitative methods in literary studies, and by focusing on the forces that shape literary history (devices and genres) rather than on texts themselves: “Texts are certainly the real objects of literature… but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” (76), for they are unable to represent a genre in its entirety.

Wherein lies the value of approaching literary texts in this fashion, and do scholars of literary history/studies truly want to leave the notion of close readings as an afterthought? True, the implementation of quantitative, cartographic, and genealogical methods can lead to a greater understanding of the trends and influences that shaped literary genres, and they push the reader to look beyond traditional categorizations and to see the variety and richness that exists within these classifications. However, the question is whether or not a truly “rational history” is something that literary scholars are aiming for in the first place, especially when such a rational approach undermines the aesthetic, cultural, sentimental, and political particularities that certain texts possess, and that lead to this intense desire to conserve, highlight, and perpetuate the validity of said texts in a culture that is increasingly distancing itself from interest in the literary. Also, I personally would argue that certain novels are favored over others simply because they embody certain qualities, such as aesthetic appeal and social/political significance, which make them both salient and influential; not every novel published is a work of art.

In his discussion of shifts within the genre of the novel, Moretti underscores the usage of quantitative methods as a way of being more inclusive and encompassing in the discussion of literary texts, especially as it pertains to the study of novel as a genre: “all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only […]; and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history. Too much” (30). Although it can be argued that Moretti is not discrediting the value of current approaches towards the novel entirely, he is affirming that these approaches, although insightful, limit the scope of the literary texts that can be scrutinized, thus preventing a rational and comprehensive literary history from taking shape. To some degree, it is ironic that he pushes for a greater degree of literary inclusivity by somewhat excluding the academic practices that have defined the venue of literary study since its conception. What is even more peculiar is that Moretti resorts to the use of quantitative and genealogical methods in order to make the study of literature more open, exact, and methodical. Nonetheless, the data is ultimately approached with the same subjectivities and sense of murkiness that literary texts are already being approached with: “Quantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations, […] and that is of course also its limit: it provides data, not interpretation” (9). However, Moretti justifies this limit by affirming that the quantitative data reveals problems, whereas form offers the solutions, and that it is precisely this revelation that leads to the questions that must be answered in literary studies (27).  Are these apparent problems the ones that truly concern all scholars of literature? Furthermore, it must be questioned whether or not the literary can be understood with a positivist attitude.

A major issue with Moretti’s views and approaches is that he strives to attribute a sense of validity to the field of literature within a society that is increasingly favoring quantitative and positivist methods: a society that is pushing individuals to favor grounded and so-called pragmatic areas of study rather than abstract, ideological, and idealistic areas such as the humanities. However, should generalist and quantitative methods be the heart of literary studies and history, or should they be approximated as a heuristic and complementary aid that works in conjunction to close reading to reach this indefinable and unattainable core? To some extent, graphs, maps and trees can function as pillars within the structure of literary studies, especially within the domain of literary history. Yet, it is questionable if they can (or will ever) serve as the foundation which supports the structure in the first place. Regardless, Moretti’s well-crafted book definitely adds a new layer of possibility to the study of literature and literary history, and as he himself points out, it does an outstanding job of “opening conceptual possibilities” rather than providing concrete and exact justifications (92).

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