Analyzing History

Of all the ways to examine literary history, the use of graphs, maps, and trees never really came to my mind.  While Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History is most directly relatable to studying literary history, much of Moretti’s argument can be transferred to the study of history.  Actually, I think these abstract models are much more useful for the study of history than their use in literary history.

Moretti’s use of these models to examine literary history was too abstract for me.  These tools are used to completely dismember a literary work.  While it is Moretti’s goal to show that these abstract tools can bring hidden patterns within literature to the surface, it is at the cost of dissecting great works until they are nothing more than words and figures.  This type of quantitative research does not coalesce with the study of literature in my mind.  Novels are written to evoke emotion, and by then analyzing all types of novels with maps, graphs, and trees that emotion is essentially removed.  The places and characters of a great novel by Jane Austen now become dots on a graph or names on a map.  Maps take away the imaginative world created by the author and transform it into quantitative research.

While my emotions do not agree with analyzing literature in this way, I certainly see some benefits to this type of research, especially in the realm of history.  Graphs, maps, and trees are an innovative way to incorporate data that allows one to see the overall patterns throughout history.  While these models do not allow for one to focus on a specific individual or episode in history (which is often the best part of studying history), they do reveal hidden patterns that can be of historical significance.  Abstract models like these allow the historian to remove herself even further from the past and provide a slightly more objective view.  However, as soon as the historian takes this step back, she is then thrust back into the subjectivity of history upon the realization that it is not enough to just present the data, it must be interpreted as well.

Moretti’s Maps, Graphs, Trees provides a kicking off point for the interpretation of data.  It can answer the question “what,” but not “why.”  The “why” can be answered by the creation of a narrative.  This is where I turn to Hayden White’s article, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.”  Within this article, White examines what it takes to create a narrative.  Essential to this point is the understanding that narration requires analysis, perspective, and meaning.  As Moretti’s abstract models present various historical patterns, it is the narrative that can be used to explain the patterns.  From this perspective, White’s narrative is the ideal form in which to rationalize the raw data of Moretti’s models.  By combining these two forms of thought, one can see a clear way to study history.  On their own Moretti’s models do not provide any profound meaning.  It is at this point than an interpretation, or narrative, is needed to make sense of the data.  It seems to me that Moretti and White’s ideas work better together than apart.


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