data-centric approach of stories

17Dec09

The Stanford English professor Franco Moretti has his own perspective on literature. Real readers might appose his approach, but he likes to look from a wider view to books and its content than the storyline. Graphs, Maps, Trees is an ambitious work, seeking to “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” through “a shift from close reading of individual texts to the construction of abstract models.” These models come from quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory, areas which Moretti suggests have had little interaction with literary criticism, “but which have many things to teach us, and may change the way that we work.”  Or in Moretti’s own words: “Within that old territory [of literature], a new object of study arises: a trio of artificial constructs–graphs, maps, and trees–in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction.

moretti

moretti

Distant reading,’ I have once called this type of approach; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures.

word clouds

In an experiment Moretti turned 250 novels of Victorian writers into a series of word clouds. He wanted to test the idea that the adjectives used by those writers, might reveal the Victorian belief that moral qualities were indivisible from reality itself and that physical traits reflected a person’s virtue. The adjectives that popped-up: ‘strong’, ‘bright’, ‘fair’ etc. showed indeed a blend of the phsical and the moral.

like peering through the first telescope

His appraoch allows him to survey more literature at a glance than he could read in a lifetime. And will give him a sense of a much wider universe. Instead of diving deep into a few beloved titles, Moretti aims to zip across the creative output of entire eras. His endeavor prompts many new questions, of which not always the answer is clear: why were only 30 books printed in

bokeh

It’s a bit like the Japenese photographic concept called “bokeh” which uses a blur technique to create focus, sharpness and ease to the eye. Moretti’s experiments are like using the bokeh technique on literature data that can now overwhelmingly be produced by digital-analytics. It still needs a qualified or skilled-curiousness to decide what is interesting to focus on. Moretti seems to be the right man to do this job and even he often has to assume what interpretation the visual-data enhance. Maybe he could integrate his findings into “bokodes” (the new barcodes that hold a million times more data than today’s scannable stripes). In that way his data-observations could pose the questions for further research to a much wider range of reserachers than the field-of-literature.

The value of Moretti’s work: he makes remarkable findings visual and therefore accessible to more than just the enlighted-few. In theory this activates the source of collective knowledge and should multiply the wisdom to be gained from “all” that has been published. It would also provide a nice benchmark for all self-proclaimed (blog)writers to see if they are the greenhorns that the established professional field suggests they are.  A heart-warming thought for these last days of 2009.

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