Blogs > Cliopatria > Franco Moretti: A Quantitative Turn for Cultural History?

Jan 20, 2004 1:53 pm

Franco Moretti: A Quantitative Turn for Cultural History?

Over at Mildly Malevolent, Franco Moretti’s current project was characterized as"fun but silly". I look at it differently: I think it’s absolutely essential, a key way to address some of the major issues missing in the writing of cultural history.

You don’t have to buy all of Moretti’s project or his vision of what he’s doing to see the immense value of it. I found Moretti’s essay in the New Left Review frustrating in its application of world-systems theory, becaue I think that the world-systems approach is one of the most ill-suited slants for a systematic approach to cultural history that I can think of. Moretti’s ambitions to rid literary analysis of sticky questions of interpretation, which I take to be somewhat exaggerated for effect, aren’t that useful either, largely because they're unnecessary. (More on that in a minute).

But what Moretti generally proposes to do speaks exactly to one of the areas where cultural history is typically weak, and that is the inability of cultural historians to make meaningful or confident statements about what is typical or proportionate with regard to any given kind of text or cultural practice, and equally, their inability to offer large-scale or systematic accounts of the circulation and consumption of particular cultural works in relation to all other cultural works in a given era or society.

Some cultural historians do a good job of finding quantitative or systematic information about their particular object of study—a particular kind of publication, text or cultural work, a particular genre, a particular site of cultural consumption. Sometimes cultural historians are able to offer tentative characterizations of the relationship between one form or type of cultural work and other forms, or of relations to the totality of popular culture, but these statements are usually just educated guesswork.

Moretti is perfectly right that if you take any given chronological slice in any given modern nation, our knowledge of the total range of what was published (just to stick to books) is actually strikingly absent, and I strongly suspect that there are many surprises to be found in a more systematic, quantified account of that range. There are a lot of things that I’d like to be able to say with confidence today about American television in the last fifty years, or about the totality of the printed material in circulation in southern Africa between 1890 and today (both locally published and imported), and I simply can’t based on available scholarship.

Of course this information alone doesn’t resolve an equally important and always debatable set of questions. Even if we find out that novels in England in the last century are a much less predominant form of publication than the body of literary criticism might lead one to believe, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be spending most of our analytic time on novels.

There are only a few questions or problems that turn on the frequency or quantity of publication, only a few assertions that need grounding in that systematic, quantified account. You could still easily argue that a cultural form which occupied a miniscule slice of the total cultural activity in a given era was nevertheless the most powerful, influential or hegemonic cultural form in that time or place, or that it was the key or linchpin of popular culture in that era. You can still say that certain kinds of exemplary or highly particular works somehow best represent the spirit of a particular culture, or best problematize some of its characteristic internal struggles and contradictions. You can still do close reading of a single text (as either a historian or a literary critic) and find it valuable. But both cultural history and historicist literary criticism could benefit enormously from a truly systematic, carefully quantified account of the totality of cultural work in any given moment and place.

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Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2004

Thanks, again, Tim for directing attention to a fascinating development in a area that I would have thought unlikely. Moretti's work strikes me as very important. His data about the correlations of male to female production of novels is hardly "silly" and the suggestions about the impact of political crises on the production of novels is very suggestive. At least, it gives us something to debate and to take issue with, as I think Jonathan does in the case of Japan. As I look through the notes to Moretti's NLR article I am reminded of how extra-ordinarily reliant we are on the work of others and its reliability. It assumes the reliability of data and we've discussed elsewhere the problemmatics of that assumption.

Timothy Burke - 1/20/2004

Sure, I agree with that, but I generally read most world systems work, especially Wallerstein, as offering fairly rigid, structure-biased ways of understanding the movement of goods, people and capital. I just don't think it's really necessary for Moretti to provision the modestly valuable goods that his methodology has to offer.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/20/2004

You're right that World Systems theory doesn't explain everything: no theory does (at least not yet). And culture is slipperier than most goods or services or even power.

But I never understood world systems theory to be a complete description of the flows of goods and power, but a way of understanding the relationships between the overwhelming flows. Perhaps there are people out there who use it in a more rigid fashion, but that doesn't delegitimize the theory.

The day that anyone can prove that human agency is entirely subordinate to systemic forces is the day suicide becomes a viable majority position. But to ignore systemic forces is foolish, particularly in an analytical profession.

Timothy Burke - 1/20/2004

I don't think world systems theory always scales well up and down, or deals well with the odd irregularities of the way the circulation and production of culture are bounded--and it may in some cases try to produce an account of systematicity where none exists. I'm minded a bit of the fairly worked out cultural history of the iconography of Mami Wata in West Africa. Mami Wata's a water spirit with interesting links to the way the slave trade has been experienced and imagined; at a fairly concrete historical point she got iconographically linked to a poster image of a snake charmer from a circus travelling through parts of Africa, and from there, that iconography has spread to embrace various kinds of snakes-and-mermaid images, including a lifting of shots from the movie "Splash". At the same time, Mami Wata has increasingly shifted her imagined spiritual domain to objects that connote "foreignness" in some places. I think there's something densely global there that's not at all well-mapped against the clarities of world systems theory. It's the kind of thing that made Arjun Appadurai grope for his sometimes unsatisfying ideas about "flows" in global culture.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/20/2004

I agree with your mild excitement: It's always a good day when a new tool, a new way of sifting and seeing data, is added to our workbench.

I disagree with your dismissal of world systems theory, though, as a cultural studies model: insofar as culture is an economic artifact, world systems theory applies very strongly. To take a classic example: Disney's Alladin, or Mulan, which takes the raw material of another culture, transforms it with its own industrial process, then foists the homogenized gunk back into the world market, making it substantially harder for regional cultural products to find viewers and weakening non-central cultural sources.

I am reminded of a comment made to me by a friend in Japan, "95% of Japanese news comes from Tokyo." There are centers of information production and there are regional powers, and there is the rest of the world, whose cultural heritage is packaged and sold back to them with much of the edge gone in neat little boxes. Rarely, as in the case of World Music, this dynamic produces a shift of power from the center, but this is an exceptional case.

On another note, I looked over Moretti's essay and found that his linkage of political and publication issues was oddly un-economical, at least in the case of Japan: for this kinds of statistical analysis to work it needs to be systematic and careful, or else the traditional criticism of cultural studies as impressionistic will remain powerful. (To clarify, in Japan the political crackdowns he cites were epiphenomenal: government moral crusades against wasteful spending and luxuries were a traditional tool in economic crises, and the downturns in publishing took place during Japan's most disastrous economic periods. People were starving by the side of the roads; no wonder book sales were down.)

The other caveat about this quantitative method is that it will require immense investments of time (and therefore money) to classify the works being studied: I don't know that there is quite enough money in cultural studies to pay for thousands (or even dozens) of undergraduate workers sifting through materials. Then there's the border cases, of course.....