The Spell of Indecision
In the past two decades, there has been a complete change in the dominant attitude of Marxist criticism towards Modernism. Essentially, Marxist readings of avant-garde literature are increasingly based on interpretative theories—Russian Formalism, Bakhtin’s work, theories of the ‘open’ text, deconstructionism—which, in one way or another, belong to Modernism itself. This sudden loss of distance has inevitably paved the way to a sort of interpretative vicious circle. But what seems to me even more significant is the transformation which has occurred in the field of values and value-judgements, where recent Marxist criticism is really little more than a left-wing ‘apology of Modernism’. We need only think of such pioneer Marxist work as that of Benjamin or Adorno, and the extent of this cultural somersault is evident. Benjamin and Adorno associated ‘fragmentary’ texts with melancholy, pain, defencelessness, loss of hope; today, they would evoke the far more exhilarating concepts of semantic freedom, de-totalization and productive heterogeneity. In the deliberate obscurity of modern literature, Benjamin and Adorno saw the sign of some kind of threat; nowadays, it would be taken rather as a promise of free interpretative play. For them, the key novelist of the modern world was, quite clearly, Franz Kafka; today, just as clearly, he has been replaced by James Joyce, whose work is just as great, but certainly less urgent and ‘uncanny’.
’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’
By the same author:
What can quantitative linguistic analysis reveal about global institutions? From Bretton Woods to the present, the language of World Bank reports has undergone telling modulations. Moretti and Pestre track the decline of concrete referents and active verbs, the triumph of acronyms over nation-states—and irresistible rise of ‘governance’.
Lukács’s Theory of the Novel
Centenary reflections on one of the landmarks of twentieth-century thought about literature. Lukács in tension between Novalis and Weber during the Great War, and the implications for literary enquiry today of a conjugation that could never historically be repeated.
Can ‘digital humanities’ recover from Thomas Kuhn’s before-the-fact critique—that no new ‘laws of nature’ will be discovered just by inspecting the numbers? Testing the limits of the approach, Moretti investigates whether data-crunching can falsify Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
Why did a bourgeoisie commended by Marx for its ruthless rationalism surround itself with clouds of mystification? Franco Moretti traces recurrent refusals of precision through Victorian culture, from Carlyle to Millais, Tennyson to Conrad.
Network Theory, Plot Analysis
What can quantitative methods tell us about literary plots? Franco Moretti maps character networks from Shakespeare, Dickens and Cao Xueqin to shed light on questions of sovereignty, legitimacy and the reciprocity of social relations.
The Grey Area
Flexible morality and capitalist imperatives of the bourgeois fin-de-siècle, as captured in the obscure misdeeds of Ibsen’s protagonists.
The Novel: History and Theory
Moretti’s 5-volume Il romanzo recast the field of the novel—historically deeper, geographically wider, morphologically broader. What are the implications for its theory? Prose, adventure and xiaoshuo as explanatory vectors; and prevalence of older power relations in the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic literary form.
The End of the Beginning
Franco Moretti responds to criticisms of his quantative approach to literary history, from Christopher Prendergast and Roberto Schwarz. Origins, upshots—and potential limitations?—of the abstract models developed in Graphs, Maps, Trees.
Graphs, Maps, Trees - 3
After ‘graphs’ and ‘maps’, trees: can evolutionary theory help pattern the transformation of cultural forms and divergence of genres, through time and space? Franco Moretti’s final essay on abstract models for literary history.
Graphs, Maps, Trees - 2
After ‘Graphs’ (see NLR 24), maps: geography, or social geometry? Literary spaces plotted as competing fields for industrialization, peasant rebellion, state formation. The second of Moretti’s three essays conceptualizing patterns of genre and history, form and force.
Graphs, Maps, Trees - 1
The first of three essays setting out to demonstrate the power of abstract models to revolutionize our understanding of literary history. What do the quantitative curves of novel production tell us about the interplay of markets, politics, sexes, generations, in the life and death of literary forms?