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New Left Review 28, July-August 2004


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.

FRANCO MORETTI

GRAPHS, MAPS, TREES

Abstract Models for Literary History—3

Trees; evolutionary theory. They come last, in this series of essays, but were really the beginning, as my Marxist formation, influenced by DellaVolpe and his school, entailed a great respect (in principle, at least) for the methods of the natural sciences. [1] The first two essays in this series, on ‘Graphs’ and ‘Maps’, appeared respectively in nlr 24, November–December 2003 and nlr 26, March–April 2004. So, at some point I began to study evolutionary theory, and eventually realized that it opened a unique perspective on that key issue of literary study which is the interplay between history and form. Theories of form are usually blind to history, and historical work blind to form; but in evolution, morphology and history are really the two sides of the same coin. Or perhaps, one should say, they are the two dimensions of the same tree.

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