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New Left Review 41, September-October 2006


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.

FRANCO MORETTI

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

A reply to Christopher Prendergast

Christopher Prendergast’s critique of Graphs, Maps, Trees in ‘Evolution and Literary History’ raises objections of an empirical, theoretical and political nature. [1] Christopher Prendergast, ‘Evolution and Literary History’, nlr 34, July–Aug 2005; Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract Models for Literary History, London and New York 2005 (henceforth, elh and gmt). The main disagreement is this: for Prendergast, nature and culture function in such incomparable ways that evolutionary theory, which was devised to account for the one, cannot possibly work for the other. This conceptual misalignment makes evolutionary ‘explanations’ of literature incapable of mastering any actual historical evidence, and forces them to rely on circular reasoning and various petitiones principii instead. In this analytical void, the market acquires an exaggerated importance, that makes it appear as ‘a cognate of Nature’; and the final result is that Graphs, Maps, Trees’s ‘no-nonsense realism . . . deteriorates fast into the language of the winner-takes-all attitude’ that is typical of social Darwinism. [2] elh, p. 61.

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