EVOLUTION AND LITERARY HISTORY
A Response to Franco Moretti
During the past four decades or so, literary history has proven to be something of a problem child in the discipline of literary studies. Over this time span, it has found itself confronted with three fundamental questions. The first—is literary history desirable?—was particularly active in the Parisian polemics of the 1960s that generated the dramatic encounter between Raymond Picard and Roland Barthes, an exchange—or rather a dialogue de sourds—which gave us Critique et vérité, Barthes’s crisply magisterial statement of the new anti-historicist critical temper.  This should not of course be taken to mean that Barthes was ‘anti-history’, but only that he was hostile to the sedimented forms of the discours de l’histoire that organized academic literary history in France at the time. If his notion of a ‘science’ of literature seemed to replace a focus on time with a stress on ‘system’ (in the structuralist sense of a set of abstract rules), elsewhere (for example in the much earlier Le degré zéro de l’écriture) we find him ‘using Marxism and existentialism to rethink the categories of orthodox literary history’: Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes, Cambridge 1991, p. 32. In the later work, history—specifically the historical situatedness of the ‘subject’ of both writing and reading (‘ce sujet historique que je suis parmi d’autres’, as he wrote in Le plaisir du texte, Paris 1973, p. 37)—is ubiquitous. It remains nevertheless the case that Barthes’s understanding of literary-historical change was held almost entirely within an avant-gardiste thematics of ‘scandal’ and ‘rupture’, that is to say, basically the terms of a modernist poetics. The second question—is literary history possible?—was more the product of a developing scepticism as to the grounds of historical understanding itself.  The question has produced a symptomatic title: Is Literary History Possible? by David Perkins, Baltimore 1992. Franco Moretti’s response to both these questions has been robustly affirmative, while much of his career has been devoted to figuring out answers to the third question: if literary history is both desirable and possible, then how exactly to do it? His recent triptych of articles in New Left Review—‘Graphs’, ‘Maps’ and ‘Trees’, with the running subtitle ‘Abstract Models for Literary History’, published in book form by Verso this September—is his most considered reflection to date, proposing an intriguingly novel way of both construing and resolving a number of central issues in the field. Taken together (as indeed they must be), his three figures or representations—derived respectively from quantitative history, geography and evolutionary biology—weave an intricate and richly textured intellectual fabric.  The three articles have been collected and revised for publication: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, London and New York 2005, 127 pp, 1 84467 026 0. They were originally published in nlr 24, Nov–Dec 2003 (‘Graphs’), nlr 26, Mar–Apr 2004 (‘Maps’) and nlr 28, July–Aug 2004 (‘Trees’). In what follows I will principally be addressing the approach laid out in ‘Trees’.
Subscribe for just £40 and get free access to the archive
Please login on the left to read more or buy the article for £3
- Franco Moretti: 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?
- Franco Moretti: 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.
- Franco Moretti: 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.
- Kenta Tsuda: Academicians of Lagado? Vast claims have been made for the application of Darwinian concepts—purged of biological determinism—to the study of societies. Kenta Tsuda offers a penetrating and original critique of selection theory, finding a paradigm with limited explanatory value and shaky conceptual foundations.