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.footnote1 The second question—is literary history possible?—was more the product of a developing scepticism as to the grounds of historical understanding itself.footnote2 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.footnote3

But what particularly catches the eye—or at least my eye, for the purposes of this response—are the arguments underpinning the third, ‘Trees’, for essentially two reasons. First, they constitute, self-confessedly, both an ending and (a return to) a beginning (‘They come last, in this series of essays, but were really the beginning’) and are thus what binds all three pieces together, while also sending us back even further to several of Moretti’s earlier publications; his ‘tree’ may therefore be said to bear fruit—perhaps not yet entirely ripe—stemming from a prolonged effort of reflection and research. Secondly, the final piece operates at a higher level of theoretical synthesis than the others; it is the meta-essay, addressed to the general principles and underlying assumptions of his project. It is, however, expressly not proposed as yet another exercise in pure Theory. Moretti, rightly and refreshingly, insists on the distinction between thinking theoretically and ‘doing Theory’ (the latter for some considerable time now a largely routinized intellectual technology, with a certain market value in university literature departments). For Moretti the former signifies—amongst other things, to which I turn shortly—the deployment of a set of hypotheses in a manner that is experimental, open-ended and inconclusive, less a signposting of the royal road to the Truth than the tracing of possible pathways, along which we are likely to encounter numerous blockages and dead ends.

On the other hand, ‘Trees’ is not merely—or is so only deceptively—another variant of the modest proposal. It enters a very strong claim on the recasting of an entire branch of inquiry. It is this animating ambition that commands special attention and which I take as the focus of my own, more sceptical, comments. For, while his approach is attractively supple, there is a downside to this otherwise appealing modus operandi: a tendency to ellipsis at the very points where the larger claims stand or fall. One of the signatures of the Moretti house style is syntactic elision (the sentence that is not a sentence). But what happens when this fetchingly informal economy of means travels up from sentence to argument? The following observations seek to uncover and describe what I see as the fault-lines running across or beneath these argumentative ellipses. The point is not to dynamite the terrain so interestingly charted by Moretti—after all, the sceptic’s part is the easy part, understandably galling to those who have done the actual creative thinking, along with the supporting empirical research—but, in emulation of his own commitment to provisionality, to add some further questions to those he himself poses. My queries are centred on the logical structure of an argument, specifically four of its moments, in three of which I detect a petitio principii and in the fourth a confusion. I shall come to the detail of this in due course, but want to stress that what I envisage is not analytical hair-splitting: if I am right in characterizing these moments as logical flaws, then a great deal follows; if I am wrong, Moretti will doubtless show why. Either way, there should be a gain in clarification.

First some preliminary scene-setting. Literary history is a subject with its own history. At the outset of ‘Trees’, Moretti gestures at this in terms of his own intellectual trajectory, by linking his present interests to an earlier ‘Marxist formation’ that ‘entailed a great respect (in principle, at least) for the methods of the natural sciences’.footnote4 This reference to science takes two forms: a general appeal to the validity of scientific method as such; and a particular appeal to the life sciences, crucially evolutionary theory. ‘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’.footnote5 A first sceptical port of call here might be the implied force of ‘so’. Does ‘a great respect (in principle, at least) for the methods of the natural sciences’ spontaneously carry, across the bridge engineered by that ‘so’, over to the biological sciences, especially in the context of a Marxist formation? I fear the toll costs a little more. The invocation of ‘science’ in connection with literary study of course has a lengthy pedigree, not only within Marxism, but also—and, from the point of view of the founding of the modern discipline of literary history, more importantly—within positivism; most notably the efforts by Gustave Lanson in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to replace history of literature (as the study of a disembodied procession of high-canonical names) with a scientifically grounded literary history. This has at least as much bearing on Moretti’s aims as the legacy of Marxism.

Indeed the place of science in Marxism’s engagement with literary questions has been largely sporadic and often opportunistic (I leave to one side the ritual incantations of Stalinist apparatchiks). Raymond Williams tantalized his interviewers in Politics and Letters with the remark: ‘If I had one single ambition in literary studies it would be to rejoin them with experimental science’. What Williams had in mind was ‘active collaboration with the many scientists who are especially interested in the relations between language use and human physical organization’. This probably harks back to the references in The Long Revolution’s chapter on ‘The Creative Mind’ to J. Z. Young’s neurophysiological researches into the brain, and the overlap of the biological and the social in the acquisition and deployment of ‘ways of seeing’.footnote6 But it was a programme that Williams never developed in any sustained way, and in any case it had but a tenuous connection with questions of history and literary history. In accordance with an older moment of classical Marxism, Lukács bound science and history together, but in fact less to designate a mode of inquiry (other than as the banner under which historical materialism paraded its opposition to idealism), than to specify the nature of the object of inquiry: the great works of imaginative fiction are themselves ‘scientific’ in the sense of their capacity to grasp and project, in imaginative terms, the law-bound, dialectical processes that shape a social totality. This was Lukács’s version of the ‘triumph of realism’. Interestingly, it distinguished the works of the great realist tradition (Balzac, Tolstoy) from those which, generally under the heading of Naturalism, explicitly claimed science as both a source of inspiration and a method of composition. For Lukács, where the former penetrate to underlying laws, the latter, in a reductionist assimilation of ‘science’ to empirical observation, content themselves with the transcription of mere surfaces, a literary practice held to be complicit with reification. Lukács’s project was thus a history offered as a narrative of the stages of capitalist cultural development, modelled as a fable of initial power (bourgeois art at its most expansively self-confident) giving way to eventual decline and exhaustion. Based on a judgemental parti pris, the explanatory yield of this narrative was thin, further vitiated by a messianic promise of redemption whereby the revolutionary potential of socialist realism would illuminate the way out of the impasse of bourgeois culture. This does not have a great deal to commend itself to the construction of a ‘scientific’ literary history. In any case, methodologically, Lukács’s approach was fundamentally text-centred, focused on the texts of the canon (as later for Lucien Goldmann, the minor work—a crucial object of knowledge for other models of literary history, including Moretti’s—was but the ideologically symptomatic dross of literary culture). It was, in short, an approach more interpretive than explanatory, in the double sense of interpreting strategies of interpretation deemed internal to certain literary works themselves, posited as the embodiment of forms of understanding the social.footnote7

Moretti has elsewhere written eloquently on Lukács, but his present endeavours strike out in a quite different direction. Re-thinking literary history requires a prioritizing of ‘explanation’ over ‘interpretation’: ‘the approaches I have discussed . . . share a clear preference for explanation over interpretation’ (Moretti’s emphasis). By ‘interpretation’ he means the ‘reading’ of individual works; by ‘explanation’ he means various attempts ‘to understand the larger structures within which these [individual works] have a meaning in the first place’. While renouncing the belief in the availability of ‘a single explanatory framework’, there remains nevertheless a ‘common denominator’ to these attempts, baptized—in a conscious ‘echo of the Marxist problematic of the 1960s and 70s’—as ‘a materialist conception of form’ (Moretti’s emphasis). Yet there is already a question here as to whether what he describes under the heading of ‘explanation’ belongs just as much, if not more so, to the sphere of ‘interpretation’—not, however, in the sense of the ‘reading’ of individual works but rather in that of a hermeneutics addressed to ‘understand[ing] the larger structures’ within which individual works ‘have a meaning in the first place’. Perhaps one should not press too hard here on vocabulary, but, as we all know from the history of the social sciences, ‘understanding’ (attracting, within Moretti’s own text, the familiar collocationary terms ‘structures’ and ‘meaning’) is not the same thing as ‘explanation’.footnote8 The latter typically entails a focus on the causal. This indeed turns out to be Moretti’s principal preoccupation (which is why terminological heavy-breathing might seem inapposite). Nevertheless, the distinctions matter, if only because, as we shall see, ‘interpretation’ plays—and has to play—a major part in Moretti’s undertaking, although, by virtue of its restriction to text-centred ‘readings’ and corresponding relegation to a position of secondary importance, quite how large a role it performs in his argument is something the argument itself does not fully acknowledge. This has consequences.

Where the history of literary history is concerned, these distinctions call for a further placing in relation to the predecessor, albeit a forerunner nowhere mentioned by Moretti: the positivist school and in particular the work of Lanson, the true father of the effort to bathe literary history with the aura of science, although at the same time—since in the world of the evolutionary paradigm we are dealing with the language of biological ‘descent’—begetting offspring many of whom appeared to have been afflicted with a congenital form of academic idiocy, thus eventually generating the explosive rebellion by Barthes and others against the soul-destroying and mind-numbing orthodoxies that Lanson himself never intended. Lanson is not reducible to lansonisme, his original project being altogether more robust and substantial in its intellectual aspirations. A ‘scientific’ literary history was to possess both an explanatory and an interpretive aspect. In practice, however, it was the interpretive aspect that dominated. In remarks on Lanson, Antoine Compagnon discriminates two kinds of literary history based on two distinct, if overlapping, objectives: one that is geared to a ‘context’, the other to a ‘dynamic’.footnote9 The latter is concerned primarily with the causal mechanisms of historical change. Context-oriented literary history, on the other hand, dwells on the original production and reception of literature. While it has explanatory features—to do with material conditions of emergence, the sort of thing subsequently codified as the ‘sociology of literature’—it is pre-eminently interpretive in its hermeneutic attention to the horizons of meaning and expectation within which a literary work is both conceived and read.