How to Do Things with Networks: A Response to Franco Moretti

The first post in the Magazine Modernisms Essay Club reading of Franco Moretti’s “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” comes from James Murphy, editor of this blog.  He is a recent Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s English Department, where he wrote a dissertation on the theory and practice of modernist revision, and then joined the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature at Harvard University. He has published essays on Robert Frost and meter, Henry James and revision, editing and electronic archives, and teaching serialized novels.  He is currently working on a book entitled Modernist Economy, but don’t hold him to that title.

The publication of Franco Moretti’s essay  “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” as the Stanford Literary Lab’s second pamphlet is an exciting event for those of us interested in new approaches to the study of literature made possible and provoked by the digital.  Digitization hasn’t only provided unprecedented access to our literary heritage–it’s begun to redefine what we think that heritage is and asked us to find new ways and new tools to conceptualize and curate this growing horde of materials.  It’s on these last two fronts that network theory and social network analysis (SNA) come in, but more on them later.

It’s a real pleasure to respond to “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” and to look at how its insights might be expanded to modernism and periodical studies because Moretti has been an inspirational and validating figure in the relatively young fields of quantitative literary analysis and digital literary history since the publication of “Conjectures on World Literature” in 2000.  His Graphs, Maps, and Trees:  Abstract Models for a Literary History was a gateway for this reader and many others into thinking about (non-belletristic) literary history rather than literary criticism and the difference between the two.  He also argued more cogently than anyone else out there (at a moment when it wasn’t clear to the non-initiated that there was anyone else out there) that there could be real power in looking at large numbers of books, at titles, at production numbers, and other kinds of data, rather than, as I’d been trained, at the content of particular texts.

Subsequently, I learned that Moretti was not the first literary scholar to make this argument, but I have continued to feel the rush of reading Moretti for the past decade and a half or so in part because he’s so persistently reminded us that we literary critics do indeed actually have data and we need to learn how to dig into it.  Literary scholars are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge this fact because our métier is placing words like “data” and “facts” into question; we are awfully good at problematizing, but sometimes problematizing can be a problem in itself.  While skepticism is one of our discipline’s strengths, it comes at a price.  We unintentionally encourage the not infrequent charges of subjectivism and relativism made against literary scholarship if we deny that there are objective claims to be made about literature and literary texts, in addition to interpretations based on close reading.  We neglect salient aspects of literary history and literary texts that might not emerge through exegesis.  And, most important, we risk the  complacency of skepticism, every bit as dangerous as the complacency of certainty.  It’s probably better to work in an academic culture in which no one is ever 100% certain than to work in one in which everyone always is. But only probably, and probably not that much better.  Moretti helps us to remember to be skeptical about skepticism.

I should be clear here that I don’t think of close reading and distant reading (Moretti’s term for his approach) or literary criticism and literary history as an either/or.  I think that interpretation and close reading remain, will likely remain, and should remain for a long time the defining practice of literature departments.  It’s in the “should” that I differ from Moretti, who, perhaps in order to provoke, has been quite vocal about his disdain for close reading (see “Conjectures World Literature”), although he’s clarified his position recently.  There’s no need to choose between these approaches, not, at least, as a discipline, and the debate is an old one (At the risk of sounding antediluvian, I think Crane’s “History Versus Criticism in the Study of Literature.”  English Journal 24 (1935) is pretty good on the topic), but Moretti’s stridency has done more good than harm in that it has pushed some scholars to think about the limitations inherent in reading and explicating a fairly miniscule percentage of the poetry, drama, and fiction produced in the past 1000 years.

All of which is why I was excited to hear that Moretti had published an essay employing network theory, but rather surprised to find out that a guy known for studying Victorian and modernist literature, who declared that Victorian fiction “cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases” because the field is “a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole,” was using it to study character and plot in Hamlet.  Why not continue the genre analysis of the Literary Lab’s first pamphlet?

I wonder whether Moretti felt obliged by the conventions of social network analysis (which is more what Moretti employs here, rather than network theory per se).  SNA was developed by sociologists in the fifties and sixties as a way to model the structure of social ties that exist among individuals (or individual units) and reveal the ways in which these social structures determine the identity and opportunities of individuals within that network. As digital tools have increased the efficiency and incisiveness of SNA, it has proven to be a powerful tool for determining how diseases spread, how people vote, and whether individuals are likely to become criminals.  A key component of this analysis has been its focus on large networks formed by hundreds or thousands of connections (edges in the terminology of SNA) among hundreds or thousands of agents (nodes).  It is, in other words, a natural fit for the kind of work Moretti has been pushing, and the growing number of SNA programs (I use Gephi, which is still in Beta mode) make it possible for humanists lacking mathematical and social science chops to get in there and try their hand at modeling  and visualizing large relational structures.  As modernist studies has moved away from the author-centered model of modernism promulgated by the New Critics and subsequent generations of scholars, and looked for new ways of thinking about context, consumption, and circulation, SNA and digital visualization present tantalizing possibilities for rethinking both the contexts and texts of modernism, including, I’ll suggest later, modes of publication (e.g., anthologies, magazines) relatively neglected by scholarship.

But back to Moretti . . . Why Hamlet?  Moretti himself suggests that the his lack of knowledge of statistics and his desire to work out the network by hand (Could we call this artisanal SNA?  Small batch rather than industrial production?) drove him to a small network.  That modesty is, of course, balanced by the bravado in tackling one of the most (over-)analyzed texts in world literature as the occasion for seeing whether SNA can tell us anything new about literature.  If SNA can provide insights into a play about which seemingly nothing original was left to be said, then what might it do for the rest of literature?  I suspect that the choice of Hamlet might be further motivated by Hamlet’s (speaking now of the character) importance in the mythology of the individual.  Even if Shakespeare didn’t intend him to be a proto-Romantic hero, he’s repeatedly been claimed as such (see Harold Bloom as the most yawn-inducing exemplar on this point).  SNA is one way to expose the limits and falsehoods of the concept of the autonomous individual.  SN graphs let us see the ties that constitute and constrain the kinds of individuals agents might be. And about Hamlet the text, can’t we say the same thing as we have about the character?  That the heroes of literary study–the works at the center of our canon–are also embedded in networks, that the identities and prestige of texts are also always relational, and that it is also these relations that determine what place texts have in literary history and study.

Hamlet is right at the center of  Moretti’s diagrams, just as we’d expect, but that might be just the point:  Hamlet is the center, yes, and that’s not all that interesting.  No graph was necessary to tell us what a title already has, but it’s the graphs that reveal what’s interesting and what we might not bother to think about precisely because Hamlet is the center of Hamlet. What’s interesting is how the other characters in the play fit into that network; what’s interesting is that Horatio is almost as central to the social network and yet not  central to our imagination of the play.  Who goes to Hamlet waiting to see how Horatio will be played?

Centrality is a fairly specific term in SNA and is typically tied to 3 aspects of nodes in networks:  degree, closeness, and betweenness.  Degree centrality measures how many edges a node shares other nodes in the network.  Think of it as how many people you know.  Hamlet is directly connected to 16 other nodes, while Horatio is linked to 12.  Closeness centrality is a measure of how efficiently one node can connect, directly or indirectly, to any other node in the circuit.  Think of it as how directly you can get in touch with other people in a network directly or through your direct contacts; the fewer intermediaries, the greater your closeness centrality.  In Moretti’s graph, Hamlet is separated by one-degree from 16 other nodes, and by two degrees from the other 13 nodes.  Horatio has 12 first-degree connections, 9 second-degree connections, and 8 third-degree connections.  Betweenness centrality is kind of like the other side of closeness.  It measures how many of the shortest paths between any two nodes pass through a particular node.  Think of it as how many people must pass through you to get in contact with other people.  Working with these parameters on Gephi, I generated a graph that looks a good deal like Moretti’s.

What Moretti shows in his diagrams is that network centrality ≠ narrative centrality.  He proposes that Horatio’s position in the Hamlet network “announces what will soon be called, not Court, but State,” since in his (and the Gephi diagram I made) visualization Horatio is linked to characters situated beyond Elsinore, and his flat style is a reflection of the discourse of bureaucracy.  Intriguing as this proposal is, I think that Horatio serves a different function, one with something of a tradition in drama, film, and fiction:  he is the bystander and thus a proxy for the reader.  Like the Greek chorus, Zelig, and Nick Carraway, he is there, standing witness to most of the important events in the narrative, even knitting those events together at times, often merely by witnessing and corroborating them, but the bystander can’t do or at least doesn’t do anything to affect those events.  Who is this bystander but a stand-in for the reader?  Are we not all Horatios, linking together the disparate elements of narratives, standing at the center of the story, watching as events more marvelous (and horrible) than anything we can hope (or fear) to experience take place before our very eyes?

So what can this kind of analysis tell us about modernism and magazines in particular?  The most obvious application of Moretti’s work with Hamlet would be to apply it to modernist texts.  What would the SN diagram of character ties in Ulysses look like? Or Mrs. Dalloway? À la recherche du temps perdu?!?  And what would these diagrams reveal? At the very least, this work would likely take a good deal effort more than tracking the 30 characters in Hamlet; it’s an occasion for some facility with text mining.

We needn’t limit ourselves to characters in novels, however.  What about words and phrases, ideas, scenarios, places, time periods, etc.?  Jeff Drouin’s done some intriguing work with topic modeling, SNA, and Proust over at the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive.  And, of course, we needn’t limit ourselves to imaginary people or the insides of books either.  Mapping the literary sphere beyond the content of solitary works–the kind of work I’d expect Moretti to be doing–avoids the problem of intentionality that structural criticism of single works always comes in for because it looks for the structures that are coincident with and determinative of networks that exist beyond the reach of any author’s intention.  It replaces intention with emergence as the principle underlying form.

I work with SNA as a way to examine author networks as they are formed through anthologies and magazines.  I’m not exactly interested in coterie publication, if by that we mean the ways that authors created cliques within print culture.  Worthy as that topic is, if for no other reason than to test the claims of those who insist on the pursuit of exclusivity/elitism by, say, the Men of 1914 or Bloomsbury, I’m much more curious about the ways networks worked as ways for readers to identify writers within the literary field.  My hypothesis is that knowing how to recognize a modernist when you saw one depended, in part, on who he or she was published alongside, as in this diagram of D. H. Lawrence’s appearances in fiction anthologies.  Notice all the major figures of modernism there?  A. E. Coppard?  Oliver Onions?  Could they have something to do with DHL’s precarious place within the modernist canon?  SNA is a great way to begin answering that question.

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5 responses to “How to Do Things with Networks: A Response to Franco Moretti

  1. James,

    Thanks for this lively post. I can’t agree more with your call for scholars to make more of SNA in studying literary networks and I thought you might be interested to learn about some of my work in this arena. As you point out, doing that kind of work right involves intensive data mining, which brings up a point I’d like to address before getting into my own research.

    Having worked for a while with Franco Moretti, I think I can offer some answers regarding the choice of Shakespeare and his reading of Horatio. Of course, I don’t speak for Moretti so this reply is really more about the challenges of literary network analysis as I see them than about his work. Why Shakespeare? An easy choice because certain relationships between characters are explicit and require little coding to study. Between stage directions and script cues, it’s almost always obvious who is part of a conversation (though it always gets interesting when these rules are broken through eavesdropping, double entendres, etc). So it seems to me the position of Horatio in these networks is that of an interlocutor, not just an observer. A different methodology might attempt to reconstruct the narrative reality or even geography of the play instead of its dialog, and the resulting network would tell a different story about Horatio. But of course to establish these kinds of connections in fiction would be much more challenging without much more “artisinal” labor to consistently (and correctly) identify hundreds of characters and conversations.

    This issue is crucial for literary network analysis because defining the relationships between entities is just as important as selecting your objects of study in the first place. I notice that you have defined your Lawrence network here based on co-appearances in fiction anthologies. An excellent start, but as you point out, it quickly leads us to ask how readers do this work of contextualization.

    So, back to my work. I came to the same conclusions a few years ago and started to think about how I could explore literary networks in contemporary American fiction. My answer has been to explore co-occurrences of proper nouns in book reviews (both professional ones and those posted on sites like Amazon and LibraryThing) as well as the networks of texts linked together through recommendations engines. These are literary networks at the intersection of literary culture and the marketplace, and they offer some interesting new perspectives on how readers interpret and order literary fields. I’d be happy to share more details with you or your group if this sounds interesting.

  2. Ed,
    Thanks for the kind words and great comments. I went and looked at the DH2011 presentation slides you’ve got on-line–how frickin’ smart. DFW is a writer who means a lot to me, so I love seeing anything on his work–talk about networks! Can you provide a link to it anything else you’d like to share?

    Yeah, I think you’ve hit on an important point

    >I notice that you have defined your Lawrence network here based on >co-appearances in fiction anthologies. An excellent start, but as you point >out, it quickly leads us to ask how readers do this work of contextualization.

    but maybe it’s not as important as some critics of the history of reading (a group you obviously are not part of) think it is. It’s so hard to know *what* people read (so may books on the shelf that I’ll get to one day . . .) let alone how they read it and what they made of it once they did. At the same time, one of the nice things about tables of contents and, in your own really cool work, book reviews is that readers don’t have to actually read the authors who co-appear in order to recognize them as inhabiting a similar space. Heck, if everyone had to read Wyndham Lewis in order for him to be counted a modernist he’d have completely vanished. I envy the access to the records of readers’ thoughts and practices Amazon gives you, but I also don’t think it’s far fetched to apply our own reading practices to the early twentieth century. Anybody who is interested in a genre (if you’ll allow me the notion that literature is a genre, at least in terms of the marketplace) needs to learn who belongs and (may more important) who doesn’t, and co-appearance in Tables of Contents, ads, publisher lists, and reviews all help place writers among their peers. I’ve also stumbled across a couple articles from the Teens advising readers who want to know about modern fiction to find authors they like and see who they’re published alongside and read book reviews of their work. Again, did readers follow this advice? Some probably did, some probably didn’t. What’s most value about this kind of network analysis, I think, is that it provides us some sense of just how wide the field was, given how narrow the academic perspective tends to be (for understandable reasons), and it throws into further doubt the old myth of the autonomous genius.

    Will you be at MSA or are you strictly contemporary Am lit? If you’re there, please come by the roundtable and join in.

    • Thanks for the response, James. I agree, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to apply our own reading assumptions to the early twentieth century, we just have to remember to replace one set of caveats with another. My work on Amazon accepts the commercial realities of contemporary fiction–the truth that national prominence today requires book contracts, author tours and the rest (though that might change in the era of self-publishing). For modernist magazines, I’d suggest that the magazines themselves are a, if not the, major constitutive force of the literary field. (Speaking as a non-expert) it seems as if literary life was lived more in those pages than it was in book contracts or some other medium. Maybe I’ve been over-exposed to Walter Ong but it would be interesting to think about magazines not just as platforms for fame but the arena itself. Circulation numbers and even column inches could really inform that picture.

      Alas I won’t be at MSA but maybe we can arrange to cross paths amidst the madness at MLA. I’ll also be sharing a slot with some of your Metalab colleagues at ACL[x] later this fall.

  3. Just a brief note to say a] THANKS to James, and Lisa for their generous pieces, to which I will respond in a few days, and b] since James asks for a link to Ed’s images, that in fact Ed’s work on DFW will appear on line as pamphlet #3 of the Literary Lab in a couple of weeks. Be patient!
    Franco Moretti

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