MagMods Essay Club: Franco Moretti and the Prospects of Social Network Analysis for Literary Studies

Ok, “essay club” doesn’t have quite the ring that “book club” has, but we hope you get the idea.  Four Magazine Modernisms contributors are going to be posting several responses to Franco Moretti’s “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” (click title to get the essay) over the next week, and we invite all readers to jump in with their own comments.  *Professor Moretti has generously agreed to reply to the posts after they’ve been posted.*

Moretti’s essay uses social network analysis (SNA) to chart the relationships among the characters in Hamlet and, among other things, examine plot as a spatial phenomenon and not, as is typically thought, just a temporal one.   What’s SNA?  It’s a methodology, developed by sociologists,  for analyzing  the structures of relations between individuals in groups.  SNA typically graphs these relations (aka edges or ties) between individuals (aka nodes) in order to view their structure holistically, since it is that structure that in part determines the identity, attributes, and opportunities of individual nodes.  A quick Google search will show you a lot of diagrams of people’s Twitter and Facebook networks.  Here, for instance, is a map (made by Marc Smith), of the connections among the Twitter users who recently tweeted the words #rw2011 on April 28, 2011.  The National Security Agency has used SNA to study the records of millions of tapped phone calls in order to locate terrorist networks.  Epidemiologists have used it to trace the spread of disease.  The artist Mark Lombardi fused SNA, Sol LeWitt, and Cy Twombly (“these are a few  of my favorite things . . .”) in order to expose networks within and between corporate boards and governments.  If you’ve ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon you’ve basically played around with social networks.

Literary studies has not done a great deal with SNA.  One notable exception is Bonnie Kime Scott’s map of modernism in The Gender of Modernism, although she wasn’t working formally with network theory–which is why the important notion of centrality (more in my post tomorrow) is absent from the diagram.

Scott’s diagram suggests that in order to get a better grasp of what modernism was, we need to expand our purview beyond the ten or so figures we tend to focus on in modernist studies.  I’d add on that we needn’t limit ourselves to authors or even individuals.  Nodes don’t have to be humans, and edge relations can take lots of forms.  We might fruitfully use the methodology to look at characters, genres, publishing houses, periodicals, and even themes in the literary field.  Moretti’s essay, which is not at all about modernism, provides us  an opportunity to think about the prospects of SNA for studying magazine modernism over the next week.  We’ll be taking up this issue again at a roundtable at the Modernist Studies Association meeting (3:30 on Friday October 7) in Buffalo in October, so come by if you’ll be there.

Read the essay.  Comment below.  How can you imagine using SNA to study modernism, magazines, and literature?  And please add your comments to our responses, which will be about Moretti’s essay, about SNA, about Digital Humanities, and, of course, about what any of these things have to do with magazines and modernism.

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