Author Archives: lmrhody

A Method to the Model: Responding to Franco Moretti’s Network Theory, Plot Analysis

The second participant in the MagMods Essay Club is Lisa Rhody, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Maryland.  Her dissertation bridges her interests in digital humanities and Modernism by using network theory to revise existing models of Modernist and postmodern ekphrasis.  She edits the Teaching and Learning News and Teaching Resource Guide for the Center for Teaching Excellence at UMD.

Franco Moretti’s description of his own research and subsequent reactions to Pamphlet 2: Network Theory, Plot Analysis are often framed in the language of time and space.  Moretti refers to network analysis as a way of freezing the narrative progress of Hamlet and capturing the play’s plot all at one glance in a visual display of its character network.  Popular responses, such as Kathryn Schultz’s in The New York Times, focus on the danger of fixating the living, breathing work of literature into the space of a limited and admittedly insufficient network that cannot fully represent the text. Meanwhile responses by literary scholars shape themselves around the limitations of Moretti’s metaphors: Is the model a skeleton? An x-ray? A map?

The language of time and space surrounding Moretti’s work reminds me of the rhetoric of the Sister Arts tradition, in other words, the relationship between poetry and painting that has existed since Horace’s analogy—“as painting, so is poetry.”  In his book Iconology (1990), W. J. T. Mitchell recounts the ut pictura poesis tradition as rife with political, moral, and social anxieties. In Western civilization, the seemingly immediate and transparent image repeatedly challenges the authority of language and by association theology, which must fend off the assault of the deceptively accurate image by explaining it away with words.  At the nexus of this vexed tradition exists a genre of poetry called ekphrasis, defined as the poetic representation of visual representation.  Studies in ekphrasis frequently revolve around the polarities of time (i.e. language) and space (i.e. visual art) as hostile and gendered oppositional forces, one always striving to co-opt and to remediate the other. Continue reading