With his work Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract Models for Literary History (2005) Franco Moretti became one of the most prolific scholars of quantitative literary studies. The idea to incorporate methods and processes of empirical and mathematical sciences into the analysis of literary texts is extended via the Literary Lab, founded in Stanford in 2010: It applies the functioning of the laboratory as a model for humanistic production. Consequently, the reproach of understanding literature in a positivistic approach arises. However, as this conversation with Moretti shows, graphs, maps and trees, which visualize the statistic data, are not the result of positivistic measuring. They are not the aim, not the end of analysis, but they depict that confusion, facilitating a new perspective of the rigid schematic order of the fleeting literary.
Fabian Goppelsröder: Franco, in 1998 you published a book called Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900. Publishing an »atlas« is not precisely what you would expect from a literary critic. In your introduction you mention those who asked you why the hell you would like to focus your work on maps and, as if that was not enough, not on already-existing maps but on the making of new maps!
Thus you start the book with a short explanation of the idea behind your project:
»An atlas of the novel. Behind these words lies a very simple idea: that geography is not an inert container, is not a box, where cultural history ›happens‹, but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes it in depth. Making the connection between geography and literature explicit, then – mapping it: because a map is precisely that, a connection made visible – will allow us to see some significant relationships that have so far escaped us«.1
So, what exactly does a map show that would otherwise without it would pass unnoticed? And how does a map do that?
Franco Moretti: I have to begin with a few words about the prehistory to the idea of the Atlas. A few years before the actual project I was asked to write an essay on European literature for one of these huge histories of Europe appearing at Einaudi. And while working on that I remember reading or re-reading Fernand Braudel, and I found this passage in the book on the Mediterranean where he is talking about the Renaissance and the Baroque. He basically says that we always talk about the enormous influence the Renaissance had, while in fact it is the Baroque that spreads more widely. And then he adds in a footnote that this is just a hunch, because we don’t have atlases of art history. This made me think, and I eventually agreed that such maps might be useful. The idea for the Atlas came up. At first it was supposed to be a collective work. But then the development was such that I finally had to do it on my own. Be that as it may, my initial thoughts were to map literature’s moving in space. This proved to be extremely time-consuming, it was very difficult to gather the data, etc., and so, even though the third chapter of...