Italian by birth and intellectual formation, now long resident on the west coast of the United States and professor at Stanford University, Franco Moretti is one of the major Anglophone literary critics of the contemporary moment. His early works Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (1983) and The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (1987) are milestone studies in their areas, and his subsequent Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Márquez (1995), is something just as interesting, a flawed but wonderfully flamboyant masterpiece. Distant Reading has been published alongside The Bourgeoisie: Between History and Literature (2013) and the two volumes have been reviewed as companion pieces, though in many respects Distant Reading is better read as the third and capstone-volume in a trilogy that includes Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1993) and Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). These latter studies represent a deviation rather than departure from the more historical materialist and formalist concerns of the early volumes towards preoccupations with literary world systems, evolutionary theory, digital humanities and quantitative data analysis. Moretti, that is to say, has not abandoned his earlier interest in the history and sociology of literary forms, but, cumulatively, the interests on display from Atlas of the European Novel onwards have impelled him towards a mode of criticism that now addresses itself to considerably larger scales of analysis (“literary world systems”) and to the massification of research data (as enabled by online digital technologies and networks analysis). Hence the title that names these new commitments, Distant Reading. However, its title notwithstanding, Distant Reading repays close reading.
All of the essays collected in Distant Reading have been previously published, and all but three have appeared in New Left Review, a journal for which Moretti has long served more or less as house literary critic, and the volume that now gathers these pieces is published by Verso, another New Left vehicle. Effectively, this means that Moretti’s work carries something of an imprimatur from the British or Anglophone left, and, even though he has left behind any obvious signs of his early Italian Marxist affiliations, he conceives of his latest critical ventures in Atlas of the European Novel, Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading as contributions to the elaboration of a revised mode of historical materialism, one less invested in the critical grand narratives that have come down to us from Kulturkritik or Lukács or the Frankfurt School and correspondingly more attentive to the possibilities thrown open to contemporary research by world systems theory and by new technologies made available by digital laboratories. “Had we but world enough and time” was the epigraphic sigh that graced Erich Auerbach’s majestic Mimesis, a volume that discussed literary texts running from Homer and the Bible to Joyce and Virginia Woolf, these marshalled on a northwestwards trajectory moving over the ages from the southern Mediterranean world to Northern Europe. Moretti’s wager is that our twenty-first century literary universe is more capacious in scope and less rigidly European-centred than the one that Auerbach could take for granted, and that digital technologies can process data with a velocity that allows the modern researcher more time and scope for meta-analysis than our pre-computerised forebears had at their disposal. As such, the contemporary comparativist has, in principle at least, a considerably wider world but also better technologies to work with than Auerbach had; the problem is to know what to do with this unprecedented opportunity and challenge.
Distant Reading has the merit of acknowledging that both the conditions and horizons of reading in the twenty-first century are substantially different from those that obtained even a few decades ago, and Moretti is surely right that critics cannot respond to this new conjuncture by simply reading more and more books in the downtime (where any remains) between student examination periods; they must, rather, learn to read differently. But, having set himself challenges of this magnitude, how well do Moretti’s essays meet their own test? Do Distant Reading (and Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 and Graphs, Maps, Trees which preceded it) really blast open traditional comparative literature studies to set before us brave new vistas of reading and new research agendas and methods? Does Moretti lay the foundations for a new kind of historical materialism and, if so, what is lost and what gained by a criticism that would follow in the tracks of a Morettian materialism? Comparativist critics worried about the death of their discipline, digital humanists concerned with the birth and legitimation of theirs, Marxists invested in materialist criticisms not so tied to Western Marxism’s geopolitical imaginary and postcolonial critics interested in how to think the relationship between the literatures of the global south and the global north: these are some of the diverse but intersecting constituencies that have a stake in Moretti’s work and it is this overlap of readerships that explains why “Moretti” now seems a controversial and compelling figure and why his recent work comes to its public with a considerable sense of expectation. No work can be expected to wholly satisfy these many and varied audiences, but Moretti likes to play at the high-stakes tables and it is by its capacity to offer something valuable to at least several of these scholarly communities that the success or limitations of Distant Reading must be evaluated.
“Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch”, the opening and most dazzlingly accomplished chapter in Distant Reading, originally published in New Left Review in 1994, is in many respects the key to everything that follows in that volume. The most traditional literary critical exercise in the book in terms of its mode of scholarship, this essay is a tour de force that over some forty-odd pages traces a conspectus of modern ideas of “a European literature,” sets out a number of brilliant hypotheses to explain the formal creativity of that literature in recent centuries, and then, in a gesture worthy of an exasperated God, grandly consigns that whole epoch of achievement decisively to the past. “[A] continent that falls in love with Milan Kundera deserves to end like Atlantis,” Moretti pronounces in the closing passage of this piece, and concludes: “There is not much more to say, the conditions which have granted European literature its greatness have run their course, and only a miracle could reverse the trend. But Europe has probably already had more than its rightful share of miracles.”1 This damning verdict is not likely to be received with much warmth in contemporary Berlin or Brussels, where the architects of the new continental superstate could do with a few miracles these days and where the culture tsars would almost certainly prefer to believe that a truly European literature is only about to begin. But Moretti is adamant that modernism represented the last hurrah for modern European literature and the adieu bid here to Europe and to the idea of European literature on which comparative literature programmes both in Europe and the United States have long rested is what motivates the search for wider literary horizons in the rest of Distant Reading.
The elegiac note registered in the conclusion of Moretti’s opening chapter was, he allows, constitutive of the idea of a European literature from its inception. It was sounded in Novalis’s Christianity, or Europe (1799), a work in which the German poet disputed Kant’s proposition in Toward Perpetual Peace (1795) that a world founded on self-interest and social antagonism can nonetheless bring nearer an era of harmony. Doubting Kant’s Enlightenment confidence or complacency, Novalis looked back with regret to the lost unity of the Middle Ages when Europe had been knit together by the spiritual unity of Christendom centred on Rome. That same commitment to a single European literature founded on the heritages of Christianity and the Roman Empire, Moretti contends, also underpinned Ernest Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, a magnum opus published, not coincidentally, in 1948 as a shell-shocked continent that had been twice devastated within two generations emerged from the fire and brimstone of World War II. For Curtius, and for TS Eliot and Georg Lukács too after their manners, the collapse of European culture portended the impossibility of retaining any sense of totality, the loss of which would be felt as a seepage of meaning leading to new epochs of spiritual anomie, epistemological confusion, and a loss of cultural bearings. For many European intellectuals in this mid-century conjuncture only a return to Christianity or an embrace of communism could salvage this botched European civilisation and restore to it something of its former philosophical coherence, continental integrity and cultural glory.
However, Moretti argues, Novalis’s and Curtius’s supranational conception of Europe was challenged by a second and more modern and Protestant Westphalian idea for which Europe is essentially not imagined as one single continental entity but as a busy ecosystem of nation-states, these latter understood not as the sad detritus of some former integral whole but rather as the real engine of European cultural and intellectual creativity. Announced in François Guizot’s Histoire de la Civilisation en Europe (1828), this alternative Europe no longer looked back for its legitimacy to the Holy Roman Empire but conceived of the continent more positively as a complex, polycentric system in which nation-states and their emergent national literatures were bound together in what Moretti calls “a productive enmity, without which they would all be more insipid”. Conceived thus, Europe must be thought of in archipelagic terms rather than “as a sort of Spain writ large”, and its national literatures are best conceptualised not as wholly discrete entities but as constituent parts of a loosely coordinated kinetic field of forces, the non-centralisation of which allowed more scope for national agency and for productive borrowing and exchange between nations than a strongly-unified or tightly centralised system might enable. Compact enough geographically to facilitate reasonably rapid literary transfers between nations, but nevertheless comprised of societies robustly different enough from each other to avoid the standardisation of Latinity, this modern Europe, Moretti opines, would become for several centuries a veritable factory of new literary morphologies.
One of the earliest signs of the fractious fertility of this polycentric, multi-state Europe is baroque tragedy: a form centred everywhere on the figure of the modern Prince, whose tragedy is “the paradoxical outcome of the violence required by the formation of the nation state”. But even though it shared this much in common across the continent, European baroque drama nonetheless split off from its Senecan template into the different modalities of German Trauerspiel, English revenge tragedy, the theatre of the Spanish siglo de oro, and the French neoclassicism of Racine and Corneille. Such morphological variety, Moretti avers, “needs a broader space than the nation; with more cultural ‘niches’ for mutations to take root, and later contribute to literary evolution”. Literary genres cannot long thrive without scope for diversity and mixing; the small but competitive modern Europe of nation-states proved a remarkably dynamic ecosystem in this regard allowing for both generic transfers but also independent national paths of development.
If the medieval Europe bound together by Latin Christianity was centred on southern Europe, with Rome and imperial Madrid as its religious and political epicentres, the core regions of the Europe of nation-states and their modern literatures were more northerly and Protestant. In this new chequerboard Europe, Spain, a nation that always aspired to be a vast empire, and Italy, a country that never managed to become even a centralised nation-state, waned in literary significance and Holland, France, England and the German states became the continent’s new economic, industrial and imperial powerhouses. But France, the only real survivor of medieval “Romania” to remain a major power in this post-Reformation order, and geographically one located on the interface between this subsiding Mediterranean Europe and the emerging Northern Europe, acted as a kind of telephone exchange or router through which cultural traffic between these old and new worlds and their literary networks still passed. “[T]he centre of the great Western X,” as Moretti pithily puts it, France, now became modern Europe’s cultural capital:
To go from Spain to Holland and Germany, or from England to Italy, one must cross it, let it know of all new ideas, and spread its influence in the opposite direction. Then again, a literary tradition unencumbered by a Dante or a Shakespeare, a Goethe or a siglo de oro: free from the weight of unrepeatable models, French literature is more agile than others, it plays at more tables, always ready to place its bet on the novelties that crop up in the European space. And finally, a great nation-state, yes, but never hegemonic in the political or economic arena: this eternal second best, always under pressure, may well have overinvested in the realm of culture, in the hope of finding there the extra stimuli necessary to succeed in the European rivalry.
And it was from this France, with its formidable inheritances of intellectual cosmopolitanism and literary neoclassicism, that Napoleon would make one last supreme effort to unify Europe, bidding to impose on it a new post-Enlightenment cultural uniformity to replace the older Christian dispensation that the Reformation had shattered. That bid failed, of course, and with it, Moretti suggests, recedes too the literary hegemony of the eighteenth century conte philosophique, a form that had embodied the elite cosmpolitanism of the European upper classes during the âge classique. The elements of narrative suspense or national situatedness that will come to matter so much to the realist novel had counted for very little for the conte; what had mattered was philosophical sparkle and linguistic wit, not plot or thick description. But as the Enlightenment gives way to the French Revolution and as the emergent world of nation-states in which the middle classes now play an altogether greater role than they had done before 1789 advances and deepens, the novel, or more particularly Anglo-French realism and the Bildungsroman form, become hegemonic. For a century after 1814, it would be this “Anglo-French core of great morphological flexibility” that dominated European literature and that would bring the already consolidated basic subspecies of the novel (the Gothic romance, the historical novel, the novel of marriage or adultery) to their highest refinements. “To sum it up in a formula, the conte philosophique had offered a (French) form for the whole of Europe; the Bildungsroman a (European) form pliant enough to adapt itself to each European national space.”
However, if the Bildungsroman, processing and placating the anxieties of bourgeois modernity for the middle classes, becomes the dominant European form of the nineteenth century there were nonetheless areas beyond the Anglo-French core where all was not well. Nation-statehood eluded the German territories and the attendant existential insecurity, Moretti suggests, is reflected in a German monopoly of modern tragic invention: “Lessing, Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist, Büchner, Hebbel, Wagner, Hauptmann …” Russia, a vast feudal marcher-state between Europe and Asia, had its own crises of identity, out of which came the tragic novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the tragic (or anti-tragic?) drama of Chekhov. The Scandinavian countries shared quandaries with their larger German and Russian neighbours and in the works of Ibsen and Strindberg this region triggered modernist theatre, which then found its way back towards the core of the Europe literary system through German Expressionism and Brecht. And in both the old now-declined late medieval Iberian core of imperial Spain and Portugal and the newer Anglo-French core, political Europe had long since burst its own boundaries anyhow in the form of great overseas empires reaching from South America to Asia and Africa. Moreover, in the course of the nineteenth century literary consumption had also been splitting between mass audiences reading popular genres and smaller ones seeking something more refined. As a consequence of these combined pressures of imperial geographical expansion and more diverse and commercially- or educationally-tiered readerships, Moretti posits, the middle way of the realist novel, which had always tried to solve things by sensible liberal compromise, faltered, and after this buckling we have the Big Bang of “the modernist explosion”. Political Europe, in short, had never solved the problem of its chequerboard composition and had in any case also outgrown itself to create a new globalised space for which twentieth century world cities rather than the nineteenth century nation-state would become the critical coordinates. In Austrian literary modernism, the dilemmas issuing from the lack of a strong centre and the collapse of totality found their highest articulation, the implosion of that long-teetering polyglot Central European Empire enacting in proleptic miniature the greater implosion of the whole of Europe to come. And in the transcontinental protomodernisms of Conrad and James or in the modernist epics of Joyce, Eliot and Pound the search was already under way for new literary forms that might be able to solve the problems created by “the disorderly width of an Empire which is a planetary embodiment of nonsynchronism”. But all this activity, which created such a magnificent late harvest of literary innovation, was ultimately to no avail. The Humpty Dumpty of chequerboard Europe had fallen and all the modernist king’s horses and all the postmodernist king’s men were never to put it back together again. Modernism, in this account, is Europe’s bonfire of literary vanities; its luminosities the distress flares of a sinking Atlantis.
Moretti professes not to share the grief of Novalis or Curtius, Eliot or Lukács for this lost world; his ears are stoppered to the sirens of nostalgia, his eyes fixed resolutely on the future. Not for him the “Murmur of maternal lamentation” for “Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria/Vienna, London”. But his verdict nevertheless is absolutely at one with Curtius’s ‑ European literature is dead, RIP. Nevertheless, even if he does not share their sentiment for this imploded world, Moretti does share, questionably, some of the categories central to Novalis, Curtius, and the rest. Like theirs, his “Europe” is essentially a cultural-civilisational geo-political category; his modernism, memorably characterised in Signs taken for Wonders and reaffirmed here as “Europe’s last literary season”, is an essentially European phenomenon. Pound, Eliot, Stein, Stevens, O’Neill and the all larger treasuries of Northern and Southern American literary experiment never trouble his account of “the modernist explosion” which emerges from the wreck of Europe. In other words, when Moretti thinks of what he calls “Europe” he thinks in exclusively geopolitical terms of singular continental systems or polycentric systems of nation-states. His mode of analysis finds no place for any consideration of capitalism or political economy as variables that need to be factored into the grand narrative he so eloquently sketches here. To have done so would have required him to consider the emergence and fate of modernism not simply with reference to a political continent of sorts, “Europe”, but also with reference to the economic history of capitalism. However, the story Moretti tells of the shift of Europe’s centre of gravity from Mediterranean Spain and Italy with their dreams of continental imperium to the post-Reformation Northern Europe of vying nation-states appears without any account of the concurrent rise of capitalism or of that system’s unevenness and inherent contradictions. In this sense, the wider world beyond Europe only opens up for Moretti in the twentieth century after the Europe of productively vying nation-states implodes; it is as though Europe only ceases to matter or other places only begin to matter in literary terms when the European system of nation-states and national literatures has been transferred across the planet.
“A new ‘science’ emerges when a new problem is pursued by a new method.” This is Moretti citing Weber, and from which he deduces:
That’s the point: world literature is not an object, it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method: and no one has ever found a method just by reading more texts. That’s not how new theories come into being; they need a leap, a wager ‑ a hypothesis, to get started.
“Conjectures on World Literature”, the chapter that follows “Modern European Literature” was initially conceived, we are told in a retrospective preface to this much discussed piece, as a lecture to be delivered to the departments of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University during a time of institutional restructuring. As such, the piece’s real addressee is probably David Damrosch, like Moretti a former member of this department, and like him too one of world literature’s new mandarins. Like many comparative literature programmes in the United States, the Columbia one was in all likelihood trying to extend its scope beyond the Romance literatures of Europe to accommodate changing times and new student constituencies, and with Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak also on its faculty the New York school of comparative literature had more reason than most to be aware of the gathering force of critiques of eurocentrism. But whereas the version of “world literature” since promoted by Damrosch has conceived of its subject, in a manner that owes something to Goethe, Arnold and Auerbach, as some kind of expanded canon of “great books” which have earned their elevation to greatness by paying their passage through translation and global circulation, Moretti in this piece demurs and proposes his own alternative. One will never get beyond the limitations of the old comparative literature canon, he admonishes, simply by adding non-Western “great books” to the West’s “great books” to create a grand multilingual canon for the twenty-first century. Rather, what is needed, he advises, is some more theoretical way of thinking about “the world” and the relations of economic and cultural power that sustain it, and some newer technologies of research and reading that might be able to address an expanded field of analysis. “World Literature” then, is what comes after the death of European literature, and “it’s not an object, it’s a problem.” And for Moretti, a Wallersteinian version of world systems theory and digital technologies will in combination supply the keys to this new kingdom.
So what then is a literary world system? For Moretti, the world capitalist system as theorised by Wallerstein is “a system that is simultaneously one, and unequal: with a core, and a periphery (and a semi-periphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality” (italics in the original). The formulation demands close attention because it suggests not merely that the diverse national economies of the world are all unevenly and unequally incorporated within a single system, but that they are also, more acutely, locked in a relationship “of growing inequality”. By analogy, the world literary system too, Moretti deduces, is also “one and unequal” and hence it is the destiny of a culture of the periphery to be “Intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that ‘completely ignores it’”. For Moretti, the diffusion of the European novel to all parts of the globe from roughly 1750 onwards is one indicator of the singularity of the contemporary world system, and a sign of the enormous pressure that the prestigious Anglo-French core of that system was able to exert on all cultures, whether those on the peripheries of Europe itself or in the continents beyond Europe. Even so, he stipulates, the local and regional cultures of the world are too variable and obdurate to allow for the imposition of any systemic uniformity on a global scale and thus what we get in modern times is not a literary world made in the image of the Anglo-French realist novel, but rather one of morphological accidents (some unhappy, some generative) when the European form of the novel is adapted to new circumstances. As such, the modern novel emerges “just about everywhere as a compromise between Western European patterns and local reality”, and since local realities are themselves remarkably diverse so too are the modalities of core-periphery formal compromise. As the European form is diffused to other cultures triangulated collisions involving “foreign form, local material ‑ and local form” (italics in the original) produce novels of many varieties. The vast majority of these compromised forms are deemed, even or perhaps especially in their home cultures, to be deficient versions of metropolitan exemplars, but a fortunate few yield results more interesting than the European imports that initially inspired them. Thus, the one-and-unequal nature of the world system doesn’t just refer to the material institutional networks of publishing firms, educational systems or academies that mediate the transfer or reception of literary goods; it is also stamped in various ways on the symbolic forms and genres that emerge out of the interferences between core and peripheral regions. Cores, by definition within this model, must be dynamic centres of literary innovation and morphological novelty and peripheries for their part are destined generally, despite some fortunate exceptions, to be either passive imitators or canny adaptors and re-mediators of core products.
Given its apparent significance to his later work, Moretti’s conception of the world literary system outlined here seems in many respects remarkably sketchy and hastily improvised. What he borrows from Wallerstein is essentially a few key terms (a system that is one and unequal and comprised of cores and peripheries connected unevenly in relationships of dependency), but that seems to be almost as far as his investment in world systems goes. Neither Distant Reading nor Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Márquez discloses much interest in the idea of a historical world system to be found in the wider oeuvres of Wallerstein or Fernand Braudel and Moretti also seems to be uninterested in the wider theoretical debates provoked by world systems analysis. Contributions to word systems analysis, such as Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350 (1989) or Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998), which have attempted to theorise the operations of world systems before and after the Western European-centred one, do not engage Moretti’s attention in any telling way.2 The work of Moretti’s fellow-countryman Giovanni Arrighi, whose The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (1994) is surely one of the most subtle elaborations of world systems analysis ever attempted, is never mentioned, even though it had appeared to considerable interest some six years before “Conjectures” was published.3 In that work, Arrighi had tried to bring the variable, semi-autonomous histories of capital, empires and state systems into precisely the kind of grand analytical synthesis that is lacking in “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch”. And in her La république mondiale des lettres, published in Paris in 1999, and thus presumably available when Moretti was working on this essay, Pascale Casanova had also produced a version of literary world systems analysis that was in some respects historically richer in conception than Moretti’s.4
To some degree, therefore, Moretti’s notion of the global literary world system might seem to be merely a projection writ large of his earlier conception of Europe as outlined in “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch” where the fundamental tension, as we have seen, was that between the continent as a complex system and its component nation-states bound together in the dynamic interplay of what he had there described as “a productive enmity, without which they would all be more insipid”. However, in “Conjectures” the stress shifts, as we move scale from “Europe” to the wider world, from the productive rivalries of the European state system and its constituent member-states to the relations of unevenness and dependency that supposedly define the current global system, and this in turn shifts attention from European-style national literary competition around an Anglo-French core to the dynamics of literary imitation and adaption that follow from this unevenness on a planetary level. To rephrase matters: in the European instance, the dynamic between the component nation-states and the larger European system of which they were constitutive parts was conceived by Moretti to be fractious but fertile for literary innovation, but when it comes to the wider scale of the world system as a whole the dynamic that really matters seems no longer to be one of “productive enmity” but rather one of literary domination and resistance. Thus, in “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch” the stress falls on the culturally productive rivalries between England, France, Germany and Russia that created the wealth of modern European national literatures and forms, whereas in “Conjectures” we find no equivalent reflection on productive literary rivalries between, say, the United States, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Brazil, Argentina or India. We get instead accounts of why core literary regions can dominate the literary world system and why peripheral regions are fated to imitate the literary inventions of core regions or to combine them with their own local forms to undertake inventions of their own that will eventually be recognized and consecrated in the core.
Nevertheless, even allowing for this shift of stress as he moves from “Europe” to “the world”, there are deeper problems here even within the terms of the system as construed by Moretti himself. After all, the capitalist world system as conceived by Wallerstein posited an economic world that was defined by a relationship “of growing inequality”, this giving us an affluent Northern core keeping an impoverished South in its crushing headlock. However, even if we accept that this adequately describes the current global economic system, does the analogy hold for the literary world system? Wasn’t it in fact the key thesis of “Modern European Literature” that after centuries of remarkable literary innovation Europe’s capacity for further innovation had been exhausted, with modernism appearing as the wonderfully crazy last act that marked the close of European literature’s grand concert? By this logic, this exhausted Europe must have ceased to be a core of the world literary system within at least a few decades after World War II and hence the literary world system ought thereafter to become in consequence more equal (when European literary domination ended in modernist burnout) ‑ and thus to be moving in a direction converse to Wallerstein’s economic world system, which posits a deepening inequality. Or else (since the system is supposed to be one and unequal) the core of the system must have shifted away from Europe (after its burnout) and the world-system must now be centred somewhere else. But which is it? A literary world system in our time becoming more or less unequal as the old Anglo-French core loses its nineteenth and early twentieth century dynamism and prestige? A core shifting away from a Europe becoming less innovative in the wake of modernism, but shifting to where? Because the only examples that illustrate how the literary world system works that Moretti ever discusses concern the dissemination of the nineteenth-century Anglo-French realist novel, which is to say the forms that dominated the era of European global supremacy, there are no answers to these questions in Distant Reading. Instead, what we get are Moretti’s snapshots of what he supposes the world literary system might have looked like between, roughly, 1750 and 1914 or perhaps 1945.
To his credit, Moretti does try to address some of the deficiencies of “Conjectures” in later chapters of Distant Reading, particularly in “More Conjectures”, “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltliteratur” and “The End of the Beginning: A Reply to Christopher Prendergast”. In “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltliteratur” he now allows that there might actually have been two literary world systems, a pre-capitalist one characterised by a mosaic of different cultures. (But was it then in any real sense a single world system?) Oughtn’t we to speak, rather, of multiple, overlapping non-modern world literary systems in which new forms were generated mostly by means of divergence, and a more centralised modern capitalist system, which begins in the eighteenth century with the establishment of an international literary marketplace, and the principal logic of which is cultural homogenisation and then diffusion and hence a tendential convergence of forms. In “More Conjectures” he allows too that “Conjectures” had essentially reduced the world literary system to cores and peripheries; Moretti now wants to give more weight to semi-peripheries ‑ zones of occult instability where the volume and speed of two-way literary-intellectual traffic between core and periphery is thickest. (Indeed, in an expanded version of “Evolution, World Systems, Weltliteratur” he will attribute modernism largely to the semi-periphery of that system.)5
These modifications certainly afford Moretti’s conception of the literary world system some greater conceptual agility. But on certain key points he is insistent. To his critics who argue that he allows the peripheries of the world system only passive or second-order powers of receptivity or adaptivity, Moretti replies that, yes, the movement of forms can proceed in multiple directions (and not just outwards from the centre in diffusionist waves). But, he responds, modern history at least suggests that movement from one regionally ‑ or linguistically ‑ distant periphery to another periphery that does not pass on its way through the centre “is almost unheard of”. Movement from the periphery to the centre is less rare, though still relatively unusual, while that from centre to periphery is commonest. This need not imply, he stresses, that the West has a monopoly of intellectual vitality or over the creation of the literary forms that count. To the contrary, as even the relationship of France and England shows, the society that is politically and economically hegemonic need not be culturally hegemonic; the fate of being “an eternal second” had encouraged a French compensatory investment in culture that made French literature more formally inventive than its English counterpart. Since material and intellectual-cultural hegemony are not the same even within the core region itself, then presumably the peripheries of the system at large can also experience bursts of intellectual and literary creativity that matter at home and internationally. But even then, Moretti qualifies, the inherent inequality of the system, which confers on the core control over the mechanisms of transfer between regions, ensures that even innovative peripheral forms are usually captured by the core, modified and “improved” there to the core’s own purposes, and then diffused outwards again from that core across the rest of the system. Walter Scott’s elaboration of the historical novel, a Scottish invention absorbed into the London culture industry and then recycled across the world as the creation of an “English” Scott, is Moretti’s example of this phenomenon.6 But here again, as in Moretti’s work generally, as also indeed in Casanova’s, the stress falls on the centre’s capacity to appropriate and re-function to its own ends novelties from the periphery; Moretti’s concept of the world system cannot account for the fact that peripheries can also sometimes at least fundamentally change things or impel literary paradigm shifts at the core of the system.
Though it may wound some sensibilities for whom all cultures are created inherently equal, Moretti’s determination on this point is mostly to be admired. Those who want to maintain that peripheral literatures are, on the one hand, the products of zones that have suffered ongoing economic exploitation, political domination and cultural subordination by the centre and yet, on the other hand, wish to insist also that these regions were simultaneously marvels of literary creativity surely want to have it both ways. The term “periphery” implies by definition off-centredness and relative destitution and dependency of some kind, and thus it makes no sense to argue that literary peripheries were somehow as rich in cultural innovation and accumulated symbolic capital as the acknowledged centres of the literary system and that the cores of the world system have simply churlishly refused to acknowledge this. World systems theory, as Moretti notes, is designed to explain how inequality is systemically created and sustained, not to abolish inequality (though presumably explaining how an unequal system works is a necessary first step towards change).7
Nevertheless, Moretti’s handling of the peripheries remains unsatisfying on several levels. In the first instance, as Jérȏme David objects in a passage cited by Moretti in his preface to “More Conjectures”, it is difficult to work out if peripheries have any logically necessary function at all within Moretti’s system.8 The capitalist world system, David observes, structurally needs economic peripheries as sites of cheap labour and raw materials, but in what equivalent sense do literary cores systemically require literary peripheries? If the cores are the places where formal innovation is concentrated, then aren’t they more or less autonomous and thus what systemicallynecessary functions, if any, do literary peripheries fulfil at all? Surely Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Alexander Dumas or Émile Zola didn’t really need imitators in peripheral Ireland, Egypt, Brazil, Estonia or Venezuela in the same way that their contemporary English and French financiers and industrialists needed raw materials, cheap workforces or export markets in these regions? Weakly, Moretti concedes this point. He might have answered perhaps that David’s objection presupposes too absolute a separation of literary and economic world systems; the two ought certainly not be superimposed on each other or conflated because material and intellectual capital do not always converge; but neither are they wholly distinct. In this sense, the core’s economic-political hegemony does not chronologically precede its amassed stocks of literary and symbolic capital, which then offer a retrospective coronation of the core’s ascendancy; rather, the accumulation of literary and symbolic capital are some of the many means by which what would otherwise be crude domination by a power centre over its zones of influence is converted into hegemony; the dissemination of prestigious cultural forms is just one of the several ways in which an unequal system normalises and reproduces itself. Moreover, one of the things that makes Dickens “Dickens” and Dumas “Dumas,” and not simply English or French writers of urban melodramas and swashbuckling romances, is precisely that they are read well beyond their homelands, and in order to establish and sustain that kind of symbolic capital they do need readers, critics and indeed imitators on all continents. The core literatures of England and France did not, then, need peripheries in the same way English or French industries needed raw cotton from India, slave labour in the southern regions of the United States, and colonial markets for finished English goods; but both empires created whole new education systems and literary markets in the colonial world and the prestige of empire and of metropolitan European literatures were taken as a given in these.
And isn’t it also the case that having peripheries adds significantly to the stature of those central national literatures competing with each other for prestige within the core-region? In the eighteenth century French literature had an advantage perhaps over England in that the French language enjoyed greater international prestige, especially with the nobilities and intelligentsias of Europe and beyond. But the fact that the North American continent (the United States and Canada) was eventually to be largely an English rather than a French or Spanish language sphere was surely one of the things that contributed to the fact that English literature was eventually able to compete so closely with French literature for prestige. Likewise, the fact that one of England’s nineteenth century literary peripheries, namely the United States, would not only create its own robust national literature but in the twentieth century also become the hegemonic world power (in economic, political and to some degree cultural terms) has obviously been crucial to the fact that English has now displaced French to become the language of contemporary globalisation and that Anglophone literatures consequently enjoy in our era far greater planetary circulation (if not always greater automatic prestige) than their Francophone counterparts. In sum, peripheries matter to the centre in ways that are different from how centres matter to peripheries, but both matter to each other.
If Moretti never deals strongly with this or other criticisms of the way in which he thinks of peripheries in his literary world system the real reason perhaps is that he has always been particularly uninterested in peripheries and in their literary predicaments or products. In the preface to “Modern European Literature” he tells us that in his early days as a critic he, like most comparativists, relied on a selective canon of European masterpieces; now, he assures us, he has left this small canon of sacred texts behind and feels no regret for so doing ‑ the demands of world literature and quantitative analysis require new pursuits that leave no time for such melancholy. Maybe. But it is astonishing that Moretti as a theorist of world literature, and as someone who argues in his opening chapter that Europe’s epoch as a literary core has long since reached its sunset, has never in the course of his career offered even one chapter-length study of what one might call a peripheral writer of some accomplishment. Certainly, he will cite admiringly Roberto Schwartz on Machado de Assis or Antonio Candido on Alusío Azevedo or Benedict Anderson on José Rizal.9 And for “Conjectures” he has indeed read a great stack of literary histories of the non-European novel. Indeed, this is precisely what “distant reading” means for Moretti: because we can know at best only a few literatures, but need to know more than a few to understand the operational logics by which a world system operates, we need to learn to trust those experts who have already written the histories and deliberated on the forms and styles of other literatures. Fair enough. But, leaving aside the difficulty that the literary histories of peripheries that we are encouraged to read may themselves of course be imitative or even slavishly derivative models of European literary histories, there is at any rate nothing to dictate that this is an all-or-nothing situation and that one cannot combine some distant with some closer reading. And surely a strategic combination of the two might occasionally at least afford better results than either one or other of these methods on its own (and Moretti has certainly shown himself to be a scintillatingly brilliant close reader in his earlier volumes)? But for Moretti the periphery is always viewed at second hand, as though observed from a high-altitude satellite. The short but wonderful coda in Modern Epic on magical realism and Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably the nearest we get in Moretti’s work to an extended commentary on a non-European literary form or literary classic. If he is seriously interested in centre-periphery dynamics or in the achievements of the peripheries, however occasional or sporadic and in that sense anti-systemic he might deem them, then surely a chapter on, say, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Miguel Ángel Asturias’s Men of Maize, Ousmane Sembène’s Xala or Assia Djebar’s Fantasia (to choose at random only a few well-known works written within metropolitan European languages) might lend some empirical literary grist to his theoretical mill. Moretti has moved a distance since “The Long Goodbye” in Signs Taken For Wonders, when he had declared “I have dealt ‑ and shall continue to deal ‑ with Joyce and Ulysses as expressions of English society and culture” on the basis that if “Joyce were an Irish writer, comprehensible and containable without any loose threads within Irish culture, he would no longer be Joyce; if the city of Ulysses were the real Dublin of the turn of the century, it would not be the literary image par excellence of the modern metropolis”.10 His concept of the semi-periphery might now, presumably, check this dismissive formulation a little and relax the bluff dogmatism of an older comparativism for which only metropolitan literatures mattered and anything that emerged elsewhere could be somehow annexed to them anyway. But the refusal in that essay to attach any significance to Joyce as anything other than a typical metropolitan writer in effect if not in biographical origin persists in the later Moretti in the form of the slightness of his engagement with peripheral writers of any sort, his determination to theorise the conditions of their literary existence notwithstanding. Thus, the farewell that Moretti bids to European literature at the outset of Distant Reading is itself rather a longer goodbye than might appear. We get numerous reformulations of the relationship between core and periphery in Distant Reading, but, one or two very short excursions on the Chinese novel excepted, nothing more than glimpses from afar of peripheral writers ‑ distant reading becoming remote reading perhaps? Indeed, a volume that begins by bidding adieu to the small canon of great European texts ends, oddly enough, with a lengthy concluding chapter on Hamlet, the most hyper-canonical and sacred of all Western literary works. Like Stephen Dedalus, would-be cosmopolitan who spreads his wings to fly the nets of provincial Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man only to find himself back in the same old city at the beginning of Ulysses, so too Moretti soars and circles magnificently for flight in Distant Reading, only very often to alight again with a thud in Paris or London.
The world literary system as theorised by Moretti is essentially synchronic, a durable macrostructure. As mentioned earlier, he allows in principle that another nonmodern world system may have preceded the modern one, but that previous dispensation is deemed a separate entity, and no account is offered of how a modern world system might have emerged out of a non-modern one, or of whether the latter might have continued to be of residual significance even when assimilated into the infrastructure of its modern successor. By the same token, even though by Moretti’s own reasoning the modern world system centred on France and England ought to be undergoing some significant realignment or even transformation in our own historical moment, this too goes untheorised. We are dealing, in short, with an autotelic model of the world system, so how does Moretti allow for historical change and diachronic movement within this world? A Darwinist evolutionary theory provides him with his prime model of change.
Evolution has always mattered to Moretti; the last chapter of Signs Taken For Wonders is titled “On Literary Evolution” and in that piece he had already identified Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould as the conceptual sources for his thinking on the matter. Evolutionary theory resolves for Moretti how literary forms change in time and why some forms enjoy great success and are replicated (with compromise and variation) across the literary system whereas multitudes of other co-existing possible forms have limited durability and fade. For Moretti, Darwinian theory is dualist and
disjoins literary history in two halves, in two separate stages. Chance alone will be active in the first stage, in which rhetorical variations are generated; social necessity will preside over the second stage, in which variations are historically selected.
In that essay Moretti deploys this theory, with typical aplomb, to the history of the European novel divided into three phases: genesis, success, problematisation. In the eighteenth century, he surmises, there were many different types of novel and even though in the English field alone Defoe, Fielding, Richardson and Swift were chronologically close to each other, the forms they practised were remote in kind. In this random field of possibilities there was, he contends, no predetermined winner, nor was there some peaceful step-by-step progress towards the nineteenth century realist novel. Rather, what happened, Moretti proposes, was that from this crowded and diverse eighteenth century field the nineteenth century retrospectively “selected” Fielding and the Bildungsroman and gave that form a retrospective centrality which made all other forms peripheral. This selection was socially determined rather than literary determined because the Bildungsroman answered better than other forms to the tremendous social pressures of the new society that emerged out of the French and Industrial revolutions: stories dealing with the turmoil and crucial decisions of youth on the verge of adult responsibility expressed the excitement and anxiety of a modern post-aristocratic temporality which looked to the future rather than the past for its sense of legitimacy while the socialisation of the protagonist suggested that in modernity we must accept that freedom is ultimately limited and that we must as adults contain and internalise contradiction and learn to accept frustration and compromise. And once the Bildungsroman had emerged as the dominant form it went viral, so to speak, all across Europe and beyond, relegating the satirical novel, the conte philosophique, the picaresque, the epistolary novel, and other forms, either to perdition or to lesser literary status.
This formal “solution” to modernity’s social needs breaks down only when European modernity is wholly globalised by means of capitalist imperialism and this new crisis precipitates an era of the problematisation of the novel form ‑ modernism in other words ‑ and in this short phase, which lasts only for one generation, numerous varieties of novel again proliferate. “Long periods of boredom, short periods of terror”: this for Moretti is the typical tempo of literary history. In sum, “In both the eighteenth and twentieth century, novelistic experiments span roughly over one generation: in between these two crises, if not boredom proper, we have no doubt a remarkably long stability.” Short bursts of crises punctuate longer periods of stability for Moretti, but the word is “crisis”, not “transition”; his work allows that one system can succeed another but, rather like Foucault’s in this respect, it lacks a theory of transition and cannot explain how one system is transmuted into or replaced by another.11
If Darwinian theory furnishes Moretti with an explanatory mechanism for how forms change over time, diffusionism, a term also taken from evolutionary theory, explains what happens vertically across the system. The establishment of an international literary market in the eighteenth century provided the vehicle for planetary diffusion; in the long period of stability that extended across the nineteenth century the emergence of a small number of prestigious novel forms in the Anglo-French core further facilitated this tendency. And then “books from the core were incessantly exported into the semi-periphery and the periphery, where they were read, admired, imitated, turned into models ‑ thus drawing those literatures into the core ones, and indeed ‘interfering’ with their autonomous development.” These diffusionist outflows, Moretti adds, “imposed a stunning sameness on the literary system; wave after wave of epistolary fiction, or historical novels, or mystères, dominated the scene everywhere.” Some genres, Moretti suggests elsewhere, travel better than others. In the case of world of cinema, he argues in “Planet Hollywood”, American action moves, because they are largely independent of language, travel very well; American comedy films, by contrast, travel much less well, as do literary comedies generally, because jokes presume too much nuanced insider cultural knowledge or require linguistic complexity. The simpler forms of novel ‑ the adventure novel, the detective mystery, the Bildungsroman ‑ which offer the highest level of narrativity, are the most widely diffused and it is from these basic forms, Moretti suggests, that theories and histories of the novel should start, and not from the refinements of the form in Henry James, Kafka or Joyce, because complex forms that demand intensive reading are the exception, the real freaks of Western novelistic evolution, not the rule.
In a fascinating interlude in “The Novel: History and Theory”, Moretti, drawing on the works of David L Rolston and Ming Dong Gu, compares the Chinese and European literary traditions.12 By the early seventeenth century, he notes, the Chinese already had a settled canon of great novels at a time when Europe had none, though the latter did have established canons for epic, tragedy and the lyric. Moreover, the Chinese also had an elaborate system of critical commentary on their novelistic canon and devoted an intense intellectual investment to the work of editing, revising and commentary on those novels. And from around 1600 onwards the Chinese novel underwent “an extended aesthetic turn” or a self-conscious emulation of prestigious poetic forms; in other words, there was an elevation of the Chinese novel into the art novel of the kind that Mark McGurl has proposed for the American modernist novel after Henry James.13 Nineteenth century Europe might have followed this seventeenth century Chinese path of development, Moretti speculates, because the potential was to hand “in an incredibly gifted generation of German poet-novelists (Goethe, Hölderlin, Novalis, Schlegel, Von Arnim, Brentano) ‑ if they hadn’t been roundly ignored by European readers”. But this neglect of the German aesthetic novel was determined by the development of a consumer capitalism that created the demand for more and lighter novels, ones that catered to extensive or rapid rather than intensive reading. The Anglo-French adventure novel, the vehicle of an expansive capitalism which moralises war as the chivalric rescue of other cultures from dark forces (the form which therefore gives us a version of “military humanism” long before Noam Chomsky coined the term) answers very well to these conditions and gave Europe a very different prototype for its novel to the far more elaborate Chinese version.
There are many things to ponder here. First, Moretti’s conception of modern literature seems to be to have a somewhat Tocquevillian cast.14 By this I mean that, like Tocqueville, Moretti tends to see modern liberal democratic capitalist cultures as having an admirable energy ‑ all that creative activity that goes into the rise of the European novel or into national literary rivalries ‑ but generally to produce forms that are more intellectually crude than those typical of non-modern and aristocratic societies: European innovation and extensive reading or the adventure novel versus the Chinese aesthetic or art novel and intensive reading. There is a dialectical logic at work of course; the cruder forms of Western novel provoke a Western backlash of complex forms so the West also generates Jameses, Joyces, Prousts, Woolfs, Steins and Célines to protest the trivialities of the adventure novel and the liberal compromises of the Bildungsroman. Nevertheless: as with Tocqueville, modern literary complexity is the anomaly; crudity, as in “Planet Hollywood” or “The Novel: History and Theory”, the rule. Second, as noted earlier, Moretti’s conception of things generally ‑ whether one thinks of evolution or of the world system as a whole ‑ seems to have a distinct proclivity towards stasis or certainly stability. The diffusionist waves of novels pouring out from the cores into the semi-peripheries and peripheries lead towards a greater convergence at the level of forms so that even as the modern world literary system widens it becomes more, not less, homogeneous or uniform in literary terms. Similarly, the world system, the macrostructure within which this evolutionary morphological activity unfolds, remains rather fixed: nothing much seems to happen structurally at this level. There are, admittedly, those “short periods of terror” sandwiched between “long periods of boredom” when the tempo of literary change accelerates rapidly and the hegemony of long-dominant forms collapses and experimental ferment breeds a new diversity of forms where previously convergence and uniformity had prevailed. And in the later Moretti these crises are allowed to occur in the semiperipheries rather than exclusively in the core of the world system. Interestingly, if we construe modernism as a crisis of this order, then one could say that as the velocity of politico-economic history speeds up (giving us world wars, great depressions, and fascist and communist challenges to liberal democracy) modernist poetry, drama and the novel operate in an opposite direction and act to slow things down ‑ by becoming, firstly, so complex and difficult just to read, and, secondly, so hard for national societies or cultural establishments to digest or assimilate ‑ in the literary world. That is to say, modernist forms like Ulysses, The Waste Land, The Waves, The Duino Elegies, The Cantos or, in exemplary fashion, À la recherche du temps perdu, slow time down by according formal complexity priority over plot momentum and by demanding intensive reading rather than the forward drive of narrativity (reading for the plot) ‑ hence the complaint, so often reiterated, the modernism is “boring.”
But even though his system has a place for crises, in most respects Moretti’s conception of crises (“a rapid transition between stable states”) seems to dismiss them as anticlimactic affairs, blustery agitations at the bottom of sturdy teacups. And since successful literary forms seem to be those that are selected by society because they offer at least imaginary solutions to real problems, then even in epochs of crisis literature for Moretti almost invariably tends towards a reproductive functionalism: in Modern Epic, for example, Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique is deemed “successful”, where the versions cultivated by other writers are not because Joyce’s aesthetic is the most serviceable to the modern subject in a world of consumer capitalist data and sensory overload and distraction. In other words, the Joyce version of stream of consciousness helps the modern subject to cope with the lived realities of monopoly capitalism just as the Bildungsroman had offered symbolic solutions to the bourgeois subject struggling to adapt to the contradictions of industrial capitalism in an earlier and more nation-statist phase of its development.15 The capitalist world system may produce crisis and even chaos, but the literary world system displays a busyness that always tends in Moretti’s work to help readers to cope with and adapt to the modern mess.
There is surely much to be said for all this. But didn’t more happen in the modernist epoch than simply the proliferation of new forms and the inordinate exuberance and then exhaustion of European literary inventiveness? For one thing, the epoch witnessed the emergence of two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and with their emergence an attendant relative provinicialisation of old Europe. The birth of new visual media ‑ the radio, cinema, television, and later the computer ‑ with huge narrative potential and drastic consequences for the novel and theatre especially was another development without precedent, one that seems generally to have deflated the significance of the literary. The emergence of the transnational corporation, supranational octopus-institutions with tentacles reaching across several continents, was also unprecedented. Collectively, these new superpowers, new media and new multinational corporations must also have changed the relationship between core and periphery, increasing speed of contact and reducing time differences even as regions became even more segmented and hierarchically tiered in terms of manufacture. And wasn’t this also the period when literary capitals finally moved again just as once they had moved from southern to northern Europe? However, this time the direction was westwards when literary London was slowly but surely overshadowed by literary New York and when the American university system became wealthier and more prestigious than the older European one, this latter phenomenon impelling a huge intellectual migration (of which Moretti himself is part) from a declining European to an emerging and then dominant new North American centre. This was the epoch, too, when Moscow ceased to be a backward capital of a vast marcher-empire on the furthest edges of Europe and Asia and became the centre, for seven decades at least, of a wholly new communist world system spanning Eastern Europe and much of Asia. And, finally, in this era the colonies and peripheries of the European world system mounted a resistance to the political power of the centre altogether stronger than any they could mobilise in the nineteenth century, a resistance with intellectual and literary as well as political consequences. In “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch”, Moretti argues that Europe ceased to be a source of literary innovation after modernism, but he never provides any evidence for this other than an amusing sideswipe at the inflated reputation of Milan Kundera. Might it not be argued more convincingly that what happened is not so much that the creativity of the European core of the literary world system suddenly juddered to a halt after the modernist Big Bang (and that creativity had in any case always been more reliant on imports from other literatures and on inwards migration from the peripheries than Moretti allows) as that the coordinates of the nineteenth-century world system were seriously reconfigured: the old literary capitals of Paris and London were challenged after 1914 by new ones emerging in Moscow and New York (and by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its MFA program offshoots from the 1930s onwards); simultaneously, new national literatures in the old English and French colonial worlds also emerged to offer challenges of a different sort of their own. European creativity may or may not have slowed after modernism; what mattered more was that England and France no longer commanded the system as a whole nearly so firmly as they had done before World War II and thus what happened in literary terms in that older duopolistic core no longer seemed to be the only thing that mattered any more.
It is in this context perhaps that one might argue that the overarching structure of the literary world system (and not just the forms of the novel or other media elaborated within this system) underwent some sort of modification in the last century for which Moretti has no real theoretical concepts to offer. In the Anglophone world, it might be suggested, the old centre, challenged internally by the semi-peripheral modernisms of the Celtic Fringe, switched across the Atlantic to the United States and was re-established in New York. In the Hispanophone literary region there was no single new capital to dominate the whole of South America in the manner in which New York dominated the northern reach of the continent; Paris, therefore, remained the de facto capital of Latin American literature for longer than London remained the capital of the Anglophone world. But after the magical realist “boom” ‑ a curious phenomenon in which European surrealism, Latin American uneven development and literary creativity, and North American literary importation and canonisation all have a role ‑ the centre of Hispanic literature followed its Anglophone cousin across the Atlantic also perhaps. There are in any event scarcely any twentieth century Iberian Spanish fiction writers with world visions or global reputations to match those of Borges, Asturias, Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar or, late Bolaño; no poet from the Iberian peninsula (even allowing for the magnificent Lorca) with the grandeur of vision of Neruda. And if today American or American-based critics like Moretti and other “world literature” folks are finally paying attention to the novel in India or China isn’t this really because in our moment the capitalist world system is beginning to be realigned more rapidly again too, and with consequences that will play themselves out in all sorts of curious and unpredictable ways for literature and culture and indeed for the Western university system at large. This is not to argue that the American century has ended, not yet at least. But since 1989, the political hegemony that the United States asserted over much of the world during the Cold War has given way for now at least to cruder forms of domination and in the meanwhile emerging world hegemons such as China have begun gingerly to assert themselves by means of “soft power”, something to which literature, cinema, and the visual arts have things to contribute.
Moretti’s Distant Reading makes interesting bids throughout to convert a static structuralism into a dynamic historical formalism, but, as he himself half acknowledges, evolutionary theory “has no equivalent for the idea of social conflict” – twentieth century communism or communist literature hardly ever registers anywhere in Moretti’s work (just as it does not in Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters) ‑ and functionalism by its nature has a tendency towards systemic inertia or at least to stress continuity rather than change. Distant Reading is not wrong to highlight the elements of conservatism and convergence that are fundamental to twentieth century capitalist literature and culture; too many literary critics do the reverse and see subversiveness acting out its stuff on every literary street-corner, so much so that one wonders why all the subverting changes so little. But a Darwinian evolutionism misses too much of the contradiction and chaos and tendential crisis of the capitalist world order and Moretti’s theorising of the literary world system needs to venture further beyond European modernism to get a fix on something of this. After all, it is on the peripheries of our world that some of the most ruthlessly breakneck “five year plans” and state-orchestrated forced modernisations have occurred, and it is in these areas too that the free-market “shock doctrines” of “disaster capitalism” have been most ruthlessly applied. The manner in which the world literary system operates in such regions needs more attentive analysis than Moretti (or Casanova) seem prepared to devote to it.
How much does the shift towards quantitative macro-analysis in the later chapters of Distant Reading add to the volume? The answer, unfortunately, has to be not much. In the prefatory remarks to “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltliteratur” Moretti observes that when rereading the essays to be included he realised that “both evolution and world-systems theory began to play far less a far less important role in my research” and he attributes this partly to his greater awareness of the inherent flaws in the application of each of these methods to the study of literature and partly to an increased commitment to quantitative research institutionalised by the creation of the Stanford Literary Lab in 2010. In his view, digital humanities are creating a vast new online literary archive of unprecedented dimensions and the sheer expanse of the new corpus of materials this makes available and the speed of computer-generated search engines make possible modes of stylistic and other investigations “that previous generations could only dream of” In “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles (British Novels, 1740-1850)” and “Network Theory Plot Analysis” he discloses some of the results of this new phase of collaborative research modelled on the hard sciences.
In “Style, Inc.” Moretti examines a metamorphosis of titles in eighteenth century British novels and tries to deduce its causes and consequences. For much of the eighteenth century novel titles were long and by contemporary standards hugely unwieldy; in the later 1700s they shortened in the space of two generations to fewer words and simultaneously become much more similar to each other. In the early phases of the novels, Moretti deduces, long titles were needed to orient readers and to offer purchasers as much guidance and information as possible about what they were purchasing. But as the market for novels grew and the public became more familiar with the form the need for this kind of loquacious guidance diminished; moreover, as the total number of novels increased, and with them there developed new apparatuses of reviewing and transmission, the title-cum-summary became less useful and in a more crowded marketplace publishers had to catch readers’ attentions faster: shorter, snappier titles served this purpose better. The market-determined shift to short titles, Moretti adds, was not value-free. When a couple of words have to indicate something salient about works of hundreds of pages this creates stronger expectations of narrative coherence, and the resulting compression of title and greater unity of plot facilitated in turn the crystallisation of genres such as the adventure novel, marriage novel, industrial novel, mystery, or whatever.
“Network Theory, Plot Analysis” brings network theory to bear on the plot of Hamlet and then on Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and a Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber). Network theory is a form of data retrieval that allows for studies of how characters interconnect in a work, whether by physical proximity or speech exchange, and what Moretti discovers is that while the two most interconnected characters in Hamlet (those most densely meshed by speech acts with other characters) are the rivals Hamlet and Claudius, each connected to almost everyone else at court, Horatio too is a significant link-figure, connecting the audience less to others in the court of Elsinore but more to those with ties beyond Denmark such as Fortinbras, soldiers, sailors, ambassadors and other functionaries. “Horatio,” Moretti concludes, “has a function in the play, but not a motivation” So what? Intuitions are good, but concepts are better, Moretti observes as he defends computational analysis and network theory, but in the end, or so it seems to me at any rate, he has to rely on a great deal of intuition to do anything with his statistical findings. Horatio’s connections to the world beyond Elsinore, and to people with a function outside the Danish court, suggest to Moretti the wider geography of a nascent European state system as the absolutist world of the Danish court implodes, and the flatness of Horatio’s speech acts suggest the less elaborately ornate and more functionalist style of emerging new state bureaucracies. Maybe. But this sort of speculation possibly depends more on Moretti’s readings of Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolute State (1974) or of the works of Max Weber on charism and bureaucracy than on his data mining.
In the case of Our Mutual Friend and The Story of the Stone this kind of digital analysis is harder because novels offer far greater quantities and varieties of speech acts than plays ‑ where speech is action ‑ afford, and this data-surplus makes statistically driven plot vectors harder to graph. Essentially, what Moretti shows here is that while Western novels don’t ostensibly value aesthetic symmetry in the way Chinese novels do, nevertheless “Dickens’s building blocks are usually binary pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, suitor and beloved, friend and friend, employer and employee, rival and rival” One would, Moretti observes, expect more internal symmetry in Chinese novels since they engage in much more structured formal patterning and they are often divided at the narrative midpoint particularly, the overall form balanced as a consequence in hemispheric structural movements. But in fact the Chinese novel, with its far greater number of characters, yields considerably less symmetry at chapter level. The Western novel, Moretti speculates, displaces symmetry from the macro-level of general narrative structure, where it plays little role, to the micro-level of the chapter, where Dickens’s binary pairs suggest that “below the surface of social interactions, there is always a melodramatic substratum of love and hatred ready to erupt”. With far more characters to manage than its Western counterpart, and with the various characters engaging with each other in more diverse ways, symmetry is necessarily displaced upwards in the Chinese novel to the overarching form, and in that sense the Chinese novel’s protagonist “has a duty towards the structure” that makes him more communally bound, and thus less of a free agent, than his more individualistic Western counterpart.
These are abbreviated, no doubt reductive, summaries of the closing chapters of Distant Reading but the problems are clear enough. If the challenge Moretti sets himself is attractively large ‑ the elaboration of a more materialist and scientific historical formalism by means of quantitative analysis of publishing, sales, reviewing, readerships, formal devices and patterns the payoffs are (thus far) thin. Likewise, the rhetoric of science (the references to laboratories, investigations, data crunching, algorithms, statistical curves, graphs and the rest), the latter in turn supercharged with the rhetoric of pioneering and exploration into as yet unmapped worlds, cannot dispel the sense that Moretti’s best discoveries owe more to speculative flight than to counterfactual evidence-testing of a hard science variety. Network analysis may reveal something about Horatio’s role in the structure of Hamlet that we had not known before, but the kind of analogical thinking that links what Moretti discovers about him to the emergence of the European state system or to that system’s bureaucratic language is often wildly gestural or associative in the manner of literary criticism at its weakest. It is difficult not to suspect another kind of crudity in an exercise that pairs Our Mutual Friend with The Story of the Stone and which then pronounces, after a cursory analysis of each, that “what networks make visible are the opposite foundations of novel-writing East and West”. Here, Orientalist manicheanism and logical tautology only seem to aggravate each other: after all, an exercise that starts out by contrasting the non-symmetrical European and symmetrical Chinese novel and which then concludes, on such slender evidentiary basis, that the novel forms of the two societies rest on “opposite foundations” seems only to have completed a neat loop in circular logic.
More worryingly, Moretti’s rather slash-and-burn attitude when it comes to methodology indicates a certain impatience and irresolution, something quite at odds with the general tone conveyed by his critical style, which is chatty, conversational, relaxed, unflappable, attractively excited by discovery: the great mind communing sometimes, and nearly always affably, with interlocutors; sometimes, equally affably, with itself. But the fact that Moretti makes large claims for the value of world systems models or evolutionary theory only then to announce, as in the preface mentioned above, that he now finds less use for either and has turned instead to quantitative analysis or network theory suggests a cavalier attitude to methodological and theoretical issues that sits uneasily with the apparently consistent commitment to the grand ambition of finding a more scientific historical formalist criticism. Or else it suggests a kind of DIY garage-scientism all too eager for eureka moments.
Last but not least, we learn very little in Distant Reading about the material foundations that support this new kind of criticism. How much money did the investigations into the seven thousand British novel titles that yielded “Style, Inc.” actually cost? How long did those investigations take and how many people conducted them and on what kinds of terms? These might seem like nitpicking busybody questions, but if digital humanities are to lead more traditional forms of literary criticism out of libraries and into laboratories then critics need at least to be self-conscious about the material consequences for all involved. No new means of critical production without new social relations of production as well. Though we live in a time of intense dispute about funding for the universities and the humanities especially, the pioneers of the digital humanities, often championed by administrators keen to have the humanities become more like the hard sciences in order that they might produce more “useful” applied research or attract bigger state or corporate grants, have had disappointingly little to say about such matters.
As we have seen, Moretti’s pursuit of a model of world literature grows out of his earlier sense of a radical crisis of European literature. When literary Europe has outgrown continental Europe with the help of European empires, and when the Anglo-French core has ceased to be as innovative as it once was, new and more capacious literary spaces demand new kinds of analysis. But a second and less fully elaborated crisis subtends the European one: namely, a crisis of American comparative literature in the first instance and of American global power in the second. The rise of postcolonial and ethnic studies in the American academy from the 1980s onwards, a drive largely impelled by African-American critics and by intellectual migrants or minorities from the global south to the American centre, issued a challenge to the established canons of European and American literature in the American humanities, and charged the question of the relationship between cultural capital and state or imperial power with an unprecedented urgency in the Anglophone university. To some degree at least, the emergence of “World Literature” as a category of critical study has served as a means to sidestep such challenges and ‑ in the face of fierce neoconservative criticism that the university had abandoned the teaching of “great literature” for identity politics, diversity studies and multiculturalism ‑ it served as a means to restore the pre-eminence of a literary criticism more attentive to high literature and to questions of aesthetics and form rather than to literary identity politics. But to see “World Literature” only in terms of containment is a mistake. The compulsion in “World Literature” to widen the canons of literature beyond the European Romance languages also answers to pressures from postcolonial and ethnic studies as well as to very different forces such as globalised publishing industries, always on the search for new products from the exotic margins to market, and to the globalising imperatives of universities, institutions themselves increasingly in pursuit of students from Asia, South America and elsewhere. “World Literature” is in this sense a compromise (and not just a containment) disciplinary formation: a site where constituencies from the American neoconservative “right” to the postcolonial and ethnic studies “left” might all have investments.
Moretti and Casanova have often been criticised in this context, and not without some reason, for their obdurate eurocentrism. But this criticism, however valid, often misses their larger achievements: whatever their differences otherwise, La république mondiale des lettres and the essays now collected in Distant Reading have placed questions of international literary power relations right at the centre of the seminar table, and they have done so at a time of renewed and deepening turbulence in the economic world system more generally. (In that sense one could say that Moretti and Casanova have attempted to think at the level of theory what writers attempted to express at the level of the literary text in the modernist moment.) Moreover, they have each proposed models for theorising those unequal literary power relations as ones that are structured and systemic in ways very few literary critics of any kind had rarely done before. As such, to argue that “World Literature” or literary world systems theory has represented a rearguard retreat into the world of “sacred texts” is wrongheaded; in their different ways, Moretti and Casanova direct scholars towards the study of the distributions of literary and symbolic capital as much as to literary texts and they have highlighted the ways in which both texts and cultural capital are embedded in and mediated through institutions such as global publishing conglomerates, literary consecrating and awards systems, national literary capitals, and so on. It is true that in some instances “World Literature” can look more like an Ivy League imperium than a republic of letters: a townhall meeting for well-funded elite scholars from prestigious universities with special investments in the literatures of European, American, Chinese, Ottoman, Arabic and other imperial or high court languages. But this can hardly be said of Distant Reading: in principle at least, Moretti is as interested in the “great unwashed” of literature as in the splendours of high culture.
Hence, Moretti’s readers from whatever quarter ought not to dismiss Distant Reading but to press on to take world literary systems more seriously than Moretti himself perhaps is prepared to do. The great merit of Moretti and Casanova is that they have sketched a robust structural account of the literary world system centred on London and Paris; the challenge for others now is to discover whether this system can be better historicised and whether there are ways to conceive of the operational logics of the system in a less rigid manner than Moretti and Casanova have done. The canvas or spatial scale on which Moretti and Casanova have tried to think the question of literature is very large and the sheer scope of their researches has inevitably entailed conceptual overstretch and some reductiveness. But where criticism is involved, timorousness is a graver and more common sin than Faustian overreach. Nevertheless, if Moretti and Casanova have often brilliantly blazed the way, those working on world literary systems may have as much to learn from scholars working on smaller-scale studies in this mode as from Moretti. Works such as Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2009), Sarah Brouillette’s Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (2011), Katerina Clark’s Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmpolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (2011), Ericka Beckman’s Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age (2013), Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (2013), Alexander Beecroft’s An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (2015) offer insights into centre-periphery relations with levels of contextual richness that Moretti or Casanova, operating on different scales, cannot be expected to do. And as the universities of the global south, everywhere from China and India to South Africa or Brazil, increase their cultural capital, extend their intellectual ambitions, and are afforded the greater transnational reach that digital technologies and other media platforms now enable, it is very likely that the ways in which we currently conceive of literary world systems will be radically re-imagined in the years to come. In this respect, “World Literature” might be conceived of as a symptomatic disciplinary moment when, the United States’ global hegemony stretched, the American humanities looked up from their insular, sometimes insolent imperial provincialism to notice that the times they are a-changing. One born in Italy, the other in France, citizens of two of Europe’s oldest and most magnificent but now eclipsed literary centres, Moretti and Casanova are the authors of brilliant and remarkably potent works haunted by the collapse of old worlds but harbingers too of new ones to come. Greeks bearing gifts, they have gripping tales to tell not just about how an old European-centred literary world system lost its dominion, but maybe about how an aging American-centred one is now beginning to slip its hold as well.
- Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London and New York, Verso 2013). All further citations from this volume are included in parentheses in the text.
- See Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Andre Gunder Frank, Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Moretti references Abu-Lughod’s work in his “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltiteratur” essay, but his focus is on the modern literary world system and he doesn’t seem to attribute any significance to non-modern systems once they have been subsumed into the modern one. There are, for example, no accounts in Moretti that would tell us when or how, say, the Ottoman, Chinese or Sanskritic literary worlds were incorporated into the European-dominated modern system he theorises.
- Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (London and New York, Verso, 1994).
- Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, translated by MB DeBevoise (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004. Moretti acknowledges Casanova’s work in the preface to “Conjectures on World Literature” in this volume, but Distant Reading does not further engage with her work, and her name does not appear in Verso’s execrable index to this volume.
- A slightly expanded version of “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltiteratur,” which was initially published in Review in 2005, appears as “World-Systems Analysis, Evolutionary Theory, Weltliteratur” in David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi, eds., Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).
- See Distant Reading, 115, note 12.
- Moretti’s Distant Reading and Casanova’s World Republic of Letters are best understood as critical works that theorize the unequal nature of the modern world literary system. However, Casanova announces a commitment to changing that system; writers from the peripheries such a Joyce or Faulkner or de Andrade are heroes in Casanova’s narrative. Cast in a more scientific register, Moretti’s work announces no such commitment to change and his work may provoke some hostility for this reason.
- See Distant Reading, 107-08. The David article referred to seems to be unpublished.
- See Roberto Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture (London and New York: Verso, 1992), Antonio Candido, On Literature and Society, translated by Howard Becker, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), and Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (London and New York: Verso, 2005).
- Franco Moretti, Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller (London and New York; Verso, 1983), 189-90. Italics in the original. All further references to this volume are included parenthetically in the text.
- On the issue of transition in world systems theory, see Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World-systems (Boulder, Col: Westview, 1997).
- The works referred to here are David L Rolston, Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fictional Commentary: Reading and Writing Between the Lines (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Ming Dong Gu, Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative System (New York: State University of New York University Press, 2006).
- See Mark McGurl, The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)
- See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, translated by Gerald E Bevan (London, Penguin Books, 2003), especially Volume II.
- See Moretti, Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Márquez (London and New York: Verso, 1996). On the specificity of the Joycean stream of consciousness: “However disparate they may be, the versions of the stream of consciousness discussed so far all have something in common. They are a style for exceptional circumstances: fainting, delirium, suicide, death-agony (or, more innocuously: waking, drunkenness, sleeplessness, panic). In Joyce by contrast, the stream of consciousness is the style of absolute normality: of an ordinary individual on an ordinary day.” (174, italics in the original) And on its functionality: “Well then, what is the meaning of this absence of meaning? Simple ‑ it helps Bloom to live. It helps him to live in the metropolis: a place that requires more intelligence, to be sure ‑ but also more stupidity.” (156, italics in the original).
Joe Cleary is Professor of English at the Maynooth University. He is the author of Literature, Partition and the Nation-State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine (2002) and Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (2007). He has edited (with Claire Connolly) The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture (2005) and The Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014), and co-edited special issues of Éire-Ireland (2007) and Modern Literature Quarterly (2012).