Shalizi on Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees

I posted earlier about The Valve’s online seminar on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. Now, Cosma Shalizi’s piece is up and it’s definitely worth a read.

One thing Moretti does not do, anywhere, is construct models linking individual behavior to aggregate patterns. Economists and sociologists already make such models, and anthropologists are starting to do so. It may be premature here, but ultimately it will be vital. If different social groups have different beliefs, is that because those beliefs express their relations to the mode of production, or is it because they tend to talk more with in the group than across group boundaries? Adaptationist theories of culture tend to go for the first choice, but we don’t really know whether the latter could account for the specific patterns of cultural difference and change that we see.

How Not to Learn from the Natural Sciences

What I said above about not mindlessly imitating biology deserves some amplification.

Evolution ought to have a bad name in the study of literary history. Reading Rene Wellek’s “The Concept of Evolution in Literary History” (or his article for the Dictionary of the History of Ideas) is actually quite depressing. (It brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s line “they deserved to fail, because they were all so stupid”.) The many post-Darwinian ventures in this direction went, essentially, nowhere, at least as far as understanding literature better goes. It surely didn’t help that their understandings of biological evolution were often very bad, generally some kind of Spencerian or even Lamarckian belief in tendencies of progressive development — perhaps inspiring, but hopelessly un-explanatory. (This has vitiated far too much evolutionary theorizing about social processes; cf. Toulmin’s chapter 5.) As for the more recent wave, since the 1980s, the people who seem to think that literature exists because humanity craves dramatizations of Daly and Wilson’s Sex, Evolution and Behavior drive me up the wall. (Their idea makes no sense even if you are very sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, which I am.)

Which said, this is not at all what Moretti is proposing, and I don’t see the harm in trying to make this all fit together as another instance of a general pattern, alongside biological evolution, because they have similar causally-relevant features, and so similar mechanisms are at work. . .