Asking Questions Without Expecting Answers

This past week, we read and discussed former Formula One racer Franco Moretti’s book, Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. While his layout might not be the most beautiful-several expressed a Tuftean dislike for placement of visuals and scale-Moretti’s key idea is revolutionary and exciting.

His concept of distant reading (focusing not on individual words and individual texts, but on genre, literary trends) is one that helps us as consumers and presenters of information. By using his process of deliberate reduction and abstraction, we can parse away unnecessary details that might otherwise draw our attention away. A perfect example of this is Charles Minard’s map of the retreat from Russia.

Tan line thinning

Notice that superfluous details-geographic map, description of army components, even Napoleon’s name-are left out of the graph. These are all things that distract us from what we are trying to understand. To borrow Tufte’s word, chartjunk. As Moretti puts it, distance is not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge.

Graphs are important, to Moretti they provide “quantitative research which provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations.”

We made our own graph. For zombie movies. Because genres.  (The rise/fall of genre and literary trends is a large topic of Moretti’s book.)

The construction of the graph brought up an interesting question. As consumers of evidence, are we too schooled to ask Tufte’s question of “compared to what?” and expect visuals to provide perfect/complete context and understanding of it’s topic?  As a class, we were very-almost over-eager to explain why the sudden rise for zombie flicks. Each rise, surely, is instigated by a worldwide disease outbreak. No, the spikes reflect a war beginning or ending.

It could be both. It may be neither. To be honest, we don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. We got caught up in the why-did-this-happen, at the cost of saying, ok, this happened. Moretti says that we put many people off teaching because we have the answer to everything.

Are we as consumers and producers of information too eager to apply readings and rationales to graphics? Are we, as Moretti implies, unwilling to accept that we might not have the answers?

Such questions clearly shade how we think of ourselves as presenters. Instead of presenting to prove a point, maybe we should provide, and request others to provide, raw data.

Going back to our zombie chart, we were very excited to be able to show that other things were happening concurrent to the rising spike in zombie movies. But we need to temper this excitement of proving with the threat of false causailty. In class, we could not prove that zombie movies shot up do to global illness or war. It just looked coincidental and we made the assumption that the twain were linked. THIS IS BAD! Both may prove to have some influence on the success of the zombie genre, but without hard proof, it does us no credit to make any suppositions.

This needs to inform our evidence presentations. We must be wary to present information in a way that makes inaccurate connections. We, as presenters, must swallow any pride and admit when we do not know, and simply present what we have as raw data.

Moretti is more than happy to conclude passages in his book by admitting he has no answers, that there might not be any answers.  This is an attitude we should adopt. It may infuriating to some, but sometimes the smartest thing we can say is, “I don’t know.”


Categories: diagrams, evidence, franco moretti, mapping, tufte | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Asking Questions Without Expecting Answers

  1. While I agree with Moretti on his “distant reading” theories, I question if Tufte would agree, in any circumstance. In Beautiful Evidence, didn’t he devote a whole chapter to PowerPoint and how it takes away the importance of details? He further argued that charts and graphs are commonly destroyed by the misrepresentation or completely missing information. It is funny, that in attempting to create a sparkline (the idea that Tufte created) we ended up doing exactly the opposite of what Tufte wanted? Didn’t he write that “when you’re looking for a pattern, you’ll find one” in reference to those different paintings where dotted patterns were found? While I see this argument, I think we should express caution. Yes, we found reasons that contributed to the pattern of the rise and fall of the genre of zombies. These reasons may or may not be affliated with that pattern. However, it does give us some idea, and I think it’s pretty cool to explore all of the options (other then just diseases and such). Furthermore, the strange dotted patterns in Beautiful Evidence, I think, are a different kind of pattern. To me, these patterns are just random lines and dots that they drew on top of paintings. In our zombie graph, we’re connecting worldwide plagues and diseases with rises in a certain genre. Yes, that may be a stretch, but it seems like a closer stretch then the dotted line patterns.

  2. I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to completely “not expect answers.” There is wisdom in understanding that we may simply be seeing what we want to see, and finding a pattern where there really isn’t one. It’s also important to consider things like coincidences and correlations that may have a different cause. However, just because we accept these things doesn’t mean we are forbidden from seeking answers.

    If we do seek answers, we should make sure to do so in a way that provides accurate and informed answers. When considering zombie movies, a good example would be to interview the writers and directors of such movies. We could ask them, “Why did you decide to make a zombie movie?” SOME of them, of course, would simply say that they like the genre, or they know it’s a good seller, or they were inspired by another movie that was already out. However, there may be some who specifically say they were inspired by a recent war or disease outbreak.

    Some kind of tree would be a good way to analyze the answers. If some movies were inspired by others, we could arrange them in a tree to trace them back to those that have external inspirations. Then we could compare and see if there are any common patterns.

  3. Devon

    I have a hard time accepting that there aren’t answers to all questions, which Moretti tends to see as a good thing. He likes the idea of uncertainty, that scholars don’t always know everything. Strangely, I enjoyed the Moretti more than other readings, perhaps because he discussed things I could relate to. I think his questions of genre, and what causes the rise and fall of genre, are interesting and indicative of the types of stories that interest us as a growing, changing society. At times, Moretti was hard to follow. Tufte certainly wouldn’t like the way he presented information. His charts were not placed appropriately to inform the reading as we were going through. Instead, I had to stop reading, turn the page to see the chart, turn back, and continue reading. I think the flaw is in the book layout and design. Moretti clearly didn’t follow the Tuftean path and publish it himself. I think the challenges of this book were complicated by the layout, but for me it was easy to overcome because I was interested in the content. Moretti is certainly not as accessible as Tufte because he doesn’t present information in the most logical way–that is why I think others found him convoluted.

  4. Yeah, Moretti didn’t quite reach Tuftean standards. The books was pretty small and printed in black and white, unlike Beautiful Evidence. Maybe we’re all dissatisfied with his work because the book didn’t offer any answers, which we are so conditioned to extracting from literature.

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