franco moretti

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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