Published in tandem in 2013, Franco Moretti’s two most recent books continue his on-going project to develop radical new methods of literary history and to propose new formulations and frameworks for understanding the relationship between form and history and form and ideology. Bringing together the series of essays through which he developed his concept of distant reading, his collection of the same name argues for a ‘falsifiable criticism’ grounded in the data now available through digital technologies and for the concept of a ‘world literature’ that it is the task of comparatists to theorise. His book on the bourgeois – characterised by Moretti as a project of an entirely different nature – finds in the minutiae of language the construction of a bourgeois culture in which the figure of the bourgeois himself ultimately disappears. Contra Moretti, the review contends that these books are deeply interrelated and that the limits of Moretti’s method are to be found specifically in the issues of scale raised by reading these two works in dialectical relationship to each other. In particular, while Moretti importantly forces us to confront in world literature what Fredric Jameson refers to as the ‘scandal of multiplicity’, his method is unable, in the end, to account for a reading of the world in literature in which both the empirical fact of a dead history and the allegorical possibility of another history already in the making can be found.
FishStanley‘The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality’New York Times2012January9available at: <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/the-digital-humanities-and-the-transcending-of-mortality/>
SandersValerieReview of The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature Times Higher Education2013June27available at: <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/the-bourgeois-between-history-and-literature-by-franco-moretti/2005020.article>
Arac2002p. 38. Moretti quotes Arac’s description in his preface to ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’ favourably as a ‘nice formulation’ for capturing the kind of reading (of detective stories) he does in ‘Slaughterhouse’ which he doubts is ‘still reading’: ‘I read “through” those stories looking for clues and (almost) nothing else; it felt very different from the reading I used to know’ (Moretti 2013a p. 65).
Moretti2013ap. 155. Much in the way that Perry Anderson characterises the theory/practice split in Western Marxism it is tempting to see this emphasis on method as dialectically related to the absence of a vibrant political ‘practice’ in our current conjuncture. Anderson refers to the ‘obsessive methodologism’ (Anderson 1976 p. 53) of Western Marxism citing as exemplary books such as Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution Della Volpe’s Logic as a Positive Science Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and Althusser’s Reading Capital. In his Introduction to Atlas of the European Novel Moretti states ‘In this book clearly enough the method is all.’ (Moretti 1998 p. 5.) In a different vein he admits that The Bourgeois is an ‘exclusively historical study with no true links to the present’ (Moretti 2013b p. 23) and hopes that as his inscription to Perry Anderson and Paolo Flores d’Arcais is meant to convey he will ‘one day . . . learn from them to use the intelligence of the past for the critique of the present’ (Moretti 2013b p. 24).
Moretti2013bp. 102. This view of the bourgeoisie reflects Moretti’s reliance on Max Weber far more than Marx or Lukács throughout The Bourgeois which may in turn contribute to his non- or anti-utopian vision of (literary) history more generally. Martin Jay in Marxism and Totality distinguishes Lukács from Weber (and Simmel) by his ability to ‘move beyond [their] stoic pessimism by linking their intellectual dilemmas to the reified nature of bourgeois life an explanation that grounded them historically’ (Jay 1984 pp. 109–10). Interestingly Moretti also invokes Weber in one of the final essays in Signs Taken for Wonders ‘The Moment of Truth’ as a figure from whom we still have much to learn regarding a realistic ‘culture of the Left’ which would neither recklessly embrace what he refers to as ‘the moment of crisis’ nor succumb to ‘unending humiliations and compromises’. Moretti ends the essay by quoting the following lines from a speech of Weber’s: ‘What is deeply striking and moving . . . is the view of a mature man – it doesn’t matter whether young or old in years – who feeling truly and wholly his own responsibility for consequences and acting according to the ethic of responsibility still of a sudden does say: “I cannot do otherwise: I shall not retreat from here”. Here is a truly human and moving behaviour and such a situation must be possible at any moment for all of us who have not yet lost our inner life’ (Moretti 1983 p. 261).