My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.
B. R. Ambedkar
One of the touchstone quotations in Franco Moretti’s work on distant reading is a line from the composer Arnold Schoenberg, which Moretti seems to have encountered in Theodor Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music. It’s a repudiation of middles, and it goes like this: “The middle road . . . is the only one which does not lead to Rome.” In Moretti’s “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch” (1991), Schoenberg’s claim helps set up a series of polarizations within modernism—James Joyce and Franz Kafka, T. S.
The literary object is in flux. No longer are scholars so tightly bound to the poem, story, book, oeuvre, canon, or national literature. Yet from the undergraduate survey to the graduate seminar, most teaching stubbornly clings to these traditional objects.
What sociological knowledge do we possess of contemporary literary culture? Very little, as Amy Hungerford points out, for the basic reason that the objects of sociological study are “virtually unreachable by the ordinary means of scholarly inquiry.” The fine-grained interactions of living, breathing social actors—writers and editors, publishers and booksellers, students and teachers, all going about their business as you read this sentence—cannot be recovered from historical archives or extrapolated from literary texts. Partially, the methodological problem is one of contemporaneity. We cannot arrest the flow of the present to study it any more than we can raise the dead from their graves and order them to speak. But in the ever-expanding field of contemporary literary activity, the problem is also one of number and scale: more people are reading and writing than ever before in more socio-institutional settings and in more disparate ways. Given the massive profusion and diffusion of literary culture, how does a literary scholar select the texts and readers she will study from among the many that are available to her in any given social context: a publishing house, an MFA program, a literature classroom, a book club, an online forum? How can the analysis of a single text or reader or institution, marked by the innumerable and ephemeral contingencies of time and space, scale up into a general theory of contemporary literary production or reception.
Does the size of a novel determine the scale of the social world it represents? In the terms that increasingly frame our own social world, do long novels contain larger or more complex social networks than short ones? Caroline Levine suggests as much in her reading of network form in Victorian novels like Dickens’s Bleak House. Levine argues that the “sheer length” of such works allows them to reach insights that are “precluded by shorter narrative forms” about networks as “sprawling, overlapping, and indefinitely expanding processes of interconnectedness.” This argument rightly rejects critics’ tendency to equate length with formlessness, but it also reflects the widespread assumption that nineteenth-century fiction is the place to look for compelling representations of networks. Within modernist studies, the word network appears not primarily in analyses of narrative form but in discussions of the real-life networks —“of periodicals, of migration routes, of coteries and collectives”—that circulated and sustained the innovations of the avant-garde. Network analysis also offers a powerful mode of intrinsic criticism, however, and it can help answer questions like the one with which I began by providing empirical measures of a novel’s social scale and density.