Burke: draw the trees AND color outside the lines

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Timothy Burke likes Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. He likes that Moretti has proposed models to help literary criticism produce quantitative models and he wonders how we could extend the visual mapping of data extracted from texts to historical archives. I am still trying to conceptualize how historical material could be turned into trees (and a different sort of graph or map than one might usually find in a historical text). Burke gives us some excellent questions that suggest the limits of Moretti’s methodology, revealing the edges or inherent challenges of quantifying the quasi science of history.

“Beyond everything counted there is always another mountain of the uncountable,” Burke writes. Indeed, we have what got preserved in numerous archives, but what about the innumerable uncounted items of the past? If only we historians could choose a representative sampling of artifacts we wished existed about the past. From there, we could probably discover amazing things directly and then indirectly after turning them into graphs, maps, trees. How do we deal with guesswork when developing quantification models?

Numbers themselves don’t tell us everything. If we mapped an archive full of newspapers from South Africa, as Burke posits, could we somehow build in ways to account for the way that those newspapers were read? How would we quantify the readership of those to whom the papers were read and how many hands did these papers pass? History is a tricky playground for numbers.

Burke’s most serious challenge to Moretti is how Moretti, who sees change in evolutionary terms, handles sudden change. How do “ruptures” and deaths of certain genres and ideas get visualized and represented? Can they always be chalked up to anomalies – little bumps in a larger road? “Totally not satisfying or acceptable,” Burke would reply. Where does the agency and will enter into changes over time in the literary world (we could ask this in history, too).

Burke suggests Moretti’s graphs, maps, trees not be thrown out with the bathwater, but that (switching metaphors) we “color outside of the lines” once those visual-quantification models get drawn. Given that history can never be a purely rational science, this seems like advice with a great shelf life. I would agree that we could discover some great new insights by experimenting with ways to bring greater quantification methods to historical analysis. Digital technology is still relatively new, especially in the world of history. History will always have weird human elements that will complicate all efforts at explanation of the past. It seems we could use more visionaries like Moretti, those with strong creative capacity and excellent abstract thinking skills to try new methods. And we will need more minds like Burke’s to help us figure out how to weave in a parallel conversation about the less rational elements of human behavior.

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