To Network or Not to Network?

There’s nothing quite like a graduate seminar for encouraging you to like one approach one week, see it as intellectually bankrupt the next one, only to be redeemed weeks later. I have academic whiplash…or, better yet, I am currently the intellectual kombucha girl.

As a recent post suggests, I remain skeptical of computational literary students for three somewhat related reasons: 1) The ontological and epistemological foundations (realist and objectivist, respectively) on which computational methods stand do not easily jive, if at all, with those of literary criticism and most humanistic disciplines since these fields tend toward nominalist ontologies and subjectivist epistemologies. We have oil and water situation; 2) as Nan Z. Da argues, computational literary criticism seems to entail a great spectacle around…counting words; and 3) following Nan Z. Da, these methods seem to, at worst, confirm the obvious and at best, following Franco Moretti in “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” “Corroboration, improvement, and discovery. Eventually, the day for theory-building will also come” (9).

But I have to admit that Moretti’s use of networks to analyze Hamlet has me quite intrigued. To be sure, I think Moretti’s network analysis is an example of corroboration; the network did not reveal new relationships. Indeed, seeing the network and reading the discussion of the characters’ relationships triggered a kind of memory of the relationships for me. It’s true that I had never thought of the relationships in quite the terms Moretti described, but it is also true that his description of the relationships confirmed an “intuition” about them. Note here that I am referring to the relationships established by the network, not the argument about the use of language by those inside the court and those outside (though I have to say that it is well known that courtly characters use more refined language and speak in poetic verses as opposed to “commoners”) nor his interpretation that the “outside characters” seem to constitute the rise of a state bureaucracy (a fascinating interpretation), a phenomenon well on its way in Jacobean England. Moretti admits that these insights have nothing to do with the network analysis. However, the network analysis to visualize the relationships all at once is useful. While the analysis does not discover new relationships, it does more explicitly reveal something that has always been in plain sight but occluded by the temporality of the plot. In some ways, this approach suggests a return to structure in literary criticism—just of a structure we could intuit but not describe.

Moretti’s network analysis taken together with Scott Selisker’s argument in “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks,” that social network analysis can help us move away from characters and their agency (or lack thereof) to the network (or networks) in which they are embedded, may help us better understand “that the agency we should look for in texts and in the world…is fundamentally social, and thus fundamentally networked” (519). This represents a new of thinking about a “social text,” providing a way for us to consider the social connections represented in texts in a much holistic and comprehensive way (i.e., from social milieu to social network), which I have to admit is pretty exciting.

In my own upcoming project on new manifestations of Spanish Caribbean musical forms, I plan to use network analysis, and both Moretti and Salerski’s approach suggests that even corroborating what is known about the creation of these new forms could be a useful tool for understanding not only the relationships between musical genres but also the relationship between the United States and the Spanish Caribbean, their cultures and their peoples.

Works Cited

Moretti, Franco. “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” (PDF) Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 2 (2011)

Selisker, Scott. “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks,” New Literary History 46.3 (2015).

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