Interpretation and Explanation

While reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees this week, I was constantly reminded of another class I am currently taking: Microanalysis. The course is focused on stylometry and the statistical analysis of literature. In Microanalysis we use the programming language R to extract data from various texts. We then attempt to aggregate and display this data in meaningful ways. Often, the data we extract generates more questions than it answers. The data collected usually begs interpretation and further analysis; the charts, graphs, and visualizations we generate are, as Moretti continuously points out, not an end in and of themselves. I was reminded of this aspect of the class when reading Moretti’s insightful quote about the importance of unanswered questions: “…problems without solutions are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer.”

While it is obvious that asking questions that have known answers is not the most intellectual rigorous practice, I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Moretti’s indication that such a practice characterizes the current humanities discourse. Despite this, it is hard to deny the electric excitement that the questions produced by graphs, maps, and trees tend to create. It seems like, at least at the moment, the questions being posed by statistical methods are shaking up the humanities quite a bit. (But maybe that’s just the circles I travel in.) I’m not entirely sure why though. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the types of unanswered questions Moretti is referring to, such as those raised by graphs plotting fluctuations in literary genres, seem as if they have single answers. 

This brings me to one of the points in Graphs, Maps, and Trees that I found the most interesting: the difference between interpretation and explanation. The term “explain,” or “solve,” seems to imply the existence of a right answer. An interpretation does not seem singular, there can always been multiple interpretations. But to me at least, the word “explain” implies a singular truth that can account for a phenomenon. In Microanalysis, even though we are using methods similar to those Morretti describes, I usually mentally frame my work as “interpreting” the data. The difference in part has to do with the types of questions being asked; the class I am in is not concerned with issues of textual history. Still, it seems interesting that I’ve never thought about any of my literary work (DH or otherwise) in terms of explaining, solving, or answering. However, it does seem like overall, solving and explaining do go hand in hand with DH, and at times this seems to be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems like it is a lot easier to get excited about finding an explanation, or solving a puzzle, than it is about coming up with yet another interpretation. On the other hand, the idea that there is a “right” answer (which I don’t think is really what Moretti is saying) goes against much of what the humanities stand for.

There was another reoccurring point in Moretti’s text that echoed some of the class discussions in Microanlysis: Is the statistical analysis of literature bringing anything new to the table, and if so, what exactly? I must admit I’ve always been a little baffled by this question. What exactly does any theoretical or disciplinary approach to literature bring that is new? The obvious answer, to me at least, is a fresh perspective; even if the scholarship produced by statistical methods supports preexisting hypotheses, or even if the final form that such scholarship takes is not radically different from its predecessors, statistical methods do provide a new way of seeing, and isn’t that really what every other theoretical approach that has been adopted by the humanities provides? There are a couple of places in Morretti’s text where he starts a discussion by asking, so what exactly is it that graphs do? I can’t help but feel like statistical methods “do” something but simply existing as unique methodologies. Moretti’s book, which, to me at least, seemed unconventional in its form and style can’t help but serve as an example of exactly how profitable a change in perspective can be. Reading a text that is entirely organized around concrete examples that are used to gradually get to broader theoretical points is in my experience, a little unusual. It is also a little odd to have visual aids on almost every other page in a book about literary theory. I thought that the afterword by Alberto Piazza captured one of the potential benefits of this change in perspective, since it enabled a biologist to connect with literary discourse and to add his own thoughts into the mix. When people ask, well, what exactly is it that graphs do? What do they add that is new? I feel like the afterword gives a pretty strong answer.

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2 thoughts on “Interpretation and Explanation

  1. I feel that I probably repeat this a lot in my classes and my conversations with my friends, but I’ll talk about it again. For me, the fact that we can interpret some literary phenomena by using a language that is not entirely that of the literary criticism field, means a lot. Somehow it gives me the idea that we can explain literature and its real social function by those quantitative means. Literature is still a mass media in the sense that there are millions of books published every year. But which is the impact in society? It is really frightening to think that writing and reading fiction has become just another entertainment, but maybe, using the graphs and statistics (or any other of the models proposed) it is a way of finding the new connection between society and the reading of fiction.

  2. I too, am intrigued by the conundrum of problem and explanation. On one hand, I like to think of science as a way to approach a problem: How can I keep my nuclear fission experiment from running away in an unstoppable chain of reactions? On the other hand, I like to think of the scientific method as an approach to seeking explanations: Why does a pole seem to bend when I put it in a transparent body of water? So for our project in Microanalysis, we seemed to have a problem of author attribution, but what we found was a mess that needed explaining. Yikes.

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