Academic Writing

Review: “Network Theory, Plot Analysis”

“Network Theory, Plot Analysis” is an article written by Franco Moretti, a digital humanities scholar and English professor currently teaching at Stanford University. Within the digital humanities world, Moretti is a prominent figure, having coined the term “distant reading” in his 2000 article “Conjectures on World Literature.” He then went on to publish an entire book on the subject, aptly titled, Distant Reading. His idea for scanning large corpus of texts to find and analyze large bodies of literature (without having to read thousands and thousands of novels) has become a cornerstone of DH. (Moretti Conjectures on World Literature)

“Network Theory, Plot Analysis” proposes the creation of visual networks to study plot. What Moretti did was to create networks based on character interactions; character interactions are constituted as speech acts and all interactions are weighted the same. His networks are made up of nodes (where the nodes are the characters) and edges (where the edges are the interactions). He uses the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to introduce his argument that creation of plot networks via character interactions can show us how plots are developed and dependent on certain characters (and how when those characters are removed, the plot changes). In applying network theory, Moretti concludes that we might be able to visually see the inextricable links between plot and style. 

For how complicated each network is, Moretti excels at his explanations. His writing is clear and concise; he takes us through each network — including how it was created and what it reveals. The examples centering around Hamlet were the most effective. Clearly, Shakespeare’s plotting is complex, but the network lets us see just how complex that plot is. Once Moretti begins discussing his models though, he notes that “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead” (Moretti, Network Theory, Plot Analysis, 4). His separation of play and model here are concerning. On the one hand, it does make intuitive sense that once you begin a network analysis on any given work, you stop viewing it as a piece of literature and start viewing it, instead, as a piece of data. My concern is the extent to which this divests the literature of those qualities in which it has come to be categorized as literature in the first place. If, in DH, once we start modeling a piece of art we stop looking at it as art and start looking at it as data, are we really working with art at all anymore? Moretti could have been writing about any data set, and it would not have made a difference. The difference comes in comparison and noting how differing networks (from the same source, in this case the same author) are either visually similar or different. Moretti does show examples of King Lear and Macbeth, but he does not spend as much time on the findings of that comparison in the article, therefore making the literature decentralized to his argument. 

            In the latter half of the article, Moretti begins discussing the difficulty in plotting novels, due to their narrative format. His use of the Chinese term “Guanxi” is helpful in establishing our understanding of the complex, relationship-based plots we often see in novels. He then goes on to expand this, noting that networks of novels are different from networks of plays because of the complexities of relationship are also built by narration, rather than by speech acts alone. Where this method of DH has the most potential, I believe, is in its ability to visually enlighten the differences between plot structures (and character functions) in different genres. Different genres will take different shapes, and from those different shapes DH scholars can go on to make larger arguments about the interwoven nature of plot and style. 

Overall, Moretti presents an interesting way of using DH to analyze plot, however, his networks “present a statistical no-result finding as a finding”  (Da, 607). Da (and myself), I think would argue that Moretti creates networks and says, “Look at these networks,” without then telling us what looking at and employing these networks can do to help color the full picture. He touches on it at the end where he presents the argument that these networks might be used to enhance genre-based understandings of plot, and before that even, when he starts comparing Shakespeare plays, but these parts of the article are underdeveloped. His DH work is impressive, his writing and explanations are strong, but on the point of his findings Moretti lacks punch. In terms of where this article falls in the DH community, Moretti does not have a bibliography and does not engage with any work besides his own. As aforementioned, I think where this article fits in a DH conversation, might be as one of the pieces that Da critiques. However, I also think that it would be a great starting point for anyone looking to begin network analysis, and so it might situate itself as a bedrock article. To me, this article was incredibly helpful in providing an intelligible reading of how networks work and was one the only pieces I have read where I fully understood the explanations of the attached diagrams. It will be helpful to return to for any work where I need to engage with network theory and analysis. 

Citations:

Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 45, no. 3, 2019, pp. 601–639., https://doi.org/10.1086/702594. 

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review, 2000, https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii1/articles/franco-moretti-conjectures-on-world-literature. 

“Franco Moretti.” Department of English, https://english.stanford.edu/people/franco-moretti. 

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