I found this week’s reading on maps fascinating yet perplexing. The excited English nerd in me who loves to make character maps while reading complex novels was completely on board: “Maps are a great idea! They can add something to our ‘knowledge of literature,’ as Moretti says!” (35). As I reflected more, though, I became perplexed and began asking, what happens to the space that is not mappable? He elusively mentions how Christmas stories cannot be mapped (?) without offering an explanation as to why. I began to think of other instances in which space is not mappable. Space is never just a location, space is forever bound with time and consciousness (I’m sure there’s a relevant Bergson quote to throw in here…). So how does one begin to map out a complex novel like, say, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!?
When one attempts to map out a storyworld, a world that encompasses so much more than just geographical location, it can never be as simple as placing points on a map. Moretti makes evident the fact that there are “maps and maps” (meaning maps of real geographical locations and maps of fictional worlds) (63). Though this is true, he does not seem to take into account the complex spaces of those storyworlds, ones that exist at the juncture of the narrative (or, in Faulkner’s case, the multiple narratives) and the experience of the reader. There are constructed and forever shifting spaces, unable to be tied down and in a constant process of re-definition through the act of reading. In my edition of Absalom, Absalom!, a map is included in the introductory material. This map does in fact recreate the geographical layout of the storyworld, complete with points indicating the location of key plot developments. This map seems almost facetious and mocking though, as if it mocks our belief that the world of Absalom, Absalom! (a storyworld which extends beyond A,A! to encompass The Sound and the Fury) could be represented on a map. There are quite a few symbolic spaces that cannot be represented on that map, though, spaces such as Sutpen’s Hundred, a space to which characters return time and again and a space that is always changing, seeking definition. I think it would be fascinating to attempt to map out the symbolic layers of this space and the storyworld in general—plotting all of the different variations on the spaces, overlaying them on top of one another (I’m sure there has GOT to be a more technical and fancy way to do this than the clear overhead projection sheets I’m envisioning).
To me though, this task is very tightly wed to close reading. It’s simply, as Moretti defines his own maps, a complex “stylization of space” (42). This brings me back to the point I made in my previous blog post in which I pointed out that, in his early work, Moretti is hardly conducting any sort of distant reading. What remains perplexing then, is how his methods are taken up (by other scholars as well as contemporary-Moretti) in current DH distant reading approaches. What Moretti does in the Maps section of Graphs, Maps, Trees seems worlds apart from what Matthew Wilkens does in “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” in which he plots the geographical locations mentioned in 40ish novels of 1851, 1852, and 1874. Wilken’s task seems so surface level (as it’s intended to be). Yes, this might lead to a “revised understanding of American regionalism” (253), but I feel like this is doing a vast disservice to the texts. Perhaps it is elucidating something about the canon (though, we would have to extend Wilkens’ sample size) but I believe it’s getting us so far away from what Moretti was doing when he was looking for interesting narrative patterns. I guess the real question becomes, when we attempt to expand the canon and pay credence to previously unread texts, is distant reading really the way to do that? I believe if we use maps in the way Wilkens does we relegate those texts to the level of data, one-dimensional plotted points. If we use maps on those texts in the way Moretti did originally, then we will learn interesting things about texts, but a much smaller number of texts. How much service does it really do, though, to relegate texts to the sad one-dimensional space that has been derived from number crunching? The English nerd in me ways to make that Faulkner map (or do that map to another multi-layered text), but at what point does that stop being a valuable task?