A couple of days ago, I saw a link to an article by Franco Moretti called “Changes
.” Much of what he said resonated with me, even when I did not always agree with the points being made. Of particular interest is this bit from the introduction:
The first thing that happens, when a literary historian starts using computers to think about literature, is that the object of study changes. Not just the tool; the object itself. “The objects studied by contemporary historians” have this peculiarity, Krzysztof Pomian observed some time ago, that “no one has ever seen them, and no one could ever have seen them […] because they have no equivalent within lived experience.” He was thinking of things like demographic evolution and literacy rates, and it’s true, no one can have a “lived experience” of these “invisible objects,” as he also calls them; our objects are different of course, they are literary ones, but they too have no equivalent within the usual experience of literature.
I remember a similar discussion regarding the shift of object study when I was in grad school and our class was discussing E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common, in particular the shift in temporal and spatial values as English society shifted from a predominantly oral culture to a predominantly print one in conjunction with the introduction of accurate mechanical clocks. There are certainly some parallels that can be made between our times and those of early modern to early industrial European societies. Yet I am uncertain if Moretti fully argues his case in this article, as there were times that I felt that more could have been said about the possible parallels that I note above. Regardless, it is a thought provoking article and certainly worth one’s time and consideration.