Blog post

Franco Moretti, "Post-Bourgeois" Critic

Matthew Schantz28 June 2013

Franco Moretti, Italian literary critic and humble flag bearer of the digital humanities, has garnered great praise for his latest two titles, Distant Reading and The Bourgeois. Amid speculation over the future of Moretti's data-driven literary studies, some have gone so far as to hale his technique as the method of literary inquiry which most closely resembles the big-data-saturated way we live our lives today.

Writing for the Financial Times, John Sunyer calls Moretti the "unofficial leader of a band of academics bringing a science-fiction thrill to the science of fiction." After surveying the rise of the digital humanities, Sunyer finds praise for Moretti's approach, even from Jonathan Franzen, a writer infamous for his technophobia.

Franzen writes:

To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.

Valerie Sanders, in a review for Times Higher Education, praises the breadth of Moretti's approach and his novel technique of focusing on the evolution of minute formal devices over time. Such an approach allows Moretti to zoom into an individual word and "savour all the ramifications of a word we normally use unthinkingly." Best of all, despite the mountains of data he analyizes, Moretti does not loose us: "Over and again in this book, the aptness of a summary or smart turn of expression compresses hours of intricate research into a snappy and memorable critical truth," Sanders writes.

Perhaps the highest praise comes from McKenzie Wark, who, in his review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, writes that Moretti's technique of using big-data makes him "a practitioner of the characteristic arts of post-bourgeois life" and loans Moretti's project "consequences for our present political moment."

McKenzie's conclusion emphasizes the implications of Moretti's work:

[I]t is undeniable that Moretti’s body of work is one of genius. He has retrieved the depth and shape of the invisible literary field, that trace of the infrastructure of literacy itself. His distant reading brings into focus both bigger and smaller textual units, some visible to the “naked eye” as it were, some only revealed via machine-assisted “distant reading.”

By embracing technology rather than shunning it (as so many in the humanities have), Moretti's books "might be profitably used to advance the critical project onto the post-bourgeois terrain."

The LA Review of Books has additionally published a symposium on Moretti's Distant Reading, in which scholars James English, Alexander Galloway, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick weigh in on the groundbreaking collection.

Visit the Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Higher Education, and the Financial Times to read the reviews in full.