The Engine Room of Literature: On Franco Moretti

By McKenzie WarkJune 5, 2013

Distant Reading by Franco Moretti
The Bourgeois by Franco Moretti

IT USED TO BE a terrific insult, to call someone or something “bourgeois,” but it doesn’t work so well these days, since nobody seems to know what it means. While pretty much everyone, from left to right, agrees that our world is a capitalist one, the notion that the culture of those who rule it is “bourgeois” seems no longer to hold. The bourgeois was always, as Franco Moretti puts it, “an enigmatic creature, idealistic and worldly,” and the form that best mapped out the boundaries and the gray compromises between these poles of bourgeois identity was the realist novel. In The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature, Moretti shows how the novel as form served as the capacious and adaptable home within which the bourgeois could both assert and camouflage itself.

The word “bourgeois” came late to English, where the more discreet term “middle class” has long prevailed. But the bourgeois could only pose as a representative of the “middle” so long as an aristocracy held the formal reigns of power. With the passing of the last remnants of feudal society, bourgeois culture had the difficult job of asserting its specificity while finding a language through which to speak for the whole social order. Moretti tracks the evolution of this attempt through the form of the novel. Like the great Marxist literary theorist György Lukács before him, Moretti thinks, as he puts it, that “forms are the abstract of social relationships: so, formal analysis is in its own modest way an analysis of power.” Moretti has curiously little to say about narratives or characters. His method is to track the significance of particular keywords, and the texture of particular kinds of grammatical form — methods that are controversial, at least in the small world of literary studies, but that, as I will attempt to show shortly, may be emblematic in their own way of our times.

But first, the 19th-century novel. It has to be said: the realist novel can be frightfully dull. Bourgeois form is above all prosaic. It lacks the transcendent leap toward the heavens of its ancestors, the epic and the romance, the tragic glamour of regicide or the passion of the savior passing between worlds. The bourgeois realist novel is as horizontal as a pipeline. Its momentum is usually heavy, a slow accumulation in the face of obstacles. It is about making something of this world, not transcending it in favor of another. As Moretti shows, bourgeois prose changed the whole meaning of adventure. The adventurer was once a merchant who set out not knowing to whom he would sell or from whom he would buy. Fortune was once the Goddess of uncanny weather. But the bourgeois makes her over into a figure whose odds can be calculated. The bourgeois turns adventure into the calculus of arbitrage, of the canny knack of buying cheap and selling dear.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is a precursor here. Crusoe’s adventures are on the cusp between the older, wilder sense of adventure and a new sensibility. The shipwrecked Robinson does not depend on God or Fortune for help; he helps himself. He sets himself to work, as if he were both boss and laborer. Here we strike one of Moretti’s keywords for the bourgeois sensibility: industry. It is hard work, being shipwrecked — but it’s a steady job. There’s no spontaneous bravery, no tests of honor, no looking upwards to the heavens. The feudal sense of adventure melts away in the island sun.

Long before the pioneering sociologist Max Weber identified “instrumental reason” as a key characteristic of bourgeois culture, Defoe created a syntax for it. Robinson’s labors are nothing if not efficient. What is useful is beautiful on the island of bourgeois thought, and what is both beautiful and useful is without waste. The world is nothing but a set of potential tools and resources. “The creation of a culture of work,” Moretti claims, “has been, arguably, the greatest symbolic achievement of the bourgeoisie as a class.”

Crusoe’s industry and efficiency produces, surprisingly, a modicum of comfort, or ethically permitted expenditure of rest and relaxation, treating the body well — all of this is quite justifiable if it means an increasing or sustaining of industry. What he enjoys on his island isn’t luxury, because it isn’t useless. It is play, repose, indulgence — made useful and ordinary. It is neither aristocratic dissolution nor puritan self-stricture. A little reward for the self is legitimate at the end of a day’s labors if it makes body and mind fit for more labor the next.

Moretti’s formal analysis tracks how Defoe organizes the bourgeois worldview with a forward-slanting grammar in which time is segmented and arranged serially. Robinson confronts this, does that, attains this benefit. Here’s a characteristic sentence from Defoe’s novel: “Having mastered this difficulty, and employed a world of time about it, I bestirred myself to see, if possible, how to supply two wants.” As Moretti comments: “Past gerund; past tense; infinitive: wonderful three part sequence.” It’s the “the grammar of growth.” Bourgeois prose is a rule-based, but open-ended, style.

This grammar creates a whole new visibility for things. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), objects are still impediments to the pilgrim’s upward reach towards the sacred. In Defoe, things can be useful in themselves. They are connectable only sideways, to other things. With this you get that, with that you make this, and so on. Things are described in detail. Everything appears as a potential resource or obstacle to accumulation. What is lost, as Moretti notes (following Lukács) is the totality. The world dissolves into particulars. The bourgeois self sees a world of particular things as if they were put there to be the raw materials of the work of accumulation.

It is remarkable how much of Robinson Crusoe is already composed of what Moretti calls “filler.” In between the big narrative turning points, the bourgeois novel stuffs in more and more filler, where the background creeps into the foreground and our characters and their actions seem to get lost in a welter of things. “[F]illers rationalize the novelistic universe,” Moretti writes, “turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all.” This is the world that Marx describes, in Capital Volume 1, as appearing as an “immense accumulation of commodities.” The creeping welter of filler, present in Defore, will reach its apogee in Flaubert. It is the bourgeois novel’s one great narrative invention.

In the novel, subjectivity decreases and objectivity increases. Description becomes analytic rather than romantic, induction rather than ornament. Or so it appears. Moretti: “description as a form was not neutral at all: its effect was to inscribe the present so deeply into the past that alternatives became simply unimaginable.” This is the novel’s conservative side. While the bourgeois in the economic sphere is a demiurge of industry and accumulation, in the political and cultural sphere he stands, above all, for the solidity and persistence of all things.

The bourgeois novel as form combines two apparently contradictory impulses: the capitalist drive toward rationalization (in its forward-slanting plot), and a kind of cautious conservatism (in the intractably thick descriptions of the fillers). Marx thought that economic rationalization would strip the halo from old cultural forms, but if anything the reverse was the case: while the bourgeoisie were dynamos of the economic sphere, in the cultural sphere they collected museums-worth of bric-a-brac.

Bourgeois cultural stolidity was the very condition of accumulation. As Moretti puts it, the bourgeoisie was “the first realistic class of human history,” but only in economic matters. Victorian Britain was the most advanced and dynamic capitalist economy of the 19th century, but in cultural matters, it preferred sentiment and medieval ginger-breading. The last thing the Victorians wanted was for all that was solid to melt into air when it came to the political and cultural institutions that protected the very possibility of accumulation. Far from becoming more transparent in its moment of victory, as Marx predicted, capitalism became more and more opaque. The “real” bourgeois spirit of aggressive iconoclasm vanished the moment the bourgeoisie triumphed. Theirs was not an ideology for the whole of society. The bourgeois loved creative destruction in the economic sphere, but in culture, it came to see the merit of restorations of all kinds. The Victorian legacy was “a modernizing world, enveloped in historical screens.” Western Marxist critics, from whom Moretti descends, have long been alert to this screening out of raw accumulation and have sought analytic tools for poking at least a small hole or two in the scrim.

Like any other culture in its moment of ascendance, the Victorians mobilized existing things, borrowing and refashioning them for their own purposes. Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the specifically bourgeois note in culture becomes fainter, but bourgeois social control grows stronger. A displaced aristocracy can now be absorbed and its relics treasured, after a fashion. What matters more is securing working class consent to bourgeois rule. The bourgeois has to learn influence; raw power on its own won’t do. One of the great themes of the bourgeois novel in full bloom is what Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony,” or rule through the consent of the ruled.

How does this bourgeois hegemony show up in the novel at the level of style? Moretti traces it through adjectives. It is sometimes thought that, as the novel becomes a specifically bourgeois form, its descriptive detail increases. Moretti takes that intuition as a testable hypothesis. Using databases of thousands of novels, Moretti is able to disprove it. Its more a question of the work adjectives are doing. They start to have a strangely metaphorical character. Adjectives like “hard,” “fresh,” “sharp,” or “dry” express a judgment without a judge, the author having retreated behind the screen of her or his putatively neutral prose. This, for Moretti, is the real significance of the bourgeois novel’s free indirect discourse, that strange point of view characteristic of the novel, which hovers close to a character but is not identical to it: “It is as if the world were declaring its meaning all by itself.”

In the novel, the world is re-enchanted at the granular level of the adjective describing the thing. Every tiny thing is imbued with hegemonic bourgeois morality. The morality itself is not all that interesting: a mixture of sentimental Christian dross and bare calculation. What’s more interesting is how it comes to saturate fictional language, and thence the world that language both names and modifies.

Once again breaking out his quantitative toolkit, Moretti demonstrates this via the rise of the adjective “earnest.” Its utility lies in the way it goes both ways: on the one hand, it connotes a serious and business-like demeanor; on the other, it points to a certain spiritual self-discipline. It is perhaps the perfect Victorian word. Moretti does not mention Oscar Wilde’s famous play, but surely Wilde, writing in the death throes of the Victorian era, was on to something. The Importance of Being Earnest sums up in a phrase the Victorian form of bourgeois sensibility. (Of course, for Wilde, “earnest” was also a code word for “homosexual” — a dimension that Moretti does not touch.)

When not drilling down into the formal details of fictional form, Moretti manages a broad and clear synoptic sweep. The bourgeois realist novel went through three phases: ascendant, hegemonic, and a third, where it falls apart. The boom in the novel corresponds to the aftermath of the French Revolution; its decline to the rise of imperialism, and the emergence of social questions that — with rare exceptions, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — it was not able to encompass. The novel then split into two parallel streams. On the one hand, the genre novel, which presses on into uncharted territory, addressing a mass audience on themes the realist novel had only touched on: class struggle, the death of God, the industrial revolution, the colonial other. On the other, the modernist novel, from Joyce to Platonov, plays out a series of variations on the formal properties inherent in the novel as form, while at the same time trying to speak to the shock of the historical event which now outstrips the speed and scope of the trauma of the French Revolution. “That such an extreme tension would not last long,” says Moretti, “is hardly surprising. Yet that this phase would also be the last creative drive of European literature — this was a surprise for everybody.” Initially unacceptable to bourgeois audiences, modernism clears a space where the novel can utter the unutterable, but this iconoclastic literature matters less and less to the wider culture. For Moretti, modernism is less forward-looking than was thought at the time. “The museum and the avant garde” he calls “unsusceptible accomplices in a violent reorganization of the past.” Modernism recuperates the past in order to let it go.

And after that? While Moretti gestures to a decentering of thinking about the novel in a postcolonial context, his bailiwick is Europe, and he leaves the periphery to those who, like the great Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz, have spent lifetimes putting European cultures in their proper (provincial) place. Meanwhile, back in the old world, the European novel runs out of steam — or rather, the reading culture that sustains it does. Moretti: “A continent that falls in love with Milan Kundera deserves to end like Atlantis.”


Explicitly evaluative remarks like this are rare in The Bourgeois (and not often that sharp or funny). Moretti’s work is Marxist in filiation, and there’s a strong emphasis on historical analysis. While he draws on all of the Marxist critical tradition’s great exponents, from Lukács and Gramsci to Raymond Williams and Roland Barthes, Moretti’s main progenitors are little known Italian Marxist thinkers such as Galvano Della Volpe and Lucio Colletti, whose work was vigorously anti-dialectical. Della Volpe had no time for supposedly ineffable depths of meaning, even in poetry, and sought to put the analysis of literary discourse on a soundly materialist basis. His intellectual descendant Colletti also eschewed elaborate but evidence-free cultural critique. “Methodology is the science of those who have fuck all,” is how one might freely render one of his famous remarks.

From Della Volpe and Colletti, Moretti takes a preference for “falsifiable criticism,” constructed so as to be sensitive to knowable, empirical facts. To their legacy he adds what he calls a “formalism without close reading.” Moretti pulls novels apart like steam engines. He is interested in answering questions as to how texts work, not in perpetuating their mystery. In that sense, his own work partially, and in the best sense, partakes of the spirit of of bourgeois culture itself. His method is summed up by the titles of two of his books: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005) and Distant Reading, the newly released companion volume to The Bourgeois. For Moretti, there’s too much of the whiff of the sacred about close reading; as he puts it in his 2000 article “Conjectures on World Literature” (reprinted in Distant Reading): “At bottom it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” In most modern academic criticism, the novel stands in for the holy book and the literary reader becomes the guardian of some special essence known only through patient exegesis. Moretti’s disregard for such pretensions is a breath of fresh air amid the incense.

Surely, Moretti is right that the idea of the literary critic as catechist of the bourgeois theology of the secular canon is surely in terminal decline — and the passing of that model of the literary is of a piece with the decline of “the bourgeois” as a cultural archetype. Capitalism no longer has much need of such Sunday servicing. The Victorian aggregate of aggressive economic expansion and pious conservatism is a thing of the past. In the 21st century, aggressive accumulation has no need of a cultural alibi.

The Situationists had a useful term for the time and place that others have messianically dubbed “late capitalism”: they called this “the overdeveloped world.” It is as if capitalism in the West overshot the point where its internal conflicts might have transformed it into something else. Now it can only feed on itself. One of capital’s few remaining growth strategies is to colonize from within those cultural bulwarks which, in Victorian times (or even in postwar America), seemed to be the noncapitalist stabilizers of capitalist accumulation. And so we get the whole of culture — education, communication, even religious faith — recapitalized, via charter schools, MOOCs, private contractors, social media, the megachurch.

Such a world has no place for either the bourgeois novel or the keeper of its hermeneutic flame, the literary critic, for the simple reason that it is no longer a bourgeois world. Our ruling class still lives by exploiting labor, but in cultural terms it is not bourgeois. The literary form in which it reveals itself best is probably the self-help book or the business biography. Such forms would probably yield interesting insights if amassed together and studied as one vast database, except that such texts, unlike the largely forgotten and out-of-print novels Moretti analyzes, are zealously guarded “intellectual property.”

In this post-bourgeois cultural context, Moretti’s work is a terrible provocation to literary critics. He is not only indifferent to the residual theological function of close reading: he is a practitioner of the characteristic arts of post-bourgeois life. What, after all, does the post-bourgeois reverence above graphs, maps, trees, algorithms, infographics, and other examples of so-called “big data”? The delight we once took in the skill of the novelist, or the literary critic, is today elicited by the extraction of patterns from vast swaths of texts and other sources, via the kind of perceptive operations that machines perform much better than people.

The difference, of course, is that Moretti’s project is a critical one, and though this work is historical through and through, it does have consequences for our present political moment. Take European identity, for instance. As a comparative literature scholar, Moretti is interested in the novel outside its role in national cultures. The map of the novel (and, thus, of 19th-century bourgeois culture) is not identical with the map of the nations. The European space — and Moretti is most at home here — is a field of only relatively autonomous national terrains of unequal sizes, within which the novel has spread and evolves in quite different ways. Moretti’s Europe has no essence or unity. It is polycentric, and defined by its conflicts and changes. European space allowed forms to speciate and find different niches. Bigger cultural spaces will likely have more diversity not only of particular titles but also of forms. The cultural ecology of the provinces is always more restricted.

In Moretti’s evolutionary model for thinking about the novel, forms bifurcate. The tree of literature is constantly sprouting new branches, but some die off, taking their place in the fossil record of “the great unread.” The readers have spoken. This postulate makes many of Moretti’s colleagues particularly squeamish, since it suggests that the market is the determinant of culture. Literary critics (even Marxist ones) like to think we have in the literary work some relatively autonomous object not completely subsumed within the system of capitalism. We even like to think there could be resources of resistance in the old classics, or at least a counter-canon of neglected radical works. But, for Moretti, “[t]heories will never abolish inequality: they can only hope to explain it.”

One thing his theory explains very well is how the market feedback loop exaggerates differences in success between the more and less fit kinds of literary form. But his indebtedness to evolutionary models perhaps combines with the economism that afflicts to many of his fellow Marxist thinkers to create a blind spot in his work. In biology it is practically impossible, once one animal or plant species branches off from another, for these lines to reconnect. But in culture there is no structural reason why branches cannot rejoin and form a network rather than a tree. Moretti is rather resistant to turning his tree-like history of the novel into a network-like one. Moretti is no postmodernist: forms, individuate; they don’t come back together. There isn’t so much recombination going on, in other words, although he does note that successful new forms often borrow not from previous canonic works but from low or neglected ones. He is a little leery of this détournement as a general, and generative, principle, however — perhaps because it would take his own moderate dissolving of the boundaries of book and author too far. One wonders how much Moretti’s findings have to do with certain methodological assumptions rather than with evidence. If you begin with “realist novel” or “detective story” as a unit of analysis, you are naturally going to see how one version of this generic form differs from another more than how it draws into it materials from other kinds of writing entirely.

Still, it 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.” His data-mining work is of a kind more common and accepted in media studies — such as in the work of Henry Jenkins and Lev Manovich — than in literary scholarship, but with the added virtue of retaining some link, however attenuated, to the critical project of his Italian Marxist ancestors. He adds a sturdy branch to that old elm tree.

It has to be said that all of literary criticism participates, whether wittingly or not, in the matrix of bourgeois culture. What is interesting about Moretti is that his work has more to do with the workings of texts, with their description and evaluation, than on hiding that labor behind decorative screens of elaborate exegesis. His work is the dialectical counterpart to what the New Critics and Derrideans hath wrought. It is not that it would ever in any sense replace close reading, as some critical deacons fret. But by furnishing us with information about how bourgeois literary culture functions as a whole, he reveals the critics’ complicity in it. Up above, it may be all high-minded talk of resistant readings and counter-canons, but down in the engine room the business of literature is all about making variants on products for a panoply of markets.

There is a strand of Moretti’s work that is symptomatic of our post-bourgeois epoch, one more interested in patterns than passages, for which culture is no more mysterious a continent than any other. Moretti acknowledges that critique is not his long suit, and it is therefore tempting to read him as a bearer the bad news of contemporary capitalism rather than an analyst of its history.

And yet Moretti’s influence is enormously enabling for the critical side of critical theory. This is because he clears away some of the illusions of the power of critical reading to effect any change all on its own. It must surely pass through the minds of many professional readers of Moretti that our works, too, are just variations of forms, thrown on the market, where a fickle readership — mostly of grad students — decides for itself whether the form addresses the actual tensions they experience in everyday life. Moretti will not be thanked for disabusing us of the illusions of the modest power of critique. But his books might be profitably used to advance the critical project onto the post-bourgeois terrain. At the very least, I predict, there will be reprints.


McKenzie Wark is the author of The Beach Beneath the Street, Telesthesia, and A Hacker Manifesto, among other things. He is working on a book about Andrey Platonov and Alexander Bogdanov. He teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

LARB Contributor

McKenzie Wark is the author of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), Telesthesia (Polity), A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso, 2015), and various other things. She teaches in the liberal studies MA program at the New School for Social Research in New York City.


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