Far Country: Scenes from American Culture by Franco Moretti
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This short book is a selection of lectures from a course in literary history that Franco Moretti, now retired, used to teach at Stanford University. Moretti is best known for advocating computational approaches to the humanities—for his paradigm of “distant reading,” where the scholar or team of scholars mine data rather than perform minute and partly artistic close textual analyses to make discoveries or confirm observations about literary form and history.
Disdaining the old technique of close reading as “theological,” the materialist Moretti argues instead that the production of literary knowledge should be put on the same basis as scientific knowledge: results should be falsifiable and replicable through experiment.
Such arguments do not appear in Far Country. This collection of undergraduate lectures on topics in American culture—encompassing poetry (Whitman), short fiction (Hemingway), film (Westerns and noirs), drama (Arthur Miller), and painting (Hopper and Warhol)—is a good reminder of where Moretti started as a critic, before his turn to the digital humanities.
His early book, Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms (1983), introduced his method of formalist Marxism by applying it to a range of cultural materials from mass to elite productions, from detective and romance stories to Ulysses and The Waste Land. The best remembered essay today, “Dialectic of Fear,” compares Frankenstein to Dracula as novels representing the two extremist threats to an “organic” bourgeois society—the monster’s proletarian insurgency and the vampire’s monopoly capital.
This type of analysis represents Moretti’s foundational technique: he isolates a formal feature of the text—here the creatures who stalk the two horror novels considered as psychological and political metaphors—and finds how it functions in society—in the case of Shelley’s and Stoker’s books, by winning the reader’s assent to liberal capitalism by scaring them with figurations of its alternatives, proletarian revolution or monopolistic centralization.
Rejecting theories that see literature or popular culture as subversive, Moretti argues that literary form usually acts as a safety valve to drain fear and frustration from the capitalist system, or else that its aesthetic order models the accommodations the system demands of us. Moretti holds a bleakly and proudly disenchanted view of art as subtle propaganda, a set of intricate formal structures serving the social order, though we encounter these forms disguised as bewitchingly magical objects that relieve us of the order’s pressures. Moretti ends the long introductory essay of Signs Taken for Wonders, “The Soul and the Harpy,” by explicating its titular image:
If so undeconstructive and unliberating a notion of literature still seems disagreeable, or unconvincing, I can only draw on an image that has often come back to me in the course of this study. It is a bas-relief of an ancient Greek tomb in the British Museum. It shows a harpy—the upper half of its body a woman, the lower a bird of prey—carrying off a small human body: according to the experts, the soul of the deceased. Below, the harpy is clutching the soul tight in its claws, but higher up her Greek arms are holding her in an attentive and tender embrace. The soul is doing nothing to get out of the harpy’s clutch. It seems calm, relaxed even. It probably does not like being dead: if it did there would be no need for harpies. But at the same time the soul must know that there is no escape from the grip of the claws. For this reason it does not lower its gaze, but rests its head trustingly on the harpy’s arms. Precisely because there is no escape it prefers to delude itself about the affectionate, almost maternal nature of the creature dragging it away with her in flight.
Given the implications of this image, it’s no wonder Moretti is averse to close reading. We see the critic as ensorcelled boy, about to be rent and devoured by the claws—implicitly, the vagina dentata—of his mother-lover, the text. Unless, that is, he can break the spell by which she has solicited his trust and desire. The critic is a monster-slayer, the iconoclast-liberator of humanity enslaved to oppression by its deluded love of art.
Except that humanity—or its undergraduates, anyway—no longer loves art. Moretti explains in the first chapter of Far Country that, with the diminution in respect contemporary society accords to literature and culture, and with students increasingly convinced that economic opportunity rather than cultural growth is the purpose of their education, he had to re-enchant the objects of his study in his Stanford lectures before dispelling their mystique. This suits him anyway, he explains, because he is drawn equally to the spurious magic and its rational exposure (the harpy really is beautiful, but you must also look down at her monstrous lower half):
There are scholars for whom only the love for literature matters; others, who approve only of the unmasking. More ambivalently, I care about both: radical critique is necessary precisely because of the magic of which literature is capable. Enjoy all the magic, and then filter it through the skepticism of critique: this, for me, is aesthetic education.
Far Country is elegiac, a memorial to Moretti’s teaching career, which began at a deprived public university in Salerno, Italy, where the students were mostly working-class and provincial, and ended at elite Stanford. In neither institution, Moretti explains, did his students know much about literary history, hence the need for survey lecture courses to explain the evolution of cultural forms in tandem with social, political, and economic developments.
Moretti reproduces five of these lectures, in all their conversational and argumentative rhythm, in Far Country. The chapters are divided into labeled paragraphs that today would be the basis for PowerPoint slides. While Moretti’s literary history course covered modern European and American culture, the American examples are isolated in this book to further memorialize not only Moretti’s pedagogy, but the Italian scholar’s life abroad.
Yet in its subtextual attitude toward American culture, Far Country presents the U.S. as yet another harpy whose clutches the soul of the critic is lucky to escape. Moretti organizes almost every chapter around an explicit or implicit comparison between American and European artists, and he always insinuates a preference for the European behind a superficial even-handedness:
- Whitman’s demotic epic is an empty celebration of manifest destiny as opposed to Baudelaire’s radical alienation from capitalist modernity;
- Hemingway simplifies Joyce’s and (honorary European) Stein’s great experimental prose to create a style he can use to hide from the traumas of the Great War;
- Arthur Miller adopts crowd-pleasing melodrama to evade his most stringent Brechtian insights into the impersonality of capitalist tragedy;
- Vermeer and Rembrandt create a bourgeois world of subtle interiority, while Hopper and Warhol more crassly succumb to the progressive defeat of humanity by alienation and commodification;
- and even in popular cinema, the paradigmatically American Western genre dazzles postwar European audiences themselves by legitimizing violence through a schematic portrayal of good vs. evil in a rudimentary society, as opposed to the endless complications of Euro-inflected noir plots and their erupting sexuality that frustrates the profit motive.
This debunking technique is, as we have seen, the essence of Moretti’s criticism. Insofar as American art is more immediately appealing than European, precisely because, from Whitman’s parataxis to the Western’s panoramic landscape shots, it simplifies both form and politics, then the critic has a more urgent need to expose its smooth imposture than to clarify European literature’s refined techniques of capitalist legitimation. Baudelaire’s Gothicized, decadent cityscape may not incite us to revolutionary fervor any more than will Whitman’s all-embracing catalogues of American enterprise, but at least we come away from Baudelaire with the sense that capitalism is frightening.
What surely dazzles students more than anything is not simply that Moretti reads politics into literature but that he reads politics into minute features of literary and artistic form, such as Hemingway’s use of prepositions or Arthur Miller’s non-communicative dialogue. He does this because form is how art imposes ideology on reality, as he explains in his first chapter:
Faced with the incessant turmoil of the empirical world, artistic form operates a selection of the materials to be represented, and fixes them into a structure; and it does so through an agonistic process: anti-chaotic […] It’s the Realpolitik of form: the gray zone where beauty comes into contact with power, and even with violence. “We both like working with hard materials,” says Ibsen’s last hero, the sculptor Rubek, to, of all people, a bear hunter: “and both of us force our material down under control at last. Become lord and master over it. We never give up till we overcome it, no matter how much it fights back.” Force, master, control.
Put this image together with the one about the harpy above and you get a complete picture of the conflict Moretti stages over and over again in his criticism: the artist has through force compelled chaotic reality to assume a pleasing shape to enchant and mislead the audience; the critic, via the counter-force of skeptical rationality, disarticulates this form and restores reason, so that reality may be apprehended without the emotional distraction of art.
But Moretti’s plot of form-as-force leaves out of the scenario an element of the creative process that every artist experiences. So quick is he to masculinize artist and critic as rational agents contending with and over formless female flux that he elides—perhaps because it is construed as effeminate—the moment of passivity, receptivity, through which artist and critic apprehend phenomena before recreating them. Understandably: if you let your guard down, the harpy will carry you away.
But this masculinist elision has critical consequences: it is not only the American artist but Moretti himself who oversimplifies. His rational materialism, his exaltation of science, prevents him almost programmatically from even seeing certain complications in works of literature because he refuses to attend to them as anything other than aggregates of modular formal structures that mimic and uphold capitalism’s similarly machinic organization.
Schematically opposing Baudelaire to Whitman as a metonymy for European vs. American approaches to poetry and society, for example, he neglects to inform his students and readers that Baudelaire was inspired by Poe, that the supposedly European vision of modernity he opposes to Whitman’s came not from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean but from the same side of the East River (Whitman lived in Brooklyn, Poe in the Bronx). The relation between art and its national context is less easily explained than Moretti would have us believe.
Also, where is Moretti’s acknowledgement that there is more to Whitman than boosterism for America’s trades? The omnipresence of flesh and death and sexuality—all this, all that makes Whitman still compelling rather than a curio from America’s expansionist age, is missing from Moretti’s analysis, because it would interfere with the mission of making us outgrow our childish attachment to mother-art and her smothering love. His goal, in a word:
Desacralization: masterpieces are not miracles, they are work: many disparate elements, intricately put together.
And criticism is work in turn: the counter-mastery of taking masterpieces apart. There’s one problem with this theory, though: masterpieces are miracles, or else everyone would write them all the time. And they are products not of superior intelligence—I have no doubt that Moretti is smarter than Walt Whitman or Arthur Miller or myself—but of more thorough openness to reality.
Artistic forms, when they are successful and inventive, are not rational calculations willfully carved into chaos; they are rather the products of inspiration and intuition as much as of deliberation, the willingness to be provoked by experience—and not only that of the economic order: there are more things in heaven and earth, etc.—into the generation of more objects to experience more richly.
Refusing to distinguish between art and propaganda and refusing to acknowledge that the greatest work is infinitely complex in form and and infinitely unpredictable in influence, Moretti leaves us with a vision of the world that excludes half of it: all power, no beauty; all matter, no spirit. And I would hesitate to say this if Moretti were not himself such a believer in homologies between the aesthetic and the social, but an ideology where force alone is real and receptivity and mutuality—love, in a word—a weak myth may have its baleful effects not only on literary criticism but also on the private life.
At the end of his introduction to Far Country, Moretti laments the neoliberal university, where students are merely consumers and education serves only economic rationality. Yet what does he offer in its place? He reduces criticism to technique without the element of creative agency that always made it an art as well as a science; he redefines art itself as social mechanism to be defused by the student and teacher. Everything in his work is made rational and assessed for predictable functioning; no object or discourse is left standing that could model complexity that is not chaos and order that is not imposition.
Thinking to slay monsters, Moretti and his science-envying ideology-critiquing cohort only destroyed everything—art, love, beauty—that stood between the university and the machine. If only he had heeded Walt Whitman, who extols the art of participatory passivity rather than the sciences of cold calculation and brute force. Now the scholar finds himself in the loveless grip not of a harpy, but of the very mechanism he thought would save him from the feminine wiles of great literature.