Free time is what scientists need more than money, says Stanford Professor Emeritus

At the turn of the century, Franco Moretti prepared a monumental encyclopedia of the novel to which authors such as Umberto Eco or Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa contributed. Moretti’s name had begun to appear in the handbooks of comparative literature among the names of the field’s classics; yet at that time, he decided to set out on unknown territory and began to study literature with the help of computers and charts. In the end of February, he came to Prague to give a lecture on dramatic networks by invitation of the Academy of Fine Arts and the Czech Academy of Sciences. 

Born in the small Italian city of Sondrio, Moretti spent his childhood and youth in Rome, where his father was a professor of ancient Greek and his mother was a high school teacher.  His younger brother Nanni became a film director, perhaps most known for his comedy We Have a Pope (2011). In the 1980s, Franco Moretti drew attention to himself through studies on popular literature, in which he did not touch upon their higher or lower artistic value, but the ways in which this kind of literature touches us, thrills us, and haunts us. In the 1990s, Moretti relocated to the United States where he published Atlas of the European Novel, in which he innovatively connected literary history with geography. In 2000, he coined the term “distant reading,” which later became a symbol of introducing quantitative methods to literary and cultural theory. He developed these methods together with his team at the Stanford Literary Lab. Since 2015, he has lived with his family in Geneva and has been a permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. 

Along with his son, Moretti used to narrate stories before bed about the wizard Merlin who lived in the mysterious Malá Strana. At the end of February, he finally visited this part of Prague himself to pick up a copy of ArteActa magazine with a translation of his key study inside and spent the night there; the day after, on the other side of the river Vltava, he presented his lecture on dramatic networks. He speaks about them as well as his professional career in an interview we conducted on a train between Prague and Brno.

At the beginning of your career, you taught at two small Italian universities, in Salerno and Verona, then, in 1990, you moved to Columbia University in New York. What experience have you gained with the American university system?
The thing that perhaps most struck me in the United States is how homogenous and high the average level of teaching and of students is. Of course, when we talk about American universities we always think of the famous ones and maybe of another thirty or forty slightly less famous ones like University of North Carolina, Michigan, etc. When I came from Italy it was very impressive, because it was a very serious institution. In retrospect, after twenty five years working there, I would say that the strengths of the American system are also its weaknesses. That it is system that is too unified to have the kind of variety that one can encounter in Europe, where there are generally many more perspectives that one can follow.

There is also something else that is profoundly different, but this may have to do with the fact that I was teaching in Italy from the late 1970s to the end of 1980s and in America afterwards. At the end of 1970s the university in Italy was still something that was not taken for granted. Especially in Salerno I was teaching students whose parents had not going to university. So, the university was a horizon that was still new for many of my students and one had to justify what it meant, what we are doing. In the United States everything is very institutionalized, so, this sense of questioning of the university no longer exists.

Mostly you lectured on literary history. Do you think that your approach to teaching it was the same all the time?
This has changed. When I started teaching on my own in 1979, but also when I started teaching at Colombia in 1990, I would present writers like Goethe, or Austen, or Stendhal as the beginning of the present. At Stanford, in 2000, this was no longer possible. Maybe because the students came from a different continent, many of them were from Asian families, maybe because the time has changed, and especially because the new digital technology had sharpened the sense of change. Anyway, what twenty, thirty years ago felt like the beginning of today, no longer felt that way. So, it´s become more complicated to teach literary history.

Honestly, I have never been completely sure what the value of history is. In this, I was very struck when I read Nietzsche´s reflection On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, because I thought his point was, unfortunately, very strong. Unfortunately, because one would like the needs of life do not to determine all of the needs of culture.

But then the question arises: why should we teach history in schools?
I try to remember how I was taught history and I have a very clear memory that in Italian schools, high school, but even middle school, we were taught Homer, Virgil and we were taught them not as the past, but as the roots of all culture. So, the past did not exist as the past, it was really the foundation for everything. I don´t believe this anymore—I haven´t believed it in a long time. Why should it be studied? I think that the best answer was given to me by an Argentinean friend and historian José Burucúa who said, “The past is the only place where we can see how different life can be.”   

Today, in the present world order and in the future of that world order we can see, there is an incredible sameness. If we want to think that alternative political, social, cultural orders are possible, the only place where we can go looking for them is the past, not because we want to reproduce something from the past but because the past is really evidence that human culture changes all the time. I think this is the best answer I have ever found.

Speaking of what might be otherwise, scientific work has become extremely bureaucratic, and one sometimes thinks to the detriment of the quality of present-day research. What is your opinion?
Nowadays, our system has encouraged the emergence of a type of scholar who is exceptionally good, not at doing research, but at promising research. The type of scholar who writes grant proposals and who persuades people with money that certain thing is worth doing. This is a very special ability that has absolutely nothing to do with being good at research. So, now all the money goes to people who are good at selling research, not necessarily, and in my opinion usually not at all, at doing it. 

A very bad consequence of this is that more and more of the money that goes into university life is linked to grants. It is not regular funds, but it is special funds. This means that university life becomes much more irregular, people are hired only for a few years and then they are dropped, and enormous differences arise between people who receive the money and people who don´t. In the European Community, there is the grotesque story of Excellence Initiative and Clusters of Excellence… Departments that are absolutely identical, one receive an enormous fund and another doesn´t, for no good reason at all. This creates a tension within the system which is extremely unpleasant and completely disconnected with any scientific result.  

Somewhere you have described your experience with a big grant proposal which involved many high-grade researchers. After the failure of the application you elaborated the research topic yourself and wrote the Atlas of the European Novel, a book that made you famous. However, you have been very successful in setting up various scientific centers, the first being the Center for the Study of the Novel. How did this center start up and what was it for?
At the beginning, I was a visiting professor at the Stanford and was trying to decide whether to go to Stanford or stay at Columbia. When I was there it so happened that for the following year very few graduate students decided to accept Standford´s offer. This happens, but it´s never a good thing for a department. So, I went to the person who was then a chair and said, “Why don´t they want to come here?” This person said, “I don´t know, but… what would you do to attract graduate students?” And I said, “Well, since right now I am working on the novel, I would, for instance, create a center for the study of the novel.” Within three days the center was created.

The money came from the president of the university. What was the money for?
When we announced on the university website that there was a center we start receiving letters of professors who wanted to come, spend a sabbatical at the center. But the center was a little room without a window where graduate students sat and we organized a few conferences and book discussions. There were three small conferences – one day, four speakers – every year and three discussions plus one lecture. This was the center, a series of lectures.

But the story of the Stanford Literary Lab, which set the trends in digital humanities for many years, was a bit different.
The story of Stanford Literary Lab is completely different, you are right. There we actually did work. In 2000s there was interest in these new digital techniques, but not great interest. First graduate seminar that Matthew Jockers and I offered in 2004, it was called “Electronic Data and Literary Theory,” had one student. But we insisted and insisted and insisted. And then one day in 2010 I told Matt, “Look, let´s take a piece of paper, write ‘Stanford Literary Lab’ on it, put it on a door and let´s see if this changes the things.” I went to the chair of the English department, said, “Can we have that room that is always empty?” We were given the room, I printed the paper and we put it there with Scotch tape.

One thing that happened was that we found the way for graduate students to count their work at the lab for some credit. Then the Lab received the money from the university for its first two years. It was exactly 20.000 dollars which for two years, since we have to buy computers, screens and everything was really nothing. But beside that we did not need a lot of money. What we needed, and this is something we got, was some free time. It is something we need much more than money. Some free time to think, to read, to study, to talk.

At the beginning, the scientific community was not fully prepared for your quantitative methods. You even created your own publishing platform, the Pamphlets, when a distinguished journal returned your first joint study for reworking. 
It was New Literary History. Now, they publish digital humanities all the time. But I´ll tell you something. A few weeks ago, the editors of Calibano, a small Italian journal for English studies, met after forty years. I was one of them between 1977 and 1983. And I realized there that three most important places where I published, the three places where I really published what has become my work – Calibano, New Left Review, Pamphlets, neither of them was peer-reviewed. So, all my work has had the luck, have been really blessed by being outside of this system of peer-review.

Fortune favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur once said. The subject of your Prague lecture is “Simulating Dramatic Networks.” How did you come to the idea to combine plays with the network theory?
It started because I have always been a dilettante reader of scientific literature. At the certain point I realized that there is this new theory, network theory. I remember reading a book by Barabási. And I thought this could be used for the analysis of plot. Then I started doing it with plays because plays are smaller. My own writing has been mostly on novels, but the quantitative work I have done has often been on smaller forms, on short stories, on plays, on titles, because it is easier to understand what is going on, at least it is easier for me.  

And at what stage is your research?
Now I am studying and I would like to write, in the next 4-5 years, a book on tragic form. And I have been thinking about this book as a possible synthesis of the hermeneutic and quantitative traditions. I am not so convinced that this synthesis is possible, so, I am not sure what the future of this method will be. But I am certainly very happy to have spent time doing this work because I think it has help me acquire a more precise analytical sense of plot structure and the dramatic structure explicitly. 

In a nutshell, what is a dramatic network?
The point of a dramatic network is very simple. It allows you to see, in a single glance, the entire structure of the play, and the relationships among the characters. I am often criticized because people ask where the temporal dimension is—and they are right, there is no temporal dimension. But the point of the network is precisely to abolish the temporal dimension in order to gain a synchronic image of the system. The synchronic image is not the plot, it´s one way of looking at the plot, which has the advantages of being synthetic and intuitive.

What can we see in these images?
If you make a network of the first act of Hamlet or of the second act of Hamlet, you realize that Hamlet has never spoken to Ophelia. And this is interesting and strange. He only speaks to her in one scene in the entire play. We tend to think of Hamlet and Ophelia as being together, but they are apparently not that close. Or Antigone, one of the greatest characters in all of world literature, this young woman… You look at the network of Antigone and you see that Antigone is not at the centre of the network at all, she is rather peripheral. And so you realized that something that can happen in plays is that there is an unbalance between the characters who are central, who tend to be male figures exercising power, and at times female, at times male figures of opposition. The figures of opposition have a lot fewer connections than the others. They are more peripheral. However, very often they balance that with the strength of their words.    

In 2015, you and your family moved to Geneva. Why you decided to leave Stanford?
I returned to Europe because my wife who is younger than me got a job at the World Health Organization, which really was her dream job. It was always implicit that from a certain point on, our joint life would be led by her work. And this was that moment. So, I have no doubts about leaving Stanford. At first I thought I could stay part time, but then I didn´t want to be away for a long time, so, I retired.  

After your return to Europe, you worked for several years as a senior advisor at the Institute of Technology in Lausanne and also became a permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. This is a very specific institution.
Wissenschaftskolleg is a research center, every year they get about thirty five fellows from the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. I am permanent fellow, so, I can go there often, but I don´t go there as often as I would like to because of my life in Geneva. It is a sort of paradise for scholars. You have very few duties except that of talking to each other at lunch, attending a seminar a so on. It is a lovely place. As a rule, there is a composer in the group. And there are often also pianists or quartets in residence for a while.

Looking back at your university career, did it fulfill your expectations that you had at the beginning?
Back in the 1970s, in my twenties, I was a militant in the New Left, trotskyist, anti-Stalinist New Left, and a literary student, a young scholar. None of my friends studied literature, they were all philosophers, economists, journalists, historians, and when I was thinking about myself, I knew that I needed to earn some bread, and so I would need to be a professor. At the same time, I was thinking that the nice thing to be would be to be an intellectual. That is, someone whose intellectual life is not only spent inside the university, but whose work can have meaning also outside of their discipline, and maybe in political terms, in a loose sense.

In 1970s and 1980s I could still have this believe or delusion about myself that I really was an intellectual. When I went to the United States, I clearly became a professor, I was a very good professor, as you pointed out I founded two institutions that have been incredibly successful, but I was just a professor. That my last act there was founding a lab was even more professor-like because it was a small, very specialized place within the university. Now, it is too late to change my life, but it´s nice to return to a situation where, if I cannot actually do it, at least I can feel, I can smell the intellectual figures around me.