‘“Operationalizing’: or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory” begins with a cumbersome clause about its titular word that foreshadows the labor of the entire essay: “An uncommonly ungainly gerund, “operationalizing” is nevertheless the hero of the pages
that follow” (Moretti 1, emphasis mine). The awkwardness of this opening gesture points to the difficulty in applying digital methods to theoretical tasks as opposed to the quantitative ones to which one is accustomed. This purposefully-inauspicious start to the essay speaks volumes to Moretti’s method. A trial-and-error approach to operationalization within the essay both reveals the particulars of the process and rhetorically traces the maturation of the concept.
Moving on to the meat of the essay, Moretti begins his analysis of operationalization through an investigation of character space, defined here: “the narrative’s continual apportioning of attention to different characters who jostle for limited space within the narrative totality” (Woloch qtd. in Moretti). Considering the goal of the essay is to demonstrate the viability of operationalization in theoretical pursuits, starting with this essentially quantifiable aspect of text makes sense. I would characterize this part of the process as the numerical turn, as Moretti here “operationalizes” the concept of character space by trying out different methods for marking up significant text. I choose this terminology because this is the point in the essay in which the reader begins to see how theory plays a role in the process of operationalization. There are a number of different methods used to define character space, each one with its own merits and flaws. Moretti turns to a more analytical apparatus in order to introduce network theory and the complexity inherent in these textual operations. A side-by-side comparison of a networked character space versus a simple weighted histogram demonstrates that operationalizing the concept is itself a theoretical choice.
This is not enough for Moretti nor indeed for any who would be satisfied in the pursuit for theoretical operationalization: “if this is all measurement can do, then its role within literary study will only be a limited and ancillary one; making existing knowledge somewhat better, but not really different” (5). The answer to this need is pretty obviously extrapolation, though Moretti’s particular choice makes a great deal of sense. To elaborate, the next move in the essay is to go from demonstrating the quantifiable (perhaps more appropriately, operationalizable) nature of character space to describing the implications this discovery has for applied literary theory.
The choice of protagonism is one that is so fundamental that it makes the point in ways that comments about dialogue or the tragic form might not have been able to. Speculation is not my only means of demonstrating this analytical perspective, however. Moretti begins the demonstration with a network graph of Antigone’s dialogic confrontations. He does this because of Hegel’s claims concerting the inherent pathos of face-to-face (gegeneinander) interaction. This is significant for a few reasons. First, as Moretti explains, Antigone is a seminal work when it comes to understanding both tragedy as a form and dialogic conflict as a means of expression. It is among the strongest and most fundamental examples of an operational text in this way as it carries out the operations of tragedy through its implementation of character space. Second, Hegel’s contributions to literary theory have been immeasurable. Choosing a more contemporary example may cultivated stronger resonances with the state of the art Moretti is commenting on, but something would have been lost in not talking about so instrumental a contributor to the conversation surrounding tragedy. Nietzsche might have done, but Hegel’s commentary speaks more to function than form and is therefore more appropriate. Finally, the concept of gegeneinander is one with which Moretti struggles. His first attempts to operationalize it fail and he displays his failure. This recalls my initial observations about the essay’s overall purpose (to be awkward or become embarrassed trying). This is all significant because it places Moretti on the same level as the metonymical composer of literary theory. He hypothesizes, he struggles, he fails, he tweaks, succeeds but is unclear about his success. This all happens in the space of a text about which much has been written on both sides of the spectrum (quantification and theorization). Too, what is in the bones of this essay is essentially a tragedy played out in a theoretical apparatus. The ultimate failure of Moretti’s expectations for operationalization comes to resonate with the object of his theorization. Antigone is a text about two diametrically opposed forces clashing over a common issue: meaning. There a lot of other ways to talk about this text or to interpret its central conflicts, but I have to think Moretti has this particular interpretation in mind when he constructs his framework. The catharsis of failure in the case of this essay is that operationalization shows promise as a contributor to theoretical discourse. As a method, failure can be revelatory. It opens up new avenues for conversation that are normally closed by the subjective sanctity of literary theory. Moretti never shies from objectivism in previous works and remains consistent in this essay.