Franco Moretti’s article “‘Operationalizing’: or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory” is perhaps best approached by beginning with the conclusion. His summary of his goals at the end of the pamphlet reads, “A theory-driven, data-rich research program has become imaginable, bent on testing, and, when needed, falsifying the received knowledge of literary study. Of this enterprise, operationalizing, will be the central ingredient.” (13) With this end goal in mind, it is easier to return to the beginning of the piece to see how Moretti positions himself to make this claim.
Moretti ultimately aims to establish Digital Humanities as a branch of study that can have implications that reach beyond the realm of literary history and can have implications in concepts of literary theory and analysis as well. He does this by introducing his new term, operationalizing, and then applying it in two case studies of different texts. He begins by establishing his credibility by tracing the etymology of the term to its origin in physics, and then by making the connection to literary studies by equating the relationship between concepts and operations to the work of the digital humanist.
After defining his terms, Moretti moves on to his main argument. He splits the pamphlet into multiple subsections in order to make the piece more accessible to the casual reader, and he typically ends each section with either a question or transitional statement that returns the focus to the goals established in the opening paragraphs. The implementation of repetition serves as a useful method of refocusing the argument every page or two, and is an effective means of helping reading maintain their footing in an article that could otherwise be sworn off because of the technical language it employs in describing the case studies in character-space and tragic collision.
In addition to creating a reader-friendly structure to the piece, Moretti goes on to his two case studies by explaining each step that he took to acquire the data that he is sharing and then providing a graph or corresponding image. This practice provides clear insight into not only the types of data that Moretti claims as evidence for his claims, but also allows easy access to understanding his methodology of data acquisition and interpretation. In a pamphlet largely centered on responding to the common “so what?” question leveled at all of the pretty graphs and topic models that digital analysis tools can produce, Morreti’s inclusion of the network charts and discussion of how their meaning can provide a richer understanding of not only how often a character speaks but also with whom and in which direction is the conversation typically going. (By direction I simply mean to say who is doing most of the talking in a conversation between two characters.) Moretti explains the added meaning that these network charts can generate when he writes, “If the histogram had already shown that Phèdre speaks more than the other characters in the play, the network adds that the largest part of her word-space is taken, not by exchanges with her husband, Thésée or would-be lover Hippolite, but with her “confidante” Oenone: a result which is not inevitable, and is in fact quite significant for neo-classical poetics.” (3) The combination of images, explanatory notes, and arguments made about the relevance of his findings all combine to establish Moretti’s work as both accessible and perhaps more self-conscious than some of his other publications and those of other digital humanists.
The second half of the pamphlet makes a more concentrated effort at providing evidence that work done with digital analysis tools can have repercussions in larger areas of literary theory and criticism. Again, Moretti begins by defining the terms he wishes to use (Hegel in this case), and then he proceeds in a series of subsections to complicate or even falsify Hegel’s claims about tragic collision in Greek Tragedies. The structure of this half of the pamphlet essentially is a mirror image of what came before it. It is almost as if two essays were jammed together with the first providing the structural framework that will allow the reader to know what to expect in the second. This clever use of arrangement accompanies a methodical summary of Hegel’s key terms and the research that Moretti performed to attempt to either validate or disprove what is largely acknowledged as a valuable understanding of literary theory. Again, graphs. Again, explanations. Again, walkthrough of methods and findings. Though, to be fair, Moretti didn’t present a single finding that wouldn’t be possible without digital analysis tools (in fact, anyone who read Phèdre would know who she spends most of her time talking to), his combination of images, focused sub-sections, and a methodological walk through make this piece an excellent example of the rhetorical art of arrangement.