Topologies of Literature:

Network Theory and Literary Study

“There is a huge research challenge to understand the relationship between books.”

– Dan Clancy, Chief Engineer, Google Books



[Slide 1]Perhaps no other concept has become as ubiquitous today in trying to understand modern media and society than that of the network.  For theorists such as Manuel Castells, Hartmut Böhme, Alexander Galloway, and Steven Connor, networks embody evolutionary, collaborational, and navigational forms of thought.  They move us, in Connor’s words, “from the domain of exact measurement, the domain of geometry…to that of spatial relations, to questions of continuity, neighbourhood, disjunction and connection.”  Topology is the science of mapping such relational structures.

Drawing on the recent work of Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker in their new book, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, my talk today will try to explore what critical insights might be gained from a topological study of literary works as an important new direction in the sociology of literature.  The science of topology allows us to map the connections between bibliographic manifestations of a work (or works), measuring the nodes and edges that draw those works into a relational universe.  In this, it is a first attempt to respond to Clancy’s (and Google’s) challenge mentioned above, what he calls the “huge research challenge” of identifying the relationship between books.  How books connect to one another is not at all self-evident and there is a great deal of theoretical work to be done to think through models of bibliographic relationality.  Topology is thus a key outgrowth of the cartographical imperative introduced by Moretti, part of the larger “spatial turn” in the humanities today.  By reconceiving the literary work not as a static, timeless, and ultimately isolatable object, but instead as a socially imbedded, circulatory process – as an event that can be mapped – topology can help us rethink the nature of the work and literary work itself, and by extension theories of authorship that underpin such work.  In bringing into view the dissemination of works to a reading public, it can offer us new insights into the potential meanings of those works.  But in bringing into view these works – in endowing our critical reading with a crucial visual dimension – I would like to suggest that topological representation also has the potential to change contemporary reading practices as well.  

This project will take as its starting point three very different textual events from Goethe’s career, from his early novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, to his autobiographical project, Aus meinem Leben, to his final major prose milestone, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre.  Looking at the ways these works are topologically differently constituted – the way they differ as material and intellectual events – can help us rethink changing norms surrounding theories of literary work and authorship during a period of intense media change.  What makes Goethe such a useful case study for this project is the way we can see how his own authorial practices begin to assume a networked identity, the way the codex moves from being imagined as a stable, singular object to a participant within a much broader intermedial web.  In Galloway and Thacker’s words, we can see how Goethe begins to think protocologically.


                  Let me begin by walking you through three different topological maps, identifying along the way a few of the salient details that such maps reveal.  The first example is Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werther [slide 2.].  What we see happening is a single work followed by a series of adaptations, with changing periods of intensity – an initial burst [3-5], then another in the 1780s tied to the second edition [6], a lag in the 90s [7], followed by considerable growth in the early 1800s [8-9], especially in foreign spaces (England and France).  I have only used artistic titles that explicitly invoke Werther, but of course there are a number of works loosely based on Werther that one could also include here (as well as journalistic or epistolary responses).  The main point, however, is to illustrate how what we have here is a very classic case of a “bestseller” followed by a variety of derivatives over time.  It makes for what we would call an extremely centralized reading network – one major “node” form which flow numerous “edges” or reactions.  According to graph theory, the quantitative basis of topology, we can actually measure this network.

                  Let me explain this with reference to a square [10].  First, we can measure the “Order”, which equals the number of nodes (N).  In a square, the Order = 4.  Second, we can measure the “Size,” which equals the number of edges (E).  In our square, Size = 4.  Third, we can measure the “Degree” of any “Node,” or the number of edges per node.  In the square, the degree of each node is 2.  Finally, we can measure the sum of the degrees, which will always be equal to twice the number of edges, so here the Sum = 8.  The point of such graphing techniques is that they allow us to observe, and then translate into comparable form, not only how connected something or someone is, but also the nature of the connectivity, whether a network is “centralized” or “decentralized,” meaning a few nodes have many edges or whether a network is “distributed” meaning that all nodes have roughly the same “degree.”  In the case of our topology of Werther [11], we can see how by the time of Goethe’s death it has an order of 35, a size of 34, and a degree for the major node of 34, and a degree for all other nodes of 1, and a sum of all degrees therefore as 68.  We see in other words that this is a very centralized network, with all derivatives revolving around a single sun.

                  Take the second example, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [12].  As I take you through the slides, I hope you will readily see a very different principle at work.  We actually begin first with the appearance of Die pilgernde Törin in 1808 in Cottas Taschenbuch für Damen of 1809 [13].  This then draws links to a mini trail of literary work dating back to the mid-eighteenth century [14], including Goethe’s publication of his translation of the poetic romance at its center within Schiller’s Musenalmanach, which Goethe imbedded in a four-part cycle of poems.  This is followed the next year with the publication of the opening chapters of the novel in Cottas Taschenbuch under the heading “Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre” [15].  This links back to Cottas Taschenbuch, perhaps, because of the seriality of publication (I say perhaps because we only know they are linked by the later publication, but they do not in any way belong to the same work in 1810).  We move to an advertisement about the absence of a work [16], then a flurry of more publications in Cottas Taschenbuch [17-18] – that are thus linked to the initial publication – and that connect in the case of Die neue Melusine to other Goethe publications in the same edition of the Taschenbuch, but also to Dichtung und Wahrheit because we are told that this fairy-tale was the fairy tale discussed, but not recounted, in Dichtung und Wahrheit.  Obviously, one of the key points is that by now we still have no center.  Der Mann von funfzig Jahren, die neue Melusine part II, and then, and only then, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, 1. Theil [19-21].  What’s interesting is the way mapping the novel in this way shows us a very different reading circuit, not backwards from the novel to its “pre-publications” (in Wolfgang Bunzel’s words), but you could follow instead this circuit in the Taschenbuch around the novel.  They make up their own work so to speak.  What’s also interesting is the way in the same year of publication you do get one, but only one, adaptation by Pustkuchen, a very different responsive environment from the 1770s and Werther.  The other point to make is the way we see the epitextual continue after the work (and in lieu of it too) with the advertisement of “inclined participation” that appeared in the Morgenblatt [22].  It’s here where Goethe will begin to draw attention to his receptive world as part of the work itself.  He cites a work by Ense, which I’ve included here, but also Goethe’s own poem, “Um Mitternacht”, from an earlier period but that has also just been set to music by Zelter.  There is a diachronic and intermedial conversation going on here in the “advertisement”.  Finally of course we get the 2. Fassung [23-24], which is part of the Ausgabe letzter Hand, which links up the diverse pieces that were published elsewhere, like Der Müllerin Verrat and Um Mitternacht, but not, interestingly, the 1. Fassung.

                  Taken as a whole, we see how the Wanderjahre topology has an order of 20 (20 nodes), a size of 31, 31 links or edges, an average degree of 3.1 connections per node, and a sum of 62.  Werther, we remember, had a greater number of nodes (35), but a similar number of links (34), but it is at the level of distribution where we see the greatest difference.  If Werther was highly centralized, the Wanderjahre is greatly distributed.  Fewer nodes produce more links.

                  This brings me to my third and last example, Aus meinem Leben [26].  It begins orderly enough, starting with birth and continuing through young adulthood [27-28].  There is a kind of epigenetic theory of self and book at work here.  But then something interesting happens.  First, Dichtung und Wahrheit breaks off.  But at the same time, we get 2 separate autobiographical contributions in 1816 [29] – volume 1 of what became known as Die Italienische Reise and volume 1 of Ueber Kunst und Alterthum, which Goethe explicitly said belonged to his autobiographical work.  Now what’s really interesting here is the way Goethe begins publishing a series of “autobiographical” notices in Kunst und Alterthum over the course of the 1820s, in lieu of continuing Dichtung und Wahrheit [31].  As in the case of the Wanderjahre, these notices are also often pointers to intermedial encounters with his own work, so here for example, we have a review of a new illustrated edition called “Scenen aus Goethes Jugendjahren” [32] that was based on scenes from Dichtung und Wahrheit. (The titles in black are Goethe’s “works”, in purple are Goethe’s notices, and the titles in blue refer to non-authorial works related to the author.)  Such practices will continue [33-34], with pointers to busts of Goethe that will appear later as illustrations, to his earlier poetry, and then the active year of 1822 [35], where we see the first volume of Campagne in Frankreich and several notices about the reception of Goethe’s work, including “inclined participation in the Wanderjahre.”  Then we get some key notices about the establishment of the literary archive [36-37], some more that coincide with the 2. Römischer Aufenthalt and the Annalen meines Lebens [38-39], and then of course the final volume of Dichtung und Wahrheit a year after his death [40] – which is to say, the archive has become an agent in the story now.

                  We can now summarize these three topologies to see where differences and similarities lie.  With Aus meinem Leben we have a much higher order and size than the Wanderjahre, a higher average level of connectivity per node, and thus overall a much higher level of connectivity that takes on an even more distributed fashion.  What surprised me about putting this project together was the way the autobiography emerged as the most medially sophisticated work in Goethe’s oeuvre.


                  Let me turn now to some questions that this project has raised for me, with the hope that you will have even more, before I move to what I see as its implications.  Putting aside Thacker and Galloway’s challenge to the edge/node distinction itself – that is, how to decide between agents and actions – the first major question I had was what counted as a node and what constituted an edge or link.  The nodes were simpler: for the purposes of this project nodes are bibliographic items, and in particular, published or print items.  I think you would get a very different topology if you were interested, say, in a genetic typology of Entstehungsgeschichte of a work.  Links were more challenging.  Take, for example, the case of Aus meinem Leben [42].  Where does Ueber Kunst und Alterthum link to?  Or you could argue that the notice “Ueber Goethes Harzreise im Winter” should also link back to the sections of Dichtung und Wahrheit where this creative period is discussed [43]. 

Second: There are of course multiple topologies for every work.  I have given you bibliographic topologies, where such maps are substitutes for more traditional linear bibliographies of works published.  These are in essence what Thacker and Galloway qualify as “technical topologies”.  But what about topologies of community – a map of the communities these works connect for example?  Or an economic topology that would examine quantities of publication to better understand the commodity aspect of these works?  Or what about a semantic topology that would fall under the more traditional heading of intertextuality – one could map, for example, how the opening line of the Wanderjahre points to the Lehrjahre, Plato, the Bible and a new trend in book illustration all at once (among other things).  Or all of the works of Goethe’s (or his influences) that are discussed in Dichtung und Wahrheit. 

The final question is why a map at all, why not a digital archive, which is of course a major vogue today (think of the Rossetti Archive, Whitman Archive, and Dickens Archive).  What would happen if we just made a Werther archive or a Wanderjahre archive, or just a Goethe archive, scanning all of these works and making them searchable, thereby allowing readers to make their own connections?


In his by now famous Panizzi lectures, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, Donald McKenzie made the powerful argument that new readers always make new texts.  For McKenzie, the science of bibliography – the science of the history of books – was in many ways synonymous with the science of literary interpretation.  The bibliographer’s job, as McKenzie saw it, was the careful attention to the numerous manifestations of transformation that a single work could undergo through time, the study of the physical traces of the way readers understood their books.  That kind of research would then tell us something about an historical, and perhaps sociological, understanding of the work’s meaning.

But what seemed to be missing from McKenzie’s analysis, and all subsequent attempts to theorize an idea of “social texts,” is not only a model for analyzing the nature of a work as a shifting totality, of seeing it as an open-ended whole. There’s a decidedly reified sense of “the work” in McKenzie and others that does not take well enough account of the fundamental instability of works in print.  What is also missing is a way of seeing that “open” work in the world, the social actions it creates through its connections to other works.  It’s precisely the connectivity that is missing from traditional bibliography and, I would argue, its more recent archival rejuvenation (to return to my last question above).  I think we get very different principles of reading when we read topologically rather than bibliographically or archivally.  Archives are machines for generating the future, they do not make arguments about the past.  Topologies do.  They make visible what is invisible in the archive.  Topologies are necessarily interpretive, but in doing so, they help us recreate a life world – as world – of historical readers.  If one were to make these maps interactive, which I hope to do, you could not only have each of the nodes take you to the actual texts, but you could turn the node for Zelter’s Vertonung, for example [44], into a link that would play a rendition of the song (like this) and portray the songbook (like this) [45] that was an important artifact for bourgeois homes.  The topology reconstructs to a certain extent this lived, phenomenal experience of the past.

In reconstructing such readerly milieus, topologies can flatten out models of authority that we have traditionally worked with. As Böhme has suggested, networks are heterarchical, not hierarchical.  But at another level, they can help us identify different models of authorial control, what Thacker & Galloway call writing protocologically.  Understanding literary work protocologically means seeing the way its influence is actually increased by being distributed and not centralized from a single point.  Goethe lost control of Werther in some sense because it remained a single node, pirated, adapted, copied, etc. by others, whereas works like the Wanderjahre and the autobiography remained more fully “his” and arguably contributed more to his institutionalization because they participated in a more diffuse interactive sense of authoriality.  The logic of networks is that control expands the more power is diffused.  One creates the protocols of diffusion rather than just an object to be diffused.

Why might this matter?  What happens if this [46] were the text in this class, to paraphrase Stanley Fish and now Todd Presner?  What happens when we read these topologies instead of books?  What I hope is that it might go some way to addressing a basic problem of continuing to read books when we are training people to think in a networked world.  Learning to read topologically is learning to think – and create – topologically, to craft strategies of expressing onself and gaining attention for one’s work in a more distributed way, to think according to protocols, not power.  But it can also help us see the history behind such practices, that thinking in networks did not begin with digitial media but owes its origins to the history of print, and possibly even earlier.  Topology can allow us access, in the spirit of someone like Bernhard Siegert, the pre-history of digital media – it can allow us, in other words, to study itself.

Behind Thacker and Galloway’s work is a basic concern about new models of political participation and activism in a networked world.  One could think about this type of reading – of learning to read topologically – as an important part of this process, a laboratory for training new media critical thinking.  But on the other hand, and I have to end with this rather tantalizing thought for someone who just wrote a book on the history of books: there might in fact be no more powerful form of resistance to network protocol than continuing to read books.