[It occurred to me that, after sharing my Reading Notes assignment, I should be doing more of this myself. I don’t know that this will last, but in the interest of walking my talk, I’m going to try to contribute some entries to my class’s shared bibliography. I’ll post them here and at the course wiki, and I’ll be covering essays that I wasn’t able to include in the syllabus itself. My goal is to average an essay a week for the semester–I doubt that I’ll do this evenly, but we’ll see. I’ll probably work ahead a little this weekend.]

Moretti, Franco. “Operationalizing: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory”

Moretti, Franco. “Operationalizing: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory.” New Left Review 84 (Nov/Dec 2013): 103-119. (paywall)

Abstract: Moretti suggests “operationalizing” as the bridge between the quantitative study of literary works and the theoretical concepts with which critics approach them. He demonstrates this by operationalizing Alex Woloch’s concept of “character-space,” testing it via word counts and network centrality maps. But Moretti also argues that this kind of operationalization must do more than simply provide additional detail or precision if it is to have value. In the case of character-space, he argues that “Two conflicting criteria for protagonism emerge from the two types of measurement…[and this] shows that the ‘protagonist’, far from being a fundamental reality of dramatic construction, is only a special instance of the more general category of ‘centrality’” (109, 112). Character-space as a concept “produced more than the refinement of already-existing knowledge: not the protagonist, improved, but an altogether new set of categories” (113). The second half of Moretti’s essay turns to Hegel’s concept of “tragic conflict,” testing it against a small corpus of Greek tragedies. Focusing on Antigone, Moretti suggests that operationalizing tragic conflict/collision reveals a mistake on Hegel’s part: “Face-to-face confrontations do occur in tragedy, and find a memorable expression in the rhetoric of stichomythia; but stichomythia does not convey the ‘ethically justified pathos’ that Hegel had in mind” (118). He closes by suggesting that computational critical methods may change our relationship to literary theory as it has begun to affect literary history.

Keywords: operationalizing, measurement, literary theory, digital humanities, literature, criticism, falsifiability, concepts, data, word counts, centrality, network mapping, character space, protagonism, tragic conflict, Hegel, Kuhn, Woloch


  • Alex Woloch, The One vs the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003).
  • Graham Alexander Sack, ‘Simulating Plot: Towards a Generative Model of Narrative Structure’, Papers from the AAAI Fall Symposium, 2011.
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics (1975).


Operationalizing means building a bridge from concepts to measurement, and then to the world. In our case: from the concepts of literary theory, through some form of quantification, to literary texts (104).

Measurement does not lead from the world, via quantification, to the constructions of theories; if anything, it leads back from theories, through data, to the empirical world (106-107).

Computation has theoretical consequences— possibly, more far-reaching than any other field of literary study. The time has come to make them explicit (114).

Digital humanities may not yet have changed the territory of the literary historian, or the reading of individual texts; but operationalizing has certainly changed, and radicalized, our relationship to concepts: it has raised our expectations, by turning concepts into magic spells that can call into being a whole world of empirical data; and it has sharpened our skepticism, because, if the data revolt against their creator, then the concept is really in trouble. A theory-driven, data-rich research programme 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 (119).


Moretti raises 2 questions in a footnote on p. 114: “As will become clear, I assume that Hegel’s theory can be operationalized. This leaves open two further questions. First: and if it couldn’t? Would the theory lose all its value, and deserve to be forgotten? The second question is almost opposite in nature: if applied too loosely and widely, wouldn’t operationalizing lose the strict falsifying potential that had made it so valuable in the first place? In principle (though a full motivation will have to wait for another occasion), my answers would be, No to the first question, and Yes to the second.”

Another, more immediate question for me is the different relationship between concepts and practice that (may) exist in rhetorical studies. I don’t think that rhetorical figures are necessarily the same as literary concepts–they are empirically verifiable on the one hand, but their consequences seem less determined on the other. And yet, I can think of several writers who have at least dabbled in what Moretti describes as operationalizing, myself included.