Forme, storia, narrazioni, big data: morfologia e diacronia - Convegno internazionale

Historical explanation, explanation seen as a linear hypothesis, is just one way of gathering data - their schema. One can equally well consider data in their reciprocal relation and summarize them in a general image regardless of the form of a chronological development. Wittgenstein's remarks on Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, echoes similar stances coming from different fields of enquiry, such as Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1928) and André Jolles' Einfache Formen (1930). They open up an on-going critical debate about how to study historical phenomena.

What kind of relationship is established between historical or contextual enquiry and morphological analysis when we interpret a literary text or a work of art? Are we dealing with conflicting, even incompatible, modes of understanding or with interrelated and complementary ways that enlighten each other? Do literature and the arts symbolically convey a particular historical time, or are they to be seen as "precarious patterns of connections" which, though anchored to a given spatial and temporal dimension, bring together motives, topoi, and themes stemming from cultures and times far-apart?

Following Carlo Ginzburg's new introduction (2017) to Storia Notturna (1989; 2017), and by setting out to reconsider the ever-recurring argument opposing a contextual-historical to a morphological-formal approach in terms of mutual integration, we may find that one is constantly enmeshed with the other. Thus, both are necessary to critical enquiry: "though achronological, according to Propp, morphology may have laid the foundations of diachronical investigation" (Ginzburg 2017: xxxi).

While searching for "correspondences" regardless of historical contexts, the morphological approach brings to light clues, signs, and hints that can be of use in historical research. According to Wittgenstein, the übersichtliche Darstellung, or bird's eye view representation, helps the kind of comprehension that consists of "seeing connections" and needs finding intermediate links. As a consequence, a morphological approach to literature and the arts will focus on the way change and continuity alternate and dialectically act on one another. It addresses the historical issue of longue durée of topoi, themes, motifs.

Exploring continuity implies investigating cultural memory and literary anthropology; it relates to recent perspectives highlighting the cognitive grounds of literary, and non-literary, narratives; in this way it also relates to a generalised "narrative turn", where the understanding of narrative is based on cognitive sciences and a "natural narratology" (Fludernik 1996). Furthermore, a morphological approach based on "pattern of connection", will be a prerequisite for any investigation of literary phenomena based on big-data collections and distant reading (Moretti 2013), whether their ancestors be Spitzer's Stilkritik or Propp's narrative functions, albeit in a new key. Although fictional narrative differs essentially from historical writing, in both cases narrative provides us with fundamental epistemological structures that help us to make sense of events, experience and thoughts.

The Centro Studi Arti della Modernità ( is organizing an International Conference on Forms, History, Narrations, Big Data: Morphology and Historical Sequence to be held in Turin in November 21-22, 2019. The conference will address issues in the field of historiography, literary criticism and the wider area of interpretative practices of artistic and literary works organizing a dialogue among various disciplines and perspectives.

The aim is to resume the critical and philosophical debate on the issue of form and its modern variations or developments, first articulated in the works of Georg Simmel, André Jolles, Aby Warburg, Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, and others. This debate revolved on the dialectics of sequence and simultaneity, diachronic succession and system, in order to gain a richer understanding of the notions of transformation and structure (central to structuralism, post-structuralism) as well as literary and artistic interpretation (central to hermeneutics).

Advisory Board: Georg Bertram (Freie Universität Berlin), Jens Brockmeier (American University of Paris), Giuliana Ferreccio (Università di Torino), Roberto Gilodi (Università di Torino), Mario Lavagetto (Università di Parma), Marie-Laure Ryan (Independent Scholar), Kristupas Sabolius (Vilnius University), Federico Vercellone (Università di Torino).

Conveners: Giuliana Ferreccio, Roberto Gilodi, Luigi Marfè

Keynote Speakers: Jens Brockmeier, Michele Cometa, Carlo Ginzburg, Franco Moretti, Gerhard Wolf.

The Conference Advisory Board will consider proposals for papers on the following topics, both on a theoretical and empirical level:

  • Aspects of the critical debate discussing diachronic and systemic dimensions in the study of literature and the visual arts.
  • Historical contexts that gave birth and favoured, or hindered, the development of recurring morphological patterns (themes, motifs, topoi) both in literature and the visual arts.
  • The way in which recurring patterns may show anomalies, variants, or alterations signalling a change of paradigm or historical transformations.
  • The way in which morphological methods applied to historical analysis may disclose unforeseen "patterns of connections" among literary texts and works of art belonging to far-off places and ages.
  • Can a morphological methodology applied to literature be compared with the same methodology when applied to other media, especially the visual arts?
  • Can a method based on the analysis of clues and hints and on the search for morphological recurring elements, be applied to literary criticism?
  • Are there any connections between morphological analysis and recent developments in narratology, as well as Moretti's recent theorizing on distant reading and his using big data in literary enquiry?

Proposals of about 250 words may be submitted to convenors through [email protected], by 30 June 2019, together with a bio-bibliographical profile. Proposals will be read and evaluated by 31 August 2019. The time of delivery for each paper should be no more than 20 minutes. Registration fee for Participants: 50 euros; Graduate Students and PhDs: 40 euros. The conference languages will be English, French and Italian.

A number of conference presentations will be selected for publication in Cosmo: Comparative Studies in Modernism (ISSN 2281-6658, the online international, peer-reviewed journal of the Centro Arti della Modernità.