The Visualization, Digital Studies, and Literary History


What new forms of knowing and expression are made possible by the digitization of culture? What does visualization and design mean in a digital humanities context? These questions open a reflection on the methods and outcomes of DH. I am eager to see how the creation and curation of data has been reconceived by the humanities. I am searching for new forms of interface and experience of cultural objects that are made possible by digital technology. From the sociology to the materiality of texts, and from cultural criticism to modeling data, the collection of texts below show how a heightened sensitivity to the affordances of digital media provide new approaches towards creating and sharing knowledge about culture and society. Despite the wide variety of texts and different disciplines from which this material has been drawn, a few common threads of analysis emerge: firstly, how we think and how we express our thought have become deeply circumscribed by the possibilities of digital media. That being said, the possibilities of digital media seem to change and expand with every passing software update, and so there is much that is yet to be determined in the future of DH. Secondly, how we choose to organize and represent information has a direct bearing on the ways in which it will be read, and so the matter of aesthetics and design becomes central to digital humanist inquiry. Thirdly, the power of the image, graphic, visual, or pictoral representation in suggesting new relations or patterns is very alluring, what Drucker calls their “representational force” which means that visuals and graphics must be made and read with elevated attention to their underlying set of assumptions and rhetoric. Ultimately, the works collected below serve as useful points of departure for thinking about various practices that bridge the subjective, affective, and experiential ways of knowing championed by the humanities with the networked and quantitative practices enabled by digital media, with a particular attention towards the role of visualization.

Brown, Vincent. Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.

Cordell, Ryan. “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers.” American Literary History, vol. 27, no. 3, Aug. 2015, pp. 417–45.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “By Design Remapping the Colonial Archive.” Social Text, vol. 33, no. 4 125, 2015, pp. 142–147.

In this article, Dillon discusses Vincent Brown’s digital archive and mapping of events related to the Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica. Characterizing Brown’s project as a structural reshaping of the colonial foundations of the archive, Dillon advances this effort as an ongoing contribution to the ways in which archival silences and occlusions can be challenged. Cartography, with its long history in the Western imperial imagination, is inextricably linked to the desire for colonial empire. And so advancing it as a technique for rethinking the colonial ideologies on which the archive is based proves to be a particularly fraught enterprise. Dillon suggests that this fundamental challenge can be addressed when the possibilities of digital mapping are engaged with a heightened sensitivity to the impact of design and aesthetics, positing Brown’s project as an exemplar case. Through the useful of a well-theorized visual rhetoric, a conscious attention paid to the arrangement of images and text on the display, and a well thought-out curation of textual moments from existing sources, Dillon argues that new forms of knowledge can emerge that run counter to the colonial and white-supremacist episteme of the archive and of cartography. I find this discussion to be generative in its suggestions of the ways in which digital publications can use multilayered strategies of representation to shy away from functioning as transparent representations of the past and underscore the ambiguities that comprise literary-historical studies. Redesigning the archive becomes simultaneously, a way to leverage the digital in ways that enact decolonial possibilities, as well show how design and form can be made central in the work of digital humanities.

Drucker, Johanna. Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display. Vol. 5, no. 1, 2011. Digital Humanities Quarterly,

In this article Drucker outlines a new theory of data, possible for strategies for thinking about visualizations within the humanities, and a overview of the fundamental differences between the humanities and sciences. She is critical of those humanities scholars who have borrowed methods and tools for digital / quantitative analysis from the natural sciences, without a sustained attention to the underlying assumptions and frameworks on which those methods and tools are based – assumptions that often run counter to the intellectual ends sought after within the humanities. This difference is captured in Drucker’s concept of “capta” as a kind of observation that is “taken” actively or constructed through hermeneutic practices, which is oppositional to the rational notion of “data” that assumed to be “given.” Whereas capta champions the “situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production,” data refers to that which is already there available for observation and recording. This fundamental difference between data and capta necessitates a new approach to the representation of the knowledge created by these two principles. In other words, the visualizations based on a theory of capta need to be different than those based on data. To assist these ends, Drucker provides humanistic approach for rethinking visualization design strategies. The models she provides show how to visualize notions such as ambiguity, hybridity, and uncertainty are illuminating examples of how quantitative approach can be reconceived to be more appropriate within a humanities context.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

In this book, Hayles asks fundamental questions regarding the implications of media upheavals in the humanities. She frames the shift towards the digital as a paradigm shift that cannot be ignored because it affects the work that humanists do at every level: from emails and bureaucracy, to databases, journals, and professional research, and also becoming a core concern in the practices of effective teaching and learning. The movement between print and digital is taken up in detail, and within this context matters such as materiality, embodiment, collaboration, and disciplinarity are given due attention. Hayles is optimistic of the new possibilities in creating knowledge that are opened by the digital, however she is also concerned with preserving the rich resources of print traditions and the centuries of thought, expression, and practice that it has supported. To bridge these two seemingly incommensurable worlds, Hayles proposes an approach that she terms “Comparative Media Studies” that attends to the nuances of differences and relations between various forms of media, while also suggesting new modalities of curricular design that are more appropriate for the post-print world. Fundamentally revolutionary, this book proposes a wholesale rethinking of disciplinary formation within the humanities, the theories and practices through which knowledge is created and shared, as well as the pedagogical imperative of moving from a content-oriented curriculum to a problem-centered course-structure. Related to this agenda is the concept of technogenesis – the notion that humanity and technology have developed together. In a world of instant communication and more information, as well as pervasive/embedded technologies in nearly all facets of life, technogenesis captures the changes in human relations and human understanding that are effected by digital technology. This book is very generative in thinking deeply about the implications of the digital and the ways in which change must be effected, at all levels of operation, for the humanities to carve out a compelling role in the digital age.

Klein, Lauren F. “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.” American Literature, vol. 85, no. 4, Jan. 2013, pp. 661–88. CrossRef, doi:10.1215/00029831-2367310.

Klein’s article makes timely interventions in American literary studies, debates on the ways in which we read texts, and the possibilities of digital archival studies. She draws a parallel between network visualization and “surface reading” to center attention on the presence of slavery in the Papers of Thmoas Jefferson. Using Protovis, a toolkit developed by the Stanford Visualization Group, Klein finds evidence supporting the central role occupied by a household slave, James Hemings, in the shaping of Jefferson’s daily life. In stark contrast with the fecundity of details about Jefferson’s life and the vast volume of documents that surround him, Hemings’s life story has been forever lost to an archive that was unconcerned with preserving the details of his life. Klein’s success at the finding Hemings’s ghostly presence in the Jefferson archive underscores how the kinds of archival deformations enabled by digital tools can be used in American studies. Her ability to produce critique using two widely contentious methods – quantitative analysis and Best and Marcus’s “Surface Reading” – teaches how we can and should blend digital tools and critical conceptual frameworks. I particularly admire her deeply thoughtful approach to using tools borrowed from the sciences and her insistence; her consistence insistence on the limits of digital tools and infrastructure.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001.

Published in 2001, Manovich’s book occupies the contradictory space between ringing deeply true, and at the same time, feeling tragically dated. It is particularly useful for its definitions of new media and its comparative overview of two key moments in media history – the advent of cinema, and the computer. However, because of its gestation in a pre-Facebook, pre-Amazon, and early-Google context, Manovich is unable to consider the structural role occupied powerful monopolistic corporations in determining the ways in which the internet and digital media are used today. Criticisms aside, Manovich uses a very interdisciplinary approach, what he calls “digital materialism” in his analysis, which draws on diverse approaches to cultural analysis, such as literary studies, film theory, media studies, marxism, among others. All things considered, I find this book to be a very good overview of media history with lucid descriptions of key terms – a wonderful theoretical foundation when considering the role of media technology in shaping society and culture.

Rusert, Britt. “New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery.” American Literary History, vol. 29, no. 2, May 2017, pp. 267–86.

Tufte, Edward R. Envisioning Information. Graphics Press, 1990.

Wyman, Bruce, et al. “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices: Digital Storytelling in Museums.” Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 54, no. 4, Oct. 2011, pp. 461–68. CrossRef, doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2011.00110.x.

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