The Visualization, Digital Studies, and Literary History


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 within 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 pictorial representation in suggesting new relations or patterns is very alluring, this is 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 in visualization and design that bridge the subjective, affective, and experiential ways of knowing championed by the humanities with the networked and quantitative practices enabled by digital media.

Vincent Brown. “Mapping a Slave Revolt: Visualizing Spatial History through the Archives of Slavery.” Social Text, vol. 33.4 no. 125, 1 December 2015. pp. 134–141. doi:

Brown’s article discusses his online publication, Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative (, within the context of the digital turn and the possibilities of using archival collections to study decolonial histories. Brown argues that graphics and visualizations built through digital media provide methods for developing critical representations of evidence that is always “debased.” After all, that which the subaltern historian finds in the archive of colonialism is ultimately whatever the colonizer deemed worthy of preserving. Given this provenance of historical data, new forms of expression must be used to foreground the silenced, partial, and uncertain picture of the past evidenced by the archive. In other words, the interpretive character of archival evidence must be emphasized through the aesthetic choices made in its representation. Brown’s rendition of Tacky’s Revolt uses digitized maps of eighteenth-century Jamaica to show, using moving fading tracer lines, how the rebellion spread across the island and the backlash it precipitated. Brown’s choice to use contemporary maps and the fading, but always moving, tracer lines suggest fundamental uncertainties of the history being told while also showing how the landscape of Jamaica was crucial to the shaping of the rebels’ strategies. For the scholar, Brown’s map highlights how historical data might be curated to make an illuminating argument that is critically sensitive to the nature of the evidence on which it rests, and for any viewer the map provides an account of the organizational tactics adopted by the enslaved. I find Brown’s project to show compelling ways of using digital remediation and interaction to make arguments and present archival contents in novel ways.

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

Cordell explores how early nineteenth-century U.S. newspapers exchanged information and circulated texts, while also offering an alternative account of communal authorship. Using the Chronicling America digital archive, Cordell derives a corpus of reprinted texts, or articles that were copied and reproduced in multiple newspapers, and uses processes such as data visualization and text mining to analyze and extend notions of reprinting, reauthorship, and the social text in antebellum America. By focusing on the well-known practice of newspapers borrowing and reprinting articles from each other, Cordell shifts attention towards what D. F. McKenzie refers to as the “sociology of texts”: the relations that emerge in culture among writers, editors, publishers, compositors, shippers, and readers within which the material text is created, reproduced, shipped, read, and collected. Through the judicious use of digital methods, such as natural language processing and computational linguistics, which can identify and track repetition, Cordell reveals a veritable cornucopia of alternative genres and popular culture that come to the fore when focusing on reprinted texts. From self-help pieces to squibs, and scientific reports to religious exhortations, the bulk of reprinted articles either take form as understudied genres, or represent the work of anonymous authors. Cordell thus shows how the digital archive can become a space for thinking beyond the hegemonic literary canon. I find Cordell’s approach to “distant reading” in this article to be particularly striking in the ways in which it moves between reading the macro-scale of the entire corpus and the micro-scale of individual articles.

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

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 use of a well-theorized visual rhetoric, a conscious attention paid to the arrangement of images and text on the display, and a critically aware 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,

Drucker outlines a new theory of data, possible strategies for thinking about visualizations within the humanities, and an overview of the fundamental differences between the humanities and sciences. Drucker 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 approaches 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 approaches 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.

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 formations 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 co-developed. 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 academic practice, 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 Thomas 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 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 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, while simultaneously 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 that of 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 shaping and using the internet and digital media 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, and 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.

Rusert describes the ways in which digital humanities projects centered on the study of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean have blurred traditional disciplinary boundaries and redefined key terms in the field. Through exploring databases such as DocSouth and Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network, Rusert underscores not only the ease of access to esoteric or unread texts provided by the digitization of texts, but raises the possibility of using quantitative analysis for better understanding the interconnectedness between many texts en masse as well. Rusert notes that scholarship on the archive of slavery has often been marked by a sense of profound loss and erasure, with the archive often theorized as a site of epistemic violence that does not accord the voices of the enslaved as being worthy of preservation. On the other hand, Rusert also underscores that recent scholarship has revealed how documents on colonial governance often reveal the structural instabilities and profound anxieties of managing a colonized population – the potential for rebellion and resistance is always rife. The archive thus emerges in contemporary discourse as a locus of antagonistic meaning making, at once a site of racialized silencing while also a repository highlighting the precariousness of a racialized political economy. Within this contentitous field of inquiry, Rusert argues that digital archives enables modes of insurgent strategy that call into question the power dynamics of the colonial archive. Rusert points towards initiatives like the Early Caribbean Digital Archive and Slave Revolt in Jamaica as being exemplars of the ways in which collections have been remixed to bring alternative histories and accounts to light. Despite the success and critical attention generated by some projects, Rusert notes that too often digital humanities work on the archive of slavery obscures crucial details about the subjective experience of slavery and re-asserts the master’s perspective. Closely reading a popular visualization in Slate magazine called “The African Slave Trade in Two Minutes,” Rusert notes how it obscures the brutal realities of the slave trade in its commodification of people, and how in the reduction of slaves to data points it enacts the epistemic violence of slavery each time a user pauses or refreshes the visualization. Simultaneously critical of its limitations and aware the affordances of the digital, Rusert’s article underscores how digitization has affected the study of slavery and what it might hold in its future.

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

This is a classic work in design that teaches how to arrange image, word, number, and art in order envision information. It articulates an aesthetics through which complex ideas can be represented through sensible and principled graphic visualization. Tufte begins by observing that even though we navigate with ease through a multidimensional conceptual-symbolic world, when it comes to portraying the world through our information displays, we are structurally caught up in two-dimensional “flatlands of paper and video screen.” The challenge then, is to use the human ability to recognize symbols and understand patterns such that we may capture and communicate the fundamentally multidimensional nature of any idea or observation. To help us chart these difficult waters, Tufte offers a smorgasboard of examples and rich explanations of information visualizations from the past five centuries and beyond. Tufte’s key insight is that humans thrive in information rich worlds because we have a capacity to focus and select on a few elements with surprising efficacy. This makes it possible to create very information rich and densely arranged layouts of images and text which require close reading. The reader must select a few elements from the visualization to focus on and build an interpretation in relation to whatever else is being suggested by the visualization. Tufte shows how complex information and a variety of detail can be communicated in understandable and generative ways through deceptively simple strategies like layering and separation of components, thoughtful deployment of repeating patterns, and attention to color. Tufte’s brilliant work is essential reading when innovating alternative forms of visualizations that champion the subjective and experiential nature of human epistemology.

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.

This article presents many observations and best practices developed for creating interactive installations, websites, and experiences for museums. As new media and digital technology has made new kinds of engagements and expectations possible, curators and designers find themselves using ever-more-complex approaches to connect with their visitors. Within this context, Wyman et al. argue that great storytelling should drive interactive design and serve as the critical element for presenting collections. The authors turn towards the importance of physical spaces comprising the museum, as well as arranging the museum’s unique collection itself to create narrative environments, where “interactivity” emerges as a multi-sensorial experience. In this regard, the use of digital technology takes a noticeable back seat and the museum collection occupies the main frame of visitor collection. The authors present a series of “strategic thoughts” as well as “tactical thoughts” that contain outlines for designing exhibits appropriate for a more context aware and digital media savvy audience. Some of these are obvious yet vague: “Have a vision,” “create multidisciplinary teams,” “use technology as a design element,” “choose a consistent content approach,” etc. Others are brilliant and actionable with far ranging consequences: “use a little technology well, not a lot of technology poorly,” “take more chances with design and experience,” “good storytelling requires good editing,” “remove barriers to content and experience.” I have included this article to consider the public applications of the all DH theories and academic projects that comprise the bulk of this annotated bibliography. New forms of interface and analysis are changing our relationship to knowledge. The digitization of culture has fundamentally reshaped the modes of expression available to society.  This article reveals how all of this carried out in a museum context.

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