Feb 21
Zach, Embeddy and Lindsay Thomas:
    Theory Group 1: Data Visualization

    Examples of Unique or Paradigmatic Data Visualization Techniques. What do these visualizations make visible or noticeable?

    Feb 10
    Lindsay Thomas:
      In his article "In Praise of Pattern," Stephen Ramsay emphasizes the function of data visualization in literary studies as one of "noting," or making visible. His diction constantly returns to words and phrases such as "noticings" or "notice" (179, 180), "most of the visualizations one sees" (180), "display" (183), "look sensible," (188), and "move our eyes over Shakespeare's plays" (188). And indeed, this makes sense. It hardly seems worth mentioning that visualizations make data visible in particular ways, but Ramsay's project is to link the "noticings" of data visualizations to the kinds of noticing literary scholars do every day when they close read. "Consider the following research methodology," he writes, "I read a novel. I notice things about it that confuse or intrigue me. I remember similar things in other novels, and before long, I am actively seeking further instances. I begin to suspect that there might be something to my original impression, and I start to think of ways to make sense of it all" (180). What is important for Ramsay about this familiar method is its dependence on "serendipity" and intuition: "My colleagues in English studies might offer a number of censorious assessments of my conclusions, but surely they would have no problem at all with my having stumbled, somewhat fortuitously, upon a pattern in Lawrence that I hadn't been looking for in advance..." (181). Ramsay's point is that data visualizations can work similarly; they can and should work "to offer the reader the open possibilities of interpretive insight" (180), an insight the scholar probably didn't go out looking for when she started. Furthermore, such data visualizations can make visible further paths for research, insights the scholar never "intended," never saw.

      Two lines of thought (flight?) about the above summary of Ramsay's critical project: (1) How can we think about the function of "making visible" itself? What is its value?
      (2) Have we seen such an attitude about visualizations before?

      (1) Yes, as I wrote above, it hardly seems worth mentioning that data visualizations make data visible. However, Ramsay's attention to this visibility or noticing in conjunction with the kind of noticing literary scholars do is interesting. Others have written about visibility: indeed, a quick search through the MLA International Bibliography's Database reveals 26 articles or chapters written in 2008 or 2009 alone that contain the word "visibility" in their titles and/or abstracts. Why this flurry of interest in visibility? Is the current growing interest in data visualization as a critical method a part of this critical movement?

      One way to begin to think about such difficult questions is to consider the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, who has been thinking about visibility for quite some time (A detailed analysis of Ranciere's thinking on visibility is out of place here, but for those hardy souls willing to wade through an example of such an analysis, I've attached the document below because itpoints in that direction. I wrote it for a class I took on politics and aesthetics at the University of Colorado...keep in mind it is not a polished work and be kind...).


      Feb 15
      Alison Reed:
        Thank you, Lindsay! This paper really helped me work out my own reading of Ranciere for my materialist theory paper. Please see Materialist Theory Wave for my paper topic, which takes up Ranciere's partitioning of the visible in social space.
      Visibility is important for Ranciere's conception of politics because Ranciere conceives of politics itself as a mode of visibility: throughout his book Disagreement, Ranciere points to politics as that which makes visible the conflict or dissensus between the part of those that are counted (most simply put, those that are included in a concept of "the people") and the part of those that have no part (those that are the supplement, the result of the miscount of the people, those without a part in the people). Politics makes visible the part of those that have no part, it is "the setting-up of a part of those who have no part" (Ranciere, Disagreement 14). In this way, visibility functions as the political tool par excellence; politics happens when the part of those that have no part claim their part (this is called disagreement for Ranciere).

      How can we think about this function of visibility in relation to the use of data visualizations in literary studies? Can the use of such visualizations be thought of as "political" in the way outlined above? For Ranciere, and for Ramsay, visibility is a mode of or catalyst for action: visibility does. What implications does this have for the work of literary criticism? How might such a project differentiate itself from the (even more) explicitly political project of the criticism of the Frankfurt school, for example, if indeed it can?

      Feb 8
      Zach and Lindsay Thomas:
        Thanks for the paper, Lindsay! Allow me to briefly quote you quoting Ranciere:
        He understands the aesthetic, like politics, as a mode of visibility, as
        a regime concerned with perceptible things; in this way, politics is
        “first of all a battle about perceptible/sensible material” (LPA
        11). Rancière claims theoretical discourses have a similar function:
        “a theoretical discourse is always simultaneously an aesthetic
        form, a sensible reconfiguring of the facts it is arguing about”
        (PA 65).
        In a basic sense, Ramsay's visualization is a private process; Ranciere's is public (and thus political). We may of course ask if this distinction actually holds up or not, but I'd like to note that visualization does differently for Ramsay--it aids a cognitive process, makes a reading visible. Politics makes subjects visible. One direction we may turn to link the two--accepting your Frankfurt School challenge--is Benjamin. His call (if it can be called that) for an embrace of mechanically reproduced art is a call for the politicization of art, and thereby not only a politics of art, but an aesthetic of politics:
        "Mass movements are usually
        discerned more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye. A
        bird's-eye view best captures gatherings of hundreds of thousands."
        (footnote 21, 251)

        The film camera produces a new aesthetics of the masses. The naked eye cannot perceive the masses, both because they are too large and because they are too "small." The close-up and the aerial shot represent the extremes of mechanical apperception, an extension of human biological optics. This is not just a matter of scale, but also of time: just as film allows us to see what was already there in new proportions, it also allows us to imagine (viscerally) time stretched out in slow motion or sped up in fast. (Could we imagine the world in black and white before the advent of photography? Could we imagine time slowed down before cinema?) This is a making visible of the invisible, with very political implications. In seeing differently, we also see different things. The masses become visible, perceptible, and they begin to see themselves. While Benjamin doesn't mention him, I think he is thinking here of Dziga Vertov, who's iconic "Man With a Movie Camera" takes as its subject the proletariat, not as exemplified in a single character, but as a collective:

        You tube clip

        Here's a link to a higher quality version of the whole film for later viewing: Dziga - The with the (1929)

        But is this data visualization? It isn't schematic, it isn't abstract. Still, it makes the invisible visible. Moretti might say that for all of its expansion of scale, it still deals with too small of a sample size compared with his own graphs and maps, or too short a slice of time compared with his trees. Are there works (images or films) that bring these scales together?

        Another way to approach this: Benjamin briefly treats what we may deem Fascist aesthetics, quoting Marinetti, founder of the Futurist art movement:

        "War is beautiful because it establishes man's dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. [...] War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages [...] - Marinetti (241)

        Dynamism of an Automobile (1912)
        UCSB's own AlloSphere

        Could we ever read a Moretti graph like a Marinetti machine?

        Can a graph (or any other form of data visualization) liberate information from tradition as mechanical reproduction has liberated art for Benjamin?

        More generally, does visualization politicize information?

      Feb 13
      Lindsay Thomas:
        Yes, absolutely, visualization politicizes information. Of course, it doesn't have to, but one easy path to go down is to think about Foucault's discussions of biopolitics and the rise of statistics.If we think about statistics - specifically, birth/death rates, population totals/distribution, etc - as a means of biopolitics (and, interestingly enough, it is during the same period with which Foucault concerns himself in his discussion of the beginnings of biopolitics, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that we begin to see the development of statistics and its offshoot, data visualization [see Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information]), then we can begin to see the connections between information visualization and politics. In this sense, then, visualization can be used to make subjects visible in a way very different from what Ranciere has in mind. The link between statistics and information visualization also seems interesting in relation to David Harvey's description of neoliberalism as"the financialization of everything." In neoliberal economics, statistics and statistical algorithms are important for the measurement and accumulation of capital. The visual displays of this quantitative information, then, politicizes information to the extent that such visualizations are already the ideological inscriptions of a particular political/economic regime. Here, visualization works for and not against the obfuscations or miscount of the neoliberal state. I would say that data visualization, in this sense, can hardly be termed "liberating." For what needs liberating? Data? Information? And from what? Tradition? As the above discussion indicates, I would be more apt to place data visualization - and the idea that information needs to be free - within the purview of liberal tradition rather than in opposition to it.

        Now, does this discussion apply to the use of data visualization and quantitative analysis tools in literary studies? I don't know; good question.
      Feb 21
        Yes, I agree up to a point. Any particular data visualization is already a frame used to look at data; it presumes to some extent what factors are worth looking at. Ramsay and Moretti may claim (rightly, I think) that data visualization in the realm of literary studies is the search for pattern, but to design a visualization is already to determine what sort of pattern one is looking for. There can certainly be surprises in such an endeavor, but surely the parameters are set in advance. In the case of governance, if we take neoliberalism to be the linking of Foucauldian biopower with free market monetarism, we can see how it already provides a theoretical frame that limits and prescribes the visual forms that such data can take; that is, which patterns are useful and which aren't.

        We may well ask what cultural or political forms have produced the X and Y axes, for surely this is a frame uniquely useful for governance...

        On the other hand, can we not "deform" data? That is, begin to visualize it using non-utilitarian, non-positivistic, indeed "useless" frames? Is that art? Subversion? Or can any visualization of data be made useful by the neoliberal project?

        Another way of asking this: Can data visualization be done outside of the purview of neoliberalism, or must we somehow move away from visualization? What else can we do with data, outside of a biopolitical or neoliberal project?
      Feb 25
      Lindsay Thomas:

        Subject: prescribed limits of visualizations/pattern recognitions
        Range: first paragraph of previous blip
        Suggestions: suggestion of disciplined bodies, visualizations of disciplined bodies, prescribed patterns, rejection of useless patterns
      (2) More on this second question soon, but to get us started: I am struck by certain similarities between, on one hand, the use of visualizations in the semiotic/structuralist/post-structuralist criticism of scholars like Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, and on the other hand, the use of visualizations in the contemporary criticism of scholars like Ramsay and Franco Moretti. Granted, the charts and diagrams used by Levi-Strauss and Barthes are much different than the graphs, maps, and trees used by Ramsay and Moretti, but certain similarities remain...

      Saussure- signifier/signified
      Levi-Strauss - nature and culture
      Barthes - antithesis in "Sarrasine"
      Barthes - codes as music
      Moretti - graph
      Moretti - map
      Ramsay - plate 18

      The impetus behind listing these pictures of different "data visualizations" side by side is to think about the history of visualization in literary studies. What are the charts of Saussure and Levi-Strauss doing in their arguments? Barthes, in many ways, seems to be borrowing his technique from them, his forerunners in structuralism (although the charts above are taken from Barthes's S/Z, a kind of transition point between structuralism and post-structuralism). Of course, for structuralists, charts make sense. If one is going to delineate the structure of language, myths, literature, this seems to translate easily into some kind of schematic. What I guess I am suggesting here, then, is that the contemporary impetus behind data visualization springs out of this structuralist desire. Is this a kind of post-structuralist structuralism? This may be getting ridiculous, but if we are interested in historicizing the practice of data visualization, don't we have to go there? It didn't spring from nothing, nor, I am suggesting, did it spring wholly from computational or scientific practices. If we take Ramsay's point that humanities computing involves more than simply applying traditionally scientific methods to traditionally humanistic objects, I think we have to look to structuralism and their diagrams. Not only because of the influence of structuralism as a literary practice, but also because of the structuralists' attempts to apply traditionally scientific methods to humanistic objects...

    Feb 25
    Lindsay Thomas:

      Subject: mixing of "old" and "new" types of visualizations
      Range: last paragraph of previous blip
      Suggestions: mixing of the old (analog) with the new (digital); run-down aesthetics; deformed/partially destroyed visualizations?

    How might we begin thinking about an aesthetics of information?


    Feb 21
      Nanovision by Colin Milburn

      Colin Milburn tackles nanotechnology from a cultural/science studies perspective in his whirlwind 2007 book, “Nanovision.” He is particularly interested in nanotech discourse; that is, how and why nanotech narratives are produced by scientists, popular news media, and science fiction writers. His basic thesis is that when we trace these narratives out, we find them inextricably linked to one another as mutually constitutive. While certainly not claiming that nanotech research is unscientific, he does claim that the form such research takes arises from discourse that is as much fiction as science. In the world of nanotech, the two cannot be separated.

      Nanotechnology posits as its dream and goal (and prediction) the seizing of control over the constitution of all matter, down to the atomic level. The (or one) paradox here is that once matter becomes completely malleable at the nanoscale, our status as human subjects cannot help but to be altered completely, based as it is upon concepts such as bodily unity, organic matter, etc; concepts that will no longer have any meaning:

      "Nanovision respects no unitary construct above the atom, reducing everything to a broadly programmable materiality and demolishing metaphysical categories of identity. Accordingly, it does not support any sort of abstracted, theoretical construction of the body because it unbounds the body, putting its surfaces and interiors into constant flux." (51)

      Milburn's eponymous nanovision refers to a way of seeing nanotech that is produced by the discourse that surrounds it, as well as a type of vision that nanotech is meant to afford us. He notes that nanowriting (“visionary” texts by nanotech proponents) is explicitly futurist, “strongly inclined to speculate on the far future and to prognosticate its role in the radical metamorphosis of human life.” (23) Nanotechnology as a field is animated as much by possible applications of hypothetical future technology as by actual technology achievements. In this sense it is uniquely speculative, equally fictional and scientific, a relationship formulated by Milburn as “Science (fiction).”

      The conflation of science and science fiction permeates the discourse: when nanotechnology textbooks speak nanotech possibilities, Milburn claims they invariably invoke science fiction tropes that have long become cliches: matter transporters, self-replicating nanobots, utility belts (J. Storrs Hall's concept of “Utility Fog”), nanosyringes in the bloodstream, etc. Most surprisingly, nanotech discourse always locates the origin of the field in a 1959 lecture by Richard Feynman titled, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which Milburn notes contains images and concepts lifted directly from Robert Heinlein's celebrated 1942 short story, “Waldo,” about a scientist who manufactures an interface that can reproduce itself at ever smaller scales, until it reaches the nanolevel, allowing him to manipulate matter at the molecular level through actions at the macrolevel. Indeed, nanotechnology was described in detail by science fiction writers long before it was studied in the lab; what is surprising is that the writings of scientists working in the field differ little in form from those science fiction stories.

      This feedback loop between narrative and scientific research extends directly to the primary instrument used by nanotech researchers, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). This device is imagined and utilized by scientists as both an imaging device and a probe, an extension of sorts of the human hand. That is, it “sees” the nanoworld, but it also “touches” it. This “haptic vision” (from Giles Deleuze), a synethesia combining the sense of vision and touch, allows for both viewing and manipulating. Milburn's claim is that this is how the instrument is conceived, designed, and utilized, and thus not a metaphor tacked on after the fact, but rather a metaphor constitutive of the design of the device from the beginning, in the same way that the entire field of nanotechnology arose out of science fiction. Milburn calls this prescriptive metaphor a “tropic protocol,” or “the diagrammatic and symbolic dimension underwriting and orienting the signifying operations of probe microscopy...” (63)

      Thus our ability to manipulate at the nanoscale arises out of our ability to image, and our ability to imagine. That is, what we “see” at the nanoscale is predetermined by a metaphoric framework itself dependent upon fictional narrative. We image/imagine the nanoworld as a “landscape” and think of it as a “frontier,” tied to older discourses of “westward expansion” and “Manifest Destiny” in the American West. Milburn points out that a significant early nanotech achievement involved constructing what the researchers dubbed a “quantum corral,” a circle of iron atoms that enclose surface state electrons. The STM is an extension of the human hand as well as the eye: it images and manipulates, and thus acts at the critical intersection of discovery and domination: "The ability to 'see' atoms within an optical register, the technical capability to survey the molecular terrain as if with one's own sensory apparatus, appears to inspire a drive toward complete domination of the material world." (65) Another powerful (and telling) image generated by nanotech researchers was a “Gold-Dot Map of Western Hemisphere,” a symbolic representation of mastery of the large through the (extremely) small, the conquering of matter itself. When inaugurating the National Nanotechnology Initative, President Clinton stood in front of an enormous projection of this image.

      This is why the very notion of the unitary human subject is disassembled by nanovision: by thinking on the nanoscale, we are already thinking past the Singularity, imagining endless possible combinations of matter, erasing the distinctions upon which our conceptions of the human rely: outside-inside, organic-machinic, micro-macro... For Milburn, this is both terrifying and seductive. It means the discursive end of humanity but also the possibility of an unprecedented intimacy with matter, “the opening of a way of interrelating with forms of molecular being that are not predicated on the logic of control.” (107) He sees this as the beginning of “a posthuman ethics of the interface.” (108)

      While some scientists, journalists, and science fiction writers warn or predict that self-organizing nanobots, drawing no distinction between different sorts of matter (organic vs. nonorganic, for instance), could devour the entire world, turning it into amorphous, non-differentiated soup (the so-called “gray goo scenario”), others, including Milburn, imagine instead, “A world of difference, of polymorphing and mutability. An era of bodies without organs, matter without form, and nanotechnology without domesticity.” (160) Milburn dubs this subgenre of writing “nano/splatter”, after “splatter” horror films that depict the violent dismembering of humans as a reconfiguration of human embodiment itself.

      In nanofiction novels such as “Bloom,” Greg Bear's “Blood Music,” and Michael Crichton's “Prey,” nanobot infiltration of the human and nonhuman alike is viewed initially as horrible and fascinating (sublime), but ultimately welcomed as integration into the oneness of matter. The dissolution of the self does not have to be (literally or figuratively) a violent event that heralds death; it can also be figured as engendering life. Milburn quotes nanoscientist J. Storrs Hall, who has written, “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud.” (178)

      Milburn describes this orientation as a “fundamental openness to the other already 'inside, part of us by now'” (partially quoting “Blood Music”) (182). Further, this openness looks a lot like love. A post-gender, post-human, post-Singularity sort of love, certainly, but one in which life itself can be transformed, reconceptualized, reformulated, and reinvigorated.

      Work cited:

      Milburn, Colin. Nanovision : Engineering the Future. Durham: Duke UniversityPress, 2008.


      Does “nanovision” accurately characterize the way of “seeing” of contemporary scientific practice more generally? Is science situated at the crossroads between narrativization and imaging?
      Feb 25
      Lindsay Thomas:
        See my post below on the last question in this series, but don't I see the relationship between narrativization and imaging as one of opposite axes. A narrative is a kind of image, just as an image or imaging is a kind of narrative (especially those images associated with data visualization, which often imply a kind of temporality or diachronic structure). So, rather than science situating itself at the crossroads between narrativization and imaging, I think we can better understand the relationship between science (and other discourses of knowledge and imaging), as one of translation. In this way, we could think of nanovision not only as a mode of seeing or of breaking down perceived bodily boundaries, but also as a mode of condensation.

      How do narratives frame and visualize information? What is the nature of the imaging-imagining articulation? How does this articulation enable manipulation, the dream of control?

      At what point on the imaging-manipulation axis does the human subject dissolve?

      As information becomes a nano-phenomenon (which nano-fabrication, quantum computing, and nanoscale self-replication all prefigure), how can we visualize it? And more importantly, how can we visualize human interface with it?

      What is the relation between knowledge production and narrative production? Which produces which? How does this feedback loop function?
      Feb 25
      Lindsay Thomas:
        Well, the way we have been envisioning this process in our project is as precisely that, a "feedback loop" in which some kind of (for our case) theory or "knowledge" work produces a narrative, which in turn produces responses, which in turn produces more knowledge work, which produces more narrative, etc. Hence the serialized format of our narratives. However, as we know, and as the metaphor of a feedback loop suggests, knowledge and narrative are never separate. Knowledge, at least the kind of knowledge I am used to working with (dare I say all knowledge?) is continually and constantly being "narrativized" so it can be understood, applied, and reworked (one might even say it's already narrativized as soon as we know it as "knowledge"). And, of course, as a student of literature, it would be quite bold of me to claim that what I study, written narrative, is not a form of knowledge. What this suggests to me is that, instead of a feedback loop, what we are really dealing with here is an issue of translation. How is knowledge being translated into narrative and vice versa?

        Having said that, we do need to think about the semantics of turning a disparate bunch of theoretical discussions into narrative. It might be helpful to start thinking about what the idiomatic expressions of each type of knowledge-production are. In theoretical discussions, for example, one can explain and explicate one's points in great detail. One tries to be as precise as possible while still addressing the complexities of one's argument. One proceeds logically (or at least pretends to): an approach/area of study is situated and appropriate context is given, a thesis is stated, an argument following from said thesis is given, the argument is brought to some kind of closure with a conclusion. In more overtly creative/artistic forms of narrative, much more is shown than is explicated, much more is suggested than is argued. Where more theoretical or philosophical narratives attempt to elide their representational qualities (usually, at least), more artistic and creative narratives question/interrogate/revel in these qualities. The issue, then, becomes one of learning how to suggest explications. I hate that I'm turning to a Freudian metaphor right now, but here I go: it's about condensing dense theoretical discussion into images, into representations that, despite their apparent simplicity, suggest the fact of their condensation.
      Feb 25
      Lindsay Thomas:

        Subject: condensation of ideas/information
        Suggestions: character dreaming? cyberspace as dream?


    Other Visualizations:
    Apr 12
    Alison Reed:
      A Few Notes on the Transborder Immigrant Tool as Aesthetic Sustenance:

      Based on classical Greek drama, Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) is an assemblage of data-bodies and real-world bodies that stages a new type of recombinant theatre, or civil disobedience—by seizing the right to intervene in (neoliberal) global flows of information for Human Rights purposes. Ultimately, transborder performances disturb the matrix of aesthetic and new media codes—queering technologies in the desert of the real and challenging the nation’s concretude, giving rise to a new vertiginous geography (or Deleuzian geology) of morals. EDT (re)configures the infrastructural, syntactical, semantic and social.
      Part of the project incorporates radical mobile and visual poetry with a new media algorithm mapped out onto real space, in order to provide aid to U.S.-Mexico border crossers. The algorithm, for example, leads walkers to water sources. Here, Michel de Certeau’s famous theorizing on walking as a subversive practice in “Walking in the City” is summoned, and yet interestingly—the Transborder Immigrant Tool dislocates the city as a performative space. The encounter between bare life and bare interface creates a new performative matrix of power, or an affective mapping through sustaining pulses of poetry—and a transcendental philosophy rooted to the land rather than transcendent of it.
      I am interested in thinking about the ways in which these performances are simultaneously staged in the desert and in virtual space. While performance (or Rancièrean politics) often makes present, or visible, the absent (or invisible) in public spaces, these performances happen in non-urban spaces. What is the effect of bridging the socio-spatial gap between performance and performativity? How do these (dis)locations expand existing performative practices? How might this dis-locative practice resonate with Peggy Phelan’s radical movement, in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, toward a “theory of value for that which is not ‘really’ there, that which cannot be surveyed within the boundaries of the putative real” by “locating a subject in what cannot be reproduced within the ideology of the visible” (Routledge: 1). By revaluing subjectivities that are not visibly representable, Phelan exposes the problematic assumptions and ramifications inherent to liberalism’s de/re-construction of identity politics, which always seeks to move the minor term (the marked other) to the center (the unmarked normative subject).
    Apr 16

    Feb 3
      Here is an interesting piece from the Micro Fashion Network, mapping the color of passerby's clothes in Cambridge, MA:

      Micro Fashion Network: Color

      How might we begin to characterize this as an aesthetic object?

      How might we begin to characterize this as statistical information?

      For one thing, I find the color clusters surprising. Do people mostly wear green? Why isn't there more blue? For that matter, why isn't there more variety? Can we say that this image represents fashion, in that it is an aesthetic object (once removed) from a set of aesthetic objects?

      What would happen if we did this to Impressionist paintings in the Louvre or Facebook profile photos?

    What are some implications of interaction with data in various forms?
    Feb 18
    Lindsay Thomas:
      I've been working with the Transliteracies Project on the RoSE (Research-oriented Social Environment) these past two quarters, and data visualization has been something we have talked about quite a lot (check out the beta version of RoSE here). Since RoSE is a social network/environment, the main thrust of the visualizations so far on the site are social network diagrams featuring people-to-people, people-to-documents, and documents-to-documents connections. In this way, RoSE is conceived of as a tool researchers can use to begin thinking about a particular topic (right now, the documents and people reflect literary, cultural, and historical studies). Here is a screenshot of an example of a social network involving works like Judith Butler's Precarious Life, Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, and the 9/11 Commission Report:

      RoSE Social Network

      I am a member of the Contemporary period data group, meaning my group and I have been focusing on generating data from the contemporary period (roughly post WWII through today), and we've focused on the people and documents related in some way to the war on terror. We were encouraged to use a narrative of some kind to focus our data (in order to avoid an "insane collection," to use Susan Stewart's term), and we chose to think about a kind of argumentative narrative focusing on the ways in which cultural "documents" about/critiquing the war on terror are connected (the term "documents" is loosely used here, as we include Second Life installations, films, and digital art exhibits in our data set). The idea, then, is to try to capture certain "fields of influence" of cultural representations having to do with the war on terror.

      I mention this here for two reasons: one, if anyone out there in Googleland has any ideas of people and/or documents I can incorporate into this data set, especially before next Friday, February 26, please feel free to let me know. Also, my group will be giving a presentation at the charrette (the event we are having next Friday) about our data set. We have found the narrative frame to be useful, but we have also run into several problems in the attempt to "narrativize" our data; my part of the presentation will deal with the ruptures and breakages in our narrative.

      Katherine Hayles, in response to Lev Manovich's well-known statement that database and narrative are "natural enemies," claims that narrative and database are "natural symbionts:" "Because database can construct relational juxtapositions but is helpless to interpret or explain them," she writes, "it needs narrative to make its results meaningful. Narrative, for its part, needs database in the computationally intensive culture of the new millennium to enhance its cultural authority and test the generality of its insights" (1603). Narrative and database, like water buffalo and lice-eating bird, benefit from one another. This is important for RoSE because RoSE, obviously, is a relational database into which we have inserted narratives or narrative data. RoSE, then, would seem to be a good example of the symbiotic relationship between narrative and data, and indeed it is. As can be seen from the visualization above, RoSE has the ability to present narrative snapshots, if you will, of the relationships between documents and people. We can see that Butler's Precarious Life is related to Sontag's Precarious Life, which is related to the 9/11 Commission Report, and so on. This creates a nice outline for conducting research. However, what happens if we look at, taking a somewhat-random sample, Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the holocaust?

      Maus network

      Here, we see that Maus is only connected to its author, Art Spiegelman. This is of course a result of human-entered data sets; one could see how Maus could be connected to works like Agamben's Homo Sacer, for instance, which is linked to many other works. One could add this link and solve the "problem," if there is one. However, what I want to suggest is that we think about the relationship of narrative and social networks, particularly social network diagrams. What do such diagrams suggest narratively? What do they elide? What is the relationship between such diagrams and narrative? They can be used to suggest a narrative, certainly, but what else?

    Does this open up possibilities of thinking about information in new terms?

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