Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play


Hi. I’m Meaghan Skahan.

I am hoping this introduction will give you all a peek into where I’m coming from, experientially and ideologically, as we begin our project for Alan Liu’s Literature + graduate seminar at UCSB. I am a third year doctoral candidate from the Comparative Literature program, where I am beginning my dissertation on the aesthetics of corporate spaces in postmodern literature. I’m originally from Maine, and have lived on the West Coast since 2003 when I moved to Southern California to attend Pomona College.

Our project title, Playful Visualizations at Work/Working Visualizations at Play, demonstrates the main tension that we are hoping to probe and disturb with our forays into digitalized deformations/visualizations/graphics. We each have varied experience in Digital Humanities work, with mine being the most tangential (it might be fair to even say nonexistent). We also each have varied levels of technical know how. Mine again falls to the bottom of the pile. My ignorance admitted, I am highly interested in the problems and questions provoked by infusing literary studies with the digital, especially for those of us in the field with no coding background.

In grouping together to work through the boundaries that may or may not exist between the ludic and the useful in digital manipulations of literature, we have each chosen a text through which to explore the various tools and toys one can find on the internet that help to analyze and visualize literary data. My personal choice, a selected chapter from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, is a text on which I am currently working for my dissertation. It should be noted that before joining Alan Liu’s course, I had never considered using digital toys to examine the text.  While my lack of DH/coding knowledge has occasionally been frustrating in the class (when others comfortably handle technical programs and terminologies that are completely foreign to me, for example), in some ways my fresh and uninformed vantage point frees   me to fool around with tools without a preconceived agenda, and with low expectations of any sort of breakthrough in my approach to DFW’s The Pale King. I expect my work for the project will be enjoyable as it moves me further from the text than any traditional approach has taken me thus far.

In our group meetings, Liz, Claire and I have spent a lot of time talking about what types of visuals can be “fun,” or “pretty,” or “useful.” Clearly, we each use these words operating with personal and subjective definitions, because of which I am excited to see what types of visuals they produce. The most significant challenge in my own work, aside from the obvious technological hurdles, is conceiving of -any- visualization of my text that could be considered useful. It has yet to be determined whether my skepticism/”playful” attitude toward DH is a defense mechanism, or what. In the following weeks, I will post various screenshots of ideas/mini-projects I start, with the hopes that I can encourage some further dialogue about what it means to be a humanist on the fringes of the digital, what it means to use computational analysis looking for either aesthetic or analytic success, and whether someone with zero technical knowledge can make a meaningful intervention in the field.

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