Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play

Posts tagged ‘critical analysis’

I Blog Therefore I Am Doing Something

There’s not much to report on the visualization front this week. I have created a couple of elementary (actually, closer to Kindergarten) graphs in R by following the instructions in Matthew Jockers’ excellent book, Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, which is currently in draft form, but an excellent resource nonetheless. So I have learned some things about the relative frequencies of the words “whale” and “Ahab” and, more importantly, I’m gaining some insight into what else I could do with my newfound knowledge of statistical programming. But my studies in R are still very much at the learning stage and I have yet to reach a point where I can imagine using it in a more playful, exploratory sense. While this is not true of every tool, R is one of the ones that must be mastered before it can be misused in an interesting manner. Which is not to say that it cannot be used badly – I am getting good at that – but the difference between using a tool badly and playfully is a critical distinction. A playful framework is one that eschews the tool’s obvious purpose in order to see what else it can produce; a framework that validates a kind of “What the hell, why not?” approach to analysis. Playfulness exists when we search for new ways to analyze old data and disconcerting methods for presenting it. It can be found in the choice to showcase one’s work as a large-scale three dimensional art-project and in the decision to bring the history of two Wikipedia articles about the author into one’s examination of the text. It is not, more’s the pity, found in code that fails to execute.*

All this adds up to an apology: I have no intriguing word clouds for you this week. I don’t even have any less-than-intriguing word clouds this week. But I do have some thoughts about the nature of this blogging endeavor, nearly a year and a half after it was started.

This blog began as a way to record our visualization experiments in a forum where we could treat them as part of a larger group and where we would be forced to engage with them publicly. It was a way to hold ourselves accountable to our professor, to each other and to ourselves. At the same time, it was a way to provide all our visualizations (even the ones that did not make it into our final seminar papers) with a home and a life beyond our hard drives and walls.

The class has ended and the blog lives on. Last year, it was a place for me to think through a social-network graph of William Faulkner’s Light in August; a project that grew out of the work I did on Daniel Deronda. This year, it’s serving as a repository for experiments that I perform as part of my work in UCSB’s Transcriptions Center.

And throughout those different iterations, one element of common purpose stands out to me. The blog is a place for scholarly work-in-progress. It’s where projects that need an audience, but are not meant for traditional publication can go. It’s where projects that have reached a dead end in my mind and require a new perspective can be aired for public consumption. It is, at its most basic level, a way of saying “This work that I am in the process of doing is meaningful”.

And that, I think, is the real key to why I find maintaining this blog – despite my sporadic updating during my exam year – so valuable. Blogging about my work gives me a reason to do it. This might sound absurd, if not simplistic, but bear with me for a moment. Academia is a goal-oriented endeavor. We begin with the understanding that we finish our readings on time in order to have meaningful conversation about them in order do well in a course. We do our own research in order to write a paper about it in order, once again, to do well in a course or in order to present it at a conference. (Obviously, I’m not arguing that the only reason that anyone reads anything is for a grade, but the fact that graduate students turn said research into a well-argued paper within a reasonable time-frame is tied to the power of the grade.)  The books we read, the programs we learn, the courses we teach are oriented towards the dual goals of spreading knowledge in the classroom and publishing knowledge in the form of an article or monograph.

So where does practical knowledge within the digital humanities fit in? In the goal-oriented culture of academia, where is the value in learning a program before you have a concrete idea of what you will use it for? Why learn R without a specific project in mind? Why topic model a collection of books if you’re not really interested in producing knowledge from that form of macroanalysis? My experience with academia has not really encouraged a “for the hell of it” attitude and yet a number of the tools used specifically within the digital humanities require one to invest time and practice before discovering the ways in which they might be useful.

There are several answers to the above question. One that is used to great effect in this department and that is becoming more popular in other Universities as well is the Digital Humanities course. I am thinking in particular of Alan Liu’s Literature+ course, the seminar for which this blog was originally created. By placing digital training within the framework of a quasi-traditional class, we as students are introduced to and taught to deploy digital forms of scholarship in the same manner that we learn other forms of scholarly practice. If we master close-reading in the classroom, we should master distant reading in it as well.

And yet, what does one do when the class is over? Styles of human reading are consistently welcome in graduate seminars in a way that machinic readings are not. And there are only so many times one can take the same class over and over again, even assuming that one’s institution even offers a class like Literature+.

The alternative is to take advantage of blogging as a content-production platform. The blog takes over as the goal towards which digital training is oriented. Which is a very long way of saying that I blog so that I have something to do with my digital experiments and I perform digital experiments so that I have something to blog about. Which seems like circular logic (because it is), but the decision to make blogging an achievement like, albeit not on the same level as, producing a conference paper is one that allows me, once again, to hold myself accountable for producing work and results.

This year, “Ludic Analytics” will be my own little Literature+ class, a place where I record my experiments in order to invest them with a kind of intellectual meaning and sense of achievement. Learning to count incidences of “Ahab” and “Whale” in Moby Dick may not be much, but just wait until next week when I start counting mentions of “Gwendolen” and “Deronda”…

*I apologize for the slight bitterness, I spend half an hour today combing through some really simple code trying to find the one mistake. There was a “1” instead of an “i” near the top.

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Artist Analyst

As we get closer to the end of the academic quarter, and thus the end of the grade-motivated production of our dialogue in our wonderfully exciting, structured seminar, I am reading more and more and feeling more and more excited by the anticipated art of this coming summer and how -fun- and -exhilarating- it will be to work through some of my photoshop/pixelmator frustrations and limitations using my hands and paint and epoxy and physical texts. I’m not anti-technology, and this seminar has certainly encouraged me to learn more and do more with my computer, but I can’t wait to be outside with just my hands and some supplies. I am going to spend one more week playing with pixelmator, but am certainly going to spend the next days, months, and years thinking about a number of ideas generated by our blog. One thought in particular that I want to note today was sparked by Liz’s most recent post in which she wrote:

This brings me back to something I had discussed earlier, which is that our data always seems to be more useful for ourselves than for our readers. This may explain why the scholarly article and book have had such a long life; they don’t simply convey understanding, they enact it as well. Close reading recreates, in the article, the process through which we imbue texts with meaning. The act of applying historical research to a volume of literature mimics the act of research and the flash of understanding that comes when one grasps how a specific historical fact is relevant to the text at hand. Articles are processes, they are a temporal movement towards the end of an argument. Visualizations, however, lack that sense of journey. They are always, already, at the end even when you, the reader, are still at the beginning.

Wow. One issue I’ve always had with writing is I can never quote quite enough of the brilliance I see in other people’s work. Luckily, no one is grading my blog (at least, I hope that my writing skills are not under serious scrutiny here as I rarely read over what I publish), so I get to copy Liz’s paragraph in all its glory. The value of a process versus the product has been a concern of mine for the past few months. I have hopped and skipped and (mostly) stumbled through a wide variety of text analysis tools, all kinds of word generators and algorithms that changed my text input into hilarious explosions of letters. As you have seen in my posts, I also spent quite a bit of time in Microsoft Office.  However, there is no single product of this play that to me says that, here, I’ve found something breathtakingly new and spectacularly beautiful/useful for my greater purposes of understanding David Foster Wallace’s last work. That said, I now have an intimacy with chapter 14 of The Pale King that I have with few other texts on the planet. When I think of other works I know as well, I can only come up with a handful: Julio Cortázar’s “El otro cielo,” Sophocles’ Antigone, Harry Potter books 5-7, and André Gide’s L’Immoraliste. What’s interesting about this list, in terms of what Liz wrote above, is that my closeness to this list of highly varied texts is derived from an equally varied list of practices of reading. Harry Potter I’ve read four to five times. That type of intimacy is easily understood, right? I teach Antigone every year to undergraduates. I wrote one of my senior theses in college on Cortázar’s “cielo.” I painted sections of L’Immoraliste in a similar way to the pictures of a painting I posted recently in the entry entitled “l’art pour l’art.” Liz’s statement, that the visualization lacks a sense of journey, really intrigues me. I think she is right, at least about a lot of types of visualizations. Temporally, writing an essay on Wallace demands more time than copying part of his novel into Many Eyes and seeing what types of visuals can be created from it. Additionally, the process, or the parts of the process we do not edit out of the final product, are more transparent. What I want to know, or to think about, is what the difference might be between the journey depicted in an article or conference presentation, and what one can see in a piece of art. As with a visualization like a graph or word cloud, it is difficult to see a process when looking at one of my paintings. I can see the process, of course, as the artist, but it is not immediately visible to an audience. Our relationship to our own work is, necessarily, so different from what anyone else might be able to take away from it. I like that with an essay, it is easier to trace or unpack the levels of research that have gone into constructing an argument. But, I also like that my art can stand alone, and that there are an infinite number of ways for an audience to evaluate, think about, or create from what I’ve done.