Tag Archives: visualization

Looking through the ULAN with Gephi, II

In a recent guest post on the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project, Shawn Moore discusses the curious networks of Maria Cavendish. Moore writes:

In many ways, her networks are non-traditional in that they often exist outside of and beyond Cavendish herself…

Of significant interest is that the DNB data shows how important extra-personal (looking for a word that indicates connections beyond the intra-personal) connections are for the network Cavendish constructs, and to the networks that are constructed around the reception and reputation of “Margaret Cavendish,” thus exposing an important structure in the sociable practices at play during the period.

In other words, it seems that understanding the reception of a figure’s work through network graphs requires surveying more than the immediate neighborhood, or ego network, of figures just one edge away from Margaret Cavendish (or Rembrandt van Rijn, for that matter.) It is, of course, the relationships between these first, second, or third-level nodes that actually constitute the public conversation about the root author or artist, the conversation we are so eager to better understand.

It was after I dove into Gephi last week that I found Scott Weingart’s excellent overview of network analysis for humanitsts.1 After a cogent introduction to the basics, Weingart offers some pointed warnings to humanists about creating multimodal networks – that is, networks with different classes of nodes (e.g. artists and organizations, illustrated below.) These require their own analytical and layout tools.

A graph of the Black Mountain College network, with both artist and organization nodes. (visualization by Matthew Lincoln, underlying data © 2013 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.)

A graph of the Black Mountain College network, with both artist and organization nodes. (visualization by Matthew Lincoln, underlying data © 2013 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.)

Although for my own purposes I am content to filter out organizations from the ULAN dataset, I also want to take advantage of the rich variations of relationships it describes. This means devising some scheme for weighting relationship types by their attribute (“master of” assigned a weight of 10, for example, while “collaborator with” gets a weight of 5).2

One would have to customize such a scheme depending on what type of influence you were interested in visualizing; interpretation and all its accompanying biases will be layered on fast and thick. I predict this will be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as we move forward with this project.

  1. Scott B. Weingart, “Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II”, Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter 2011) (URL)
  2. I am curious how the next version of Gephi (0.9), which will implement multigraph support, might aid this process.

The Michelle Smith Collaboratory

A great colleague and mentor at UMD, Quint Gregory, describes the bold work whose foundations we are trying to establish in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory this summer:

Over the past three years here in the Collaboratory we have focused a lot on creating maps and tours in Google Earth that could prove useful to teaching in the classroom (and look for some exciting, interactive developments with our extant maps sometime later this summer!). Matthew Lincoln, one the past Spring’s graduate assistants in the digital humanities and working here in that capacity for the summer, saw intriguing possibilities in those early maps and their awkward interconnectivity, especially with specific placemarks, and set out to do something a little different…

Read the rest here.



Digital visualization and data-crunching tools are fantastic at compiling and manipulating numbers and strings quickly and precisely. However humanities data is often far from precise! How do we faithfully and usefully visualize information that is uncertain, sketchy, speculative, or debated?

See the rest of my session proposal for THATCamp Prime 2013 at George Mason University.

Aesthetic Provocations

Last week I mentioned that the folks behind Prism cited the concept of “speculative computing” and “aesthetic provocations” as guiding principles of their work, drawing on a 2004 essay by Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing”

Drucker and Nowviskie see the potential for radical shifts in the union of computing and of humanistic research. They wish to transcend the “concrete” structures of authorities and hierarchical models that dominate present digital humanities practices (think of the Getty Vocabularies) and instead define more flexible spaces for visualization that can lead to new insights and paradigms for interpreting cultural materials. I am interested in one of the challenges facing digital humanists that they set out at the start of their essay: “overcom[ing] humanists’ long-standing resistance (ranging from passively ignorant to actively hostile) to visual forms of knowledge production.” Drucker and Nowviskie characterize current humanities research as deeply ended in textual modes of thinking and argumentation (in their words, a “logocentric” mode).

Rembrandt - Old Woman Reading

Rembrandt – Old Woman Reading – 1631 – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

An art historian might react to this assertion by arguing that they are indeed “visual” thinkers, and so aren’t hobbled by this problem that supposedly infects literary studies. I’ve heard this expressed occasionally in seminars, often when criticizing an historian or literary scholar for using an artwork as an objective illustration and not an embedded cultural object. Yet this defensive stance misunderstands Drucker and Nowviskie’s characterization. More importantly, I think, it misunderstands what it means to think visually (admittedly a squishy term if there ever was one.)

I’ve come to find that, though art historians may skillfully read and interpret the visual poetics in their objects of study, we rely almost exclusively on narrative argumentation to stitch these discrete visual interpretations into a cogent, productive argument. Rare indeed is the art historical argument generated from “visual thinking”, i.e., where concepts such as social networks, intellectual history, etc. are approached from the start as concepts that can and should be visualized.

Our subjects may be visual, in other words, but our mode of argumentation are deeply-rooted in the linear, sequential logic of a text string. This is a powerful method of thinking and expressing, to be sure! However I think it may account for the surprise that occurs in an art historical talk when a diagram, network map, or even text ordered outside the conventional linear sequence, pops up in a PowerPoint presentation.

I remember several years back attending a talk by a leading Rembrandt scholar, Ernst van de Wetering, editor of the Rembrandt Research Project. His presentation, discussing the impact of Rembrandt’s painting on Dutch art theory, was accompanied by scans of paper napkins on which he had scratched out several diagrams showing the positions of theorists before Rembrandt, which were then channeled through his works and popped out on the other side as writings by theorists after Rembrandt. The delivery could not have been simpler, nor the audience more certain of his argument.

Thinking back, I am struck that the napkin diagrams themselves were not just an after-the-fact presentation of formed ideas, but instead integral to Van de Wetering’s thought process. The texts he was discussing, much like Rembrandt’s paintings, have been known for centuries. But by visualizing the chronological and conceptual relationships between these texts and Rembradnt’s paintings, Van de Wetering convincingly suggested that we reconsider how seventeenth-century artistic theory and practice existed in a synchronic dialogue. This synthesis could not happen without working through these relationships as if they were manipulable objects in space (or on a napkin, at least.)

That art historians often continue to be surprised by the occasional appearance of concept visualizations suggests that Drucker and Nowviskie are right to suspect a deep-seated, if unknowing resistance to visual modes of knowledge production. That we at the same time seem delighted by their effects suggests we ought to push those boundaries further, provoking new thinking about our old objects.


If you do any kind of work with written texts, you should most definitely take a look at Scholars’ Lab latest creation, Prism. This is a remarkable accomplishment by their graduate fellows, all of whom come out of humanities departments (although no art historians, I’ll note!)

Prism is a collaborative interpretation sandbox that allows a user to upload a text, define up to three “facets” of interpretation, and then open the text to contributors. Contributors may highlight words in the text, assigning them to a particular facet. Prism aggregates these contributions and then visualizes them, so you can see something like a heat map of interpretation of a given passage. The result is what the Prism team likens to Johanna Drucker’s and Bethany Nowviskie’s “aesthetic provocations”, a visualization that prompts entirely new paths of inquiry. This concept is something I’ll be exploring in greater depth in a later post, but it should sound familiar.

This is very much a sandbox, a playground, rather than a detailed and robust tool. However I see so much potential to link their easy-to-use interface with more complex analysis or harvesting of contributor data. They are also exploring collaborative image interpretation/annotation as a next step, which would be quite exciting for art historians to use in the classroom, like a Telestrator on crowdsourced steroids.

See it in action, and go give it a try yourself:

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

I feel so energized and excited after reading posts on Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, which tracks a project to analyze the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and generate a digital representation of the English early modern social network. They are just beginning to post early-stage, large-scale visualizations of their current database.

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

Thumbnail from an experimental visualization of the SDFB database.

Their posts are a must-read for any humanities scholar who struggles with justifying spending time and resources on data-driven visualizations in an anecdote/narrative-centric discipline. SDFB makes a convincing case that network visualizations aren’t for communicating arguments we already understand, so much as for suggesting new avenues or paradigms of inquiry. Instead of looking at a network graph as an evident narrative,they argue, treat it like “a rather large map of problems”:

Why does Henrietta Maria have a community distinct from her husband and those most proximate to her? Why does Jacob Tonson sit so far out to the upper-right hand corner?  Why are certain nodes so evidently out of place?  When and why don’t communities align with proximity, color with clustering?  The problems call out for further explanation, interpretation, and speculation especially by experts with knowledge of the period, of particular figures, or of graph learning and/or visualization.

(image credit: sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com)