Lost in Visualization

“I know what to do when I see words on page; when I look at this graph, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to read it.” Andrew Stauffer, quoted by Laura Mandell, sums up how I’m feeling at this point in the class. The entire time I read Mandell’s essay, and the second time, I vaguely followed what she was explaining, but ultimately could not see a reason to mimic or pursue similar studies in visualization. It was interesting to see her map out Southey’s letter writing relationships, but funnily enough, the entire time I kept thinking that I would have rather worked with straight data and created a visual myself. (Through pad and paper no less.)

Pretty much how I view these visualizations.

I found it interesting that in both Moretti and Mandell the issue of interpreting data correctly was a common thread, and both made caveats that “errors” or “miscalculations” were common. Maybe I am a skeptic, but it seems that every assumption or “interpretation” that was made of the data, in Moretti especially, was unfounded. Mandell explains that “a major principle of Information Visualisation is that the first thing we will see when we look at a visualisation is “errors” in our data.” Moretti also states that “quantitive explanandum and a qualitative explanans leave you often with a perfectly clear problem— and no idea of a solution.” (26)

I think both of these authors were interesting in what they were pursuing or attempting to visualize, but their exercises seemed more effort than they were worth. Mandell’s graph could be used to graph character relationships, especially in novels such as War and Peace or anything Homer, to aid with following which character is related to whom and why, but many people create their own methods for figuring those relationships out. Moretti’s graphs could be used to visualize when an author published during their lifetime, which could help frame an understanding of the life events that influenced the novels- which would be very helpful, but could be visualized in a more coherent way.

These visualizations to me seem like a PC person created them, and my Mac brain cannot compute. Voyant’s tools seem more universal in comprehension, and could be used in the classroom setting with more ease. I especially like the “Termsberry” that connects the top words in the novel (based on volume) with other words that are used with it. That could be useful in comparing and contrasting the meanings of these words and how those meanings affect the characters, plot, etc.

Have the digital humanities gone too far? (Kidding!)


My favorite tool thus far was “tagcrowd.” I think that could be useful in many assignments, such as handing creative writing students the most used words from their favorite book with the assignment of writing a poem using only those words or a poem encompassing every word. For example, you could limit Frankenstein to 6 of its most used words and ask students to write a sestina with them.

Personally, visualizing novels is a personal discovery, and to lose that process to collaboration or having to view the data through someone else’s visualization, makes the process more difficult and time consuming. Ultimately, I will need to play with these tools more as for now I’m baffled by what they are visualizing and how that helps to further our knowledge of novels. (554)

Original Post

6 thoughts on “Lost in Visualization

  1. Ally, I totally get your frustration with information visualization. Mandell even claims that a lot of what is going on in the graphs is mere abstraction; but it’s easy to abstract when you aren’t a third party trying to process what point the person was trying to make. If the first thing we see is errors, how can we trust ourselves with the data? I think the graphs are useful in having a grasp on tracing events, but I agree in that it takes so much work to just figure out the different parts of the graphs prior to looking at them for content.

    1. Devil’s advocate: what do we not notice that we’re doing when we read “normally”? What assumptions might we not notice we’re making when reading as usual? What makes us think we can trust ourselves with the data we consume while reading a printed page? Maybe one of the things that digital reading can help us to do is make sense of our own assumptions–to become better readers, more globally.

  2. When you say that you’re skeptical of Mandell and Moretti’s analysis of the data, I would be curious to know which claims you specifically took issue with. In the case of Moretti, I appreciated that he addressed the “generational” argument in more detail. It warranted a deeper analysis because it is both an easy argument to make based on a quick observation of the graphs; at the same time, it can be just as easily disproved.

  3. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one that sees visualization as more mathematical equations than anything else. The more in-depth visualization and their methods take, the more complex and distant it seems to become. I think it becomes more apparent when you used these examples from the text as well as the Voyant tools. For that reason, I appreciate your explanation and metaphors (with the animation) to illustrate your point. I also learned more about certain tools like “tagcrowd” as I take a great interest in creative writing myself; it helped me see a possible application that I could understand personally more than before.
    As a previous blogger mentioned in this post (Nhu), however, it may be difficult looking at the data/graph through the eyes of a “third party” member rather than the researcher. Do you think it’d be better than to work on a graph (or project) with more researchers in the hopes of including more than one perspective or more tedious and difficult to work with a large group with intersecting opinions?

  4. I would just like to elaborate on your last point about making students write sestinas with the 6 words that are most commonly used in the text. I would personally make that a two-part activity. I would first make my students write a sestina with the six words and not care for following the novels theme/ storyline or tone, they just have to write something that makes sense. Then I would make them look at a chart that lists the different tones found in the text and have them choose a tone they want to follow, and use these 6 words and write a sestina following the tone or theme of the text, in order to relate them and learn from this experience.

  5. I love that someone else agrees with me on this view on visualization. To add on to your comment on visualization as a personal discovery, visualizing literary works is somewhat situational. It depends on the reader’s interests; when I read Frankenstein, I noticed the prevalent themes were fate, consciousness, and science. At the time of the publication of this book, science was just developing. But now that there have been major improvements in science, which also affects humanity’s opinions, topics like religion and their values are questionable now. Personally, Frankenstein can be visualized for many aspects; I noticed the themes and literary aspects of the novel whereas other students commented on the economical aspect of the book itself and how it’s prevalent in society today.

Leave a Reply to Tonya-Marie Howe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *