There has long been a tendency of tools in the digital humanities to be objects through which literary scholars are intended to perform meta-analyses of texts. One of the inconsistencies with this act is that in the process of displaying a data visualization we destroy the actual text that is being studied. This act is a type of pharmakon, creative because it shifts the aesthetic of the text for re-interpretation and destructive because the original artifact is lost in this process of creation. By appropriating Rene Girard’s definition of violence – namely that the attempt to represent texts visually and digitally is a form of mimetic rivalry that leads to violence in terms of the text itself, and using Denis Diderot’s three fold vision of creation (‘enthousiasme’), I will show that the mimetic nature of digital humanities tools creates an allowing condition for a type of violence that is both destructive (Girard’s ‘violence’) and creative (Diderot’s ‘enthousiasme’). By juxtaposing the work of Girard and Diderot in this way it becomes possible to see digital humanities projects (specifically data visualization projects) as acts of violence. It was this line of reasoning that brought me to my primary research question: Is it possible to develop a visualization technique that does not destroy the original text in the process, one in which the digital humanist can be a creator in terms of Diderot’s enthusiasme?
My paper will suggest a new method for visualizing texts that specifically addresses this question. The proposed method uses rigorous mathematics – developed with the aid of an interdisciplinary team of mathematicians and computer scientists at the University of Waterloo – that addresses this problem of violence and suggests that through interdisciplinary study and mathematical precision we can produce digital humanities tools that encode the original texts in their entirety without any violence towards the text. This project is an attempt to ‘form a new kind of literary study absolutely comfortable with scientific methods yet completely suffused with the values of the humanities’ as suggested by R. G. Potter in Literary Computing and Literary Criticism: Theoretical and Practical Essays on Theme and Rhetoric.
Using the resources of the University of Waterloo’s Digital Media Lab, I created a data visualization technique that was originally intended to study form in poetry but has proven to have wide reaching applications. What differentiates this project from other similar work, such as the TextArc project, is that the algorithm created to model the visualization creates a one-to-one relationship between the visualization and the original text. What this means specifically is that unlike a meta-analysis tool, this project encodes the original layout and punctuation of a text within the algorithm that produces the visualization making it both a tool for meta-analysis and a keeper of the original text. This removes the need for an analyst that intimately understands the visualization and allows for a transition between the two states (aesthetic visualization and original text) without any hindrances. This effectively solves the problem of losing the text in the analysis, or more specifically, of traditional literary scholars complaints that they do not know how to interpret the visualization created by the digital humanities model. By including a one-to-one correspondence between the text and the visualization, the intuition that is being engaged in the criticism spawned by the visualization can take on a second dimension between the original text and the literary critic.
The actual program was written in python and uses an aesthetic inspired by avant-garde art, namely the shifting of perspectives to try to gain insight into the original text. This is accomplished by creating 3D graphs in an infinitely countable box that represents all of the possible words from a null string to an infinitely long word using the alphabet. Each word of the original text is then encoded with an algorithm that uses a combination of mathematics, developed by Georg Cantor, and a method of my own devising to create a unique set of co-ordinates for each word in the English language and graph them in 3d space. This creates a unique 3d object for every poem and engages a shifted aesthetic to try to find new insights into the arrangement of the original words. In terms of the actual aesthetics of the visualization the program claims nothing new, but the focus of this study was to try to devise a method for maintaining the text within the mathematics of data visualization and that is what I have done. I envision this project as axiomatic in nature and call in my paper for all data visualizations to live up to the standard of non-violence towards texts. I believe this exercise in mathematical rigor will inspire the digital humanist to consider the use of data visualization in a new way that will ultimately lead to better and more thoughtful tools for use in literary study.