591 Early Modern Dramas plotted in PCA space, with 'core' group circled and variation boundary marked (line)

591 Early Modern Dramas plotted in PCA space, with ‘core’ group circled and variation boundary marked (line)

American/Australian tour

In March-April 2014, I’ll be in the USA giving a series of talks and conference presentations based around Visualising English Print, and our other work. In June I’ll be in Newcastle, Australia for the very exciting Beyond Authorship symposium.

I’ll address a series of different themes in the talks, but I’ll use this page as a single resource for references, since they are all (in my head at least) related.

Some of the talks will be theoretical/state of the field; some will be specific demonstrations of tools. The common thread is something like, ‘what do we think we are doing?’.

Here’s a general introduction (there’s a list of venues afterwards).


1 Counting things

Quantification is certainly not new in literary criticism, but it is becoming more noticeable, and, perhaps, more central as critics analyse increasingly large corpora. The statistical tools we use to explore complex data sets (such as Shakespeare’s plays or 20,000 texts from EEBO-TCP) may appear like magical black boxes: feed in the numbers, print out the diagrams, wow your audience. But what is happening to our texts in those black boxes? Scary mathematical things we can’t hope to understand or critique?

I want to consider the nature of the transformations we perform on texts when we subject them to statistical analysis. To some extent this is analogous to ‘traditional’ literary criticism: we have a text, and we identify other texts that are similar or different to it:

How does Hamlet relate to other Early Modern tragedies?

This is a question equally suited to quantitative digital analysis, and traditional literary critical approaches. The ways we define and approach our terms will differ between the two modes, as will the evidence employed, but essentially both answers to this question would involve comparison and assessment of degrees of similarity and difference.

But there is also something very different to traditional literary criticism going on when we count things in texts and analyse the resulting spreadsheets – something literary scholars may feel unable to understand or critique. What exactly are we doing when we ‘project’ texts into hyper-dimensional spaces and use statistical tools to reduce those spaces down to something we can ‘read’ as humans?

Perhaps surprisingly, studying library architecture, book history, information science, and cataloguing systems may help us to think about this. Libraries organised by subject ‘project’ their books into three-dimensional space, so that books with similar content are found next to each other. Many statistical procedures function similarly, projecting books into hyper-dimensional spaces, and then using distance metrics to identify proximity and distance within the complex mathematical spaces our analysis creates.

Once we understand the geometry of statistical comparison, we can grasp the potential literary significance of the associations identified by counting – and we can begin to understand the difference between statistical significance and literary significance, and see that it is the job of the literary scholar, not the statistician, to decide on the latter. A result can be statistically significant, but of no interest in literary terms – and findings that do not qualify for statistical significance may be crucial for a literary argument.


2 Evidence

Ted Underwood has been posing lots of challenging, and productive, questions for literary scholars doing, or thinking about, digital work. Perhaps most significant is his recent suggestion that the digital causes problems for literary scholars, who are used to basing their arguments, and narratives, on ‘turning points’ and exceptions. Digital evidence, however, collected at scale, tells stories about continuity and gradual change. A possible implication of this is that the shift to digital analysis and evidence will fundamentally change the nature of literary studies, as we break away from a model that has arguably been with us only since the Romantics, and return (?) to one which traces long continuities in genre and form.

One way of posing this question: does the availability of large digital corpora and tools put us at the dawn of a new world, or are we just in for more (a lot more) of the same?


3 Dates and Venues

28 March 2014: Renaissance Society of America Plenary Session: Current Trends in the Digital Renaissance (7.00-8.30pm); New York Hilton Midtown, Sutton Rooms: ‘Paradigm Shifts in British Renaissance Literature: The Digital Future’ #rsa14

2 April 2014: CUNY Graduate Centre, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York (2.00-4.00pm); Room 6495: ‘Flatlands: book history, literary criticism, and hyper-dimensional geometry’

7 April 2014: University of Pennsylvania,Digital Humanities Forum (12-1.30pm); Room 625-6 Penn Library (Registration required): ‘Visualising English Print’

Graduate Class: Shakespeare and the History of the Book: ‘The Language of Macbeth‘; preparatory reading: ‘Macbeth language HW2014’  not a public event

10 April 2014: Shakespeare Association of America, St Louis: 10-12 Seminar: ‘Shakespeare’s language: close and distant reading’; 12-1.30 and 3-6: Digital Projects Room: Visualising English Print; Translation Arrays (project demonstrations)


4 References and resources (these are grouped by topic)

(a) Statistics and hyper-dimensionality

Mick Alt, 1990, Exploring Hyperspace: A Non-Mathematical Explanation of Multivariate Analysis (London: McGraw-Hill) – the best book on hyper-dimensionality in statistical analysis: short, clear, and conceptually focussed

Most standard statistics textbooks give accounts of Principal Component Analysis (and Factor Analysis, to which it is closely related). We have found Andy Field, Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics: And Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (London: 2013, 4th ed.) useful.

Curiously, Early Modern drama, in the shape of Shakespeare, has a significant history in attempts to imagine hyper-dimensional worlds. E.A. Abbott, the author of A Shakespearian Grammar (London, 1870), also wrote Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (London, 1884), an early science fiction work full of Shakespeare references and set in a two-dimensional universe.


The significance of Flatland to many who work in higher-dimensional geometry is shown by a recent scholarly edition sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America (Cambridge, 2010 – editors William F. Lindgren and Thomas F. Banchoff), and its use in physicist Lisa Randall’s account of theories of multiple dimensionality, Warped Passageways (New York, 2005), pages 11-28 (musical interlude: Dopplereffekt performing Calabi-Yau Space – which refers to a theory of hyper-dimensionality).

Flatland itself is the subject of a conceptual, dimensional transformation at the hands of poet/artist Derek Beaulieu:

Derek Beaulieu, 2007, Flatland: a romance of many dimensions (York: information as material)


(b) Libraries and information science

In thinking about the physical development of libraries, I have enjoyed

James W.P. Campbell and Will Pryce, 2013, The Library: A World History (London: Thames and Hudson) [- a beautiful book, and images are available on Will Pryce’s blog]


Richard Gameson, 2006, ‘The medieval library (to c. 1450)’, Clare Sargent, 2006, ‘The early modern library (to c. 1640), and David McKitterick, 2006, ‘Libraries and the organisation of knowledge’, in Elizabeth Leedham-Green and Teressa Webber (eds), The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland vol. 1, ‘To 1640’, pp. 13-50, 51-65, and 592-615

and also, on real and imagined libraries:

Craig Dworkin, 2010, The Perverse Library (York: information as material)

Alec Finlay, 2001, The Libraries of Thought and Imagination (Edinburgh: Polygon Pocketbooks)

Alberto Manguel, 2006, The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale)

Roberto Bolaño, 2008 [1996], Nazi Literature in the Americas (New York: New Directions)

Jane Rickard, 2013, ‘Imagining the early modern library: Ben Jonson and his contemporaries’ (unpublished paper presented at Strathclyde University Languages and Literatures Seminar)


On data, information management and catalogues:

Ann M. Blair, 2010, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale)

Markus Krajewski, 2011, Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs 1548-1929 (Cambridge, MSS: MIT) – on Conrad Gessner

Daniel Rosenberg, 2013, ‘Data before the Fact’, in Lisa Gitelman (ed), Raw Data is an Oxymoron (Cambridge, MSS: MIT), pp. 15-40 – combines digital analysis with a historicisation of the field, and the notion of ‘data’


(c) Ted Underwood and the digital future

Ted Underwood, 2013, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford) – especially chapter 6, ‘Digital Humanities and the Future of Literary History’, pp. 157-75 – on the strange commitment to discontinuity in literary studies, and the tendency of digital/at scale work to dissolve this into a picture of gradualism – Underwood cites his own work as an e.g. of the resistance scholars using quantification find within themselves to gradualism – and notes the temptation to seek fracture/outlier/turning point narrative

(also see Underwood’s discussion with Andrew Piper on Piper’s blog: http://bookwasthere.org/?p=1571 – balancing numbers and literary analysis – and Andrew Piper, 2012, Book There Was: Reading in Electronic Times (Chicago) – see chapter 7, ‘By The Numbers’ on computation, DH).

Ted Underwood and Jordan Sellers, 2012, ‘The Emergence of Literary Diction’, Journal of Digital Humanities, 1.2 (Underwood 2013: 166-70 discusses this paper as an example of the pull to ‘event’ narrative in literary history, despite the gradualism in quantitative work).


Also related:  Underwood’s blog: ‘The Stone and the Shell’ http://tedunderwood.com

Scottbot ‘Bridging Token and Type’ http://www.scottbot.net/HIAL/?p=40088


‘longue durée’ History – Underwood has suggested that historians are more comfortable than literary scholars with the ‘long view’ that tends to come with digital evidence, and David Armitage and Jo Guldi have been arguing that the digital is shifting history back to this mode:

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, 2014, ‘The Return of the Longue Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective’, forthcoming (in French) in Annales. Histoire Sciences sociales, 69 [English version: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/armitage/files/rld_annales_revised_0.pdf]

David Armitage, 2012, ‘What’s the big idea? Intellectual history and the longue durée’, History of European Ideas, 38.4, pp. 493-507


(d) Overview/examples of Digital work:

Early Modern Digital Agendas was an NEH-funded Institute held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2013. The EMDA website has an extensive list of resources for Digital work focussed on the Early Modern period.


An excellent account of starting text-analytic work by a newcomer to the field:







An example of an info-heavy, ‘reference’ site that makes excellent use of maps – The Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry (!):  http://www.scottishshale.co.uk




British Printed Images to 1700

Large number of heavy-weight funders/participants

Bpi1700 makes a database of  ‘thousands’ of prints and book illustrations available ‘in fully-searchable form’. However, searching is text-based (see http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/jsp/)

Development halted?  ‘Although the main development work has been completed, improvements will continue to be made from time to time. If you have problems or suggestions please contact the project (see the ‘contact’ page).’                             http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/index.html

‘Print of the month’ ended May/June 2009 http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/research/printOfTheMonth/print.html


Japanese woodblock prints                                                 http://ukiyo-e.org

The Ukiyo-e Search site is an amazing resource that represents something genuinely new (rather than just an extension of previously existing word-based catalogue searching), in that it allows searching via an uploaded image. For example, a researcher can upload a phone-image of a print she discovers in a library, and see if the same/similar prints have been previously described, and how many other libraries have copies or versions of the print. The search is ‘fuzzy’ and will often detect different states of altered woodblocks. [Thanks to @GilesBergel for the news that a similar functionality is coming to the Bodleian Ballads project.]

‘About’ page with demonstration video:                http://ukiyo-e.org/about

The Ukiyo-e site was created by one person, John Resig, an enthusiast for Ukiyo-e, who saw the need for the site as a research tool. Development and expansion on-going.

‘The database currently contains over 213,000 prints from 24 institutions and, as of September 2013, has received 3.4 million page views from 150,000 people.’                                                                                                                         http://ukiyo-e.org/about


And finally, pictures of my kittens Arthur and Gracie, who will feature in the talks:


Arthur can work a computer (he wrote the title of this post).




Arthur and Gracie

Arthur and Gracie

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