“The Humanities Was Nice”

In late May, media theorist Lev Manovich presented “How to Read 1,000,000 Manga Pages: Visualizing Patterns in Games, Comics, Art, Cinema, Animation, TV, and Print Media” at MIT’s HyperStudio (via). The talk is relevant to my work because Manovich wants to create visualizations that deliberately alter the default scale at which we experience something like magazine covers or Manga pages. His “exploratory analysis of visual media” offers insights into culture, he says; visualizations “allow you to ask questions you never knew you had.”

Manovich wears a t-shirt that reads, “Smart Critique Stupid Create,” and he uses this slogan to gain create some separation between his work (stupid create) and traditional humanities (smart critique). Manovich kicks sand–maybe playfully, though it’s hard to say for sure–at the humanities again at the end of the Q&A when he says, “The Humanities was nice, but it was a false dream.” Obviously machine-reading and computational processing of images ring heretical for anyone deeply (e.g., career-deep) invested in one-at-a-time interpretations of aesthetic objects. The all-at-once presentation brings us to the edge of gestalt and permits us to grasp large-scale continuities. Manovich also mentions that this works differently for visual media than for semantic mining because the images are not in the same way confined by the prison house of language. The “how” promised in the lecture’s title carries well enough, but I would expect to hear ongoing questions about the “why,” especially “why Manga?” or “why Time Magazine covers”?

The video includes a couple of unusual moments: at 17:30 when Manovich grumbles about not being able to see his screen and around the 59th minute when host Ian Condry poses an exposition-heavy “question.” As for the practical side of the talk, Manovich’s frameworks for “direct visualization” and “visualization without quantification” are worth noting, and I would be surprised if we don’t hear more about them as these projects play out and are variously composed and circulated.

This Time in Wired

More Moretti.

Comments include, in no particular order, Sp&m, XKCD reference, (Distant Reading as Sure Sign of an Unavoidable) Robot Apocalypse, Boredom, More Sp&m, and There Goes Context Leaking Out All Over the Place Again.

Certeau’s Sieve-order

Lately I’ve been puzzling over de Certeau’s theorization of maps and what they risk
obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation
of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once
experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan–seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering
distantly above the city’s "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the
pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird’s-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic
drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that
carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it
"carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis,
the city appears different–further away. But in another sense, the urban
observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at
the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you
to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened
projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this
["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses,
drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors
stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from
those viewpoints at which the "world’s debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors"
(presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is
concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories
diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between
them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming
private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or
individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and,
gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the
substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild
of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one
(i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling:
"The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It
exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able
to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in
the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection–and even the written account–also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data
(mined from texts or activities) into visual models–projections in which we can
apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the
"ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven’t decided
yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the
walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled),
but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about
whether it is even necessary).

Speculative Instruments

I’ve taken lately to thinking about the thinspreaden feeling of dissertating
like this: the writing moves in a forward direction, advancing ideas and
discussions, attempting claims, suggesting reasons for limiting the discussion
to these few pages. The reading, on the other hand, moves in a backward
direction, filing through influences before influences before
influences–something like tracking the (non-)origin of the Missouri River.
Writing and reading in this way at once leads to the thinspreaden feeling–it is
a stretch.

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Passive Observation

Earlier this week, I took a look at the
TED Talk presented by
Jonathan Harris
, creator of the programmed-art installations
We Feel Fine, and
several more, including his most recent
project, Universe. Universe, like
most of Harris’ work, presents a more dynamic and aesthetically lively interface
for encountering large samples of texts, such as news feeds from all over the
world, collections of blog entries, or the British National Corpus.  No
question Harris’ projects stand apart from nearly everything else I’ve seen
online where sizeable corpuses are rendered visually. I mean that these projects
are created in such a way that they lead with artfulness, enriching data
visualization with aesthetics.

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Clouds, Graphs, Maps

A couple of days ago Mike posted notes on

CCCC talk
from late last month, and I was reminded that I’m at least ten days
past due on the video
I said I would
following the conference.

I recorded the talk to an mp3 yesterday afternoon and went to
campus last night where I planned to use iMovie to sync the audio with jpegs of
the slides. Because the slideshow includes text, I needed to get the
resolution right, but, well, it started to get late. I started to get impatient.
I was able to output a reasonably readable mp4 file, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get
Google Video or
Daily Motion to encode it.
Finally Jumpcut accepted the file, so it’s
available below the fold (even if much of it suffers from jaggies). The original mp4 is available for download

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C’mon, Pokey

I finally got around to reading Lindsay Waters’ CHE diatribe against
Moretti’s work on abstract models and literary studies. I know, it took me
long enough. Collin
the article, titled

"Time For Reading,"
almost two weeks ago, and The Valve‘s Bill Benzon

his thoughts
on Waters last Tuesday. Rather than sum up the other
entries here, I’ll put the links in place and move along to a couple of my

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Text to Map


drew my attention to the Gutenkarte
, a series of scripts and processes that renders place-names
appearing in a given text and locates them on
a map. The Gutenkarte site announces
future plans for the project, including a wiki-like annotation add-on that will
enable a group of users to collaborate in expanding the place-name information
and related contextual relevance (one day to include digital images and video?).
The project bears many similarities to Franco Moretti’s survey of the shifting
geographies of village life in the nineteenth century. Moretti’s analysis often
moves beyond standard place-names to include positions of and distances between
people and things known to be in particular places. These he distinguishes as
geometries; plotted, they are more like diagrams than maps, he tells us (54).
The Gutenkarte project is not yet as refined as Moretti’s work; mining a text
for toponyms depends on the database’s tolerance place-name ambiguity and
spelling variations (among other things I probably don’t understand). Still,
despite the obvious limitations, the motives underlying Gutenkarte present an
affirmative answer to one of Moretti’s guiding questions, "Do maps add anything,
to our knowledge of literature?" (35), even if it is being applied to literary
texts from the Gutenberg Project for now.

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Unitization Reports

On a break from writing end-of-semester papers for CCR651
and GEO781, I thought I’d shock each of them into a list of noun and noun
phrases by applying the same methods we’ve strung together for CCC
Online. Et voila! The lists aren’t meaningful in quite the way a
sentence-long summary would be.  Yet that’s the point.  They’re
differently meaningful, suggestive.  Maybe even generative if I can trace
through some of the terminal knots tomorrow.

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