As promised, here are my notes from the lightning talk I gave yesterday at the Digital Humanities Symposium at UCLA. I spoke on my Litmap project, which is a Google Maps mash-up I’ve put together for the purpose of mapping the books that I’m writing on in my dissertation. As you can see, it’s a very simple idea, and not much different from what other projects such as Gutenkarte have already done (and without the Metacarta-powered geotagging). Still, I have found it to be a valuable little side-project in doing my close reading of literature, and perhaps it will have some use for others too. I’ll be adding some more functionality over the next few weeks and giving a longer presentation on the project at that THATCamp at the end of the month.
Without further ado, here are my notes:
- Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the definition of the Digital Humanities in terms of theory/praxis issues. I see the Litmap project as being the “praxis” component that exists together with the theoretical part of my research: in other words, it is not a standalone component, but rather something than needs to be understood within the larger context of my dissertation project.
- Litmap is a tool I’ve created to help and enable me to read and theorize literature.
- Ideally, Litmap helps to illuminate the text, to create new knowledge about the kind of spatiality that is at work in the text on a narrative level.
- Litmap is not a distance reading tool (à la Franco Moretti)
- Litmap is meant to be used in conjunction with the primary text at hand, then.
- Unfortunately, Litmap does not count as work towards degree!
Moving to the Show & Tell portion of the presentation (below is an approximate screenshot of what I demo’ed while I spoke from the notes pasted below it):
- The example I’m showing is a map of The Rings of Saturn [Die Ringe des Saturn], a novel by W.G. Sebald.
- In the right-hand column, I’ve listed the “lexia” in which place names are mentioned in the book. These places are then plotted on the map on the left.
- The narrative of The Rings of Saturn is structured around the 1st-person narrator’s retelling of his walking tour of an approximately 30-mile stretch of eastern English coastline (in Suffolk). This journey is mapped in red on the map. As you can see, it has an vaguely figure-8 shape.
- As the narrator retraces his path, he tells stories of places that are spatially/geographically removed from the local area of his walking tour. This creates a narrative network of places that becomes increasingly global in scope:
At this point I zoomed out on Litmap to show approximately what you see in the screenshot below:
- Here we have a visual illustration of place that conceives of local place (i.e., Suffolk) as having a global history.
- My argument (which I of course explain in much greater detail in my dissertation) is that in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald illustrates a spatialized view of history that sees the local as globally defined (and here I draw on the work of Henri Lefevbre, Doreen Massey and other thinkers on space and place).
- (Incidentally, the orange lines on the map denote the trajectory of Joseph Conrad’s life, which is described in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn. More colors, icons, etc. on the map in general coming down the pipeline soon. Plans for more fine-grained data visualization have been brewing with the help of data visualization guru friend @noahi, and the mysql database in the background is ready to support it…)
What Litmap helps with:
- Visualizing connections.
- Identifying how many place names are geographically specific in a given text (and there are many in The Rings of Saturn!)
- Mapping various texts throws the geographical/spatial specificities of each into relief. (This will become much clearer when I’ve completed the mapping of the 2nd book, which is in progress. The differences are pretty remarkable).
Challenges and limitations:
- In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald has a “cosmological” notion of historical space in addition the local and global one. It is not possible to map this cosmological notion of space using the Google Maps API!
- Using the Google Maps API (or similar) restricts the user to that vision/version of geographical space. When you’re working with that data, be aware that you’re working with those pre-provided layers of information, which have their own inherent assumptions built in.