Visualisation of literary narratives: How to support text analysis with visualisations? – Creating a narratological use case

 First Co-Creation Workshop in Potsdam, April 26th, 2017

The 3DH project aims to lay the foundations for a ‘next-generation’ approach to visualisation in and for the Humanities. As for the theoretical background, the project’s frame of reference are the particular epistemological principles that are relevant to hermeneutic disciplines and which must therefore also orientate our approach to visualisation.

For the 3DH visualisation concept we formulate four postulates. These are

  1. the “2 way screen postulate” (i.e. an interaction focused approach toward visualisation);
  2. the “parallax postulate“ (i.e. the idea that visualisation in and for the humanities should not just tolerate, but actively put to use the power of visual multiperspectivity in order to realise epistemic multiperspectivity);
  3. the “qualitative postulate” (i.e. the idea that visualisations should not just ‘represent’ data, but also offer a means to make and exchange qualitative statements about data);
  4. the “discursive postulate” (i.e. the idea that visualisations should not just be used to illustrate an already formed argument or line of reasoning, but should also become functional during the preceding/subsequent steps of reasoning, such as exploration of phenomena and data, generation of hypotheses, critique and validation, etc.).

During the 2016 summer term we organized a public lecture series on DH visualisations (see also 3DH blog and

One outcome of the lecture series was a need for bringing in the expertise of visual design specialists. By bringing together the “two worlds” of literary studies and visual design we hope to transcend the limitations of our respective visual(ising) routines.

Co-teaching seminar University of Applied Science of Potsdam and University of Hamburg

In the 2016 summer term we have begun to engage in a co-teaching project with the visual design specialists Marian Dörk and Jan Erik Stange from the University of Applied Science Potsdam. Two groups of students meet during four workshops alternately held in Potsdam and in Hamburg, one a class of German literature master students (Prof. Chris Meister, Universität Hamburg), the second a class of design students (Prof. Marian Dörk).  Their joint goal is  to answer two questions:

  • ‘In how far can visualisations be helpful for the analysis of literary texts?’ and
  • ‘Where do visualisations have their place in a subjective and interpretive structure?’

The literary text under discussion is the novel Johannisnacht by the German author Uwe Timm, published in 1996. It tells the story of a writer suffering from writer’s block, who gets the opportunity to write a report about the history of the potato. As trivial as this task seems to be at first, the writer’s research becomes more and more a life-threatening and odd adventure. In a formal aesthetic interplay between narratological categories such as the narrator, the discursive parameters of time and place and metafictional elements of self-reflection, Johannisnacht stretches out the genesis and the specific functionalities of narration.

Our two groups approach this text from two different perspectives: the German literature students try to identify and define possible visualisation needs for their work in text analysis (in which they focus on some of the novel’s narratologically salient aspects). The task of the design students on the other hand is to consider the literary text as a whole and find practical solutions for visualising those of its structural features that might be pertinent to the literary scholar’s analytical needs. The combination of both approaches – the narratological/literary studies perspective with the visualisation design perspective- is our first step toward defining a specific narratological visualisation use-case.

First Co-Creation Workshop and its results

After a short input presentation on relevant narratological concepts and methods (Chris Meister) we tried to gain a first understanding of some of the novel’s structural features and then co-created first drafts of visualisations. Our sketches focused on three questions:

  • What narratological questions are raised by reading and analysing the whole novel or a single chapter of Johannisnacht?
  • What texts and data are required for answering this question?
  • What kind of visual representation could be suitable for answering this question?

Here are our first visualisation ideas:


This sketch tries to point out the narratological category of focalisation in the course of the story.



This sketch shows an attempt of structuring the story of the novel by describing the relationship between character, narrator and narrated objects.



This group gains an access to Johannisnacht by asking ‘What generates complexity in a novel?’



This sketch shows the attempt to visualise the narrative levels of Johannisnacht.



This group focuses on the character constellation in the novel Johannisnacht: Who is talking about whom? On which narrative level is a character introduced?



VIS2016 – K. Coles: Show ambiguity

This is the first post in a series of posts about what I think to be most relevant for 3DH from the IEEE VIS2016 conference in Baltimore.

The poetry scholar Katherine Coles gave a presentation on Poemage at the VIS4DH workshop at VIS2016. Poemage is a tool for exploring and analysing the sound topology of a poem. It is an interdisciplinary work between poetry scholars, computer scientists and linguists. Recommended reading is not only the presented paper Show ambiguity, which takes a more poetry scholar influenced perspective on Poemage but also the companion paper which complements “Show ambiguity” by adding the computer scientist stance to it. Besides the methodological principles that are covered by Poemage both papers give also great insight into the collaborative aspects of the project across disciplines.


The UI of Poemage offers three views. The Set View offers rhyme sets, which are sets of words that are connected by a specific rhyme scheme. The rhyme sets are organized by rhyme types. Each circle represents a specific rhyme set. The size of the circle depends on the number of words in the set. The Poem View shows the poem in its original form and the Path View gives a 2D space where the flow of the poem according to its rhyme topology is displayed. Each node in the path view represents a word in the poem and is positioned in relation to its position in the layout of the poem. The curves show the flow of a rhyme set through the poem. The views are linked by color coding and by interaction: e. g. selecting a rhyme set in the Set View also activates the visualization of that rhyme set in the other two views.

I like especially the openness of the tool. It supports and encourages multiple readings and the rhyme types are extensible in two ways. The simple way allows the scholar to group words freely to form custom sets without being bound to any predefined rhyme type. The more complex way allows the scholar to access the underlying rules engine or formalism to formulate new rhyme types in a notation which is geared to poetry scholars.

The representation of rhyme sets as paths allows exploration of the rhyme topology by examining spatial phenomena of the paths like intersections, mergings and divisions. There is a tight link between the visualisation and the poem that makes it easy to trace back observations in the visualization to the original data.

Another interesting aspect of her talk was when Coles shared her view on the humanistic idiosyncrasies of data visualization, especially in poetry scholarship. She wanted Poemage “to provide an aesthetically enriched experience” and emphasized the engagement between scholar and object of study which should extend to the visualization as well.

When we discussed the special needs for the humanities for visualization in the 3DH project so far, I (with a computer science background) was very sceptical about seeing the humanities on one side and the hard sciences on the other side. On the contrary I can see a lot of common ground between a physicist and a humanities scholar exploring and interpreting his or her data with visualizations. Instead of seeing the two as opposites we in 3DH started to work with a methodological continuum between the poles of subjectivity/uniqueness/particularity and objectivity/reproducibility/universality. I doubt that the kind of engagement Coles describes is the same engagement between a physicist and his or her data. I think Coles managed to describe at least part of the possible contribution of visualisation to one extreme of that continuum. And this really helps to track down the methodological differences 3DH visualizations need to account for.

Lauren F. Klein: Speculative Designs: Lessons from the Archive of Data Visualization

Peabody Visualization
Peabody Visualization

Lauren Klein‘s paper looked at two 19th century pioneers of data visualization to see what we could learn from them. She asked,

What is the story we tell about the origins of modern data visualization?

What alternative histories emerge? What new forms might we imagine, and what new arguments might we make, if we told that story differently?

Lauren looked at Elizabeth Peabody for an alternative history who is often overlooked because her visualizations are seen as opaque. She compared it to Playfair who is generally considered the first in the canonical history of visualization. Lauren asked why visualizations need to be clear? Why not imagine visualizations that are opaque and learn from them? Her project is a digital recreation project of Peabody’s thinking.

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Stan Ruecker: The Digital Is Gravy

Timeline Design
Timeline Design

Stan Ruecker gave the 3DH talk on the 23rd of June with the enigmatic title The Digital Is Gravy. He explained the title in reference to gravy being the what gives flavour to the steak. In his case, he wanted to show us how physical prototyping can give substance (steak) to the digital.

Stan started with an example of a physical prototype that materializes bubblelines that was developed by Milena Radzikowska who showed it at Congress 2016 in Calgary. (See Materializing the Visual.) He suggested that materialization of a visualization slows down analysis and leads to other lines of thought.

At the IIT Institute for Design Stan is weaving physical prototyping into digital design projects. His main research goal is to find ways to encourage people to have multiple opinions. He want to build information systems that encourage the discovery of different perspectives and the presentation of multiple opinions on a phenomenon. The idea is to encourage reflective interpretation rather than dogmatism.

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Leif Isaksen: Revisiting the Tangled Web: On utility and Deception in the Geo-Humanities

Leif Isaksen gave the lecture on the 16th of June. He has a background in history, computer science, philosophy and archaeology. He spends a lot of time thinking about how to represent complex spatial arguments to other people and that has led him to ask how can we read (closely) the historical depictions of geographic space? How can we approach someone else’s visualization when we have only the visualization. He then joked that a better title for his talk might be “Thoughts on Predicting the Ends of the World” where “ends” can mean goals in representing the world.

Some of the things we have to think about when reading historical visualizations include:

  • Classification – how is the world classified when the visualization was drawn up?
  • Derived vs manually produced data – how did the data get to the cartographer and, for that matter, how did the map get to us?
  • Graphic vs. textual representations – we are continually transforming representations from visual to textual and back – what happens in the transcoding?
  • Epistemology – how do we know what we think we know?
  • Time and change – how is time and change collapsed in representations of space?
  • Completeness – we never have complete information, but sometimes we think we do
  • Data proxies – we are not interacting with the phenomenon itself, but with surrogates
  • Geography – what is special about the world?

He then showed 4 case studies.

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Laura Mandell: Visualizing Gender Complexity

Laura started her talk by showing some simple visualizations and talking about the difficulties of reading graphs. She showed Artemis, searching for words “circumstantial” and “information” over time. She then compared it to the Google NGram viewer. She talked about the problems with the NGram viewer like shifts in characters (from f to s) around 1750. Dirty OCR makes a difference too. She showed a problem with Artemis having to do with the dropping out of a dataset. Artemis has a set of datasets, but not all for all time so when one drops out you get a drop in results.

Even when you deal with relative frequency you can get what look like wild variations. These often are not indicative of something in the time, but indicate a small sample size. The diachronic datasets often have far fewer books per year in the early centuries than later so the results of searches can vary. One book with the search pattern can appear like a dramatic bump in early years.

There are also problems with claims made about data. There is a “real world” from which we then capture (capta) information. That information is not given but captured. It is then manipulated to produce more and more surrogates. The surrogates are then used to produce visualizations where you pick what you want users to see and how. All of these are acts of interpretation.

What we have are problems with tools and problems of data. We can see this in how women are represented datamining, which is what this talk is about. She organized her talk around the steps that get us from the world to a visualization. Her central example was Matt Jocker’s work in Macroanalysis on gender that seemed to suggest we can use text mining to differentiate between women and men writing.

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Johanna Drucker: Visualizing Interpretation: A Report on 3DH

Johanna Drucker gave a special lecture on June 6th that reported on the state of the project and where we are going. She started by giving some history to the 3DH project. We went from “create the next generation of visualizations in the digital humanities?” to a more nuanced goal:

Can we augment current visualizations to better serve humanists and, at the same time, make humanistic methods into systematic visualizations that are useful across disciplines outside the humanities?

She commented that there is no lack of visualizations, but most of them have their origins in the sciences. Further, evidence and argument get collapsed in visualization, something we want to tease apart. In doing this, can we create a set of visualization conventions that make humanities methods useful to other disciplines? Some of the things important to the humanities that we want to make evidence include: partial evidence, situated knowledge, and complex and non-singular interpretations.

Project development is part of what we have been focusing on. We have had to ask ourselves “what is the problem?” We had to break the problem down, agree on practices, frame the project, and sketch ideas.

Johanna talked about how we ran a charette on what was outside the frame. She showed some of the designs. Now we have a bunch of design challenges for inside the frame. One principle we are working with is that a visualization can’t be only data driven. There has to be a dialogue between the graphical display and the data. Thus we can have visualization driven data and vice versa.

We broke the tasks down to:

  • Survey visualization types
  • Study pictorial conventions
  • Create graphical activators
  • Propose some epistemological / hermeneutical dimensions
  • Use three dimensionality
  • Apply to cases
  • Consider generalizability

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Materializing the Visual

Materialization of Bubblelines
Materialization of Bubblelines

The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities 2016 conference was held this year in Calgary, Alberta. Milena Radzikowska presented a paper on “Materializing Text Analytical Experiences: Taking Bubblelines Literally” in which she showed a physical system designed to materialize a Bubblelines visualization. (Bubblelines is a tool in the Voyant suite of tools.) In here talk she demonstrated the materialization filling tubes with different coloured sand for the words “open” and “free” as they appeared in a text. She talked about how the materialization changed her sense of time and visualization. Read more about the conference in Geoffrey Rockwell’s conference report.