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Turning Victorian literature into data into visual art

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 17, 2013 10:55 AM

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The big knock on the digital humanities is that it has no soul. Sure, you can set computers to crunch data on Shakespeare's plays, but even the cleverest little algorithm is going to miss the anguish at the end of "Romeo and Juliet."

A new project at the University of Wisconsin, however, shows the artistic potential in cold statistics. It's called "Victorian Eyes," and it’s based on a unique collaboration: an English graduate student developed research questions, a statistician figured out how to answer them using digital tools, and an artist turned the data into sculptures and drawings.

"It was a fun opportunity to combine all the things I really love, humanities research, digital research, and the arts," says Carrie Roy, who runs the Humanities Research Bridge program at Wisconsin and coordinated "Victorian Eyes."

The literature-data-visual-art recipe produced eye-catching results.

In one project the collaborators used digital tools to try and predict how Dickens might have finished the novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," that he was working on at the time of his death. They gathered data from two of his previous novels ("Bleak House" and "Martin Chuzzlewit") on measures like word count, the number of characters who typically appeared in closing chapters, narrative profile, and chapter length. Then they created a piece of visual art called "Predicting Dickens," which features a steamer trunk filled with printouts of the statistics—suggesting the creative space from which Dickens might have drawn the ideas he’d have used to finish the story.

Another piece in the exhibition, "His and Hers Inkwells," looked at how word choices differed between male and female writers in the Victorian era. The second image, below, shows adjacent inkwells, each "filled" with three-dimensional printouts of the kinds of words that were most unique to each group of writers. The female side contains many words related to dialect and domesticity (and a surprising number related to whaling); the male side contains a lot of words related to war.

Not all of the pieces in "Victorian Eyes" were sculptures. A third piece, "Word Length Landscapes," creatively displays how the average word length in Victorian literature changed throughout the 19th century. Authors moved towards shorter words as the century went on and literature became more of a popular art form. (Percy Bysshe Shelley had the longest average word-length at 4.7 characters per word, while late 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson had the shortest at 3.7.)

Roy wanted to display the results as a print, and she and her collaborators disagreed at first about how legible to make the words. Roy wanted the words to be smaller to give the final product more of an impressionistic feel, while Boehm, the statistician, wanted the words to be clearly readable-- a small disagreement that reflected the different values of their disciplines and one of the dynamics that makes "Victorian Eyes" interesting.

"For an artist’s perspective, you don’t want to hit your audience over the head with what you’re doing," says Roy. "But from a statistician’s perspective, you want to do the opposite."

You can see the eight pieces in the exhibition and explore the data behind each one on the Victorian Eyes website.

"Predicting Dickens"
Victorian Eyes Dickens.jpg

"His and Hers Inkwells"
Victorian Eyes frequency.jpg

"Word Length Landscapes"
Victorian Eyes Word Length.jpg

Images courtesy of Carrie Roy.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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