Monthly Archives: December 2015

Modelling, McCarty and Me

Computing has no significance whatsoever for research in the humanities other than in what is to be done with it, concretely and immediately. … innumerable directions may be taken. … which do we take? (McCarty 199)

Though in the above quote McCarty questions what the set of agendas for the field of humanities computing should be, he also argues individual scholars engaging with particular works are a “primary” driving force in the field (206). Given that, I feel free to ask myself what my agenda is, what direction I desire to take (see McCarty 200 on desire and planned action), as I examine the relationships between the symbols in Renaissance emblem books.

McCarty diagrams the stages of modelling from cultural artifact [emblem books] into computer science and back up to the artifact through humanities computing (197). It seems I have already begun the first two movements: problem specification, and systems analysis. With the first step I have already decided my “specific perspective”: I wish to look at the symbols related to and with the Judeo-Christian God. In a vague way, I already conceived emblem books as “a system of discrete components [the symbols] and relations [within and between emblems]” (McCarty 197). McCarty correctly states “sacrifices” and “compromises” are made during these steps (198). By picking one perspective, I limit what I am studying about the work. How I choose to study the system of symbols affects what sorts of results can be gained, at least from this project.

Yet, because of McCarty, I no longer think my “conceptual design” is “good enough” (see McCarty 198). Originally, I wanted to use the Iconclass hierarchy metadata (see McCarty 89-90 on metadata), to group symbols together in specific emblems and to see which groups persisted in many emblems. In general, projects using Iconclass tend to be very thorough regarding the “what.” For example, looking at this emblem “Invidia [Envy]” as catalogued by the Alciato at Glasgow project, one can see they have missed very little (if anything) with their Iconclass tagging. Reading McCarty’s description of his project looking at personification in the Metamorphosis,[1] lead me to questions of context (54) and weighting (61).[2] Contextually, I want to know what part of the emblem – motto, pictura, and/or subscription – the tags are pointing towards. Within the image itself, the element placement itself could have some contextual meaning: Is the main focal point of the image frequently in the centre? Perhaps I could experiment with image analysis/design software such as Pixcavator IA or PhiMatrix to generate data (taking the “off-the-shelf” route [McCarty 197]). Weighting wise: Should a connection between Iconclass tags be weighted more based on type of relation; in the example, should tags describing envy have a stronger link between them than with the “scenery”?

Like McCarty’s “blind man” I can use received knowledge, in the form of tools (Iconclass and software) and instruction (classes and reading), but my DH work is still self-moving and experimental (McCarty 51). I will learn by doing, and adjust direction based on interaction with the programs and data, making sure to remain explicit about and consistent in applying my choices (McCarty 25).


Works Cited

Adams, Alison et al. Alciato at Glasgow. University of Glasgow. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

McCarty, Willard. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.


[1] Oddly, my emblem example is a personification whose subscription comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. That was not planned.

[2] McCarty’s application of Heidegger to the process of modelling is quite apt here. For me, the Iconclass tool has gone from “ready-to-hand” as Heidegger defines a tool in use, to “present-at-hand” due to “a failure of the tool” to do what I want it to (McCarty 42), though admittedly not what it was designed for. I have to modify the tool. I expect this will happen more than once, as has been the case in my previous and current DH projects.

Graphs, Maps, Trees: Thoughts on Moretti

            Unlike McCarty, who tended towards generalization, Franco Moretti uses specific projects as exemplars, showing the possibilities of quantitative data and distant reading for the humanities. While my focus is on the “Graphs” chapter, the other two sections impacted my thinking as well. “Trees” made me consider diagramming the representational differences occurring for a single symbol: Dog – Ears Up/Down – Sitting/Standing etc. (see Moretti 77). In “Maps”, Moretti argues that the locations on the map were not at “significant” as the “relations” revealed by the diagrams (54-55). My project is akin to mapping because I wish to look at the relations between symbols; and I could use weighting (see last post) to indicate physical/metaphorical closeness/distance; for example, when the Iconclass tags all refer to aspects of the same ‘figure’ or when a literal image stands in for a metaphorical idea.

            While my project is quite different from Moretti’s study of the rise and fall of genres, several of his comments in “Graphs” are applicable. In general, his comments on the disappearance of genres (18) made me wonder: “How ‘stable’ are the emblem symbols over time?” More importantly, Moretti states “[Quantitative research] provides data, not interpretation” (9, emphasis in original).[1] The data is thus another text, a meta-text, which, akin to close reading, is the object of interpretation. Moretti also mentions how he gathered his data on genres, using the multiple sources and comparing them (18). Unfortunately, while I will be gathering data from other scholars, the Iconclass tagging projects tend not to overlap. Thus, I am limited to one set of tags for most books. Perhaps this fact is mediated by internal double-checking by different scholars within the projects, but it is still something I have to deal with when gathering data.

            Additionally, Moretti discusses the difference between “individual events” and “patterns” each requiring different explanation types (13). I suspect both of these types will occur in my project: symbols that are unique to one author/illustrator, and ones that appear and group repeatedly. Finally, Moretti admits to an instance of not being able to explain something presented by his data (26). This led me to the profound yet simple thought: “It is okay if I do not have an answer.” Such a situation is grounds for further questioning and research.


Works Cited

McCarty, Willard. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2007. Print.


[1] Moretti states that “ideally” data should be “independent of interpretations” (9). That “ideally” hints at, but does not enter into, the problem of interpretation during the data gathering phase. Here is where McCarty’s emphasis “complete explicitness” regarding what one is doing (choice-wise for example) and “absolute consistency” come into play (McCarty 25), hopefully bringing the data as close as possible to the ideal.