Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Problem of Standardisation

            My project has a problem. It is one I discovered while researching the Iconclass tags for the Christian deity. Specifically, the issue is whether or not the “single mark-up scheme” – in this case Iconclass – has been applied “thoroughly and consistently” (Cohen and Rosenzweig). In my first post, I praised the thoroughness exhibited in the tagging of an emblem; now I offer one where that level of thoroughness is lacking. This emblem is complex,[1] and at least one element I am interested in has not been tagged in the “Iconclass Headings” section: the tetragram (Hebrew letters representing God the Father – Iconclass tag 11C13) found top-centre near the Holy-Spirit-as-dove. Additionally, there can be multiple tags for similar things: The tetragram could also be tagged 12A111 indicating its use in Judaism.[2] The crucified Christ in the upper-left corner (labeled C in the emblem itself) could be tagged under symbols of Christ (11D) or in images of the Passion (73D), as done here.[3] So, I am relying on the choices and mistakes of others if I use their tags; and I am concerned that this could compromise my results.

            However, there may be no other (expedient) way.[4] Both John Lavagnino and Matthew Jockers offered insight into this problem as I was thinking about it; the latter quite indirectly. Lavagnino writes about how text is different from the elements of a painting (“The Nature of Texts”).[5] He argues you can break text down into “discrete parts”: words or letters. Then you can search through a text, for example, by counting the use of those parts. BUT: “There is no easy way to decompose digital images into anything like an alphabet” (“The Nature of Texts”).[6] Iconclass deals with this ‘searchability’ issue to a certain extent, though the tags are more akin to abstract notions and ideas rather than words or sentences, because Iconclass allows one to tag an image with its associated meaning (see the section on “keys” here, for example). Still, given that one cannot search parts of images directly, that makes the issue of thorough and consistent application paramount. Jockers, quite indirectly, indicates my problem.[7] Writing about TEI, Jockers states “the amount of metadata available [using the TEI markup scheme] is only limited by the encoder’s willingness to modify the documents” (section 10.2). Iconclass is different, but that statement holds true for it as well. Different projects (and different individuals within a project) can have different standards. One project could just tag full human figures for example, while another may get into body parts, positions and expressions. Since I am using metadata from many projects, I cannot guarantee that the Iconclass tags have been applied with the same standard of thoroughness and consistency. Therein lies the problem.


Works Cited

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. “Becoming Digital: To Mark Up, or Not To Mark Up.Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Center for History and New Media, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2016.

Contents of Iconclass. Iconclass. RKD, 2012. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

Jockers, Matthew L. Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2014. Print.

Lavagnino, John. “Digital and Analog Texts.A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Stäcker, Thomas et al. Emblematica Online: Resources for Emblem Studies. University of Illinois and Herzog August Bibliothek. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.



[1] Click on “View scanned image of Emblem” to open the image in another tab.

[2] However, such a tag may be inappropriate here given the Christian context.

[3] I might add that I believe the latter was the correct choice, given the specific options.

[4] I could tag all the emblems myself, if I had the time. Of course, there would likely still be errors, as I could very well miss elements or incorrectly tag things.

[5] This is a section heading of the online text.

[6] I should note that Lavagnino uses this observation to argue that unsearchable elements, such as font selection and page spacing – that is elements of form – also potentially have importance for the “aesthetic dimension” of the text.

[7] I wish to note that I quite enjoyed Jockers’ book “Text Analysis with R for the Students of Literature” as it excited me with the possibilities for using DH tools. However, most of my responses to Jockers were based on analogy/simile from what he was discussing to what I wanted to do. For example, Jockers wrote about the coding needed to show that multiple text files held works written by the same author, thus creating the “vector of author names” (section 12.7). In the margins of the section, I wrote “I need a way of showing that Iconclass subcategories [analogous to individual text files] are types of the primary categories [analogous to the vector of author names]; but unlike this instance I want both the larger category and the smaller specific type.” I include this to show that my mindset while reading Jockers’ text was not that of following him to the ‘t’; rather I let my mind wander using his text as a springboard to problems and ideas for solutions. Hence the tenuous connection I’ve included in the main blog post.

The Challenge of Hoover and McGann

[Note: When I originally wrote this post it was simply my reaction to David L. Hoover’s essay “Quantitative Analysis and Literary Studies.” The ending of the post was rather weak, largely because I was discouraged by my own desire for definitive and objective data within my project and the realisation that, at present, it does not exist. Perhaps I had fallen into the cognitive distortion of “All or Nothing” thinking,[1] where because it could not be perfect, I viewed my project as a total failure, unable to provide any knowledge about the emblems. So, I delayed posting it.

During the delay, I began reading Jerome McGann’s book Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. Hope returned, bringing with it a more realistic sense of how things stand. What follows is partially the original post, now edited with some references to McGann. As a nod toward McGann’s work with online archives, I have decided to clearly indicate my edits: additions are italicised in square brackets; deleted sections have been retained in footnotes. My goal with this experiment, is to retain both interpretations, to explicitly show my subjective view, simply because I believe my project, and other quantitative humanities projects, benefit from such candor, as it makes interpretive decisions more apparent for the end-user/reader. Thus, it seems a good idea to begin the practice now, showing what was changed much like the “historical log” of project changes McGann discusses (92-93).]

Given the problem I discussed last post, it is of little surprise that reading David L. Hoover frustrated me further. Hoover differentiates what close reading and quantifiable analysis can do, and thus what sort of arguments one can make based on the approach. Additionally, he emphasises the “numerical” nature of quantitative approaches especially the element of “accuracy” inherent in mathematics in “measurement, classification, and analysis” (“History, Goals,…”).[2] One thus gets the idea that Hoover wants to separate an individual’s interpretations from the gathering of the data itself. Such a reading is bolstered by his emphasis on automating steps (“Methods”) and his critical response to a quote regarding using “traditional critical interpretation” to “understand the meaning of those statistics.” Hoover indicates that such an approach could be misleading, though he does not seem to discount it entirely (“Four Exemplary Studies”).[3] [Hoover wants a high level, or even complete, objectivity; the objectivity of mathematics (“History, Goals,…”). Jerome McGann counters that “Objectively considered, objectivity is impossible” and the pursuit of it potentially a hindrance (24). What can/should be aimed for is “self-conscious subjectivity” (24), that is, a high-level awareness of one’s interpretations, influences and choices. Such a goal includes, ideally, an accounting of those choices/standards to one’s end-user/audience, allowing them to make a more informed decision as to the usefulness of your data and interpretations. That is not an easy task; Emblematica Online, for example, discusses that it will use Iconclass on its “About the Project” (last paragraph of “Metadata” section). However, I haven’t been able to locate a statement regarding how thorough and complete they intend to tag, or what decisions/guidelines they mandated in their tagging.[4] Where Hoover would likely discard the data I intend to use, McGann would likely accept it, granting that there are challenges to over-come as I go.]

Hoover presents several challenges in his first two sections. In discussing Woolf, he states that to claim something as “characteristic” as “unusual” requires quantified comparison (“History, Goals…”). I would like to know which symbols/symbol complexes are part of larger patterns and which are restricted to a particular work; but I cannot, at present, compare all 1,388 emblem books on Emblematica Online simply because not all of the emblems have been tagged, nor is there a program that can accurately search images for specific parts (given differences in drawing, for example). So perhaps I cannot make claims regarding what is truly a pattern for the whole genre, but I could make a statement regarding the texts I do sample, presenting it similarly to how Hoover does “in a corpus of 46 Victorian novels by six authors…” (“Methods”). Hoover is right when he says that anything “that can be reliably identified can be counted” (“Methods” my emphasis). The issue is inherent in the word “reliably”. Even Hoover admits that “semantic categories”, which images as signs/symbols arguably fall into, are “more difficult to count” (“Methods”), likely for that very reason. [While Hoover proposes an automated system to deal with “semantic categories”(“Methods”), McGann discusses the need for tools for individuals to mark up images, specifically allowing parts of images to be accessible to researchers in a searchable, and likely countable, way (62, 69, 94-95). McGann, unlike Hoover, seems to favour a hands-on approach in this regard. McGann leaves room for the human.]

[5][Originally, I bought in to Hoover’s statement that “poor initial choices can lead to wasted effort and worthless results” (“Methods”) and I considered whether using the Iconclass decisions of others was such a mistake. McGann himself writes “it does not bode well to begin with a logic one knows to be inadequate” (90). It is quite easy to see issues with the Iconclass data I intend to use; for example, individual taggers may have tagged things slightly differently.[6] If I aspire to Hoover’s level of objective certainty, then the issues with this data become unbearable. BUT, McGann’s next sentence applies: “On the other hand, what were the choices?” (90). Additionally, like McGann, I take issue with Hoover’s apparent assertion that failure is “worthless” (“Methods”). McGann writes about the “unexpected rewards of failure” (82). He indicates a growth in knowledge not just of the object(s) studied, but also of the one’s own methods.[7] He even relates an instance where playing, or experimenting, with tools revealed unexpected things, prompting further exploration (82-87). While Hoover seems to want each project to know exactly where it will go,[8]McGann is more open to serendipity, while still arguing for documentation of choices and standards (91-93 for example) and for consistent application (for example, image alterations that appeared useful in one instance, were recorded and exactly applied to others for comparative purposes; see 85). From such a perspective, one cannot know if a previous choice is “poor”, until one works with it, and since one still learns, the effort and results can never be completely “worthless”. I choose to follow McGann, and learn where I am going, as I am going there.]


Works Cited


Burns, David D. “Checklist of Cognitive Distortions.” 1999. PDF file.

Hoover, David L. “Quantitative Analysis and Literary Studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.

Lavagnino, John. “Digital and Analog Texts.A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Stäcker, Thomas et al. “About the Project.” Emblematica Online: Resources for Emblem Studies. University of Illinois and Herzog August Bibliothek. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.



[1] See this PDF for more info on cognitive distortions and “All or Nothing” thinking – particularly the first entry in section “The Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking”.

[2] Citations for Hoover indicate section headings due to the lack of page numbers.

[3] Original post: Since the Iconclass metadata relies on humans inputting the data, it seems that human interpretation of the images is inevitable, even if I get a computer to count the tags I am arguably not counting elements of the emblems themselves, (remember that Lavagnino discussed how difficult it is to program a way to count images, given how an object can be drawn many different ways), I am counting others interpretations, even if I can reasonably argue for a level of accuracy in those interpretations. While I am still questioning if that may offer something useful and meaningful, I don’t think Hoover would approve.

[4] [Even with that, McGann notes problems of ambiguity and interpretation of the markup systems within his own project (91). It seems that there is always some wiggle room, no matter how self-conscious or explicit one makes one’s subjectivity. My preference would be for each tag to ‘highlight’ or somehow indicate which portion of the image it is referring to, thereby giving me, and other end-users, an opportunity to evaluate the choice of tag. Alas.]

[5] Original concluding paragraph: Thus I am left with the question, is using the Iconclass tags a “poor initial choice” which “can lead to wasted effort and worthless results” (“Methods”)? I suppose it depends on what questions I want to answer and what claims I hope to make. Still, perhaps I can counter Hoover by asking, what makes a result worthless, even if a result cannot answer questions because of issues in its method, does it not at least teach us about the holes in the method itself and what needs to be improved? If so, is the effort actually wasted?

[6] [I haven’t been able to confirm or deny whether the emblems were tagged by more than one person each; I hope they were, as it at least gives the opportunity for one person to see and tag things the other missed.]

[7] [Or even the limitations of one’s software (94).]

[8] [To be fair, Hoover does leave room for “happy surprises”, though he seems to indicate that those should lead to a separate study in that they call for “further or different quantification” (“Methods”), rather than an integration into the present project.]

Counting Symbols – A Proposal

Semiotics and religion seem inseparable. Christianity itself has a rich tradition of symbols used to indicate aspects of their deity. Emblem books, a genre which began and flourished during the Renaissance, partook in that symbolic history, using earlier symbols and perhaps creating their own. However, each symbol did not exist in a vacuum on the emblem book page, they united with other characters, objects and settings in a complex of visual semiotics.

Though the Iconclass data of Emblematica Online’s large collection of emblem books is limited, simply because not every emblem has been tagged, I wish to test the available data’s ability to answer the following two questions. First, which particular symbolic representations for the Christian deity (this includes abstract notions of god, the trinity, and each of the three persons) were culturally prevalent (and to what extent), and which were likely quirks of a particular emblem creator? Second, which other tagged image-signs appear most frequently with the symbols for God (whether they have signifiers pointing to physical things or abstract notions) and what can be inferred from their common association? For example, it could be an artistic tendency by emblem creators (for a type of setting, perhaps), a known and still used semiotic linkage between the ideas expressed, or one contained to the cultural circumstances of the genre. While working towards answering these questions, I will also be able to examine if Iconclass tags are an accurate enough data set for quantitatively based literature investigations.

I will compile (hopefully with the assistance of Emblematica Online staff) a data set for a selected corpus of 1686 emblems,[1] indicating the book, author and illustrator (if the latter is available), nation of publication (and language), and year published for each emblem, using this information to map out the currently known extent of use for a particular set of symbols as labeled with Iconclass. For the same set of Iconclass categories, I will compile data on which other Iconclass categories appear with each most frequently and offer an interpretation of why, perhaps in conjunction with a close reading, as needed. I have selected about 50 Iconclass categories that tend towards abstractions and personifications rather than the illustration of biblical narrative, as these tend to be more inclusive of an overall theological picture, rather than just a repetition of biblical scenes.[2] These categories cover abstract notions of God, including the deity’s wrath and role as creator; symbolic representations of the trinity as a group, and for each of the persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.[3] These symbols can be geometric – circles and triangles – objects, animals, words and letters, mythological creatures or personifications. Thus they can be studied not just individually, but perhaps grouped as well.

Ferdinand de Saussure explained signs (both signifiers and signified) have “no natural connection with the signified” (854). While a drawing of a tree can problematize this notion,[4] it remains true for symbols of a religious nature. Looking at the symbols for the Christian deity within emblem books, examining how widespread they were in place and time and what pictorial/relational contexts they were used in, can offer a clearer picture of the social conventions regarding religion and spirituality within which the emblem book creators and their audiences lived. Not only may it reveal instances of symbolic inheritance from earlier visual arts, it could indicate potential avenues for symbol groupings that exist even today.



Works Cited

Stäcker, Thomas et al. “About the Project.” Emblematica Online: Resources for Emblem Studies. University of Illinois and Herzog August Bibliothek. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “From Course in General Linguistics.” Trans. Wade Baskin. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 850-66. Print.



[1] This number may be smaller in the end, given that some emblems could include more than one of the symbols I wish to study.

[2] Biblical scenes may still be included, simply because the symbols are used in them as well. In fact, I may discover that, in the emblem books, certain symbols are most frequently associated with such scenes.

[3] AKA Holy Spirit, depending on one’s time period and tradition.

[4] As it could intentionally be symbolising the visual aspect of an actual tree, and thus is not as arbitrary.