Phrenology2018 Projects and Project Staff

Cohen Lab has moved to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln! We are excited about our new home, though we will miss the good folks at Texas and maintain several collaborations there.

The main projects this coming year will be expanding Walt Whitman’s Annotations under the power of an NEH grant and adding to the Whitman’s Poetry Reprints handlist. We will also be preparing the manuscript of a collection of essays, The New Whitman Studies, for Cambridge University Press.

This year’s staff for Walt Whitman’s Annotations:

  • Dr. Caterina Bernardini, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of English, UNL
  • Caitlin Henry, MA Candidate, Department of English, UNL
  • Regan Chasek, Undergraduate Research Assistant, UNL

Visualizing Whitman’s Reprints: A Blog Series

This the first of a series of posts by Regan Chasek, an undergraduate researcher with the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Chasek has received a UCARE research award to create digital visualizations of the data from the Walt Whitman’s Poetry Reprints, 1838-1892 project. Her posts here will trace the issues–ethical, methodological, and interpretive–associated with data visualization for humanities resources.

The Ethical Implications of Visualization

By Regan Chasek

During my time as a student at UNL, I’ve come to notice a few distinct “genres” of scholarly essay. Johanna Drucker’s “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display” falls into the category I call, “what does it all mean, man?” I label the category this way to invoke the image of an intoxicated person who is questioning the very fabric of reality. While my hypothetical stoner may be asking questions like, “why are grapes round?,” Drucker asks the question of how we can use visualization tools in a way that aligns with the spirit of the humanities.

Before reading this essay, I hadn’t thought about how using visualizations for humanities might be different from the usual statistical use. However, Drucker explains that humanistic knowledge production is based on interpretation, not mere observation. The usual bar graph or pie chart will present its data as fact, which is not conducive to the humanistic mode of knowledge creation. For visualization to be of use to the humanities, we must first figure out a way to display “capta,” or information that is “taken” in a potentially biased way, unlike hard data. Using the word “capta” acknowledges the fact that the information presented cannot possibly constitute the entire truth – somebody had to gather the data, somebody had to create the categories, somebody had to make criteria for each category, and so on.  Essentially, Drucker urges the reader to think about how to present information in a way that is interpretive instead of being a mere observation.

On a purely abstract level, this was hard for me to imagine, but Drucker’s examples helped to clarify her ideas. Her most interesting example, to me, was the bar graph of men and women in separate countries. At first, it seemed clear-cut – men and women were in their own, rigid categories, and the countries were their own distinct categories. However, Drucker complicates this by asking the reader to consider the presence of nonbinary individuals, or of people who cross the border regularly, or undocumented immigrants that are not considered citizens. Those who did not fit into neat categories were represented by a dot or bar extending into the space between bars, transgressing the preconfigured boundaries of the graph.

Britt Rusert’s essay “Visualizing the Slave Trade” is a specific application of the kind of critical approach Drucker promotes.  Rusert analyzes current methods of creating graphical representations of the North American slave trade, particularly a project titled “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” While critiquing this project, Rusert directly mentions Drucker’s warning that data visualization comes with “baggage” from its origin as a tool of the natural and social sciences. Such visualizations encourage “representational simplicity,” which is, of course, not always conducive to representing things like the complex horror of the slave trade. These observations by Rusert made Drucker’s argument clear to me.

Because my UCARE project is one centered around data visualization, these essays can be helpful while considering the most ethical way to present the data. Even though a project visualizing Whitman’s poetry reprints may not have the same, obvious implications of a project visualizing the slave trade, it’s still wise to consider the implications that every graph, chart, or map will have.

Whitman’s Drift is Published

Whitman’s Drift: Imagining Literary Distribution has been published by the University of Iowa Press! It’s a book about Whitman and his work, but my hope is that it will also be read as a methodological reflection on how we think about the effect of literary distribution on reading and on literary interpretation. Here’s a little bit about it:

The American nineteenth century witnessed a media explosion unprecedented in human history. New communications technologies seemed to be everywhere, offering opportunities and threats that resonate with us as we experience today’s digital revolution. Walt Whitman’s poetry reveled in the potentials of his time: “See, the many-cylinder’d steam printing-press,” he wrote, “See, the electric telegraph, stretching across the Continent, from the Western Sea to Manhattan.”

Still, books neither sell themselves nor move themselves: without an efficient set of connections to get books to readers, the democratic media-saturated future Whitman imagined would have remained warehoused. Whitman’s works sometimes ran through the “many-cylinder’d steam printing press” and were carried in bulk on “the strong and quick locomotive.” Yet during his career, his publications did not follow a progressive path toward mass production and distribution. Even at the end of his life, in the 1890s as his fame was growing, the poet was selling copies of his latest works by hand to visitors at his small house in Camden, New Jersey. Mass media and centralization were only one part of the rich media world that Whitman embraced.

Whitman’s Drift asks how the many options for distributing books and newspapers shaped the way writers wrote and readers read. Writers like Whitman spoke to the imagination inspired by media transformations by calling attention to connectedness, to how literature not only moves us emotionally, but moves around in the world among people and places. Studying that literature and how it circulated can enrich our readings of Whitman’s works and times–and help us understand what is happening to our imaginations now, in the midst of the twenty-first century media explosion.

Whitman’s Drift and an End-of-Semester Thought

By Matt Cohen

My book Whitman’s Drift: Imagining Literary Distribution is on the horizon! It will be out this summer from the University of Iowa Press, in their “Iowa Whitman Series.”

A thought:
Next semester’s message for graduate students: “Someone, at some point in the history of human thought, has been annoyed by the same kinds of ideas you’re annoyed by.” This is taken from a thoughtful piece at ArtForum, generously passed along by Katherine Field.

Presentation on Whitman’s Annotations

Out of the Restless Marge: Walt Whitman’s Annotations
A presentation by Lauren Grewe and Alejandro Omidsalar

Harry Ransom Center, Prothro Theatre
9:00 – 10:00 a.m., Wednesday, April 13

Walt Whitman’s manuscript annotations consist of thousands of loose pages, clippings, pamphlets, books, newspapers, bank notes, and the like, all scribbled upon by America’s most renowned poet. These documents show the process by which Whitman came into writerly being. They are also fascinating witnesses of nineteenth-century reading practices, and thought-provoking in their own right. In his poetry, Whitman famously depicts himself as a “rough,” whose writing is an organic expression of the American land and way of life. Yet as his annotations reveal, from classical rhetoric to the poetry of Tennyson, from Persian mysticism to nineteenth-century phrenological journals, the influences on Whitman’s work were historically deep and culturally diverse. They are an astonishingly rich resource for students of Whitman, of nineteenth-century American literature, and of textual studies more broadly.

In this presentation, project managers Alejandro Omidsalar and Lauren Grewe will discuss the first installment of the Walt Whitman Archive’s edition of Whitman’s annotations, published this past winter with the support of the NEH, the UT Department of English, and the University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. This edition was designed and realized largely by graduate students here at the University of Texas, and the Ransom Center has been an essential partner. We will offer an overview of this group of documents, the difficult choices we made in developing our approach to preserving and presenting them, and what remains to be done.

A Talk on Whitman’s Reprints

On Wednesday, February 24, the Bibliography and Textual Studies Interest Group in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin will host a talk by
Alejandro Omidsalar, titled “Walt Whitman’s Midnight Visitors: Authorship and the ‘Culture’ of Reprinting.”

Omidsalar, project manager for the Walt Whitman Archive’s UT branch, will talk about the Archive‘s ongoing effort to track the thousands of reprints made of Whitman’s poetry during the poet’s lifetime, and some of the lessons that effort might hold for how we understand authorship, poems, and the role of the digital in doing literary history. Whitman’s “The Midnight Visitor” will be featured.

The talk will begin at 4:00 p.m., in Parlin Hall, room 203.