Networks and the Commons

Posted by in Conference Papers, Data Visualization, Digital Humanities, Early American Literature

On March 15th, 2014, I participated in a roundtable, “Networks and the Commons,” at C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists biennial conference. My co-panelists were Ryan Cordell, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Kristen Doyle Highland, and Joanne van der Woude. (Ed Whitley provided the opening remarks). What follows are my remarks, slightly expanded and reformatted for the web.

In bringing together these roundtable contributions, Ed [Whitley] observed that our shared assumption is that “the commons as a category of analysis is the product of networks.” This is true– I think– and in the remarks we’ve heard from Ryan [Cordell], Ellen [Gruber Garvey], and Kristen [Doyle Highland], we can already begin to see the range in the kinds of networks that helped to constitute a printed “commons” in the nineteenth-century United States. These are networks of publication and of reprinting, of the circulation of objects and ideas. And in each of these cases, the notion of the network allows us to name—and in some instances, to visualize—an otherwise nebulous set of relations: transmission, circulation, influence, and exchange, to identify just a few.  

So what I want to do in my time today is first to briefly describe– and then begin to theorize– a system that I’ve been developing at the Digital Humanities Lab, in collaboration with Jacob Eisenstein, an assistant professor of Interactive Computing, and Iris Sun, a graduate student in Digital Media, also at Georgia Tech. We’re in the process of building a web-based tool that will allow scholars to trace the transmission of ideas across social networks and over time. Slide2Our archive (or what others would call a dataset) is a set of nineteenth-century abolitionist newspapers from across the United States. We chose these papers because of the unusual diversity of their authorship, and for the intensity of the debates—social and cultural, as well as political—that took place on their pages. These newspapers, as this audience knows well, were one of the few places where men and women, African and Anglo-Americans, Northerners and Southerners, US citizens and those from abroad, could contribute their views about how to end slavery. And while these writers were united in their common goal, they often disagreed about how best to achieve it.

[SLIDE TK] What you see on the left is a prototype for the design of an interface to help scholars explore this set of newspapers according to the themes expressed in their pages. It relies on a computational technique called topic modeling, which allows a particular newspaper issue’s themes, also called topics, to be automatically identified and summarized. So if you had a general question like, “How did the discourse surrounding voting rights change in the wake of the 1840 Anti-Slavery convention?” (This was when the American Anti-Slavery Society split in two over the issue of whether women should be granted full membership rights). Or, if you wanted to begin to address a related question: “Did the women’s rights movement borrow language from the contemporaneous anti-slavery campaign?” you might type “rights” into the search box at the top of the page, and see what topics show up. We’re currently developing the ability to sort the topics by relevance and popularity, and we’ll also eventually add the ability to link back to the original texts. I’d be happy to give more details about the project during the discussion, or even after, if people are interested in hearing more.

I wanted to present the project to you today, though, even if in an abbreviated form, because it illustrates one way of thinking through the constitution– through a network of print– of an ideological commons, of sorts. By looking at the relative positions and popularity of related topics in these newspapers, we can get a basic sense of the origin, evolution, and circulation of anti-slavery ideas. These newspapers, viewed through this tool, also complicate the notion of the commons in productive ways, revealing any shared ideology to be constituted by a continuously changing set of printed texts; of the figures who wrote them; and of the issues, events– and, of course– people who were written about. This visualization method, moreover, draws attention to those people, institutions, ideas, and materials that remain outside of, or obscured by the commons. These other, less visible networks also influenced the printed record, and in my remaining minutes, I’d like to begin to explain how.

One such network is the social network of the editors who compiled these papers, and lobbied each other to print certain items (or not print them, as the case may be). In the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, where I’ve been working for the past month, you can read the correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and her friend, the abolitionist Ellis Gray Loring. Slide4We know Child primarily for her 1824 novel, Hobomok, but between 1841 and 1843, she served as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Writing to Loring in March 1842, after a merger with the Pennsylvania Freeman, another anti-slavery newspaper, required her to publish certain amounts of its content, Child laments: “I cannot manage the paper at all as I would. Public documents of one kind or another crowd upon me so, and since the union with the Freeman I am flooded with communications, mostly of an ordinary character” (see image above). She admits to rewriting almost all of the content she receives from the Freeman in order to make more room for her own editorials, but even then, she cannot find enough space. “I fear to injure the interest of the cause and the paper by omission!” she exclaims.

So here you have an example of a network of influence that operates in the negative. Child’s own arguments—those that she believes will best advance the abolitionist cause—never enter the commons of print. And while we can infer, on the basis of her other writings, what Child might have argued, the “three editorials” that she professes to have rather composed nevertheless remained unwritten, and are alluded to only in this personal correspondence—a network then, as now, that is (or at least until Edward Snowden) assumed to be private.

The library is taking steps to make its archival material more accessible. In a tacit acknowledgment of the private networks that bind together such correspondence, NYPL Labs has developed a tool for visualizing the metadata included in its finding aids. Slide6At left, for instance, is a network visualization of the NYPL’s Lydia Maria Child Papers. And you can see not only how subjects, such as “abolitionists,” encompass multiple archival holdings; but also how letter-writers, such as Child and Loring, are linked to each other, and to others whose papers the Library contains. You still don’t see evidence of the Pennsylvania Freeman’s editors, however– those women who Child characterized, in another letter, as a set of “fussy, ignorant old women” who sent her nothing but the “dullest communications, bad grammar, and detestable spellings.” This is likely because the women were not deemed important enough—by Child, clearly, but also by anyone else who corresponded with them, who might have been able to preserve their letters at the time, which would, in turn, have allowed them to enter the archive today. And all this is to say nothing of the actual enslaved men and women, whose liberty was being argued about in these newspapers’ pages, but who were so rarely given opportunity to speak for themselves, or to have that speech recorded in print.

Slide8In other work (at left), I’ve proposed one way we might visualize these absences. But do some things remain unrepresentable?

In his 2011 essay, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” (which takes its title, in turn, from Rancière), media theorist Alex Galloway answers this question with an only slightly qualified yes. He writes: “Only one visualization has ever been made of an information network, for there can be only one,” and that visualization always represents the same thing: power.

Galloway’s point is about both politics and aesthetics, but above all, about representation. In contrast to data, which—at least, according to Galloway—is inherently formless, information is “almost tautologically bound up with the concept of form.” What we see, then, in a visualization of an information network—any visualization of an information network—is not the underlying data, but instead the network itself, which processes and shapes the data. In these networked, neoliberal times (or so the argument goes), power is distributed, with no single source of origin. This form of power is unrepresentable– deliberately so. But with a network visualization, we can show—in fact, the only thing we can show—is an abstraction: how power operates (answer: diffusely!); how power is generated and maintained.

I don’t think, however, that the response to this uniformity of network visualizations should be to abandon visualization tools. Rather, I think we might take a cue from nineteenth-century networks of print, networks that we, sitting here today, know so well. In nineteenth-century networks, as we have seen, the commons was constituted—and also contested—through the interplay of ideology and specificity. Visualizing these networks, even through similar means, facilitates a clearer understanding of what was– and who were— included in the commons, and what or who remained outside. It allows us to question the value and veracity of such visualizations, and also ask what they productively fail to show. Public opinion, as expressed in print, is perhaps the easiest way to trace the contours of this particular ideological commons, because it could be pushed through the network of newspapers I’ve just discussed. But individual artifacts—the contents of a private letter like Child’s, the texture and weight of its paper, or the keepsake its envelope enclosed—these things mattered too. As scholars in the digital age, we’re learning how to assimilate the model and the material, artifact and abstraction, readings distant and close. In the spirit of the commons, and of this conference, it’s now up to us to also make sure that our commons– our community– learns to look for this interplay too.