Category Archives: Social Network Analysis

“The Venus Hottentot (1925)” as a network

At MSA13 this week, I will be presenting a couple of ways I have started mapping ekphrasis using social network analysis. The following visualization is a very early working through of how to identify “nodes” in the poem and how to define their relationships. In this case, I have “named” the subjectivities, voices, locations, languages, and “actors” within the poem. Then, in an Excel spreadsheet, I placed any subject initiating an action (defined as describing, narrating, relating, comparing, envoicing, placing, observing, etc) in the first column and the correlating object of that action in the second column. In other words, this formalizes my understanding that ekphrasis is something done to something else by someone else for someone else. The following is only a very preliminary visualization using the Network Diagram tool in Many Eyes.



Mapping a network by hand

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, mapping networks by hand is a predictable way of beginning to define how one might go about determining “nodes” and “edges.”  I’ve been using a presentation tool called Prezi to begin playing with what the “nodes” could be in an ekphrastic poem and doing so has also made me think very specifically about what I mean by “exchange” as a way of defining the relationships between those nodes. Here is one of my initial hand drawings of the relationships between various voices, subjects, artworks, and locations in Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot (1025).

Why networks?

While putting together my logic for why social networks make good models for ekphrasis, I find that it’s important to always keep the instabilities of that decision close at hand.  Working with networks in the humanities seems promising, but there’s also good reason for skepticism… a point that I think Elijah Meeks articulates quite well in his recent post “Hacking Networks in the Humanities.”  I just wish I could go to the THATCamp where he introduces Gephi.

Network Analysis as Interdisciplinary Method

I will be participating in the “Modernity and Interdisciplinarity” seminar at the MSA 13 conference in October and now am in the throes of putting together the brief “white paper” required to participate.  Here is the explanation of the seminar from its leader, Rebecca Colesworthy:

“Modernity and Interdisciplinarity”
In recent years, critics have illuminated innumerable connections between modernism in literature and the visual arts and innovations in other disciplines.  Yet their methods vary considerably: while some adopt a definitional approach attuned to the history of disciplinary professionalization (see, e.g., Disciplining Modernism), others use materialist frameworks, rooting ideological and aesthetic shifts in changes in economic history (e.g., Esty, Wicke, Tratner).  In response to the widely acknowledged difficulty of establishing a common ground for interdisciplinary analysis, this seminar will focus not on drawing interdisciplinary connections per se but on questioning and
elaborating the theoretical and historical grounds on which such connections are—and might be—made.

My paper will focus on how network theory, developed by social scientists in the 1950s can be useful for scholars interested in mapping the networks of social relationships between images and texts and their subjects and contexts in ekphrastic poetry.

Social Network Analysis and the Victorian Novel

As part of the Magazine Modernisms essay club, I’ve previously written about Franco Moretti’s work with social network analysis.  In particular, Moretti’s work creates conversation networks in Hamlet by using lines spoken on stage and directed to another character.  Moretti’s article references another recent study in “conversational networks” which was presented at the 2010 ACH/ALLC Digital Humanities conference.  The paper “Extracting Social Networks from Literary Fiction” [pdf] traces conversational networks of bilateral conversation between characters.  Again, conversation provides the quantifiable exchange between characters to form the nodes and edges of the network.  Aditi Muralidharan, of course, does an excellent job of unpacking the article’s premise, methods, and arguments in her post Extracting Social Networks from 19th Century Novels.

What I find useful about this study is that the purpose of the activity was to “test” commonly-held assumptions about location and community in Victorian novels.  We assume that Victorian novels set in rural environments include more conversation between closer networks of characters and once characters move to urban surroundings, those conversations become more disparate and therefore relationships begin to break down.  Elson, Dames, and McKeown’s analysis demonstrates that this claim is based more on human perception than textual evidence.  These are the kinds of results that I think one hopes to find when you work with genre and computational text analysis.

The question for me, however, remains to be how one can extract nodes and vertices from poetic texts.  Unlike Victorian novels, poems often have unnamed characters with fluid subjectivities.  Conversation is much more oblique, and doesn’t often have textual markers (i.e. quotation marks or italics are not regularized across texts).  It seems to me that any quantitative analysis of modern poetry that hopes to do more than simply count words would require extensive mark-up and metadata, by which point the data is so thoroughly manipulated that it becomes difficult to trust the outcome.  So, for the moment, network analysis of ekphrastic texts seems most fruitful in those small, hand-drawn models rather than generated through computation.