Getting Started – First Steps into DH

Yesterday I began my DH project in earnest — I can officially say this because yesterday I downloaded Gephi and did some brief troubleshooting in order to get it to work properly on my Windows 8.1 machine. (Thanks to this excellent Gephi forum. I keep reading praise of Gephi’s “active forum,” and I definitely found that to be true yesterday). I also started reading and bookmarking some sites that seem like they will be helpful as I start to figure out what I’m doing. Martin Grandjean’s “Introduction to Network Visualization with GEPHI” was particularly enlightening and enabled me to envision how I’m going to being to compile my data in order to make it work with Gephi.

About that data, and the project in general: my plan is to create a network visualization that will show the links between modernist authors (fiction, primarily, but some poets will likely appear), scientists, and philosophers. The first step, as I see it, is establishing what I mean by these categories and setting some time boundaries. So:

  • By “modernist author” I mean a person writing creatively, whether it be fiction, poetry, or some type of creative nonfiction (literary autobiography like Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart for example). (Yes, this is a 19th century text. More on that in a moment).
  • “Scientist” for me primarily means “life scientist,” which spans evolutionary thinkers, biologists, and — most importantly for my larger project — ecologists. Some key examples: Ernst Haekel, Arthur Tansley, Charles Elton.
  • “Philosopher” is a bit of a catch-all category, and a better name might be “thinker” if it wasn’t even more capacious. It covers true philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson, and also figures whose contributions are less academic but equally important: Jan Smuts, for example, is most well-known as a politician (specifically, he jailed Gandhi during his stay in South Africa)  but he had a considerable influence on a number of important ecologists and published Holism and Evolution in 1926, a book that is key for the theoretical inclinations I’m working on tracing.

In terms of a timeline, right now I’m envisioning something like 1860-1960, with two monumental texts, The Origin of Species (October 1859) and Silent Spring (1962), acting as bookends. Darwin’s influence on ecological thought is massive, and Carson’s book essentially marks the end of what I’m calling “early ecology” and the onset of “environmentalist ecology,” which is what we’re more familiar with today.

With those parameters loosely in place, I’m starting to think about how to categorize figures and relationships within an Excel sheet that I can then import into Gephi.

I will be inputting all of the data myself, based on my research into primary and secondary sources. Indeed, the large amount of sources that I’m compiling in this research is my primary motivation for wanting to use digital methods to map these connections in the first place: it’s hard to keep them organized, especially because they arrive from three distinct disciplines: literary history and biography, histories of science, and histories of ideas and philosophy.

Thus my wanting to suss out how I’m going to categorize figures before I start inputting all of them into my spreadsheet. An additional wrinkle is that I’m particularly interested in assigning some type of value to each relationship: is it a slight connection or a significant one? Take Virginia Woolf as an example: her engagement with Bergson is a matter of some debate — she may have read him, but she claims she didn’t; she certainly would have heard of him and may have absorbed some of his ideas (Bergson was the celebrity philosopher of the early twentieth century). Her engagement with Darwin, on the other hand, is well-established and well-studied by critics such as Gillian Beer. My thought is that I’d assigned each relationship a value, on a scale of 1-5. Something like this:

  1. possible
  2. slight
  3. clear
  4. considerable
  5. significant

This leaves me with some challenges, I recognize — ones I’m now beginning to face and address. I want to think about my approach to organizing the data I’m creating more carefully, and then discuss it in my next post.