Tag Archives: data visualization

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Visualizing Impossibility: Thoughts on Lauren Klein

In Lauren Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” we search alongside her for ghosts, silences, and absences in the archive. Over the course of the article, she seeks to illuminate the life and contributions of James Hemings within the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, a digital archive made available through ROTUNDA, University of Virginia Press, and in doing so, discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of data visualization in this process. For Klein, digital technology has the capacity to render visible the invisibilities of archival gaps, and at the same time expose the limits of our knowledge as productive space with which to think.

Recalling last week’s conversation about narrative and database, Klein suggests that archival silences can be produced, in part, by metadata and data structuring decisions (663). This claim dovetails with Lisa Brundage’s suggestion that the most essential word in database theory is the “you,” or human agency responsible for decisions regarding information. In the context of Klein, the locus of “you” as human interacting with or producing an archive becomes a space for determining the nature of archival imbalances, power, and structure—particularly when Klein asks, “How does one account for the power relations at work in the relationships between the enslaved men and women who committed their thoughts to paper, and the group of (mostly white) reformers who edited and published their works?” (664)

This same question of the “you” that must be accounted for appears in the data visualists’ role in rendering information visually, and is part of Klein’s call for a greater theorization of the digital humanities. She states, “the critic’s involvement in the design and implementation—or at the least, the selection and application—of digital tools demands an acknowledgment of his or her critical agency” (668). In Klein’s scholarship, qualifying and elucidating the role of “you” is paramount to understanding the archive, the visualization, and the data collected.

Critique without suggesting an alternative is all too easy, and I admire the way in which Klein posits data visualization as antidote to archival silences and also deeply engages the fraught history of its practice (665). She engages visualization’s vexed history through the figure of Thomas Jefferson himself, who underwent training in early forms of data visualization with William Small at the College of William and Mary. In this section of the article, we gain a sense of how complex it is to engage these forms: can the same tool that Jefferson was so fond of also be a tool for scholars to resurrect the memories and presence of the slaves he owned, centuries later?

Klein also explores the ways in which Jefferson’s note-taking and records use representation in diagrams, charts, and tables to suggest that he was engaged in using data visualization as a “form of subjugation and control—that is, the reduction of persons to objects, and stories to names,” which points at the reductiveness and potential for violence in types of visual display (679). Klein’s portrayal of Jefferson here, as an unthinking white man who recorded Hemings as empirical evidence, to be charted and claimed as thus, is emblematic of the central question of her piece: how can we visualize without appropriation, acknowledge incompleteness, and in a paraphrase of Marcus and Best, let ghosts be ghosts without claiming them for our own purposes or meanings?

Evoking Stephen Ramsay’s idea of “deformance,” or the creative manipulation and interpretation of textual materials, Klein ultimately suggests that rendering Hemings in an act of visual deformance makes legible “possibilities of recognition” that the actual textual content of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson resist, while “expos[ing] the impossibilities of recognition—and of cognition—that remain essential to our understanding of the archive of slavery” in contemporary studies (682).

Provocations

When confronted with archival ghosts, Klein seems to suggest that the best policy is: illuminate, not explicate. How do you negotiate the difference between these two words, and can you share with us the ways it influences your pedagogy and scholarship?

Is there ever truly a safe way to visualize data, particularly regarding people and especially those who have been silenced, ghosted, or violated, in a way that rhetorically privileges stories and narrative over names and numbers?

To what extent does digital technology provide solutions of access for archival materials, but at the same time reproduce power structures that perpetuate silences? Can digital technology increasingly address this question through innovation, or is this a question of institutional change?

Klein’s argument regarding silences in digital archives seems to address the question of mark-up and encoding, whose granularity is often determined by institutional funding. In a recent conversation, Erin Glass (of Social Paper, an amazing platform for student-centered writing that you should check out!) and I noted that the first invisible document of any archive, institution, or project is often a grant. This document lays out the rationale, timeline, and required resources that shape the development of the project, but it is rarely discussed once secured for an institution, and is often invisible except in gestures towards sponsorship or funding. ROTUNDA is an organization that is part of University of Virginia Press, but whose digitization work is funded through grants. It is likely that decisions of encoding granularity were built into the grant itself and the time requirements of the project.

So, at the roots of the process of creating digital archives, how might we conceive of the entire process–from grant onwards–as a new space to intervene in inclusive, even collaborative, editing processes that produce richer metadata? Does this help address archival silences, or instead offer more opportunities to reproduce them?