Graphs, Maps, Trees

Franco Moretti, a literature professor, wants scholars to start thinking about history in different forms – that is, graphs, maps and trees. Graphs, Maps, Trees looks at literary history through these three models, which Moretti argues open up a whole new way of looking at history.

Graphs 

The first chunk of the book looks at the rise and fall of the novel through graphs. Moretti writes that this history should be looked at as a whole, instead of parts – the rise and fall of literature as a discipline, instead of the rise and fall of individual pieces of literature. Moretti includes a variety of graphs to support his text, including the rise and fall of the novel in individual countries, dominant genres, and the persistence of genres.

When considering the graphs of the rise and fall of the novel, Moretti looks at when the fluctuations occurred and what could be the possible causes. But then he points out that only looking at the causes for the changes is looking at the individual pieces of literature instead of the whole field. “If they are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases,” he writes (13).

By looking at his graphs, Moretti observes that genres last for 25 to 30 years and then die off. He deducts that this pattern for a genre as a whole has to do with generations – people who read the genre died, so there was no one left to read the books (20-21). Not all quantification problems have easy solutions like this, though. “Because the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem-and no idea of a solution,” Moretti writes, (26).

Not all graphs have an explanation, but it is better to look at history this way than to not look at it at all, Moretti seems to be saying. He writes how everyone thinks they discovered something unique in academia, but if they only plotted the information on a graph, they would see that isn’t something special, but just a reoccurrence, a part of the cycling pattern (27).

Maps 

“Maps” is illustrated with the example of Our Village, a collection of village stories by Mary Mitford. Moretti maps out Our Village, not on a conventional map, but in circles, with the village being the center.

One central part of Our Village is the character’s walks in the country, something that is quite frequent in all village stories. “But in order to see this pattern, we must first extract it from the narrative flow, and the only way to do so is with a map… it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained,” Moretti writes (39).

It is hard to come to definite conclusions when using maps, but they bring to light something the researcher might not have seen before. Moretti says they are a good way to begin analyzing texts and that they help researchers concentrate on only a few elements. Those few elements are presented a different way and reveal something new to the researcher, something not seen with only text in a novel, (53).

Trees

The last model Moretti advocates for is trees, which Darwin called “diagrams” when he used them to explain his theory of evolution. Trees look at the form of history, where elements diverged and converged.

Moretti’s main example is detective fiction and how the presence of clues was the deciding factor of whether a book was popular or not. Moretti finds that when writers tried something new, like making clues decodable for the reader, it decided their book’s fate. “In making writers branch out in every direction, then, the market also pushes them into all sorts of crazy blind alleys; and divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction,” he writes (77).

Moretti uses trees to chart the change of a genre, and how popular those changes were with the readership. If the changes were not popular, the book died off, giving literary historians a better explanation for why some books in a certain genre made it, and others did not.

Graphs, maps, trees. Did you find one model more more useful than the other? Do you think historians use these models enough, or is there room for improvement? Are there any disadvantages to using these models to support text?

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.

Euclid Corridor History Project: Climb Aboard

This user-friendly, highly interactive website allows viewers to take an online tour of Cleveland via “the silverline,” which was created in 2008. The silverline is a bus transit line that goes from downtown Cleveland along Euclid Avenue near the Cuyahoga River through the city heading east, until it ends in East Cleveland. It has many interesting stops along the way.

The website divides the bus route into seven different districts, each filled with sites of interest for the online viewer to explore. The euclid corridor history project is a great method to explore a lesser-known American city that does not get much attention as its westward neighbor Chicago. It is highly educational, fun, and filled with interesting tidbits to inform viewers about Cleveland through its new public transit bus line.

This website is didactic in that it provides an excellent look at inner-city Cleveland with a detailed summary of the city’s major historical, community, and tourist attractions. Because it is a very user-friendly website, it would be able to attract a vast array of both tourists and students interested in Cleveland’s history. A viewer can find out details about different Cleveland neighborhoods and their culture, history, architecture, and people.

However, the site has more features that does not limit it to merely an informational tool on Cleveland’s history through its modern bus line. The site also features a section devoted to Cleveland public transit information. Unfortunately, the links I found were not active and did not take me to the sites related to farecards, routes, timetables, and special passes. There are also other sections on the site relating to public events, attraction, news and weather that also failed to take me to the offered links on the site. In this sense, the site is not yet complete but still has potential.

The website also needs to incorporate more facts and information about the silverline bus system itself. There are numerous reasons to appreciate this triumphant project of urban planning.  According to the Wikipedia website, “each bus has a GPS locator on board, which allows automated traffic signals to give the Silverline buses priority at busy intersections, keeping them moving as much as possible.” Moreover, these silverline busses are environmentally friendly, as they run on a diesel-electric hybrid motor that makes driving through Cleveland rush hour less hazardous to the Cleveland skyline, vegetation, and city residents.

These silverline busses are also highly available to the residents of Cleveland, as they run every 5 minutes each weekday morning and afternoon through rush hour. The busses actually run 24 hours, 7 days a week, albeit with fewer busses during the late night and early morning hours. Bus lines like the silverline are a safe way to enjoy a weekend night out on the town with friends at the bars and not have to worry about who is driving home or who is going to pay the expensive rates for a taxi cab.

Overall, this site serves as a concise teaching tool for either students or tourists to glean a better knowledge of Cleveland. It is not yet complete (or has been cast aside and neglected) and could include more information about this cool new bus line. Yet, it does feature interesting and significant information about Cleveland that would satisfy the curiosity of both students and tourists alike.

 

Show and Tell: BackStory with the American History Guys

For my show and tell post, I’d like to direct your attention to one of my favorite examples of scholars using new (and old) media to teach broad audiences about history.  BackStory with the American History Guys is a podcast produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and featuring historians Ed Ayers (19th century history guy), Peter Onuf (18th century history guy), and Brian Balogh (20th century history guy).  Ed Ayers was a trail blazer in the field of early Digital Humanities, creating the “Valley of the Shadow” online Civil War documentation project in the 1990s.  (Be prepared, this is seriously old-school now.)

BackStory explores issues that have persisted throughout American history, tracing the evolution of trends over time.  It’s dynamic, involving interviews with experts and interested layman callers.  Its creators also use the podcast’s website, twitter, and facebook pages to solicit questions about the week’s topic.  If you’re interested, visit the “In the Works” page, to weigh in on upcoming shows on epidemics, terrorism, and memorials. If your question is a good one, you might just be invited to ask it on the show.  In this format, I believe Ayers, Balogh, and Onuf strike a good balance between involving interested audiences and yet maintaining the authority of the historian.

Something the show does very well is interview experts and significant players in American memory making.  For example, the most recent episode “Born in the USA” featured an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose work A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard came up earlier in this very class.  I was also very impressed by an interview Ed Ayers conducted for the “Coming Home: A History of War Veterans” show, in which he talks to Frank Earnest, a past commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans about the symbolism of the Confederate flag.  Baby Public Historians like myself spend a lot of time discussing how to handle sticky topics in American History, and Ayers provides an excellent example of how to do just that.  He politely exercises his historian’s authority, says “no sir,” and shuts down overblown Confederate claims of African American participation on the Confederate side of the Civil War.  On BackStory, history is complicated, but historians exercise their authority too.

Now is an especially exciting time to be interested in BackStory. On May 11th of this year they will transition from an on-again off-again podcast to a regular weekly one.  Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!

 

Mystery House and the Evolution of the Narrative

Welcome to the Mystery House

The other Kirschbaum posts did a good job outlining Kirschbaum’s process of exploring Mystery House as well as explaining how it’s representation of formal materiality, so I figured I’d explore some other aspects of what make Mystery House fascinating. While Kirschbaum seems intrigued with the idea of Mystery House as an allographic document, I was interested by what the game says about the evolution and differences of various narrative forms.

Up until the creation of video games, narratives have been largely linear experiences. That’s not to say that the content of the narratives themselves are linear—we’re all familiar with the concept of flashbacks in stories—but the “reader” or “viewer” has always lacked agency in regard to how a story is told. When we’re reading a book, we can skip chapters or read them out of order if we so desire, but then we’re not experiencing the narrative the way the author intended. If we’re listening to the radio, watching a film in a theater, or viewing a dramatic performance of some sorts, we lack agency to an even greater degree—we simply sit there and watch the narrative unfold.

Video games are defined by user agency. When you play Pac-Man, you have the choice to go left, right, up down, to eat a power pellet, to eat a fruit, etc. The events that unfold during a session of Pac-Man reside solely in the hands of whoever is playing. But with games like Pac-Man, there’s no larger narrative. I wasn’t aware of this before I did a little research, but apparently you can’t beat Pac-Man; eventually you can only get so far before the game simply resets. The ultimate “story” of Pac-Man himself—whatever that is—ultimately goes unfulfilled. In this sense, Pac-Man is purely a game—it doesn’t possess the elements required for it to be a true narrative.

This is why Mystery House is fascinating. At its core, Mystery House is a narrative—its ultimate goal is to impart a story to the reader, or in the case, the user. The elements that make Mystery House a game are actually quite dull; typing in “GO UP” and “TAKE CANDLE” is fairly boring considering the game doesn’t require immediate action on the part of the user—it doesn’t test your reflexes like Pac-Man does. Mystery House does have its shares of puzzles, but, as Kirschbaum points out, they’re quite simplistic. The story of Mystery House is rather dull as well—it’s nothing more than an Agatha Christie knock off. In fact, when you break down Mystery House on paper, it doesn’t seem to be very compelling. But taken together, Mystery House becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It’s incredibly dated, but it serves as the perfect example for why video games have created an entirely new way to experience narratives. When you play Mystery House, it’s up to you how the story unfolds, or if you even get to experience the ending at all. You can’t “lose” when you read a book or watch a movie. If I were reading Catch-22, I wouldn’t have the ability to direct Yossarian’s course of action—but I can control the actions of the protagonist in Mystery House. I can’t change the ending, true, but ultimately I do control how I arrive there. This, in itself, is a seemingly unparallel quality when directly contrasted with other narratives.

But not quite.

As I’ve mentioned, you can’t control how a book, film, or drama is told. There are some exceptions, including those “Chose Your Own Adventure!” books we had as kids, but even then the reader is only experiencing a sort of simulated, artificial agency. Fascinatingly, the one narrative form that video games have most in common with is oral storytelling. Think about it: they both have an ultimate “Storyteller.” In the case of oral narratives, it’s the person telling the story—in video games, it’s the computer and the disk the game resides on. When you’re playing Mystery House, you’re told of the various environments and objects you encounter, but it’s up to you how you engage and interact with them. This quality is shared with oral narratives as well; when someone is telling you a story about going to the grocery store, you can ask them what store they were at, what time of day they went, what day of the week, etc. When you directly engage with an oral storyteller, you’re filling out the narrative and, in many cases, even pushing the story in new directions. Much like Mystery House, an orally told story has an ultimate, defined ending that you can’t change, but you have some control over how you arrive at said ending. Perhaps this is why video games have exploded in popularity over such a relative short time (~30 years) when compared to the growth of other narratives—they mimic the oldest, and most familiar form of story telling.

I think this is why something as mundane as Mystery House fascinates Kirschbaum. The ultimate goal of literary theory is to explore how the stories we tell define who we are—Kirschbaum is simply trying to push this study into unexplored territory.

An Emulator Within an Emulator

If you feel compelled at any point while reading, click the image for the Inception 'bwaahhhh' sound.

So totally relevant to yesterday’s show-and-tell about game emulation and data forensics, some fans of Goldeneye for N64 found a working emulator of a ZX Spectrum 48k hidden inside the game. Apparently the developers wanted to see if emulating an older console was possible on N64 and left the files in the Goldeneye ROM.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONJtqf2lIIM]

For anyone who’s ever played Donkey Kong 64, the ZX Spectrum 48k emulator makes an appearance as a playable arcade cabinet in that game — both games were made by development house Rare.

Really interesting to know that this is an actual functioning in-game emulator.

So to recap, people running an N64 emulator on their computer discovered a ZX Spectrum 48k emulator in their emulated game.