Stefana Forlini, Uta Hinrichs, and Bridget Moynihan, The Stuff of Science Fiction: An Experiment in Literary History, DHQ 2016, vol 10, #1.
Abstract: This article argues for a speculative, exploratory approach to literary history that incorporates information visualization early on into, and throughout, the research process. The proposed methodology combines different kinds of expertise — including that of fans and scholars in both literary studies and computer science — in processing and sharing unique cultural materials. Working with a vast fan-curated archive, we suggest tempering scholarly approaches to the history of science fiction (SF) with fan perspectives and demonstrate how information visualization can be incorporated into humanistic research processes, supporting exploration and interpretation of little-known cultural collections.
A Shared-Expertise Approach to Cultural Analysis
In her recent work, How We Think, N. Katherine Hayles suggests that Digital Humanities (DH) research offers new opportunities for creative collaborations across disciplines and with "expert amateurs" beyond "academic walls" [Hayles 2012, 36]. Such collaborations require that we acknowledge the value of different kinds of expertise, welcome cross-pollination of approaches and promote open access to rare materials and to analytical activities. In this article, we argue for a collaborative, shared-expertise approach to literary and/or cultural collections and showcase our own take on such an approach. The work we present is the result of the collaboration between an expert amateur who compiled one of "the most important research archives" of SF [Latham 2010, 161] and scholars in both literary studies and computer science.
In an attempt to reconsider numerous neglected specimens of proto/early SF and to devise a DH approach to literary history suited to popular genres, our project specifically aims
- to investigate how the Bob Gibson anthologies of speculative fiction — unique, hand-crafted and fan-curated anthologies of SF’s "great unread" [Moretti 2000, 54] — can contribute to scholarly assessments of the evolution of SF, and
- to develop information visualizations that enable researchers, students, fans, and the general public to explore the collection from different perspectives, promoting fluid movement between close and distant reading.
Visualizations are key to our collaborative and exploratory approach. Rather than using visualizations solely to display the final "results" of our research, we are experimenting with evolving interactive visualizations in tandem with our research questions and ongoing investigations of Gibson’s untapped collection of little-known materials. The visualizations are thus integral to our research "process", shaping and being shaped by our research questions and ongoing findings, and are not simply tools used as a means to an end. This exploratory approach is necessary because very little is known about the primary materials we are investigating. Moreover, we want to make visible our research process as it is impacted by digital tools and to remain open to unforeseen questions and research avenues that arise through our first-hand interactions with the collection and with the developing visualizations.
In describing this process, our article makes two main contributions: we outline our emergent method for the study of early SF in the context of the Gibson Collection, adapting Franco Moretti’s [Moretti 2005] evolutionary approach to genre, and we demonstrate how integrating information visualization early on in the research process can support exploration and guide the interpretation of vast, largely unknown literary collections. We begin by introducing the Gibson anthologies and their unique characteristics before describing our theoretical approach to investigating and classifying their material contents, and the design considerations underlying our visualizations. Because the focus of this paper is primarily on the value of visualizations employed throughout the research process, we describe our initial visual explorations and findings as well as new iterations of our visualizations as they evolved. Finally, we identify the benefits and limitations of our approach to early SF as it has developed so far and outline future steps.
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