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Mapping the Republic of Letters
November 16, 2010 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Mapping the Republic of Letters is a cartographic tool designed by students and professors at Stanford that seeks to represent the Enlightenment era Republic of Letters, the network of correspondence between the finest thinkers of the day, such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Newton, Diderot, Linnaeus, Franklin and countless others. Patricia Cohen wrote an article about Mapping the Republic of Letters as well as other datamining digital humanities projects in The New York Times. The mapping tool is fun to play with but I recommend you read the blogpost where Cohen explains how to use Mapping the Republic of Letters.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh snap, I've been totally meaning to post this, but this is a much better post than I would have made. Awesome!
posted by nasreddin at 5:31 PM on November 16, 2010


One thing I pulled out of this is that, at least in the databank of letters they're working with, Paris almost disappears as a letter-sending and -receiving hub around 1780. Before then it's dominant, with London trailing behind, but after 1780 London is without a challenger. I don't know if this is a fair reflection of the French participation in the Republic of Letters plummeting in the decade before the Revolution and never recovering or if it's a blindspot in their corpus. Either way, it's interesting.
posted by Kattullus at 5:32 PM on November 16, 2010


Actually, now that I've played with it some more, I see that while Paris is the bigger hub of the two from 1700-80, prior to 1700, London is very dominant. Again, I'm not sure whether that's a function of the data they have at their disposal or a reflection of historical reality.
posted by Kattullus at 5:37 PM on November 16, 2010


Any marginally geeky person who's interested in the way technology is changing literary scholarship should check out Matthew Kirschenbaum's work. He's easily one of the most exciting and brilliant people working in the humanities today.

The significance of the digital humanities has really hit me over the past few weeks. I've been working on a project about the publishing and translation history of The Oeconomy of Human Life, a once incredibly popular but now totally forgotten book from 1750. I decided to use Google Books for convenience (historians are into Google Books in a big way, even if they deny it). First I tried searching for some of the proper nouns in the text in an attempt to discover the sources for the author's information about China. I found the source within minutes. Then I happened to be searching for another, unrelated phrase from the book.

What I discovered blew my mind. As it turns out, this text, which had gradually faded from public view over the course of the nineteenth century, was then rediscovered, republished, and plagiarized by a succession of American occultists--first a Rhode Island Spiritualist, then the Theosophists, then some really crazy guy, then one group of Rosicrucians, then another, hostile group of Rosicrucians, then an occult black nationalist publishing house, then Drew Ali of the Moorish Science Temple. All of this was found using targeted Google Books searches, so I can't even imagine what else must be out there. I'm now trying to reconstruct the links between these editions using our library resources, and hopefully eventually work the thing into publishable shape. Thanks, Google!
posted by nasreddin at 5:53 PM on November 16, 2010 [13 favorites]


Kattullus, it may be a bit of both. I suspect the Paris effect may be due to the deaths of Diderot and Voltaire, who had enormous correspondence networks. The London effect may have to do with the Royal Society, which is often treated as a part of the Enlightenment while many of the French antiquarians (for instance) are not. I also see that they only have a small fraction of Bayle's letters and don't include Fontenelle at all, which would definitely skew the results. (I'm not sure whether their correspondence is available, though.)
posted by nasreddin at 5:59 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know if this is a fair reflection of the French participation in the Republic of Letters plummeting in the decade before the Revolution and never recovering or if it's a blindspot in their corpus.

I have a feeling it has more to do with the idiosyncrasies of the corpus than with the actual state of learned correspondence in France. Many of the figures who might have boosted Paris's numbers in the 1780s (e.g., Condorcet, d'Holbach) aren't represented. There are other striking gaps, too--Diderot appears only as the recipient of a single letter from Voltaire (if I'm reading the data right), Kant's correspondence hasn't been added yet, etc. On the other side of the balance, all five volumes of William Cowper's correspondence are in the archive (though it's kind of weird to think of Cowper as an "Enlightenment" figure except in a strictly chronological sense), so that Cowper's cousin Lady Hesketh shows up as one of the most active correspondents in Europe for seven years straight (1786-92). So conclusions about the shape of the Republic of Letters should be drawn from this data set only with extreme circumspection, though of course we already knew that.

That said, this is an awesome resource and a very cool piece of digital-humanities work. Excellent post!
posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:19 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


historians are into Google Books in a big way, even if they deny it

True, and my secret friend, the news archive search, too.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on November 16, 2010


“People will use this data in ways we can’t even imagine yet,” Mr. Stowell said, “and I think that is one of the most exciting developments in the humanities.”

I think it could change research. As an example: Call it 'The Cocktail Party', look at this photo Chin-wagging Lit big-wigs thumbing thier port.

Here is Plaths poem arguably her most puzzling.

Well I did not agree with heavy headed lit crits and had a long talk with Mr. Prof.

"a picture speaks a thousand words."

"prove it" he said.

Premises good on all but "A Ring of Gold"
The theory is she wrote 'The Couriers' because of that picture.

If/when this technology is running and gaggle loads of data are available on-line, this could help.
posted by clavdivs at 8:17 PM on November 16, 2010


Nasreddin, I was interested enough in your reference to Kirshenbaum to check out his Mechanisms book. His examples are fascinating and thoughtful. The only downside is the excessive academic preach-speak. e.g. this from the sample chapter on his website:

"My reading of the critical literature on new media suggests that the field
has focused primarily on the third of Thibodeau’s three levels, the conceptual
—that is, the phenomenological manifestation of the application or digital
event on the screen—and only somewhat more recently, in the wake of
mature formalist studies like Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext and Lev Manovich’s
Language of New Media (both very different in their own right), on the interaction
between the logical and conceptual layers.7 However much of my attention
(especially in the first half of the book) will fall on storage, a category
routinely elided in the critical discussion, presumably because the uses to
which electronic data is put are seen as wholly independent of any particular
mode of physical record."
posted by storybored at 8:48 PM on November 16, 2010


Translation of the above paragraph: "I'm going to look at storage because not many people have done that"
posted by storybored at 8:55 PM on November 16, 2010


Nasreddin, I was interested enough in your reference to Kirshenbaum to check out his Mechanisms book. His examples are fascinating and thoughtful. The only downside is the excessive academic preach-speak. e.g. this from the sample chapter on his website:

I'm a little confused--preach-speak? That's probably one of the most preach-speak-free passages I've ever read. Then again, I've gotten desensitized to it, so maybe it sounds different for a lay reader.
posted by nasreddin at 8:59 PM on November 16, 2010


Translation of the above paragraph: "I'm going to look at storage because not many people have done that"

No, there's actually information in the paragraph that you're cutting out. What he's getting at is that people (scholars) think electronic data is somehow this abstract manifestation that's totally severed from physical reality, because they've conveniently chosen to ignore the physical level. So he thinks we need to look at software as a physical object in order to really understand what electronic media is. It's an incredibly innovative approach, if you're familiar with any of the other work in the field.
posted by nasreddin at 9:03 PM on November 16, 2010


I like your translation better!
posted by storybored at 9:17 PM on November 16, 2010


This is a great application of the mapping-literary-subjects idea — I'm glad people have done it! Everything about digital humanities makes me happy, as the kind of former literature student who likes making websites instead of writing essays of any length. Previously, related: Google Lit Trips, which is nice because it lets non-technically-inclined students (like my classmates and me) try out making and sharing maps of books.
posted by dreamyshade at 12:05 AM on November 17, 2010


If a picture says a thousand words, then this picture says that Eastern Europe did not take part in the Enlightenment. We historians have a word for that: "wrong."
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:34 AM on November 17, 2010


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