Last week Dan Cohen had this to say about textual visualization. Basically Dan argues that textual visualization often gives you the obvious answers, and hides more nuanced analysis, like saying War and Peace is about Russia, or the Bible is about Jesus. Indeed if you run textual analysis on the New Testament, Jesus would probably come out as the central node. This kind of analysis as Dan correctly points out, doesn’t even come close to what an hour of discussion with a first year college student might be able to generate. But . . .Digital History Hacks adds more and correctly points out that textual visualization has its uses, that indeed it is a matter of thinking through how to deploy these tools. (To be fair Dan isn’t suggesting that text visualizations aren’t useful, just that they need to expose something hidden. But, to add to this I would say that it is also a matter of how you read what you are given, even seemingly banal visualizations contain interesting ideas.)
I have only rather limitedly used textual visualization. I have no desire to turn reading or textual analysis into the nightmare scenario Calvino wrote about in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler where reading is left to computers which generate a numerical analysis of word use to unlock the meaning of any given text. That having been said, as I pointed out here before I think there are some uses of this kind of technique, but more in the register of serving as thinking prompts than providing any specific final answer, ways to look at a particular text in a new way.
For example I recently used TagCrowd to create a simple visualization of Ulysses using Project Gutenberg’s free version. And, while obviously Bloom was a big deal there were some words that I was surprised to see. Also as I have mentioned I use Devon’s concordance feature, or summary ability to look at my own writing anew, often as a way to “prime the pump” get myself thinking.