Approaching the Coasts of Utopia: Visualization Strategies for Mapping Early Modern Paratexts

  1. 1. Alan Galey

    University of Toronto

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Approaching the Coasts of Utopia: Visualization Strategies for Mapping Early Modern Paratexts
Galey, Alan, University of Toronto, Canada,
No one reads or writes a book alone. Proof may be found in the paratextual letters and other prefatory material that often accompanies a book into the world to meet its readers. This is especially true of early modern books, whose prefatory letters stand as a threshold where the book’s material and symbolic production come together—sometimes as a well-executed plan (ex.: the 1518 editions of More’s Utopia), and sometimes as a collision of intentions (ex.: the 1590 edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio). However, print-based methods of representing paratextual networks—especially in their temporal dimension, across multiple editions and translations—tend to emphasize the published book as product, at the expense of the book as a process. This paper takes the textual tradition of Thomas More’s Utopia, with its unfolding process of paratextual change between editions, as a test case for the design of an open-source interface component to help digital editors visualize networks of paratexts in early modern books.

The study of paratexts has been reinvigorated in recent years, crossing national and period boundaries in the tradition of Gerard Genette’s Paratexts, but more recently drawing energy from intersections between book history and digital humanities as interdisciplinary fields. Building on ongoing research on the digital modelling and visualization of paratexts and similar materials (Fekete & Dufournaud, 2000; Monella, 2008; Johnson), this paper argues that creating a digital visualization component for mapping has two benefits: first that a well-designed digital visualization can represent the structured fluidity and temporality of publication as a process that unfolds in time; and second, that the process of creating such a visualization affords a reciprocal opportunity to interrogate the digital tools and systems we use to represent the past.

This paper develops its argument in four sections:

Research context: archive and interface in digital textual studies
Utopia as a modelling challenge
Visualization strategies
Conclusion: visualization prototypes as essays
The small-scale project outlined in this paper is part of a larger project titled Archive and Interface in Digital Textual Studies: From Cultural History to Critical Design, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This project is premised on two linked arguments. The first is that we need to understand how the figure of the archive operates in the cultural imagination, and how perceptions of digital archives are partly coded in advance by historical fears and desires about the continuity of knowledge. The second premise is that we need to develop traditions of digital interface design native to the humanities, and which reflect the humanities’ uniquely valuable understanding of the cultural histories and material complexities of texts (Kirschenbaum, 2004; Drucker, 2011). The Archive and Interface project therefore seeks to bridge between textual studies and the design of digital interface tools in the humanities. It does so first by investigating the cultural history of the humanities archive through case studies such as Utopia, and second by building an online library of interface components designed to be part of that cultural history.

The interface library will focus on critical design strategies in four key areas: textual variation (when sources diverge in significant ways); paratexts (documents such as prefatory letters, often published with literary works in complex configurations); materiality (the relation of physical documents to digital versions); and performance (the relation of written texts to reading or enactment in physical spaces). This project’s interface library focuses on putting humanities-designed interface components in the hands of electronic editors, and disseminating the methods by which those components may be created and modified by the larger community of computing humanists (the open-source model).

Granting that large-scale editing systems like Anastasia and Edition Production & Presentation Technology have their place in the digital humanities, this paper will argue that small-scale and (relatively) rapidly prototyped interface components, built by individuals or small groups with inexpensive tools, can reflect the critical, experimental nature of humanities design in ways that large projects cannot. Such experimental capacity and structural flexibility is necessary in digital humanities projects if they are to learn from challenging materials like Utopia, and not simply take their representability for granted.

Utopia as a Modelling Challenge
The specific nature of Utopia’s challenge to a digital editor is that Utopia’s publication, as a collaborative project between early modern humanists, thematizes the very ideals and anxieties about the dissemination of knowledge that digital humanists have inherited. The book form—and by extension, the emergent network of humanist print culture—is not merely a delivery system for Utopia, but also one of its chief objects of scrutiny. In particular, Utopia simultaneously embodies and critiques the early modern archive with unusual perspicacity. This paper’s analysis follows Warren Wooden and John Wall by approaching Utopia “not as an object of knowledge but as an occasion for an act of perception, an instrument for ‘seeing’ designed to call attention to what is involved in perception” (1985, p. 233). In this light, Utopia itself serves as a kind of visualization of the early modern humanist archive of texts.

We know from correspondence that More began writing Utopia with what is now the second book. From a reader’s perspective, the text was written in reverse, with book 1 (written second) placed before book 2 (written first), and various prefatory materials (written last) accumulating before book 1. These prefatory materials—the letters, verses, diagrams, and maps that constitute the paratext of Utopia—increase and vary across the four editions published from 1516 to 1518, and change even more radically in subsequent early modern and modern editions.

It is common for modern editions to completely remove or reconfigure Utopia’s carefully constructed paratexts (Allen, 1963). Yet, paradoxically, there may be no single ideal configuration of paratexts, making the interpretation of Utopia as a material text especially reliant on representational methods and tools (Jardine, 1993; Leslie, 1998; Vallée, 2004; Kinney, 2005). Those tools have tended to take printed form, culminating in Terence Cave’s printed guide to Utopia’s paratextual tradition. However, Utopia can be taken as an early experiment itself in humanist print culture, no less than the digital experiments we discuss at digital humanities conferences, which makes Utopia anything but passive material for representation and editing.

Visualization Strategies
Given Utopia’s playful, experimental nature, this paper argues for the need for a visualization strategy based not on static representation, as in traditional forms of data visualization that represents the results of analysis, but based rather on the idea of modelling. Unlike a static representation, a digital model embodies the process-friendly dynamism we expect of digital visualizations, but also a certain “rough-and-ready” form and heuristic flexibility (McCarty, 2004). These latter qualities we associate not with commercial software but with the community-designed code libraries found at SourceForge and similar places, which serve as the dissemination model for the Archive and Interface project’s visualization components. (On humanities approaches to visualization, see Drucker, 2010, and other articles in the same special issue of Poetess Archive Journal on “Visualizing the Archive.”)

The design methodology for the interface library will be consistent with Ajax web applications, a type of architecture that distributes processing between a server and a user’s web browser, and which integrates well with XML databases and object-oriented design. HTML 5’s new capabilities on the client side permit animation and time-based interactivity to be incorporated into interfaces in ways that used to be exclusive to Flash. This paper will include a brief demonstration of a browser-based interface component that uses animation to model paratextual change over time. The prototype presented here will rely on the encoding structures proposed by Monella (2008), but will approach the topic from the browser and interface side instead of drawing conclusions about the encoding.

Conclusion: Visualization Prototypes as Essays
The two strategies proposed above, modelling and browser-based design, will serve to illustrate the paper’s broader conclusion that a digital humanities project organized around many small interface prototypes may yield more publishable components, respond more quickly to critical discourse about the material, and involve less risk than a single, large interface project. The nature of paratexts calls for an interpretive approach to digital representation, especially with material as complex as More’s Utopia. This paper concludes that the humanistic critical tradition, embodied by Utopia as a collaborative project in publishing technologies of its own time, calls digital humanists to think of their visualizations and interface prototypes not just as finished tools, which emphasize utility, but also as essays that put forward arguments and serve as pretexts for debate—like Utopia itself.

Allen, P. R. Utopia and European humanism: The function of the prefatory letters and verses, Studies in the Renaissance, 10: 91–107. 1963

Anastasia 31 October 2010 (link)

Cave, T. Thomas More's Utopia in Early Modern Europe: Paratexts and Contexts. Manchester Manchester University Press 2008

Drucker, J. “Humanities approaches to interface theory, ” Culture Machine, 2011 12 1–20

Drucker, J. “Graphesis, ” Poetess Archive Journal, 2010 2.1 1–50

Edition Production & Presentation Technology. (link) accessed 31 October 2010

Fekete, J.-D., and N. Dufournaud. 2000 Compus: Visualization and analysis of structured documents for understanding social life in the 16th century Proceedings of the Fifth ACM Conference on Digital Libraries 47-55

Genette, G. 1997 Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. J.E. Lewin. Cambridge Cambridge University Press

Jardine, L. 1993 Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press

Johnson, J.P. Pale Tour (link) [accessed 31 October 2010]

Kinney, A.F. 2005 Utopia's first readers. In Challenging Humanism: Essays in Honor of Dominic Baker-Smith T. Honselaars and A.F. Kinney Newark, NJ University of Delaware Press 23-53

Kirschenbaum, M.G. 2004 "So the colors cover the wires": Interface, aesthetics, and usability. A Companion to Digital Humanities S. Schreibman, R.G. Siemens, and J. Unsworth. Oxford Blackwell 523-42

Leslie, M. 1998 Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History. Ithaca, NY Cornell University Press

McCarty, W. 2004 Modeling: A study in words and meanings. A Companion to Digital Humanities S. Schreibman, R.G. Siemens, and J. Unsworth Oxford Blackwell 254-70

Monella, P. 2008 Towards a digital model to edit the different paratextuality levels within a Textual Tradition Digital Medievalist 4 (link) accessed 31 October 2010

Vallée, J.-F. 2004 Printed voices and written friendships in More's Utopia Printed Voices: The Renaissance Culture of Dialogue D. Heitsch and J.-F. Vallée Toronto University of Toronto Press 42-62

Wooden, W.W., and J.N. Wall, Jr. 1985 Thomas More and the painter's eye: Visual perspective and artistic purpose in More's Utopia Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 15 231-63

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None