And so it was November. 

The semester is flying by, and in the CHI fellowship, we’re preparing to begin our third rapid development challenge, a web mapping exercise, and to present our project proposals at the end of the semester. Outside of the CHI fellowship, I’m writing the second of three comprehensive exams for my degree program, in which I’m working to answer the question “How can cultural rhetorics’ methodologies and theories work synergistically with digital rhetorics’ (broadly) methodologies and theories to understand digital community-building?” using a bibliography drawn from my coursework and peripheral reading. (If you’re curious, you can follow my textual map-in-progress here.) Combined, these activities have me thinking about how bodies of data are generated, structured, and shared through storytelling. While I’d like to reserve a more detailed discussion of methods and tools for later posts, after introducing my project proposal, I thought that I would take this space to highlight some projects and scholarship that are shaping my approach to developing a cultural informatics project with born-digital data. 

First, I’ve found the Fall 2020 special issue of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy on Data Visualization in Composition Studies enormously helpful. In their introduction, editors John R. Gallagher and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss address the exigencies for a special issue on data visualization, which could be conceived as an extension of existing disciplinary conversations on visual rhetorics and multimodality. Among other reasons, such as interdisciplinary conversations with fields like digital humanities and a new lens through which to consider topics like multimodality, they write that “data visualization merits that we shift our theoretical orientations and methodological frames so that we can better account for the various means through which we tell stories and share data.” The storytelling they reference here includes the visual design of finished graphics but also extends deeper to address the methodological commitments that shape the processes of gathering, cleaning, and interpreting data; the modes available for data visualization; and the infrastructures that undergird different modes of visualization.

Within this issue, I’m particularly inspired by Desiree Dighton’s “Arranging a Feminsit Rhetorical Methodology: The Visualization of Anti-Gentrification Rhetoric on Twitter,” which considers “the possibilities of working toward more rhetorically informed data analysis and visualization.” Dighton develops a framework for feminist rhetorical data visualization that can help researchers create situated, polyvocal data representations, drawing on Jones, Moore, and Walton’s (2016) understanding of antenarratives as social justice praxis. Using this framework, researchers can produce deeper representations of data, including its conflicts, metainformation, and multiple histories.

The second piece from this special issue that I want to highlight here is Krystin Gollihue & Mai Nou Xiong-Gum’s “Dataweaving: Textiles as Data Materialization.” In this piece, they ask

When we focus so intently on the visualization of data, what weaving, what wrapping gets obscured? If “new” media and “old” media afford us similar experiences, how might we think of data instead as being materialized, made, gathered, and analyzed through our materials and senses?

Using textiles, they counter an overdetermination of screen-based data visualizations that can elide the accumulations that accrue on data as it is gathered, structured, and made meaningful, what they name “data materialization.” Similarly to Dighton’s piece, which focused on often screen-based visualizations, they take care to show the ways data can represent the relationships that brought it into being. I particularly loved this quote from the “Textile Algorithms” section of their webtext, where the authors write “In the same way one language or software will structure how data can be visualized differently from another, the data materials of textile are gathered to create different possibilities for structuring material information.” As I continue developing my CHI project, I will almost certainly rely on screen-based visualizations, but I want to continue thinking through ways to complicate and layer those visualizations and to make the structural decisions (my own and those inherent to the forms used to create web-based projects) apparent.

Relatedly, I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Jaqueline Wernimont’s keynote talk for MSU Digital Humanities about “Visceral Data: Renderings and Matter.” She discussed several past and ongoing projects that translate otherwise-abstracted data into felt, interactive experiences. Out of the projects she described in the talk, her work with “Safe Harbor: Hosting California’s Eugenics Data” is I think most relevant to the kind of work done through CHI. This installation, created by Wernimont and the Vibrant Lives collective, is a further development of the Eugenics Rubicon project, which engages data from the nearly 50,000 sterilizations performed by the State of California between 1921 and 1953. Although it is important for the public to know about these histories of state abuses, this data presents ethical challenges: medical records data is legally protected; the state’s record keeping practices do not center or demonstrate care towards the people whose data they preserve; and survivors may not be alive to give consent to share their stories, such as they are recorded in the state’s records. To represent these traumatic records in a justice-oriented way required approaches beyond simple visualization. In response, the team converted the archival textual data into sonic and haptic data. For example, the records demonstrate that people with Spanish or Hispanic surnames were disproportionately represented in state sterilizations. The team converted data representing Latinx patients from 1940-1949 delineated along age, gender, and consent axes to sonic data, which you can listen to here. Each note represents one person recommended for sterilization; children under 18 who could not consent are the highest notes, and adult men who did consent are the lowest notes. Along with this sonic project, the team used a haptic experience to further re-visceralize this archive of data. Data representing individuals who were sterilized is converted to vibrations run along a wire, which participants collectively hold. In order to feel the vibrations, each participant must hold the wire with care–any person who exerts too much force will prevent others further down the line from being able to experience the installation. These sonic and haptic translations of archival data mix digital methods with embodied practices of consensual listening and collective care in a sort of remediation of the care that was not shown towards the people whose data is recorded in these state archives.

Each of these pieces demonstrate that data is never truly disembodied. For my CHI project and my dissertation, I’m working with a textual dataset generated by an online community that discusses religious fundamentalism and misogyny, a community in which I am both a participant and a researcher. In thinking about how to best represent this data and the stories it contains, these pieces inspire and challenge me to make visible the processes by which this data came to be (both the ways that participants enter and engage in the online community and how I, as a researcher, come to collect, sort, and present the resulting texts) and to think innovatively about how digital methods can represent these slow processes of accrual and the human and infrastructural forces that shape them.