Middle Distance Reading

In on a Sunday to, among other things, layer some more data into the Shakespeare database that runs the intra-corpus inter-textual association “game” that I’m calling Ariel for the time being. I had expected a process I started Friday evening to be completed by now, but it isn’t. I probably should have run it on the cluster.

In the database’s previous iteration, I found line-to-line links through co-citations in the JSTOR Shakespeare match data set. But when I did that, I filtered out a bunch of those links on the front end because they wouldn’t be relevant to the way that the test version of the game was going to look and run. Slim down the database, save myself some time, and speed up the game easily.

But now, a programmer colleague of mine is going to assist, by building a much more robust interface. This will allow us to make use of much more data, so I’ve decided to stop filtering out co-citational links out. It’s already much, much larger (which is why it’s taking so long to build even with Condor’s help!). Again, I probably should have run it on the cluster, and probably will if I can carve out time to restructure the job in the next couple weeks.

I’m excited about building this out, as a model project for what another colleague and I have been privately calling “middle distance reading.” A couple articles use variants of the term to describe 1) the computer-aided qualitative methods of anthropologists and social scientists, or 2) the method of productively abstracting from close readings to interface with context. The approach we’re trying here goes in a somewhat different direction, but I suspect it’s motivated by similar concerns.

The idea, essentially, is to re-center reading and to sideline the vestigial positivism of what we call the computational humanities, while experimenting with the potentialities of computational processes for this act of reading. The motivating humanistic objection being: too many graphs and statistics, not enough reading. The motivating computational objection being: these data sets are richer than we’re giving them credit for, and can be leveraged in some very useful (and–which is a precondition–interesting) ways for humanists.

Quantifying Addictive Pleasure, from Gary Becker to Thomas De Quincey

Update: My talk is now available.

Quantifying Addictive Pleasure, From Gary Becker to Thomas De Quincey from John Mulligan on Vimeo.

Health Museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thehealthmuseum/videos/10155192733946267/

Tonight at 5:30 I’m giving a talk at the Health Museum (1515 Hermann Drive) that provides a brief history of quantifying addictive pleasure, as part of the 2017 History and Culture of Disease and Healing Seminar Series.

The title is “Hooked: Measuring Addictive Pleasure from Romanticism to Neoliberalism,” and is an analysis of different prominent figures in the debate, focusing on Gary Becker, Thomas De Quincey, and Bruce Alexander. I (attempt to!) show sympathies and conversations between economics, psychology, and aesthetics, bookending my discussion with a reading of Narcos on the front end, and (how very exciting!) the 1821-22 publication history of De Quincey’s Confessions on the back end.

Step-by-step instructions for Oct. 26 workshop

1. Download and open: https://www.barebones.com/products/textwrangler/download.html

2. Sign up for MyJSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/register
3. Log in to the JSTOR API, and get API key: https://labs.jstor.org/api/docs/
(keep this tab open)

4. Sign up for Airtable: https://airtable.com/signup
5. Copy JSTOR template to your account: https://airtable.com/shriWrNY8wVcWUCLs
(keep this tab open)
6. Get Airtable API keys for that database: https://airtable.com/api
(keep this tab open)

7. Download the Google Drive project files:
Zipped folder
Google was being very sketchy about serving up the right source files — email me for a copy: jcm10@rice.edu

8. Unzip the folder and put it in ~/Documents

9. Use BBEDit to open all 4 of these files
In airtablekeys.json, insert your airtable keys and save.
In jstorkeys.json, insert your jstor key and save.

10. Under Applications > Utilities
Open the Terminal app and add it to your dock for later use.
Use terminal to make sure you have the right python packages:
$ which requests
If nothing, do
$ sudo pip install requests
and enter your login password
If no pip, do
$ sudo easy_install pip
$ sudo pip install requests
If bad pip install, do
$ sudo easy_install –upgrade pip
$ sudo pip install requests
Then navigate to workshop folder
$ cd ~/Documents/workshop

Good to go! Keep open:
The airtable template (we’ll be filling it in)
The jstor api documentation (we’ll be reading it)
The terminal window (we’ll be using it)


Addendum — the full list of canonical works in the matchmaker dataset:


October 26 API Workshop

This semester, the Humanities Research Center, the Center for Research Computing, and the Digital Scholarship Services department at Fondren are experimenting with a digital humanities workshop series format that weaves together:

  • Practical coding skills,
  • Theoretical discussions of the utility and significance of specific tools and techniques,
  • And introductions to resources available for humanities and social sciences research computing at Rice.

Our October 26 workshop (3pm, the Digital Media Commons room in Fondren’s basement) focuses on public, web-based API’s (application programming interfaces) as objects of use and study for researchers. API’s provide users structured access to complex process and data sets, such as Twitter’s massive database of public social media activity, or JSTOR’s search functionality. This structured access makes it easy to piggyback lightweight applications on bigger applications, to produce outsized results.

Event Details

To show how using big data creatively can help us to revise humanities computing methodologies, we will also be looking at a Shakespeare intertextual reader that I built using JSTOR data.  It takes ~100,000 lines in Shakespeare, referenced by ~70,000 articles in the JSTOR database, to make ~4.5 million associations between these individual lines. You can see similar (but simpler) co-citational work elsewhere on this blog.

My first implementation of this dataset was to build a recommendation engine for Shakespeare passages — except that the recommenders here are the expert Shakespeare scholars in the JSTOR database. We are temporarily hosting this application (called Ariel) on Rice servers for the workshop:

The Green-Eyed Monster



Workshop attendees will learn:

  • A few quick methods for interacting with the JSTOR API to gain access to big, structured data,
  • A few quick methods for handling all that data,
  • And we will look at the nuts and bolts of Ariel, an example implementation of JSTOR’s Shakespeare dataset.

For this workshop, please install:

And please register for:

Email me with any questions: jcm10@rice.edu

Put the event in your calendar at events.rice.edu

Network IP connections

One of my colleagues at the Center for Research Computing wanted to find a way to visualize the connections made to a few of our IP’s, down to the port level. Here’s my first crack at it, using data from yesterday. Ports are in Grey, clustered around their IP addresses; IP’s are in red. This only shows the connection during the minute it was opened. We’re thinking this might be useful to give non-technical users a sense of how our network is used.

Medical Leadership Course

medical leadership seriesflyer copy

This post is half professional, half confessional. But it concerns the critical limits of professionalism, so let’s call the style apposite.

Over the past year, I’ve been helping to run the medical humanities minor at Rice, out of the HRC. I was also diagnosed with Langerhans histiocytosis, and had a skull tumor removed. It’s commonly observed that academic research is always autobiographical, but in this case it was my life that started to imitate a research agenda!

As a result of this biographical/biological turn, my teaching in this area took on a more practical edge. And when I was asked to teach a course on medical leadership (HURC 306, Spring ’17), I realized that this was an important opportunity to explore how these institutions got to be the way they are (mostly, big and technologically-intensive), and what that has meant for American medicine.

The HRC and the Doerr Institute for New Leaders generously contributed funds to bring in a series of speakers (including Steven Schroeder, the former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Ann Robison, the head of the Montrose Center), and to fund undergraduate summer research this year.

In two weeks, my students from 306 will be presenting their final research projects; and so at this transition between phases of our medical leadership project, I’m going to share some remarks I made back in February on the question, at a welcome reception to grant winners hosted by the Doerr Center. Comments/feedback appreciated, as always.

What is “Medical Leadership,” and Why do We Want It

The Urban Institute projects that the congressional bill currently proposed for passage through the budget reconciliation process will eliminate the individual insurance market and gut Medicare and Medicaid, leaving 30 million more people uninsured by 2019, with 82% of these people being in working households (coverage rates will be lower than before the ACA). This is a dangerous situation for the professional identity of all healthcare workers, and those of us who depend on a functioning healthcare system. If medicine comes to be seen a luxury good available only to the relatively well-off or the desperately poor, then doctors cannot assume the survival of their cultural authority, and the relative professional autonomy that comes with it – and at that point, patients won’t really be able to depend on the honest impartiality of their doctors.

It’s at times like these, when we have lost our compass completely, that we end up calling for leaders. That’s the argument with which John Gardner, former Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Lyndon Johnson, begins his 1990 monograph On Leadership. Of course, he makes his argument in stereotypically liberal fashion, by attacking his central theme. When people cry out for leadership, he says, that’s not exactly what they want:

Why do we not have better leadership? The question is asked over and over. We complain, express our disappointment, often our outrage; but no answer emerges.

When we ask a question countless times and arrive at no answer, it is possible that we are asking the wrong question–or that we have misconceived the terms of the query. Another possibility is that it is not a question at all but simply convenient shorthand to express deep and complex anxieties. It would strike most of our contemporaries as old-fashioned to cry out, “What shall we do to be saved?” And it would be time-consuming to express fully our concerns about the social disintegration, the moral disorientation, and the spinning compass needle of our time. So we cry out for leadership.

Seriously. Those are the first two paragraphs of his book on leadership. Gardner is telling us that when we ask for leaders, it’s usually not because we’ve lost our sense of how to do some important task, but rather that we’ve lost our bearings completely, and have no idea what is important and what is not.

That is essentially what happened in the field of medicine in the 1980’s, when doctors came to realize that the for-profit medical industry that they had helped to build was posing a direct challenge to their professional autonomy. Lots of us experience anomie and directionlessness in late capitalistic society, as Gardner was pointing out; but as the authors of a 1988 paper for the Journal of the American Medical Association point out,

… the physician-organization conflict is different than generic personal-organizational conflict when considering professional autonomy. Organizational intensity threatens physicians’ ability to remain independent.

In other words, institutional life threatens the core of doctors’ professional identities, by forcing them to bring their primary value, the maximization of the patient’s quality of care, into direct contact with a directly contrary value: efficiency. Asking doctors to care less is like asking teachers to teach less; and asking them to do so for the benefit of a corporation’s profits was, at the time, professional anathema.

Our 1988 authors ended their essay by imploring physicians to actively engage with the changing environment:

Medical practice in the future will demand more management-related responsibilities…. [P]hysicians need to adopt a prudent perspective about representation in organizational governance and management issues. This is an immensely important issue for all physicians to resolve personally.

In other words, if you don’t shape corporate medicine to reflect your professional values, your profession will be shaped to reflect the valuation of for-profit corporations.

The topic of leadership therefore ends up being a fascinating pivot on which turn the conflicts of medical professionalism in a hyper-industrialized society. Medicine, like teaching, still retains an aura of a higher calling in a secular society — we can at least say that it allows space to articulate value sets not immediately reducible to profit. And so medicine is not just a useful case study in what happens to professional values in the institutionalization process, but an opening for talking about how we articulate and come to share values at all, in a society made up of large and powerful institutions.

That process, of articulating, debating, and democratically committing to a shared value set, is both possible and necessary for corporate medicine (and nearly all medicine is corporate today). Peter Drucker, the grandfather of management theory, in 1946 articulated corporations as mission-driven (rather than profit-driven) institutions. In quoting this, I am borrowing from Deak Nabers at Brown University.

Any social and political analysis of an institution has to proceed on three levels.

It has to look at the institution as autonomous … capable to be judged in terms of its own purpose.

Every institution has to be analyzed in terms of the beliefs and promises of the society which it serves. …

It has to analyze the institution in its relationship to the functional requirements of the soiety of which the institution is a part….

Values are what hold institutions together. And without a clear value set and a commitment to these values, a profession or even an industry can quickly lose the public’s good favor and be delegitimized.

Dr. Melissa Bailar and I applied for a grant from the Doerr Institute in order to promote student research in this critical area, in part as a supplement to the 300-level Medical Leadership course I am teaching this semester through the new medical humanities minor. In its first stage, the grant allows us to bring medical leaders with a variety of different perspectives to campus, to speak to and run workshops with our medical humanities and broader premed community. These speakers will share their diverse experiences in leadership roles and in studying leaders in the medical field to give students and the community a rich historical context for understanding how individuals and groups have stepped up to shape the medical profession in times of crisis before; how they have found their calling, how they have gathered groups around shared values, and how they have mobilized for change.

Our speaker list includes scholars, executives, and a manager, all of them advocates and leaders for what healthcare is supposed to be and how we can get there, and all of them students, as well, in how we came to be in this situation:

“On Leadership” (talk + workshops): Tacey Rosolowski Ph.D., Oral History Project, MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Professionalizing Medicine: Oslerianism and Medical Education Reform”: Bryant Boutwell, Dr. P. H., Special Advisor to the President, John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine, Distinguished Teaching Professor, UT System.

“Advocate Leaders”: Ann J. Robison, MPH, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Montrose Center.

“Institutional Reformers”: Steven Schroeder, MD, Professor, Department of Medicine; and Director, Smoking Cessation Leadership Center, UCSF; former President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Patient Advocacy”: Renata Domatti, LMSW, CCM, Lead Case Manager at Cornerstone Hospital of Austin.

In the project’s second stage, we will competitively fund 3 undergraduate students to work over the summer on their own research projects, learning about medical leadership in present-day Houston institutions and making recommendations for these institutions on the basis of their months-long work.

Our goal, at this critical moment for healthcare (which has been decades in the making), is to empower students and Houston communities to imagine a more just and effective healthcare system that reflects shared values — and this involves opening up the space in which people can have the necessary debates over these values. It is our hope that this course, lecture series, and independent research opportunities will become a fixture in Rice’s medical humanities programming, and in Rice’s connections with local healthcare institutions.

Digital Frontiers 2016, Electronic Vesalius Update

Updated, Oct. 29: Our talk (and all the talks from DF16) are up on YouTube. Someone even went to the trouble of editing between the different cameras!


After 7 months of intense intellectual laboring, we presented the results of our first, test phase for the Electronic Vesalius project at the lovely Digital Frontiers conference. Frankly, our team is ecstatic:

Our model is currently getting some finishing touches in my office, but he will soon be installed in a fairly prominent venue in Houston, for those of you interested in the intersections between art history, book history, and the history of medicine!

In the meantime, because our talk wasn’t recorded, we’re going to share some of our media and ideas on the project here. Our project team: Ying Jin, from Fondren Library, was the programmer; Matthew Wettergreen, from the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, was the engineering instructor; Benjamin Rasich was the engineer/designer (he built the “nervous system”); Isaac Philips worked with Ben in the early stages as we designed the rough outlines of the physical object; and John Mulligan was the humanist and project lead.

Project Goal

Our goal was to “reanimate” the Texas Medical Center Library‘s collection of rare anatomy texts, by turning a life-sized replica of a Vesalian “muscle man” into a touch-sensitive, high-fidelity (static) image (thanks to Que Imaging for their scanning, printing, and plexiglass cutting services). When people press on the model’s labeled parts, an accompanying touchscreen brings up several layers of relevant information on the visual history of that body part. Users can read what is displayed, or page through to deeper item information on the digital touchscreen. (See our March blog post to see how the project has evolved and for more background.)

Bringing old books to life: A touch sensitive life-sized representation of Vesalius’ anatomical drawing from 1543.

A video posted by Matthew Wettergreen (@organprinter) on

August 5: Vesalius dual-interface test from John Mulligan on Vimeo.

Remediated Histories of the Book, Medicine, and Aesthetics

Studying the history of atlases as media objects, and the uses and interpretations of anatomy atlases (a largely modern invention) in particular, enabled the team to iteratively imagine how we could most fully realize the potential value of the library’s anatomy collection, within the time and funding constraints of the faculty research grant awarded by the Rice HRC for this project and the constraints of our own skill sets (though all of us learned some new skills in the process!).

Part of this involved realizing not only how much our “new media” borrow from “old media” like atlases, but also how much the process of remediation can transform an object. In the process of coding wiring the sensitive body zones, for instance, we realized that we had re-organized Vesalius’ body into something different; and so we transformed our wiring diagram into a map of this electronic body. (Click through to try the wiring diagram.)


The more informative and recognizably anatomical test site (though it’s fragile, running on free heroku servers, and is incomplete and out of date) is available here:


Anatomy atlases in general, and Vesalius’s in particular, has a long history of what digital humanists call “remediation,” and so we were entering into and negotiating with a rich media tradition. A sketch of this tradition:

  • Vesalius’ own Epitome, an abridged version of his Fabrica, which was designed to be cut up into a paper doll, or manikin, that could allow students a virtual dissection tool. Cambridge has a copy of the Epitome‘s manikin pages with gorgeous high-resolution photos.
  • The eighteenth-century print remediations/updates of Vesalian style. Barbara Maria Stafford on this: “This occurred, first, with Gerard de Lairesse for Govert Bidloo. Second, William Cowper (1660-1709) ‘borrowed’ the originals, as did Jean Wandelaer for Bernard Albinus’s (1697-1770) Leiden edition of the De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1725). Together, these volumes constituted the most beautiful anatomical atlases of the eighteenth century” (Body Criticism, 58-59).
  • The 1936 Brussels print run made with the 16th-century original wood blocks. We used the TMC’s 1936 copy for our life-sized image, both because the image was crisper, and because it called to mind our own work as a facsimile reproduction team.
  • Daniel Garrison and Malcolm Hast’s absolutely indispensable print edition New Fabrica (2014), and their online precursor edition (2003), which both reinterpret the book as a hypertext. They organize their information according to a negotiation between Vesalian and present-day taxonomies, and then create a rich internal linking structure between parts in order to help their readers see the book much as a renaissance-era expert reader might have.
  • Our physical-digital installation rethinks Vesalius’ Fabrica as an atlas-of-atlases. It does the work of an atlas in coordinating readers’ ways of seeing and knowing, but it tests the limits of the atlas form by covering multiple atlases and centuries’ worth of secondary criticism. The Vesalian body for us opens onto the history of anatomy, and our remediation attempts to help a wide readership interface with that history.

In my engagement with this tradition, I teased out four distinct interpretive frameworks by which people have understood the anatomized human body. If the Vesalian body opens up a history to us, it is a history that readers/users can easily approach in at least the following ways: 1) Anatomy as a unity of structure and function, 2) Changing standards of truth and beauty, 3) Anatomy as a subtractive vs. compositional process, and 4) Affect and embodiment. We are working towards a couple publications on this project, so you will hopefully see a full account of this interpretive design strategy in print, soon.

In the meantime, we hope these photos from the Digital Frontiers conference give a sense of how the physical-digital interface brings the history of anatomy and its interpretive possibilities to life for users:

Project Next Steps:

A. We have applied for funding to expand this installation to cover all 16 of Vesalius’ models, in order to create a more comprehensive lookup of the visual history of the human body; I have also applied for funding to do further research in this area, and to expand our available collection of images and criticism. Fingers crossed!

B. We are still filling in content here and there. One of my practica students is currently translating latin passages accompanying certain anatomical diagrams, for progressive inclusion in the exhibit.

C. We currently have a test site running, but it has very low bandwidth and we haven’t been able to update the platform or content for a while, for fear of breaking it! We are searching for better hosting options.

D. Using our super-high-resolution scans and Adobe Illustrator, we are going to transform these monochromatic woodcut images into vector files, and use those to reproduce the original woodcuts with a CNC router or laser cutter.

E. The theoretical paper I’m currently writing up on our findings from this project uses Siegfried Zielinski and Yuk Hui to argue that anatomy atlases generally, and ours in particular, are not media objects. First, there’s an uncanny valley problem: the closer we get to an accurate, anatomical representation of the body, the harder it is to maintain any distance between us and the material conditions of the object’s productions. William Hogarth’s analysis on the beauty of the accurately-depicted human form is helpful here:

[A]s the skin is taken off the parts are too distinctly traced by the eye, for that intricate delicacy which is necessary to the utmost beauty; yet the winding figures of the muscles, with the variety of their situations, must always be allowed elegant forms: however, they lose in the imagination some of the beauty, which they really have, by the idea of their being flayed…. (56-7)

But second, to come at it from the other direction, the dissected bodies of anatomy manuals don’t really mediate an experience of the human body; these atlases give us assemblages of body parts that, the longer one spends with them, the harder it is to imagine them ever fitting back together as a complete organism.

That paper, along with a couple arguments about the critical reception of Vesalius in particular, is in the works! In the meantime, we’re putting together a more process-oriented paper that will outline how we constructed our model and some of our topline findings in terms of interdisciplinary research and design.

Please do feel free to contact me with any questions, and to explore our code if you’d like!

Copyright John Mulligan 2016

Double Vision & Newton’s Dreams

Or, as I would have very much preferred to title it, Blake after Newton after BlakeA short note that’s taken me 18 months to get to print is now available at Oxford University Press; but it’s behind a subscription wall because my research budget couldn’t take the open-access fee. I believe this article is important for the general public perception of William Blake, so I am going to lay out the basic argument in a digestible format here; people can email me for the pdf if they want to read further.

Romanticism and Newtonianism:

When people use the word “romantic” to mean things like “irrational,” “emotional,” “excitable,” and “nostalgic,” they aren’t always thinking of the literary movement called Romanticism; but when they are, they are thinking of a clutch of poets’ failed rebellion against the unrelenting rationalism of modernity. They are thinking of John Keats tipsily toasting “Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics,” or William Blake praying to ward off a scientific flattening of his experiential world:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep

Now, this anti-science sentiment is not current with Romantic scholarship. First, period scholars have labored for decades to uncover the social and philosophical ties between poets and scientists — a very accessible starting point is Richard Holmes’s bestselling, recent-ish Age of Wonder. Second, critically-minded historians of science have redefined what “science” was in the Romantic era, to show that it was very much a part of its time: politically radical, proto-industrial, and very social (these are rather academic but I can’t recommend them highly enough: Jan Golinski’s …Chemistry and Enlightenment and Robert Mitchell’s Experimental Life!). And then there’s a third group that I like to think of myself as a member of: people who professionally study and experiment with beauty and meaning. For us, this arts/sciences distinction has always seemed clumsy, and useful only to agents of dullness. For this third group, a thing can be (and most should be) studied in a thousand different ways. It’s our job to make things more meaningful, and to do that we oftentimes insist on the specificity of things to make them come alive in unexpected ways. No later than 1805, William Blake produced a sort of mythical portrait of Isaac Newton. This painting has achieved iconic status in the popular understanding of Romanticism as an artistic rebellion against “science” and Enlightenment rationalism:

The story goes like this: Newton is in a sort of dream space (undersea?); He is sitting on a wildly-colored, complex coral reef; but he doesn’t notice all this wild beauty, because he’s myopically focused on the simple geometrical exercise he’s performing. Newton is basically worshiping his own mental operations, which blinds him to the beautiful complexity of the world. As a result, he becomes almost physically deformed: he is hunched almost in half, and his muscles have an unsettling crispness to them, as though he is becoming a geometric diagram of some sort. In other words, people tend to understand this painting as a deeply satirical portrait of an absentminded mathematician, who loses the world around him in favor of an incredibly reductive model. But the artists and art historians and literary theorists who have studied this painting have been telling much more interesting stories about it for a long time:

Backstory on Blake’s Newton:

1) Donald Ault: A Convincing Illusion

Donald Ault was one of the first people to take seriously Blake’s obsession with Newton. In his classic book, he argued that Newton’s mathematics bothered Blake not because they were simple, but because they were so seductively complex. After all, Newton’s calculus had elevated geometry to the point where it could give very convincing accounts of some very complex physical phenomena. And so Blake’s fight with Newton was, more or less, to remind us that we’re looking at a model, and that there are alternative models.

An extension of this argument comes out of the 1970’s and 1980’s reevaluation of who Isaac Newton was. Newton wasn’t a mad mathematician who worshiped geometry; his unpublished works showed him instead to be an alchemist and spiritualist. This discoverer of gravity, for instance, believed that the planets moved because angels, singing to them, made them desire one another. In this telling, it is the generations separating Newton (died in 1726) and Blake (born in 1757) who turned him into a robotic math nerd by obsessing over his calculus. So, the argument goes, because Blake couldn’t have known about this unpublished, mystical Isaac Newton, he was actually in agreement with the real Newton that everyone had forgotten about!

2) W. J. T. Mitchell: Beauty and … Entropy

W. J. T. Mitchell, who has written some of the most enduringly thought-provoking and strange things about Blake, took some cues from Robert Essick on the history of coral and Blake’s lesser-known works. Scientists had just realized that coral was an animal, and that a reef was made of thousands of years of the animals’ excretions. Blake, doing hack-work, had illustrated a book on kidney stone operations, and those stones look a lot like his coral. In fact, Blake’s coral was printed in a semi-random, unorthodox way, by painting wood and slamming it on the canvas, before carving out shapes with ink later on.

And so Mitchell’s story is essentially that Newton is sitting on the toilet, doing a crossword puzzle. On the one hand, that makes Newton much sillier, but on the other, it brings him down to earth. Instead of a mythical battle between nature and abstraction, we have the basic human activity of negotiating between order and disorder. In other words, this is a painting about disentropy. And when we are very lucky, our mental operations are fun puzzles, and the byproducts of our human activities are colorful.

Blake’s Puzzle

My contribution to this long scholarly discussion about Blake’s Newton is to help show just how deep Blake’s technical knowledge of Newton’s system went. This will keep us from turning him into an anti-science, wild-eyed artist, and to better appreciate his experiments with abstraction. Led on by Ault, Mitchell, Essick, and others, I dug into the eighteenth-century history of Newton’s reception. In other words, if Blake was reading about Newton, who was he reading?

 I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman’s translation of Newton was an authoritative (a 370-page introduction!) introduction, and in this book, they left us this little gem. Newton sometimes left out the basic steps that went into his formulas, and in the case of his famous proof on gravity, he had assumed that his reader knew a whole section of geometry called “conics,” and so left the whole proof out. As a result, a cottage industry cropped up, of mathematicians showing this proof step-by-step. Sure enough, there are many, many treatises from the 1700’s on conic sections, or “conics.” The idea is that by taking a cone, and slicing it with a plane, you can generate any second-order curve. Images from Wikipedia. 

And so when Newton proved that gravity obeyed a second-order law, he proved that the geometrical branch of conics could be used to generate any path in a two-body system. There are different ways of performing this proof. What I found was that some of these ways, in 18th-century geometrical manuals, involve steps whose diagrams look very similar to Blake’s. Here is James Milnes’ 1702 proof, alongside the hands of Blake’s Newton. (The link here goes to a 1723 edition).

 What Milnes does here is shows us how to get planes tangent to the cone (ADE), in preparation for actually cutting the cone into curves. This technique is useful, he says, for finding the limits of curves. Almost concurrently with Blake’s 1805 painting, we see a similar construction appear in the 1807 illustrations for conics in Abraham Rees’ Cyclopaedia:

What is exciting about Rees’s construction is that it is built to give readers an intuitive way for taking the sections of a cone. Look at Figure 20, below. The long axis PQ on the ellipse runs parallel to the line VD. If we make AD shorter, by sliding D inwards, VD becomes steeper and steeper — if we keep PQ parallel with this line, we will eventually have not an ellipse, but a parabola, then a hyperbola. This technique, in other words, creates a sort of control to easily produce varying, complex curves.

This is a pretty obscure joke that Blake is making, but it allows us to rethink the painting in some important ways.

  1. Blake would have gone much deeper into Newtonian mathematics than previously thought, in order to make this reference.
  2. Newton’s geometrical exercise is not a simple triangle, anymore, and it’s not obviously less complex than the coral.
  3. We are being asked to participate with Newton in the production of complexity, rather than standing back ironically and laughing at him. It takes work to get in on the joke: the viewer/user must actually do the work of visually imagining these shapes!
  4. Fortunately, Blake’s/Milnes’/Rees’s construction makes it easy to imagine these curves. This is an act of assisted visual imagining.

Blake’s painting is invoked almost monthly as shorthand for an artistic, irrational rebellion against science, and it’s important to remember just how technically competent and incisive this rebellion could be. I hope this makes the contours of an involved literary debate more accessible to people — at least now it’s not behind a paywall! Feel free to email me with comments, questions, suggestions, or requests for the original pdf 🙂

The Electronic Vesalius

Update (9/28/16): We presented this project at Digital Frontiers 2016, and have an updated post here. (This one is still useful, though!)

So I’ve been posting some snippets of flayed bodies on my twitter account for a while, and it’s time I explained myself. I’m working with some Rice and Texas Medical Center Library colleagues on a project to reanimate *wink* an old book, Andreas Vesalius’ Fabrica, which is generally regarded as a cornerstone of what we call modern Western medicine.

We are using photographs of an original housed at the McGovern historical center. Actually, it’s much more interesting than that: I understand this copy to be a 1930’s German “facsimile” printed using the original 16c woodblocks (*what*). The archive in fact has a 1543 copy, but the Brussels copy looks better and is easier to use.


What we’re building is a life-sized, acrylic model that will display the visual-textual history of “organs” after the Fabrica, when users touch the image of the flayed body on Vesalius’ different labeled points. Much of this is inspired by the recent, monumental translation by Daniel Garrison and Michael Hast for Karger. As the authors cannily observe, his anatomical atlas organizes information hypertextually, encouraging readers to build a picture of an interconnected but articulated body. Another source of inspiration was the five-foot-five foamcore cutout of the above Vesalius diagram of a flayed body, that stared at me from a corner of my office for the first two months of my job at the HRC, last September-October. He spoke to me, and now he’ll speak to you 🙂

My excuse for finally writing this post is that two engineering students, working in Rice’s ODEK under Matt Wettergreen, have built the touchless buttons that we’ll be using to pull up the relevant anatomical data on the accompanying display screen. Also, Ying Jin, a programmer at Rice’s Fondren Library, has already got up and running a functional test environment, and is simulating button presses pulling data from a virtual server. I’ve been combing through centuries of anatomical manuals, researching what I’m finding, and designing a layout to display the information in a useful way.

There’s going to be a lot of negotiation between the different parties here, to make sure the final model does the most that it can. But in the meantime, I leave you with the work of two Rice engineering students (Ben Rasich and Isaac Phillips), triggering an interface of electric fields they’ve designed, that not coincidentally looks like a square chunk of skinned human body.

And here is a button test from a week later, after they managed to tighten the fields around the buttons:

The above probably needs some supplementary explanation, so I’m including below the text to the proposal for the small faculty fellowship that is allowing me to build this!


Proposal excerpts

The Electronic Vesalius project brings the work of Paduan Renaissance anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), to life for college-level medical humanities and high-school students today. Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543 and illustrated with meticulous woodcuts produced in the studio of Titian, has recently enjoyed a revival, centering on Vesalius’ 500th birthday and Karger Publishing’s authoritative edition edited by the Northwestern University professors Daniel Garrison (anatomy) and Michael Hast (classics).


This project marries archival research with the latest digital humanist “maker” technologies by transforming Vesalius’ diagrams into touch-sensitive, museum-quality, durable, life-sized interfaces. These physical models, printed in high resolution on acrylic, allow users to query Vesalius’ flayed models by physically touching the exposed organs, and for these organs to “respond” in picture and sound, by presenting an overview of their respective histories on a neighboring display. By re-animating Vesalius’ anatomical diagrams, this project will 1) educate students in archival research and the history of medicine, 2) contribute to the critical health humanities’ interventions in medical histories, and 3) contribute to the digital humanities’ recent materialist turn towards design as a vehicle of critique.

1. Introduction

            Vesalius’ Fabrica occupies a privileged position in histories of internal medicine. Roy Porter, in his magisterial 1997 “medical history of humanity,” identifies its publication as the origin of modern medicine: “Medicine would thenceforth be about looking inside bodies for the truth of disease. The violation of the body would be the revelation of its truth.”[2] This gestures towards a central tension in the medical humanities, namely how to balance medicine’s drive for knowledge with the humanities’ critique of its costs. But as Bruno Latour has forcefully argued, the modern myth (in which Porter participates) of an original scientific break with nature and the past is a significant contributor to this drive.

The Electronic Vesalius project subtly intervenes in the recent, medical-historical re-canonization of the Fabrica, by presenting his dissected bodies as ersatz, informational life-forms. Medical history is re-animated for the user, but with the technologies that produce this effect made clearly visible. Transparent but durable materials make visible the mediation of wires, buttons, and LED’s between the masterful Renaissance illustration of a life-sized flayed body, and centuries of digitally-rendered scholarly commentary. Like Luigi Galvani’s eighteenth-century experiments with electric impulses on dissected animal tissue, users re-animate Vesalius’ illustrations in complex but explicitly mechanical ways.


            By subtly intervening in medical history with a physical, digital artifact that is responsive to users’ touch, the project contributes to the growing body of work on “remediation” and materiality in the digital humanities. Such work seeks to counter the digital humanities’ tendencies towards ahistoricism and purely computational methods. “Remediation” is a ultimately matter of design, in which intervention takes place on the level of utility, changing what a thing is for; this project changes Vesalius’ dissected models by showing how he made his isolated organs speak, and how medicine continues to do so today.


2. Collaborative Design

In the Summer break of 2016, one undergraduate student will work with John Mulligan (Rice Humanities Research Center), Ying Jin (Rice Fondren Library), Matthew Wettergreen (Rice Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen), and Philip Montgomery (Texas Medical Center Library and Archives) to build a museum-quality installation. This installation will be a five-foot, upright, high-resolution printout, on acrylic, of a Vesalius model. Visible through the acrylic from the back, a network of buttons and backlighting LED’s lined up with his notations on the diagram will lead to an arduino and a Raspberri Pi processor, which will process the inputs.

Vesalius Mulligan Diagram

When a user presses on a body part, the Pi’s software will determine which part of the body has been selected, retrieve tailor-made informational layouts about that body part, and present it on a display next to the body. Users will therefore be able to consider the detailed artwork up close, and to step back and read a detailed history of that artwork in a way unavailable in a static text.

[1] Photo courtesy of the TMC Library’s Rare Books Room.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (New York: Norton, 1997) 181.

[3] In Noel Jackson, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 57.

Why we do stuff

This blog has become a home to digital projects of various sorts, as my interest has grown in the productively critical potential of the digital humanities. One of the ways that I think about the importance of that quasi-field is as a tool for strategic cultural participation.[1]

I think we happen to have  better ideas, and access to cooler and more sharply critical stuff than what the culture industry is willing to pay for; and as long as we have some healthy mix of open-source and freemium proprietary platforms and we’re willing to work more or less for free, there’s no reason academia can’t help redefine what culture is and what it’s for.

Deak Nabers gave a characteristically contrarian talk a few years back at Brown, about how it’s not such a bad thing when administrators talk about the corporate university, and students as consumers — if we turn to our advantage the fact that they don’t really grasp the full history and political potential of those terms. (YouTube of the talk.) The short version of his talk is that corporations are mission-driven social entities that seek the cultural reproduction of that mission; and that they go about doing this not by making what people want, so much as trying to get people to want what they make. I find that liberatory consumerist perspective (which I believe Frances Ferguson’s work on utilitarianism also gestures towards) compelling. I want students who leave my Romanticism classes to read more of the Shelleys, more of the Wordsworths, and to get lost in the Blake Archive when they’re bored.

But I also think it’s important to leave students feeling empowered to participate critically in the cultural sphere, even if the upshot is just that they live-tweet a film or a book they’re reading. In other words, I agree with Michael Bérubé’s diagnosis of our present fears of cultural irrelevance, but his prescription that we become “curators” is clearly inadequate to the problems he’s identified.

That, then, is why I find meaning in the odd mini-toys that I’ve built and shared on this site. They’ve only really been precision kaleidoscopes up until this point, which is to say, my own way of trying to prove to myself that recondite scholarly sources can be made aesthetically compelling — for instance, getting a slice of the congressional record to argue with you in real time, or allowing one to spatially navigate George Biddell Airy’s double-decker summary of procedures for the 1874 Transit of Venus.

There will be more of this sort of work coming in the future, and I expect it will be weightier. I also think undergraduate students are perfectly capable of the same sort of participation. I will therefore continue to share project work by my students, when they want me to. This post in fact started as a short introduction to a project by a student from my Romanticism course at Rice last semester, but it ballooned into this here exposition on my thoughts at the beginning of what I think is going to be a productive year in terms of cultural participation.

If you read this far, please do check out (listen to!) Molly’s objectively more interesting project, in which she arranges and performs old song versions of two Percy Shelley’s poems, and talks about how this process affects her readings of them.


[1] I should note some great recent critiques, or institutional contextualizations, of public intellectualism, which I think is what I’m talking about here.
A) Tressie McMillan Cottom, discussing that work’s necessarily controversial nature and the need for institutions to support people who engage in it, lays out pretty starkly the terms by which public intellectualism is incentivized:

The point is, institutions have been calling for public scholarship for the obvious reasons. Attention can be equated with a type of prestige. And prestige is a way to shore up institutions when political and cultural attitudes are attacking colleges and universities at every turn. And, faculty are vulnerable to calls for them to engage. We’re all sensitive to claims that we’re out of touch and behind on neoliberal careerism.

B) Let’s not forget Adeline Koh’s recent cold-water dousing of the field’s oftentimes feverish, self-congratulatory futurism, “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.