Tesserae at DHCS 2012

This year’s Chicago Colloquium on Computer Science and Digital Humanities was hosted by the University of Chicago, November 17–19.  Tesserae researchers presented two posters:

James Gawley, Christopher Forstall and Neil Coffee, “Evaluating the literary significance of text re-use in Latin poetry,” which showcased Tesserae’s scoring system; and,

Christopher Forstall and Walter Scheirer, “Revealing hidden patterns in the meter of Homer’s Iliad,” which presented results from Chris and Walter’s work on sound in Greek poetry.

While all the presentations were excellent, particularly interesting from our point of view were a number of papers which took a network view of intertextual relationships.

Hoyt Long illustrated literary coteries in Modernist Japanese poetry by analyzing the networks created when poets published in the same journals.  He suggested some intriguing comparisons of similar networks from the same period in the USA and China.  You can read more here.

Ryan Cordell and David Smith used some exciting methods in text alignment to locate stories reprinted with modification in antebellum American newspapers, even in very noisy texts, and then used network tools to analyze the connections between publishers.  There’s a bit more here.  Both this and the previous talk made exciting connections between geo-social networks in the real world and the literary networks of intertextual connections.

Mark Wolff showed a prototype interface to a database of text re-use in French western novels which allows users to visualize self-plagiarism and other text re-use as a web of connections.  Try it here; read more here. This is particularly exciting for us, as our own multi-text search could perhaps one day feature a similar interface.

A lesson to be taken from all of these talks was that new light can be shed on intertextual relationships if one moves away from a binary or hierarchical framework toward something more complex and nuanced.

Martin Mueller’s keynote had particular resonance for digital Classics, reminding us that even as methods of analysis move forward, we continue to rely on old and poorly curated texts, in large part because our discipline no longer rewards editing and curation as it once did.  This is a message that certainly resonates will all of us at Tesserae who have worked with adding texts…the labor involved in preparing digital texts is enormous, even when one has the benefit of the high quality data so generously provided by Perseus.  It is astonishing that editing these texts is no longer acknowledged as serious scholarly work.  Until academics are appropriately rewarded for their efforts in this domain, we will continue to find ourselves applying cutting-edge technology to shamefully outdated and noisy texts.


Chris and I returned last Sunday from the Lucan – Claudian conference held outside Geneva at the Fondation Hardt. I had a great time expanding my knowledge of both poets and meeting colleagues from a variety of institutions and backgrounds. I learned from Professor Jean-Louis Charlet and others various ways in which Claudian was far more than a porte-parole for Stilicho.

Our presentations on Tesserae were something of a novelty for this group, but the idea of using computing to trace intertextuality seemed to go over well. One distinguished Italian scholar of Lucan encouraged us with the exhortation vivant Tesserae! and an American scholar generously asked how he and others could help. We also had a productive meeting with our hosts Damien Nelis, Valery Berlincourt, and Lavinia Galli – Milic about further collaboration. They were terrifically gracious to everyone. We’re hope to see them again before long and continue our discussions.

Chris, Damien Nelis, Neil, Valery Berlincourt, and Yannick Zannetti in front at the Fondation Hardt

On the shores of Lake Geneva

In early November, Chris and I will travel to the Fondation Hardt in Geneva for a conference entitled “Lucain et Claudien, face à face: Une poésie politique entre épopée, histoire et panégyrique.”

Chris will hold a workshop explaining how the online tools work and how to use them. I’ll be giving a presentation on Claudian, the late-4th century CE court poet, and how his epic makes use of the Civil War epic of his predecessor Lucan. My goal is to take advantage of Tesserae tools to offer a broader view of this interaction than has been available so far, and in the process to expand traditional conceptions of intertextuality a little.

The program is full of interesting topics to be addressed by distinguished scholars. We’re excited to be able to exchange views with this group. In particular, we’ll have a chance to speak face à face to Damien Nelis of Geneva and his colleagues and continue the discussion of our research partnership.


Unde Quoque

It may seem odd for a digital humanities project begun in 2008 to get around to starting a blog four years later. Our only excuse is that we were concentrating on developing our intertextual study tools first. But the time for better communication is long overdue, so here we are!

It seems appropriate in our first post to say something about the origins and goals of Tesserae. The project started from a simple idea. In 2008, Amazon had a feature that showed users phrases that were particular, if not unique, to a given book. If it could tell what was rare in one book, surely that meant it was determining what phrases were common in multiple books. Amazon didn’t seem interested in pursuing this (the original feature was discontinued, I believe). But the Amazon feature, along with the emergence of plagiarism-detection software, prompted the question: Why not create a free website to automatically discover and analyze allusions that could serve as a resource for researchers, teachers, students, and the curious?

I took this idea to J.-P. Koenig of UB Linguistics, and in a rare absent-minded moment, he decided to humor me. We then started work on the project, joined by a talented Linguistics Ph.D. candidate, Shakthi Poornima. Progressive stages in the project’s development followed, traceable through the Older Versions link on the site’s main page.

The original idea eventually developed into the three main goals of Tesserae:

  1. reveal unknown instances of intertextuality,
  2. analyze intertextuality at various scales, from large to small, and
  3. use comprehensive surveys and precise criteria to better define the phenomenon of intertextuality.

Some part of this work is susceptible to rather finite measurements of progress, and at this point we can claim with some justification that we’ve taken big steps forward toward all three goals. A fuller declaration of victory might come if we’re able to replicate the results of traditional scholarship convincingly. But even then much would remain to be done: conducting intertextual readings, exploring theoretical ramifications, experimenting with intertextual analysis via a variety of language features, and repurposing the detection of various language features for other kinds of study.

For the foreseeable future, then, these goals represent crisscrossing paths on a research journey. We can plan to travel along enjoyably, even if we’re not sure where the end lies, or what we’ll find when we get there.