In Conversation

Digital humanist Schuwey on rebooting a 400-year-old French Facebook

Christophe Schuwey
Christophe Schuwey

Christophe Schuwey, a new assistant professor in French languages and literatures, studies the literature and culture of 17th-century France. Since his dissertation, Schuwey has been involved in a digital humanities project to annotate and re-contextualize 17th-century texts; these digital editions — including an annotated edition of a forgotten French book, the “Nouvelles Nouvelles” — are being transferred to Yale’s servers. Next year, Schuwey has a book about digital humanities coming out in French, “Interfaces: A Concrete Approach to Digital Humanities and Literature.”

At Yale, in the newly reopened Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab), Schuwey will work on one of his latest projects, which involves digitizing the printed books of written portraits that circulated amongst French elites and high bourgeoisie in the 1600s — which, he said, functioned pretty much like Facebook does today. Schuwey will use 21st-century computing technology to relink these 17th-century social networks, giving modern scholars like himself new access to this lost “virtual world” of fluctuating social hierarchy and markets of individual reputation in 1600s France.

YaleNews spoke recently with Schuwey about his work with digital humanities and this latest project. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What is digital humanities?

Digital humanities is a field that is still under construction, and not everybody agrees on what it is. For me, digital humanities is simply the use of computers to study literature, and the tremendous changes implied.

It’s a minimal definition in the sense that it can welcome different practices. When people think of digital humanities, they often think about big data or spectacular graphs. But digital humanities does not always have to be big or spectacular. Yes, it is absolutely useful to be able to visualize some phenomenon over a long timescale with just one or two clicks, but it’s not only that. Digital humanities is everything you do with a computer for literature — from searching in an online library catalog to designing incredible graphs from big data.

How has digital humanities helped the study of 17th-century literature?

Digital humanities has helped the study of 17th-century literature in numerous ways. But I will pick two of them that I find to be the most interesting.

First, having books digitized on Google Books, Gallica (the French National Library digital book platform) or OpenLibrary has suddenly made books for which we had only one or two or three copies in the entire world available at any time, any moment, from anywhere — bringing back a materiality and an interest for media that the French literature was lacking. The same goes with the numerous databases on specific topics. Moreover, those tools allow us to search in plaintext, and searching in plaintext allows us to reveal thousands of books or excerpts that had been forgotten but were super important at that time. For instance, the latest complete edition of the works of Molière, published in 2010, has just shown that a lot of fascinating sources came from completely forgotten books that would show up sometimes just by searching some sentence from Molière on Google Books. This not only makes this scholarship more efficient, it has totally changed the way we’re working, the number of works we’re working with, the kinds of questions we ask, and basically, the whole landscape of research in 17th-century French literature.

The other big change digital humanities brings is the ability to propose interesting interfaces that make old books readable again. French literature mainly forgot what a 17th-century book was. What I mean by that is that when you read those 17th-century books in print, they seem old, first of all, and we approach them with deference. However, some of them at least were not sacred relics for the readers of that time, but funny or emotional, interesting for sure; read, used, and manipulated in different ways. Now with a digital interface, you can translate what a book was. You can suggest to the user of your interface that, “Oh you should read that this way,” or you can give important information in a better way — besides those page-long footnotes — to bring back to today’s reader a glimpse of the intended reading experience.

How has your research and writing involved digital humanities so far?

Up until now, my work in digital humanities has mainly been to develop new interfaces for a new way of reading old books. I discovered how important digital humanities was when I started my Ph.D. working on an author who wasn’t read anymore. And one reason this author wasn’t read anymore was that his books weren’t working the way we expect a book to work, weren’t delivering what we expect from “literature.” The book in question, the “Nouvelles Nouvelles,” set up a sophisticated media strategy to talk about hot topics and scandals and was aimed at fueling new trends. That’s exactly what I had to use digital humanities to bring back.

But also, I have been trying to build a way of thinking about digital humanities that’s not the “we will digitize a lot of data and see what happens” approach but rather a way that asks: “What do we want to do? What do we want to show? What are we trying to produce? What can digital humanities bring to the field of humanities?” That’s what I’m trying to develop now, and that’s what my forthcoming book will be about — trying to think the digital humanities from this interface perspective: thinking about what we display, what reading experience we can provide, the concrete use of the tools we build, before thinking technicality.

A screenshot of the digital interface for the long-forgotten 1663 French book by Donneau de Visé, the “Nouvelles Nouvelles”
A screenshot of the digital interface for the long-forgotten 1663 French book by Donneau de Visé, the “Nouvelles Nouvelles” (or News News, in English). There are embedded annotations, hyperlinks, and quick pop-up definitions (to help the reader gloss arcane uses of words) throughout the digitized text. This project was led by Schuwey and Claude Bourqui of the French department at the University of Friborg.

How do Yale’s digital humanities resources, like the newly reopened DHLab, support your research?

First of all, coming to Yale was wonderful for my work in the field of digital humanities because I met Peter Leonard [director of digital scholarship at DHLab]. We share this commitment to both meaningful and practical digital humanities. He also isn’t interested in random digitalization, and he has this fabulous sense of being “cost-effective” — in the best sense of the term — thinking about results that are useful to us rather than doing big, impressive, but often useless digitalization.

Also, the DHLab is a fabulous engagement of the digital humanities that is not only beautiful but also very, very useful. It is set up to allow students and scholars to go in and work on the computers with digital humanities-specific software, like specialized text editing programs. Also, having a concrete space that says, “Here we’re talking about digital humanities,” and also where books about digital humanities are all around is something that is surprisingly not that often seen at universities. I cannot stress how important it is for Yale to have this space curated by experts in the field, because as a scholar it’s often difficult to find your way into digital humanities. There are lots of things that are going on in the field and lots of different ways of thinking about it.

Have you been inspired by any digital humanities research that is currently underway at Yale?

I am only starting to discover the rich environment of digital humanities at Yale. On the pedagogical side, I read about the fascinating experiment conducted by my colleagues in the Departments of Comparative Literature and English, Ayesha Ramachandran and Marta Figlerowicz, with VR headsets and 3D printers. The results were outstanding: Those devices allowed the students to discuss fundamental questions about perception and representation.

I am especially excited to have the chance to work with my colleague in the French department, Alice Kaplan, on her digital humanities project about the newspapers of liberation in France during the aftermath of World War II. Her project is extremely clever. It’s trying to identify which writers were writing for which newspapers and constructing a network from those connections: who worked with whom, who was the center of the network, who was in the margins? Also, in the aftermath of World War II, what were the main topics of interest for the French public? For instance, when did the French start talking again about everyday life, like movies? It raised a lot of super important questions for me about my next digital humanities project on social networks in the 17th century.

How does a scholar like yourself study the “social networks in the 17th century”?

Basically, there’s a collection of books in the 17th century that are working like Facebook. That’s truly one of the best ways I can describe them. These are books of written portraits of elite people (sometimes written by their peers). Those books were not just games but were directly impacting reputations of those people in a bad or in a good way, the same way we build a positive public image on social networks or when a bad reputation goes around. They were widely circulating not only in Paris but also across the whole kingdom of France, in Europe, even reaching New France and Asia. The real game changer was the “Mercure galant,” a monthly periodical mostly made of contributions from the readers, allowing them not only to see their names appear in print but also to interact through it on a regular basis.

What do these “written portraits” say about their subjects?

They might be about physical quality, or about someone’s genealogy, reasserting how high someone’s family is or constructing it at some point by saying, “Oh they actually have this great ancestor” which was not that clear before. But they are also literary games. There might be two people at stake when there is a literary portrait. You have the person who is being depicted, of course, but you also the reputation of the person who is doing the depicting. As the author, you also want to show how witty you are, how funny you can be, and how you can nail an expression perfectly.

What kinds of people in French society were featured in these books?

Obviously most of the books are about nobility, yet nobility has a lot of inner levels, and thus a lot is at stake. What is interesting though is that the “Mercure galant” was published frequently enough to incorporate more and more people, including the bourgeoisie. When a book is a one-time thing, you have to be selective about who’s in it. When it is published every month, though, you can start including more and more people. These books were actually responsible for creating a kind of virtual space that produced social encounters that would never happen in real life — what Allison Stedman called a “textually mediated social field.” Paper was functioning as a virtual world that made possible things that wouldn’t be possible in reality.

How will you be using digital humanities to study these books?

Typically, these books are really difficult to work with because if you read just one of them, you just see one portrait. You really need to be able to trace the portrait of the same person and also its position in the book (if it appears in the first place in the book, that’s not the same thing as if it appears in the 20th place or 30th place), and a computer is a perfect tool for doing that. We will first have to digitize this information to map the network, in order to follow multiple paths to see if some people are stable in the way they characterized and also in their position in the book; or if they suddenly fall or gain, then, trying to understand what is happening. Is the book reflecting something? Or is it provoking the fall? Then we will be able to understand what was happening and what concrete impact those books had on the social and cultural reality of the time.

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