This thesis describes the results of a multi-year experience conducted in contact with data visualization and literary criticism. The work has been carried out in the area of inquiry that is commonly defined as Digital Humanities, in which disciplines of the humanities meet digital technologies. Encounters of this kind are often characterized by the experimentation of new capabilities of technologies and employ humanities as a testing ground. In this case, however, the goal is different.

This work is inspired by critical and ethical viewpoints on technology that are concerned with the suspension of common habits and the reversion of power relationships. Similar stances are located at the intersection between HCI, feminism, and activism, and they are reflexive about employed methodologies and theories. In relation to humanities, critical stances about technologies question authoritative roles and investigate the influence that humanities tenets may have, in turn, on digital tools. Instead of focussing on how much the humanities could benefit from digital solutions, as more and more often it happens, this research wonders about how we can differently shape approaches to algorithms, computation, and interfaces to benefit to research communities of different disciplines.

Along the journey of this research, data and visualization were observed from two perspectives. On the one hand there is the mechanistic and positivistic stance, inherited from natural sciences, that prioritizes the functioning of technologies and that inherits an approach to knowledge that is objective and observant independent. On the other hand, there is the constructivist approach of hermeneutics, that acknowledges all knowledge as situated, partial and observant dependent. With visualization spreading across so many different fields, this dichotomy becomes more observable and the pursuit for a balance between the two philosophies vigorously emerges. It often manifests as the explorations of possible mediations between distant and close reading: this gap was an important aspect that also regarded the research I am presenting.

The work underneath this research helped scholars in developing new methodologies to help the formulation of critical thinking and, while doing it, it understood the external discipline and identified principles useful to design for it. Research communities are still in an active phase of experimentation and a design reflection may be capable of providing interesting angles on the matter, because characterized by a fluency in technologies that coexists with a non-scientific nature. Design is capable of embracing, balancing, and valorizing ambiguities and contradictory standpoints. It does it through the iterative advancement of prototypes, specifically realized to inquire and reflect over problematic situations, the so-called wicked problems; the setting of this research is therefore fundamentally practice based. In addition, it is also cooperative. It developed within the context of a research project named “Atlante Calvino: literature and visualization” that brought together communication designers and literary scholars. The goal of the project is to con- tribute to the current need of renovation of literary studies by creating opportunities to experiment with non-textual representations, data collections and visual analysis.

The research experience was so broad that it is possible to discuss it from many different angles: literary criticism, web technologies, project management and more. I took the project as an opportunity to immerse myself in an intense and prolonged participatory observation in which to become familiar with a specific humanistic discipline, the con- temporary literary criticism of Italian literature, and identify meaningful aspects to be inquired and disclosed. In particular, I am interested in reflecting about how visualization behaves when employed in a terrain that is different from the positivist ground in which it supposedly evolved. People are generally accustomed to the idea that data and visualization are powerful predictive tools, capable of revealing new and unquestionable truths of the world. Researchers from many different fields, however, suggest a change in perspective; they consider the interpretive aspects of data modelization, and the biases embedded into the design of visualizations. In this research I embraced this perspective and I reflected on what happens when we try to valorize, instead of camouflaging, interpretations and subjectivity during the making of visualizations.

My work draws from the expertise and the viewpoints collectively constructed within my research lab. This happened on many different occasions. Launch breaks have been moments for debating, naturally and informally, on various topics and critical stances that very often were tangential to data, technologies and activism. Projects conducted in digital humanities were the opportunity to familiarize with the use of data in humanities and get in contact with interpretive disciplines. Among the themes I had the opportunity to tackle social networks of the past, epistolary exchanges, and quantitative societal data. Even more importantly, the research conducted by my colleagues was of fundamental importance: to develop a critical eye on data visualization, challenge predominant viewpoints, and disclose alternative narratives (Briones Rojas, 2019); to reflect of the semi-finished nature of visualization and the importance of its crafting and manipulation (Mauri, 2015); to valorize the role of interpretation and its embedding within visualization itself (Colombo, 2018); and, lastly, to reflect on the capability of digital tools to change the intellectual character of humanities disciplines (Caviglia, 2013).

In chapter two, Visualization and Literature, I set the borders of this research. I present a review of the literature that takes into consideration the modern evolution of humanistic disciplines and the critical reflections that emerge from computational manipulation performed to extract data that get eventually visualized. I start by prospecting the transformations of the workflow of scholars, describing the cultural clash between supporters of traditional methods and DH enthusiast, the loss of exclusivity of the textual medium, and the necessary adoption of a project-based collaborative work modality. Subsequently I review theories about empiricism applied to literature that comes under the guise of distant reading, the most influential approach with which my research confronted. In parallel I report critical stances referred to it, that comment on the pros and cons of the approach and on the incompatibility between literature and data. The second-last section encompasses criticism about the use of data and visualization, making the review of theories related to modelling, manipulative inquiries, and constructivist approaches to knowledge. In conclusion I reflect on the role of evaluation of visualization as a form of research in digital humanities, and its intertwining with the design process. In chapter three, Synergies between Design and Humanities, I state my research goals and the methods used to address them. Goals are oriented towards an increased understanding about how visualization could be conceived to better comply with humanistic tenets. Firstly, I describe the aspects that render the discipline of design a good co-operator in tackling the problem. As I will explain, these aspects entail the embracement of tenets (situatedness, ambiguity and singularity) that are important to all humanities, in particular to hermeneutical disciplines. Then, I expose the specific research questions, related to the achievement of an actionable knowledge about the discipline of literary criticism and of guiding principles useful to design for it. The knowledge contribution is achieved with the application of action research to the field of visualization that saw an iterative evolution and definition of research questions and solutions pairs. From it a further question emerged, that reflects on the role of visualization in the setting of a prolonged application of action research in the field.

Chapter four presents Atlante Calvino, a digital humanities project aimed at bringing together data visualization and literary studies on the exemplary case of Italo Calvino, one of the most well-known Italian writers. The research is bound to the project but at the same time it fought to separate from it, striving to identify a clearly separate knowledge contribution. In the chapter I describe the project by first reporting on its goals and then I linger on three recognizable design phases: orientation of the involved teams, analysis based on scholars’ research itineraries, and gathering of the materials into the resulting web platform.

In chapter five, the Criticism of Contemporary Literature, I address the first research question and I report the insights gained on literary criticism that emerged from the long and energy consuming project. In order to formalize them I used a structured interview to formalize and consolidate the learn- ing that took place during the project. I conducted it with the scholars of Atlante Calvino and two external literary experts. The chapter depicts, from the viewpoint of a designer, the interests, and workflows of scholars along with several considerations about their research culture. Interview also encompassed the relevance of Italo Calvino and scholars’ opinions about the use of visualization in their work. In chapter six I reflect on the outcomes of action research, and I prospect four principles for designing visualization for literary criticism. Such principles take into consideration the importance of situated viewpoints into visualizations, the handling of elusive concepts, the use of visual overview as a companion, and the significance of manipulation. In chapter seven I reflect on the methodological imprinting of the work, and I propose the framework of Research through Visualization, as a declination of Research through Design centred on visualization that embrace reciprocal shaping and can be used to inquire the epistemology of disciplines with whom design is collaborating.