Monthly Archives: November 2012

Rebuilding the Cultural Machine

Well folks it’s that time of the year again, only three weeks left in the term and final essay deadlines are looming in the near future. I haven’t had much time to focus on Preliminaries, but I’ve finally started to make some headway on my other projects. To tell the truth, all of my academic endeavours this semester are based on the Prelims Project one way or another; I guess you could say I’ve been training, getting ready for things to come. One of the primary concerns of Prelims is efficiency in data set compilation and model building—a daunting task—especially when you have to work with copious amount of information gleaned from scanned 17th century texts. While we will always have to read the preliminaries section of the text and manually compile the data that will become nodes and edges, other parts of the process should be able to be performed almost automatically using minimal human labour. So, to make a long story short, I am basically focusing this term on building skills I need to advance the Preliminaries Project efficiently and, I must admit, having some good fun along the way. Hence the Python, the Gephi, the endless graphs and the current single-mindedness of the Prelims blog—hey the blog is called Preliminaries Project. Who knows what comes next, only time will tell…but for now, graphs and Python. So here we go…

Last week we talked a bit about the Virgin of Guadalupe, so this week I would like to talk a bit about another class I’m taking called La Máquina Cultural. This course is team-taught by Professors Juan Luis Suárez and Rafael Montano and designed and instructed by Juan Sánchez, a fellow Ph.D. student and amigo here at Western. The class is based on a fantastic new approach to understanding Latin American texts as a highly heterogeneous corpus that emerges from the cultural exchanges that take place at encrucijadas literarias, or literary crossroads, which represent cultural interaction between diverse cultures on a global scale. This concept is represented graphically and figuratively as the Máquina Cultural:

In the center of the machine is the diverse corpus of Latin American literature. The second largest pinions are a kind of category or grouping within the corpus. The outer ring represents the texts, or cultural objects. The idea is, if you move one pinion, you move them all, and interaction occurs all throughout that cultural system. More information about the course can be found at its various Yutzu’s.

As part of the requirements for the class, each student is required to invent a new model of the Máquina and propose a new pinion. More than a homework assignment, this process of genesis seems to take on a symbolic discourse: a new generation of academics trying to break free of traditionally boundaries and create innovative ways to understand the cultural process. It’s happening. It’s all over the Internet. And, fortunately or not, we are part of it.

What I would like to show you tonight is an early version of my model for the new Máquina Cultural. I decided to stick with the basic model designed by Juan—I find it very thought provoking—with a few little changes. First, I decided to move away from the mechanical image of the machine and move to a more organic (network based) model. Second, I wanted to symbolically represent human interaction with the literary corpus. Third, I decided to call the center pinion “Cultura Colectiva”. Finally, I also created a new pinion called “Tierra Adentro”, which I will discuss in more detail later this week in my Spanish language blog Por la máquina.

So how did I do this? With Gephi and Python of course! (complete version of Python script at this gist)

Using the Python module NetworkX I created the unique nodes (categorical pinions), one by one, and then generated the core of the graph by connecting all of the categorical pinions to the “Cultura Colectiva” node:


Then I used a couple of simple loops to generate chunks of node ids, and link up the edges in an orderly fashion:


The general schema of the graph is the following:

‘Cultura Colectiva’->’8 unique nodes’->’15 object nodes’ per unique node->’30 agent nodes’ per object node . This ends up being 9 core nodes, 120 object nodes, and 3600 agent nodes: 3729 nodes, 3728 edges.

Here is the graph rendered in Gephi with the Fruchterman Reingold layout algorithm and sized for betweenness centrality:

 [‘Cultura Colectiva’.color = blue, ‘Categorical Nodes’.color = purple,

‘Obejct Nodes’.color = green,  ‘Agent Nodes’.color = blue]

I like to think of this model more as the “Cultural Interface” than the “Cultural Machine”—a moment frozen in cultural time—where humans interact meaningfully with a cultural object, an interaction that receives and informs the collective cultural knowledge as it flows through networks of people and places and objects and time…pretty far out…I know.

Anyway this blog is getting long and the night of the busy grad student is still young. Until next time @dbrownbeta


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The Miracle

Hello and welcome back! It’s hard to believe that two weeks have already passed and it is time for another blog entry. Although Preliminaries is alive and well and still developing, I would like deviate a bit today and talk about another project that I started a few days ago called—for the current lack of a better title—Guadalupe.

Here Guadalupe is a reference to the beloved and famous Virgin de Guadalupe, a painting that, according to legend, miraculously appeared on the maguey cloak of  Nahautl speaking Juan Diego on December 9, 1531. As close as a painting can come to being a rock star, Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired thousands of copies during the colonial period of New Spain, copious amounts of literature, entire lines of merchandise, and fervent devotion amongst the Mexican people.

I first became interested in New Spanish painting because of a class I took last spring with Alena Robin, an art historian and Assistant Professor here at Western in the Hispanic Studies department. This fall I have been taking another one of her courses called “Migration and Ethnic Relations in Colonial Latin American Art” in which we spend a lot of time discussing ethnic interactions in the American colonies and its artistic expressions. The Virgen of Guadalupe fits quite well with this theme for a variety of reasons: the location of her shrine at Tepeyac (associated with the  goddesses Tonantzin), the fact that Juan Diego was of Mexica heritage, the strong base of Nahuatl language literature documenting the apparition, the appearance of a Nahautl speaking Virgin Mary etc. So I chose Guadalupe as the subject of my term paper and began to investigate.

What I am really interested in right now is how culture works as a process, how it is coded as information and spread throughout networks, and ways to model and evaluate large cultural data sets to better understand cultural phenomenon. The Virgin of Guadalupe fits perfectly within this model because of her long-term success in Mexican culture, the quantity of cultural production centered around the miracle, and the interesting transcultural implications presented by her mythology and cult. To get a better look at the Guadalupe phenomenon, I decided to gather a big data set from her colonial era production to try to do some network analysis in Gephi. Wait a minute, a big data set for a term project? How the heck am I gonna do that? Luckily, I was able to build upon the work of other digital humanists and put together the first phase of my project in a couple hours.

Using the CulturePlex’s Baroque Art Database, I quickly located around 700 paintings with a Guadeloupian theme. From there I simply downloaded the data in various .csv files, coded up a couple quick functions in Python to clean up the data and off I went. After playing around in Gephi for a few minutes I had a nice image of the data:


It makes for a pretty picture, but it doesn’t really tell us much other than the basic structure of the database. One thing you notice (if you have a magnifying glass) is the large number of anonymous paintings. A little frustrating for a social networks project, but it’s the nature of the beast: most colonial paintings were not signed. Oh I forgot to mention, the schema used for this part of the visualization was quite simple. All of the Guadalupian paintings are linked to the original, miraculous painting, and the painters are linked to the paintings they signed. That is why we see the strong central prescence of “The Miracle”.

As I said before this doesn’t tell us much, so I am currently working on improving the data set through the addition of published texts with a Guadalupian theme, manuscripts gathered from the historiography of New Spanish painting, and institutional affiliations. So far I have only added a few manuscripts described in Mina Ramírez Montes’ “En defensa de la pintura. Ciudad de México, 1753”, an article detailing 4 documents uncovered by historians that all refer to the 18th century New Spanish painters’ desire for improved working conditions. These documents provide a wealth of information for network analysis, as each one is signed by a variety of painters, prominent and otherwise. After adding the documents, we start to see some more interesting results:

Here we see distinct communities beginning to form and the bridges between them. First of all we notice the “halo” around the miracle. These are the anonymous painting from the Baroque art database. Further out we see paintings with known authorship, and their painter appearing in red. Also we see the various documents in green, and their associated groups of painters. Here we begin to notice two communities: the first is generated by the earlier documents dating to the 1720’s, the second by the later documents from the 1750’s. Also we can see the bridges that form between the two groups passing through Nicolás Enríquez and Jose de Ibarra. These results–however obvious they may be–are the kind of connections and communities I hope to detect within the larger data set once it has been assembled and the quantity of information makes it difficult to detect these patterns without computational tools.

That’s it for today folks. As always I would gladly answer and questions at or @dbrownbeta

Ramírez Montes, Mina. “En defensa de la pintura. Ciudad de México.” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Núm. 78 2001: 103-128. Print.


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