Distant Spectators

Distant Reading for Periodicals of the Enlightenment

On 5th March 2020 we will present a poster with the title Das Theater mit dem Theater: Thementransfer in den Spectators at the 7th annual conference for Digital Humanities in the German-speaking area, DHd 2020, in Paderborn, Germany. This text delineates our contribution to the conference theme Digital Humanities between modelling and interpretation.

The 18th century periodical genre Spectators is an important part of the cultural heritage of the period of the Enlightenment. It matches the democratic ideal of spreading cultural and moral questions and values ​​of the Enlightenment such as cosmopolitanism, tolerance, intellectual criticism and social responsibility among non-academic circles. This periodical journalistic genre has spread across Europe through translation, adaptation and imitation of the English model journals The Tatler (1709-1711), The Spectator (1711-1712 and 1714) and The Guardian (1713). Our poster shows the spread of central topics of the educational discourse, such as theater, customs and good manners, images of women and men etc. based on the multilingual corpus of the digital edition The Spectators in the International Context (Ertler et al.), currently containing texts in Italian, Spanish, French, English, German and Portuguese.

Through the examination of popular topics using machine methods, we want to present central lines of the discourse transfer within the Spectators genre and to reflect the “zeitgeist” of the 18th century. Using a combination of close reading, distant reading and visualization methods, we aim to show which topics had local relevance and which were included in the discourse across countries. Within the latter, we distinguish between topics that had gained relevance independently in different language communities and those that were spread through imitation and translation.

As an example, we focus on the theater, which was discussed independently in numerous Spanish, Italian and French periodicals. While neoclassical theater was already fully established in France in the 18th century and was therefore less relevant as a subject in the Spectators, Italy and Spain experienced a lively national theater discussion. The Italian theater had developed steadily since the 16th century. In the 18th century, however, it became the medium of representation for modern Italy and underwent a massive change. Irrespective of this, the political dispute between progressives and traditionalists on the subject of theater was also held in Spain: Spanish intellectuals increasingly tried to establish intellectual ties with Europe through cultural reforms and engaged in a real dispute with traditionalists over a radical reform of the theater based on the neoclassical French model. (Guinard 1973, 133-138; Ertler 2003, 120-124).

The research is based on the collection of around 4.000 texts with manually annotated narrative, thematic and subject-oriented contents based on the XML/TEI standards (TEI Consortium 2019). In addition to the quantitative evaluation of the metadata, keywords and entities, the advantage of the TEI encoding for the analysis is the possibility of investigation based on the narrative text structure. Not only the entire text, but also annotated narrative forms in the periodical texts can be analyzed and contrasted separately, such as dream sequences or letters to the editor. In addition to the quantitative evaluation of the manually assigned topics, we use topic modeling (e.g. Blei et al. 2003, Jelodar et al. 2019, Kuang et al. 2015) to confirm and supplement these annotations and to offer new perspectives on the reception of the material. Fig. 1 and 2 show a comparison of the manual and the automated evaluation of topics. We notice a correspondence between the two approaches, since the topic modeling evaluation shows the same increased occurrence of the topic theater as the manual annotation of the topic Theater Literature Arts in issues 18-27, 37-46 and 68-78.

Fig. 1: Statistical evaluation of the manually assigned topics in the
                            periodical El Pensador.
Fig. 1: Statistical evaluation of the manually assigned topics in the periodical El Pensador.
Fig. 2. Topic Modeling: Topic
                            Theater & Comedy (with
                            the 10 most frequent words comedia, theatro, poetas,
                                pueblo, pieza, amor, accion, nacion, pasion, tragedia) in the
                            periodical El Pensador
Fig. 2. Topic Modeling: Topic Theater & Comedy (with the 10 most frequent words comedia, theatro, poetas, pueblo, pieza, amor, accion, nacion, pasion, tragedia) in the periodical El Pensador

The topic Theater & Comedy can also be noticed in the Italian periodicals. Fig. 3 shows the probability of this topic with the most frequent words teatro sera opera signor scena pubblico musico musica spettacolo ballo cantare rappresentare applauso concorrere meritare signora recitare maestro commedia celebre. The periodicals Gazzetta urbana veneta, Donna galante, La Gazzetta veneta and Spettatore piemontese are shown to have a stronger focus on this topic than other periodicals, which corresponds to our close reading experience and the manual annotation. Gazzetta urbana veneta even has a section dedicated to theater in almost every volume, so it was clear that this periodical will have a high proportion value for this topic. Gazzetta veneta shows less probability for this topic, since it is a more narrative-oriented journal. Donna galante writes mainly about fashion, but theater is definitely among the other subjects of the periodical.

Fig. 3: Topic
                            Theater & Comedy in the
                            Italian text collection
Fig. 3: Topic Theater & Comedy in the Italian text collection

Contrary to our manual annotation, the topic is much less prominent in the periodical Il Filosofo alla Moda. The reason for this lies in the concept of our annotation -- we did not make a distinction of various artistic fields, but described them together as Theater Literature Arts (Fig. 2). Indeed, Il Filosofo writes about literature aesthetics for example, but less about theater.

In the French collection, this topic is much less dominant, since the theater discussion does not take place with the same intensity in France as in Italy and Spain. Theater occurs in our analysis of 25 French topics (Fig. 4) only as part of the more literature oriented topic Literature and Theater with the most frequent keywords poëte auteur art poète ouvrage poëme acteur critique goût génie tragédie bel comédie théatre virgile musique voltaire théâtre ancien beauté. French periodicals focus more on literature, individual authors or plays and not as much on theater in general. But, on the other side, individual periodicals set specific topic emphasis, such as Le Spectateur inconnu. In this periodicals literary criticism, especially focusing on epic and tragedy, plays a major role. Nevertheless, as this periodicals has only 8 issues, it has limited impact on the topic modelling results of the whole collection.

Fig. 4: Heat map of the French text collection
Fig. 4: Heat map of the French text collection

In future work, we will additionally use the (manual and machine) annotations to analyze the temporal occurrence of selected topics within a language community and across languages. The Spectators' network of periodicals serves as a reference for this research: It shows the dependence of periodicals from different language communities regarding translation, adaptation and imitation.

The contribution of our poster and the underlying work on the project Distant Spectators: Distant Reading for Periodicals of the Enlightenment can be divided into two aspects. On the one hand, by using distant reading methods, the list of manually selected topics can be expanded and granulated more precisely. This approach relativizes the reading expectation and thus enables an unbiased view on the texts and the analysis of larger, possibly not yet annotated collections. On the other hand, the publicly available digital edition of the Spectators (Ertler et al.) will additionally be (semi-automatically) enriched by the presented work and augmented by visualizations based on the TEI annotations. This is a first exploratory step towards intelligent machine learning in the context of the genre Spectators and opens up new ways of indexing, analyzing and presenting this multilingual literary resource.


Ertler, Klaus-Dieter/Fuchs, Alexandra/Fischer, Michaela/Hobisch, Elisabeth/Scholger, Martina/Völkl, Yvonne (Ed.) (2011-2019): The Spectators in the International Context. URL: https://gams.uni-graz.at/spectators [Accessed: 03.03.2020].

Ertler, Klaus-Dieter (2003): Moralische Wochenschriften in Spanien. José Clavijo y Fajardo: ,El Pensador’. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

Guinard, Paul-J. (1973): La Presse espagnole de 1737 à 1791. Formation et signification d’un genre. Paris: Centre de recherches hispaniques.

Blei, David M./Ng, Andrew Y./Jordan I. Michael (2003): Latent Dirichlet Allocation. In: Journal of Machine Learning Research 3, pp. 993-1022. URL: http://www.jmlr.org/papers/volume3/blei03a/blei03a.pdf [Accessed: 03.03.2020].

Jelodar, Hamed/Wang, Yongli/Yuan, Chi/Feng, Xia/Jiang, Xiahui/Li, Yanchao/Zhao, Liang (2019): Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) and Topic modeling: models, applications, a survey. In: Multimedia Tools and Applications, 78(11), pp. 15169-15211.

Kuang, Da/Choo, Jaegul/Park, Haesun (2015): Nonnegative matrix factorization for interactive topic modeling and document clustering. In: Partitional Clustering Algorithms, pp. 215-243. Springer: Cham.

TEI Consortium (Eds.) (2019): Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. URL: http://www.tei-c.org/P5/ [Accessed: 03.03.2020].