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Voltaire Foundation appoints Digital Research Fellow

Tuesday, 26 September, 2017

I am delighted to announce my appointment as Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation for the academic year 2017-2018. This is the first Digital Humanities appointment in French at Oxford, and is made possible by the generosity of M. Julien Sevaux and the John Fell Fund. As Digital Research Fellow, I will oversee the creation of a pilot Digital Voltaire project, establishing a dataset that for the first time contains all of Voltaire’s works, including his correspondence, as well as undertake a series of computational experiments around the theme of ‘Visualising Voltaire’.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

As the monumental print edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire nears completion, the Voltaire Foundation is currently preparing the ground for Digital Voltaire, an interactive and innovative digital edition of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes. The pilot project we are embarking upon will thus bring together two key existing datasets: TOUT Voltaire, developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago; and Voltaire’s letters, drawn from Electronic Enlightenment. The combined dataset will include more than 20,000 individual documents and over 11 million words, making this one of, if not the largest single-author databases available for digital humanities research. This resource, together with a focused research project to scope and understand its potential uses and applications, will enable the Voltaire Foundation to begin to create a conceptual and infrastructural framework for a broader, transformational Digital Voltaire, for which fundraising efforts have already begun.

The Visualising Voltaire project will become part of the soon-to-be-created ‘Voltaire Lab’ – a virtual space for new research experimentation and dissemination centred on Voltaire’s textual output and its relationship to the broader field of eighteenth-century studies. By interrogating the ‘big data’ of Voltaire’s texts at both a macro- and microscopic level, we hope to shed new light on Voltaire’s use of intertextuality, his most commonly used themes and literary motifs, his intellectual networks, and his development as a thinker. This research project will further benefit from close existing ties with the ARTFL Project and the newly-established Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago, and with the Labex OBVIL (‘Observatoire de la vie littéraire’) based at the Sorbonne; centres for digital humanities research and development in French studies where much of this type of analysis has been pioneered.

Visualising Voltaire will include a number of literary experiments to test the scholarly and critical value of a combined digital archive of Voltaire’s texts. Following on from the work of Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, the project will investigate how we can apply distant reading approaches to this large corpus in order to discover new connections and patterns at scale, and, at the same time, how these new approaches can interact and intervene with our traditional close reading modes of analysis. To this end, we have identified two areas of research that we will pursue in 2017-2018, and that we hope will lead to further projects in the future.

Sequence alignment in the intertextual edition of Raynal’s ‘Histoire des deux Indes’, Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Australian National University.

In the first instance, we will focus on Voltaire’s ‘intertextuality’ and how computational techniques such as sequence alignment – borrowed from the field of bio-informatics – can help us better understand the rich complexity of Voltaire’s writing practices. Indeed, one of the major research questions that has arisen from the preparation of the Complete Works of Voltaire concerns Voltaire’s unacknowledged use and reuse of other texts. This takes two forms: the widespread reuse (borrowing/theft/imitation) of works by other writers, and the equally widespread reuse of his own work. This is a huge subject that has never been satisfactorily studied until now.

In a second instance, the completion of the Complete Works of Voltaire on paper has also created the opportunity to provide an index to the whole of his writings, notably using automatic indexing and classification techniques developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to our ‘traditional’ indexes of the paper editions, which can be digitised and leveraged for computational analysis, we will also aim to generate ‘thematic maps’ of Voltaire’s works and correspondence using both supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms such as vector space analysis and topic modelling. These sorts of approaches will, we hope, open up Voltaire's writings in wholly new and exciting ways, creating opportunities for high-profile public engagement activities such as hackathons, and generating new areas of investigation for potential doctoral research students.

From Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s ‘Choix de Chansons’, 1774 – subject of the ARC Discovery grant ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’.

And finally, beyond these specific research projects, my role as Digital Research Fellow will entail making and maintaining connections with digital humanities teams both locally and internationally, building on past and current relationships to generate new research initiatives moving forward. We are interested, for example, in establishing a better understanding of the importance of Voltaire’s Enlightenment network and its participation in the larger eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, questions that can be addressed in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Network Analysis at Stanford, and the Cultures of Knowledge project based in Oxford. The Voltaire Lab can thus become a venue for engaging with other complementary Oxford digital projects, such as the Newton Project, which will allow for broader access as well as further fundamental research. Newton is often seen as the key thinker who sets the agenda for Enlightenment scientific thinking – through his emphasis on empiricism and the experimental method – while Voltaire, the dominant intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, helps to popularise Newton’s scientific method across Europe. Voltaire’s role as a key critic and disseminator of ideas and texts is also an area of research to which digital approaches can bring much to bear, in particular by linking his correspondence to projects such as Western Sydney University’s French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment.

We are equally keen to investigate the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Voltaire’s work beyond the purely literary or even textual, and, more generally, of his role in the often-overlooked interplay of music, images, and text in eighteenth-century print culture. This is in fact the subject of our recently awarded Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, which brings together a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Australian National University, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and Oxford.

The above are just a few of the countless avenues of research opened up by digital approaches to Voltaire’s work and legacy, and to which many more will be added as the larger Digital Voltaire project takes shape over the next few years. As the newly appointed Digital Research Fellow at the VF, I very much look forward to keeping you all informed on the results of these experiments and of the project’s evolution in due course.

– Glenn Roe