Z-axis Mapping Tool

Create 3D geospatial maps that express modernist novels through historical maps.

    ⤷ Launch the tool


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Digital maps flatten space at the levels of data and interface. Projecting Mercator’s Cartesian mission onto the screen, environments such as Google Maps treat space as uniform and universal, an isomorphic representation of the realist geography for which it stands. By way of contrast, experiences of space are often fragmented and partial, pieced togther from subjective experiences on the ground, rather than universally knowable from a totalizing view above. The map is not the territory. This tool enables the analysis and expression of spatial experience described by literary texts, deploying that experience to warp cartographic expressions of the geography in which it takes place. Expressing a modernist break with the realist impulse of environments such as Google Maps, this tool does not project normalizing expressions of space (base maps) onto textual accounts of subjective experience and resists imposing GIS space upon texts that predate GPS technology. Instead, it produces warped, 3D maps used to analyze subjective experiences of space (particularly those influenced by gender, sexuality, class, and time). Rather than visualizing where elements of a text occur in a historical city, this tool expresses how and where texts themselves transform the city into subjective, interpretive versions of the historical geography to which it refers. The tool is designed primarily for the interpretation of literary texts, but can be used with any text.


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Using the Z-Axis Tool

We have worked hard to make using the Z-Axis tool as easy as possible. The simplest workflow involves just four steps:

a) select one of the novels we have uploaded to the site, and select one of the two maps we have uploaded. Alternately, you may choose a novel you have stored on your own computer, provided it is saved in .txt format. Or, you may copy and paste the text of a novel from a site such as Project Gutenberg (Gutenberg.net). Once you have selected or uploaded your text, click the right arrow to process it.

b) On the next screen, you can edit the list of place names. You can reject the suggestions outright, or re-assign them to the categories of “People” or “Organizations” as you like. You need not be pernickety on this step, since the map will only show places that have corresponding names on the map of London. We do, however, recommend rejecting “London” as a place name, since its frequency can skew the map view results in the next step. Click the right arrow to continue.

c) The third screen will show you a warped map of London, on which the X and Y axes correspond to longitude and latitude, while the Z axis – the axis showing topographical relief – indicates the frequency with which particular place names are mentioned. The higher the mound on the map, the more often the place name was mentioned in the text. Use the orange slider to view sections of the novel. lg left For instance “word range: 0%-25%” returns a map for the first quarter of the novel, while “word range: 75%-100%” returns a map for the last quarter of the novel. “Word range: 0%-100%” returns a map for the whole novel. Using the slider, you can map sections of the text and visualize which areas of the city are mentioned as the novel progresses. In addition to dragging the slider with your mouse, you also can click the white boxes on either end of the slider and then use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard to manipulate the word range. You can choose between two historical maps at the top of the screen. Click “screenshot” to open an image of the map in a new window. You can then right click on this image and select “save image as…” to download it on your computer.

d) The final step is all you. Interpret your results. What do the differences among the various panes suggest about how the novel manages its spatial and geographical distributions? How is temporality encoded geographically? What is remarkable about the novels’ predilections for certain place names over others? What sort of information can you bring in from other sources to enhance your warped map? Do maps showing demographic, economic, ethnic, historical, and other distributions illuminate how your selected novel imagines the city? Where does the action of your selected novel take place, and what does that distribution tell you about the novel’s thematic and formal elements and concerns?

Under the Hood


a) Language: The Z-Axis tool is written in Python. The code is available on Github.

b) Novels: The novels we have uploaded are in plain TXT format for simplicity of processing.

c) Maps: The maps have been scanned in by the University of Victoria Library, and geo-rectified to accurate longitude and latitude.

d) Libraries: We have also loaded into the site a library of London place names, with geographical coordinates relative to the limit coordinates of the geo-rectified map, so that they will be accurately located if they are called up by the list of place names generated in the next step of the processing.

Once a text is selected, the tool runs an NER script, based on the Stanford NLP Core. The result is a list of place names, output on-screen as text that can be edited or re-categorized by the user. Once the list of place names is finalized, the Z-Axis tool uses an algorithm to count the frequency of individual place names, converting that value into a cone-shaped object that is displayed on the final screen as a layer underneath the map, producing a warped effect. The place names on the user-edited list specific to the novel being mapped are referred to the library of geo-located place names so that the warping elements appear accurately on the map. The degrees of distortion are arbitrary, and variable by the user through on-screen adjustment options. The output map is dynamically viewable on screen.


The z-axis tool has recently been updated to map sentiment. The tool uses Stanford’s NLP sentiment core to generate affective maps, with red peaks corresponding to negative sentiment, and blue peaks corresponding to positive sentiment. The colour insensity for affect can be adjusted in the settings window; lowering the intensity to zero will remove sentiment from a z-axis map. See an affective map of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.


Z-axis Interpretation

Whereas conventional electronic maps locate the work in the city — indicating where events take place and why the location is of historical interest — z-axis maps instead locate the city in the work — considering how, where, and why literary texts represent specific spatial experiences of the city. Reading z-axis maps involves interpreting them in this way, considering how the mapped text represents a specific version of the city in which it is set, often in accordance with distinctions of class, gender, sexuality, and so on.

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Alex Christie notes that his z-axis map of Djuna Barnes’s Paris in Nightwood is highly inflected by class distictions. Queer activities take place in student and working class neighborhoods on the left bank, whereas heterosexual encounters take place primarily on the right bank. Moreover, references to queer activities tend to take place in general areas (neighborhoods), whereas encounters on the left bank are localized (occuring at or in specific addresses). This connection between class and queerness corresponds to spatial practices of modern Paris, in which queer activity often took place in lower class, public spaces, since these spaces offered public anonymity. The z-axis map of Barnes’s Nightwood represents zones of sexual possibility, through which the heteronormative grid of paris is both literally and figurative warped.

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Katie Tanigawa argues that, while the 1932 Monumental Map privileges monuments, Jean Rhys’s Quartet instead privileges spaces obscured and marginalized by this popular map. One can see a large mound representing a significant number of words spent around the Observatoire. What is crucial to note is that the narrative spends none of this time in the Observatoire. Rather, all the narrative located in this region takes place in the Heidlers’s studio behind this popular landmark. Another key example of Marya’s construction of the Parisian city can be seen in her presence around but never in the Luxembourg gardens. As the map shows, she spends considerable amounts of time in cafés in the area, but her diminishing social and class statuses due to her gender and sexual practices prevent her presence in the classed spaces privileged in the 1932 monumental map. In other words, this map shows how Rhys’ narrative privileges spaces traditionally marginalized in social and economic discourse and inscriptively marginalized in popular maps at the time, revealing her work in conversation not just with other novels at the time but with the ideologies that influenced actual mapping practices of the time.

Read further z-axis interpretations in “Z-Axis Scholarship: Modeling how modernists wrote the city” and “Arguing Through Archival Objects: A z-axis method for 3D-printed interpretation.”

Further Reading

Download the introduction and first chapter of Andrew Thacker’s Moving Through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism.


Lesson Plan:
Mapping Mrs Dalloway

download .docx

download .pdf

Lesson Plan:
Mapping Interfaces

download .docx

download .pdf


Daniel Brendle-Moczuk

I say "zed"

Alex Christie

I say both

Belaid Moa

I say "zed"

Stephen Ross

I say "zed"

Katie Tanigawa

I say "zee"

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