Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. Print.
Drucker’s project in this book is to show how visual forms of knowledge not only display knowledge but create and generate knowledge. Drucker argues for humanist graphical knowledge: visual forms of knowledge that account for complexity, not simplicity, and that understand information as constructed, not context-less, given, or value-less. Drucker crosses multiple disciplinary boundaries as she traces the history of visual and graphical forms, showing how different categories of visual forms of knowledge situate knowledge and make arguments about hierarchies, relationships, and individual agencies. Her book juxtaposes her text and her argument with visual forms of knowledge from ancient hieroglyphics and stone carvings to screenshots of digital texts and maps. One of her goals is to show how the informational graphics and the interfaces that have become such an intertwined part of our everyday experience are arguments themselves, designed for specific purposes. She works in this book to bring these more invisible visual elements to the forefront and analyze them in critical, humanistic terms.
“Humanists work with fragmentary evidence when researching cultural materials. They produce interpretations, not repeatable results. We have to find graphical conventions to show uncertainty and ambiguity in digital models, not just because these are conditions of knowledge production in our disciplines, but because the very model of knowledge itself that gets embodied in the process has values whose cultural authority matters very much” (191).
Writing and composition in a networked and digital world: “In spite of the networked condition of textual production, the design of digital platforms for daily use has hardly begun to accommodate the imaginative possibilities of constellationary composition, graphic interpretation, and diagrammatic writing…Very few acts of composition are diagrammatic, constellationary, or associative. Fewer still are visual or spatial. The predominant modes of composition in digital displays have remained quite linear, even when they have combinatoric or modular underpinnings” (183).
the future of humanistic interface: “More attention to the acts of producing and less emphasis on the product, the creation of an interface that is meant to expose and support the activity of interpretation, rather than to display finished forms, would be a good starting place” (179).
The graphical interface (our screen) is an argument, not a thing: “We ignore its graphicality, its constructedness, the very features that support its operations and make it work. We look at the interface as a thing, a representation of computational processes that make it convenient for us to interact with what is ‘really’ happening. But the interface is a mediating structure that supports behaviors and tasks. It is a space between human users and procedures that happen according to complicated protocols. But it also disciplines, constrains, and determines what can be done in any digital environment” (138-139).
“Perhaps the most striking feature distinguishing humanistic, interpretative, and constructivist graphical expressions from realist statistical graphics is that the curves, bars, columns, percentage values would not always be represented as discrete bounded entities, but as conditional expressions of interpretative parameters – a kind of visual fuzzy logic or graphical complexity. Thus their edges might be permeable, lines dotted and broken, dots and points might vary in size and scale or degree of ambiguity in placement. These graphical strategies express interpreted knowledge, situated and partial, rather than complete.” (132)
“The rendering of statistical information into graphical form gives it a simplicity and legibility that hides every aspect of the original interpretative framework on which the statistical data were constructed. The graphical force conceals what the statistician knows very well – that no “data” pre-exist their parameterization. Data are capta, taken not given, constructed as an interpretation of the phenomenal world, not inherent in it” (128)
“Maps, like other graphic conventions, construct normative notions about time, space, and experience that become so familiar that we take them for accurate representations rather than constructions” (82).
“Visualization formats exist independent of particular media. Calendars don’t have to be scratched into stone and bar charts don’t need to be rendered by engravers with finely tooled burins – any more than scatter plots have to be generated computationally.” (67)
“The interpretative acts that become encoded in graphical formats may disappear from final view in the process, but they are the persistent ghosts in the visual scheme, rhetorical elements of generative artifacts. The challenge is to develop a terminology for the rhetorical iconography of graphical forms that is grounded in the features of spatialized relations such as hierarchy, juxtaposition, and proximity (66).
The forms of our visual communication are arguments themselves: the forms were culturally-constructed and still contain that history: “We are still Babylonians, in our use of the calendar, our measure of days, hours, and minutes, just as we remain classical in our logic, medieval in our classification systems, and modern in our use of measurements expressed in rational form. Each of the many schematic conventions in daily use and the frequently unquestioned appearance in our documents and websites replicate ideologies in graphics” (65).
“Though we often use visual means to make images of invisible things, much of contemporary life simply can’t be shown. The workings of power, the force of ideology, the transmission of values, and other abstract ideas have no specific visual form, even if they work through a material social world.
“Speed, scale, complexity, and the infrastructure in place and at work in systems of communications, production, distribution, much scientific discovery, and humanistic thought simply cannot be made apparent in visual images. But an endless stream of visualizations continues to turn complex phenomena into images, reifying abstractions, turning them into objects to be seen” (22-23).
Goal: “the urgency of finding critical languages for the graphics that predominate in the networked environment” (17)
Methodology: “draw on the rich history of graphical forms of knowledge production that are the legacy of manuscript and print artifacts as well as digital media works in the arts and applied realms” (17)
“Even though our relation to experience is often (and increasingly) mediated by visual formats and images, the bias against visual forms of knowledge production is longstanding in our culture. Logocentric and numero-centric attitudes prevail” (16).
Key terms in the introduction
information graphics = “visualizations based on abstractions of statistical data…Visualizations are always interpretations – data does not have an inherent visual that merely gives rise to a graphic expression” (7)
graphical user interface – “dominant feature of screens in all shapes and sizes…In a very real, practical sense we carry on most of our personal and professional business through interfaces. Knowing how interface structures our relation to knowledge and behavior is essential.” (8)
Visual epistemology – “ways of knowing that are presented and processed visually” (8)
Language of form – “a systematic approach to graphic expression as a means as well as an object of study” (9)
Image, Interpretation, and Interface
Looks at different theoretical and methodological ways of understanding visual forms as knowledge, cross disciplinary and across history
There have been efforts in the late 19th, 20th, and 21st century to create a language for graphics – formal rules and descriptions (18)
We use visualization a lot, but it is still treated as less than, suspect (23) Maybe in part because there is no universal grammar of visualization – visuals by their nature are not consistent, don’t hold meaning with “stable, fixed, and finite rules” like words/language/mathematics does. (24)
In science, visuals were used to represent and record knowledge, not produce knowledge (26-27)
Change in the late nineteenth century (Eugene Guillamume, industrial revolution) from a graphic language based on the human body (fine arts) to one based on geometry (industrial design, design to be produced and reproduced through mechanical means) (31).
Growth of formal education/principles/methods in graphic and visual design in the 20th century, modernism (35)
20th century – rise of the use of visual/graphical/statistical displays of knowledge
Interpreting Visualization/Visualizing Interpretation
The histories of visual forms of knowledge
Forms that Drucker investigates: 1. Timekeeping (star charts, calendars, timelines; 2. Space-making (maps); 3. Administration and record-keeping (tables, charts, grids, flow charts); 4. Trees of knowledge (family trees, network diagrams, evolutionary diagrams, division and hierarchy and relationships); 5. Knowledge generators (diagrams, volvelles, Venn diagrams; 6. Dynamic systems (model processes and events, weather maps and meteorology, fluid dynamics, chaos theory and systems mapping
Distinction between “static” representations (those visual representations that are merely representations of information) and “dynamic” representations (those visual representations that can create or generate knowledge) (65).
Interface and Interpretation
Looks at digital and book interface as encoding and producing knowledge, explores what a humanistic interface design might be and entail.
Call for new rhetorics, grammars of the digital media age