Revolution Lullabye

October 9, 2014

Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production

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.

Quotable Quotes

“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).

Notable Notes


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


October 5, 2013

Enoch and Bessette, Meaningful Engagements

Enoch, Jessica and Jean Bessette. “Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities.” College Composition and Communication 64.4 (June 2013): 634-660.

Enoch and Bessette, citing a disconnect between feminist rhetorical historiography and the digital humanities movement, explore what digital historiography could offer to feminist historians of rhetoric.  Their essay, which is organized around three terms used by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch to describe excellence in feminist research (strategic contemplation, social circulation, and critical imagination), explains the surface-level contradictions between feminist rhetorical historiography and digital historiography, argues for the deeper connections between the two kinds of research, and offers suggestions and/or hesitations about how the two might adapt and affect each other. In the end, they call on feminist rhetorical historiographers to explore and question what the digital humanities bring to (or subtract from) their work. 

Enoch and Bessette interrogate specific digital historiography methods, including distant reading, visualization, multimodal production, and open or interactive online history projects. Enoch and Bessette point out that digital humanities often rely on the construction of online archives, which can open up research opportunities for feminist rhetorical historians (though, they do point out that the contents of these archives (e.g. Google Books) leave out many documents and works of interest to feminist rhetorical historians.) They also address two main issues of concern about feminist rhetorical historians becoming multimodal digital humanities scholars: first, that there hasn’t been enough scholarly attention to the effects of digital histories on audiences (what the histories do) and second, that many feminist rhetorical historians lack the technological skills set to produce multimodal scholarship, and the “culture of code” surrounding the digital humanities prevents women from participating in this area of research.


Notable Notes

Google’s Ngram as a useful research tool for feminist rhetorical historiographers, a distant reading tool that searches for words and phrases over the entire Google Books corpus and generates a visual graph that shows when those words or phrases appear over 200+ years.  These tools allow researchers to incorporate evidence (and find new questions) that would have been impossible for a single scholar to aggregate. (643-645) example: Aspasia

interactive online histories like the Harvard Film Study Center and Laurel Ulrich’s site DoHistory, which invites readers to read an 18th-century American midwife’s journal (Martha Ballard) and “translate” her diary, read other contemporary documents next to it and come to their own historical conclusions about events, etc. (650).  These interactive histories, though, bring to light a “different dynamic of power” between audience and scholar (650).

digital archives aren’t necessarily “disembodied” and therefore counter to the principles underlying feminist research – certain digital archives allow for “virtual proximity” with their abundance of data that researchers can use to find new connections, patterns in their digital recovery efforts.

Subheadings: “Digital Archives, Strategic Contemplation, and Virtual Proximity”; “Social Circulation, Evidence, and Distant Reading”; “Critical Imagination, Dangerous Moves, and Multimodal Histories” – these subheadings correspond to Royster and Kersch’s principles.


Quotable Quotes

“Evidence here becomes pattern, repetition, and aggregation” (645) – the kind of evidence generated through distant reading methodologies (e.g. Moretti)

“We intend this essay to function as a springboard for feminist historians (and all historians, in fact) to consider their relationship to the digital humanities” (637).

“The work accomplished in Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies” enables us to put feminist historiography in conversation with the digital humanities in general and digital historiography more particularly for the purpose of considering how the two fields of study may come together and invigorate one another, how they might complicate one another, and how they may run in contradistinction to one another” (636-37).

“Whereas we once confronted a seeming dearth of archival evidence, now it seems that opportunities for digital recovery are everywhere” (639).

“the culture of code is likely to be off-putting to women at best and discriminatory at worst” (652-653) – countered by local, smaller groups dedicated to teaching women scholars how to code.

“Since a great deal of feminist historiographic work hinges on the idea that women have been all but erased from rhetorical history and the rhetorical record, a marked characteristic of feminist research has been to recover forgotten figures whose rhetorical significance is often found in out-of-the-way places rather than institutional and federal archives with enormous holdings” (637-638).

Create a free website or blog at