It's taken a while, but we’ve made a little progress on the mathesis universalis that Leibniz envisioned 300 or so years ago – a mathematical language describing the world so perfectly that any question could be answered by performing the appropriate calculations.
Aware that the computations would be demanding, Leibniz also had in mind a machine to do them rapidly. On that score things are very much farther along than he could ever have imagined. And while the mathesis universalis itself seems destined to remain only the most beautiful dream of rationalist philosophy, there’s no question that Leibniz would appreciate the incredible power to store and retrieve information that we’ve come to take for granted. (Besides being a polymathic genius, he was a librarian.)
Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, published by Harvard University Press, focuses in part on the capacity of maps, charts, diagrams, and other modes of display to encode and organize information. But only in part: while Drucker’s claims for the power of visual language are less extravagantly ambitious than Leibniz’s for mathematical symbols, it is a matter of degree and not of kind. (The author is professor of bibliographical studies at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles.)
“The complexity of visual means of knowledge production,” she writes, “is matched by the sophistication of our cognitive processing. Visual knowledge is as dependent on lived, embodied, specific knowledge as any other field of human endeavor, and integrates other sense data as part of cognition. Not only do we process complex representations, but we are imbued with cultural training that allows us to understand them as knowledge, communicated and consensual, in spite of the fact that we have no ‘language’ of graphics or rules governing their use.”
Forget the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. Drucker’s claim is not about pictorial imagery, as such. A drawing or painting may communicate information about how a person or place looks, but the forms she has in mind (bar graphs, for example, or Venn diagrams) perform a more complex operation. They convert information into something visually apprehended.
We learn to understand and use these visual forms so readily that they seem almost self-evident. Some people know how to read a map better than others -- but all of us can at least recognize one when we see it. Likewise with tables, graphs, calendars, and family trees. In each case we intuitively understand how the data are organized, if not what they mean.
But the pages of Graphesis teem with color reproductions of 5,000 years’ worth of various modes of visually rendered knowledge – showing how they have emerged and developed over time, growing familiar but also defining or reinforcing ways to apprehend information.
A good example is the mode of plotting information on a grid. Drucker reproduces a chart of planetary movements in that form from 10th-century edition of Macrobius. But the idea didn’t catch on: “The idea of graphical plotting either did not occur, or required too much of an abstraction to conceptualize.” The necessary leap came only in the early 17th century, when Descartes reinvented the grid in developing analytical geometry. His mathematical tool “combined with intensifying interest in empirical measurements,” writes Drucker, “but they were only slowly brought together into graphic form. Instruments adequate for gathering ‘data’ in repeatable metrics came into play … but the intellectual means for putting such information into statistical graphs only appeared in fits and starts.”
And in the 1780s, a political economist invented a variation on the form by depicting the quantity of various exports and imports of Scotland as bars on a graph – an arresting presentation, in that it shows one product being almost twice as heavily traded as any other. (The print is too small for me to determine what it was.) The advantages of the bar graph in rendering information to striking effect seem obvious, but it, too, was slow to enter common use.
“We can easily overlook the leap necessary to abstract data and then give form to its complexities,” writes Drucker. And once the leap is made, it becomes almost impossible to conceive such data without the familiar visual tools.
If the author ever defines her title term, I failed to mark the passage, but graphesis would presumably entail a comprehensive understanding of the available and potential means to record and synthesize knowledge, of whatever kind, in visual form. Drucker method is in large measure inductive: She examines a range of methods of presenting information to the eye and determines how the elements embed logical concepts into images.
While art history and film studies (especially work on editing and montage) are relevant to some degree, Drucker’s project is very much one of exploration and invention. Leibniz’s mathesis was totalizing and deductive; once established, his mathematical language would give final and definitive answers. By contrast, graphesis would entail the regular creation of new visual tools in keeping with the appearance of new kinds of knowledge, and new media for transmitting it.
“The ability to think in and with the tools of computational and digital environments,” the author warns, “will only evolve as quickly as our ability to articulate the metalanguages of our engagement.”
That passage, which is typical, is some indication of why Graphesis will cull its audience pretty quickly. Some readers will want to join her effort; many more will have some difficulty in imagining quite what it is. Deepening the project's fascination, for those drawn to it, is Drucker's recognition of an issue so new that it still requires a name: What happens to the structuring of knowledge when maps, charts, etc. appear not just on a screen, but one responsive to touch? The difficulties that Graphesis presents are only incidentally matters of diction; the issues themselves are difficult. I suspect Graphesis may prove to be an important book, for reasons we'll fully understand only somewhere down the line.