Seeing and Knowing: Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production

Johanna Drucker
Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production
(Harvard University Press/metaLABprojects, 2014)

If it is often the case that only books that get talked about are read, I can only hope that because there is so much to say about the information, textual, and graphic design scholar Johanna Drucker’s latest work, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, the book will continue to garner attention and readers for quite a while. Concerned, as Drucker’s work has been over the last 20 years, with the study and interpretation of representation practices across media, the book, which purports to be neither a history of visual knowledge making nor a study of the import of the visual image in digital media, instead combines discussions of both issues as it seeks to offer an “outline of principles and precepts that structure visual forms of knowledge production and representation in graphic formats.” In other words, the book is dedicated to an investigation of how and what “we” see in relation to how and what “we” know, both historically and in a contemporary context. Needless to say, such an investigation is based not on a single discipline, but several, and involves the discussion of fields as diverse as graphic design, mathematics, geography, the natural sciences, rhetoric, and philosophy. Furthermore, since Drucker is establishing the groundwork for what is essentially a new field, a graphic-based semiotics, there is a great deal that needs to be explained regarding the rationale for and terms of such an investigation even before she begins to show its relevance, which the later chapters are dedicated to. As a result, the book is not an “easy” read, but it will be an immensely rewarding and thought provoking one for artists, critics, and designers, as well as for scholars working in a range of disciplines, including the digital humanities, rhetoric, art history, architecture, and media studies. For, despite its resistance to concise summation—or perhaps as a result of this fact—the book is an important contribution to the ongoing study of various issues in the digital humanities—the role and status of interpretation in information visualizations; the types, meanings, and functions of graphic abstractions; the implications of the use and importation of quantitative tools in fields traditionally dedicated to qualitative analysis—as well as a model of the type of interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry increasingly demanded in contemporary scholarship and criticism.

The title of the book—Graphesis—is a neologism that can only be defined by the very phenomenon that the book is dedicated to investigating, namely the act and study of representation in graphical forms. Clearly recalling and playing on the term mimesis, or the act and study of representations of reality, the title situates the book firmly in the tradition of philosophical inquiry from antiquity to the present. The works of both Plato and Jacques Derrida are concerned in various ways with mimesis and its functions and attributes. However, whereas Derrida’s work was concerned, as most 20th-century philosophy and criticism was, with a language of words, Drucker’s work, reflecting the increasing importance of visual signs in communication and interpretation practices in the 21st century, turns her attention to graphic signs—tables, charts, maps, and diagrams, all of which both embed and interpret information. Concerned with tracing the history of what she terms at various points a “graphical language,” as well as with developing a metalanguage for discussing it, Drucker provides a great service by cataloging and drawing attention to hundreds of important visual artifacts produced over the last 5,000 years that have contributed to the grammar visual interpretation and communication. The scope of the material and Drucker’s command of it is breathtaking. Artifacts discussed include navigational, meteorological, mathematical, logical, philosophical, evolutionary, and biblical diagrams and maps from antiquity to the present day. Thus, as an information resource alone, the book is a very important contribution and will be of interest to scholars working in a range of disciplines.

Furthermore, Drucker’s analysis of both contemporary and historical artifacts is, when offered, equally satisfying and rich. Her argument that data are never neutral but, particularly in graphic form, embed thousands of years of assumptions is shown to have wide applications and import both to daily networked communications practices and to scholarly work in the still evolving field of the digital humanities that unreflexively uses the latest visualization and information processing tools. In fact, after reading the book, I doubt any of us will look at a database table in quite the same way. For, at moments, Drucker’s analysis suggests that if the table as object and its relationship to language was the preoccupation of many 20th-century philosophers, the database table and the assumptions embedded in it should be one of the primary concerns of philosophers in the 21st century.

While I did find myself wishing that Drucker’s analysis was more evenly balanced with the amount of information being presented, to do this would have made the book twice, if not three times longer than it is, and I can only hope that Drucker may plan to write additional commentary on this book. The fact that it is easy to imagine one or more books about this book being written by Drucker and others can be construed both as a complement to the present work as a well as evidence of some very real issues in current scholarship practices and their presentation. Although the book is part of Harvard’s metaLABprojects series, which is not only dedicated to topics in the digital humanities but invites readers “to take part in reimagining print-based scholarship for the digital age,” the book is currently available only in print-based form. Whether a single-authored print monograph is the best form for the presentation of Drucker’s project and whether it would have benefitted from being one that multiple authors could contribute to and that was published digitally rather than in print are issues that readers will inevitably encounter as they reflect on the artifacts presented and the theoretical, historical, and disciplinary issues that the book raises. These are, of course, questions that involve not only scholars but university presses and university policies regarding tenure and promotion. I can only hope that Drucker’s really impressive book may be an occasion for not only unpacking and exploring the wide range of topics and issues she touches on in relation to the study of the reading and interpreting of visual information but for the active consideration of how these ongoing discussions and inquiries are published and presented.     


Johannah Rodgers

JOHANNAH RODGERS is a writer, artist, and educator whose work explores issues related to representation and communication practices across media. She is the author of Technology: A Reader for Writers  (Oxford University Press, 2014), the digital fiction project DNA (mimeograph/ the Brooklyn Rail, 2014), and the book sentences (Red Dust, 2007). Her short stories, essays, and book reviews have been published in Fence, Bookforum, and the Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor, and her visual works include the “Excel Drawing” series, featured in the The Drawing Center Viewing Program, and the “How Much Project,” which explores the intersection of aesthetics, civic literacy, and social action in relation to income inequality in the United States via digital and analog visualization tools. She teaches writing, literature, and new media courses at the City University of New York. :: https://twitter.com/what_is_writing