[Humanist] 29.51 impediments to visualisation?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat May 23 08:26:55 CEST 2015

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 51.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 22 May 2015 13:56:03 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: visualisation

In a NYRB review of Martin Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy
(1985), Stephen Jay Gould points to some illuminating visualisations
that depict how the strands of the controversy came together and
intermingled. The main impediment to understanding diagrammatic
visualisations at the time was, it seems, the passion for quantification,
esp. in an historical work (thus "cliometrics"). Gould writes,

> I strongly defend Rudwick's narrative style, storytelling in the
> grandest mode. Narrative has fallen from fashion; even historians are
> supposed to ape the stereotype of physics and be quantitative, or
> cliometric. Fine in its place, but not as a fetish. Narrative remains
> an art and science of the highest order, but of different form. How
> fitting that a book defending the importance of those scientists who
> established geological history should also defend so ably the
> narrative style of historical writing itself. (Rudwick'™s last chapter
> contains several wondrously complex diagrams, outlining the changing
> views and their resolution, and the roles of varous actors in the
> drama. Some will read these charts as a cliometric excursion. They
> will misunderstand Rudwick'™s intent. The charts are not a
> quantification; they have no scale except the chronology of years.
> One cannot quantify the magnitude of a changed opinion. The charts
> are pictorial models of narrative arguments, brilliantly conceived as
> epitomes.)
>  [New York Review of Books, 27 February 1986]

These charts require work but reward it. The reward comes from the
visualisation of a conception of history exceedingly hard to do with words,
so economically done with a diagram once one understands how to read it
-- and how not to read it. But my question brings the visualiser's problem
of impediments into the present. What is the main one now? 

So many visualisations I have seen seem to stand as rhetorical Q.E.D.s,
saying to us, "Behold!", but end more in puzzlement than reward us with
understanding. Looking at some I wonder, e.g., why is this circular and not
rectangular? Why are the elements in it uniformly distributed, not bunched
up, or the other way around? What is this visualisation telling me? In one
recent case a series of visualisations that I simply could not understand
suddenly became brilliantly clear when the author of them explained her
intent with a visual analogy. Before that analogy was supplied I was
clueless, indeed was annoyed. 

Edward Tufte (originally an economic historian, I think) has written
beautiful volumes on the subject. Has anyone here tried his or her hand with
the rhetorics of visualisation or can cite particularly good examples?



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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