Visualization as Argument

Posted by in American Studies, Conference Papers, Data Visualization, Digital Humanities, Media Studies, Research

What follows is the transcript of my talk, “Visualization as Argument,” presented at the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production conference held at the Umea University HUMlab in December 2014. The talk is adapted from an essay-in-progress about the theoretical work of some of the earliest data visualization designers in the United States, who also happened to be pioneering educators and champions (to varying degrees) of women’s rights.

My research is concerned, most generally, with the cultural and critical dimensions of data visualization. I’m at work on a book about the history of data visualization, from the eighteenth century to the present. I also design visualizations for a range of scholarly functions (and I’d be happy to talk more about this during the discussion). But in other work—and this is what I’ll be speaking about today—I attempt to theorize the function of visualization, both in terms of its ability to reframe humanities data, however that may be construed, and in terms of its ability to call attention to the various processes of scholarly knowledge production.


What you see here, on the floor [NB: HUMlabX has an amazing floor screen, on which many of these images were displayed], is a visualization of the major events of the seventeenth century United States, designed by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in 1856. Peabody’s visualization work, and the ideas that underlie it, will serve as my primary example today of how the practice of visualization can demonstrate not only what knowledge we, as scholars, can produce, but also how we come to produce it. As I hope you’ll soon see, this work offers an incredibly generative limit case for thinking through the various functions of visualization, epistemological and otherwise.

For one, this image is—at least initially—totally impenetrable. For another, this impenetrability—or this effect of impenetrability—is deliberate. Peabody had very specific ideas about how visualizations, if properly designed, could facilitate knowledge production in the interplay between viewer and image. (This is sort of a proto-agential realism, if you will). And finally, as a female knowledge worker of feminism’s first wave, Peabody’s example helps to illuminate the feminist and affective dimensions of data visualization. So in each of these ways—Peabody’s emphasis on the importance of interpretation, her insistence on the two-way exchange between subject and object of knowledge, and on the very real women’s work that went into making these images—Peabody’s example helps us become more attuned to the epistemological, ontological, and political arguments that inform the range of visualizations that we presently encounter in our everyday lives.

But first, some background.

Elizabeth Peabody was born in Massachusetts in 1804. Today, she is probably most famous for her proximity to more well-known writers of the American Renaissance, such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Hawthorne was actually married to her sister). But Peabody had impact in her own right. The bookstore that she ran out of her home in Boston functioned as the de facto salon for the transcendentalist movement. She also edited the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, for some of its most pivotal years. And also, like many women of the nineteenth century who didn’t have great career options, Peabody became an educator. In fact, she is credited with starting the first kindergarten in the United States.

bem1But what you see here, this Mondrian-looking thing on the floor [see image above], is not designed for kindergarteners. I mentioned just a minute ago that it’s a visualization of the significant historical events of the seventeenth century United States. Peabody created this image in 1856 for her textbook, A Chronological History of the United States. Her design was derived from a system developed in Poland in the 1820s, which employed a grid, overlaid with shapes and colors, to visually represent events in time. At left, you see a numbered grid, with each year in a century marked out in its own box.

bem2At left you see how each box is subdivided. So, top left corner for wars, battles, and sieges; top middle for conquests and unions; top right for losses and divisions, and so on. These events were color-coded according to which country was involved. Shapes that take up the entire box indicate an event of such magnitude or complexity that the other events in that year didn’t matter.

The idea was to read the historical account in Peabody’s textbook, and then convert the summary table that followed into graphical form. (Below you can see the table that corresponds to the chart on the floor). The US is orange, and red is Spain—those are the colors that dominate the image. Sweden is also here, in that “bluish-green” you occasionally see. If you cross-reference the chart to the table of events, you can see, for instance, that New Sweden was conquered by New Netherlands in 1655. That’s what the blue-green box with the triangular shading, in fact, represents.

chart2 chart1

I think it’s safe to say that no one in this room could have known this without me explaining how to interpret the chart. And for current visualization luminaries like Edward Tufte, who champions the clarifying capacity of visualization; or for Stuart Card, who authored the textbook that we use in data visualization courses back at Georgia Tech, who describes datavis as amplifying existing thought processes—for these men, this design would be a complete and utter failure. But for Peabody, the image’s near-total abstraction was precisely the point. Her charts were intended to appeal to the senses directly, to provide “outlines to the eye.” Her hope was that, in requiring her viewers to interpret the image, they would conjure the narrative of history, and therefore produce historical knowledge, for themselves. More than that, even, Peabody intended to evoke pleasure—and she actually uses that word in her account. So one of the things I’d like us to think about today is the affective work that visualization can do.

I said earlier that Peabody presents a limit case, of sorts, and I’m going to return to that notion now. Because all visualizations, of course, entail a degree of abstraction. In fact, that may the crucial feature that separates visualization from other, more mimetic strategies of representation. But Peabody, here, pushes the idea of abstraction to its limit, and in the process, forces us to ask what forms of knowledge we can, through visualization, actually, in fact, produce.

workbook1So, what forms of knowledge do such techniques actually produce? I would argue that, more than any specific conclusion prompted by a single image, visualization methods help us better understand the process of knowledge production. Here, Peabody is again instructive, because she did not merely intend her images to be perceived; she intended them to be created and then perceived. So at left you can see a page from one the workbooks that Peabody printed and sold alongside her text. This is one student’s attempt to follow Peabody’s instructions.

workbook2At left, you see another, by someone who appears to have given up all together. (These particular images come from Yale’s Beinecke library, although I’ve encountered many similar attempts in my archival research). Informed by the particular historical context of the mid-nineteenth-century United States—with slavery not yet abolished, the union in disarray, and its future in the hands of the citizens—Peabody was quite insistent that her students create charts of their own. In Peabody’s mind, the act of coloring in the little triangles—the act of producing a personal image of history—would enhance that person’s ability to influence national politics. Admittedly, as a political stance, it’s a bit idealistic; but in terms of a theory of knowledge production, it’s ahead of its time. Peabody flattens the relationship between the putative producer of knowledge and its perceiver. Moreover, in placing the image at the center of a multiphase interpretive act, Peabody destabilizes the previously fixed secure between the subject and object of knowledge itself. In this way, Peabody points to what visualization, when conceived as a feminist method, might allow us to bring into view.

The final point I want to make about Peabody and her visualizations is about labor—and about some of the unseen arguments that can underlie acts of visual display. With this floor-screen configuration, and this particular image on it, it seems particularly apt to note that Peabody herself created a set of oversized charts that she would unroll onto the floor, inviting her students to sit around and study them.

She created these so-called “mural charts” for each classroom that purchased her textbook, hand-stenciling the shapes onto large pieces of fabric; a single one took her fifteen hours. None of these charts have been preserved, and we only know about them because of the letters she wrote during the years she spent, riding the national railroad, promoting her book and her method. What is clear from these letters, one of which you can now read on the screen [above], is that Peabody’s knowledge work involved actual, physical labor—in addition to the affective and historical knowledge her charts were designed to promote.

There are a number of points to be made here, about labor, about craft, and about the increasingly rich history of female involvement in technical work, and we can talk more about these later. But I want to end with a return to method, and to the idea of method as argument. For Peabody, the abstraction of the grid was preferable to a more mimetic form because it “left scope for a little narration.” In other words, she believed that if her visualizations provided the contours of history, the viewer could then—both literally and figuratively—color it in. And therein lies her argument—about what constitutes knowledge, about how that knowledge is perceived, and about who is authorized to produce it. We can find some of these ideas in her writing, but most must be gleaned from the images themselves. Indeed, this is the work that visualization can do.