20.111 visualisation criticism?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 15 Jul 2006 12:44:36 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 111.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 15 Jul 2006 12:38:36 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: visualisation

In his lecture "The Command of Metaphor", published in The Philosophy
of Rhetoric (Oxford, 1964/1936), I A Richards takes up a particular
statement of the critic T E Hulme on the operation of metaphor. Here
he is quoting Hulme:

>"Plain speech is essentially inaccurate. It is only by new metaphors
>. . . that it can be made precise.... The great aim [of metaphor] is
>accurate, precise and definite description." Poetry, fluid
>discourse, as opposed to prose, "is not a language of counters,
>but," he holds, "a visual concrete one. It is a compromise for a
>language of intuition which would hand over sensations bodily. It
>always endeavours to arrest you, and make you continuously see a
>physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process."

Among the three bones Richards has to pick with this account is the
ill-considered emphasis on visualisation. He comments,

>The first [error] is that he is tricking himself with the word *see*
>into supposing that he means it literally when his doctrine would
>only be sanctioned if he were using it metaphorically.... What
>discourse 'always endeavours' to do is to make us apprehend,
>understand, gain a realizing sense of, take in, whatever it is that
>is being meant - which is not necessarily any physical thing. But if
>we say "a realizing sense," we must remember that this is not any
>'sense' necessarily, such as sense-perception gives, but may be a
>feeling or a thought. What is essential is that we should really
>take in and become fully aware of - whatever it is.
>This blunder with the word *see* may seem too crude to be likely.
>But the patient toil of scores of teachers is going every day, in
>courses about the appreciation of poetry, into the effort to make
>children (and adults) visualize where visualization is a mere
>distraction and of no service. And little books appear every few
>months encouraging just this gross misconception of language. For
>words cannot, and should not attempt to "hand over sensations
>bodily"; they have very much more important work to do. So far from
>verbal language being a "compromise for a language of intuition"-- a
>thin, but better-than-nothing, substitute for real experience, --
>language, well used, is a completion and does what the intuitions of
>sensation by themselves cannot do. Words are the meeting points at
>which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or
>intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of
>that growth which is the mind's endless endeavour to order itself.
>That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is
>the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of
>everything in which we go beyond the other animals. (pp. 130f)

Technologically we may well be at the point at which digital
visualisation techniques have become sufficiently successful and
accessible that we are tempted to go whole hog into the visual
rendering of our models and results. As far as I know, we do not yet
have a persuasive theoretical means of rendering e.g. text-analytic
results visually -- of making the primitive "Rossetti spaghetti" we
can entertainingly produce actually say something theoretically
consequential. (Corrections welcome.) But, I would guess, it's only a
matter of time. Indeed, that time may be now, in some lab somewhere.
The crabbed old rejection of the visual (and indeed more broadly
material) by those who relegate the non-verbal to a decorative
periphery obviously won't do. But, as Edward Tufte and others have
insisted, pictures don't speak for themselves. Nor, as Northrop Frye
argued, do verbal works of art, which are "dumb as statues".
Criticism is required.

What criticism do we have ready for the coming tide of digital
visualisations? How well does it take into account the specifically
digital means of production *and manipulation*?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sat Jul 15 2006 - 08:05:39 EDT

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