Johanna Drucker: 3DH

Johanna Drucker gave the third lecture in the 3DH series. She talked about 3 dimensional digital humanities and how she conceives of the road ahead of us. She started with the goal of the project:

To develop a conceptual blueprint for next generation digital humanities visualizations.

What would that mean? How can we do it? To do this we need to understand where we are and where we have to go and her talk did that by touching on:

  1. How visualizations have an imprinted form of argument that comes from their origins.
  2. Understand ideas about languages of form – ideas about how one can systematize the visual.
  3. Look at how contemporary DH people use visualizations and what work do they want them to do.
  4. Understand conventions of pictorial imagery and how most visualizations are pictorially impoverished.
  5. Identify the epistemological challenges ahead.

She noted that 3DH is focusing on the visualizations of humanities documents and humanistic inquiry. Humanists are engaged in the production, interpretation, and preservation of human record. We need to think about problems of our practices like interpretation.

Types of Visualization in the Humanities

What kinds of visualizations do we use? Johanna Drucker gave a concise overview of the major types of visualizations used in the humanities. Each of these have different visual traditions and relationships to data.

  1. Digitizations/remediations of original – These are visualizations that represent an original like a facsimile or a electronic text. They are digital surrogates.
  2. Data-driven displays – These don’t represent an original, but represent some abstraction or analysis. Some types might include charts, graphs, maps, and timelines.
  3. Visual renderings – These are complex 3D constructions and fantasies that use codes of pictorial representation with little data. They are extrapolations of the data. They augment the data. Some types include 3D renderings, augmented reality and virtual reality. They are often based on minimal data giving the illusion of repleteness.
  4. Computationally processed visualizations – These are the special forms of imaging applied to artefacts like manuscripts. They adapt imaging techniques from the material sciences like MRI or x-ray scans.

All of these types of visualizations carry epistemological baggage, often from the sciences, but also from gaming (in the case of renderings.)


She the showed example images and talked about their limits. We can remediate the already remediated.

Historical Origins: Imprints of Disciplines

Drucker gave a quick tour through some of the types of visualizations and how they are imprinted with their origins. They carry the baggage of their history of use. We need to understand these histories in order to understand how they will be interpreted or overintepreted.

  • The table is one of the earliest and main forms of visualizing data. It is a powerful interpretative tool and we forget how it uses visual arrangement. It is invisible as a visualization.
  • The tree (as in tree of life or family tree) has spiritual origins. It bears notions of continuity or, in the case of the tree of life it bears notions of hierarchy. Trees carry structure in subtle ways. Think of the family tree of consanguinity (who can inherit) – showing a mythic notion of inheritance.
  • Charts have their origin in political arithmetic. They are a way of showing abstract data from human situations so that people can be managed.

Graphical “language of form”

Drucker then turned to the idea of a “language of form”. The languages of architecture (think Palladio) are a predecessor to the more recent idea of a language of visual form. These languages of form are often used in discussions of information visualization, but they have a history. This idea comes from the aspirations of the visual arts to be as authoritative as the sciences. One of the early attempts to develop such a language is in Humbert de Superville‘s Essai sur les signes inconditionnels dans l’art. He developed a language from which more complex works can be drawn. Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane 1926 was another attempt that breaks with with 19th century realism, developing a stable graphic language which becomes a foundation of graphic design languages. It is an attempt at an abstract set of signs. She talked about how we can mine the inventory of modern art for ideas. She showed the lino cuts of 1961 of Anton Stankowski whose Functional Graphics look extraordinarily like templates for the visualizations we use today. He imagined ways to make invisible processes visible. She then mentioned how perceptual psychology also developed a language of form trying to find a graphic vocabulary.

Important to data visualization is Jacques Bertin and his Semiology of Graphics. In this he distills 7 graphic variables with which show information: size, tone, texture, color, orientation, shape, and position. Drucker added that in dynamic situation we need to add: motion, rate of motion, direction of motion, and the sound of motion. Graphical systems make use of these variables. They also carry semantic value. As a principle, we should use things for what they are good at showing.

Drucker then showed some types of visualizations that haven’t been used like architectural plans. We don’t use perspective – we obliterate dimensions.
When we leave out perspective we leave the perspective of the speaker out. This creates the illusion that it is as if the visualizations speak for themselves. We also lose the ability to use distortion or translation of perspective.

Another type that we haven’t used is the cabinet of curiosities like Wormius’ one. She talked about the complexity of the image and how much data it carries using perspective, tonal value.

She compared a Moretti graph of Hamlet to a Daniel Maclise painting of the play within the play. She showed a Charneaux lingerie image that shows how lingerie adds structure to the body. She showed a cartoon showing a step by step process. All these to show how impoverished visualizations were.

What is the work of visualizations and what do we want to do

Visualization can be a type of fiction that obscures a lot in order to show an overview or gestalt. Some of the things we want to do include:

  • Add dimensions and perspective back – flat screens are lacking
  • Translate images through rendering – can we use the visual for what it is good at?
  • We want to be shown degrees of certainty.
  • Map views can make it look as if the same space is the same – we want to show distortions and how maps are of their time. We want to avoid historical anachronism and use data to build a map rather than structure the data with a map.
  • We want to use renderings to hold evidence not to obscure provide illusion of it.

What is the work ahead

Drucker closed by talking about the epistemological issues and graphic challenges ahead.

  • Partial knowledge: how do we show what we don’t know – figure without ground
  • How can we show evidence and see what shape it takes rather than imposing shape
  • How can we situate knowledge – provide a point of view
  • How can we be clear about the historical specificity and diverse ontologies
  • How can we show process – visual and non-visual
  • How can we provide for annotation – commentary and non-visual
  • How can we visualize the methodological. How can we show contradiction, incompleteness, doubt, uncertainty, and parallax.
  • How can we show non-standard/variable metrics – affective metrics, diverse scales
  • How can we make a semantically legible system


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