Manovich, "Data Visualization as New Abstraction and as Anti-Sublime"

 Manovich, Lev. "Data Visualization as New Abstraction and as Anti-Sublime."
Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools. Eds. Byron Hawk, David Reider,
and Ollie Oviedo. Electronic Mediations Ser. 22. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,

Why render data visually? Lev Manovich, in "Data Visualization as New
Abstraction and as Anti-sublime," the opening chapter in Small Tech
(reprinted from ArtPhoto, 2003),
responds to this with an answer that, in spirit, moves beyond the "data
epistemology" of a cumbersome, old (perhaps even mythical) scientism. Why render
data visually? "[T]o show us the other realities embedded in our own, to show us
the ambiguity always present in our perception and experience, to show us what
we normally don’t notice or pay attention to" (9). By the end of this brief
article, Manovich begins to get round to the idea of a rhetoric of data
visualization, even if he never calls it this. Despite being caught up in a
representationalist framework as he accounts for what data visualization does,
Manovich eventually keys on "daily interaction with volumes of data and numerous
messages" as the "more important challenge" facing us. That is, we are
steeped now in a new "data-subjectivity."

Manovich provides four sections in his short essay: Visualization and
Mapping, Data Modernism, Meaningful Beauty: Data Mapping as Anti-Sublime, and
Motivation Problem. The "Visualization and Mapping" section begins with
Tufte and Descartes; these are the precedents for the "dynamic data
visualization" Manovich wants us to consider as it has spilled over from its
origins in the "pure and applied sciences, from mathematics and physics to
biology and medicine" to the greater "cultural sphere" (3). Next, Manovich
attaches this to a mapping paradigm, considered here as a kind of direct
conversion of data into image (1:1 precision in the translation of territory
into map). This risks making visualization its own end; I question whether
his approach does enough to keep the image open on the side of play, preferring
a contingent and flexible (more model- or relay-like) image than one fixed and
declarative in its presentation. The section on Data Modernism builds
toward an understanding of data visualization as new abstraction. Here
abstraction is matched with the same tradition in twentieth century Modernist
art: the reduction of chaos into simple patterns. Given my own interest in
abstracting practices, I tend to prefer drawing closer parallels between "new
abstraction" and network studies. I deal with some of this in the diss;
Manovich’s take on abstraction might find a small place there. Of course,
one of my reservations about "new abstraction" tracing back through art
traditions is that it holds onto a faint notion of representable reality as a
backdrop against which every movement is defined. Perhaps this is one of
the ways a rhetoric of data visualization would do justice to Manovich’s
interest in subjectivity, agency, and motive, while also offering a greatly
expanded vocabulary for complicating strict evaluative rules regarding chart
junk and clarity (e.g., following Tufte).

In the third section of the essay, Manovich touches on scale. He
describes data visualization as "anti-sublime" as it contrasts with the Romantic
art concerned with the sublime." This section seems, again, to position
data visualization as an end–an end in an aesthetics and epistemology valuing
concretization–rather than a means, a model, or a relay. The stuff
on scale is encouraging, but then he ends the section, saying, "Yet, more often
than not, the subjects of data visualization projects are objective structures
(such as the typology of the Internet) rather than the direct traces of human
activities" (7). What’s not clear is why this is so or how
Manovich knows it. This isn’t to dispute his claim as much as to call into
question its basis, and also ask how these "objective structures" square with
the "data-subjectivity" he introduces in the final section. In the final
section, he is concerned with motivations and choices: why this or that design
choice when several others are available? An arhetorical treatment of data
visualization entertains the prospect that there is always one best way to
present the data visually; a rhetorical approach, on the other hand, seems to me
to create a situation–a conductive role, an agent, an exigency–in whatever
comes between the data and the visualization of it. In other words, while
Manovich is concerned that "computer media simultaneously make all these choices
appear arbitrary" (7), a rhetoric of data visualization would frame those
choices as "available means" rather than an automated function of the computer
technology. Manovich: "One way to deal with this problem of motivation is
not to hide but to foreground the arbitrary nature of the chosen mapping" (8).
Yes, foreground it, but also let the "it" be a "rhetorical nature" in equal
measure to an "arbitrary nature."

"Thus data visualization moves from the concrete to the abstract and then
again to the concrete
" (6).

Phrases: "Platonic schemas" (5), "new abstraction" (5), "reversibility" (6),
"organic abstraction" (6), "modernist abstraction" (6), "anti-sublime" (6),
motivation (6), "data epistemology" (8), "data-subjectivity" (9)