Now: Visual Rhetorics

The visual rhetorics course I’m teaching this semester is by now well enough plotted to pass along a link, finally. I haven’t taught the class before, which only means that its materials this time are spun provisionally from many influences–an independent study and qualifying exam at SU, Michael Salvo’s syllabus, Dànielle DeVoss’s syllabus, and good conversations with CGB just after the new year. Its large arc follows from photography to document design to infographics and data visualization. I remain cautiously optimistic that these three sub-arcs will fit together okay within the fourteen meetings we have. No surprise, but I’m supplementing heavily with PDFs and assigning as required texts only Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Handa’s edited collection, and Cairo’s The Functional Art. One project involves writing (and designing) Ch. 10 for the Cairo book–a “missing” chapter focused on visual rhetoric. There’s an ignite presentation set up to articulate in short-form one’s emerging visual-rhetorical priorities and interests in relation to one of the people interviewed at the end of The Functional Art. And then there is a loose-fitting, build-your-own-collection portfolio whose creation and assembly is spread as evenly as possible throughout.

I’m still trying to figure out the role of in-class workshop blocks devoted to self-paced attempts with Photoshop and Illustrator. And I can’t quite decide how formally and explicitly to dwell on technical matters and rationale related to different image file types. Against these uncertainties (or yet-unmade decisions), I count as one advantage that I have had all but three of the fourteen students in class before, and it’s a terrific bunch who will assert their preferences whenever I’m slow to decide.

“The Humanities Was Nice”

In late May, media theorist Lev Manovich presented “How to Read 1,000,000 Manga Pages: Visualizing Patterns in Games, Comics, Art, Cinema, Animation, TV, and Print Media” at MIT’s HyperStudio (via). The talk is relevant to my work because Manovich wants to create visualizations that deliberately alter the default scale at which we experience something like magazine covers or Manga pages. His “exploratory analysis of visual media” offers insights into culture, he says; visualizations “allow you to ask questions you never knew you had.”

Manovich wears a t-shirt that reads, “Smart Critique Stupid Create,” and he uses this slogan to gain create some separation between his work (stupid create) and traditional humanities (smart critique). Manovich kicks sand–maybe playfully, though it’s hard to say for sure–at the humanities again at the end of the Q&A when he says, “The Humanities was nice, but it was a false dream.” Obviously machine-reading and computational processing of images ring heretical for anyone deeply (e.g., career-deep) invested in one-at-a-time interpretations of aesthetic objects. The all-at-once presentation brings us to the edge of gestalt and permits us to grasp large-scale continuities. Manovich also mentions that this works differently for visual media than for semantic mining because the images are not in the same way confined by the prison house of language. The “how” promised in the lecture’s title carries well enough, but I would expect to hear ongoing questions about the “why,” especially “why Manga?” or “why Time Magazine covers”?

The video includes a couple of unusual moments: at 17:30 when Manovich grumbles about not being able to see his screen and around the 59th minute when host Ian Condry poses an exposition-heavy “question.” As for the practical side of the talk, Manovich’s frameworks for “direct visualization” and “visualization without quantification” are worth noting, and I would be surprised if we don’t hear more about them as these projects play out and are variously composed and circulated.

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."

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Plotting Intensities

I first caught word over at

Junk Charts
this infographical rendering
(in the

Sunday Times
) of a week of concert-going. The spread includes profound
thoughts, counts of the people on stage, quality arcs of each show, more
profound thoughts, entertaining phrases, profound guests on stage, and best
parts, all convoluted into charts, graphs, stacked bars, and bubbles. When
I first saw the quality arcs, I thought it would be cool to throw something like
that together to suggest rising and falling intensities over the course of a
graduate program of study. But heck, it took me four days to get around to
posting on these few pieces that churned through the aggregator on Sunday, so
it’ll be a few more days before I get around to drawing up quality arcs of my

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Coach: Blinky’s In Foul Trouble


Info Aesthetics
, a
that doubles as wearable information display: patches light up
according to "fouls, score, and time clock." Although I’m mildly skeptical about
the widespread uptake and implementation, to the idea I can only shake my head
and say wow (i.e., holy mackerel). Something like this would be
especially useful for youth levels of basketball where the emphasis is on
development. When I was coaching the Stampede teams in KC a few years ago,
it was common for us to invent scenarios where two players have four fouls or
where one player on the other practice squad was lighting us up (I know, quite the marvel of coaching ingenuity, yeah?). The information-rich readouts on
a jersey add yet another dimension to this, making it possible, I suppose, to
complicate the number of variables introduced in any practice scenario.

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Gamecast Viz

Sure, they’ve been around for a while, so it’s a sliver shy of revolutionary
that I’m calling your attention to the gamecast college basketball
visualizations provided by
There’s something subtly inviting for me in the gliding mouse-over of the
running score for a full game.  Pause at a spot; get the score for that
moment in the game.  My only complaint: after the game has ended, the
scores page drops the gamecast link and you have to wait a few minutes for the
running score chart to be available again in the recap. Still, much better
than anything going at CNNSI or CBS Sportsline (play-by-plays, stats leaders,

Tufte – Visual Display/Quantitative Information (1983)

Excellent graphics are simple, clear pictures of numbers, Tufte argues in
this "landmark" book,
The Visual
Display of Quantitative Information
.  Basic graphical designs–"box plots,
bar charts, historograms, and scatterplots" (124)–have in common principles of
functional simplicity and clarity. Note the review comment attributed to the
Boston Globe: "A visual Strunk and White." I read the first edition, and it’s
currently out in a second edition, so these notes should be so-understood. 
They reflect the 1983 edition–the version that later needed an update for one
reason or other. 

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