Visual Shock

Beginning with a brief entry from

, I clicked into a now month-old discussion of the visual shock
resulting from the overwhelming complexity of some information graphics. 


Beyond Bullets

Have you ever been so confused by the complexity of a map, chart or
diagram, that you didn’t know where to begin to make sense of it?

I’m interested in the correspondence between visual shock and a reader’s
textual disorientation–the momentary (sometimes longer) freeze of confusion
that comes with feeling lost.  And I’m trying to think about this
occurrence–a gasp of dislocation–that marks the shock, its hold, its way of
keeping us lost for a moment.  This can work in a couple of different ways,
but the discussion at Beyond Bullets (which, in fairness, appears to be
concerned with the creative limits of PowerPoint and the visual presentation of
simple models and diagrams) suggests that the dislocation (lost-ness) results
from the labyrinthine quality of the map (an inherent, fixed quality, the
failure of design).  I
gather this from the suggestion that someone can be a victim of the map and the
map’s complexity.

Brief though it is, this discussion–coupled with the WPA-l thread

"visual model of complexity"
–has me wondering about two paths in
visualization (infographics more than photography, although the move to
generalize just might hold up): one prefers for the visual object to do the work
of simplifying the complex, of reducing complexity to something much easier to
see or take in; the other prefers for the visual object to complicate or exceed
that which has already been depicted as simple but is not.  This second
path would have the visual object contend with commonplace orderings of activity
(such as writing in the WPA thread).  Here lies a pun in visual shock
In the first, the shock is felt by the reader/observer whose method of reading
is reductive…the one who wants meaning and only meaning (and any meaning). 
The second exacts a shock on the id(ol|le)s, repudiates them with a bolt of
complexity.  These two trajectories in the production of information
graphics–one given to simplifying the complex, the other given to complicating
the commonplaces or disturbing the perceived-to-be-simple–don’t quite exhaust
the felt of visual shock when we meet the visual (this might go to
receivables, also).  If we fluff this out to a set of rhetorical terms,
it’s hard not to include attitude or manner.  I say this
because it should remain a possibility that we could fancy or enjoy the being
lost as an opening for imagination–dream/wonder/splits from a duty to one
reality-scape in the map. Attitude and manner draw on
Burke (what’s more dramatic than shock?); I only want to mention it briefly
because I’d like to come back to some of these ideas, especially the rift between
simple/complex in infographics, the possibility of connecting these up with
readerly/writerly distinctions, and the impact of attitude or manner on
receivables (esp. the visual).


  1. “Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
    A thousand regions in your mind
    Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
    Expert in home-cosmography.”

    – Thoreau

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