Gathering threads

A warning: this post is intended to be useful to me, and on the blog for the tools it gives me. If any of it is of use to others it will be by accident, not intent.

Exploring a new venture, going a bit further. An occasional bringing together of ideas – but no polish, no photos, travelling light.

Clusters of thought developing:

  • the poetic
  • observation
  • poetic, humanist graphing
  • how to read
  • In One Way Street, under the heading “Attested Auditor of Books”, Walter Benjamin presents an historic sequence of script – inscriptions on upright stones; manuscripts written on sloping desks; the horizontal bed of printing. A pause of a few hundred years here with the book, for script “a refuge in which it can lead an autonomous existence”. Winds of change from the late nineteenth century. Newspapers are read more vertical than horizontal, there are graphic tensions as Mallarmé and later the dada writers play with space, font, placement of text, while film and advertising use the “dictatorial” perpendicular. Script is “pitilessly dragged out into the street”.

    And suddenly something written almost a century ago is incredibly modern – “… the chances of [a modern reader] penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. Locust swarms of print, which already eclipse the sun of what city dwellers take for intellect, will grow thicker with each succeeding year.” Information overload, social media – we are overwhelmed with print. Print on the hard, vertical surfaces of phone and computer.

    So a nice statement of a challenge. For me the kicker is Benjamin’s “qualitative leap” responding to all this quantity, with writing moving further into graphic regions. “In this picture-writing, poets, who will now as in the earliest times be first and foremost experts in writing, will be able to participate only by mastering the fields in which (quite unobtrusively) it is being constructed: statistical and technical diagrams.” The poetics of data visualization!

    Beautifully leading to Johanna Drucker. Previously (7-Jan-2020) I wrote that Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production takes a very wide view, almost a survey of the literature. The information is condensed, so can be difficult. A section on “Humanist Methods” was fascinating, exciting, relevant – and difficult. Until… following the footnotes, I found Drucker’s original paper – http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000091/000091.html on the Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) website – “an open-access, peer-reviewed, digital journal covering all aspects of digital media in the humanities.”

    For now, I’m trying to keep focus. There may be riches beyond the dreams of avarice on that site. That’s for other days. The current excitement is that the paper on the website is the complete version with all the explanatory bits of what was difficult and condensed in the book.

    This is getting turgid, so time for some dotpoints.

  • All data is capta. Looking for a succinct explanation I found “Capta is not data as we typically understand data. Capta represents what is seen, thought and felt. Capta, according to phenomenologists, is the ‘data of the conscious experience’. ” (https://www.informationweek.com/big-data/big-data-analytics/capta-the-data-of-conscious-experience/a/d-id/282625). There is interpretation. The observer is always a participant. A simple example: a bar chart may show hospital admissions by gender, male and female. That’s still often standard, but that simple binary is an assumption, and highly problematic. A count of national population may not include temporary migrant workers. Is time fixed intervals or as experienced (time waiting for a bus = coffee with a friend?).
  • Every metric is a factor of X (the phenomenon) – potential factors: a point of view; agenda; assumption; presumption; convention. A “self evident fact” is a constructed interpretation.
  • Complexity, ambiguity, gaps can be hidden and distorted in graphs.
  • A humanistic approach entails qualitative display of graphical information. “By definition, a humanist approach is centered in the experiential, subjective conditions of interpretation.” (page 130 of book).
  • What could this mean in data viz? Time becomes temporality, and instead of a neat, consistent, linear progression could have folds, loops, whorls, arrows of force, gaps, changes of scale… Think about that coffee – as anticipated, experienced, remembered, by you and by your friends, or observers.

    Drucker concludes her paper “[Graphical expressions of humanistic interpretation] are as different from the visual display of quantitative information as a close reading of a poem is from the chart of an eye tracker following movements across a printed page.”

    It feels like something I should know – but what is poetry? when or why is something poetic? Jane Hirshfield when discussing Bashō writes of “… a tool for emotional, psychological and spiritual discovery, for crafting new experience as moving, expansive and complex of ground…” (I’ve twisted the quote out of context). Some relevant ideas/techniques:

  • juxtaposition, transformation
  • the recognition of impermanence, ceaseless alteration, interdependence
  • (An aside: In the context of chaos theory Drucker writes of dynamic unfolding, transformation, adaptation and emergence. An interesting correspondence of language. And thinking of poetic language, some more from Drucker: “These graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force.” (my italics, but look back at Benjamin). A dry start, but startling imagery at the end.)

  • the beauty of the most ordinary circumstances and objects (wabi)
  • test ideas against the realities of observation
  • (A jump to Leopardi who claimed fine arts give pleasure by the imitation of nature, with objects imitated “beauty, memory, the attention that is paid to things that we see every day without noticing them, etc”.)

    (And back to Drucker, who pushes for more nuanced presentation of ambiguity and uncertainty, with observer-independent reality a presumption, not a given. “Data are capta, taken not given, constructed as an interpretation of the phenomenal world, not inherent in it.” )

  • an aesthetic of transparence and lightness
  • pointing to both the world and the self
  • Slowing down. I’m writing this in part because attentive reading and careful notetaking isn’t enough. I need to integrate what I am reading into my mental structures. I used to think of this structure as a scaffolding or framework, giving context, a holding place and a place to build on. Now it seems more like a rubbery network of connections that shifts and adapts and accommodates and absorbs – and if all goes well allows me to extract as required.

    More on reading and note-taking: Walter Benjamin claimed “Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, the road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it; because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.” Obviously not mindless copying, but this has encouraged me to make more extensive notes, longer direct quotes. Leopardi in Zibaldone also appears to make extensive use of quotations.

    It’s still not enough. Sometimes it takes me a long time to see the obvious, but I’ve been coming to acceptance that I can’t “squeeze all the juice out” no matter how attentive the reading. I need to grow and learn, and in the kind of books I am reading there will always be more to find. Plus each time I read, it is as a different person. Maybe this is a good place to circle back to Jane Hirshfield: “haiku remind us that a person should not become too fixed in a singular sense of what the self might consist of or how, or where it might reside.”

    In what feels a bizarre and futile quest for completeness here I introduce an essay by Umberto Eco – “Intertextual irony and levels of reading”. This essay was my morning reading for five consecutive days. Many times I was bewildered, despondent, angry, frustrated, defensive. Basically I don’t have and will never have the wide knowledge of literature to recognise any but the most obvious allusions to other texts. I’ve started too late, but in any case that’s not the game I want to play. So I will take what works for me, and turn it to my own uses. That, over all that I’m reading, is still plenty. More than enough. And always more to come.

    Hopefully taking time to gather together strands from reading will help take me further, intensifying the impact of my reading. I’ve found Making connected to reading, such as the recent scarf (11-Jan-2020), opens up my understanding and response. So Making as knowledge production.

    Other threads bubbling :

  • Challenges of translation. In Eco and Leopardi.
  • Provocation. Drucker describes her paper as a provocation to a larger project.
  • Exploration versus outcome. Asimov in Second Foundation: “Finished products are for decadent minds.”
  • Metadata and tagging. Leopardi’s slips, Benjamin’s “three-dimensionality of script” in card indexes
  • Reading period: 5 – 15 January 2020

    6 Responses to “Gathering threads”


    1. 1 Meg January 19, 2020 at 7:39 am

      When you spoke of the vertical nature of reading, I recalled my first days in school learning to read, which in Japanese is vertical lines in the first instance, even though my experiences of reading at home was mixed; translated children’s books often had horizontal texts, especially picture books. And we never read those texts vertically, and whatever the reason speed reading was never a thing until recent years. Skim reading, on the other hand, we always did, looking at Kanji only.

      Which lead me to seeing text as grid, it never being far from my mind in trying to translate/incorporate ideas onto the warp and weft on the loom.

      Chinese/Japanese characters come in different sizes, (as did/do presumably lots of scripts,) and, we were taught to write certain letters bigger/smaller. Proportional vs uniform-width fonts on writing software were available, (in fact, we had to seek out uniform-widths at the start;) I don’t know because I only use default sets that “come with the computer,” but I can’t imagine proportional scripts be unavailable. Uniform-width still look childlike.

      Which lead me to thinking about Japanese calligraphy, which from what little I know of Western counterparts, allows for a surprising amount of individuality once one gets beyond the basics. Quite separately, handwritten vs electronic notes with all the pros/cons.

      And as of this morning, I’m settling down on a very familiar territory: I don’t know about anybody else, but when I put down ideas on paper, especially into words, ideas become clearer, more focused, workable, while they loose a lot of the lovely, murky, fuzzy, undefined bits also integral to the original idea, and I’m constantly haunted by the fear of missing out, of loosing those delicious bits. I have blind faith that those bits are what makes the ideas more mine than, say, yours, or better than the idea I had a week ago.

      That’s enough of me in one go. I look forward to your next thoughts.

    2. 4 kath January 19, 2020 at 2:27 pm

      I like where this is going


    1. 1 Mono printing and text | Fibres of Being Trackback on January 22, 2020 at 4:31 pm

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