- The Culture of Diagram
It has been some thirty years since W.J.T. Mitchell, defending the importance of spatial form in literature, called for a new “diagrammatology,” by which he meant a “systematic study of the way that relationships among elements are represented and interpreted by graphic construction.” It has been more than twenty since the cognitive scientists J. Larkin and H.A. Simon sought to demonstrate “why a diagram is (sometimes) worth ten thousand words.” It has been five years since the British philosopher John Mullarky, drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, François Laruelle and Michel Henry, proposed a “metaphilosophical diagrammatology” to defend his theory of radical immanence. And it has only been four since the Danish philosopher Frederik Stjernfelt plumbed the legacy of C.S. Peirce and Edmund Husserl for a realist semiotics, which he also called “diagrammatology.” [End Page 157]
There can, in other words, be no question that the role of the humble diagram in many different fields has been slowly earning recognition for some time. But until now, we have had no sustained attempt to explain its origins and explore its astonishingly broad interdisciplinary range. The Culture of Diagram, jointly written by two Stanford scholars, the literary critic John Bender and the arti historian Michael Marrinan, is the first such effort, defined by the authors with a tacit nod to Foucault as an exercise in archaeology. Displaying extraordinary erudition in many different fields, the authors performatively duplicate the method of rapports (correlations) across disciplines that they see as the special genius of diagrams themselves. Beginning in the 18th century with an ingenuous reading of the cross-referenced tables and charts in the Encyclopedia, they trace the development of comparable impulses in the painting and theater of the French Enlightenment, the modern novel, l9th-century mathematics and physical science, and chronophotography, taking the story in a brief conclusion all the way up to the poetry of Mallarmé and the cubist paintings of Picasso.
There has been, they persuasively argue, a dimly understood “culture of diagram” in the modern era that has shadowed the more widely acknowledged dominant perspectivalist scopic regime, in which subjects looked at objects in a homogeneous space from afar. Against the mimetic or representationalist premises of the hegemonic regime, which underpinned a naively empiricist notion of science, the diagram has been more of a hybrid between ideas and perceptions, acting as what they follow historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in calling a “working object.” Such objects never duplicate a reality external to them, nor are entirely the result of pure imagination, but somehow fall productively between the two. They are, in the terminology they borrow from Bertrand Russell via Ann Banfield, neither perceptual realities nor thought objects, but “sensibilia,” which manifest themselves with no actual observer to see them. The space they inhabit is not that of the three-dimensional perspectivalist grid, but rather more like the flat white background of encyclopedia plates in which various views of an object, neither coordinated in scale nor from the same point of view nor registered at the same time, are juxtaposed to demonstrate their properties. Or to cite one of their most precise definitions: “a diagram is a proliferation of manifestly selective packets of dissimilar data correlated in an explicitly process-oriented array that has some of the attributes of a representation but is situated in the world like an object.” (7). Combining the data provided by catalogues with the homogenized information typical of tableaux, diagrams abet thought experiments rather than serve as windows on an already formed external world.
Although in large measure the diagram is an epistemological tool, Bender and Marrinan imaginatively discern an analogous phenomenon in the arts. Their most sustained example from the l8th century is David’s Oath of the Horatii, in which the viewer “is invited to integrate heterogeneous details within a fictive space—to replicate in the major register of history painting the productive exercise of rapport that animates the Encyclopedia’s plates.” (147). Its visual...