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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Visual Explanations part three

If the preceding chapters dealt with the grammatical rhetoric of visual communication, this chapter concerns composition and imagination. From the epigraph and its accompanying diagram at the bottom of p. 121, I’m enchanted by this chapter. It amplifies the non-functionalist aspect of Tufte’s information-aesthetic; he espouses no ascetical Bauhaus modernism, but delights in the effulgent semiotic abundance of these intricate confections of text, image, and the resonances and echoes and allusions that weave among them.

(Regarding the illustration on p. 124 — I hesitate to challenge the majestic authority of Sir Kenneth Clark, but isn’t the sun in the illustration rising in the East? Must it not be so, especially with the high-church associations of Pugin’s Gothic Revival?)

My fascination with Tufte’s category of confections corresponds to my advocacy of allegorical — or more specifically, “figurative” — biblical interpretation. Just as Tufte’s attention to visual grammar brings rigor and intelligible criteria to fantastic concoctions of images, so attention to the grammar of theological interpretation provides an infrastructure of criteria to lend stability and coherence to figurative reading (especially when these are pursued with attention to the non-verbal dimensions of interpretive practice). The practice of figurative thinking and expression doesn’t entail a retrograde submission to a leaden past, as Mark Tansey’s postmodern confections demonstrate; indeed, it is the modern “absence of reference” that casts figurative modes as a tangle of dangerous chaos.

[More later]

Visual Explanations part 2

Beginning with chapter 4, Tufte articulates principles for interacting with another’s perception. The principle of the “smallest effective difference” emphasizes the value of permitting an observer to recognize distinctions based on differences that a diagram (or performance, or text) shows; if one designs pointing-lines with the same weight as the lines that compose a diagram, the reader will have a harder job telling these grammatically-different lines apart from one another — and as we know in Writing Boot Camp, the harder we make the reader’s job, the less charity the reader will extend to us, and the less ground we have for expecting the reader to arrive at the conclusion we desire (for which we’ve invested so much energy in composing the image, or text, or performance, in the first place). Differences displayed help us articulate differences explained.

Chapter 5 walks us through the power of parallelism in reinforcing similarity and heightening difference (not incidentally, Tufte — whose mother has written a valuable book on English composition — cites as the paradigm example of parallelism a passage from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Throughout, he affirms (and repeats) the power of adjacency in communication — picking up a point that McCloud makes in his work on comics.

Isn’t the development in the information desnsity allowed by contemporary computer screens striking? The screen on p. 88f. looks to be a 640 × 480 screen; I’m typing this through a screen whose native resolution is 1440 × 900 pixels, giving a tremendously richer field for communication (and that’s not even counting the difference in color resolution in the newer screens). The fact that Tufte can commend this interface as “superb” underlines how far the technology to which we have access has come.

In the context of, and as a supplement to, the marvelous Garofalo/Rarey graphical history of rock, I commend to you Jeffrey Lewis’s “History of Punk on the Lower East Side” (which I may play in class, fair warning). Observe Tufte’s point that the illustration displays the growth of the market for rock music over time (which would be a fair two-axis graph in itself), but also the relation of various performers to one another, to the [always somewhat arbritrary] categories within rock to which they belong, to their history and future, and various other dimensions. The chart doesn’t assign various performers their space in proportion to their market share; that would make it impossible to see some acts, while others occupied large spaces — but it’s a terrific exercise that invites us to consider other possible examples. (I have no recollection of “Brenda and the Tabulations.”:) The cosmonauts’ graphical record of their space flight uses color to add dimensions of information to a layout that fundamentally resembles the history of rock.

[Participants in Gospel Mission class should appreciate Tufte’s comment on the NY Times photo on p. 102. Participants in this seminar will delight to see Tufte cite McCloud on p. 108, n. 3. People with an interest in infromation design and a sense of whimsy will enjoy the video for Royskopp’s song, “Remind Me.”]

Tufte illustrates ways that we can use multiples for effective (and ineffective, misleading) communication with special attention to the grammatical dimensions of tone, color, scale, arrangement, and so on. (Note that the concluding frame of the Ad Reinhardt multiple on pp. 188-119 reminds readers, “Ye must be born again.”) All this analysis serves the end of enhancing our understanding of how visual communication works (and we can easily infer from this conclusions relative to auditory and tactile communication; gustatory and olfactory communication I leave to the side for the moment). If we understand what we’re trying to express and how we’re trying to express it, and if we attend to the grammar of images as well as of language (and the two are not as radically distinct as custom might impel us to think), we have available a stronger, richer repertoire of expression that we can deploy more effectively. And if we care about expressing the truth, our expressions should, presumably, bespeak some of the beauty of holiness about which we’re talking, for which we’re designing, which we’re enacting. (Hence, “Beautiful Theology.”)

That leads us to the last chapter on “confections,” for which I’ll leave a separate post.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Visual Explanations part 1

I’ll restrict my postings on Visual Explanations somewhat, since Kristin will only be skimming, and I’ve got a lot to square away in relatively little time. I’ll try to put up two posts, one emphasizing the first chapter (and following matter), and the second emphasizing the last chapter (and preceding matter).

I’ve assigned Tufte for a variety of reasons. First, it’s an exquisite example of craftsmanship; this shows us what books look and feel like when someone cares about their quality — and such examples matter to theological communicators, because our vocation involves us in communication about the greatest excellence (which passes all understanding). If we try to communicate about sublime truth in slipshod gestures and haphazard words, we risk conveying to our audiences the message that God, truth, beauty, don’t matter so much. As Thomas Merton says,
We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well. I am not talking about grammar and syntax, but about having something to say and saying it in sentences that are not half dead. Saint Paul and Saint Ignatius Martyr did not bother about grammar but they certainly knew how to write . . . . A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book, even though it may be about the love of God. There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: If the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.*
Or Stan Hauerwas, in his recent commentary on Matthew: “. . . [O]ne of the essential tasks of the church is the ‘care’ of words,” or Gerald O’Collins whom I recollect to have said “A theologian is someone who watches his language in the presence of God” (I’ll look that one up later).

To specifics: the Introduction takes up a premise that informs my interest in this whole theme: “. . . Clarity and excellence in thinking is very much like clarity and excellence in the display of data. When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight” (p. 9). The first chapter sets out some premises about communicating information — setting a scale relative to which the communication can be correlated to other information, applying consistent criteria (measurements) across a body of data, using gestures for maximal information (while eschewing irrelevancy and distraction), finding a way to allow the information to set the agenda for expression (rather than wrenching the information to fit the vehicle of communication, illustrated comically in the map of Britain on p. 24, tragically in the space shuttle catastrophes in subsequent pages).

In subsequent chapters, which I’m traversing quickly and lightly, Tufte makes a case for the paramount value of context for ascertaining what’s important — and not “context” only, but “the right context.” Note — in the context of discussions we’ve had elsewhere about “aggregation” — the point on p. 36, that how you parse data shapes the “obvious” conclusions about what it means. The Challenger engineers presented correct data about launch experience, temperature, and O-ring damage, but presented it in such a way as to impede our perceiving that it was a virtual certainty that a launch temperature in the 20s would entail dangerous damage to the O-rings (the graph on p. 45 shows the data pattern that suggests a curve that has already veered toward increasing frequency and seriousness of O-ring damage by the 50s — 25 or 30 degrees warmer than the day of the Challenger launch). Now, Tufte has the advantage of being able to display the array post facto to reveal what actually happened — but we should allow that his graph doesn’t involve any legerdemain, but the display of plain data on a clearly-marked, evenly-articulated field.

Legerdemain, by contrast, involves manipulating our attention so as to distract us from useful information. Tufte takes up the topic of magic both because it’s an instructive exercise in disinformation, and because the process of illustrating magic helps us understand how to render clear, illuminating visual explanations. His analysis of illustrating objects in motion draws on, yes, the techniques of composing comics that we’ve been studying for several weeks now (cf. p. 61; note in the illustration on p. 62 that Tufte calls attention to the use of blank space as a gutter).

This chapter reinforces Tufte’s polemic against distraction, visual noise that does not contribute to a project’s communicative purpose. His point applies as well to the physical actions of a conjurer (or presider, or a teacher) as to the graphic display of information. What we do affects the shape of our audience’s (or congregation’s, or class’s) attention; though one may well want to eschew deliberation about the communicative quality of actions, the decision to opt for “natural” behavior entails the choice to communicate without such critical attention as heightens the clarity, effectiveness, impact, and precision of our expressions. In this regard, Tufte’s prescriptions relative to making presentations command our vigilant regard (though not, of course, slavish obedience). In the end, we may apply Tufte’s criteria for information design to many more areas of communication than only information design.

*The Sign of Jonas, 56-7.

Monday, April 23, 2007


I hope to blog some remarks abouty Prof. Tufte’s Visual Explanations before class on Thursday, but in the meantime I’ve been reminded of how little time remains unto those of us who’re pursuing this course in the confines of an academic term. I consulted Beth and Kristin, and we’ve decided to read Tufte this week, some smatterings of Irigaray (“Divine Women” and “Women, the Sacred, and Money” from Sexes and Genealogies) and Wittgenstein (the Philosophical Investigations) next week; Graham Hughes’s Worship As Meaning the week after; and The Sparrow and The Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (which books I don’t know, but which both Kristin and Beth assure me pertain to our course’s intersts) in the last week.

Since we can squeeze in so little else, I’m giving Beth and Kristin photocopies of various articles. One of my favorites is Terry Castle’s article “Contagious Folly: 'An Adventure' and Its Skeptics” from Critical Inquiry 17, reprinted in Questions of Evidence,” about the friends who traveled back in time to encounter Marie Antoiette at Versailles. I’ll give them copies of Mark Cousins’s essay on “The practice of historical investigation” from Post-Structuralism and the Question of History, and will point them to this essay by John Dixon, that summarizes John Fleming’s book, From Bonaventure to Bellini: An Essay in Franciscan Exegesis .