Visualization as Argument: Klein

The title of this reading, which is the transcript of Lauren Klein’s talk of the same title, really spoke to me (all pun but an unintended one).

Ever since Prof. Gold attended ITP Core 1, a course that I was enrolled in last Fall, as a guest speaker and posed the topic “Is making scholarship? Yes, if there’s a scholarly argument” I’ve been really hooked on this concept.

So while this reading is brief, Lauren Klein packs much into it. She really made me sit straight up on the couch as I read that the great Transcendentalist and Feminist, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, founder of the famed eponymous book store AND the first kindergarten in the U.S. AND editor of The Dial is ALSO a/the pioneer in datavis?! It doesn’t surprise me given her brilliance, especially in educating, but it does amaze me. (On a related tangent, I’m recalling that American 1-room schoolhouses were also referred to as Peabody schoolhouses? I don’t feel like Googling to fact check this right now.)

Is everyone/anyone marveling at how Peabody took a chronological subject, literally The Chronological History of the United States and translated it to an abstract grid? She didn’t make a vertical list, or a horizontal timeline, but rather adopted a linear-ality of a whole different order, shunning the xy axis in her design to plot the U.S. events-to-date in 1856 — on a grid.

Her use of a grid with bissected boxes/triangles, much like the grid we used in The Object Library to lay out the exhibition’s cubic spaces and elevations to install the objects (which I described in class last week vis a vis my mapping project of TOL, as a difficult task to do from the grid) AND the origin of this low-tech system “developed in Poland in the 1820’s” also amazes me.

Peabody’s Grid of 1856 U.S. (my title) as conveyed by Klein, serves as a touchstone example of Klein’s thesis in this talk which is: “visualization methods help us better understand the process of knowledge production“.

Peabody’s Grid and its intended abstraction “appeal to the senses directly” and Peabody’s even more pressing intention “to evoke pleasure” is really radical. Pleasure in knowledge production. What a concept! I had a moment of pleasure while mapping TOL on the map/globe of beautiful planet Earth as I “played” with placing/plotting the objects’ locations with a “pin” of my choice (an icon I created from TOL artwork — please see my project map at LOCUS for this icon.)

I would plot or characterize Peabody’s “knowledge work” flow (my phrase) as: knowledge of history by way of Peabody’s student coloring in their OWN grids’ triangles — which becomes an act of producing a personal image of history by the student/citizen — leads to an embodiment, a personal investment, in history, and its agent: politics.

Peabody’s Grid is therefore, both her own political stance and her own brand of revolutionary, feminist pedagogy as a “female knowledge worker.” Peabody’s Grid is also inherently democratic to me because by having students (read: citizens) create/color their own charts, “Peabody flattens (literally) the relationship between the putative producer of knowledge and its perceiver” thereby, leveling the teacher/student dynamic.

It stands to reason, then, that Peabody’s Grid Is a strong example of “method as argument”.

Another concept from Klein’s talk that stood out to me is that of laborColor Your World is not a cliche or trite phrase from a pop song because it takes such labor in to account while also connoting the important dynamics of agency and authority in what constitutes knowledge and its production.

2 thoughts on “Visualization as Argument: Klein

  1. Nancy Foasberg

    Yes! This was a really interesting piece and I loved the history of Peabody’s Grid, especially the interactive elements of it that you point out in your post. Rather than an explanatory visualization, what Peabody has created is a tool by which people (and especially students) can make sense of history through putting together visualizations of their own. This approach resists the tendency of visualizations to create an easily digestible narrative that looks like the only possible one — just as you say, it encourages people to make their own interpretation.
    Klein points out that it doesn’t follow the rules of a good visualization because it doesn’t stand on its own and it doesn’t simplify anything, but I think this is another issue of audience. When a student sits down to create their own visualization of history — they are explaining it to themselves, but may share with others in the community to see how their narratives differ.
    Of course, it doesn’t completely get away from the imposition of an authoritative narrative insofar as Peabody supplies a list of possible categories into which notable events may fall. If she were making this today, I wonder if she’d put it on GitHub and let people modify the categories, changing what may or may not be considered historically relevant in the first place.

    1. Carolyn A. McDonough Post author

      Nancy, I agree that Peabody would have had a field day with Github and all such humanities computing, particularly those that foster teaching/learning and probably would be writing the code as well. Remarkable how light years ahead her instincts and direction were. I also agree with your observations regarding the student’s individual process in making their own grids — “hands-on” teaching/learning is evergreen. Klein articulates the marvel of Peabody’s knowledge work really well, too.

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