April 20, 2005
Graphesis, DNA, Cajal, the network, and the poststructuralist hat
Reading Drucker, I feel compelled to mention two graphetic “incidents” in science. The first was the publication of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. At the time of their discovery, the candidate molecules for the genetic code had been narrowed down to some very interesting proteins and simple, boring DNA. Most of the scientific community supported the protein theory, since DNA seemed too simple to carry the genetic information needed for the code of all life. Watson and Crick essentially published an image (model) of the structure of DNA, which was a plausible fit with the existing data. It became clear from this configuration alone that DNA solved the
genetic mystery, as well as how the strands were able to replicate. The image clinched the point.
A second, lesser known case is that of Ramón y Cajal. Cajal’s meticulous technical illustrations of networks of neurons “led to the conclusion that the basic units of the nervous system were represented by individual cellular elements (which Waldeyer christened as "neurons" in 1891). This conclusion is the modern basic principle of the organization of the nervous system.” (Marina Bentivoglio, “Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal”)
I think we were teetering last week toward one of Drucker’s key points in our discussion of social function and the human elements of networks. When we map a network, the knowledge we construct is a function of the visual artifact rather than a simple representation of “what is already known in a graphical form” (20). This points to a theme we have visited several times, that the network diagram derives its meaning from a certain degree of reductionism, for instance by defining a single characteristic (safety, knowledge, access, engagement, as in Cross et al.) transecting a given moment of time, or by homogenizing the character of the nodes, as in Watts’ mathematical models. The result is a partial insight into patterns of human activity from which certain limited inferences can be drawn.
Finally, I puzzled over the theoretical flavor of Drucker’s writing. While the scholarship in one sense seems exhaustive, the epistemological agenda Drucker is working has been much more richly elaborated in poststructuralist theory and elsewhere (e.g., Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) for quite a while, yet Drucker only skirts the marches of lit crit and language theory. For instance, had I been trying to make her distinction between “model” and “representation,” I would have felt much more beholden to Peirce’s distinction between symbolic and iconic signs, which is only mentioned parenthetically. And McGann is cited to stand in for a piece I recall as Barthes’ essay “The Work of the Text” (which, if memory serves me, argues that the “text” is a virtual production, a system of signification that emerges between the signifiers and the reader, who does the work of production). When it comes to radical subjectivity, Drucker points toward quantum mechanics before Continental theory. There seems to be a politics of choice here. As scholars closer to the English department than physics or design, what are we to make of this?
Posted by hjjankie at April 20, 2005 03:10 AM
To possibly answer your final question, I think that what she is doing is purposefully crossing boundaries because if she does stick to the more accepted explanations we are familiar with, we fall into the same trap (if I can call it that) that she is pointing us to. As you noted earlier,
the knowledge we construct is a function of the visual artifact rather than a simple representation of “what is already known in a graphical form” (20).
As such, I see the knowledge we construct as also a function of the theoretical frameworks we engage, and Drucker is likely attempting to extend the conversation outside of conventional connections to undermine some of the assumptions we carry that are transparent to us simply through familiarity. I must confess a gap in my knowledge regarding Rorty, so I can't do much more with this idea, but it might be a productive task to ask how her examples make us look at things differently than we would if we were relying on our tried and true analogues.
Posted by: TR at April 20, 2005 12:13 PM
Heh, loaded question, the one you end with, Henry. I can't answer it except by saying that I had to pause, consider whether I match myself with design rather than English (as we know it how?). I don't mind that Drucker doesn't take us too far into lit crit or poststructual theory. To do more with the distinction between model and representation, I think we have to apply the method--actually render a graphic representation of something like a text, set of texts. What we see might be a representation, a model, or both (yes? is this possible?). And just as maps assist us with navigation, help us real-ize relationships we couldn't see from other perspectives, so might graphesis give us cause for layering maps, or reading them relationally by combining representational maps with more generalizable models. Maybe?
Posted by: Derek at April 20, 2005 06:43 PM
I agree about choosing theoretical frameworks; there's a lot that's fresh and new here.
As a grad student, I'm interested in how to work with theory. Which theoretical work fits the problem and purpose one is considering, especially if the problem is not necessarily first perceived through a given framework? Furthermore, the choice identifies the writer with the theory. If Drucker, for instance, at first collapses representation with modeling (schematics, e.g.--and I believe she says representation is a subset of modeling), how obligated is she to point out that Peirce's theory separated them, or to explain her rationale? (An audience issue?)
According to her online vita, Drucker's doctoral work is heavily invested in postmodern theory. In the core argument of the essay, however, this body of theory seems to be boiled down to two key tenets: (1) language is meaning--against the correspondence/representation theory of language, and (2) the reader produces the text. It almost seems to me that Drucker wants to spirit these ideas away from associations with postmodernism and attach/derive them elsewhere. Perhaps it's simply because I think of postmodern theory as the crucible for this stuff, that I hear it calling through the essay and wonder how much further the discussion could go (as in the geographers' postmodern mapping).
Posted by: hj at April 21, 2005 12:04 PM